On a cold and wet December Saturday I find myself bored and flipping through television channels. There’s a channel called Destination America, which is part of the Discovery empire, and from its lineup it appears to specialize in a combination of shows that exploit the redneck lifestyle at one end, versus shows about the uber rich and their palatial mansions at the other. Because presumably everyone in America is either an inbred hillbilly or stinking rich. The spaces between are sprinkled with an inexplicably large number of shows about ghosts. Shows like Hillbilly Blood, Amish Haunting, Alien Mysteries, and When Ghosts Attack! An eclectic mix of all the worst parts of American culture. Their website says they are adding wrestling in 2015, thus fulfilling their mission of lowering the collective IQ of America. Thus is the sorry state of American television in 2014.
On this particular winter morning, the channel is airing a show called Epic Homes. The entire purpose of this show is apparently to highlight to 99.9% of the world how the other 0.1% live. They feature one home with fourteen bedrooms that cost a mere $7 million to build. Another with a heating and air conditioning system that routinely costs $50,000 per month to operate. A log home which was built at the expense of only 750 old growth trees. I was relieved to learn that one opulent owner was able to overcome his first world problems by finding a smart phone app that remotely shuts and locks the 24 exterior doors of his house at the push of a button from anywhere in the world, even from 25,000 feet overhead in his private jet. In so doing, eliminating the role of a butler, apparently. Because domestic help is so Guilded Age.
Introducing one homeowner, the narrator said something along the lines of this couple having made enough money to now “be able to afford the lifestyle they’ve always dreamed of.” Which struck me as an odd thing to say. What type of lifestyle is dependent on wealth? A lifestyle of lighting cigars with $100 bills, perhaps. Or eating nothing but truffles and caviar. But who dreams of such things? Who sits around thinking “someday I will be disgustingly rich and I will be able to display the magnitude of my disgusting wealth by building a monument to excess. A shining tower of greed that will tell the whole world that I have made it.”
If I had $7 million, I certainly wouldn’t build a gauche and tacky log mansion on a golf course (one owner dubbed his palace the “Log Mahal” in an epic testament to bad taste). The lifestyle I’ve always dreamed of is an upscale shack on a remote mountainside. A lifestyle of quiet simplicity. Ideally a lifestyle that is independent of money entirely. Where everything one needs is either grown and produced locally or bartered with one’s neighbors. Am I unique in dreaming of a lifestyle in which less is more? Am I the only one who finds such staggering displays of excess revolting? I don’t want to be an insufferable bore, preaching a life of monastic humility. But surely we can do better? Income inequality has been getting worse, not better. The rich 1% make do with most of the resources and everyone else makes do with the scraps of what is left.
Ours is now an America in which one family lives the lifestyle they’ve always dreamed of in a 15 bedroom 30,000 square foot mansion while one in 30 children have been homeless at some point in the past year. Maybe it’s time we dream of something beyond our own selfishness.