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.
I 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.
My 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.
But 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.
When 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.
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.