“Sometimes I think the difference between what we want and what we're afraid of is about the width of an eyelash.”
― Jay McInerney
Eliza: Dragons need HUGE caves.
Eliza: I dunno…I guess cuz they need to fit.
“Mama? I wuv you more than myself AN my flip flops.”
“I’m hoppin’ around like an Eastern Bunny!”
An Ivy Ditty: “…Because I’m an edible nut, I wish someone could eat me, pew pew pew pewie pewie pew...”
“I want NORMAL shorts, wif no skirt and only legs!”
Ivy has this game where she calls herself the “owner,” and Jeff is her “doggie.” She gets so incredibly into the game, with a faraway look in her eyes, and she’ll call out, “C’mon over, doggie, I want to hug you!” Incidentally, she is currently completely terrified by actual dogs. We hope that she’s working out her fears with all the pretending, since her papa-doggie doesn’t jump on her or bite her like she is sure a real dog is going to do. “That Papa!” she says. “I do wuv dat Papa, my Jeff, my doggie!”
Our smart daughter figures out how to make sure a cardboard box doesn’t blow away: “...I’ll put TWO rocks in wif it, so it’s extra weighty!”
“When I was a baby, I just screamed! Acuz I couldn’t do anything - not even eat, or draw, or ride, or scoot, or Anything!!”
“I don’t want to be a grown-up, acuz grownups have to talk on phones.”
“I scalding love loud music! When my head hears loud music it wants to dance.”
“Dis is for you!” Aw, thanks, Ivy! Is it a wrapped-up ribbon? “It’s a fishin’ pole! You swing it around an’ see if you get fishes.”
Hugging me: “You’re delicious!” YOU’RE delicious! “I want to eat you!” I want to eat YOU! “But I’m a cactus that’s sometimes a palm tree! So you can snuggle your palm tree.”
To Ivy, a fast-driving car is…”An erasing car”
“It would be bad if you lost your thumb acuz then you’d only be able to use your fingers and you would drop cups of water.”
Eliza: Ivy, you haven’t hugged me ALL DAY!
Ivy: I’ve been too busy.
Eliza: No, you haven’t!
Ivy: Yes, I have [spins around], I’m spinnin’!
A catchy song to sing: “Oh I don’t like eating but I do like life!”
“Fractals go smaller and smaller until they’re so small that you can’t see them! You can make them in all different sizes. And you can draw anything, but if you want it to be a fractal it has to go smaller and smaller and smaller - even if it’s a circle.”
After a particularly fun day at Institute of Inquiry: “I didn’t know so many people like me!”
On her knees: “Now I’m a shorter version of Eliza.”
Jem and Luna’s motto for life: “Practice makes better.”
Jem, do you want to do math or read some history this morning? “I don’t know! That’s too big of a choice!”
Jem’s commentary on The World: “I am not ready to be an adult!”
One of the nicest texts I’ve gotten in recent memory, from the homeschooling parent who led the boys’ Model UN Club:
“…you'll get no judgment from me on the lack of research projects in your homeschool life. This stuff is hard and I can only imagine having double the students. Your boys are curious and hard-working (plus very funny) and I think nurturing those qualities is more important than almost anything else.”
A few Notable Events over the winter and spring:
— Ben and Jem participated in the Southern California Model UN Conference, which was a big stretch for them and, in the end, a whole lot of fun.
— Additionally, Ben and Jem finished their cartooning class, completed one of their classes at Institute of Inquiry (Storytelling) and began another (Photography), and enjoyed a winter of homeschoolers’ rock climbing classes in the National Park (super fun to share these with Nick when he visited!).
— Ben joined the Hi Desert Chorus with me, and we got to rehearse for and then perform in our April concert, “Show Tune Spectacular.”
— Eliza also enjoyed her first semester’s class at Institute of Inquiry (mathematics), and is equally enjoying her current class (self-portraits); plus she adored rock climbing over the winter as well.
— Ivy really really really likes to ride her tiny two-wheeled bicycle. She told me that, “They should make bicycles in my size with shifters, because even though they think people my size don’t ride a lot, I DO!”
— I have finally started a choir. It’s been so many years that I’ve been longing for somebody else to lead a Family Folk Chorale like Chris Eastburn does back in Boston…and since he doesn’t seem any more likely to show up in Joshua Tree than in Ithaca, I instead asked Chris for some help in starting my own chorus. He generously gave me his time on the phone, plus a season’s worth of choral arrangements, and the Joshua Tree Family Folk singers was born. For now, we meet on Friday mornings to sing together, and I am eagerly hoping for somebody to show up to accompany us on guitar (even though I’m trying to learn a bit more on my own, just in case).
— Ben and Jem and Eliza have begun their extremely expensive and also long-distance (the ortho office is in Aliso Viejo) adventure in Functional Orthodontics. Their teeth are beginning to move in Good Directions. I will keep you posted about how it ends up, depending on whether we have any money left at the end to pay for internet service or our phone bill.
— We have begun a new family tradition of making and eating omelettes and sourdough cassava waffles outside on Sunday mornings. it’s the most tradition-y tradition we’ve had in recent years, and it’s a nice time.
— I’m trying to learn to tap dance. I feel that in order to allow my children to Grow Up and Go Free, a parent must cultivate his or her own Interests. Plus, I’m going to turn forty very soon, and I’m having a medium-sized midlife crisis.
I recently decided that it was about time for our kids to hear about work and money from someone other than their parents. Well, from other people IN ADDITION TO their parents. So, I assigned Ben and Jem and Eliza the task of interviewing as many people as I can line up, and together we discussed and came up with a list of questions. If you and/or your partner would like to answer these questions by e-mail, the kids would love to read your responses!
What is Your Work?
What do you enjoy about your work?
What do you dislike about your work?
Where did you learn the skills you use everyday?
Do you feel fairly compensated for your work?
What advice do you have for kids who are interested in your profession?
What are you most proud of relating to money management? What is the hardest money issue for you?
And now, the Major Update On Our Lives:
It’s been almost three years since we got rid of most of our stuff and moved out of our house and began our Exploratory Mission West. Since then, we’ve lived in a variety of campers and tents and campsites, traveled the country and visited a lot of friends and family, and we’ve also spent a good amount of time parked in the high desert of southern California, where we’ve been welcomed by a wonderful community that resides in this fascinating, beautiful, and spiny land.
Our crazy adventure, along with our time spent in Joshua Tree, has given me a vast appreciation for some things, notably:
— cooking outside.
— having appealing outdoor spaces in which the kids can run around and play. I very much love being outside a lot.
— living in a climate dry enough so that you can be 99.9% sure that it won’t rain on your outdoor plans.
— waking up in the morning and going outside in order to get the eggs, which are stored in the fridge in our van.
— having a giant fridge in our van that runs off of a solar panel when the car isn’t driving.
— well-designed tiny spaces.
— having access to different living areas: a quiet zone, a loud activity zone, and a solo work zone. I love when each of these zones can exist indoors AND out.
— living in a climate where the outdoors is accessible and mild and relatively pest-free for most of the year.
— living in a place where we can all meet new friends and hang out with them…outside.
— living in a place where community theatre and arts is thriving for all ages.
Over the past three years, we’ve also encountered certain - ahem - challenges in our RV lifestyle, any one or more of which - it turns out - can put a person On The Brink of…well, of throwing in the adventure-towel and moving to a condominium at the sanatorium by the deep, deep blue sea of insanity. Some of these insanity-inducing challenges have included: dealing with human waste. Period. And please do NOT try to sell me on the merits of composting toilets - I already paid way too much for one and am done with that experiment, done done done done hahahahahaha BLEAH. You’d have to pay ME to try an indoor composting toilet again, even the thousand-dollar variety. Not that I will go on and on in detail about this or anything.
Sorry. Okay, going on to challenge #2: Living in a single-zone camper while trying to simultaneously host three zones of activity, one zone of which includes a person trying to concentrate on money-making work for eight hours per day, and one that involves the ongoing management of gut-dysbiosis-induced Loud behavior of various children.
Challenge #3: Dealing with gut-dysbiosis-induced Loud behavior in public, which is what ones private life becomes when living in a single-zone camper.
Challenge #4: Traveling and “seeing the world” while trying to make enough money to support our family.
Challenge #5: Parking for weeks or months at a time in a single-zone camper in a climate that is not a desert.
Challenge #6: Parking in one place in any camper in a climate that, while glorious for 75% of the time, is insanely hot hot hot for the other 25% of the time, and is often windy enough to frustrate the bejeezus out of anyone foolhardy enough to step out into it.
And finally, we have Challenge #7, which actually was the straw that convinced us a Change In Our Living Situation Was Necessary: Living in a single-zone camper with two adults, four children, and one full-size Yamaha digital piano (plus bench). The piano was getting used daily and often but literally took up 25% of the floorspace in our Lance. That piano was going to cause death-by-tripping-hazard if we didn’t do something soon.
By the time last fall rolled around, practically every single evening conversation between Jeff and me had begun to resemble an urgently boring version of “Groundhog Day.” Each night, we discussed our constraints and responsibilities and joys and hopes and Stuff, while the days and weeks and months simply kept moving briskly toward the day when all six of us (plus Luna, if she happened to be with us) would be roasted alive in the hellish oven that our tiny camper would become. Of course, other possibilities were noted in the “hopes” section of the conversations. This roasty toasty end would merely occur if we remained parked in the desert in our camper in the melting, summertime Joshua Tree heat.
Obviously, we had to pick some new options in the realm of housing. Jeff had started his new job, and creating and preserving an absolutely separate and uninterrupted office space needed to be top priority. Some people can travel on weekends and work during the week and enjoy the difficulties and rewards of endless roaming, and some people use co-working spaces and coffee shops, and some people have found innovative solutions to support their mobile lifestyles yada yadda yada….but the fact was, our constraints and goals and needs (not to mention our extremely expensive taste in both groceries and maintaining a homeschooling lifestyle) were not exactly the same as any of those Other People, and we were at the end of our money. It would not be good to go into debt in order to support a lifestyle that needed some Helpful Tweaking anyway.
Our original hope, back in 2016, was to spend winters somewhere warm, and summers somewhere cool. We have loved many aspects of the RV lifestyle, and we didn’t want to give it all up. And yet…if we merely upsized our camper and upgraded the campsite to allow for an Improved Bathroom Situation, while continuing to rent campsites year-round indefinitely, our finances would ironically end up in worse shape after twenty years than if we combined RV living with…sigh…Home Ownership.
So at the end of 2018, we began this really fun activity called Looking at Real Estate. This is an awesome game that involves hours and hours of visiting other people’s worn-out and ill-conceived homes for which they want an insane amount of money. There’s another version of this game that involves looking at fancy homes that cost an even more insane amount of money, and that game is even less fun. It’s also really great when everyone - EVERYONE - is simultaneously reminding you (in case you forgot, since the last time someone mentioned it five seconds ago) that if you (meaning us) had only bought a house two years ago (when we first arrived in Joshua Tree, coincidentally), then we could be paying 50% less than the home prices we were currently seeing.
Even apart from the market conditions, I kept getting this sinking feeling when I’d look at a house, on its handkerchief-sized plot of land, where one would essentially be, once one got an enormous loan to pay for the privilege of living there…Stuck. That was one of the amazing things about living in a camper: you didn’t have to “own” ANY piece of land, because you could be home anywhere! Mountains, rivers, oceans, woods…you could just take your home and park, and there you are! I love to travel. I sure do love the feeling of being at home anywhere.
Except, you can’t actually be at home anywhere if you’re as picky as we are. If you are prepared to hustle for your water, forgo any number of other conveniences that really do make life easier, or drive a long way for services, you can find cheap or free places to live in a camper. Otherwise, you have to pay a fairly large amount (as much as rent, in many cases - often $800/mo and up if you’re in a “desirable” area) for a single spot in an RV park where water/electric/septic is easily available. The sorta sad reality is that inexpensive nomadic living is not a welcome lifestyle in our culture, which is reflected by the high cost of doing so legally/comfortably. There is a fascinating world of people who live in fancy campers and commute between fancy campgrounds…but while we are absolutely not poor, we are not nearly as affluent as your average RV-Bus-Driving Snowbird.
So. To make a short story long, here’s a nice bulleted list of What We Did this winter and spring. The bullets will make short, facebook-style work of airbrushing away all the anguish, exhaustion, and existential Worry (and did I mention anguish??) that went into the entire process. Because here I sit, in our amazing new house-space-pod-campsite-compound-launch-zone-investment (we hope)-homebase that I like to call “The Best of Both Worlds.” (For you, Susannah, we figured out our living situation and wrote it down! if only I’d written it in December, so we could have done the whole thing more quickly…) :)
— Back in October, you may remember, we got back to Joshua Tree and parked our Lance in front of our friends’ workshop, because for a nominal fee, they offered us a spot close to town that included water, electricity, and access to a toilet.
— Immediately after arriving, we set out to procure an office space for Jeff. We determined that an old toy hauler (“toys” are dirt bikes, jeeps, and the like, and “toy hauler” campers have an open floorpan to accommodate them) would meet our needs. Plus, a toy hauler would provide a spare bedroom, which we were kinda starting to definitely desire, due to us only having three bunks in the Lance but, as you might recall, a total of four children. The boys used a Really Nice Tent as a bedroom for six months last year, at which point - nearly to the day - the rainfly actually crumbled to dust from excessive UV exposure. We figured a cheap camper would pay itself back compared with the cost of renting an apartment or office space (not that we could find an affordable one of those anyway).
— Immediately after buying the toy hauler, we discovered than an entire wall panel had quietly rotted away due to a tiny window leak…and so we paid a giant sum of money to a really great local RV repair person, who did more work on that crappy camper than probably has ever been done to such a camper, ever. The camper was then cleaned from top to bottom…and began its short career of Use while we continued our active brainstorming sessions.
— We looked at our friends’ two-bedroom house, currently renting as an AirBnB, possibly going up for sale in the spring. We did a mold test, and liked what we found. We liked the simple floorpan, the large patio, the quiet neighborhood, and the views from the front and backyards. We decided that we wanted to buy it.
— After several important and respected family members informed us that a two-bedroom house was a Bad Idea, we spent two solid months looking at three-bedroom houses in Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley. Like, all over both towns. Every available three-bedroom house in a reasonable price range. We saw so many houses that Jeff decided that he pretty much didn’t want to see any more at all, unless I was on the verge of putting in an offer. Then, when I would see a house I thought was workable, we’d go back and he would hate it. Or it would turn out to have something wrong with it. Or the road it was on would turn out to be a major flood risk during infrequent but potentially quite damaging rain storms… This was an extremely frustrating process, but it yielded important information which was extremely obvious when we finally realized it: we actually truly WANTED a small house, not a large one. Fewer things to go wrong. A smaller mortgage. Less space to accumulate Stuff.
(Okay, bullets are annoying. Plus, bulleted lists should include short items, and mine aren’t. Back to paragraphs.)
We ran a lot of numbers, over and over. And thought about the whole housing/investment/mortgage thing a lot: we had finally become mortgage-free over the past three years! Except it somehow didn’t involve a lot less spending, or difficulty, or worry about money. We continue to have expensive tastes - if not in interior design, then in location. And I guess the American system is way too complicated, and you can’t just Stick It To The Man by employing one backdoor strategy, even though the mortgage-free vision always made sense when we idealized it over the years. Under capitalism, debt and taxes/indentured servitude are the way of the working class.
A house rental was not going to be a financial win in Joshua Tree. We’d have to try the mortgage thing all again….and see whether we could play along with slightly different details than before, and “invest” in a house on a concrete slab (which generally appreciates in value), as opposed to a house on wheels (which doesn’t).
We contacted our friend with the 2-bedroom house that we’d decided not to buy back in the fall, and told him that actually, we’d like to work out a deal.
And then, why not go all in, and get a large camper to go along with the small house? A fifth wheel would be more like a tiny apartment, with a real office for Jeff, a bunk room for the kids, and a third zone of indoor living space. True, the camper would devalue, but the house wouldn’t, and if we played our cards right, then someday we’d be able to use the camper to skedaddle out of Joshua Tree in the summertime, just like our original plan. The small house would help rein in the tide of Accumulating Possessions, and anytime the camper was parked at home, we’d have an awesome office, guesthouse, spare bedroom, and big kid hangout area.
We spent several full days over a couple of months visiting RV dealerships and researching the sort of camper that we’d like to get. I really, really didn’t want to “just” buy a house. Which is why, on the third-from-last day of our nephew’s visit in March, we all drove (Nick was a super good sport and said he actually wanted to come) to Nevada to look at a Grand Design fifth wheel. It was in great shape, only four years old, and while it’s true that we’d need to hire somebody to tow it anywhere we wanted to take it, we weren’t looking for a camper to take on weekend trips (never a favored mode of vacationing for us, anyway). We were looking for a moveable house.
So we signed the papers. And got a loan for the RV. After which the seven of us drove to Las Vegas and took a surreal late-evening stroll down The Strip and saw more lights and sounds and people than we’d seen pretty much ever.
That trip to Vegas was the beginning of a whirlwind two months during which I ended up flat on my back with panic more times than I care to recall (I’ll spare you the details of the five days I spent frantically (and luckily (though it did not seem so at the time) unsuccessfully) trying to reverse the purchase of the fifth wheel after a late-night examination of our finances)….and we became the proud “owners” of three campers (please lord, only for a very brief time period until we sell two of them, Amen)….and we bought and moved into our friends’ sweet little 2-bedroom house which is now our house.
Did you know that the United States Department of Agriculture offers low-interest, no-money down loans to people with very good credit, as long as the property is designated as “rural” (which like 95% of the USA currently is), and the home will be a primary residence? Well, we didn’t either!
But after spending about two months doing paperwork and making phone calls and having stress-induced conniptions and hissy fits, we are the proud “owners” (“payers”?) of a USDA home mortgage. USDA loans are similar to VA and HUD loans, only they’re accessible to people like us. With a lot of help from my parents, we spent the last two months jumping through more hoops than I knew existed.
Jeff and I have, over the past 16 years, purchased homes in three states (not all at once!) and obtained a total of six different mortgages on four houses. And this was by far and away the most insanely bureaucratic experience I have ever experienced (although incidentally it’s the “cheapest” home and the lowest interest-rate loan we’ve ever had). There were some days when I spent three and four hours managing and dealing with paperwork and phone calls, until the kids began to expect, with every phone call or text received, that a “mortgage person” was on the line and I would have to spend the next hour and a half (or three hours) in a sweat of frustration, with papers piled up on the bed around me, frantically signaling them to BE QUIET!
This description is not an exaggeration at all, and I never want to do it again, but you know what they say about empowerment: when you’ve successfully completed the escrow process in California, you get that warm fuzzy feeling in your heart because now you know that you can Be Anybody and Do Anything You Dare To Dream Of, Dammit, If Only You Had Any Single Part of You That Wasn’t Jaded and Exhausted Beyond Belief. Like, Maybe You Could Even Climb a Mountain Someday or Something!
Home Ownership is such an exhilarating ride.
I think I’m ready to take up drinking.
So yeah, that is slightly disorganized version of our winter. We moved into the house on May 1, closed on the house on May 10, and we’ve barely caught our breath to remember anything else that’s happened over the past few months. We had that wonderful visit with Kristen and Michael and Samuel and Isaiah in January, followed by a fantastic visit with Jeff’s parents, followed by a fabulous visit with Nick in March, followed by an awesome visit with my parents in April.
I am so looking forward to … selling two of our three campers, ensuring that all necessary expenses (including the kids’ orthodontics) can be paid while also clearing our checking account, organizing our new homes … and then, welcoming YOU to our desert oasis-style compound: “The Best Of Both Worlds”! You’ll have luxury guest quarters when you visit, and you’ll get to see what our amazing desert living situation can now offer, in no particular order:
An outdoor kitchen.
Excellent back roads for beautiful walks.
Proximity to friends and town and the national park and all the local theatres.
A climate that is relatively wonderful for eight months of the year, and is close to places that would be lovely to spend the summers, once we can afford to skedaddle.
A fridge in our van, still.
A nice small house, and a beautiful enormous camper.
A pretty little yard for playing and parking campers and riding mountain bikes.
Many zones for all different sorts of quiet, noisy, active, solo, and group endeavors.
The choice to cook inside when the flies swarm outside or the wind threatens to blow away even large items made of lumber, or large bicycles, or small cars.
An easy, simple bathroom situation that still offers water-saving options.
A sheltered, shady, back patio with a mulberry tree besides.
Once we wake up from our haze of exhausted overwhelmtion, please please, come visit!
And, congratulations to Matt and Michelle, whose wedding is coming up soon! We love you and hope it is the wedding of your dreams, and that your marriage continues as beautifully as your friendship began. I’m so glad my favorite middle-younger brother has found such a great partner in life. :)
Love from all of us,
Variously Fascinating/Useful/Good Articles I’ve Come Across Recently:
Five “simple” steps to deal with a tragic event:
The Best Diet Plan for Life:
How long does antidepressant withdrawal REALLY last?
“Sweeping new report blames Big Food for ills far beyond flab”:
Going Back To Work after early retirement:
Helping A Child With An Eating Disorder to Eat:
Your Net Worth is Not Your Self Worth (and other life lessons):
My Aunt, who is Awesome:
The Middle Class is Shrinking Everywhere - In Chicago it’s almost gone:
The race to understand Antarctica’s most terrifying glacier:
Some ways vaccines don’t work as well in kids who are less healthy:
Interesting ideas about health, weight-loss in general, and weight-loss “plateaus” in particular:
Investing for 7 Generations:
Non-Violent Communication insights into daily life:
A Little Vaccine Infographic…
Old Fashioned Ladies Undeterred by ridiculous trends in rock climbing apparel:
Beyond Genetics: Is Type 1 Diabetes a Lifestyle Disease?
Toward a personalized approach in Prebiotics Research:
Are Vaccines Safe? A rational and remarkably brief discussion starter:
Why can’t everyone have a home?
A great little article by a wise human about accepting yourself and the human condition:
What You’ll Wish You’d Known In High School:
An interesting take on the elusive “work/life balance”: