Humans have two modes: complacency and panic. We’re biologically predisposed to focus on immediate comforts and visible threats. At the same time we’re profoundly uninterested in even thinking about anything that might happen at some point in the medium future. Part of our primate tendencies involves mimicking the people around us so we fit in to prevailing norms. Doing anything weird is deeply upsetting to the general population.
That presents problems for society since it’s nearly impossible to motivate folks to do anything in advance to mitigate foreseeable challenges – or even agree about what those challenges might be. But it also opens up possibilities for individuals who are willing to get ahead of the curve. That’s my sweet spot. I like to explore the gap between what currently exists and what will likely emerge in the future. I seek out examples of how individuals respond to these changing conditions – even as the gap between the rich and poor continues to expand and the middle class shrinks.
Every once in a while I become intrigued by a family that’s found work-arounds that allow them to live a better than average life with fewer than average conventional resources. This family in particular is charming and gracious. I instantly developed a kind of crush. I want to live next door to them so we can hang out all the time.
The house is full of art and music. All manner of skilled trades are in evidence. The couple are well educated and world travelled. They could have taken the usual path of buying a large home in a new subdivision in a sought after school district with a big mortgage and multiple car payments. But instead they chose to live in an older Rust Belt community that had declined for decades, but was slowly making its way back up. They bought several fixer uppers from tax auctions at rock bottom prices and began the process of renovating them on a tight budget with high quality recycled materials.
The garden is productive. Fruit trees and veggie patches are tucked in every available spot across several properties. Bees keep things pollinated and produce honey for the family. Summer surplus is canned and put up for winter.
The children are home schooled and their studies are supplemented by private tutors in music, math, and science. The nearby university provides a steady supply of graduate students in need of part time work. This is the compromise between lackluster public schools and exorbitantly priced private schools.
The best example of their unorthodox financial planning comes in the unlikely form of firewood. They purchased a nearby parcel of land at auction for $1,500. The substantial lot was in a questionable location that didn’t lend itself to conventional development at the time. But it was heavily wooded. The land will continue to produce firewood indefinitely since the rate of thinning unhealthy trees is slower than the natural regrowth of the forest. They bought themselves a lifetime supply of heat. Meanwhile the neighborhood continues to improve and the land is gradually increasing in value along with their other properties.
The difference between this family’s living arrangement and the typical trajectory boils down to vulnerability vs. resilience. They have very little debt, multiple forms of passive income from rental property, direct control over the necessities of their own lives, and a deep sense of collective purpose and wellbeing. That’s not at all the same as being dependent on a job (or two) to generate enough cash income to service a massive pile of debt and keep all the bills paid for a typical American lifestyle. A great deal could go terribly wrong in the larger world and this family might not notice the difference. And if all goes well (as appears to be the case) this couple will own multiple properties in a highly desirable gentrified neighborhood as their children reach college age and they mature into retirement. These are my people.