Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Forget tiny houses....

In a chain of clicking yesterday, I wound up learning that "van life" is a thing.

This is apparently a new subculture, where people chuck it all and live in vans partially retrofitted to be camper-like. (but the vans are not RVs. Just as tiny houses definitely do not equate to 'single wide mobile homes' even though they have about the same square footage. We may live in a time of lowered economic expectations, but Veblen is still as active as ever).

Anyway, the idea is outlined in a New Yorker article. Cool, attractive 20-somethings wind up being on an eternal camping trip in their van. 

It's kinda like the hippies of the late 1960s. Except this time some of the van-dwellers have "sold out" (as the hippies would put it): they have corporate sponsors. Granted, they are SMALL corporations and ones that tend to tout their eco-friendliness/alternative lifestyle cred/young-and-hip vibe, but they are still corporations who seem to be using the van people as advertising.

I suppose it's really more of a mutualism than I'm making it sound: the vanlife folks get paid, so their lifestyle is somewhat supported, the corporations get exposure and probably sell more stuff. (That is the big way I think van life departs from the hippies: from what I've read, hippie life was more a barter system, or if people sold stuff, it was exchanges between individuals)

Anyway. Part of me says that I shouldn't snark on the van life folks because they've found a way, at least for now, of making a living that suits them, and that's fine with me. I wouldn't want to do it, but if it works for them, if the eco-water-bottle makers or baby-sling companies or whoever want to fund them, okay.

The thing that struck me, though, is the very self-conscious self-promotion and curation-of-images. Vanlife apparently has a heavy social-media presence (the story I linked was about a couple that post attractive photos - mainly of her, wearing as little as possible - on Instagram).

And my first thought was, "Oh, here are more people living a life cooler and more fun than mine, who have found a way to ditch most adult responsibilities" but then the Bea Arthur that lives in my mind popped up (in her persona as Ancient-Greek-civil-servant from that Mel Brooks movie) and declared, in response to the whole "pretty fun life in a van" thing, "Oh, a B*S* artist!"

Yeah. I'm beginning to learn: most of what you see on the Internet where someone's life looks more fun and rewarding than yours, it's really probably about 75% either wishful thinking or outright BS. (Whether or not the person is fooling themselves as well as the people they are posting for would be a matter of debate).

And yeah. I wouldn't want to live like that (and the predictable reference to the old Chris Farley "Van down by the river" sketch is made).

The biggest issue I can see is: bathroom.

Most of the vans seem not to have one.

And maybe that's fine if you're a young dude (one of my male labmates commented once, "I'm a guy. The entire *world* is my catbox." Well, not really: I have heard of men getting stuck on sex-offender registries for public urination). But for a middle-aged woman who has to drink a lot of water - not having a bathroom is no bueno.

(And yes, I know, there are workarounds. My mom grew up without indoor plumbing so I have heard stories of going out to the outhouse or using chamber pots, and I'll just say: I'm very grateful for indoor plumbing).

Also, doing the laundry: yes, there are laundromats, but they cost money (more, in the long run, than a washer and dryer would cost, and they're also extremely variable in quality). Or washing stuff by hand, which is possible, but then getting it to dry properly (sheets and towels) in a humid climate is hard or, worse, INSIDE the van on a rainy day.

I mean, yeah: the upside is you can go to a place where there aren't too many people. I find Too Many People to be one of my bigger problems and I don't even live in a crowded city. And you "take your pay in views" like someone I know who used to work for the Park Service said. (A certain percentage of National Parks employees qualify for SNAP....) And you can make your own schedule.

But you're also broke a lot of the time, it seems. And what if you get sick or hurt? (It seems this is very much a young-person's game. Also, I wonder, given the provisions of the ACA: how do these folks manage health insurance? Working part-time at the Taco Bell to pay for gas doesn't bring health coverage with it. Are all these folks under 26 and therefore still on their parents' coverage? (I was covered until I was 24 or 25, but the stipulation was I had to be a full-time student. After I aged out, I had "grad student health insurance" which was OK for the basically-healthy: visits to Campus Health were covered, as were ER visits for emergencies or if there was something really big that came up after hours. But I'm glad to have a regular doctor now)

And there are articles out there, not hard to find, that are designed to warn people off of doing it if they're not really committed. (It looks fun and romantic on the surface, but it seems to me many of the logistics of daily life are about three times as hard, and it's the logistics of daily life that get me down so much, and that's with a functional bathroom and a washer and dryer and even a dishwasher....). I think the answer is, you have to be really willing to put up with the annoyances in order to have the good stuff.

Though really, that's true of everything: for every fun day I get to spend teaching a lab, I will have a stack of grading. Or I will have that student who has endless life-problems and wants me to accommodate them by writing make-up exams. Or I will have some gosh-awful meeting that has someone going on at length about a particular hobby-horse that has nothing to do with the actual meeting topic. Would my life be better if I were a surfer-chick living in a van, photographing myself for some sports-drink company, and living at the beach? Probably not, given the effort in doing laundry and the scariness of being out alone like that (presuming I did not have a boyfriend/husband sharing my van with me: and even then that's no guarantee of safety, given that there are people out there with weapons, like that guy who shot the man in Cleveland).

And that's the thing, really: for every story showing a pretty person having fun in the sun, it doesn't show them arguing with their partner, or worrying whether they have enough cash for groceries, or trying to deal with a coolant leak, or having to chase after YET ANOTHER company that will contract with them.

The lucky people, they are the ones who get to do something with their life where the good parts of it mostly outweigh the bad (which is where I am at).

(And I get to go home at the end of the day and take a hot shower without worrying if there's enough water in the tank or if I have to empty the greywater tank first, and it's easy for me to do laundry when I need to, and I have a good stock of shelf-stable food for the weeks when getting out to the grocery is more time than I feel like taking, and it's easy for me to cook in my house. And I have room for my many books and much yarn and my piano....)

 Some people don't have that choice. Here's another living-in-a-van story (well, RV, really) which, while some background is left out, is still sort of a chilling story of what could happen to some folks in the future.

(And makes me even more grateful to have learned that my TIAA/CREF investments are currently earning 3.5%, which is DARN good in today's economy. And why I have that $700 or so stripped out of my paycheck every month before I even see it - in the hopes that between now and 2029 or 2034 or whenever I decide to retire, it'll have grown enough that I can live fairly comfortably or at least meet all my needs. Because I don't count on Social Security still being there, I don't even count on my 'teacher's pension' even though our state's system is apparently in better shape than some states'....)

I guess I'm saying is that I don't want to snark too much on the van-life people: they have, apparently, made a choice. But also, by presenting their life as all sun-salutes and campfires on the beach, it may make people forget that there are also those rainy days when you're stuck in the van with your stinking wet dog, and dealing with having to pee in the middle of the night, and long stretches of not being near good laundry facilities....and it does make people dissatisfied about their own lives, and I wonder if maybe THAT really isn't the insidiousness of social media, more than the cliquishness or the fake-news stories that spread or the bullying - that it seems like everyone else is having more fun and has a better life than you do, and that really isn't actually true...

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