Is it possible to buy the good life?

wrought-iron-patio-furniture-2Today, I had a sudden urge to buy new curtains from Crate and Barrel. Not sure why I fixated on Crate and Barrel (which is a store that I’ve never shopped at in my life), but for some reason no other store would do.

So I hopped in my car and drove up to Berkeley, where my phone told me there was a Crate and Barrel.

And I encountered a paradise! A breezy, beautiful three-block stretch, anchored at one end by an Apple Store and an Anthropologie and at the other end by the Crate and Barrel. And in between there was every kind of little artisanal boutique that Corporate America has managed to produce. There was a store that only sold design and building books! And an open-air store that only sold furniture (most of it made of wrought-iron) for your garden and patio. And a store where all the furniture was silvery and angular, as if an IKEA had mated with an iPod.

And it was sunny and windswept and full of women in high-heeled boots and men pushing strollers that were approximately six-feet long, with undercarriages that jangled ominously (seriously, what were those dudes keeping in there?)

Everything about the place was redolent of the good life.

You know what I mean. I don’t know exactly how we all (at least those of us who were born into or aspire to be in the upper middle class) got the memo, but it’s almost like we instinctively understand the elements of the good life.

The good life doesn’t care about possessions, it only cares about how things feel. The good life is bright and sun-filled. The good life is the light brown of wooden baseboards and the mottled grey of wrought iron and the bright orange of a throw pillow. The good life is sparse: the corridors of the good life are wide, and they are filled with fewer, but higher-quality, items. The good life  smells like incense and sandalwood. The good life wears thin fabrics and drives tiny cars. The good life has been married for four years and has just begun to think about having children. The good life goes on vacation every four months, and it never takes a packaged tour. The good life isn’t about mere relaxation: it only goes to the beach in order to dive down next to the reef so that it can catch a sighting of a very rare, endangered sea turtle.

I used to scoff at this vision of the good life. To me, it’s always seemed shallow, hypocritical, thoughtless, and consumerist. But since coming to the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. And I’m starting to think that, in some way, coming back here represents my attempt to try to accept the good life.

Because we here in America aren’t given that many visions of the good life. I mean, there’s mass-market consumer society (which may or may not exist, except as a bogeyman). And then there’s the manufactured rebellion that corporate America has given us so that we can use our money to feel superior to the plebes. And then…what else is there? There are those who eschew consumption and choose to live in uncomfortable circumstances in some warehouse in a poor neighborhood or underdeveloped city. But it seems to me that those people don’t really reject the aesthetic that makes up the good life; they simply reject the idea of spending a lot of money to acquire it. Sometimes it seems like the essence of radical living is to turn up your nose at Anthropologie and then scour the thrift stores so that you can find a $20 ensemble that looks like it could’ve been purchased from Anthropologie.

I used to think that people who bought into the good life were fooling themselves. I thought they were throwing money at their lousy little lives in order to feed the delusion that they were special. Now I don’t know. There’s an unexamined assumption there, which is that those people in Berkeley were seeking props that would allow them to pretend that their lives aren’t utterly mass-produced.

But were they?

It’s all very confusing to me. Why do we want wrought-iron patio furniture? If it’s so that we can sit in the furniture and engage in some delusional image of ourselves as rustic iconoclasts, then that, to me, sounds extremely distasteful. But if it’s just because we think wrought-iron patio furniture looks beautiful (and is relatively clean and sturdy) and because we enjoy the experience of sitting on our patios and watching a bee crawl into the bud of a flower, then that’s, like, that’s kind of okay, right?

Comments (



  1. Widdershins

    Ikea and the ipod – some mental images can’t be unseen 😀 … it’s all about intent, eh?

  2. mattllavin

    Good blog. Intent, like the person above says, seems like a big part of it. There’s this whole thing about purposefulness, engagement, and thoughtfulness to it, I think. The intentionality gives a sense of control and that good feeling of having made a thoughtful decision for yourself. And then, whether these things are acquired expensively or not, it still satisfies the same desires around aesthetics and individualism.