The Luxury Trap

Audio Blog, 12:02

Luxury. We all strive for it.  It is not essential, but desirable, because it provides comfort, pleasure and makes life easier. The trap is that if we get too much of it, the quality of life actually declines. Before we cover this paradox, let’s first get a bit of perspective on life without luxury through the childhood of my mother, Rena (Bush) Van Buren.

Mom was born at the family home in Frostburg, Maryland in 1924, with the assistance of a midwife.  She was one of ten children, seven girls and three boys, born to Eugene and Bessie Bush.

The family lived in a small rural home without indoor plumbing or electricity in Consol Village, about three miles outside of town.  They used (potentially dangerous) oil lamps for light during darkness, and the seven girls slept in two beds in a pattern of head-feet-head-feet, four across.

The family used a rudimentary outhouse, located away from the home, for improved sanitation.  Every six months, my grandfather would fill the old hole with lime to hide the smell, dig a fresh hole, and move the outhouse to a new location.

Access to water was a serious issue because the home did not have plumbing, and they didn’t have financial resources to dig their own water well. My grandmother and the kids would grab buckets, and walk down a long country road to the local spring, and retrieve what was necessary.

Every Saturday, the ten kids would take a bath using a large tin tub, and a simple bar of soap.  The youngest kids bathed first, and then were followed by the oldest, thereby validating the accusation that the little kids were spoiled!  My mother was the oldest girl (forever earning the nick-name “Sister”), so she had the pleasure of going close to last.

Their diet consisted mostly of soup or beans.  Occasionally, the beans were enhanced by a piece of bacon, or inexpensive “fatback” (the fat from the upper part of a side of pork).

Entertainment included socializing with the siblings or neighbors, playing hopscotch, and taking turns on the tire swing.  They did have one short-wave radio in the house to keep up with the news.

As they aged, they were allowed to go into town and take in a movie at one of the two theaters, The Palace or The Lyric. Mom favored the Lyric because the small section designated for blacks was in the back of the theater, which was a much better view than the upfront black section at The Palace Theater.

Supporting a family of twelve was extremely difficult for my grandfather, who worked for forty-five years as a janitor and mechanic at the local bus station.  At Christmas time, the family was blessed with charity from good Samaritans.  On Christmas Day, there was always a delivery of two boxes on the front porch; one filled with food, and the other toys.

This act of kindness was the foundation for my mother’s life-long generosity.  To this very day, at the age of ninety-two, she continues have empathy and help those in need.  It was also this early experience that caused her to be critical of The Salvation Army in 2014 when they wouldn’t accept her old couch as a donation for the needy, because it had a small tear in the fabric.

Mom walked to Lincoln Elementary School, close to home, and her favorite teacher was Ms. Kathleen Cooper.  In her teen-aged years, she caught a bus and attended Frederick Street High School, about 11 miles away.  Her kind and patient English teacher, Ms. Ruth Franklin, had a significant influence on her life.

These were humble beginnings, but considered normal for millions of Americans in the 1920s and 1930s.


Over the last century since my mother’s childhood, human innovation and technology have brought about a remarkable improvement in the quality of life.  This positive change has enhanced our access to basic necessities like food, water and power.

It has also provided fantastic advancements in communication, medicine, entertainment, and transportation, for example.  Of course, we have also seen exponential improvements in the lethality and efficiency of military weapons, which always must be treated as a double edge sword.

On balance, most people like my mother, are thankful for the progress and recognize that it is much better to live in a modern 21st century society.  It is also clear, however, that the improved luxury and convenience associated with modernity, does not always yield a more relaxed and balanced quality of life.

The amazing communication technology of social media, using handheld devices and networks of advanced communication infrastructure, allows us to instantaneously connect with a person on the other side of the world.  We can receive immediate updates on personal developments, and have the ability to reach loved ones at a moment’s notice.

Compared to the “snail mail” of the past, these real-time capabilities should yield a higher quality of interaction between people.  However, the nature of the communication often becomes routine and filled with irrelevant banter.  (Jane tweets her entry into the shopping mall, or Joe snapchats a photo of him watching an old movie).

Additionally, the content of a rapid fire, real-time text dialogue is often less thoughtful than the hand-written letters of the past.  On top of that, watching people text while driving, and walking through the city streets while looking down at their smart phone, is enough evidence to conclude that too much of a good thing can be very bad.  It may be beneficial to pause in between responding to texts, and carve out a certain part of your day to manage the handling of electronic communication.  Keeping a journal of your thoughts, may also be valuable tool to manage life’s volatility.

Another example is the highly efficient “Just In Time” logistics model that food retailers employ.  The store shelves are re-stocked using computer technology and a fleet of transportation vehicles.  The system guarantees fresh goods that are delivered based on consumer demand, while allowing the store managers to maintain low inventories that require less working capital (money).  The downside is that any disruption in the logistics chain, a hurricane for example, often leads to a shortage in necessary items, which may trigger social anxiety.  Therefore, every family should keep a small reserve inventory of canned or freeze-dried foods in case of an emergency.

As the father of three kids, I can vouch for the excellent graphics and complexity of today’s video games.  They are astonishingly real, and although many like “Halo” and “Grand Theft Auto” are controversial and may not be appropriate for kids, many build constructive knowledge and skills.  They are a significant improvement from the Atari game that my brother and I played in the 1980s.

However, if they are not consumed in moderation, the luxury of this entertainment can prevent kids from exploring outside, riding bikes, skipping rocks in a pond, and playing games that build friendships and develop practical skills.  Even when playing outside, the very cool electric scooter and hover boards have the obvious downside of not providing the necessary exercise and muscle development that benefit kids.  Buy them an “old school scooter instead…

As I am writing this blog, my ten-year old boy just grabbed the UTV, hooked up a rope to a paddleboat, and towed it over to the pond. He pulled the boat into the water, and had a great time paddling around the pond. This was a much better way to develop practical skills than the video games he was playing a bit earlier.

Another luxury paradox is the use of efficient online tools to shop.  Just a simple log in and search, and in a few clicks the item is sent directly to your door.  What could be the paradox of this luxury?  Old brick and mortar retail stores are slowly dying as more consumers favor the ease and choice of online shopping.  A reduction of neighborhood stores results in less retail careers for adults, and entry-level jobs for kids looking to earn money and build work skills.  As much as I prefer to shop online and avoid the store congestion, it may be beneficial to also support small merchants that add character to the community.

What about something that city dwellers and office workers often take for granted; elevators.  The luxury of stepping in at the lobby level, and getting off on the tenth floor just by pushing a button, is quite a luxurious convenience.  Just imagine the exertion required of sophisticated city dwellers in order to reach their fancy penthouse apartment, if the elevators are out of order.

However, this luxury eliminates a natural form of exercise that used to occur as a daily routine.  I try to walk the four floors of stairs at my office, at least three times per day.  It energizes me, and provides an excellent form of exercise to stimulate my leg muscles and cardio-vascular system.

Uber!  How many of us love the luxury of utilizing technology to efficiently locate and pay for a ride using Uber?  Amazing. But just like the elevator, the ease at which we can locate a ride has eliminated the need for city dwellers to engage in a long peaceful walk. After a stressful day at work, a walk home may yield just the right mental and physical stimulus needed to keep balance and perspective.

During my mother’s childhood, they enjoyed a movie in the theater environment.  It was a nice outing, filled with excitement and adventure.  However, now that I have discovered the luxury of watching “Game of Thrones” on my iPad using the HBO App, I wonder if I am ever going back to the movie theater again!  OK, maybe I am exaggerating, but the luxury and convenience, combined with the outstanding quality of programming now available on cable channels, certainly puts pressure on Hollywood.  The answer may be to take in live performances of local arts and culture, which cannot be replicated on cable TV.  Hollywood will be just fine..

The challenge of advanced societies, like America, is to utilize the luxury and convenience of today’s superior products, technology and systems in a way that enhances our lives without forfeiting the good attributes from the old days.


2 thoughts on “The Luxury Trap

  1. Thank you SO much for sharing this story! I think we realize how fortunate and spoiled we are in comparison but the stories bring the realization to life.

  2. Frank, great story. Loved learning a little more about you. Agree with Linda : )

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