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The world has grown frugal...oh, never mind

Updated: April 19, 2013 6:24AM

Hope makes us dense.

There’s no other way to say it.

People do not suddenly become gullible when confronting something that goes against their secret desires. When assessing a situation we don’t like or welcome, we’re all skepticism, all vinegar-suckled Iowan farmers considering purchase of a used John Deere tractor, squinting long and hard.

So while we kick the tires of the disagreeable — looking for a reason to scoff, even making one up if necessary — let new information resonate with our wishes, and that’s a different story. That’s why retirees are constantly wiring their life savings to scam artists in Kazakhstan, posing as Russian fashion models who have inexplicably fallen in love with them. Old Bob never pauses to wonder why a 23-year-old bikini model in Yekaterinburg would develop a crush on him based on a Facebook page festooned with pictures of his grandkids, or asks himself why Karenka can’t find a more convenient beau than a widowed grandpa in Des Moines.

Think of it as Wishful Blindness. The same reason people endlessly re-post credulous, unexamined nonsense online. “Did you realize that Barack Obama raises his middle finger whenever the Pledge of Allegiance is played?” They share the malice behind it, and the idea that it just isn’t true first needs a seed of disapproval to sprout.

I think of myself as dubious, by nature and by profession, and tend to give double scrutiny to news that scratches my itch, knowing how credulous people become.

But you can’t have your armor up all the time. Sometimes, in unguarded moments, your judgment stumbles. Even Homer dozed.

I was walking the dog. The most laid back, normal thing I do. Dog happily pulling, me happily clomping behind, down our semi-modest block in the heart of the soon-to-be-leafy-once-more suburban paradise of Northbrook. Since this was an ambitious walk, we crossed the Rubicon — Cedar Lane — and onto the next block, which I don’t mind doing, because a new house is being built there, and I like to monitor its progress.

Refreshing, of course, that anybody is building a new house at all. After the real estate market collapsed five years ago with a deafening crash — think of a tin Christmas tree hung with cowbell ornaments falling over — one worried it would never recover. The slipping value of homes — mine dropped 30 percent — would dwindle to nothing. We’d use them for firewood in our tent cities.

Didn’t happen. Instead, the economy is ticking upward, the stock market rallying, and people are building new homes.

I’m no economist, but that’s good, right?

And such a nice new house, I thought, pausing with the dog. Not some lot-line-crowding monstrosity. Big enough, for sure, but broken up with roof lines and little square windows into an older, by-the-sea kind of look that harmonized with the genuinely old house next to it. Very pleasant, I thought, smiling at the white Tyvek, trying to put my finger on what is so pleasingly humble about it, as the dog snuffled with rapt fascination at some spot of dwindling snow that a fellow dog had no doubt graced.

Then it struck me. My God. The new house . . . has a one-car garage. Marvelous to relate. The house across the street from it has a three-car garage. The trend seemed to be going toward four, in an arms race of gargantuanism without end. And now we’ve reset back to one. The nightmare is over. The past returned. I could scarcely believe it. I turned the dog around, hurried home.

“Did you take a look at the new house?” I marveled to the wife. “A one-car garage!”

She pursed her lips. “It’s going to be hard to sell,” she said. Ever practical. Well yes, I suppose . . . then shook her wisdom off. Unless we all decide to live more practically. Unless someone sees that one-car garage and is thrilled, like me, thinking, “This appeals to my new frugal sense of living within my means and not being such a hog of excess.”

Cut to Saturday night, a dozen friends and neighbors are over our place for a casual party — chicken and salads and wine, nothing fancy — we’re all jammed in our kitchen, talking away, and I corner a fellow who lives across the street, a savvy businessmen.

I must of course share the neighborhood wonder. Has he, I ask, looked at the new house? Particularly, I continued, the garage? The one-car garage? Amazing, is it not?

“The house is on an alley,” he replied. “They’ll build a second garage in the back.”


Never mind, I thought, echoing the words of that great patron saint of the easily confused, Emily Litella. The house that I was all too eager to assume has a one-car garage will, when completed, garage three, maybe four automobiles. A one-car garage? Sheesh. Chump. Sap. Rube. Rustic. Dupe. Fool.

We hunger for wonders, and that hunger leads us astray.

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