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The Truth, Mainly - 07/30/1990

'Modern-day Thoreau' just another flunky in vacation home project

My wife and I are three summers into the ecstasy of building a lovely house on a lovely lot in the Colorado Rockies, and Iím embarrassed as all get out about it.

We set out eight years ago with a modest goal: to find the prettiest building site and the best climate since Eve ate the apple.

After five vacations of looking, we found The Place: 2.36 acres backing up the side of a mountain and fronting on a crystalline steam complete with cavorting trout. Thereís a grassy meadow full of wildflowers and hummingbirds; there are deer and douglas fir and ponderosa pine and blue spruce up high, raccoon and alder and aspen and mountain maple down on the streambank.

The house pokes its front out of a grove of evergreens just above the base of the mountain. It faces mostly east, slightly south, and it lets in the morning through the windows that make up three-fourths of its front wall. Thereís one deck on the east for morning sun and coffee and looking at the meadow, and another on the north for noontime shade and lunch and watching the trout stream.

And I salivate thinking about it. I grow orgasmic. Itís the kind of place Iíve fantasized about since I reached puberty.

But thatís not why Iím embarrassed. Iím embarrassed because owning a place like that plays hell with the image I have of myself.

I like to see myself as Thoreau, going off to the woods to build a cabin with borrowed tools and second-hand lumber and used nails. Thatís pretty much the way we had to remodel our house in Lincoln 20 years ago, and it was easy to make a virtue of the necessity.

But we hired an architect-contractor to do the place in Colorado. I do flunky work, but I donít make decisions. I dig holes and carry bundles of shingles and schlep sheets of drywall and help my wife stain stacks of siding. Itís pleasantly tiring work, but not what Thoreau had in mind when he talked about going it alone and building foundations under our castles in the sky. I can feel his scowl all the way from Massachusetts, all the way from 1845.

And like Thoreau, Iíve cultivated a proletarian image all my adult life. Not just by taking his advice to avoid enterprises that require new clothes, but by being pleased to see myself as one of the have-nots and by enjoying being snotty and cynical about the haves.

In my tidy little vision, we have-nots are generous and exploited and pacifistic and kind to lost kittens; haves, of course, are greedy and exploitive and militaristic and full of self-congratulation and bad cholesterol.

The Truth, Mainly


And now I find myself with a vacation home—surely the mark of the beast—and I worry that Iím about to be exposed as a backslider from the True Way. I still have my old principles, but I have a new house.

Itís the same dissonance George Bush must be feeling when he tells us—less than two years after he got elected by having us read his no-tax lips—that, golly, maybe we do need some new taxes after all.

Like him, I have met the enemy and he is me.

So if you want to see photographs of our place in Colorado, donít ask for a public showing. Iíll meet you in a dark alley and let you see pictures of our new house. Iíll be in the doorway next to the one where George Bush will let you see plans for his new taxes.

If I donít skulk around like that, if I start being openly proud of our Paradise Regained, I may kid myself into believing that I deserve to own it, that somehow my virtue—my hard work, my financial shrewdness, my moral fiber, God love us—is responsible.

And the next thing you know Iíll be telling stories about welfare cheaters instead of about Con Agra, and Iíll be wanting to drive a Cadillac instead of my VW, and Iíll start reading Gentlemenís Quarterly instead of Mother Jones. My cholesterol will go up. Danny Quayle will mistake me for an old fraternity brother.

I might even kid myself into thinking that George Bushís new tax scheme will save me money. And worse, if Iím no longer a have-not, maybe it really will.

I canít stand it.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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