You Only Live Once

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You Only Live Once 0101

The cup on the kitchen table reads, "I only work so I can afford to ski." But for Tom and Louise Rowe, a middle-aged couple living in the booming Canadian ski acropolis of Fernie, B.C., a cup reading, "I don't work so I have time to ski" might be more appropriate.

We're brewing our morning coffee, gourmet stuff I've toted in from Seattle, and Tom thinks aloud about the conditions we'll find on the mountain today. The kitchen window frames the ski hill, a seven-minute drive away, and, referencing the trail map taped to that window, Tom points to where we'll find the best skiing. "The Currie Bowl should be sweeeet," he practically trills.

I look at the mountain, then at the map: Reality and imagination coexist in the kitchen window. Likewise, the reality that a couple in their 40s would quit high-paying jobs and pursue an imagined dream of ski-bumming also coexist in this kitchen. It's a reality that has delivered more powder in one season than the couple has skied in a lifetime.

And it's a reality sporting softer edges than the refugeeism of youthful ski bumming. The lifestyle in this three-bedroom home is hospitably bourgeois, with guitars, computers and stereos imported from another residence, a stash of good wines for guests, and a pantry full of fresh pastas and whole-grain breads. Of course, the privileges of age also come with a downside-before making the dash for first tracks, we pound down ibuprofen with our high-bran cereal and skim milk.

I expect my hosts to be strong skiers, but their abilities surpass my expectations: A full 80 days at a skier's hill like Fernie has groomed them for anything I'm game to gamble-steeps, bumps, crud, trees, chutes. Anything except air, which mixes with brittle knees about as well as ipecac mixes with full stomachs. We spend most of the day off-piste, goading each other like teenagers. When I have the duo trapped on the chairlift, however, I grill them with adult questions: How did this come about? What did peers say when they unplugged? Will it be difficult to plug back in? What has the hiatus cost? And, most significantly, have the rewards justified the risks?

The genesis of the family ski sabbatical dates back a decade to when the couple married and pledged to occasionally break with tradition. Two years ago the timing seemed right to validate those vows-Tom had 14 years' experience in high-tech sales, Louise 11 years in financial planning, and both felt their skill-sets were transferable to other jobs or careers. They had been dreaming about a ski-bumming season and, as Tom jokes, "We wanted to do it while we still had knees."

On top of this, Tom was disillusioned with big-city existence and felt they'd find better quality of life elsewhere. Ultimately they opted to sell their home in Toronto, put their belongings in storage, and take a six-month ski sabbatical.

After the break, with life in transition anyway, they'd move to Ottawa.Tom has a simple explanation for shaking the rug: mid-life crisis. "I'd already done it on the material front and wasn't finding big houses, BMWs or SUVs to be the stuff that mattered. I wanted to create experiences I would always value." Louise sees the shake-up less as a crisis than as an awakening. "We were devoted to work but not to life. In 1997, I had been working late and, after leaving the office, was hit by a car running a red light. I broke several bones, was battered from head to toe and was lucky to survive. That got me questioning the importance of this all-consuming job."

While non-skiing friends fretted about damaged or delayed careers, Tom's boss, Regan McGrath, applauded the move. "It was inspirational to see someone just go for it and say, 'Screw the norm.' We were all jealous at work." To the charges that this sabbatical might derail the couple's career, McGrath comments, "No way...both are highly skilled and can articulate why they did this."

On the lift, we also discuss costs. Louise, with her financebackground, ttles off the pecuniary particulars of their six-month hiatus. The grand total, which includes their ski passes, rent, utilities, food, transportation, all types of insurance, indulgences, storage fees: $14,500.

"Worth it?" I ask.

"Yes," both insist. They describe their previous existence, which supplied plenty of money (joint income: $158,000), but came with 10- to 12-hour workdays, meals on the run and virtually no time together. "This has given us a life," explains Louise, who is also thrilled over the shot of romance the season injected into their relationship. "I don't want to go back to the lifestyles we had." She mentions new dreams of country living, pursuing gardening and musical interests-dreams that would make life rich. That makes me understand that ski-bumming has cultivated deeper rewards than just good turns and strong memories: It has provided the vision and optimism for this couple to reshape their destiny. "We made our ski dreams work, so why not another dream?"

Rick Hack, 46, is another career tracker who was finding the white-collar pursuit of the American Dream hollow. He yearned for some of the white-slope rush of his youth. A Seattle-based tax and transaction lawyer who was excelling in his practice (consistently one of the top three producers in a firm of 25 lawyers), Hack felt that the longstanding dream of spending a winter in snow country and skiing each day was slipping away. Unlike most professionals, he acted on the impulse to put play before work.

Hack has always done his share of paradigm busting. When he lacked time to exercise regularly, he stopped driving to work and pedaled the 25-mile round-trip commute each day. Then, after weighing the environmental and economic costs of owning two cars, he sold his second car, and he, his wife and three children became a one-car family for four years-an unusual concession for a lawyer.

Several years ago, Hack attacked the problem of his skiing blues by moving his family and establishing a home office in a rented vacation home at Sunriver, near Oregon's Mt. Bachelor. Five days a week he would ski from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then hustle to his new winter home (eating in his car) to conduct business from an upstairs office. Hack and his family lived in Sunriver for a ski season. His three children attended schools in the area, while his wife was a stay-at-home mom. Hack rented out his Seattle residence to help defray the costs.

Between November and May, the arrangement cost him $14,000 in new bills (family ski passes, renting a second home, utilities for that home, transportation and indulgences). Far more expensive was scaling back the workload for the time needed to ski-an opportunity cost amounting to $40,000 in lost income and one that lowered his professional ranking.

"I slipped from being one of the firm's top producers to the middle of the pack," he admits.

Today the satellite office no longer meshes with family needs. Says his wife, Barbara, who is not nearly as smitten with skiing, "The experiment worked fine for a year, but now that the kids are older (ages 8, 11 and 12), spending the winters at Bachelor and the summers in Seattle would be tough."

Which hasn't stopped Hack from getting his ski yahoos in different ways. "The Bachelor winter reconnected me to a passion. I'm not willing to settle for 15 ski days a year anymore." Now Hack skis many weekends, basing himself out of a ski club with overnight facilities at Crystal Mountain. Several times a winter he takes ski vacations in British Columbia, once a season he'll enjoy several days of heli-skiing in Washington's North Cascades, and each spring after the resorts close he logs about 10 days in the backcountry. In total he skis about 50 days a year.

Professionally, he's paying the piper for his Bachelor winter of content: He's never returned to being one of the firm's top producers. That suits him just fine. His income still places his earnings in the top 10 to 20 percent of Americans. "I make enough that finding time for family and passions is more important than more income," Hack says. "What's the point of bucketloads of money if its pursuit keeps you from broadening life or pursuing passions?"

It's a philosophy Kim Brown of Stowe, Vt., also endorses. But because Brown, 53, has ski-bummed since he was 30, it's a philosophy he refined long before other mid-lifers were awakening from the irony of the creed posted on the iron gates of Dachau and seemingly borrowed by Corporate America: "Work makes one free."

Brown graduated from Harvard in 1969 with a degree in economics. Though skiing had been a childhood passion, it rusted during his college and post-graduate hippie years. After his 30th birthday, Brown moved to Vermont and worked as a hotel executive in the late Seventies. "I chose that job because it would get me to Stowe, where I could start skiing again. Ironically, skiing undermined the career."

Brown discovered the sport was too ripe with rewards-freedom, self-reliance, self-improvement, a connection to nature, adventure, challenge, the ski culture itself-to pursue a working life that meshed poorly with the need to ski.

For 20 years, Brown has made skiing central to his lifestyle while avoiding traditional ski-bum jobs, such as ski tuning, waiting tables, bartending. Carpentry was once the means to his ends, helping pay his bills in the Eighties and early Nineties. "That worked fine in summer," he says, "but in winter I'd run out of folks who'd put up with me powder skiing while their master bedroom was torn apart."Marrying in 1989 also changed the climate. Brown's wife, a landscape architect, makes a respectable income, which has its advantages. "A professional spouse with a weekly paycheck is of enormous value to the ski-bumming lifestyle," he says. The flip side of the coin: Professional wives don't tolerate leeches who don't pull their weight.

By writing a local newspaper column starting in 1989 and a weekly newsletter for the Stowe Ski Resort, Brown created a viable excuse for why he needed to ski. A lot. "I had to check the integrity and accuracy of my information," he laughs. The argument floated, but fooled no one.

The writing provided modest income and good perks (family passes), but the Brown lifestyle-which included respectable housing in Stowe, activities for their 8-year-old daughter and modest travel-required an income of about $45,000 to stay aloft. So it wasn't until Brown, who had long performed some architectural design work for clients, mastered computer-aided design and started peddling his skills that he dialed in all the ingredients of an idyllic lifestyle. He launched his own design firm in 1994.

This business helps him contribute equally to the family coffers (joint yearly income of $75,000), affords him the flexibility to ski mornings and powder days, and allows him to work afternoons and poor-snow days. "I'm logging 80 to 90 days of skiing, which isn't up to the standards of old, but still keeps me darn committed to the sport."

Brown believes he's happened upon the right balance. "More 'successful' college friends who visit often leave feeling envious of our lifestyle. They tend to divide their lives into clearly defined boxes: work, family and play. I have trouble separating the parts-they all need to work together so that I look forward to each day. Even if I don't amass a fortune, enjoying life on a day-to-day basis makes more sense to me than dedicating myself to work and retiring about the time my body is shot."

Lee Aaker, 57, of Mammoth, Calif., would second that notion. To face each day with a joie de vivre and a perpetual smile is more valuable than the financial wherewithal to afford expensive cars, second homes or exotic travel. Retired for a decade now, Aaker logs 150 days on the slopes each year while living modestly on a $1,500-per-month pension and income from an occasional odd job. After paying rent for his comfortable one- Americans. "I make enough that finding time for family and passions is more important than more income," Hack says. "What's the point of bucketloads of money if its pursuit keeps you from broadening life or pursuing passions?"

It's a philosophy Kim Brown of Stowe, Vt., also endorses. But because Brown, 53, has ski-bummed since he was 30, it's a philosophy he refined long before other mid-lifers were awakening from the irony of the creed posted on the iron gates of Dachau and seemingly borrowed by Corporate America: "Work makes one free."

Brown graduated from Harvard in 1969 with a degree in economics. Though skiing had been a childhood passion, it rusted during his college and post-graduate hippie years. After his 30th birthday, Brown moved to Vermont and worked as a hotel executive in the late Seventies. "I chose that job because it would get me to Stowe, where I could start skiing again. Ironically, skiing undermined the career."

Brown discovered the sport was too ripe with rewards-freedom, self-reliance, self-improvement, a connection to nature, adventure, challenge, the ski culture itself-to pursue a working life that meshed poorly with the need to ski.

For 20 years, Brown has made skiing central to his lifestyle while avoiding traditional ski-bum jobs, such as ski tuning, waiting tables, bartending. Carpentry was once the means to his ends, helping pay his bills in the Eighties and early Nineties. "That worked fine in summer," he says, "but in winter I'd run out of folks who'd put up with me powder skiing while their master bedroom was torn apart."Marrying in 1989 also changed the climate. Brown's wife, a landscape architect, makes a respectable income, which has its advantages. "A professional spouse with a weekly paycheck is of enormous value to the ski-bumming lifestyle," he says. The flip side of the coin: Professional wives don't tolerate leeches who don't pull their weight.

By writing a local newspaper column starting in 1989 and a weekly newsletter for the Stowe Ski Resort, Brown created a viable excuse for why he needed to ski. A lot. "I had to check the integrity and accuracy of my information," he laughs. The argument floated, but fooled no one.

The writing provided modest income and good perks (family passes), but the Brown lifestyle-which included respectable housing in Stowe, activities for their 8-year-old daughter and modest travel-required an income of about $45,000 to stay aloft. So it wasn't until Brown, who had long performed some architectural design work for clients, mastered computer-aided design and started peddling his skills that he dialed in all the ingredients of an idyllic lifestyle. He launched his own design firm in 1994.

This business helps him contribute equally to the family coffers (joint yearly income of $75,000), affords him the flexibility to ski mornings and powder days, and allows him to work afternoons and poor-snow days. "I'm logging 80 to 90 days of skiing, which isn't up to the standards of old, but still keeps me darn committed to the sport."

Brown believes he's happened upon the right balance. "More 'successful' college friends who visit often leave feeling envious of our lifestyle. They tend to divide their lives into clearly defined boxes: work, family and play. I have trouble separating the parts-they all need to work together so that I look forward to each day. Even if I don't amass a fortune, enjoying life on a day-to-day basis makes more sense to me than dedicating myself to work and retiring about the time my body is shot."

Lee Aaker, 57, of Mammoth, Calif., would second that notion. To face each day with a joie de vivre and a perpetual smile is more valuable than the financial wherewithal to afford expensive cars, second homes or exotic travel. Retired for a decade now, Aaker logs 150 days on the slopes each year while living modestly on a $1,500-per-month pension and income from an occasional odd job. After paying rent for his comfortable one-bedroom apartment, utilities, insurance, grocery bills and auto expenses, he still has a few hundred dollars earmarked for savings. Skiing itself is cheap: He earns his pass by volunteering as a Mammoth Ski Host several times a week.

To many, living on such an income would smack of self-imposed austerity. For Aaker, it's a life stripped of clutter and useless distractions that took him 50 years to figure out. Life, however, has not always been so streamlined. As a child actor, Aaker was well known to baby boomers as Rusty, the star of the television series, Rin Tin Tin. By age 15, Aaker could afford whatever he wanted: Corvettes, power boats, the best sporting equipment.

But celebrity and currency weren't sowing happiness and, at age 18, Aaker turned his back on a high-paying, high-profile profession where he was still in high demand. Ironically, to the television kid who had everything, the ski-bumming lifestyle that Warren Miller romanticized on screen was strangely alluring; he dove into skiing for several years. "Warren Miller had this mystique I admired. Going to ski resorts and using moxie to get freebies-that spoke to me... maybe because I worked throughout my childhood and never got to be a child."

Aaker eventually blew the money he earned through acting, then reinvented himself as a carpenter, a trade he practiced for 20 years. In 1980, after a long hiatus from skiing, Aaker rediscovered the sport and for 10 years structured his working life around it-usually by hiring on as a carpenter at ski hills from November to April. For the past decade, however, Aaker, who is divorced and childless, has been retired. He spends nearly half the year on the slopes while managing the modest pension he receives from the Screen Actors Guild (as a child actor he was vested for 11 years).

Some wonder whether a life without work is, at his age, a life without purpose. Yet Aaker can lob that grenade back by asking whether the millions of lives consumed in the production of trivial goods and services aren't even less purposeful. Aaker doesn't get mired down by the unanswerable. Ultimately he measures the success of a lifestyle by the peace of mind it delivers.

So when accused of having reached his zenith as a teenager and having descended the ladder of success ever since, he rebuts, "I had a nice house and great toys growing up, but I lacked peace of mind. Back then I felt deprived-I wanted better jobs and bigger toys. Now I have less but my biggest worry is whether I should stock more wood this winter. My problems now are ones of having too many good options-those are problems of abundance."

"Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a condo in Sun Valley or to buy new skis each season, but the price is too high," Aaker continues. "Then I'm back in that deprived mindset, and to afford it all, I'm back at work. Suddenly the peace of mind is gone."

Listening to Aaker, I'm reminded of a coffee cup, but Aaker has taken the quip I first read at Fernie to a new level. Rather than professing, "I only work so I can afford to ski," Aaker's cup would read, "I don't work so I can afford to ski." It's a modern paradox anyone interested in latter-day ski-bumming would do well to contemplate.one-bedroom apartment, utilities, insurance, grocery bills and auto expenses, he still has a few hundred dollars earmarked for savings. Skiing itself is cheap: He earns his pass by volunteering as a Mammoth Ski Host several times a week.

To many, living on such an income would smack of self-imposed austerity. For Aaker, it's a life stripped of clutter and useless distractions that took him 50 years to figure out. Life, however, has not always been so streamlined. As a child actor, Aaker was well known to baby boomers as Rusty, the star of the television series, Rin Tin Tin. By age 15, Aaker could afford whatever he wanted: Corvettes, power boats, the best sporting equipment.

But celebrity and currency weren't sowing happiness and, at age 18, AAaker turned his back on a high-paying, high-profile profession where he was still in high demand. Ironically, to the television kid who had everything, the ski-bumming lifestyle that Warren Miller romanticized on screen was strangely alluring; he dove into skiing for several years. "Warren Miller had this mystique I admired. Going to ski resorts and using moxie to get freebies-that spoke to me... maybe because I worked throughout my childhood and never got to be a child."

Aaker eventually blew the money he earned through acting, then reinvented himself as a carpenter, a trade he practiced for 20 years. In 1980, after a long hiatus from skiing, Aaker rediscovered the sport and for 10 years structured his working life around it-usually by hiring on as a carpenter at ski hills from November to April. For the past decade, however, Aaker, who is divorced and childless, has been retired. He spends nearly half the year on the slopes while managing the modest pension he receives from the Screen Actors Guild (as a child actor he was vested for 11 years).

Some wonder whether a life without work is, at his age, a life without purpose. Yet Aaker can lob that grenade back by asking whether the millions of lives consumed in the production of trivial goods and services aren't even less purposeful. Aaker doesn't get mired down by the unanswerable. Ultimately he measures the success of a lifestyle by the peace of mind it delivers.

So when accused of having reached his zenith as a teenager and having descended the ladder of success ever since, he rebuts, "I had a nice house and great toys growing up, but I lacked peace of mind. Back then I felt deprived-I wanted better jobs and bigger toys. Now I have less but my biggest worry is whether I should stock more wood this winter. My problems now are ones of having too many good options-those are problems of abundance."

"Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a condo in Sun Valley or to buy new skis each season, but the price is too high," Aaker continues. "Then I'm back in that deprived mindset, and to afford it all, I'm back at work. Suddenly the peace of mind is gone."

Listening to Aaker, I'm reminded of a coffee cup, but Aaker has taken the quip I first read at Fernie to a new level. Rather than professing, "I only work so I can afford to ski," Aaker's cup would read, "I don't work so I can afford to ski." It's a modern paradox anyone interested in latter-day ski-bumming would do well to contemplate.