YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Rich Man, More Man? : Perhaps we should measure wealth by what we can do without

October 26, 1986|JACK SMITH

We who live in the teeming city sometimes fantasize about returning to the natural life.

Wearied of overcrowded streets, crime, political corruption, polluted air, greed and competition, we long for solitude.

Most of us read "Robinson Crusoe" or "Swiss Family Robinson" as children and have always cherished the notion that we could make it on a desert island.

We are almost persuaded by Rousseau's vain notion that civilized man is degenerate, and only the savage is noble.

Some of us build getaway houses in the mountains or on the desert or at the beach; but of course we equip them with heaters and indoor plumbing, and sometimes telephones and television.

But some of us do manage to escape the madding throng and live lives of serenity and fulfillment in remote settings.

I have a letter from Daniel J. Bass. "ex Prof., Ph.D. and all that pretentious stuff," who lived five to seven months of every year for 11 years with his wife and two sons on the island of Formentera in the Balearics off the coast of Spain. (The rest of each year he spent teaching in Madrid and Seville.)

In 1958 Bass bought a little farmhouse and three-quarters of an acre near the sea on the island.

"There was no electricity, no running water. We had a cistern for drinking water and an old salty well for other purposes."

For transport they rode bicycles or took one of three dilapidated buses that crossed the island. They walked a great deal.

"Nothing broke down because there was so little to break down--no indoor plumbing, no garbage disposer (our neighbors' pigs helped), showers by a pull-chain attached to a bucket of water heated by the sun."

Even obstetrics was primitive.

"When my wife was pregnant with the first son, she saw a doctor on Ibiza (the next island) twice. He told me to buy a 'birthing kit' at the farmacia for $4.50--cotton, alcohol, syringe, etc. A midwife attended the birth (along with some brandy), charged $3.50, and that was the total cost.

"We did without so much and missed so little and in truth were very happy."

Now, with their sons grown and gone, Bass and his wife are going into the Peace Corps. "We will be embarking for the Solomon Islands in two months. I am 65."

There is something of Thoreau in his conclusion.

"In my idle moments on the island I realized that you can recognize a rich man not by what he has but by what he can do without."

But of course we must keep that in perspective by remembering that Bass is a professor, a doctor of philosophy, and "all that pretentious stuff."

All this reminded me that we have a house in Baja that brings out the noble savage in us. We have no electricity. We do have indoor plumbing, but the water supply is uncertain. It comes from a cistern at the top of the hill. If Gomez's generator is working, it means that the pump is pumping water from Gomez's well to the cistern, and we may have water. That is, if there is not a leak in the pipe.

For the past four months, Gomez's generator has been under repair in the United States, and we have had no water. I know this only from the reports of friends who have used the house. We have not been in it for two years, ever since someone stayed in the house without our permission and burned a hole in the bathroom cabinet.

Gomez is our landowner. I have just talked to him on the telephone.

'Gomez," I said, "is the generator fixed? Do we have any water?"

"Of course," he said, "the generator is fixed. You have plenty of water." In 15 years he has never admitted that we were out of water.

"Gomez," I told him, "You promised to repair that bathroom cabinet two years ago. It hasn't been done yet."

"Is that so?" Gomez said in wonderment. "Two years! How time flies down here."

Time flies down there? I always thought it stood still.

Philosophically, that is a puzzler. If it takes more than two years to do something that is supposed to be done "right away," is time flying or is it standing still?

It just occurred to me that we have eight electric clocks in our house here on Mt. Washington. In our Baja house we have none. Maybe there isn't any time at all down there.

We also have no television, no computer, no microwave, no central heating, no garbage disposer, no telephone. If Bass is right, and a rich man can be recognized by what he can do without, then in our Baja house we are rich.

And we do have one advantage the Basses didn't: We don't have to worry about obstetrics anymore.

Los Angeles Times Articles