Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lines In The Sand

I read a series of essays in the NYT Style section yesterday. They weren't particularly well written or compelling pieces, but they dealt with an interesting concept - the luxuries that people can't or won't give up in the face of economic duress.

My sense is that luxury has taken on a new meaning in the last couple of weeks. Part of the reason is the conviction that the 'Gilded Age' is over. Fabulous wealth (once passe) is now crass, even vulgar. It follows that luxury in these difficult times is not only an affront to good taste, but also morally suspect.

More importantly, in a post 26/11 world, luxury seems not only frivolous but also woefully inadequate. I used to believe that education, reading, and an appreciation for the arts enhanced life. I believed that taste, judgment and elegance were indices of personal growth and refinement. At the nub of these beliefs lay my conviction that a life well lived, and tastefully lived, could serve as insulation or protection against the ugliness of the world. But when you realize that death is not impassive, but often brutal, it's difficult to believe that things, no matter how expensive and beautiful, are truly worth having, acquiring, and enjoying.

In spite of my personal misgivings, gloomy economic forecasts and a subdued festive season, I am going to draw my own line in the sand. Which activity or expense, no matter how ridiculous, do I refuse to compromise on? Which is the one minor luxury I won't sacrifice to good sense? The answer is - cappucinos.

Yes, it's true. I drink 3-4 cups of tea and maybe 1-2 cappucinos a day. When I'm out with friends, I choose coffee over beer, even food. And while I havent actually done the math, I am pretty sure that coffee accounts for a significant chunk of my monthly expenditure. I also know that in India, people could buy meals for what I spend on a cuppa.

This is not even about a voracious appetite for caffeine - I rarely drain my mug. Moreover, according to a friend, cappucinos are a waste because you can eat a dessert instead and imbibe the same amount of calories. (Note: Said friend is a pastry chef)

But I like cappucinos. I like knowing that I am out, with someone I want to spend time with, and that we have something to talk about. I like that my senses aren't fogged by alcohol, that there are no distractions and that it is enough to be there, in that moment, with someone, and to have a good time. At work, the cappucino is my attempt to buy a few minutes of calm before I head back to the desk to take calls, answer mails and chase deadlines.

In sum, then, my last stand amounts to a coffee. It's not much. But my cappuccino fixation isn't about cappucinos at all. It's about the experience of slowing down and unwinding. It's not a luxurious product by any standards, but it buys a wonderful feeling. Ultimately, a 'line in the sand' is about doing something because you can, and because you want to. It's something you do for yourself inspite of the slashed paycheck or the diminishing job prospects. It's irrational, but you don't feel you need a justification. Perhaps luxury is not so much about objects as it is is about indulgence, no guilt attached.

So, what's your line in the sand?

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