Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

We are all tenants

Clark County Bank baseball cap, used in 1975

Today I looked at my old CCB baseball cap. I wore this cap in 1975, when I played for the Clark County Bank team in Babe Ruth baseball. I played right field, and could hit reasonably well. Now Clark County Bank is gone, long ago bought out or merged. I never wear the cap, because it's no longer a thing to me but a tangible evidence of memory. I remain pleased that I was able to wash out at least some of the yellowed sweat residue that lingered in this cap for some thirty years. My memory requires no perspiration discoloration.

This morning I took my new bicycle for a ride before the heat came up. I set out at 5 minutes before 8 a.m., and rode the sidewalks in the nearby park and a few suburban streets in the Twin Creeks subdivision. I explained to my wife my theory of ownership.

Most folks live eighty something years, though some live almost no time, many die youngishly middle aged, and a goodish few live into their 90s or 100s. Given this relatively short span, it's hard to say that anyone "owns" anything. Ownership only means the right to hold something for a finite time--the shorter of its own existence or one's own existence--and the right to sell it or leave it in a probate estate. This way of looking at things--that we are all users of good, not gifted with them in eternity--makes one consider the worth of ownership differently.

When it comes to a bicycle, then, it's useful to value it not so much in its market value, or even its purchase price, but in the cost of each ride on this bicycle. I have ridden my new bicycle three times, which means its current cost per ride is quite high. By the time I reach 20, the cost per ride will be much less.
If I can reach 300 or 400 rides, even with the expenses of maintenance, the cost per ride will be minimal.

This way of thinking about things is not original to me. A similar analysis helps one assess the cost of leasing a home versus the cost of buying a home. But it's a bit liberating, sometimes, because it's easy to see things in terms of a game of buy/sell/trade/profit. I'm not saying that buy/sell/trade/profit is a bad way of looking at things, because it's actually useful as one signifier, but not the only signifier, of value.
But when one wishes to consume or hold something, there are other factors that come into play.

It's a bit like the souls we all know who are great at finding a bargain, but consequently tend to spend too much on bargains. It's not that they over-pay for what they buy. They get great deals. But so often they get great deals on things whose value in their lives is not as great as the value of the funds they expended.

I sometimes daydream about having a cabin in rural Texas or Oklahoma. I envision one on a lake, pond or in a woodland. Sometimes I imagine a weekend home in small town Texas. Right now it is a buyer's market, with properties available at reduced rates all across the region. But if I use my "price for experience' test, then
such a thing would not be a good buy.

Even if we got a "great deal" on a retreat, we'd use it just a handful of times a year. We'd pay not only
for the purchase price, but also for utilities and upkeep. Our cost per use would be a huge sum per night, unless we uncharacteristically changed our lives to live there every weekend. We'd be much better off doing what we already do--renting luxury cabins when we wish to travel. We can pay a hundred and a half or so a night, own nothing, leave the place clean, and have no ongoing expense. We're just renters.

In the case of a bicycle, or a kayak, or a musical instrument, or an exercise machine, the value of ownership is not "did I pay 300 but get something worth 500?" alone, but also, "if I buy this [object] for 400, will I get 10 uses and put it aside, or will I use it 250 times?". This analysis has a non-economic component, too. "I am here for a finite time, how will I use it?".

Rather like all those insightful side characters in War and Peace keep saying, we none of us know how long our lease on life lasts. Many of us believe in an afterlife, many of us do not, many of us see the issue as almost beside the point. Yet I suggest how many times one will use a sewing machine affects its worth to us.

On a different front in this analysis, I could imagine a better world in which people felt invested in things they consider themselves to own only impermanently or very indirectly. A lot of environmental issues and animal care issues and poverty issues would be better addressed if more people saw problems as leased to everyone, even if only a few people fully "own them". I am intrigued that the somewhat ruthless and individually fairly mindless ant will throw her life away for a colony for which one privileged sister gets to have all the young, while human people find it hard to take care of the children who, to the tune of 20 percent, now live in poverty. Maybe it would help if, as tenants of this life, we all felt a little more need to clean the place up and seek our security deposit back.

The Clark County Banks of the world, once apparently invulnerable, prove to be permeable. The day came when I no longer played right field in a league, but left all my ambition for the sandlot. The purchases of yesteryear sit, a bit used but ready, in places of honor. I got a fair return, if we divide instances of use by dollars paid for most of these items. But what matters is less what my effective price-for-leisure proved to be,
but the way this leisure, like my CCB cap, enhanced and enlivened my experience.

I did not often agree with George W. Bush, but I liked that buzz line about how we should live in an "ownership society". I liked the notion that we should all take responsibility as if we owned our country.
But now I think that we should see ourselves as tenant caretakers, not only in a social progress/conservation sense, but in terms of what we wish to be and do with our lives.

I hesitate to say that things changed from some halcyon era, as most of my life was in some ways less halcyon an era than even this somewhat troubled time. The generation one before me, it seems to me, managed to rail against conspicuous consumption, and then proceed to conspicuously consume and to also reduce their own taxes to pay for the benefits they voted their government should provide. When I was a boy, segregation, war and fatal disease raged worse than they do today.

But I do think that a sense of community is missing, which is something like the tenancy to which I refer.
People tend to see things in terms of dominion over nature and control over possessions. I wonder, instead, "what are we going to do with our tenancy on this world?" and "what things will we rent to do those things?".

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