How Much Land Does One Man Need?

There was a time when a vacation meant getting in the car and traveling several hours from home for a respite in the country. If you were from the tri-state area, this might mean the Catskill Mountains, or as they were more colloquially known, the “Jewish Alps”. People often went to the same resorts or bungalow colonies for years, foraging friendships, bringing up children, and aging.

My father’s friend was the owner of Sunny Oaks, a small resort in Woodridge, N.Y. This hotel held many memories for me. It was the place my mother recuperated after the surgery for the cancer that killed her a few short months later. After she was gone, it was the place the proprietors welcomed me, summer after summer, to live as one of their own children.

It was the place where I spent hours swimming in a pool, running barefoot, never taking showers, and coming home with a head full of lice. And it was here at Sunny Oaks that I met one of the most important people in my early life: Clarence, the handyman. This wonderful person would spend hours nurturing my spirit with tales from the Bible. We would sit on a rickety bench in front of the garbage cans surrounded by Brownie the mutt and Fluffy the cat. Our friendship continued until I was 14 and people started to stare. You see Clarence was African American. My heart was broken by the discrimination, and my illusions about bucolic Sunny Oaks began to fade.

I felt like one of the staff and mainly fraternized in the help quarters. The guests were breeds apart. My meals were either in the kitchen or at the staff tables where we kibitzed and flirted with each other. To my mind these were glorious summers and they have become part of my happiest childhood memories. Years have gone by and Sunny Oakes closed down, replaced by a summer home for the deceased proprietor’s daughter and her family.

Fast-forward to today. Riding the bus back from New York City after a day of volunteering at the Urban Zen Foundation for a USA Network and Vanity Fair-sponsored event, I purchased the latest edition of the magazine. With two hours of transport ahead, I planned to catch up by reading an article about the master swindler, Bernard Madoff.

Well into the piece, I came upon a startling bit of news. It turned out that Mr. Madoff began to weave his insidious web at Sunny Oaks, the very same little family owned hotel in the Catskill Mountains where I spent my summers. The family of Ruth Alprin, Mr. Madoff’s wife, had summered there in 1950s and 1960s. The proud father-in-law encouraged guests and the hotel owners to invest in his son’s new Wall Street venture. So there it began, the arms growing wider, the circle expanding, as family, friends, and other contacts built the bottom rung of the precipitous pyramid.

I am quite sure Mr. Alprin, whose profession was accountancy, had no idea his son-in-law was so duplicitous, so capable of defrauding countless innocent people and organizations. Perhaps at this early juncture, Mr. Madoff himself had not begun to slide on the slippery slope toward spending his twilight years in jail. Yet one can see the excess of his life as a metaphor for lives built on greed.

I am reminded of a short story by the great Russian author, Leon Tolstoy, “How Much Land Does a Man Need.” This is the story another author, James Joyce, wrote about to his daughter saying that it was, “The greatest story that the literature of the world knows.” It is a simple tale of a peasant who is able to purchase a small plot of land when the estate he has worked on split up. The taste of ownership whets his appetite for more and more land. The peasant loses any semblance of decency and ultimately loses his life running in circles around a piece of land he has to measure before purchasing. He is buried in a coffin representing the exact amount of land he actually needed. This allegoric story has as much relevance today as it did in the past.

The question: how much land does one man need? This is a very personal assessment, which can be made according to certain criteria. Having spent most of my life working with children from vastly different economic strata, I have long realized that possessions have little meaning when other essentials are left behind.

During the past decade or so, when bigger became better, some of my students lived in such cavernous dwellings that they rarely saw parents who contacted them as an anonymous voice through an intercom. The intimacy lost in the process left many of these young people adrift; growing increasingly alienated and often preys to substance abuses. Of course this does not happen in every situation. But how much better for the family to consider a little less space and more quality time spent together.

For myself, the land I need means caring for the land I have. I learned this long ago while living in Berlin, Germany. Soon after I arrived, on a visit to a friend, I entered an apartment to see a woman combing the fringe on her Persian rug. Now one might call this excessive, but to me it brought a lesson home that what one needs is measured by how one takes care of what one has.

How it is possible to live with simplicity in a society that is increasingly complex? This thought brings me to an observation of an acquaintance. He is an accomplished cabinetmaker, working for himself for years. Everyday he takes time out to read, mostly books from the local library. The last time I saw him he was studying Latin to help with the translation of an opera written in the first century. The way this man has structured his life makes it possible for him live within his means. Nothing in excess, except reading good books could be his manta.

I have not the slightest inkling whether the Madoff clan understood what havoc they unleashed, for the many who got caught up in his pyramid scheme, and tragically for the foundations that can no longer serve the causes they espouse.

Thinking back to the period when I summered at Sunny Oaks, a song comes to mind — “My Blue Heaven” — the unadulterated version, modest stuff. “ You’ll see a smiling face, a fireplace, a cozy room, a little nest that’s nestled where the roses bloom.” Now these lyrics are romanticized and have often been satirized, but a germ of truth prevails.