Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Need Less


When I was courting my wife, I noticed that she had a bumper sticker on her old car that said, “Need Less”.  I knew that this was the girl for me.  I’m kind of a make do person.  I take what I can get and make the best of it.  So is she.  That’s what makes it work.  In an age of material entitlement, deficit spending and instant gratification, we are the outliers, the under achievers, the slackers.  We make do.

We have a friend who lives on 300 dollars a month, in a small house with the mortgage paid that is decorated with old skis and bikes, floor to ceiling.  He lives alone because ‘women cost money’.  When I tell him that ‘It takes money to make money’, he shoots back that it ‘takes money to lose money’.  He eats carrots and sweet potatoes on the chair lift and when I asked him how many days did he ski last year he said ‘all of them’ and rides his bike on all the other days.  He has an old car that he never drives but takes the bus or rides his bike everywhere he goes.  He won a national road biking championship for his age group a few years ago and he lapped the field.  His time is his own and he seems to have enough of it.  He is my role model .

We thought about redoing our kitchen last year and the price started really adding up.  Then we thought twice.  A new  kitchen would be nice but did we really need it.  What would we really like, a new kitchen or to retire another year early.  If we replaced our kitchen, the old one would go in the dump.  Then in five or ten years when we sell this house the new owners will want their own kitchen and throw the old new one in the dump.  So there would be two kitchens in the dump.  What a waste. 
We drive around in old cars and trucks with a couple of hundred thousand miles on them.  A new car would be nice but do we really need it.  It is only transportation after all.  Who needs GIS maps and computers, climate control and phones in a car when it’s just driving.  What do we want, a new car or a few months in Europe.  Money is time. Squared.
We recently visited some friends down south at their new desert, second or third home that was replete with swimming pools and spas, rainbow laminar fountains and flaming lava beds.  The home was very smart with angulated modern design, switches, lights, videos and sound systems in every room with windows, floor to ceiling that hinged seamlessly at the corners and extended to the infinite horizon of the pool and the red rock landscape.  It was all breathtaking and opulent, over the top in every way, but I could not forget an admonishment I read last month that said that we should all have our first homes before people had second homes.  I felt a little less comfortable in the plush accommodations.  Too much.

Back home a corporate giant executed a hostile takeover of the local ski resort and adopted the name of our town for their resort.  They have great plans to grow and improve our town into one of the major destination resorts in the world.  But what about the sprawl and density, water and energy, traffic and parking, affordability and accessibility, locals and lifestyle.  People moved here to embrace a simpler, alternative lifestyle, away from corporate controls and bottom lines.  Our town is, by definition, about more than money and profits, it is about the unquantifiable things corporations can’t legally consider or justify to their shareholders.  Sometimes more ain’t better.  Less is more.

Then on the first snowy day of the winter this year I went out to snow-blow the driveway.  My 30 year old snow-blower refused to work so I tinkered a bit with it, I kicked it and thought about getting a new one.  But then I thought that would be such a waste and I spent three hours tuning and fixing it in a blizzard until it roared to life like it has 30 more years to go.  I went out and did my driveway and all my neighbors.  Then I fixed the old truck and cleaned the dated kitchen and went skiing.  Need Less.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Standing around another ND tailgater, with some good old friends, on a postcard autumn day full of pomp and pageantry, trumpets under the Dome and the parade of our gladiators to the stadium, we are nostalgically comfortable with each other and with ourselves.  We kill the competition with stylish sportsmanship on the field and show them how it is done outside of the stadium.   After all, we invented most of this game day stuff.  We have been to dozens of games here together over the years and they have all merged in our minds as one big impression of close friends and a related place.   We were very close, for a short while, a long time ago, as the saying goes.  We had a contented, simple sense of place, of belonging, of being home. 

We remember the sights, sounds and smells, the thick humidity of summer, the clear cold of winter, the squeak of steps on snow when below zero, the scent of fresh baked bread from the dining halls or the dryer smells from the laundry, the buzz of the blimp on big game mornings or the pre-dawn trample of the steps of the crew or soccer teams running themselves into shape.  Some of our old haunts remain; the peaceful bench by the lake, the cusp of the huge Sycamore tree by the Grotto bi enough for four, the skateboard hill behind the Dome stretching from the Cathedral crypt to the laundry, the seedy side door of the Rock, the arches of Lyons and Morrissey, the old melting yellow building bricks baked from the mud of the lakes, the impeccable gardens, the timeless statues, the diverse trees and the plush quads – the endless quads, serving as pathways and playgrounds.

There are new quads now and bigger buildings, arenas and stadiums, fancy gardens and golf courses, upscale fountains and monuments that seem out of synch with the simple, sustainable place we look back on, often in black and white, or at best, sepia brown colors.  This small, ivy covered, academic village of 10,000 explodes into a manic city of 100,000 sports fanatics for the weekend with too many beers, and not enough cell coverage or port-o-potys.  How much is enough, how much is too much, when will it end or even slow down?  How many more new buildings, dormitories or domes on the stadium do we really need?   Would the money be better spent improving the education provided or on trying to stabilize the cost and trim the graduation debt that most students incur?    

And there is much more planned.  Always more.  If some is good, is more always better?  Is this progress?  Is it human nature?  Is it tied to physics, economics, evolution or biology?  Is it similar to the relentless growth ambition of a cancer cell?  Is it survival of the fittest in the educational world?  Is it our fatalistic fascination with geometric population growth or is it necessitated by the relentless demands of the time value of money?  Is this growth model akin to a swimming shark - if it stops swimming it dies?  If we stop growing do we die?  Is nothing sustainable?

Will this endless growth diminish our personal university experience or make it that much more rare and valuable?  Will it dilute our sense of the people and the place?  Native Americans say you can never step in the same river twice.  The river changes, you change.  It’s kind of like the maxim ‘You can never go home.’  But sometimes you can.  We return to our old friends and our old sense of belonging, again and again.   In a world that is growing increasingly complicated and confusing we turn back to each other and to this place of peace, searching for the security and simplicity that we remember.  So as we grab another beer and tell one more story at a tailgater, ‘where we were’ does not seem to be so out of reach, for the moment.