Is it my imagination, or has American culture entered an era of backlash against the forces of excess?
One can probably trace the underlying philosophy of "more" and "bigger" as inherently virtuous to circumstances of geography. The small band of early Americans huddled along the Eastern Seaboard looked west and saw unbounded resources and a richness of land that stretched in endless invitation. "Come and get me, all of me," it beckoned.
The desire to spread out was understandable; Europe was crowded. But geography aside, the American Dream enfolds so many behaviors lending themselves to such excess that even that notorious hedonist Ben Franklin might urge his descendants to find some brakes. It is easy to find modern examples of what Ben Franklin dubbed "immoderation," especially in the past 30 years. Those exceptional markers of the American Dream - good housing, quality food, wealth, education, technological achievement, and rites of celebration like the recent Independence commemoration - are subject to natural forces of expansion and contraction. Finding the sweet spot has grown harder.
It's as if the trappings of this good life have followed some cultural Manifest Destiny. How did a postwar boom of saltbox and suburban ranch houses evolve into monster houses and driveways filled with monster vehicles? Compared to the fast food of the '60s, a burger and fries with change back from a dollar, today's double and triple sandwiches, enormous drinks, and super-size side dishes are alarming.
We are still marching through an era of "super-sizing," a term that has grown beyond its food application to include houses, corporate salaries, holidays, and the cost of a college education. It is no secret that CEO salaries in the past 30 years have skyrocketed while non-CEO wages have flatlined. Working hard is no longer enough, but if proponents of a minimum wage increase prevail, the forces of expansion will alleviate the plight of America's working poor. Many Americans legitimately perceive a basic unfairness in excess that happens on the backs of the working poor.
College costs continue to explode, a trend toward excess illustrated by my own experience. My 1970s St. Bonaventure University education cost $4,000 a year. Modest scholarship money combined with my mother's part-time pay as a college instructor covered the cost.
No adjunct professor in today's America could come close to paying the expenses of a year at a state college, let alone a private one. The claim that a student can work his or her way through college is no longer valid, yet that myth persists.
Another peculiarity of our time manifests during that swath of the calendar known as "the holidays." Despite scarce disposable income, Christmas begins by late October in stores and dominates the airwaves of one Buffalo radio station for two months. The length of time devoted to a single day has at least as many detractors as proponents. Even the Fourth of July lasts several days, as demonstrated by a week of illegal fireworks detonations around town. Apparently the 45-minute spectacular over the lake wasn't enough.
Despite all these manifestations of cultural and economic bloat, there are indications of the forces of contraction at work. Urban food movements chart a course based on what the virtue-listing Franklin would call "temperance," in this case, smaller restaurant portions made with fresh, local meat and produce. Urban food trucks and organic farm markets offer consumers additional ways to counter food excess.
Now that we've lived through postwar suburbia and monster house mania, the trend as defined by media is downsizing. Television shows and websites showcase the tiny house movement, and one magazine on newsstands this month carries an article titled "Better Living With Less." Even the pervasive digital gadgetry many people wear like armor demonstrates confusion about size. We want bigger screens, then smaller screens, then bigger screens. Where is the sweet spot?
If any time was ripe for Ben Franklin's conscious living approach, this is it. As a young man, Franklin enumerated thirteen virtues that would lead to what he called "moral perfection." His biography reveals numerous departures from his path, but the process of creating psychological, cultural, and physical checks and balances is a useful study in itself.
During the '60s, when Christmas waited for Thanksgiving, my grandmother told stories of her childhood Christmas gifts. While few in number, they included one that was special because of its rarity: a single orange. As a child, I pitied her, but now I see the beauty in her simple delight.
Our American dream can be an orange. Or a monster house.
Or it can be neither big nor small, but rather, as intangible and purposeful a thing as Ben Franklin's list of virtues.
Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org