This post is a follow-up to Dietary Depression, Death and Debt. It is the fourth in a four-part series (pt.1, pt.2, pt.3) examining ways to change behavior and not just give in to the trap of instant gratification.
My parents owned a rafting business in Bend, Oregon during the summers of my pre-elementary youth. With daily trips down the Deschutes River in Oregon’s high-desert heat, they were feeding and hydrating hundreds of tourists every season. Many of them preferred to drink pop. At the end of another long day on the river, the big, white Coleman chest coolers would come home filled with sticky empty cans and sweaty cheese leftovers.
It was my job to clean them. I was five the first summer I was handed a bottle of dish soap, the hose and a washrag. Before you report my parents for two-decades-old child abuse, know that I would have gladly done the job for free. Having the hose and dish soap turned over to your control when you’re five and small enough to fit in the coolers is one of the greatest things that could ever happen to a kid. It was like being told to go create my own water park in the front yard. There’s a picture of me in the family photo album wearing bright-neon swim trunks, grinning from ear-to-ear, waist deep in a cooler filled to the brim with bubbly soap water and spraying the hose sky high over the lawn. The thousand words of that picture are just five-hundred repetitions of “pure joy.”
To my surprise and further delight, my parents said they’d pay me to do the job. I was able to keep every pop can and take them back to the store for the five-cent deposit return. They said if I did the job faithfully all summer, I’d save up enough money–five cents at a time–to pay for a tickets to Disneyland.
It was one of the best summers of my life. I was anticipating the future of Disneyland while loving the joy of working in the moment.
That October, we road-tripped, in the blue 1985 VW Vanagon we’d bought the year before when my brother was born, from Bend to San Franscisco, over to the coast and down to Disneyland. Sure enough, my pop-can savings were enough for tickets for all four of us. School was in session, so the park was as uncrowded as Disneyland ever is, and we got there before the gates opened and stayed until they shut it down.
With no lines, we made more laps than a thirsty dog on Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain, and I even manned-up enough for a ride on the Matterhorn (I was terrified of the Yeti) and a few rides on Space Mountain. We took the Jungle Cruise, chilled on the Mark Twain Riverboat, ate a couple of hot dogs near the Swiss Family Treehouse, watched Michael Jackson gyrate in the 3-D short Captain Eo, and bought a Mickey hat with my name engraved on it at the gift shop.
My dad carried me out of the park at the end of the day ’cause my feet hurt so bad I could barely walk. I’m sure I looked like any other over-stimulated, over-exhausted little towhead, but I felt like a champion getting carried off the field after hitting the game-winning home run.
Though I couldn’t have put it into words at the time, that’s when I first understood the fulfilled pleasure that comes from sacrificing up front for gain down the road. My parents could have paid for the trip themselves, but they had me earn it, anticipate it, and value it by making me save for it over several months. They taught me sacrifice instant gratification from buying trivial things and to save for something I really wanted.
Scrubbing coolers had earned me the greatest day of my life.