Buy something new

Until I was 28 years old moving into my first house in Almonte in 1976 (shortly after having been called to the Bar in March of 1975) I had little interest in household furnishings or accessories. Until then I had largely lived in furnished dwellings at boarding school, undergraduate university residence, law school fraternity house and shared student rentals, Pestalozzi College and Don’s residence at Devonshire House, University of Toronto while attending the Bar Admission course at Osgoode Hall. What little of my own I had until then was primarily discards from my parents’ basement – much of it essentially garden furniture (aluminium or plastic tables and wicker chairs). My first bed cost $80.  It was a water bed (something by the way I don’t recommend at any price).  I enlarged the expense by buying a wooden frame for it on the floor. At the time I was articling at Messrs. Macdonald, Affleck Barristers &c., 100 Sparks Street earning an annual salary of $4,000 – which also explains why Harvey’s was my idea of dining out. Thankfully the By Ward Market was at hand and I was able to purchase loads of fresh vegetables for a song. I weighed 155 pounds, cycled 100 miles per week and never drank alcohol.

My cycle of reconditioned furnishings was not long afterwards reinforced when I bought the hardware of the former law practice of R. A. Jamieson, QC. It must have been around the same time – say 1984 – that I bought my first big house and also the office building where I housed my newly appointed law office. Then things began to change.

The Diderot Effect

The famous French philosopher Denis Diderot lived nearly his entire life in poverty, but that all changed in 1765. Diderot was 52 years old and his daughter was about to be married, but he could not afford to provide a dowry. Despite his lack of wealth, Diderot’s name was well-known because he was the co-founder and writer of Encyclopédie, one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias of the time. When Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, heard of Diderot’s financial troubles she offered to buy his library from him. Suddenly, Diderot had money to spare. Shortly after this lucky sale, Diderot acquired a new scarlet robe. That’s when everything went wrong.

Diderot’s scarlet robe was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that he immediately noticed how out of place it seemed when surrounded by the rest of his common possessions. In his words, there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” between his robe and the rest of his items. The philosopher soon felt the urge to buy some new things to match the beauty of his robe.

He replaced his old rug with a new one from Damascus. He decorated his home with beautiful sculptures and a better kitchen table. He bought a new mirror to place above the mantle and his “straw chair was relegated to the antechamber by a leather chair.” These reactive purchases have become known as the Diderot Effect. The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that our previous selves never needed to feel happy or fulfilled.

What is noticeably omitted from this stirring apocryphal account is warranted recognition of commercial banking. It’s the machinery behind the modern application of that quaint tale. As my law practice began to take flight I soon learned that bankers encouraged my latent indiscretion.  I recall having had a Line of Credit with every chartered bank in Canada – contemporaneously.

The first time I asked to borrow money to start my solo law practice, the banker openly encouraged me to ask for more money than I had initially proposed. That was my first clue. I then succeeded to buy the office building by borrowing more money than it cost. The house was naturally mortgaged but its increased value enabled so-called “collateral security” which is bank-ese for “we’ll grab you by the knackers and take everything you’ve got if you mess with us“.

Meanwhile I learned the automobile industry was stretching its sales records by entertaining a new leasing model which naturally coincided with the rationale behind every other business expense – the proverbial “write off”. Even to my utter astonishment Birks jewellers was caught up in an identical scheme for its Swiss-made complicated watches.  There was seemingly no end to the capacity for embellishment!

At the end of my career things took another sudden change. My materialism had by that time ascended to the sublime outlet of expense; namely, art. Art I knew from everything I had seen in Manhattan to Boca Raton, Paris to Stockholm and Toronto to Montréal was the last vestige of possession. So it was the first to go.  The Frederick Coburn and Henri Masson pieces.

Then we precipitously sold the office building and the house at roughly the same time. Gone was the Steinway salon grand and the bulk of our household goods (which by then included the contents of an apartment we had sold in By Ward Market). I ended carrying a carpet bag of trinkets to the Toronto fine jewellery auctioneer visiting at the Château Laurier Hotel. Driven by the thesis “If it doesn’t go in the dishwasher, it’s gone” we sold the sterling silver flatware but kept the Crown Derby porcelain.

Such is the process of down-sizing. It did however represent another alteration of my life –  a disregard for surplusage and a corresponding focus upon detail and distillation. The detail translated to “only the most favoured”; distillation was bespoke. In short the material scope of my life had dwindled to the distinction of a Nomad.

While motoring idly about the countryside this afternoon I was for whatever reason reminded of those days of atmospheric pleasure. Years ago it was nothing to devote an entire day to some extraneous commercial enterprise.  Just wandering about the show rooms of preferred furnishing retailers or antique dealers was a welcome adventure, one which was regularly punctuated by the unpacking at home of the newest adornment or accessory. And there is no denying that until at least the second martini the fascination of the thing was unparalleled. But it had become overkill.  The professional picture framer told me categorically she didn’t want to frame another historic print because I couldn’t possibly have any wall space left on which to hang it. She was right.  I ended leaning it on a credenza in a hallway.

12 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets

The central message here is that “desire shall fail”.