Stoicism, Minimalism, and Dried Mangos

Happy Thanksgiving. Extra credit points if you’ve been reading me over the years and remember this is my favorite holiday.

As I age, my wants and needs are shifting. I want less. Which is cool because there’s less need to make and stash mad money.

Maybe it’s all the Stoicism and minimalism I read, think and occasionally write about. I used to think I needed a big house on the water, a nice car, and silk underwear (not really, I just like the way that rounded out the sentence).

At the same time, I am not quite Seneca. I haven’t self actualized or achieved an otherworldly Stoic or minimalist form of enlightenment. I want perfect health. I want to grow the blog readership without posting pictures of bikini-clad snowboarders*. I want an even nicer small to medium-sized house, preferably on water. I want a nicer car. I’m in the process of building a nicer road bike. I want a mini iPad, but I’m waiting until the retina version comes out next year sometime. When I browse Sunset Magazine, I want a personal chef to cook different vegetarian meals for me every day. I want a weekly massage for the rest of my live long days and a steady supply of dried mangos and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from the hippy food co-op.

Which leaves my needs, which again I’m happy to report, keep shrinking. I need my wife and daughters to be happy and healthy, I need friends to workout with, I need a bathtub of really hot water coupled with good reading material most every night, and I need clean sheets and a comfy bed. And an amendment to the last pgraph. In light of the last three or four days, I need a steady supply of dried mangos.

Thanks as always for reading.

* Six months ago or so I wrote a post titled “Education Slowdown” based on a Wall Street Journal article about how some young people are avoiding college because of the costs. One character in the story was snowboarding nearly half the year. I wrote maybe there are some fringe benefits to his lifestyle and attached a picture of two scantily clad young women on snowboards. Gradually it captured the attention of horny young men (or old men, or young women, or old women) all over the world. I was crushed that people were way more interested in bikinis than my amazing insights into better schools, families, and communities. Initially, I was caught up in the rise in readership and mindlessly road the fleshy wave. Then the artificially inflated readership stats started to gnaw a bit. So, with a brief apology to the Snow Queens, I deleted the pic from the post. Since the deleted post was still Google’s 13th highest ranked link under “snowboard” and “snowboarder”, the bikini-lovers kept coming. So I pulled the plug on the whole post and single-handedly caused a spike in global sexual repression.

Seigels—You Disgust Me

Subtitle: Thank goodness for Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

A friend, in his early 40’s, was dating a multimillionaire C.E.O. He bragged to me that her kids didn’t even have to put their dishes in the dishwasher because that’s what the live-in maid was for. The full-time maid, he explained, enabled the mom and school-aged children to spend more quality time together. I’m calling bullshit.

I used to show some of my students an excellent education documentary about three third grade classrooms—one in the US, one in Germany, and one in Japan. There were no janitors at the Japanese school because educators there believe that students benefit from cleaning the school themselves at the end of each day. “Cleaning,” one school director explained, “creates a kind and gentle spirit.”

Over the years, I’ve noticed that my young adult and adult students who grew up on farms in Montana and eastern Washington are especially hard workers.

Many college bound high school students, following their Type-A parents’ lead, are excused from household chores on account of homework, after school sports, and related college application padding activities.

Ron’s Rule: Any adolescent that’s too busy to put her own dishes in the dishwasher and help around the house in a few different ways every week is too busy. This is what I’m talkin’ about.

My advice. Let the help go, slow down, and give your kids a chance of creating not just a kind and gentle spirit, but genuine respect for maids, janitors, dishwashers, and other manual laborers. The cost of excusing our young people from cleaning their toilets, making their beds, and doing their dishes is a debilitating arrogance.

Which takes us to the Siegels of Orlando, FL. Remember: italics means I’m quoting, underlined text denotes sarcasm, and everything else is my normal, slightly less-sarcastic voice.

Excerpts from a 10/22/11 Wall Street Journal article by Robert Frank. Adapted from “The High-Beta Rich: How the Manic Wealthy Will Take Us to the Next Boom, Bubble, and Bust,” by Crown Business:

The Siegels’ dream home, called “Versailles,” after its French inspiration, is still a work in progress. Its steel-and-wood frame rises from the tropical suburbs of Orlando, Fla., like a skeleton from the Jurassic age of real estate. Ms. Siegel shows off the future bowling alley, indoor relaxing pools, five kitchens, 23 bathrooms, 13 bedrooms, two elevators, two movie theaters (one for kids and one for adults, each modeled after a French opera theater), 20-car garage and wine cellar built for 20,000 bottles. 

At 90,000 square feet, the Siegels’ Versailles is believed to be the largest private home in America. The Siegels’ home is so big that they bought 10 Segways to get around—one for each of their eight children. After touring the house, Ms. Siegel walks out to the deck, with its Olympic-size pool, future rock grotto, three hot tubs and 80-foot waterfall overlooking Lake Butler. Her eyes well up with tears.

I’m tearing up in sadness for you Jacqueline.

Versailles was supposed to be done by now. The Siegels were supposed to be living their dream life—throwing charity balls and getting spa treatments downstairs after a long flight on their Gulfstream.

I have a dream to one day throw charity balls, get spa treatments at home, and own a Gulfstream. That’s some inspiring shit.

The home was the culmination of David Siegel’s Horatio Alger story, from TV repairman to chief executive and owner of America’s largest time-share company, Westgate Resorts, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue and $200 million in profits.

Yet today, Versailles sits half-finished and up for sale. The privately owned Westgate Resorts was battered by the 2008 credit crunch and real-estate crash. It had about $1 billion in debt—much of it co-signed by the Siegels.

The banks that had loans on Versailles gave the Siegels an ultimatum: Either pay off the loans or sell the house. So it’s now on the market for $75 million, or $100 million if the buyer wants it finished.

Today the Siegels have to make do in their current 26,000-square-foot mansion.

Before 2008, Mr. Siegel’s company, Westgate, was earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the family. The Siegels poured $50 million into Versailles, which seemed reasonable at the time. When friends asked David why he wanted to build the largest home in America, he had a simple answer: “Because I can.”

“I was cocky and I didn’t care what the house would cost because I couldn’t spend all the money I was making,” Mr. Siegel says.

Plus two points for honesty, minus twenty for volunteering to share all these details in a national newspaper. No sense of embarrassment. Stupefying.

Ms. Siegel has started a nonprofit called ThriftMart, a mega thrift-store that sells donated clothes—many from her own closet—and other items for $1.

That would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

She (Jacqueline) does miss the Gulfstream. After they defaulted on the $8 million jet loan, the banks seized the plane. The Siegels can use it only occasionally, with the banks’ permission.

Recently, the family boarded a commercial flight for a vacation, making for some confusion. One of the kids looked around the crowded cabin and asked, “Mom, what are all these strangers doing on our plane?”

What a legacy—eight f-ed up kids.

Two Worlds

One world is inhabited by 73-year-old Richard Stoker, his wife Jane, his dogs, and his new neighbors in their Miami, FL luxury condominium development.

Stoker was featured in a recent  WSJ article on an increasing number of investors purchasing homes with cash in the belief prices have bottomed out.

“The prices were just irresistible,” Stoker said. “Florida’s been hit pretty hard.”

The article continues:

To pay the $1.8 million, $1.2 million and $1 million prices on the condos, Mr. Stoker and his wife, Jane, cashed out of some financial investments and sold a Roy Lichtenstein painting and an Alexander Calder mobile. Since mid-October, Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, the development Mr. Stoker bought into, has sold 35 units, with a third of the buyers from overseas and many others retiring from the Northeast. . . . The Stokers have a home in Potomac, Md., but spend most of the year in Florida. Mr. Stoker doesn’t plan to rent out any of his new properties, saying he and his wife will live in one with two dogs, his son might live in another and the third will house an older dog and guests.

What are we to make of Stoker and his world? We don’t have many details, but in 2011 America, here’s what I think I’m supposed to conclude. “Good on you. Probably worked hard your whole life and played by the rules. Enjoy the spoils of your labors.” Besides, who knows, maybe he’s an inspiring philanthropist who has given similar amounts of money to good causes.

But I’m tired of the status quo, so instead of giving him a pass and congratulating him, I have some questions.

What kind of person agrees to participate in an article like that under their own free will? What kind of person admits to the world that they bought a $1m condo for their dog? Why are there only two socially acceptable responses to conspicuous consumption in the U.S.—laissez faire nonchalance or awe? Why aren’t we embarrassed for the Stokers of the world when they publicly flaunt their wealth? Why don’t we freeze them out?