This weekend my son and I spent two night at Hidden Villa. It was a trip organized by the parent of a classmate of my son’s, and it was us and about half a dozen other families. Hidden Villa was founded by the same people who started Peninsula School (the Duvenecks were amazingly entrepreneurial– they also were involved in the creation of the Pacific Arts League, and they’ve immortalized by having a Palo Alto neighborhood named after them), so it has something of a special resonance with Peninsula families.
Hidden Villa is still a working farm, and there are a couple farm stands just to the left of the entrance. There’s a pretty large organic garden, chickens (the eggs are excellent, I’m told), and a number of cows, goats and sheep.
While the kids were all excited about going camping at Hidden Villa– they’d all been there on field trips at least once– we were actually staying at the hostel, which consists of several heated cabins near a terrific lodge. (Basically, any time you get ready for a weekend by going to Costco rather than REI, you can tell it’s not going to be real camping.) The lodge is a wonderful building, large and spacious, not particularly luxurious, but incredibly comfortable to be in.
And it’s one of those spaces that, because of where it’s situated, manages to feel wonderfully luxurious. I especially liked the screened-in porch, which for some ancient reason I’m drawn to.
We did a potluck dinner the first night, then various of us took charge of the remaining meals. We didn’t have a complicated schedule for cleanup, but somehow it all worked out: I think when you’re a group of parents of small kids, cleaning up is kind of automatic. The idea of either leaving the dishes for tomorrow, or not doing anything while other people were working, were both kind of unthinkable.
Besides, the lodge has a fabulous kitchen. Propane rather than gas for the stove, which means it heats up more slowly than normal, but otherwise it was a fantastic workspace.
Saturday morning we went for a hike, which led (after a refreshing uphill climb) to a stream that the kids found very diverting. It also reminded me that for kids, the most important thing you can bring to keep them happy and uncomplaining isn’t lots of water, or good shoes, but other kids. If you’re with your parents, everything quickly becomes a drag; if you’re with classmates, it’s all cool.
After the hike and lunch, we went on a tour of the farm. Needless to say, the kids loved the chance to interact with the animals– pet the goats and sheep, feed the chickens, that sort of thing.
I realized at a certain point that, in addition to the obvious appeal of a beautiful natural location, there were two things I really liked about the weekend, and it got me thinking.
The first was the very unforced combination of quiet and company. I was with a dozen other adults and a lot of kids, but I never had the feeling that it was a strain: everyone got along very well, but things were unstructured enough– and there were always enough parents around who could keep an eye on the kids, who paid us essentially no mind whatsoever and formed their own self-regulating tribe– to allow you to wander off on your own. I enjoyed spending time with them because they’re really nice people, but also because I didn’t have the sense that anyone had to be entertained.
The kids were also really easy to deal with. They’re generally a very well-behaved bunch, but you put them together, and they essentially seal themselves off from adults, lose any real interest in any of us adults, and take care of themselves until dinner. In the evening, they’d play games, or cluster around whatever parents were reading (everyone, and I mean every single child, brought a couple Bone books, so it was a virtual Bone-reading marathon all weekend). Very different from how things can be at home: my kids are pretty independent, but I felt like I spent less time interacting with ten kids there than I do with my own at home.
It was an interesting experience, and it made me wonder: why in the world don’t we do this all the time? If kids are easier to deal with in larger numbers (a counterintuitive proposition, but maybe not that inaccurate), why do we insist on (or default to) taking care of them ourselves? Maybe the cohousing movement is onto something….
The second thing that made me really think was the realization that part of what I liked about the weekend was that it offered some of the same rewards of traveling: it offered a chance to strip away life to a few essentials, and to live with a degree of thoughtfulness and enforced simplicity– but without the frantic, focused edge than I have to maintain when I’m on the road. At one point, when I was sitting in the lodge and playing Go (the parents include a number of really serious Go players, and I got my ass kicked all weekend), it struck me that for these two days at least, I had effectively traded dealing with stuff for interacting with people. It was a good deal.
A few months ago I went through a phase of throwing out old stuff, and as I’ve lost weight I’ve been shedding clothes that are too large for me. But I now wonder: could I get rid of another 95% of what I own, keep a core of essential stuff, and have a better life? Do I need all those books from graduate school? Am I really any more likely to finish Barbara Stafford’s Body Criticism than I am to get through the rest of Normal Cantor’s the Civilization of the Middle Ages? Of course not. So why am I keeping them? Things like travel and this past weekend suggest that it would be possible for me to radically reduce the number of objects I have in my life, and not really miss them.
I’m not about to renounce all worldly goods, and I don’t want to sound like a cross between Thoreau and Wigan Ludgate (the hacker-turned-recluse in William Gibson’s Count Zero). But would I be happier with a much smaller, thoughtfully designed, and ruthlessly efficient personal infrastructure?
Could one live like that all the time? Out of the equivalent of a couple, say, a couple large suitcases? At what point does owning less make you richer? Can you, in essence, trade things for more friends? I’m not sure, but it’s worth trying to figure out. Like I said, a monastic renunciation of worldly goods isn’t in my future; but maybe a lighter life would be more worth living.