Cargo

Years ago, an aboriginal New Guinean asked Jared Diamond, “why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

By cargo, he meant stuff. He had very little in the way of stuff, as did everybody he had ever known until white folks showed up on the island with a whole bunch of it.

Diamond, a professor at UCLA, set out to answer the question and many years later, published a book titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, which was supposed to be revolutionary, a novel new idea answering the burning anthropological and social questions – explaining the origins of the differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Because I’m a history buff I enjoyed the book, but his premise seemed fairly self-evident to me; those who had guns, germs, and steel won. Go figure.

We enjoy so much abundance and prosperity because we had guns, steel, and a genetic immunity to certain diseases. We thrived, they didn’t, and that, in a nutshell, is Dr. Diamond’s answer to the question, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

But the question haunts me in a different way than it had the professor. He wanted to explain how those poor, poor people came to be so poor, and we so rich.

What I want to know is; are they the poor ones? Or are we?

Were natives in New Guinea unhappy? Did we make them happier by bringing them trucker-style baseball caps, second-hand t-shirts, and chainsaws?

It’s agonizingly obvious that primitive civilizations touched by western culture have been detrimentally affected. Cargo doesn’t help people; it hurts them.

Primitive people are not poor, they simply enjoy a different lifestyle.

I recently had a conversation with neighbors who enjoy life without electricity. Husband, wife, five-year old boy and two-year old girl seem content to be “off the grid,” which, in certain circles is avant-garde, chic even, evoking images of solar panels and grey water systems.

My neighbor’s version is a we-can’t-afford-to-buy-the-meter-and-pay-the-hookup-fee kind of “off the grid,” which, in my eyes is no less noble. Nobler, perhaps. And definitely cool.

We take comforts for granted, but only through the lens of our own experience. If necessary, I could and would survive and thrive without electricity. At the moment I couldn’t tell you how, but I’d figure it out as I went along. I’d adapt.

Before they did so, my neighbors probably couldn’t have told you how they would survive without electricity either, but they figured it out anyway.

Looking around at my so-called simplified existence, I think of all the modern conveniences I take for granted and wonder if I’m better off than my “off the grid” neighbors.

I’m certainly no happier than they are. They smiled contended smiles and laughed easily. Their faces were fresh, bright, vibrant, and obviously healthy.

They didn’t have the furrowed brows of people I see at the supermarket, stressed and worried looks on the faces of people whose shopping carts are full of processed, frozen, microwavable food, packaged meat, and bags of deep-fried corn derivatives.

My neighbors don’t have hot showers. They can’t just turn a knob to cook their food. They don’t even have a refrigerator in which to keep their food. And yet, they’re happy.

But, are they poor?

I don’t think so. I’m jealous, actually. They’re burdened with a lot less cargo than I am. What if I we weren’t dependent on utility companies? What if our family was truly self-sufficient? How sustainable would we be then? How tiny would our footprint be?

More importantly, if we had to live without electricity, could we still be happy? I think yes.

I might even test the theory – after my shower.

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Vanilla Extract

VanillaextractThis is vodka bottle. Inside is vodka. Oh, and vanilla beans.

In other words, vanilla extract.

Wanna know what it tastes like?

It tastes like vanilla extract.

We paid $10 or $12 for the vodka and $5 or $6 for organic vanilla beans. Spent maybe $18 for what amounts to 25oz of pure vanilla extract.

We could have gone to the store and bought vanilla extract for around $2 per ounce. But what fun is that?

In Defense of Unschooling

Despite the vociferously unspoken (and mealy-mouthed spoken) complaints of certain family members, our family home schooled for three years. It was hard enough to admit we were home schooling, so we didn’t mention the fact that we were unschooling.

thanks to homeschoolmosaics.com

thanks to homeschoolmosaics.com

What the hell is that? Unschooling? I’ve never heard of it so it must be bad for my niece. Or granddaughter.

In the old days, when we were normal, our oldest attended kindergarten, second, and third grades at a public school in the city. The middle one went to kindergarten and first grade. The little one was too little for school. When we moved to the country, and thus became abnormal, we decided to home school just for the fun of it. Uschooling wasn’t something we consciously intended, it just kind of happened.

We’d heard of unschooling from various sources, read a couple of books on the subject, and figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. Both our older children had been in gifted programs at the city school and both were way ahead of their respective grade levels. Surely a year or two of unschooling wouldn’t reverse what the public schools had accomplished and cause our children to become vegetables, devoid of any intelligence whatsoever.

No curriculum? Seriously? Hmmm….

How can they learn? How can two people arrogantly believe they have enough knowledge or skill to educate their own children? It takes a village! Lots of influences, that’s the ticket! They need to be exposed to a wide variety. And what about their socialization, hmmmm? How about the arts? Culture? Physical education? You can’t provide them those things. That’s what school is for!

elephantrocksBut we enjoyed it. We enjoyed the freedom. We enjoyed being able to do what we wanted, when we wanted. It was a beautiful dream, fraught with all the challenges freedom requires, but well worth the effort.

And then we got bored. At some point, home schooling, unschooling, wasn’t as much fun as it had been. We haven’t had the money to travel to museums and engage in various schemes we might otherwise have undertaken, which left us at home doing the same tired, old things we’d been doing for three years. It was time to revisit public schools as an option. It was also time to give Mom a break. And me.

The littlest one was the first to go. At the beginning of the school year, she started first grade. Soon enough, it was apparent the other two would follow. After the school year was well underway, at the beginning of the second quarter, our oldest joined her peers in seventh grade and the middle one joined his peers in fifth.

It’s been a difficult transition. The bus rolls up at 6:43 am and our kids are among the first on, settling in for the nearly hour-long ride. Same thing on the way home. Around 4:00 pm, they finally make it home. The amount of tedium required to complete assignments is appalling. The oldest two get very little free time and instead must focus their attention on schoolwork, sometimes well beyond bedtime.

But their first semester grades came after Christmas. Any guesses? No fair reading ahead!

If you guessed anything other than straight A’s you’d be wrong. All three, straight A’s. They hadn’t so much as cracked a textbook for three years, and yet they settled right in, right back into the old grind as if they’d never left. They’re awesome. And incidentally, so are their parents, who are, also incidentally, vindicated.

Our children do not need school. They choose school. As we’ve chosen our eclectic, non-conformist lifestyle, so too our children choose to continue to unschool; they just happen to be doing it while attending public school. They’re suddenly on somebody else’s schedule, following somebody else’s agenda, and at the moment, that’s ok.

At the moment, all’s right with the world. In the eyes of those family members who thought we were neglectful, if not downright abusive for choosing to home school our children, all’s right with the world now that our kids are back inside the safe, snug, secure box that encompasses the narrow-minded world-view some people hang onto with a tight-fisted, fear-filled grip. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Complicated Simplicity

Choosing simplicity is still complicated.

There are too many days I’d rather have more money. It seems as if the idea of living simply and sustainably is inextricably intertwined with, for lack of a better word, poverty. I’d like to say there’s a way to have plenty of disposable income and still live simply, but I have yet to come up with a method of accomplishing both. That’s not to say there’s not a way, just that I haven’t come up with one. Yet.

Not that we’re impoverished. We’re not. In fact we’re very comfortable. But we’d like to travel. We’d like to see and do things we’ve never done before. We’d like to have extra money. So far though, I haven’t found a way to maintain my current lifestyle and make more money. Yet.

Making money is inherently complicated. In order to have more money I’d have to relinquish a certain degree of freedom. I’d have to have a full-time job doing work I find neither satisfying nor fulfilling. I don’t want a job.

I thought I’d follow the advice and example of so many others, countless others who blog, write books, create websites; internet entrepreneurs, carving out a virtual niche and profiting from it, realizing their dreams of financial freedom. Work from home. Set your own hours. Be your own boss.

For those who’ve tried it and failed, I feel your pain. Too many days I’ve got nothing to say. Some days, even if I do have something to say, I don’t feel like saying it. Some days I wish the Internet had never been invented so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not having profited from it. I don’t envy the zit-faced billionaire creators of social media apps. A billion’s a little more than I need. I just wanted to earn a living and some days, I regret my inability to do even that.

So I thought, screw it. I won’t write anything. This blog was a stupid idea anyway. And the website. And the book.

But after my one year hiatus, I’m thinking I might revisit the blog and just write for fun again. I still live simply. I still (try to) live sustainably. Nothing’s changed. OK, that’s untrue, plenty has changed in the last year, but I’m still as passionate and enthusiastic about living a simple, sustainable lifestyle; that part hasn’t changed. So, if I feel like writing and sharing on occasion, why not?

The Not So Sustainable Shave

…an update on The Sustainable Shave

My bit of irony for the last few weeks has been life without my electric razor – the subject of my last post. The electric razor was the star of the show, the hero, my savior from a life of scraggly scruffiness.

It was ranked #2 on my list of things-not-very-sustainable-but-I-don’t-care-I’m-keeping-them-anyway, or TNVSBIDCIKTA.

Somehow my beloved electric razor got dropped, thrown, kicked, or drop-kicked against something. Unaware, I started up the right (my right, your left) side of my face and got about halfway up the cheek by the time I felt the pain and realized something wasn’t right.

My screen had a sizable hole, big enough to leave a small series of vertical, reddish-hued streaks on my poor, unsuspecting cheek.

The hole rendered the razor useless. If it was on one edge or the other I could work around it and, in the past, in times of crisis not unlike the current situation, I’ve been known to do just that until I could get a replacement screen. It’s a tricky, delicate operation, not for the faint of heart. But I’m no coward (notwithstanding the fact that I’m still squeamish about the idea of using a straight razor – that’s just common sense!) and have plenty of manly tolerance for pain. A nick or two here and there is good for the constitution, builds character. But a hole in the middle of the screen – that’s another story. There’s no skirting the issue. There’s no getting around it. I’m stuck.

Having suffered the week-long, emotionally-scarring ordeal involving letting my facial hair grow, I wasn’t anxious to repeat that particular episode. Wal-Mart might have a replacement screen, or they might not. It’s a one hour drive just to find out. I could call, but I’ve been down that road before and learned Wal-Mart employees will say whatever they think you want to hear just to get you off the phone. Call me cynical.

I could order a new screen online, but it’ll take a few days to get here, maybe as long as a week. I don’t have that kind of time.

So I bought the cheapest triple-blade disposables available at the local grocery store, spending $3.47 plus tax for four razors and buying myself some time. Time to think. Time to reflect. Time to weigh the options again…

I hate the idea of throwing disposable razors in the trash. But I’m actually enjoying the process of lathering up and shaving. The electric razor seemed impersonal by comparison.

I’m undecided… Lip balm’s still firmly ensconced at #1 on the TNVSBIDCIKTA list, but #2’s up for grabs.

Nothing New Under the Sun

OK, break’s over. I’m back.

But what do I have to say that’s fresh, new, interesting, and exciting?

Nothing, lately, which is one reason I haven’t posted.

Why force creativity? If inspiration’s not there, why try to manufacture it?

I’ve spent the last few months trying to master the art of going with the flow. In the process, I’ve been flowing away from this laptop toward other things.

AND – I’d been working on serious posts. Serious posts are much harder to write. Serious posts have gravity and aren’t to be taken lightly. So I take them heavily.

Serious posts are cerebral. They’re intended to be thought-provoking. And they are; I think about them way too much, which is why they don’t get published. It’s why you’ve never read them, because they don’t get written in the first place.

AND – Since my foray into this strange, new world of blogging began, I’ve watched some of you (you know who you are!) whipping out great posts day after day. I set a goal for myself to publish a new post at least five times a week and failed miserably. I might as easily have stuck my head in a vice and cranked on it a little every day.

By setting the goal of writing more than what came naturally, I put too much pressure on myself. The result was inevitable.

AND – Last year while seeking simplicity I started writing a book, building a website, writing a blog, and half a dozen other projects; which all became decidedly un-simple.

So I put it all aside, focused on my family for the holidays, and enjoyed the season. After the holidays, when my internal calendar said it was time to get back to work, I questioned everything.

I questioned whether I wanted to blog at all. Why bother? It’s a legitimate question. Beyond the obvious answers; to reach out, to share, to learn, to grow, to have a creative outlet, etc., there must be some deeper underlying reason to blog. How about TO CHANGE THE WORLD!

I can already hear my nine year old son say, “Drama King.” Yes. I am. So?

Truth is, I do want to make a difference. I want what I do on a daily basis to matter. I have a unique voice and perspective, along with a gift for communicating it clearly.

I also want life to be simple.

To recap, I want a simple life AND I want to change the world.

AND – Intermingled amid simplicity and altruism is the necessity of providing for my family. Money comes in handy when we want to buy stuff like food, clothing, and shelter.

So to re-recap, I want life to be simple, AND I want to change the world, AND I have to make money. All of which, combined, makes my head spin. Which makes me want to stick my head in a vice.

But I can do it all. I don’t have to chose one or the other. I can have a simple life AND change the world AND make money.

Can’t I?

The Sustainable Shave

Inspired by Kosmos 9’s series of posts titled War of the Sexes, I let my facial hair grow. It’s something I’d been thinking about for a while but hadn’t gotten around to.

I was curious to know what it’d feel like having never let it grow for more than a few days at a time. Ever. “It’ll be interesting,” I told my wife when she wrinkled her nose a little.

As a teenager I hated disposable razors, cutting my face more often than I care to remember. Borrowing my older brother’s electric razor convinced me they were the best (meaning safer and less painful) way to shave. In the twenty some-odd years since I’ve owned two electric razors. About once a year I have to buy a new blade and screen, which usually costs about $15.

In my quest to be as sustainable as possible I’ve pondered various ways to shave without electricity and without disposable razors. The answer from a long-term sustainability perspective is an old-fashioned straight razor sharpened daily with a leather strop. However, being squeamish about having a long, super-sharp blade near my throat held by my own unsteady hand, my overactive imagination conjures ghastly images best not described here.

Watching guys on YouTube demonstrate how to shave with a straight razor gives me the willies. One guy in particular jokes about the scar on his cheek – a result of his inexperience. So that’s the learning curve? You know you’ve got it when you no longer carve deep gouges in your face?

Besides the safety issue, good quality straight razors and accoutrements are expensive. Better (meaning safer and less painful) to simply let the beard and mustache grow.

There’s also something a little rebellious about the idea of letting it grow. It’s like when I was a teenager in the late 80’s and simply didn’t cut my hair. I wasn’t trying to be stylish or rebellious, I was just too lazy (or too broke) to get a haircut. But as an added bonus Mom, Dad, and all my teachers hated it. Today I have the luxury of being a little rebellious. At this point in my life there’s nothing (I thought,) short of my wife’s discreet nose-wrinkling to stop me from letting it all hang out. So to speak.

So I let it grow.

And the results are in:

  • the kids looked at me funny
  • the wife tried not to laugh (thanks for the effort, Dear)
  • my friends pretended not to see
  • now I know why my dad always said we were part Indian
  • I’m genetically barred from growing a full beard and little more than a Hitler-esque mustache

And as a result of the results, the experiment lasted a week.

Seven days’ worth of No Impact grooming was all I could stand. I don’t consider it a failed experiment though, because now I’ve got one more thing definitively added to the list of “things not very sustainable but I don’t care I’m keeping ’em anyway.” The list so far:

  1. Lip balm
  2. Electric razor

Topping my wife’s list: chocolate. I’d love to know what’s on your list.

Dr. Clemens and the Stirred Pot

Here’s a rambling, meandering post on our family’s home schooling experiences. Our choice to home school has at times been a contentious issue, so I’ve been reluctant to write about it. Actually, for the last few years many of our decisions have been contentious. So, what the hell! Let’s stir the pot.

On a typical school day at our house: the Little One whines, the Middle One mopes, and the Big One pulls out her hair.

Some days are easier than others. Some days it’s like pulling teeth. Some days I envy parents who put their kids on the school bus five days a week.

Other days, most actually, I’m grateful to be here sharing their childhood with them.

Most days, although the Little One whines, the Middle One mopes, and the Big One pulls out her hair, we make it through just fine.

And sometimes a minor miracle happens. It’s the moment of recognition, when they finally get it; whatever something they couldn’t quite grasp is suddenly grasped and for that phenomenal moment the whining stops, the face lights up in a smile, high fives are served up all around, and all five of us do a happy dance in the middle of the living room and end up in a big hug. That’s why we home school.

Others, though, predict doom for our children. It seems as if in some circles, home schooling is akin to child neglect. In fact, two years into it, we’re still downright shunned by some family members. Without a “proper” education, I presume, our children will lack the tools necessary to compete in the workplace.

So, with a “proper” education, their life would be better, right? They’ll never face unemployment, bankruptcy, or foreclosure? They’ll never have health issues? They’ll never have to work a job that sucks? Etc., etc., etc.

I say “bah.” Human experience isn’t limited to your world-view Naysayer, it’s as deep and wide as the universe itself and changing by the second.

The school bus rolls by at 6:50 am while my kids sleep soundly. It rolls by again at 4:00 pm while my kids jump on the trampoline or tromp new trails through the woods in our back yard. While doing their schoolwork, if they want a drink of water, they get one. If they need to pee, they pee. We don’t make them stand in line for either of these activities. When they need help, we help them. When they’re doing just fine on their own, we leave them alone.

It’s the first week of December and our kindergartener just completed our state’s requirements for kindergarteners. The Middle One and the Big One are half finished with their respective grade levels, which is about right, I guess, compared to their school-attending peers.

Ask parents of school-age children and they’ll tell you the public school their child attends is great. Or they’ll say it’s horrible. Or they’ll say something like, “eh, it’s ok.” Public opinion runs the gamut – are the schools meeting expectations or aren’t they? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Samuel Clemens left school at 11 years old. With his fifth grade education he became arguably the greatest American author of his (or any) era and was later awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Oxford, Yale, and the University of Missouri. Dr. Clemens turned out ok. I could find a thousand more stories if I wanted to, of people dead and alive – uneducated (meaning self-educated) people who achieved extraordinary things and contributed immeasurably to the betterment of society. But I don’t want to. I’d rather spend the time teaching my kids how to learn.

Which, incidentally I didn’t learn in school. I taught myself.

Panacea

We’re talking about moving back to the city. One city in particular, with a population of 100,000 people. Two and a half years ago we moved out of a much bigger city to find peace and solitude, which we found. So now we’re thinking about moving back?

Noise, trash, vehicle exhaust. Crime.

But also year-round farmer’s markets and bike-friendly streets in a progressive community supporting a university. I imagine a panacea. We’d go down to one car and park it, bicycling instead to the library, the market, the park. We’d find and befriend like-minded people. Writers, creatives, entrepreneurs, home-schoolers, minimalists, simplicity and sustainability seekers…

I remember my college days, cerebral times when my brain was on fire and profundities flowed like water. How interesting it’d be to go there again. What kind of creative endeavors could I create then, surrounded by and fed by other creative minds excited and energized by their own creative pursuits?

If we did move, it’d be a Grand Adventure. That’s what I’d tell my kids. That’s what I told them when we moved to the country – “it’s an exciting adventure, new discoveries around every corner.” And it was.

I love where we are. It’s a recreation destination, more heavily populated from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but otherwise, we’ve got it pretty much to ourselves. Even during the summer it’s not too crowded. Scenic views, nature, wildlife; it’s beautiful.

Here I have the window open and in wafts fresh air and the sound of bird calls. There’s no smell of exhaust or sound of some teenager’s booming car stereo. No sirens.

But it can get lonely out here in the wintertime. The season’s changing, weather’s turning colder, and we extroverts will soon be looking for companionship beyond ourselves.

There’s so much potential in a city.

There’s potential here too, it’s just of a different kind. We’re torn. Back and forth we go, stay or not stay, stay or not stay.

Dilemmas, dilemmas…

The Key to Simple Living

Cover of "The Simple Living Guide: A Sour...

Cover via Amazon

While browsing book reviews on Amazon for the Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs, I came across one I absolutely loved, so I’m reprinting it verbatim. I have no way to credit the author. Sorry, whoever you are!

The key to simple living is to simplify your life.

I don’t think the author has really figured that out yet, because this book tries to cover sooooo much information and sooooo many ideas that it just misses the whole notion of simplicity. It made me tired just to try to read it (and I am a very avid reader!).

While the author means well, and has some good advice for those just beginning to try to find a simpler way of life, she tries to retain ALL the facets of life you may possibly want to ever consider trying to “simplify”. It reminds me of those alternative “light” recipes for overly rich foods: the real point isn’t to create less caloric forms of the recipes, the point is to stop eating that kind of food.

Simplify, simplify! I am afraid as an old practitioner of voluntary simplicity I was confused and depressed by this book, which seems to offer very little in the way of true simplification and much in the way of things-I-didn’t-know-I-should-be-worrying-about.

Simplicity:

  • Get rid of anything you haven’t used within the past year.
  • Pay off your credit cards and just keep one or two for real emergencies.
  • Be monogamous.
  • Give your time instead of money to those you love.
  • Turn off the TV.
  • Think about how to live with only half of the possessions you have and then DO IT.
  • Eat fresh, simple, whole [organic] foods. Drink water.
  • Create a garden and spend time in it (instead of watching TV).
  • Let other people worry about “getting ahead”, status trips, newer cars and bigger houses, trendy clothing.
  • Read: How To Make Your House Do The Housework.

If your kids don’t like it, they can complicate their lives all they want when they grow up, but at least they will know how to LIVE first.

Oh, yeah. Read ‘Walden’ By Henry David Thoreau – often.

I agree. Mostly. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the review. Anyway I don’t think we really need books to tell us how to simplify. Only blogs. Like this one. 🙂

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