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Aurora

Mr. Feeney's lesson is easy to write about, hard to live



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August 28, 2012 | 03:36 PM
When I got divorced five years ago and moved to Lake Geneva, I wanted to live simply.

I brought along a dozen books, bought a used TV from a friend for $25 and took only a few pieces of furniture from the house I was leaving behind..

For awhile, I lived a measured life. I used the library frequently. I purchased the most minimal cable TV package available. It had only 18 channels, but it didn't matter because my $25 TV set only went up to 13 channels anyway. I bought furniture at rummage sales.

It wasn't so much that I was poverty-stricken. I was still making a decent income and I was old enough to collect social security if my job somehow vanished.

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It wasn't that I was somehow bankrupt from my divorce either. My ex-wife and I got along fine — we had lunch the day our divorce was finalized — and the financial split was equitable.

My vow of semi-poverty was more related to wanting to live a conscious life. Appreciating what I had. Not being attached to TV or department stores or "new" all the time.

Over the years, that's changed.

I slowly started filling up my apartment with furniture. Not so much because I needed it, but because it filled some need.

I joined a book club and bought books at bookstores. Many of them remain unread on overflowing bookshelves.

The limits on the TV channels I could watch disappeared when I bought a new flat-screen TV. I then elevated my cable subscription and now get dozens of channels most of which I never watch.

And last summer, I leased a new car, even though my old one was running just fine.

With each purchase, I felt the thrill of the buy.

There isn't much more I can justify buying that I really need.

I mean, do I really need a better apartment?

Do I really need to exchange my 2011 Kia Soul that my ex-wife calls a "toy car" for a Jeep that gets half the miles per gallon?

No.

But I decided a couple weeks ago to give myself a birthday present — a new watch, even though the one I'd bought five years ago was still keeping good time.

I'm like most people, I guess. I don't feel terribly guilty about that, but my hopes of mindful living were reawakened when I read about Charles Feeney.

You've probably never heard of him. I hadn't either until I read a story about him that started:.

"Across from a television set with the obsolete girth of a model bought 20 years before ... Charles F. Feeney sits in an armchair and explains how he will get rid of his last $1.5 billion."

Feeney made a fortune running airport duty free shop. But he's lived modestly.

He buys clothes off the rack. His kids worked through college as waiters, maids and cashiers. He flew coach.

He's given away almost everything he's earned. Now he's 81 in a race to get rid of the rest.

The story calls him a man with "no romantic attachment to wealth or its trapping" and quotes him as saying that the world has enough urgent problems that require attention.

The story ends with a telling quote: "I want the last check I write to bounce."

Granted, a man who is a billionaire, has the "luxury" of giving away more than we do.

And flying coach is hardly a sacrifice compared to the way most of the world lives.

Yet his story gave me pause. And I couldn't help writing about it on an overcast day in August.

As I wrote, I was sitting in my apartment, fully furnished now — including no fewer than four antique radios — with books I don't read looking out a window that has what I call the best view off the water in Lake Geneva, a cornfield that stretches so far and wide that I don't need curtains.

Yes, there's a lesson to be learned from people like Mr. Feeney.

I'm just not brave enough to learn it.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.

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