Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Having named the last post after the famous Biblical parable, I have to confess that I had always believed it to mean something like nomadic and not responsible to one's origins or home. And it was with a sardonic spirit I titled the post that way anyway, as some might feel a sabbatical is irresponsible. But no matter; turns out I had it wrong all along anyway. So if you were like me and had it wrong, get it right here, then let's throw us under the sabbatical microscope.

So prodigal really means wastefully extravagant. I might agree that we weren't as frugal as we might have been in Ecuador. We did make the easy choice of more comfort and spent more per month than we'd planned. And though from a wealth perspective we lived better in Ecuador than we do at home, we still spent only three fifths of what we spend at home. And that's not even including some things such as health insurance, which we didn't need in Ecuador but spent nearly $1000 a month on at home. So we were getting much, much more for our money.

We used only cash, not credit. We would often catch ourselves arguing over 25 cents for a bag of tomatoes. The kids would always groan and plead to take a $2 taxi instead of a 25-cent bus. So we were still practicing frugality, even if not always in the right places. And so it is then a surreal experience to go shopping North American style.

Once home we dove into the deep end of the retail pool at Ikea. We needed some things for the apartment we'll live in until the renters are out of our own house, and Ikea beats even Target for Di's favorite retail therapy. The parking garage alone made me feel like we were going to a professional football game. I couldn't even find an entrance, so we just decided to park anywhere and hoped following other people would lead us there. It kind of had an apocalyptic aura there in the garage. I half expected zombies to start appearing from around pylons, moaning lifelessly as we felt trapped in a sea of concrete and cars.

That didn't happen...this time. So we were instead able to join the flow of dead-eyed mouth breathers shuffling through the thoughtfully constructed representations of a perfect living room, bathroom, bedroom, playroom...

And whatever drug they pipe through the vents certainly works on me. "Honey, look at these body scrubber thingies for the shower; they're super soft, yet firm...and only three dollars!" I did have a mild sense of zombie claustrophobia, though. How would we get out of here when the nice lady looking at curtains turns around with her white eyes and cracked, bloody lips and begs for my brains? Surely just following the arrows through the maze is a rookie video gamer's mistake? Aha, but I have the map that shows the shortcuts. Never go into an Ikea without a map and geo-location chips implanted in your children. They will use the children against you if you lose them, but don't fall for it; they're already one of them. It's too late.

I found it a little disheartening that the cheese at the end of the maze is the self-check cash registers. I think they should have a little piece of Swedish chocolate or one of those meatballs on a toothpick at least. And instead of cringing with every beep across the scanner representing a fresh shovel-full of debt on my credit card, the somehow programmed me to feel some sort of hunter-gatherer excitement that these things are now mine. Look what wonderful things I have brought home to my family. Ooga! And though shopping can already be intoxicating, I predict it's only a matter of time before retailers figure out what Vegas did a long time ago and start offering free drinks at the beginning of the maze.

So as we're hauling out our retail kill in a giant blue bag as big as one of the seven suitcases we lived out of for a year, I wonder just who's prodigal here, anyway? From a material standpoint, we consumed far, far less living in Ecuador. Choice is indeed a wonderful thing to have, but we forget that among our choices of soft, yet firm body scrubber thingies is...none. Washcloths work great. And you then have more money left to choose, say, a vacation with your family.

So though it initially seems like those leaving their home country for a period of time are prodigal (going away, spending money, returning having learned something), could it actually be the opposite? Is it those who leave who are prodigal, or is it what they are leaving?

Whenever we return to the States we kiss the ground (in our minds, anyway). We see, beyond just our home, one of the greatest places in the history of the world. And by traveling we can know not just that, but also why and how it is not the perfect place the myths we are raised with tell us it is. And we also return with the spirit and some idea of how to improve it. But the forces against change (against even the suggestion that our country needs to improve) are legion, and the politicians we choose are unlikely to change anything of substance.

And even if we fix systemic things, it's just a thumb in the dyke. We all wonder what will become of this great economic upheaval. If we fix the broken systemic pieces of our economy without addressing our underlying social and moral failings, will we be handing over our great experiment to the next ready contender. Batter up!

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