On Consumerism, Living the Dream, and Hope
“Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing poorly.” — Lon McQuillan
Bob Wise is a sailor, boat-builder, and filmmaker. He’s also my friend and where film and sailing are concerned, my mentor.
At present he and his wife Sheila are living on a CAL 34, “SO IT GOES…” in St. Croix USVI while they put the finishing touches on a hand-built, wood-epoxy composite mast stayed with Dyneema Cord and hand-milled fittings to replace the stock rig that unceremoniously and precipitously decided it would be happier at the bottom of the sea than stepped on the deck of their boat.
Bob is what used to be called a “free thinker” back when religion held a sway over Western culture. As evidence of Bob’s penchant for thinking outside the box, I offer a short, extremely incomplete list of examples:
- Bob was an early adopter of the Steadicam, and against the advice of nearly everyone, spent ungodly amounts of money (for an itinerant filmmaker) to buy his own camera-rig. As a result, Bob and his rig proceeded to be very much in demand and Bob started making ungodly amounts of money (for an itinerant filmmaker.)
- When Bob and Sheila lived in Paris (the story of how that came to pass is best told/heard over rum, or while fairing a hull) they bought a small, unserved by the elavator (take the lift to the top then walk up one flight) former servant’s quarters apartment on the top floor of a Paris building for a surprisingly small amount of money because “no one wants those tiny apartments, and no one wants to walk up either.” When they moved out of the apartment (and on to a peniche in the Seine) rental of the apartment proceeded provide them with a small monthly stipend, and does to this day.
- After more than 15 years of working nearly non-stop (Bob was one of the only Steadicam owner/ops in Europe, and Sheila was one of the first geek-girls, administering one of the largest computer networks in Europe) Bob and Sheila decided to retire, build a boat and sail away. “Out of the box” thinker that he is, Bob ended up building a 11 meter ocean-going plywood box designed by the notorious iconoclast Phil Bolger. Derided as heretical (and worse) in nearly every port she visited, the LOOSE MOOSE II cruised France’s canal system, the Med, the west coast of Africa, travelled 200 miles up the Gambia River, and ultimately crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
- Not long after Bob’s son graduated from Harvard, the two of them celebrated Bob’s 50th birthday by taking a de-mining course together in Cambodia. (The graduation exam entails finding and deactivating a landmine in the Cambodian countryside.)
These days Bob writes about the art of living at (the frequently mistaken for a sailing gear blog) Boat Bits. His recent post Old Tech vs. Next Gen struck me as relevant to discussions about sustainability and technology taking place at various places around the blogosphere. (For example, heritage turkeys at The Atlantic or Tim Wu’s The Master Switch and digital exceptionalism); and resonated with longer standing questions I have about how we become trapped inside our own ideas of what constitutes freedom, and how to achieve it.
“[Why replace] something that works just fine for something newer, shinier, hipper and expensive that will, when all is said and done, do exactly the same thing as the one you are replacing. This of course is not just about wind-vanes but encompasses next gen anchors, new electronics, or whatever…”
This prompted me to e-mail Bob:
“I have to replace stuff that works because otherwise this money will just pile up and then I won’t be able to say “I can’t do the things that I want to do because I don’t have enough money” and losing that excuse would be very disorienting…”
And Bob responded:
“A guy wrote and asked my advice about buying a used Aries for $500 [the Ford F150 of self-steering gears]… His plan was to head over to the Bahamas this season and points further as he was unemployed but had some income etc. Then he wrote to tell me that he was going to have to buy a Cape Horn [a new Toyota Tacoma] which would cost about $5K because it was “better” than the Aries… Of course the plan is now put on hold as he somehow has to come up with the $5000…
“But you actually nailed it as simply an excuse to not go.”
(Now as it happens, back in 2007 I was the guy writing Bob for advice about an upcoming trip to the Bahamas, and Bob’s advice was “Get a windvane. If do you a little dock walking and swap meet prowling you’ll be able to find one for about $500.”)
It’s easy to dismiss this fellow who’s decided to delay his trip until he can purchase the $5,000 Cape Horn windvane as a day-dreaming dilettante. He has time. He has money for the perfectly serviceable Aries windvane. He should be half way across the Gulf Stream. But instead he invents excuses for not doing what he says he wants to do, and languishes ashore.
But opting out of the system is easer to talk about than it is to do, isn’t it? Here’s Alan Jacobs, writer and English professor at Wheaton College, who blogs about technology, literature, education, and other things at Text Patterns:
“I can have alternatives to a particular service/product/company, and yet find it almost impossible to escape it because of what I’ve already invested in it. When I read stories like this, or talk to friends who work for small presses, I tell myself that I should never deal with Amazon again — and yet I do, in part because buying stuff from Amazon is so frictionless, but also because I have a significant number of Kindle books now, and all those annotations that I can access on the website. . . . I don’t want to lose all that. I can feel my principles slipping away, just as they did when I tried to escape the clutches of Google.” [Read the rest of his post here.]
But it’s not just the investment of time and energy in these hegemonic systems, or at least it’s not that for me. The larger difficulty is an attachment to a self-image of powerlessness and a desire to take the socially reinforced route that borders on addiction. This is from 1999, when I realized that many of Phil Bolger’s larger “escape vehicles” (like Bob and Shelia’s Loose Moose II) were no more complicated than the 12? Teal I had just built:
“There’s nothing so awful as the moment you realize your dreams are within reach. I have literally been reduced to tears by the sudden epiphany that the only thing standing between me and living the life I want is the doing. When I look at the plans for the the Loose Moose II, or Illinois, or Wyoming, or Breakdown Schooner, I am faced with the terrible knowledge that they are all within reach; that if that’s what I really want, it’s something I can do; that my day of reckoning has arrived.” [You can read the rest here.]
These reckonings arrive over and over again, in build-able boats and buyable steering gear and all the other opportunities to author our own lives that we let slip through our fingers while we wait for God or fate to intervene, while we wait for the stars to align just so. We choose fear and hope over courage and optimism.
We have never been better fed, but instead of being healthy, we are fat. We have never been more prosperous, but instead of being rich, we are in debt. We are better armed than anyone in the world, but we don’t feel safe.
“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” — Auntie Mame
November 2009, somewhere between Montauk and Bermuda, an Aries windvane, purchased for $460 on a Georgia dock, steers the sloop INTEMPERANCE through rough seas.