Recently, my friend Jessi Hempel, a nationally-known journalist, asked Facebook friends how they felt about “having it all” in this time of COVID-19.
Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown used that phrase to title her 1982 memoire, and at the height of my career, it seemed something to strive for. But even then, my girlfriends had doubts about winning the “San Francisco trifecta”— having a nice apartment, a good job and a meaningful relationship all at once. There was no affordable housing. Our pay didn’t match the available housing. And we were the wrong gender when it came to dating most of San Francisco’s attractive men. So we generally had to settle for two out of three.
Reading the phrase now, in Carbondale in 2020, “having it all” definitely has a tin ring.
I asked about the phrase in a local Facebook group. Freelance writer Sue Gray, who moved here from Southern California in 1997, answered, “I guess we had it all once: a house, two cars, two professional careers, a kid. We gave it all up to go live in the mountains. Except the kid.”
My friend Ron Kokish mused, “Does money buy happiness? Studies show that it does, to a certain extent; currently around $90k/year for a family of four… Go past $90k, and happiness does not increase with wealth. That cutoff seems to be the point where a family has enough to eat well, a secure and decent roof over their heads, adequate health care and education without parents having to work so hard they can’t adequately focus on their family relationships… If you moved to the mountains in hopes that the beauty of the physical surroundings would compensate for economic insecurity, you gambled on a long shot.”
Choosing to live here has always involved tradeoffs. But COVID-19 has made them tougher, as folks like my friend Jessi, an urban professional with transportable work, have fled to more-rural environs. A “Zoom Town” effect is occurring in Montana, in the Hamptons, and right here in river city. Our valley is experiencing a real estate boom. Renters are being displaced as landlords are cashing in on what Aspen realtor Tim Estin has called the “Great Urban Exodus”.
The combo of COVID cancelling local service jobs and increased housing pressure from that urban exodus doesn’t bode well for locals living on modest incomes. For some time, the home-job-family trifecta has been out of reach of many young Carbondalians, Sue Gray’s son and his wife among them.
Forget “having it all!” As 30-year-old Sopris Sun Editor Will Grandbois noted, “Most people my age I know are happy if they don’t have to live out of their car and consider health insurance a luxury.”
In reality, neither Aspen- or New-York-style expectations were ever sustainable. “These days I’m in a constant battle of having been raised to be a good little consumer, and to believe that every person on the planet can and should consume as much as they want, with no negative impact,” says Carbondale artisan Summer Scott. “Then there’s the ever-growing realization that we’re about to fall off the (environmental) cliff…”
Judging from Jessi’s friends’ responses, even urban perspectives are changing:
“I might have had it all, but I couldn’t handle it!”
“Is this a trick question?”
“Wasn’t ‘having it all’ an ‘80s thing?”
Back in the ‘80s, Helen Gurley-Brown was writing for women like me. But by the time I moved back home to Colorado in 2011 – after the economic bottom fell out, flattening my big, urban career – I suspected that her premise was absurd.
Brooks Bell, a tech marketer and another of Jessi’s friends, says that a cancer diagnosis clarified her priorities. “When we usually think about ‘having it all’, the list may include career, children, health, beauty, love, wealth and purpose. To have all of this is impossible. No one has enough time, energy, or intention to get it all done…To actually ‘have it all’, the list itself needs to change…” Indeed it does. Mine has.
A couple years ago, I retired “early” (before the recommended 70) because, like Brooks, I was given a diagnosis that dramatically shortened my life expectancy. Then COVID came along and dramatically altered my notion of retirement: No travel. No concerts. No art shows, no live classes. I have no grandchildren or children…
And yet, in many ways, I have it all: A small town where I feel safe, where friends drop off dinner when I’m under the weather. Places to walk outdoors. I’m blessed with a modest home, a good internet connection and enough money to buy art supplies. I’ve learned to teach art online, and due to COVID, I’m teaching quite a few homeschooled kids, forming relationships I wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s enough.