A few days ago I read an editorial column in the New York Times by a favorite columnists, David Brooks. Brooks is a moderate conservative and I sometimes find myself in agreements with his social and fiscal thoughts.
On this occasion he was not writing about politics or economics, just some meaningful thoughts about quality of life. He discussed taking his family on a trip to Africa and how much more comfortable he found the less sophisticated camps they stayed in. To explain his like for simpler abodes he used the Yiddish word haimish that, “suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.” The simpler camps had haimish, the more lavish ones, not so much.
He went on to apply the term to other aspects of life. How people, as they attain financial success in life often spend their money in ways that seclude them from life. They buy a bigger home in a gated community and find they have lost contact with friends, family and society in general. They surround themselves with “big” things that fail to satisfy the way small things once seemed to have meaning.
One way I can relate is reflecting back to my days as a very poor college student. I think of the friends I had and the simple things that gave us pleasure. When I consider the times when I was most happy, it is often those in which I had the least material possessions. Camping trips spent in a small pup tent in a primitive camp ground, the meals consisting of little other than beans and rice, a gallon jug of Red Mountain wine costing only $2, or the cigarettes I rescued from a sand-filled ashtray outside an elevator door.
Having been a teacher I never had enough money to spend much time North of the haimish line but on those few occasions I never felt the warmth or conviviality Brooks speaks of. The first cruise my wife and I took we felt ill at ease being attended to by the ship’s staff. There was a class distinction we are not comfortable with.
This spring we spent several weeks living in four-star hotels in Cincinnati, at government expense, mind you, and except for a couple of great bar tenders, I always felt too separated from the hotel’s staff. There was an air of us being more important than we really were. We have become more comfortable being catered to on cruise ships and fine hotels. But if this lifestyle became too much the norm I can see how it would tend to isolate one from reality and create an inflated sense of self-importance.
My favorite trips are those that take me South of the haimish line. I love to hook the boat to my van, which I’ve rigged up with a comfortable bed and a few amenities, head for some warm salt water, and sleep where I can park and be near regular old folks. You may find me sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot, a state camp ground, a Flying J truck stop, or maybe the parking lot of a fishing pier along the coastline of the Carolinas or Florida. All I know is come next morning I’m likely going to be sitting next to a regular Joe at some restaurant counter listening to whatever tale he has to spin and feeling a sense of kinship.
One of my favorite moments was spending an afternoon sitting next to an old black man on a fishing pier at Amelia Island, Florida. This man had grown up on a sharecropper farm in South Carolina and had to scratch for everything he had as a child. His family depended on hunting and gathering for their sustenance and though they owned a shotgun they couldn’t afford shells. To hunt rabbits and small game they resorted to a “throwing” stick with a weighted chunk of wood on one end. With skill gained from practice he could hit a sitting rabbit or squirrel in the head with the spinning stick and have something to take home for the family’s next meal.
I learned a lot from fishing with that old fellow that day. Probably much more than I would have learned sitting at the Captain’s table on some fancy cruise ship. The stories that man told me were sincere, genuine, heart warming, full of promise, and in the spirit of Brooks, ripe with haimish.