IT’S ALL SO basic. Ultra-simple human behavioral patterns. Psychology 101. It’s the reason last year’s car just isn’t good enough anymore. It’s the reason a single-carat dinner ring looks so embarrassingly small these days. It’s the reason a young businessman making $80,000 a year can feel like he just isn’t getting paid enough. It’s the reason we Dallasites can’t seem to get enough to eat and drink and wear and drive and buy and spend. It’s the reason Dallas makes us crazy.

Anyone who’s spent much time in a psychology lab can tell you about a basic experiment in which the researchers simply shock a mouse with an electrical current. Not surprisingly, the mouse jumps and squeaks. A stimulus (the electricity) brings a response (a squeaking mouse). If you shock the mouse again in the same spot, you get the same response. But shock him several times and he won’t jump as high or squeak as loud. Eventually, the rodent won’t do much of anything unless you increase the electrical current or shock the little bugger in a different part of his body.

That illustrates a fundamental law of psychology. An organism’s response to a stimulus decreases with repetition of the stimulus. The only way to get a continuing level of response is to either increase the stimulus or to make it different.

Wnat does all thishave to do with Mercedes 450 SLs or the price of a square foot of property in the Galleria? Plenty.

A stimulus doesn’t have to be an electrical shock. Ten years ago, my wife and I bought our first color TV, an 11-inch portable for which we paid $300. When we brought it home to the linoleum-floored living room of our West Fort Worth duplex and plugged it in, we were amazed. It was glorious. What an experience.

But after we had watched the television for several months, those colors just didn’t seem as bright. And it seemed as if the television set had shrunk on us, after the newness wore off.

Soon we experienced a common American folk ritual, the visit from the burglars. They liked our crummy old TV well enough to relieve us of it. When we began to shop for a new one, we didn’t even consider anything smaller than 19 inches. How could we get by on what we were already accustomed to?

We liked Fort Worth because we were young and idealistic and reflective and introspective and hopeful and poor. When you are making $400 a month, you don’t like to see people driving by in big Cadillacs, their wind trails almost sweeping your Volkswagen off the freeway. Fort Worth was very comfortable for us in that way. Very few Cadillacs on the freeway.

My neighbors and I used to discuss the essence of life and the problems of the world. Inflation (gas had shot up to 49.9 cents), war (it was, after all, 1970) and the threat of rampant materialism (Dallas was only 40 miles away). But we pledged to be pure in working against all those evils.

When I got out of the Air Force and started to work at the newspaper in Fort Worth, I got extremely familiar, comfortable, with the community. The more familiar I got, the more comfortable 1 got. But I got something else I didn’t like to admit to myself. Bored. I used to sneak to Dallas just to drive around and look at the buildings. The glitter of Greenville Avenue beckoned to my 25-year-old psyche. My deepest secret was that I liked to walk through Neiman-Marcus. My fellow devotees to the essence of life would have killed me for this, but I never told them.

Finally it happened. I moved to Dallas and took a job here. We pledged to stick to our values. We would never succumb to the sinister pitfalls that lurk in the L.L. Bean catalog. It was just that Dallas offered more professional opportunities.

A few months after 1 moved to Dallas, my close friends, Dave and Carol, moved to Austin. Now there’s a place where they’ve kept their sights on the essence of life. Very few buildings. Very few Cadillacs. Most of the fancy autos you see there belong to lobbyists and high public officials who make their homes in Dallas. Dave and Carol got close to the Earth and the truth and the essence. It happens all the time in Austin. You can get granola bars on any street corner.

I continued to grow and prosper in Dallas, to grow like Dallas, despite my adamant desires not to lose sight of my original values. A few weeks ago I had a brief reunion with Dave and Carol. It was obvious how they had changed. And how I had changed.

There was the standard double take when we first saw each other. I was aware that Dave was wearing a double-knit sport coat and a tie of the type that must be issued to men when they finish their sentences at Huntsville. Dallas had taught me to notice things like that.

Carol’s eyes projected unmistakable scorn when she stared at the center of my sternum.

“My God! He’s actually wearing a Polo shirt”

“You’ve got me wrong,” 1 said in quick defense. “I’m still Stiteler. I just wear it as a parody…of all the preppies…See, I know I am not a preppie. Remember me? I passed out bumper stickers for George McGovern before we all figured out he was a pseudomorphic whimp. Remember? Besides, you’d like Polo shirts if you gave them half a chance. They’re made of 100 percent cotton. Egyptian cotton. It’s all natural. See?” I said, extending my arm, cuff first, across the table.

Carol just stared. It was obvious she felt I’d lost sight of the essence, that I had been jaded by the Dallas lifestyle.

“What does it matter what you wear?” I said. “Isn’t that what we were asking people back in the Sixties? If it doesn’t matter what you wear, then it doesn’t matter what you wear. Right?”

“You’ve forgotten about the basics.”

“No,” I protested, “I’m into basic psychology.”

I tried to explain, but she cut me off halfway through the mouse story.

“Dave and I have settled down,” she said. “We’re into taking care of our house and mowing the lawn when it needs it. We’re homebodies now. The materialism up in Dallas just kills me.”

“Is that the essence I’ve lost sight of, mowing lawns?”

“We’re real excited about getting a leaf vacuum,” she said, “To work in the yard with. We’ve found a wonderful one; it blows as well as vacuums.”

“You’re changing the subject,” I said. “What about the essence that Dallas has made me lose sight of? Has Dallas made me more materialistic than you? What is the essence we were looking for all those years ago?”

“You’re not listening,” she said, “the essence is in the simple things.”

As I listened more closely she revealed the truth to me. The essence is a Lawn Boy 8671 mulcher-bagger, available at any store in Austin for $369.95. After you use one, a rake just isn’t the same again.

But that’s not easy for us Dallas people to understand. We’re too materialistic.


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