Accounting Basics

At age fifteen I found myself living on a tiny college campus comprising three hundred kids in the middle of the wilderness. The campus was at the top of the Berkshire mountains, a long way away from civilization.

The college recruited its students out of tenth grade. The average age upon arrival was sixteen.  The college had two main sets of students. It had hippies, and it had punks. Mainly it was just these two diametrically opposed sets of outcasts existing at this school. The hippies had a great time. There were trees all around. The punks had an ok time. They didn’t have to be in high school. The only problem was the trees.

One day in a fit of exploration I started walking. The campus was surrounded by trees (did I mention the trees?). Other than the road that followed the main river down the mountain, the mountain was a vast forest. 137 miles to New York City down one side of the mountain.  139 miles to Boston down the other side.

I wasn’t on the road. I was at a random point on the outskirt of the campus, and I stepped into the forest. It was a beautiful winter afternoon, the birds were singing, there were brooks to walk over, the crisp smell of snow was in the air.

After a while, a heavy snow started falling. The afternoon was getting late, and I began thinking about finding my way back. I turned around to walk back in the direction I had come from, but I had no idea what direction.

I kept walking, and the daylight was fading. I wondered how far away I was from the campus, and if there was any chance of encountering a house or road. All I could do was keep walking til I either ended up somewhere useful or til I ran out of daylight.

I was a punk, I liked cities, crashing bodies, crashing music, crashing darkness. I could walk all night in the city and it was as safe as Heaven to me. But when you are alone, away from the city, away from people, against the elements, you die. There is no starker realization of death than when you realize you are alone on a mountain lost in a snowstorm in the dark.

If there was any disagreement in philosophy between the punks and the hippies, it was the trees. The hippies joined up for hiking and nature clubs. The punks hung out in the rec room and dorm rooms and played loud music. The punks couldn’t understand how the hippies liked the trees. The horror of being surrounded by trees.

When you are in such a situation, because every sense is on alert and your awareness is so high of everything around you, it is not too bad of a feeling, knowing you will die, it is just an intellectual fact, that eventually if you don’t get lucky, you will die. I kept walking.

I got lucky. A broad smile broke out on my face.  Far to my left, in the dark, I could see a thin tree, a blaze of paint upon its trunk. The thrill of connection with humanity. Some freaky hippie hiking club, who knows when, had explored these very woods and marked a trail. And very easily, very simply, I searched out the trail of blazes and impressed deeply upon myself the fact that some hippy group had saved my life.

I don’t know much about wilderness survival, but my ears will perk up if someone offers me some information about it. You never know when you need to learn the basics of a subject. The basics of wilderness survival are as follows: out of the three necessities (food, water, shelter), which should you learn about first? You approach the answer like this: How long can you survive without food?  You can survive for weeks without food. Water, a bit more important, a couple days: without it your brain dehydrates and you start hallucinating. Shelter, however, we are talking about death in a matter of hours.

A shelter, I learned later in my life, is not hard to make as long as you know the basics. The basics of a wilderness shelter is that it must be small, to trap in your body heat. You don’t need to learn how to weave branches into a wigwam or cut notches in sticks or anything fancy. You need to figure out some way to enclose yourself with enough debris, sticks, leaves, logs, broken evergreen branches, palm fronds, boxes, sweaters, snow blocks, whatever is at hand, and make as tiny a sleeping space amongst the rubble as possible, to insulate yourself.

And so, all the mystery of survival and overwhelm of the problem is solved with the most basic and easy to learn piece of knowledge.  Here I was, a young kid, certain there was no way that a body could survive alone in the winter lost on a mountain in a snowstorm. I was certain that even if I had been natively interested in the subject all my life, and trained in it by raw-woodchuck-eating parents, it would take years of training for me to learn enough to be able to survive a day or two in the mountains in a snowstorm. I would assume I would need to know how to trap a rabbit, purify water, skin a bear, sew a deerskin, build a hut, and, not being trained in such things, I would assume I would be unable to survive for the two days it would take for a search party to ultimately find me. And, without the knowledge of the basics, it would be true, I would die, as so many other people have when stranded in the wilderness, by not knowing how to insulate themselves from the cold.

And here we turn to accounting basics. Like every grand and overwhelming subject, accounting has one basic thing that must be learned first. Perk up your ears when you hear the basics, as the age-old story passed down from one accounting graduate to another goes, as such: an old, venerable accounting professor, head of the department, terror of the student body, is finally coming to the day of his retirement. He gives his last lecture, and in his closing words, he asks, “does anyone have any questions?” One student timidly raises his hand and asks, “Professor. Every day, at the start of class, you come into the room, walk up to the podium, open a drawer, look inside it, then close the drawer, then start your lecture. As far back in history as far as anyone can remember, you have always opened and looked inside this drawer before you start any lecture. Professor. What is in the drawer?” The professor obligingly looks down at his podium, opens the little drawer and slowly draws out a little slip of paper. He holds it up, pauses, and then in a soft voice, every student straining to catch his words, he reads it: “Debits on the left. Credits on the right.”

Trust me. Learn the most basic important concepts first and you will be able to stay alive long enough for a search party to find you.

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