Up from Privilege: My journey

IMG_20150605_065113816_HDRI wore a jacket and tie to school starting at age 8. At home, I was frequently reminded that my father came from an aristocratic family.

The roots of my inclination toward simple living may lie in my rejection of this presumption of privilege. I’ve spent much of my life unlearning the lessons of my boyhood.

IMG_20150605_071926041_HDRI spent nine years at a private school in Washington, D.C. that “has for decades educated the sons of the the city’s power brokers,” the New York Times wrote last month. Al Gore was two grades ahead of me. But we didn’t call them “grades”; we called them “forms,” a British affectation. There were no girls at the school.

IMG_20150605_065040303_HDRMy parents weren’t D.C. power brokers, and weren’t wealthy, either. But we lived in a big house in a tony part of the city. Pushing back against my father’s upper-class European background, I became obsessed with two American institutions: baseball and television.

When I was 9, my parents sent me to dancing class. No blacks, Jews or public school students were invited. My sister encouraged me to get to know the daughter of a U.S. senator who also attended. I wore a tuxedo for the first time at age 15 (see photo at bottom), at my sister’s debutante party.

IMG_20150605_065141103_HDRBut I was starting to realize that there was a whole other world out there. I spent two summers volunteering in a program that brought white teenagers into the projects to play with what we called “underprivileged” black children. My first girlfriend attended a public school. I spent two summers working at a long-lost federal agency called the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Because I didn’t do well in school, I could only get into a third-tier college. But privilege intervened. My mother and sister had attended a prestigious women’s college, and through them I learned that it was going coed and accepting men as transfer students. Despite mediocre grades, I was accepted. In 1969, I transitioned from 11 years of all-male schools to a virtually all-female college.

Entering the work world, I found that no one cared who my grandfather was or where I had gone to school. I started working for newspapers, one of the lowest-paid of all professional careers. Perhaps that’s why I got into frugality, making a virtue out of necessity. I was downwardly mobile, working on six newspapers in my twenties, each one smaller than the last.

IMG_20150605_073356872_HDRWhen I was 24, I planted a vegetable garden for the first time, got interested in wood heat and bread-baking, started using a bicycle, and dreamed of homesteading. When I met Betsy at 27, I found that she shared that dream. We got married, bought a house, and raised two boys. I tried to live as close to the land as possible while holding down an intense job and living in a small city.

Now I’m retired, still living with Betsy in the same house, and we’re trying through this blog to communicate why we have chosen a simple lifestyle. We want to show that contentment doesn’t come from consumption, and that recognizing our limits might be a good idea for the world as a whole.

IMG_20150605_075403710I grew up with a lot of advantages, but I often felt isolated from other people. Now, it feels good not to hold myself apart from others but to be part of a community.

Did being a child of privilege help turn me into a man of simplicity? My sister, an innkeeper and writer, shares my frugal ways and campaigns against toxics in the environment. We’re all the products of many influences. But entering the final third of my life, I have that wonderful feeling of being right where I was meant to be.

For new readers of this blog, here’s an index of past posts, providing links to over 100 posts in 12 categories.









3 thoughts on “Up from Privilege: My journey

  1. Nice summary. Isn’t it interesting how we are influenced by life experiences! It has always been a mystery to me why you rejected our father’s background while I found it endlessly fascinating. (Anyone who wants to read more can get a copy of Emigre, 95 years in the Life of a Russian Count, available from Amazon.) While our dad was born privileged, yes, he lost everything at the Revolution, including his home country, his nationality, and his language. This experience could only have been a challenge. And, note that he didn’t want the lifestyle of his ancestors either. Loved seeing that picture of you and Betsy again!

  2. This was a terrific post, with some insights that help us to understand you better. I’m glad for you that you’ve found that “organizing principle” that helps you feel at ease with what you are doing now.

  3. Pingback: Past posts: A simple living index | Adventures in the good life

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