One of the Benefits of Living in Town…

trash-canOK.  I have to say it.

I love curb-side garbage collection.

You drag piles of unwanted stuff to the end of your driveway and, by the end of the day, its gone!  That’s fantastic!

We always do a big purge after Christmas.  Since the house is totally bombed out from the holiday and we are typically home together, it is the perfect time to go through boxes and closets and the garage and chuck the stuff we just don’t need.

We used to live in a place where you had to haul your trash to the dump.  We used to go every three weeks or so- typically when the garage was getting a little ripe and the garbage needed to go away.  The best part of that was recycling.  Specifically, glass recycling.  The kids, when they were small, loved to come along so they could throw the bottles into the big steel bins.  Breaking glass makes such a joyful racket!

But now, the stuff just disappears.  Civic magic.

So good…

The Trouble With More

give-a-mouse-a-cookie…is that it creates more.  Much like that children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, even a simple action can create a snowball effect that can quickly become something you did not expect.  We read this story to our children when they were young as a way to teach them about making choices and their consequences but is equally appropriate when discussing how we end up with all this stuff.

If a hungry little mouse shows up on your doorstep, you might want to give him a cookie. And if you give him a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk. He’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache, and then he’ll ask for a pair of scissors to give himself a trim…

My father has always said that once you end up buying a refrigerator, it’s all over.  That was his clear delineation between childhood and adulthood.  Its hard to backpack around Europe when you own a refrigerator.  Equally difficult is bicycle touring or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  I am not so sure he was really talking about losing the ability to be footloose and fancy free.  The problem is not really the refrigerator itself, but all the things that owning one implies.  By owning that fridge, you have begun the process of “settling down.”

  • You start collecting all the necessary things it takes to operate a comfortable, modern American household.
  • You buy a mini-van rather than the RoadTrek van you really wanted.
  • Long-term practicality begins to gain prominence and short-term joy is told to just be patient.
  • You become responsible for more than just yourself- maybe its just a partner or perhaps there are children.  Either way, the expectations of others necessarily color your views of what is important.
  • The cross-country bike tour you were planning gets moved to the back burner because you really ought to find a “real job.”

When I was in college, my mother used a pencil to write my address in her contact book because I was single and moved around so frequently.  It was pretty easy to do back then.  I had a duffel bag for my clothes, a few books, a couple boxes, my camping gear, and my bicycle.  That was it.  It would all fit in the back of my 1981 Toyota Tercel liftback (and I could still see out the back!)

The last move I made was when we sold our containershome on Bainbridge Island and moved to Massachusetts.  Everything my family of six owned, except for the items we would be needing while we looked for a new home, went into a 28′ long x 8′ wide x 8′ high shipping container and we packed that thing full to the roof.  One of my good friends, who is apparently a Tetris fanatic, took great joy and care to fit each piece of furniture, each box, each bed frame, into its perfect little spot.  That thing was so well packed that there was not an inch of available space for that load to shift during transit.  Needless to say, when we opened the container to offload our stuff into our new house, everything was EXACTLY where Phil had placed it six months prior.

The biggest consequence of having more is that, once you purchase that refrigerator, your life has changed permanently.  The old life is still visible but it is more like an entry in your diary rather than a living, breathing reality.  There may come a time when you will be able to return to something more closely aligned with those early ideals but the glowing coals of a rich life are a very different heat than the grand inferno of youth.

If the expectation is that you will be able to simply take up where you left off, you are neglecting the reality of how different you really are from that earlier version of your current self.  Try going out to see a band at a bar some night.  I still love live music but find that the scene that used to be so shiny and exciting is less so these days.  Seeing the awkward, flirty games people play with one another is like watching some show on the WB network.  Also, paying $5 for a can of beer seems kind of ridiculous.

We should, instead, pass along a yearning for that fire, that passion for life.  If we can divest ourselves from the habit of constantly needing more, I believe we will be better able to see what truly makes us happy.  If we can teach our children that life isn’t about having the most stuff but living and loving and adventure, we may have given them the tools to see through some of the veils of what we “need” to begin to understand what is truly makes them happy and confident adults.  Infatuations will fade but the things that really resonate with us are part of who we are.  Figure that out, and do it.

To hell with the mouse.

 

Becoming an Adult

small-houseIt is generally agreed upon that, in order to become an adult these days, you need to get a good job, buy a home, have a couple kids, put one or two new cars in the garage, and, when the time is right, upgrade that “starter home” you fell in love with to one that more appropriately matches your growing status and collection of stuff.  Once you upsize, you will need to work harder or get a better job because it is more expensive to live there.  Plus, you need more furniture and accessories to properly big-houseoutfit your new home.  Kids rooms, office, living room as well as a family room and possibly bonus room.  You have a yard with outdoor living spaces now that need to be maintained.  Also, a larger house has greater financial demands- a new roof is that much more expensive, repainting a big house costs that much more.  Never mind the larger heating and cooling expenses.

As the kids get older, there are dance lessons, braces, soccer club fees, school activity fees, new clothes, shoes and doctor visits.  Let’s not even talk about saving for college.

Pretty soon, that new car is in need of repair or replacement, your credit card debt is starting to get out of hand, the washing machine goes on the fritz, and the burden of life becomes greater.

It starts to feel like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it?  In many ways, we are compelled to do this by the desire to “keep up” with our neighbors, the television programs we watch, and the movies we see, but it is not the only way to live!  It may take a while to get out from under the burden of it all but, if you are willing and dedicated, it is something that can indeed be done.  I am not saying sell all your possessions and become a monk.  No.  What I am saying is that by:

  • getting rid of many of the things we pack our homes with
  • rethinking our patterns of consumption and how we make purchases,
  • reconsidering the quality of the lives we have versus the quality of life we wish we had
  • taking a good look at what it actually is that we work so hard for everyday

we can indeed reduce the daily stress and expense of our lives and give ourselves the gift of opportunity to do more of the things we want- spend easy time with friends and family, travel, volunteer at your favorite charity, or even just do nothing!

My kids are nearly grown.  Such a weird thing to think about because I have been a parent for the last 20 years.  You know they will grow up- that’s just how things go- but to have it happen after such a long time is a little disorienting.

I have two step-daughters who have been finished with college for years.  Their brother is a junior in high school now and is spending the entire school year abroad in Taiwan.  His youngest sister is a freshman and will be graduating in just 3 1/2 short years.  They are all fantastic, unique, intelligent, and talented people doing their best to figure out this new 21st century world.

I wish we could have given them a road map to American adulthood, like the one my parents used that had been crafted over the last 60 years.  Do well in high school, get into a good college, develop a passion for a interesting course of study, and graduate with a degree.  That path would lead toward a good job and a comfortable sense of security.

We all know now that that sense of security is an illusion pennybut I don’t think it always masked as harsh a reality as it does today.  Middle class income and a thrifty sensibility (handed down by parents that lived through the Great Depression) was once enough to raise a family on.  These days, my eldest daughter and many, many others in their late 20’s (she is 28) are finding they are hard-pressed to find a place to live and make ends meet with the salaries that are available to them.  Unless you go to law school or get into the risky financial industry, you just can’t make enough money to get by today.

Twenty years ago, I was employed at an ad agency as an Interactive Producer getting paid $40,000/yr.  That was enough to pay the rent on our little farm house on 1/2 acre ($650) and maybe a hundred dollars in bills (electric, water, phone) plus food.  We didn’t pay for cable since there were a couple stations that still broadcast over the air and we had a VCR.  Cell phones weren’t a thing yet and internet access wasn’t part of your Verizon bill because all you needed was a phone line and a 56k modem.  (Amazon was around already but they only sold books.)  This may sound quaint now but it was pretty up to date at the time.  We drove an old car that we could maintain ourselves and gas cost $1.23/gallon.  The median price of a new house in the US at the end of 1996 was $144,900.

If we were to do the same thing today, rent for that same house would be closer to $1500, bills (including power, water, cell phone and internet) would be more like $250 and that same job would still pay around $40,000/yr.  A twenty year old car today needs a mechanic with specialized diagnostic equipment to do the maintenance work and gas is $3.79/gallon.  If you wanted to purchase a home based on the median at the end of 2013, you would take on a 30 year mortgage for $275,500.

My daughter has a good job where she makes $42,000/yr.  She has a car payment on a reliable vehicle, gas to get to and from work, an iPhone, health insurance, and a credit card payment each month.  Pretty small pile of bills but, with what is left over, she could not afford a studio apartment in the town we live in, never mind the utilities.  Buying an average house is even more out of reach with the tight mortgage market and the added expense of property taxes and insurance.

That is the brutal truth- while everything has gotten more expensive, wages have not increased in 20 years.  Once it was a mark of shame for a young adult to be “still” living with their parents but, these days, it is a realistic necessity.  It is reality for not only for the Millennials but for some of their parents as well.  In the 1950’s, a single income was typically enough to manage a household.  The Nineties brought the two-earner household into the mainstream.  Today, we are hard-pressed to make do (without resorting to credit) on two incomes.

The next 10 years are going to bring some big changes to our society.  The ridiculous political games in Washington, growing social discontent and constant wars will certainly have an impact, but I think it is today’s economic realities that will be the flash point.  We are no longer the nation we once were and are unable to recognize that.  Because of that blindness, we may be unable to do anything to remedy our own decline.  I think we have grown lazy and are more likely to get upset by celebrity tabloid news than the reality that our nation is being controlled by big money and big industry leaving little power or wealth for the vast majority of us.  Why are we not, as a population, outraged that we are still earning the same wages we were twenty years ago?

Despite all this, I do still have faith in the American people’s ability to recognize the problems facing us and take on the challenge to improve our own lives.  I believe we need to see past the immediate differences of opinion that divide us and look toward the nation that we can be once more.  We must adjust our expectations of what we need and how we need to live.  Our future will be one where we build and live in much smaller homes, multi-generational living will be more common and popular, fewer products and less stuff will fill our lives, and simpler lifestyles will ultimately need to develop.  We can no longer afford nor support the current American life.