Windsurfing, surfing, Maui, The Gorge, and random rants.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Living With Less (and Loving It!)

[ Edit - embedded a video at the end about living with less. ]
This is a bit of a philosophical post that's been swirling around my head for awhile and which recent events have brought to the surface.  Forgive me for this little detour and I swear I will return to bikinis real soon!

I just finished reading Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption .  It's an  amazing story about a man whose dreams of winning an Olympic medal where crushed by WWII and years of living in the hellish conditions of a concentration camp.  Returning home he fought depression and... OK I'm not going to spoil the book, just read it.  But here's the thing, all this happened about 70 years ago - very little time in the scale of human history.  Imagine being transplanted back to that time - no TV, no modern music, no rock, no rap, no hip hop, no electric guitars, no DJ's, no dance music, no raves, no jets flying across country and the world in a matter of hours, no iPhones or iPads, no computers or internet, no video games, no nationally televised sporting events, no super bowl (or ads), no burning man or anything close. Surfing and skiing barely existed with extremely difficult and limited gear, no windsufing or kiting or mtn. biking - and so on and so on.  Antibiotics were just being discovered and people still routinely died from tuberculous and ordinary infections.  Polio raged.  There were few diseases that medicine could cure - anything serious was a death sentence.  Child birth was extremely dangerous. Infant and mother mortality was much higher. Wars were terrible, being drafted was routine and expected, and depending on your deployment you could face a 70% or greater chance of dying or losing major body parts.

Now return yourself to the present.  Things seem pretty good in comparison. And yet many people are so very unhappy.  Sure, there are serious inequities and jobs are scarce and so on.  Would you prefer to be taken back to the good times of say 1941?  Maybe jump on a military transport ship about to invade Iwo Jima?  How willing are you to die extremely horribly right now to defend your lifestyle?  Personally I think we are living in the good days.  My recent life saving surgery was not possible just twenty years ago and repairing a heart valve only become reality in the past few.  I'm happy to be alive today!

It's been said that happiness is relative and people judge themselves on the scale of their neighbor's and friend's happiness and accomplishments.  We live in a culture where everyone wants more, despite having so much.  Bigger houses, bigger stock portfolios, bigger and newer cars.  This is what motivates many, and the perception of having less or not having one's fair share makes people very unhappy.  There are stories of people buying $360K homes on a $30K income.  Or owing $80K on a used pick up truck after years of trading up and rolling over the debt.  Did they really need that?  Is it worth owing so much of your life to the man?  I know it's easy to say this in retrospect and for sure there was predatory lending and so on going on.  But the fundamental principal of greed by everyone from the top to the bottom seems to have brought us to this precipice.  I understand what the Wall Street protesters are feeling, but where were they five years ago when all this was really going down?  I believe everyone was too caught up in the frenzy to take notice of the sins of the moment. Yet if people were happy living simply and within their means, would there ever have been a real estate bubble in the first place?

Personally, I try to find happiness in the little things. Such as surfing a beautiful wave, especially with friends (who don't snake it!).  Windsurfing is a joy that's hard to describe unless you experience it.  Jumping over a wave and landing a clean forward loop - amazing!  Or powder skiing in arm pit high dry snow, making fresh tracks top to bottom on an untouched slope under bluebird skis.  I've seen grins on people's faces from end to end that last all day.  Just waking up in the morning to a beautiful sunrise, knowing that the day has so many potential joys and adventures.  There are other joys for sure. Some folks would dance all night, others live to perform making great music and/or art.  These are the things we should prioritize. Everything else is noise.

A few years ago Julia and I decided to live with much less and enjoy life more.  Around 2006 I had the sure feeling that real estate was going to tank and the economy would soon follow.  How did an ordinary dude realize this when so many experts claimed it was unpredictable, a black swan? (I say these experts buried their heads in the sand)  Actually it's a mystery, but I did understand that bubbles can burst and real estate can fall, having painfully experienced both first hand in Boston in the late 80's and the tech bust of the 00's.  We decided to sell our modest ranch house in Portland and move into a much smaller cottage in Hood River (which we bought very cheap very long ago).  Our ranch had almost doubled in price in less then ten years and I remember telling our realtor that surely this craze could not continue.  We had put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into our little home, but it took less then one weekend to sell it (and it happened while we were skiing).

We settled into our 700 sq ft 1/1 cottage in Hood River.  Hood River is a town where people live to have fun - it's the main reason to be here.  So if you ask someone in town what they do, you're most likely going  to hear something like windsurfing, kiting, biking, skiing, kayaking and so forth. Work and career becomes secondary to the life style.  We love it here.  All our cars are old (97 Honda CRV, 2001 Ford Van) and long ago paid off and since we walk or bike as much as possible we hardly put any miles on them (the van only has 44K).  We have not had a car payment this millennium and I'm not tempted to acquire one anytime soon.

We built a garage with a tiny apartment where we did as much of the finish work as possible (tiling, painting, and so on).  We ended up with a very comfy 700sq ft efficiency (in essence one big room with a separate bath) and an amazing view of the river and Mt Adams. We rented the cottage to a friend which covers a big chunk of our tiny mortgage.  Meaning that we now basically live for free - and that has some advantages!

One huge advantage is we could afford to travel to Maui and continue to pursue our passions.  It's only been in the last three years that we've learned to surf  - and I still have a long ways to go.  But I already find it difficult to believe there could be life without surfing.  How is that possible?  We rent a small ohana - basically an in-law cottage on the same property as the main house.  It's about 650sq ft with 1 bed 1 bath, very modestly furnished with a shared yard and driveway. The two cats are super friendly. We own no furniture, no TV, no stereo (except my old laptop).  We bought an old Dodge Caravan on the cheap as a surf mobile.  I have about ten t-shirts, eight board shorts, and a few sandals for clothes.  Our biggest extravaganza is our surf and windsurf gear. But for the most part, it occurs to me that we live with less than the average college freshman.  And I love this life!  What more do you need?

I guess my point is this - look around and decide what makes you happy.  Do you need a new car or a bigger house. Really?  Does it make sense to blame others for past decisions right or wrong, or would it be best to forget the past, take some responsibility, and move on with the future.  I've had some bad luck myself, which includes an early divorce (too young!), being laid off (several times), just missing once in a life time chances to get rich (twice company stock tanked just before my options matured and then I was laid off), family and future dreams dashed by harsh reality, and just recently life threatening totally unexpected open heart surgery.  But I've always believed in trying to turn lemons into lemonade.  Life is what you make of it.  Look for happiness in the little things.  Try not to blame others - it will only make you less happy.  Find peace.  Enjoy!


Peter said...

Great post. We're planning to move closer to the water for better windsurfing access next year, and it will definitely be to a smaller house. We may spend the difference on an old van :)

I love reading your blog, hope your recovery remains on track.

Waterturtle said...

Well said. I hope your recovery is a quick one and you get back on the water soon. I'm getting ready to start reading the Hillenbrand book....looking forward to it.

Tatiana said...

Well written!
It is great that you are happy living the way you do. Yes, less can often be more.
But I think that the protests against Wall Street are important.
It's not that people want bigger houses and feel entitled to drive brand new cars. It's about being heard and that they are tired of corruption, injustice and large corporations running things, the bail outs of the super rich.
4 out of 5 home owners in Vegas are under water, me included, not because the people were greedy, they did not see this coming at all. I know that I am not greedy. I have a 1993 Toyota 4 Runner that I drive in Alaska and a 1987 4 Runner in Vegas, perfectly content with that.
It's not about blaming others for your misfortune. We all have misfortunes, that's life.
The economy and the state of the country concers everyone and everyones future. People are fed up and what to be heard. That's a good thing. Maybe they are trying to turn the lemons into lemonade?

Enjoy the waves!
: )

(Ben) Jamin Jones said...

Tati - Thanks for your comments! I didn't intend to point a finger to any individual as being greedy, and certainly not you or others who have similar situations. I think society as a whole (bankers and many regular folks) fell into a mania trying to get rich quick (example folks flipping houses every six months) and many individuals such as yourself were unfortunately caught and misled into this trap. The entire real estate bubble was a mass hysteria - just like the Dutch tulip bulbs back in the day (and yet so few saw this obvious correlation). And I agree that there are many inequities that should have been corrected long ago. So If protesting can actually bring about a positive change then go for it. But it's going to have to effect the next election to do that and right now I see that as a slim chance. Meanwhile there might be more positive steps you can take to fix your own financial situation - perhaps by walking away from a badly underwater condo in LV. Is that a consideration? --ben

Tatiana said...

I am hoping for positive changes for everybody.....!
Have a nice day!

: )

Annette said...

I agree with Ben in so many ways but, yes, I know what you mean, Tatiana. I went to art school and making art had always been a priority, that and dancing all night and having time to be with the people I love and running down to the water to watch the sun rise and gifts that money can't buy. I have always lived simply, not a dumpster diver but a thrift store shopper on a tight budget. Right now, I have no TV, no computer, not even a lap top, no stereo system; in fact I have never bought any of the above. I rent an art studio and walk 3 or so blocks to work. I do own a house but we only owe $21,000 on it. No credit cards for the past 5 or so years. However, I do think we cannot forget that many of those caught in this financial are hard working, intelligent people who made the best decisions they could make at the time, based on information that they had at the time. People that we might have been able to trust, in another generation- your local lawyer or banker or stock broker (our grandfather was a stock broker for Wachovia and, my understanding is, he handled money for the Reynolds, Hanes, and other wealthy families but lived pretty simply). I think those relationships with "family retainers" is one of the biggest changes that has occurred since our parent's time. In those instances, it is not the greed of the homeowners who got stuck with a huge mortgage but the greed of those at the top. When my son was looking at college loans, the college gave us the names of three loan companies which were "preferred". I went with my credit union because that was my preference. Later that year, stories broke about college loan officers who had been taking kickbacks from these banks. The loan officer at Johns Hopkins was fired- or resigned- she probably did not suffer much consequence. Meanwhile, I know a lot of people who have lived very simply, worked very hard, taken good but never had jobs with health care and benefits and have been nearly crushed by simply trying to pay the basic bills. There is such a huge disparity in income and the value that we place on some jobs over others; no amount of hard work will lift some, especially
those without health care out of a day to day struggle.

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