Wind sprints: Life, liberty and the pursuit of loneliness (editor column)
July 2, 2016
Given the negative public response, you might think that Vail Resorts' plan to have some of its employees sleeping in bunk beds was some kind of war crime. Or at the very least, you might be convinced that these workers will suffer greatly by living together in military-style barracks.
To be clear, I'm not advocating for a bunk in every bedroom for Vail employees — the county's not going to let that happen — but the controversy has reminded me that Americans' definition of inalienable rights has expanded greatly since the days when pioneers lived in tiny claim shanties and huddled around the stove with their families. Now, a room of one's own is on par with the right to vote.
Maybe you can tell from all the old settler imagery that I've been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books to my two little ones at night. Unlike my children, the Ingalls kids, all four of them, didn't each have their own rooms, much less their own bathrooms or vast toy collections.
Reading these books, I sometimes wonder how the Trollinger clan would adapt to such tight, spartan living conditions. The Ingalls seemed to thrive — and they were also a great deal tidier than us, I'm convinced.
It's a strange contradiction when you think about it: American houses keep getting bigger, while our desired family size keeps shrinking.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average home size has increased by more than 1,000 square feet in the past 40 years. That means we've seen a jump from 1,600 square feet to about 2,600 square feet since the 1970s. Now put that on a line graph with data that shows that half of Americans now say two is the ideal number of children for a family, according to the Pew Research Center.
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Back in 1936 — during the Great Depression, mind you — the preference was for 3.6 kids per family.
Many things contributed to this change, of course: the birth-control pill, the rise of two-income households and the increasingly bewildering costs of raising kids. But what explains why our houses are getting bigger? Is bigger really better?
I grew up in a two-child household. I had my own room and that certainly set the bar for what I consider normal, even though I must say I was a pretty lonely, bookish kid.
Maybe that's why it felt demoralizing me and my wife when we moved into Summit County three-and-a-half years ago and had our two kids sleeping in the same bed in our little A-frame in Silverthorne. Had we failed? Were we not living up to the American dream and providing a better future for our children than our parents had provided for us? Or had we just been conditioned to think that the definition of success and happiness was a sprawling mountain mansion?
Now we live in a 3-3 townhome in Frisco. It's close to work and school. The kids each have their own rooms down on the basement level. My wife and I are up on the third floor. However, the fact is, it doesn't feel like home in the way that the tiny A-frame did. We thought we needed the townhome because our 8-year-old daughter would probably want her own room, along with an American doll and an iPhone, of course. In the end, though, she and her brother still ended up sleeping in the same room. Go figure.
Clearly, a family is different than a random assemblage of ski industry workers. But there is something to be said for living closely with other people. As humans, we have a deep need to be part of a group.
Sebastian Junger writes in his new book, "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging," about how out-of-step the life of a soldier is with modern American society. He argues that cities are now organized, intentionally or not, in a way that makes us feel deeply lonely and disconnected. This becomes painfully and tragically obvious when soldiers — still clinging to the life they had with a band of brothers — are reintegrated into civilian life. They suffer depression and trauma not just because of the violence they've witnessesd, Junger argues, but because they've been pulled away from an intensely communal life with their fellow soldiers.
"Well, the irony of modern society, for all of its very real benefits — I mean, modern society is a miracle in a lot of ways, right? But as affluence goes up in a society, the suicide rate tends to go up, not down," Junger said in a recent interview. "As affluence goes up in a society, the depression rate goes up."
My wife and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary this week. It reminded me that I haven't lived on my own since I was in my early 20s. Some people choose to live alone — I respect and sometimes even envy that. However, that doesn't mean I know how to deal well with solitude. My kids were recently in Texas for two weeks visiting their grandparents in Austin, Texas. I had the whole house to myself. Perhaps this isn't a surprise, but it left me with an empty feeling that I filled up with work.
We are more than our work and the things that it affords us — the cars, the home in a nice neighborhood. We are social creatures who need each other. We need real community much more than we need a place to crash. Keep that in mind when you're sitting around the fire this Fourth of July weekend, wondering why you feel so much happier to be outside, under the stars and with the ones you love.
Ben Trollinger is the managing editor of the Summit Daily News. Contact him at (970) 668-4618 or at email@example.com.
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