Lawns as sources of and signs of boredom

In a discussion of the development of the concept of boredom in The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch explores the boredom of the lawn:

This world is lost to many of our children, and to ourselves. Even the “nature” that surrounds many of our homes is shallow in a technological way. A typical suburban lawn depends on many technological devices, each of which makes something far easier than it was for previous generations: lawn mowers, pesticides and fertilizers, highly refined seed, and automatic sprinklers. The lawn itself is a kind of outdoor technological device, composed of uniform green grass, kept crew-cut short, with little variety or difference.

A peasant family in the Middle Ages had none of this technologically uniform pleasantness. They would not have had a lawn, or possibly even a yard. Their children would have wandered out into meadows and perhaps the thin edges of forests. A meadow has countless different species of grasses and other plants, plus flowers in the spring and summer, of different heights and habits. If you pay attention, you cannot possible get bored in a meadow. It is all too easy to be bored on a lawn…

It is surely not coincidental that all the earliest citations of the word bore in the Oxford English Dictionary – from the mid-eighteenth century – come from the correspondence of aristocrats and nobility. They did not have technology, but thanks to wealth and position they had a kind of easy everywhere of their own. The first people to be bored were the people who did not do manual work, who did not cook their own food, whose lives were served by others. They were also, by the way, the very first people to have lawns. (144-145)

The common American lawn is indeed a peculiar piece of “nature.”

The connection between lawns and technology is helpful, particularly since this link is likely lost amidst all the new technology of recent decades. Yet, having a lush and short lawn requires a lot of tools and innovation that many now take for granted. I’m reminded of running into advertisements between competing grass seeds: there is a lot that goes into the components of the lawn.

It also strikes me that the lawn has become increasingly boring in recent decades. It is true that American children in the last 70 years had very different experiences with nature than Middle Age peasant children (though humans have affected nature throughout history and contexts). At the same time, children today spend less time outdoors and utilize those boring lawns even compared to just a few decades ago. Perhaps we could argue that the lawn never offered much and once the world of television, video games, and fears about safety set in, it was exposed for the boring item it really is.

Finally, the lawn continues to be a status symbol just as it once marked the properties of the wealthy. Those with lawns have pressure to keep their lawns free of weeds and leaves and can differentiate their lawn from those of others. Failing to follow these norms can lead to problems.

McMansion ad campaign aimed at McDonald’s

Burger King has a new advertising campaign that shows off one particular feature of the purported McMansion backyards of McDonald’s executives:

Each of the company’s newest print ads, designed by an agency called DAVID Miami, claims to show what was once the lavish backyard of a real McDonald’s executive, the kicker being that each yard also appears to contain a grill.

“Flame grilling is hard to resist,” read the words printed over each grilling apparatus, the suggestion being that McDonald’s executives themselves preferred a flame-grilled patty…

AdAge reports that some of the photos were taken from real estate listings, meaning these particular grills may not have necessarily belonged to the “retired McDonald’s director” or “retired McDonald’s president” who may have used those backyards.

The primary emphasis is on the grill, a staple of many an American backyard. American homes and summer has long been associated with a male homeowner taking raw meat to the backyard and cooking it on the grill as the family plays and gathers around.

Of course, these are not just any grills or any homes. The news story includes three ad images. The grills look rather long – so they likely have more than four burners – and they have a stainless steel exterior. (In one image, there appears to be a Green Egg next to the stainless steel grill.) Given that these are grills supposedly owned by executives plus they are located at large homes, these are likely expensive grills.

Beyond tying McDonald’s executives to expensive grills, this also connects them to undesirable homes: McMansions. While the purpose of the ads is the grills, these grills are in front of expensive and large homes. But, they are not just mansions – they are McMansions. I’m not sure if there is a larger message here or not: should McDonald’s feel shame about having derided homes named after their restaurants (the Mc- prefix)? (Compared to the fast food of Burger King, this seems like a better pitch for places like Five Guys or Smashburger that would claim to have a more premium burger.) Does this suggest their executives have bad taste? Does this mean Burger King executives have nicer homes?

 

Video gambling in Illinois trickles money into local coffers

As video gambling has spread across Illinois, who is making money? A little is going to local governments:

Video gaming revenues, after payouts, are taxed at a flat 30 percent rate. Five-sixths of those tax proceeds go to the state and one-sixth to the local government. Remaining revenues — the other 70 percent — go to the establishments, like Lucky Jack’s, and the video terminal operators.In the year ended in September, almost $12.7 million was played at Lucky Jack’s in Waukegan, and $11.7 million was won by gamblers, according to Illinois Gaming Board statistics. That means the terminals netted just shy of $1 million. Of that, more than $246,000 went to the state and about $49,000 to Waukegan. The rest is split between Lucky Jack’s and Gold Rush Gaming, its terminal operator…

In Waukegan, a resolution passed in 2014 earmarked virtually all of its cut of gambling revenues for the underfunded pension plans of its police officers and firefighters. Were it not for video gambling, the resolution said, taxpayers might have to cover the shortfall.

Not every municipality, however, is looking at the terminals as a cash cow. Chicago, Naperville and Arlington Heights don’t allow them…

The cities with the most video gambling terminals are Springfield, Rockford and Decatur. The counties with the most machines are Cook, Lake and Winnebago counties, the commission report said.

In an era when many municipalities are looking for every cent they can, video gambling can provide some revenue. But, many communities likely consider a fraught deal: it may start a trickle of money but it also projects a particular image. One anecdote in the article suggested people pull up to a local establishment with video gambling and idle as they wait from some signal from inside that a spot at one of the machines is open. Is this what a wealthier community wants to be known for? Like tattoo parlors and bars, many places wouldn’t want to avoid the stigma of gambling establishments.

It would also be interesting to know whether these more local operations siphon money from casinos which could generate significant revenues for local governments. In other words, if every gas station or local eatery had video gambling, would there be enough money to go around? Do people simply go to the places that are most convenient to them or would they cluster in places with either better or more video gambling options?

McMansions as objects of desire

One Miami columnist wonders why she yearns for a McMansion even though it is out of reach:

Excepting a Powerball win or an unexpected string of bestsellers, my chances of residing in some Mediterranean-style mansion grow dimmer every year. I don’t mean to imply that the odds were ever stellar, but for a couple of decades the possibility existed. Dreams are more fanciful when you’re young…

So why do magazines and cable TV programs about McMansions put me in a certain mindset? Why is it that, on occasion, I think that if I were only smarter, a better writer with a more distinguished wardrobe, I might be putting my feet up on a coffee table carved from a rare tree harvested from an exotic forest?

A friend, one of those people who seem perfectly content with life, claims that humans are programmed to want what we don’t have. We are forever comparing ourselves to others and as a result feel a little inadequate and a whole lot ugly. She’s right.

From here on out I vow to stop using material things as a measure of success. I vow to toss out those magazines and not think twice about what I don’t have and likely never will. Instead I will focus on what makes me happy. Good writing. My grandchildren. The purple orchid in my front yard. Sitting on my beat-up couch in my perfectly ordinary house. Feet propped on a table with no pedigree but pocked with wonderful memories.

This is both a common portrayal of McMansions and response: people buy them because they want to project a certain image and better people resist these impulses and focus on what is really important in life. However, two parts of this strike me as too easy:

  1. Do the majority of McMansion owners purchase out of envy or wanting to keep up with the Joneses or out of a desire to consume? Or, do they purchase McMansions because they want a lot of space, they like the neighborhood, and they get a lot for the money? We might even suggest that the second set of reasons is what the owners say even as the first set of reasons underlies everything.
  2. Even as some will insist they would rather have experiences or focus on the finer things in life, can Americans truly escape the system of consumerism? How morally superior is consuming experiences versus consuming a home? Choosing whether to buy a McMansion is only part of the consumerist mindset – though it may be a big and important one – but it could as easily apply to vehicles, smartphones, clothing, vacations and so on.

Someone should do more research on why Americans buy McMansions when they are so maligned…

Disapproval of a boyfriend who lives in a van/tiny house?

One letter writer to Dear Prudence thinks that her boyfriend’s life in “a pretty impressive tiny house” may not be approved by her loved ones:

Q. Man with a van: I met a guy online, and we’re far enough along that I’ve told some family and friends, but they haven’t met him yet. Here’s the rub: He is currently living in a van, which he has turned into a pretty impressive tiny house. He’s doing it for thoughtful and responsible reasons. I think it’s cool, but I know people in my life are going to find it off-putting and judge him negatively. I want them to meet him first before I explain this. I also don’t want him to know I’m overthinking this and freak him out about meeting people in my life. Should I get it over with and tell them?

A: I think this is an unnecessary burden you are taking on yourself. Let him tell people. He can explain his thoughtful and responsible reasons better than anyone else. If your friends have questions or politely worded judgments for you afterward, you can handle them as they come, but don’t feel responsible for managing other people’s perceptions of your boyfriend’s living situation. What he does is unusual, and your friends might have questions, and that’s fine. If you come across as desperate to justify his choices, you’ll mostly just come across as desperate.

Prudence suggests the letter writer should take it easy and let the boyfriend explain things. But, this sort of sidesteps the possible issues:

  1. Is the van/tiny house not really that nice? Or, is it simply hard to tell from the outside how nice it is?
  2. Perhaps the family members and friends would see living in a van or vehicle as a negative consequence related to not having a good job or education. If so, is the issue really not the van but rather what it might signify?
  3. I wonder if some people simply wouldn’t react well to tiny houses. They may not understand how or why someone wants such a space. Perhaps they view such housing as transitory, not a long-term solution.

My guess is the issue is #2: living in your van is not a positive status symbol. But, since it is a tiny house, perhaps the couple can throw a party at the van/tiny house to introduce everyone…

Uptick in $100+ million residential properties with several more in LA

The luxury residential market continues to see higher and higher prices:

“There’s a shortage of trophy properties that are available for sale in this pocket of Los Angeles,” Barry Watts, president of Domvs London, said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got high-net-worth people who want to own multiple homes across the world, and Los Angeles offers something different. If you want to drive your convertible car 12 months a year, it’s a city where you can do that.

Homes priced at more than $100 million are becoming increasingly common as billionaires, seeking places to put cash, shatter sales records from Los Angeles to London. Around the world, five properties sold for $100 million or more last year, and at least 23 others have nine-figure asking prices, according to Christie’s International Real Estate.

In the Los Angeles area, the Bel Air homes add to multiple trophy mansions being built, including several on a speculative basis, or without a buyer in place. In December, video-game designer Markus Persson bought an eight-bedroom, 15-bath spec mansion in Beverly Hills for $70 million. The developer of a four-house compound being built in Bel Air hopes to sell it for $500 million…

The Bel Air project that spec developer and film producer Nile Niami wants to sell for $500 million will have a 74,000-square-foot main residence, three smaller houses, a 30-car garage and a “Monaco-style casino.” The most expensive home ever sold worldwide with a confirmed price was a London penthouse purchased in 2011 for $221 million, according to Christie’s.

After a certain point, it doesn’t seem to really matter what is in the unit or how it is built. Instead, two other things matter. Where exactly it is located – typically among other expensive and limited properties. A place where the wealthy can sort of gather together (in their separate compounds) near a cultural and economic center. Second, how much of a status symbol it is because of its high price. How does it compare to other luxury properties? Such an expensive home is a trophy to have until others push past the price point.

Successful people want to own tiny cabins

The oversized house may be less appealing to the wealthy compared to owning a small cabin:

McMansions used to be one supersize symbol of the American dream, but these days many of our country’s most celebrated businesspeople see success more diminutively: in the form of a cabin. Preferably one on the smaller side, made of recycled wood, as technology-free as possible. Ironically, many of the cabin’s great champions are tech giants.

One such champion is Zach Klein, co-founder of Vimeo, whose Cabin Porn Tumblr blog garnered enough followers to warrant a book of the same name, one The New York Times has been musing over.

“The cabin and the shack are ideal launchpads for remarkable lives but lately they’ve become homes to aspire to—particularly for overburdened types whose acquisitive binging has made them want to purge,” the Times noted.

Think of these simple spaces as an architectural panacea. “Driven mad by status anxiety? Addled by technology? Bankrupted by consumerism? Then shrink your footprint. Go minimalist. Get free,” the Times said.

Sounds like trading one status symbol for another: moving from the image of wealth and grandiosity with the large McMansion to an interest in getting away from it all. Of course, the small cabin is simply another luxury for the wealthy who can escape to it when they please and then return to their other expensive housing. Instead of spending money to show that one can afford the wasteful use (conspicuous consumption), now it is more desirable to forgo the luxuries of a house for a short time to show that one can. And we could ask: what kind of world do we live in where people have to regularly spend large amounts of money to escape from their everyday lives?