The simplest truths
by David Lacy
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” – E.F. Schumacher
As a kid I just didn’t get it.
When visiting my dad on the weekends, my three siblings (the three of 12 related to that particular father) and I would trek to the local video store, select a 99 cent rental, pick up a multi-pack of soft tacos, and head back to my father’s barren apartment. And when I say barren I mean BARREN: He had a baby-blue recliner someone had gifted him years prior, a discount couch, and one twin bed. His small (by any decade’s standards) television supported rabbit-ear network signal.
He did have two sets of treasures though: multiple bookcases stacked ceiling-high with literary gems (Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce, Twain, Nabokov, and thousands of other apartment ghosts) and an enviable collection of classic rock and blues.
Before we could pop in the VHS selection of the day, dad assembled all of us around the base of his bed and permitted each of us to pick out a few songs we wanted to hear. I usually wanted Clapton, Credence, or Dylan (I love vocal “rasp”); one sibling was usually more partial to the acidic magic of Zeppelin, another wanted the innocent charm of the early Beatles. We all liked Springsteen, although our song selection from the Boss was wildly discrepant.
After several hours of listening to song clips (Dad wouldn’t play them all the way through; it was almost as if he was merely reminding himself that the songs still existed and the confirmation alone was enough to make something resembling contentment spark in his mind) we would finally migrate to the living room.
We’d uncoil our Ninja Turtle sleeping bags and re-assemble at the foot of the recliner. For the next two hours five peoples’ entertainment cost only 99 cents.
We’d pass out at myriad times to the sounds of the small screen, unaware of just how good we had it. In fact, we often took it all for granted.
In 2011, post-divorce, I indulged. I danced until 6 a.m. for three days straight in nightclubs in Amsterdam. I dined on salmon and wine, tapas and calamari, chocolate martinis and cognac settling on ice. I jumped out of airplanes. I shared whiskey with my friends Vanessa and Hank at 35,000 feet in the air. I went from never tasting seafood in my life to enjoying it more than any other cuisine. I stood on the edge of Stanley Park with Vanessa and soaked up the glassy-steel-blue of Vancouver’s buildings, mountains, and water. I brunched on the beach, lapped up fresh Belgium chocolate, zipped my Mercedes Benz up and down Pacific Coast Highway with the sunroof open and the music blaring. I was everything money could buy and then some.
About a month ago I was driving home late from my girlfriend’s home in Garden Grove and Credence’s “Fortunate Son” came on the radio. I turned up the volume as I sped down the highway into the golden (er … make that platinum) heart of South Orange County. As Fogerty began to scream in protest (a protest I can never truly relate to of course) I suddenly found myself screaming in unison, “It ain’t me! It ain’t me!”
By the time the short song was over, 2011 had also concluded — metaphorically-speaking anyway. I clicked the stereo off and drove the remainder of the way home in deafening silence. My thoughts raced backward to my dad’s tiny apartment and I found myself feeling strangely alienated from the twinkling lights of Irvine’s approaching corporate buildings.
I knew I didn’t regret the exotic and novel experiences of the prior year. I had learned and seen so much (and was appreciative of those who had shared with me) and yet I still found myself longing for … actually desiring … a simplicity I hadn’t known in a very long time.
That night, I went home and made a sandwich. I used only two slabs of generic wheat bread, a few slices of turkey, a layer of cheese, and a dab of mayonnaise. The simple preparation, so foundational to countless bagged lunches across America, was somehow monumentally symbolic in my own mind. I placed the sandwich on a paper towel, retreated to my bedroom, and popped Dylan into my CD player. I savored each bite as I rotated through a soundtrack of my past. I was startled by the realization that my contentment at that precise moment was equivalent (albeit very different) from the contentment I had felt dining at an expensive beachside hotel restaurant only a few months prior.
I was nervous about telling my girlfriend that I wished to return to a level of economic simplicity I hadn’t myself lived for awhile. After all, the early stages of dating are about wooing and enticing, and I didn’t want to scare away the person I cared about most by proposing a dramatic overhaul of my financial “quality of life.” Surprisingly, she was not only supportive of my proposition, she was excited about it. She admitted that while she appreciated the dining out and the whirlwind vacations, she preferred the quiet, balanced calm of hard work and economic restraint. I should have noticed the signs before: She nearly always preferred a night at home with her kid sister and a cheap DVD flick on her laptop to a dizzying night of wine and massive dinner bills.
A few days ago, my girlfriend and I visited an “old-school” video rental shop in a Vietnamese pocket community of southern California. We spent time deliberating $1 titles and paid the cashier in loose change.
That night we huddled on her couch with homemade rice bowls and a bag of microwaved popcorn and watched a previous year’s Oscar nod on her 12-inch screen.
And at that precise moment I realized just how good I actually had it.