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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
A Father and Daughter Quit the Rat Race: An Excerpt from Possum Living
1. We Quit the Rat Race
Do you remember the story of Diogenes, the ancient Athenian crackpot? He was the one who gave away all his possessions because “People don’t own possessions, their possessions own them.” He had a drinking cup, but when he saw a child scoop up water by hand, he threw the cup away. To beat the housing crunch he set up an abandoned wine barrel in a public park and lived in that.
The central theme of Diogenes’ philosophy was that “The gods gave man an easy life, but man has complicated it by itching for luxuries.”
Apparently he lived up to his principles. But despite that handicap he seems to have had the most interesting social life imaginable. He not only lived in the center of the “Big Apple” of his day (5th century B.C. Athens), he also had the esteem and company of many of the most respected, rich and influential citizens, including that of the most expensive prostitute in town.
When Alexander of Macedon, the future conqueror of the known world, was traveling through Greece, he honored Diogenes with a visit.
Alexander admired Diogenes’ ideas to the point of offering him any gift within his means. Diogenes, who was working on his tan at the time, asked as his gift that Alexander move aside a bit so as to stop shading him from the sun. This to the richest and most powerful man in the Western world.
Parting, Alexander remarked, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.” Diogenes went back to nodding in the sunshine.
Diogenes was fair and just to all but refused to recognize the validity of man-made laws. He was a good old boy, one of the first back-to-basics freaks in recorded history. He lived to be over 90. Alexander, The Mighty Conqueror, drank himself to death at age 33.
Well, this “Saint Diogenes” has been my father’s idol for many years. I remember when I was a little girl Daddy painted a picture of Diogenes sitting in his barrel tossing away his drinking cup. He wrote “Are You a Diogian?” as a caption and hung it on the living room wall to inspire us.
Mom wasn’t inspired.
At the time, Daddy was a working stiff of the ordinary garden variety. Sometimes he made good money and felt like a big shot. Other times he was out of work and scared. Our well-being was at the mercy of fluctuations of the economy in those days, same as it is for millions of other people.
Why should this be? What did Diogenes do, besides live in a barrel, that anyone can’t do today? The economy of his society wasn’t as prosperous as ours, yet he didn’t work and he didn’t starve.
It happens that something of a Diogian life is still possible, because Daddy and I are now living it. Here’s what happened:
After Daddy painted the picture of Diogenes, we initiated austerity measures. Daddy hoped we could get some money in the bank and become more secure and independent.
Mom’s hobby, candlemaking, came in for some scrutiny. We had candles from one end of the house to the other, and the equipment and supplies were beginning to be a financial drain. Rather than give up candlemaking, Mom decided to sell her candles to recoup the money she had spent.
To our complete surprise, she started making really good money at it. In less than three months she was netting more than Daddy was bringing home from the factory. We couldn’t believe it! Unsuspected by all of us, including Mom herself, she turned out to have a flair for craftspersonship and an absolute genius for salespersonship. It was a women’s lib fantasy come true—a mother and housewife suddenly discovering she had the ability to make money on her own. In short order Mom rented a store and opened a regular business. Daddy quit his job at the factory to help run it. Being good with numbers and miserly, he took over the bookkeeping and financial chores. Having no previous experience or knowledge of the principles of business or economics, the two of them just bumbled along, not knowing what they were doing, and evolved their methods using ordinary common sense.
They made a bundle. Moreover, they cooked the living bejeezus out of the books and so managed to keep most of it. But we weren’t happy, so after three years we sold the business and our home and moved out to this more rural area. The plan was to have a small shop in our home—just enough to pay the bills—and to relax and enjoy life for a change.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Mom and Daddy started arguing all the time. About money, of course. When they didn’t have any, they didn’t argue about it—when they did, they did. Mom, having gotten a taste for money and wheeling-and-dealing, found she didn’t want to give it up. No Diogian she. So she took little Carl, my brother, and left. Soon thereafter, she obtained a divorce.
Well, that was four years ago. When the dust had all settled from the divorce, Daddy and I found we had no car, no TV, no appliances, no job, no job prospects, and no income. Without Mom we couldn’t run the candle business, and Daddy is flat not going back to factory work.
What we did have left was this house, free and clear, and a little money in the bank.
For us emotional types, a divorce can be a very trying experience. Making decisions about one’s future is difficult for some time following. So we haven’t made any. The Old Fool likes to go around saying he can’t decide what he wants to be when he grows up. But truthfully, not having to make decisions is one of the great luxuries of life—right up there with not having to go to work.
We just drift along from day to day. We have a roof over our heads, clothes to wear, and we eat and drink well. We have and get the good things of life so easily it seems silly to go to some boring, meaningless, frustrating job to get the money to buy them, yet almost everyone does. “Earning their way in life,” they call it. “Slavery,” I call it.
Sometimes Daddy frets and says we are little better than possums living this way. Possums can live most anywhere, even in big cities. They’re the stupidest of animals, but there were possums on Earth millions of years before men appeared, and here they are—still going strong. Who can say if we or they will outlast the others in our good green world? They’re all fat and sassy and love life (or so I like to believe), and nothing you can do will persuade one to work in a factory or office. Possum living is what we call our life here now.
So we live like possums? Good! Let us do so even more.
Following her success as an author, Dolly Freed grew up to be a NASA aerospace engineer. She put herself through college after she aced the SATs with an education she received from the public library. She has also been an environmental educator, business owner, and college professor. She lives in Texas with her husband and two children.