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December 28, 2007
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” H.D. Thoreau
I am immersed in a culture that defines success by how much you own. It’s the pervasive culture here in Marin. I live on a sailboat, but that does not insulate me from the “successful man” who must own, buy or earn not enough but more than enough. He compares his possessions to others and relishes his excess. He thinks his thumping surplus positively defines him. Forget all other values; to own things, especially lots expensive things, has become the principal means of social self-respect. Consider a ten room house lived in by just two people with rooms that are rarely or never used. A foreign car with lumbar heaters, eight speakers, delicate gadgetry and fragile devices that break down. Uncomfortable period furniture. The best athletic club that’s not attended. Only name-brand clothing for the children. A $200 league football jersey for the high school teenager. The right yacht club and the yacht itself -- which is a yacht so large that the owner is afraid to maneuver it himself.
Just imagine years and years of forcing the body to labor to search out and follow this strange, limiting addiction of the mind. It is an insatiable condition of inner slavery for the aspirant who is really no more than a part of a cultural charade. A nearby town changed the main street name from Sommersville Road to Auto Center Drive. Now, energized auto dealers offered expensive pickup trucks to be leased with an option to buy. An uneducated garden maintenance worker could be teased into a $30k pickup truck. Sometime later the worker-lessee, the proud “owner”, desires shiny 19-inch chrome wheels. He signs another lease-option to buy -- just for the wheels! In his hierarchy of values has he placed a truck and truck wheels above a retirement plan? Above health care insurance? Above a college education for his kids? The irony is that most of these sought after, hard-earned “valuables” are truly dispensable. No poor man or rich man needs them. Nineteen inch chrome wheels and the unused megayacht would be judged a waste by a rational mind. Nevertheless, property, big property and more property brings bragging rights. Even the smallest of these meaningless things - once having lost their fascination - are soon moved to a back room, are relegated to the basement ... or are boxed and stacked in a rented storage space somewhere. In the final analysis it proves to be truly superfluous, little more than a burden that actually distorts one’s life. Work, agonize, fret and work again toward those strived for marks that answer to no fundamental need. You’re in harmony with life? You should be, but not if life has simply become to be about this whopping accretion of goods.
Some Marin County friends have moved and now bear a larger mortgage for the sole purpose living within the “socially-proper” zip code number. The zip code number that counts! Once they’re within that special zip code, they strut about imagining that they have the syrupy envy of others. A single street can serve as a social divider. There’s greater respectability if you live on the street’s north side. The houses there, everyone knows, are more expensive. You, of course, work hard to get there even though the house is old, has rot, has bad plumbing and dangerous wiring, ... but the location, in the mind, reveals an achievement of a lifetime.
A 72 year-old buys a Lamborghini capable of 200 mph because - as he says while it’s parked in front of his house and noticeable to the neighborhood - “I enjoy the feel of a fine car!” His arthritic knees make it difficult for him to get behind the wheel. The expensive family dog has a pedigree ... complete with an inbred psychosis.
So it is, and so it threatened myself. The addictive belief that could have squandered the remaining years of my life -- if I let it. This intoxicating habit, - this search for what is inferior in life. This distortion of some subconscious drive for power, nurtured by the culture, nurtured by industry, nurtured by relentless advertising and promotion. So much work, so much detailing, so much of one’s time should not be frittered away in the process of searching everywhere for loose change to pay for even more things.
I dropped out of engineering studies in 1957, but I was, thankfully, still in college. Engineering was a profession that I think my father would have approved of. However, at the time, I was undirected. I started drifting through miscellaneous college classes. Sitting in a counselor’s office, I asked for advice. He said I “should just pick up the school course catalog and take courses that interested me ... for whatever reason listen to yourself.” I did that. I did that for five semesters. Soon, with just 12 units more I found that I’d have a degree in philosophy from the University of California.
It was a Friday evening when my father was sitting before the family’s black and white TV set. To my father, a ham radio operator since the 1920’s, the television was a very advanced, fascinating electronic device. It was a new National brand and sat in a special alcove in the family room wall. Dad had a cup of coffee; dinner was finished. He wanted to see his favorite TV program, Don Dunphy and the “Friday Nite Fights”. A few minutes before the match was to begin my father asked what I was doing in school. Under the circumstances, between my father and me this wasn’t a loose, friendly question. These rare “conferences” came like insertions of sheet lightening from a perfectly clear sky -- when they came. Most other times he was just a difficult person to read. That was not right now!
My father grew up working hard at the C & H Sugar Plant in Martinez, packing 100 lb. sacks of Hawaiian sugar ‘till the ship’s hold was empty. Later, he was an electrician, a ship’s radio operator, and he attended P&S dental school winning the class’s oral surgery award in 1927. He was graduated just before the depression. With the hard times to come he was unable to start a practice. Toward the end of the depression he opened a small office. In three to four years WWII started. He went into the Army and was stationed at Winter General Hospital. Discharged in 1946, he opened another office, worked very hard to catch up for unproductive years. He always wanted to pay off the house mortgage. Somehow he did that in the late 1960’s, and he proudly owned his home. He survived a heart attack, and slowed his work pace until he died in 1972.
Here, sitting before our family TV, was a serious, persevering, conservative man looking for timely results. When I told him that I could graduate with a degree in philosophy, the sky lit up. The lightening bolt appeared. He slid his chair around, picked up the phone book and opened it. Thumbing through the yellow pages, he came to the alphabetical “P” section. He sucked a tiny bit of air through his lower teeth and said, “There’s no ‘philosopher’ in here!” “How will you pay off your house with that ‘philosophy’ stuff?” “How do philosophers pay for their kids to go to college?” “Do philosophers buy cars?” The Pabst Blue Ribbon beer advertisement filled the TV screen, and the Friday Nite Fights started. My ship had just received a course correction from my father.
After more conversations with the counselor, I applied to dental school and was accepted. I liked dentistry, I liked the laboratory work, I liked to make things, I liked to help people. To help pay for my education I worked summers at the F. M Ball Cannery. I lifted trays of #10 cans of peaches and tomatoes into the lid machine ... ‘till 3 AM. I built Chevrolets on the production line at the Fisher Body Plant where I installed 220 trunk locks every day. I lined meat and ice cream trucks with insulation and stainless steel at C&C Trailer and Body Co. In 1957 I ran wire for the new phone company building in downtown Oakland. I was still holding two student loans to pay off when I was graduated from the University of California Dental School in 1965. My mother, my sister and my father were at my graduation ceremony.
My father hugged me.
I started a practice and continued thirty years of debt and obligation. Perseverance and work had become a part of my psyche firmly imbedded in my subconscious by my father, my culture and myself. It seemed a good thing, and it only seemed to follow that more is better. Surrounding me was a well-defined social structure that urged me on. My neighbors were people who bought a house, then bought a bigger house, then a cabin in the mountains, then a sports car. Show people that you’re doing well. Buy another sports car. Rave about it. Do that and you’re validated; you really are a “success”. Imbedded in my own mind now was the hidden force that kept the throttle down.
When do you stop? When you have a house? When you have a car? Two cars? Three cars? Not until you die? Why? Is this the unsure, inexperienced adolescent mind still acting out? The prolonged adolescent still searching for power, for money, for things? Add in a pandering powerful industry that meets false needs and produces the multitude of products we demand. Couple in powerful advertising and promotion that urges us on and on.
How does one purge the mind that has been forced out of harmony with life? How would I slip the lines and cut my vessel free? I planned to unload. I planned to quit work. “Congratulations!” said Carl Jung to his depressed patient who lamented over just losing his job. “Now you can get on with the more interesting aspects if your life!” No longer will my every hour, half-hour, fifteen minutes be pre-planned. Free time would become available where for thirty years the appointment book dictated my whereabouts. Unload things! Yes, I wanted to seek a simplicity-of-lifestyle. Fear not what the neighbors think of us. They’re part of the problem. I was guessing that many people don’t ever become unattached to things. They put off things that are childishly romantic in life just because they are too rigid to take off their masks, drop their rigid disguise. Somewhere ahead for Ellen and myself would be the liberty to design our days just for ourselves. We could pay attention to what is, say, primary.
Soon, there really was no way to go back. The house was sold. I had said goodbye at the office. I sold my belongings at a garage sale. I loaned out furniture and tools to family and friends. I gave the car to my daughter.
Ellen and I were like kids that had jumped onto a playground slide. The steepest slide we had ever been on, and we couldn’t see where it ended. We were rushing down something that was irreversible, yet I wasn’t worried. I cannot explain that. I just knew it would be good. I had stepped away, ... and then I lost friends. Friendship weakens when you decide not to play the game with the other person’s dice. If you do this, your friends won’t understand, and those that do will be your best for life.
It was in 1999 when Ellen and I arrived at something completely new to call home. A home that was the desire of a youth. A desire that long ago tugged at the heart strings of a little boy as he bent over the edge of a pond pushing out a boat-shaped piece of wood. We had acquired a cranky character of a vessel to live aboard, ... an old wood schooner three thousand miles away. We moved aboard the demanding, cantankerous, romantic “Silver Heels” tied to a mooring at the outer edge of remote Brooklin Harbor. Brooklin Harbor was a tiny coved indent along the tree-lined shores of Eggemoggin Reach. The harbor featured the boat yard that had just repaired the schooner. They had sawed and chiseled a piece of seasoned oak to replace the vessel’s rotted stem. “Silver Heels” was repaired, repainted, re-varnished and had new gold leaf along her cove stripe. With fifteen feet of bowsprit she took up a third of the yard’s small dock space when we arrived. We moved aboard. We now lived there, there somewhere in the Northeast amongst the clique of backwoods Mainers. The vessel was a euphoria of teak decks, gaff headed sails, mast hoops, dolphin strikers, gold leaf, catheads, and sway hooks. Here we would cook our galley meals amid the smell of resinous wood planking soaked in salt water since the schooner’s christening thirty-five years ago. Childhood sailing dreams were circulating the cabin while blustery wind gusts rolled down Eggemoggen Reach under a gray overcast. I leaned back against the bulkhead as the old schooner pitched and rolled at the harbor’s outermost mooring. The outermost mooring off the rocky tip of Chatto Island. The work ethic of my father had drifted away a bit. Things philosophical had re-entered my life, and I began again.
"Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."
Henry David Thoreau
Terry and Ellen