Isn't there something depressing about having everything you want?
Back in July, I had an interesting piece in The Bulwark, inspired by the plastic bag tax implemented in Fairfax County at the start of the year, and an outright ban on plastic bags in my home county of Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Most commentary on this stuff focuses either on the environmental benefits on the one hand, or the annoyance of having a small but real convenience taken away by busybodies, on the other hand.
I admit I find this a little silly. It’s an ad I saw in my local Giant supermarket.
As if there was anything weird/wrong/disreputable about bagging up your groceries until the day before yesterday. It fits in with a whole genre of right-leaning complaints.
But the thing is, my article praised the bag bans, and probably not for a reason you’d expect. My argument, essentially, was that I like the inconvenience. There’s a bit from the Irish sitcom Father Ted, where the titular priest’s housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle, is inspecting an automatic tea-brewing machine in a department store. A salesman comes over and informs her excitedly that it “takes the misery out of making tea.” She responds emphatically, “Maybe I like the misery!”
This brought me back to the holiday season: my last one, and the ones of my parents’ childhood:
I saw a tweet back around Christmastime. The gist of it was, Imagine having the self-control to only make certain special recipes for the holidays. I mentally replied: Imagine not having the self-control to only make certain special recipes for the holidays. I enjoy the idea of those recipes being off-limits in ordinary times. I don’t make them normally because that would dilute the specialness, the sense of ritual. Rice stuffing is for Thanksgiving, prime rib is for Christmas, salami bread is for Easter: If these foods crossed my plate outside their appointed seasons, I would mourn the loss of that specialness more than I would enjoy eating them with greater frequency.
It’s this dilution of specialness I feel when I see eggnog coming out for Halloween, as it did in 2021, or those strained riffs on Neapolitan ice cream that have recently popped up: triple chocolate, triple vanilla, ice cream cake, apple pie. I liked the fact that until recently you could only find eggnog a couple months each year. Or that if you wanted three ice cream flavors in one carton, Neapolitan’s classic strawberry-vanilla-chocolate trifecta was your only option. My mother always said much the same about the advent of VCRs, which had a similarly diluting effect: In her childhood, if you missed the Rudolph or Frosty Christmas special on TV, that was it, and you waited another year. There’s something deflating and a little depressing about having anything you could possibly want, and at any time.
What’s that got to do with plastic bags?
I find that once the free, disposable plastic bags are taken away, some dulled part of my character comes alive. Suddenly, I’m more organized, making sure my reusable bags are clean, folded, stored on the back seat, and ready to go. I’m more attentive, making sure I remember to bring them in. I’m more resourceful, taping over a small hole in a disposable bag so I can use it in the trash can or to carry out the cat litter instead of just throwing it away. I see disposable things as resources. I’ll pay five cents for that.
I enjoy the need to do more with less, in a low-stakes way. And I dislike the fact that as long as the bags are free, the ease and the habit of using them will overwhelm the rewarding task of doing a little without, and blunt that sense of taking charge of the little responsibilities that bags make even smaller.
I realized, once the bags were no longer free and unlimited, that I had to treat them as valuable resources. We used to just throw out the ones with little holes or tears; now my wife, who always used to fold up the bags while I put away the groceries, also tapes up any ones with holes. (I use them for cat litter, though many people just throw them away when they get home.)
You might say, well, if you like taping up disposable bags, knock yourself out, but don’t take away my bags. But that’s the thing; it’s very, very difficult to put yourself in that mindset when your surroundings don’t require it. It’s like bringing someone to an all-you-can-eat buffet and then telling them to remember that they’re on a diet.
I understand it might sound selfish or even out-of-touch to talk about how I enjoy being made to pay for bags when hardworking families with shrinking budgets need to get in and out of the supermarket quickly. (Curiously, some grocery chains recognize this; I know of at least two in Fairfax County which presumably remit the bag tax out of their own pockets, and continue to offer the disposable bags for free.)
More broadly, my argument is that it’s a good thing, generally, to value things a little more, to learn to be content with less stuff. This has nothing to do with “you’ll own nothing and be happy,” and everything to do with being more human, being more connected, learning to appreciate the “good friction” that little inconveniences can spark. The half-hour sitting around the kitchen table trimming the string beans and chatting. My mom sending me out to the deck with a paper bag to shuck the corn when I was a kid. The socializing made possible by the lingering warmth of a wood fireplace that you can’t just click off, and the pleasant and occasionally chaotic effort (fire alarms and a house full of smoke) of getting it started. Waiting for Christmas and Christmas dinner, knowing that if every day were Christmas, no day would be.
I think there’s probably something deeply Catholic about this, which I recognize as such as I get older. My wife doesn’t really understand it: the idea of being miserable and liking it, that fasting makes feasting better, that self-denial can be fruitful. The idea that you don’t like it, but you kind of do like, or that you value other things above instant gratification. I guess that idea, which suffuses Catholicism, goes back to the really weird idea that by becoming man and dying, Christ elevated suffering itself.
But I was talking about plastic bags.
Here’s my conclusion:
The appeal for me lies in the idea of pricing valuable things more accurately (nothing is free, and plastic bags are especially not free), of curtailing the throwaway culture just a little bit, and of restoring the specialness of ordinary things. This mindset is all about cultivating contentment, of “kissing the joy as it flies”—whether that fleeting happiness comes from seasonally appropriate eggnog, a prime rib, or even a reusable grocery bag you had to run out to your car to retrieve.
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