A few people have shared with me the New Yorker article about #vanlife and my immediate reaction is that it’s a total hatchet job. If you read the article you know I don’t say this in defense of living out of a van – that would have been (more?) interesting but that’s not what the piece is about. The portrayal is of two people who live in their van but the subject is social media and branding – the title of the piece is “#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement”. My visceral reaction stems from my familiarity with Mr. Money Mustache and an unflattering and seemingly unfair New Yorker profile about him.
Here’s a link to the New Yorker Vanlife article, and here’s one to the Mr. Money Mustache article. Here’s his site’s homepage, and lastly, here is a post-New Yorker podcast interview with him, a part of which is a low-key rebuttal.
For a comparison with the New Yorker article, this is what non-social media #vanlife looks like for me, today.
It’s my 45th birthday and although I’d love to be around a bunch of family and friends in Boulder CO, I didn’t want to plan the week before and the week after around one day. So for the moment I find myself in Anaheim CA, where at least one adult who I know and respect comes to spend her birthday sometimes, at Disneyland.
Disney’s not my deal though, I’m in Anaheim because one of my best friends, Leah, is attending a conference here and she flew into LAX yesterday. I came a couple hours from Palm Desert because we haven’t seen each other in four years; from the airport we went to Venice Beach where we wandered around and ate at Gjusta, a restaurant I’m obsessed with. We had a porchetta melt, grilled fava beans, and grilled artichokes, and I picked up a loaf of nori bread before we drove to Anaheim.
Leah had two female roommates at her hotel and although that sounded fine to me, I wasn’t welcome to stay in their room. I understand. In the past the lack of lodging might have meant that I wouldn’t have even made this trip, or that I would have driven two hours “home” to the room I’m renting in Morongo Valley, even though, like my mom, I don’t love driving in the dark. Guessing it’s a genetic night vision thing.
But my ’94 Previa is set up for sleeping. I thought I would have the luxury of sleeping in the hotel parking lot but real estate in downtown Anaheim is valuable and it would have cost $25; additionally, my roof-mounted mountain bike presented a height issue for the parking structure and although the hotel generously was going to wave the additional $6 for outdoor valet parking, I was pretty sure sleeping in the van would be a problem. Also, as Mr. Money Mustache says, if you’re anywhere where you need to pay for parking, you’re in an area where cars aren’t meant to be. Or something like that.
Five minutes south I stopped at a convenience store where I put up my window blinders (so I wouldn’t have to mess around with them once I parked for the night) and bought a Gatorade which I immediately dumped out. I hate supporting a product that in California comes with a carcinogenic ingredient warning, but the empty bottle would be my van’s restroom; my normal facilities were undergoing routine maintenance, drying and sanitizing in the sun back at my rented room in the desert.
I found a quiet neighborhood and a dark street, parked, made sure the doors were locked, and climbed in the back. Read on my kindle for a few minutes before lying awake for a bit, I’ve been finding street-sleeping trying lately, every unusual noise makes me think a tow truck is coming or that local residents are banding together (at 11pm) and getting ready to confront me. I know the reality is that no one knows I’m there or thinks twice about the badass minivan on their block.
Once I fell asleep I slept soundly, and upon awakening I went to a parking lot for a quick meditation session, then went and picked up Leah at her hotel so she could take me for birthday coffee. She told the barista it was my birthday and they gave me a card for a free beverage. Since I hope I’m never in Anaheim again, once I brought Leah to her conference and said goodbye, I went straight back to the coffee shop to collect my freebie. #addict. Then I settled in to read the New Yorker piece about vanlife.
Last year, when I heard there was an article about Mr. Money Mustache (MMM) in the New Yorker I was totally stoked to read it. Regular reading of his blog changed the way my brain was wired regarding certain aspects of my spending; I sold my Subaru WRX sometime in the months after I discovered him because of the value of the car and the maintenance and gas expenditures relative to my net worth. I came to the conclusion that I had no business owning a car like that. (According to MMM I would have no business owning a bike costing what mine did, but I have my own priorities.)
I came to “know” Mr. Money Mustache through the writings on his blog as well as through interviews on various podcasts. Can you really know someone in that way? No way, not totally. But if you care and aren’t totally moonstruck and have some observational skills and have maybe dealt with dozens of people a night for ten years, than I think you can get some sense of a person even through the media. And the sense I got was that Mr. Money Mustache is a decent dude who wants to help people and who has a solid, imperfect family life and is a control- and hyper-efficiency freak. That’s how he was able to retire at age 30.
The New Yorker article profile was distinctly unflattering and portrayed him as kind of a dick. And maybe he is sometimes, but I got the strong sense that this was a case of the subject’s day-to-day life and usual personality being altered because he was being observed and, to an extent, being a host to his observer.
I’m open to being wrong, there’s no way for me to know. But I would bet money that I’m closer to right than not. Dive deep into MMM and let me know.
As far as the vanlife article, I don’t know what the “real” deal is with the couple featured but I’m guessing it’s not quite as non-stop stagey as the writer portrays. As with the MMM portrayal (by a different reporter), the presence of the writer was probably sucking up a decent amount of the couple’s time, and as a result they were even more pressured to produce content than they might have been otherwise.
This couple which is having burgeoning success as social media influencers gets a call from the New Yorker asking if they’d like to be featured in a profile. Yes! Of course! When?!
The timing is a little off and their normal routine is jacked because their home is out of commission for a few days and they have to borrow a van to continue the documentation of their journey. (Did they have to borrow the van because the New Yorker reporter was scheduled to come? If that were the case would that fact make it into the finished piece?)
Even if the reporter wanted to have zero impact, no matter how insistent the she might have been about them just going about their business, there’s no way that they didn’t stop to explain different aspects of their life (and one of the members of the couple, it says in the article, is prone to making conversation with whomever is around). That’s why the reporter was there.
On the other hand, since it seems that it’s the couple’s business to portray their lifestyle in the most flattering light possible, maybe this is a karmic balance adjustment.
I just took a welcome birthday phone call and my computer time for the day is up. Food and a bike ride are waiting, maybe I’ll find a hot springs as well. If you read the New Yorker article, I would love to hear your thoughts.