What I’ve Learned From Grand Designs

One of the nice things about living in the upper left hand corner of the country is getting a Canadian television channel which airs my current fav television show, Grand Designs.

Every weekday I record the hour long show, and then, in the evenings, watch it while fast forwarding through commercials. The format is simple, each episode Kevin McCloud follows one UK couple through the home building process. In recent years I’ve grown keenly interested in architecture and design, but I enjoy the show for more subtle reasons too.

For example, I really like the way Kevin does what the vast majority of us find so difficult. He routinely befriends the builders while honestly and directly confronting them about their missteps. In other words, he masterfully leverages his rapport with the builders to speak truthfully about their projects.

Other take-aways from a selective sample of middle class to well-to-do Brit builders:

  1. People always underestimate how long a build is going to take. Usually by about 50%. Why is that common knowledge? When will more (or some) homebuilders begin extending their initial estimated timelines?
  2. People always underestimate how much a build is going to cost. Usually by 20%+. The standard “contingency” line in a budget is 10%.
  3. People almost always take on more debt than intended (see number 2).

What’s most intriguing about the show is the inspiring nature of the partnerships, whether straight or gay, married or not. Every relationship is tested by a home build, it’s something different every day often for a year plus. The participants on Grand Designs have common values and visions and just keep getting on despite the unforeseen problems, the endless delays, the mounting debt. The way their friendships carry the day is life affirming.

th

 

 

Losing Touch

Removed from the realities of other people’s day-to-day lives, we lose touch with them.

Politicians lose touch with their constituents all the time. Many have no idea what a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk costs. If our politicians had to do their own taxes, think they might get serious about tax simplification?

One recent afternoon, the Prime Minister of Norway decided he’d try to reconnect with common people by posing as a taxi cab driver. I’d give him more credit if he didn’t film it so expertly so that it would get reported on even by distant bloggers. The catalyst no doubt was the fact that he’s behind in the polls. Norway’s population is similar to Washington State’s, so for me, it would be like getting driven by our Governor.

Living through my daughter’s transition from high school to college has taught me I’ve lost touch with the first year college students I teach. Now days, I don’t fully appreciate how hard it is to leave home, live in a small room with a stranger, and have to start from complete scratch making friends.

Similarly, I’ve lost touch with the teaching challenges my grad students will inevitably face when they student teach in primary and secondary schools. Visiting schools is a poor substitute for teaching day in, day out.

Accustomed as I am to having a well-stocked pantry and fridge, I’ve lost touch with people who don’t have enough to eat. Make that the poor more generally. I wonder, what it would be like to not have any savings? Or be in serious debt? To feel like the hole is getting deeper and deeper?

Last week it was reported that 40% of whites have only white friends (and 25% of ethnic minorities have only friends from within their ethnic group). My hometown lacks ethnic diversity for sure, but thanks to the GalPal, I spent one evening last week at a nearby lake with family friends from Mexico. Their 12 year-old daughter taught me how to jet-ski. Despite occasional lake get togethers, I’m not in touch with first generation Americans who aren’t terribly comfortable with English, are supporting extended family members, and are no doubt worried about whether we’ll ever pass meaningful immigration reform.

My favorite People Magazine news story from last week involved Oprah, a $38,100 purse, and a Swiss shop owner who lost touch with the fact that non-whites can in fact be extremely wealthy. O made $77m last year. Oops.

The shop owner’s gaffe is a reminder that all of us live in varying degrees of out-of-touchness. All the time.

The only antidote is curiosity. We need to acknowledge the limits of our understanding and ask questions of others. And listen and learn.

The Problem with the Simple Living Movement

The high priests and priestesses of minimalism don’t know it, but they have a problem. They’re seriously disliked by the majority of people who are struggling to get by. Ordinary people deeply resent the “voluntary” nature of most high-profile minimalists who write about the joys of downsizing on their numerous blogs, or for the New York Times, or Sunset Magazine.

Take for example how Graham Hill starts his New York Times essay titled “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” 

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

I have come a long way from the life I had in the late ’90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff — electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.

Half way into Hill’s story, I started to guess at the vibe of the 329 comments already posted. As David Brooks can confirm, New York Times readers are an unhappy bunch. Hill probably wanted praise, but I’ve seen this car crash enough times to know how it transpires. A lot of readers tore into him. Like Michelle from Chicago:

There is a big difference between choosing minimalism and minimalism being a harsh aspect of daily life. At any moment, Mr. Hill could choose to buy more things. If one of his 6 dress shirts rips, he can simply buy a new one. It’s a far cry from a minimum wage worker who has this lifestyle by default, because there isn’t money to rent a larger apartment or money to replace a torn shirt.

The sad fact of the matter is the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is so great the “have nots” are unable to give any credit to the “haves” for living below their considerable means. I believe Hill and others like him deserve credit for their thoughtful and principled simplicity, but it’s naive for him, for me, for anyone to expect those trying to live month-to-month to cheer well-to-do minimalists for critiquing conspicuous consumption.

I was mindful of this dynamic when commenting on a blog recently. I was responding to a post about the recent highs in the stock market. I wrote that many people are starting to invest in stocks which means it might be a good time to take some profits. And then consciously added, “for those fortunate enough to have them.” If I hadn’t added that phrase, my comment would’ve prompted other replies of the “who has profits these days” variety.

Where does this leave Hill, myself, and many other minimalists who recommend voluntary simplicity? Can it be done without offending? Probably not. Which makes me think maybe we should stop writing about it altogether. Maybe we should just live it and wait to see if anyone asks, “What gives? Why do you live the way you do? Why such a small apartment? Why so few possessions? Why don’t you ever check bags when flying?”

Someone now leave the obvious comment. Nevermind, I’ll do it myself. “What the hell Ron, why do you assume people can afford to fly?”

Christine O’Donnell

This is funny. From wikipedia:

She attended her university’s commencement ceremony in 1993 but did not receive a degree, due to outstanding unpaid tuition.

Her apparent familiarity with debt means she might do well in Congress. One wonders though, what are the odds if she loses (the special Senate election in Delaware) on November 2nd that she attends the swearing in of newly elected Senators anyways?