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.

Time on My Hands

Time is such a strange invention.

Time is an illusion, a man-made creation designed to delineate, to count moon cycles, to mark the days. Time is infinite, but we covet it and hoard it and act as if there’s not enough of it.

We make time. We find time. We lose time. We kill time.

There seems to be only a finite amount of it. We imagine there are only twenty four hours in a day. No more, no less.

But is that really true? Some minutes pass quickly, some slowly. Does time itself speed up or slow down, or does our perception change?

The obvious answer is the latter. Time is static, right? There were no more or no fewer minutes in the last few moments than in the few moments before that. So how we perceive the passage of time determines how fast or slow our minutes tick by.

So we control time.

We choose how fast or slow time passes. That choice, though, and the implementation of our control is still a theoretical concept, at least for me.

I’m sitting here waiting. There are other things I could be doing, but even if I was doing those things, I’d still be waiting. Sometime soon, my waiting will be over. The thing I’m waiting for will happen. Meanwhile, it’s really hard to wait.

And while I wait, no matter what I do, it seems as if I’m simply biding time, killing it, trying to devour it in large chunks in order to get to that point in time when the thing I’m waiting for happens and….

Then what? Will I finally be happy?

Maybe I should’ve listened to Mom when she admonished me to “be patient.”

But she didn’t tell me how to be patient. Truthfully, I don’t think I ever asked, but even if I had, I don’t think she would’ve had an answer.

Patience is mean some days, taunting me, sticking its tongue out and saying “nah-nah-nah-nah-naaaaah, you can’t get me.” Hateful!

But then I observe that when I’m engaged, like, say, when I’m writing a blog post, I don’t need or want patience. Patience could stick its tongue where the sun don’t shine as far as I’m concerned, because the current moment is all there is.

Time no longer exists.

Space – The Final Frontier

Last summer, during an intimate conversation, a close relative said, “the kids need more room.”

He meant my kids.

He meant we were neglecting our three children by living in this tiny, two bedroom home, by keeping them cramped (like sardines) in this miniscule space. He’d never come right out and say it, but that’s what he meant.

My hackles went up. I defensively (and admittedly somewhat derisively) said, “NEED? They need more room?”

He didn’t intend to be offensive, but I couldn’t help being offended. The insinuation was that my children, by virtue of having been born in America in the twenty-first century, should have their own bedrooms and plenty of privacy.

Not only do my children not have an x-box or wii or whatever, they don’t even have their own bedrooms! I am a bad dad.

Maybe he meant space. They need more space. But they have three acres that we maintain in which to play, with trees to climb and a trampoline and a rope swing. Beyond that they have a two thousand acre state park, virtually in our backyard, where they roam and romp as free as birds. And that’s not enough?

Well, they also have the space to be themselves. We don’t force them to be like us, little mini-me’s we try to mold into smaller versions of ourselves. They get to express their own opinions. They get to think for themselves and are encouraged to think outside the box.

We’ve tried hard to provide them with the tools to be happy and healthy and emotionally well-balanced no matter what life throws at them.

But, still… They’d be better off if they had their own bedrooms?

There are so many givens in society, so many things we take for granted, and we act as if life as we know it would cease if we marched to the tune of a different drummer.

Actually, life as we knew it did cease when we laid our pre-conceived notions aside and moved our family of five out of a four bedroom house and into this little space we currently occupy.

We learned to share. We learned to respect each other’s privacy. We learned to face differences of opinion head-on, instead of closing ourselves off in a private cocoon and avoiding conflict. We learned to interact with each other and get along with each other.

And living here has been an incredible blessing to us in countless other ways. We’ve all grown and prospered here, individually, and as a family, and I wouldn’t trade our experience here for any amount of money. If you asked any of the other four members of my family, they would agree.

This was and still is a temporary home. We had no intention of staying. However, we didn’t count on being so happy here. We didn’t know how much fun it would be to live in this particular spot at this particular time in our lives. So we’ve stayed a little longer than we originally planned.

And we’ll probably eventually move into a bigger house. Or not. Maybe we’ll live in less space. Wouldn’t that be a riot?

Jumping Off the Ladder

When we started this journey eight years ago, the idea of living a simpler life was one we knew we had to try. It felt right, felt good, but it was a bit like traveling to a strange, foreign land. Travel brochures made the place look too inviting to resist, but we didn’t speak the language and the food tasted funny.

We didn’t know how to not be conspicuous consumers, materialists, and harried busybodies just like our friends, family members, and neighbors. Initially, we tiptoed, testing the water here, testing the water there, and feeling our way around in the dark like blind mice who can smell the cheese but can’t quite pinpoint which direction to go to find it.

At first, our experiments in simple living were a series of small steps, little things to make our lives less complicated. Periodically decluttering by cleaning out closets or kitchen drawers was as far as we’d gone.

And then, four years ago, we took a leap, jumping headlong into Our Simplicity Project.

For starters, I took a huge pay cut,  and traded my stressful job for one much less stressful. Next we moved out of our 2,400 square foot house in the city, put most of our possessions in storage, and moved into an 800 square foot house in the country.

Almost overnight, we left the rat race behind.

The abrupt changes confused our friends and family members. Most of them weren’t privy to our decision-making processes, primarily because they wouldn’t have understood.

They’re not interested in simple living. They’re interested in convenience, stylish clothes, fashion, shopping, celebrity gossip, professional and collegiate sports, fine wine, fancy restaurants, fad diets, and pop culture.

We wanted to slow down and learn to enjoy life, instead of wearing ourselves out. I left my higher paying job because there are more important things than money. We moved to the country because it’s quieter, the air is cleaner, the stars shine brighter, wildlife is more abundant, and the pace of life is slower.

But stepping out of the bounds of normalcy and into the world of simplicity released a floodgate of negativity from a variety of sources. What are you thinking? Doesn’t that seem weird to you? Shouldn’t you think about your children’s futures?

We endured knowing glances, rolled eyes, and tiny, almost imperceptible verbal jabs from family and friends. There were accusations, manipulations, and pleas, spoken and unspoken. There was guilt, shame, and embarrassment projected by others and emitted from within.

We knew a simpler life was right for us. But overcoming our own and other’s ideas of “reasonableness” felt at times like swimming against the current in a rushing stream. It’s exhausting.

Responsibility, Protestant work-ethic, success… These are known quantities in American society requiring no explanation. Simplicity, on the other hand, in all its forms and multi-faceted nuances, is a vague concept people find hard to grasp and seekers of simple lives find hard to explain. There’s no concrete definition to satisfy each and every one of our family members and friends who view simplicity in different ways.

Some see simplicity as a cop-out, denying materialism because we’re too lazy to work for a living. Some see it as a haven for religious fanatics who reject modernity in favor of spiritual fervor. Some see it as refuge for paranoid conspiracy theorists who believe self-sufficiency will help thwart government encroachments. Some see it as a cover to mask deep-seated insecurities. Some see it as a plot by the environmentalist movement to overthrow democracy.

Some are threatened by those of us wishing to pursue simple lives merely because it goes against the grain and challenges the status quo.

Change can be scary. Accepting change is what most people do after a period of anger, remorse, or whatever. They’re passive bystanders, allowing life to happen to them instead of consciously directing it. For those of us who embrace change, who live purposefully, we cause the change and therefore confront it head-on.

Regardless of what friends and family members believe motivates us to seek simpler lives, even if at first we can’t adequately explain it we have an internal, innate knowing. Having the ability to see beyond perceived notions of what constitutes normalcy allows us to look past objections, follow our own truth, and find our path.

It’s better now. It’s not as hard for us as it was in the beginning because ironically, some who initially objected to Our Simplicity Project are starting to see the value in our lifestyle choices.

And maybe that’s not so ironic. They see how we’ve changed; how much more open-hearted we are now that we don’t have all the stress of the city life bearing down on us; how much more time we have for them and for each other; how happy and healthy and contented we are.

We gave up our big, beautiful house and most of our possessions, and jumped off the Ladder of Success in spite of all the objections. In the process we found out our version of success wasn’t up that ladder after all.

Am I a Bad Dad?

I often feel a tinge of guilt from somewhere in my psyche when I hear about kids and their x-boxes or wii’s or whatever the latest gaming system is, because my kids don’t have one. I feel even guiltier when I think how funny a gaming system would look sitting next to our non-existent television.

Am I a bad Dad? My kids are happy and healthy. They eat well and have an active lifestyle. They don’t lack for adequate clothing, even stylish clothes. They have hand held gaming devices and plenty of games from which to choose. Still, they’re different from other kids.

One of our neighbors bought a new, huge, flat-screen TV and offered us their old one for free. Their old TV worked just fine. There was nothing wrong with it. They just wanted a new one. We talked about it as a family. After more than two years without one, do we want a TV back in our lives?

The answer was a resounding, unanimous no. None of us felt like anything was missing from our lives because we choose not to have a television in our home. The TV, our thirteen year old daughter reasoned, would detract from our lives by luring us away from outdoor pursuits and other activities that bring us joy. It’s like sugar, drawing you in with promises of satisfaction and fulfillment, only to leave you unsatisfied and unfulfilled.

I think commercialism is shallow, hollow, inane, and boring. Commercials, while seemingly unavoidable, are still subject to my control. I choose whether or not to watch commercial television or listen to commercial radio or visit websites that have advertisements on them.

Naturally, my biases rub off on my children, the poor kids. When other kids at school talk about the latest commercial touting whatever new, hot craze, my kids are clueless.

Well, they were clueless until they heard about it at school. The other kids had to see the commercial 750,000 times while watching their favorite ½ hour long sit-com. My kids caught the gist of it in two or three nanoseconds while overhearing a conversation from across the cafeteria during lunch. At home they You Tube it and can’t see what the hype was all about.

“Was that it?” my son asks. Exactly.

So, call me neglectful.

I liken our TV-less lives to a few years ago when we eschewed the land-line in favor of cell phones. Just as cell phones un-tethered us from the tyranny of telephone wires, the internet allows us freedom from the Boob Tube.

We don’t lack access to entertainment, we just get our entertainment online now. We stream movies and music, read e-books, and listen to audiobooks and play games on various electronic devices. The difference is those devices don’t rule our lives.

We can’t even threaten the kids with the loss of their electronic device as a form of discipline. They say, “ok,” and then go grab a book off the shelf. More often than not, our children’s electronic devices are nearby our non-existent television anyway, right next to the gaming system I haven’t bought them.

Disposable Batteries

I hate disposable batteries.

I’m no fan of battery-operated gadgets either. The wall clock that needs one new battery every few months doesn’t bother me so much. But things like kid’s toys that require multiple batteries and use so much juice that the batteries have to be replaced frequently do bother me.

Batteries are pretty harmless-looking things, aren’t they? An integral  part of everyday life for most of us, they’re constructed of thin metal walls enclosing caustic acid, designed to last only hours and be thrown in the trash and transported to the landfill where they will slowly and inexorably leach their contents into the earth, and thus into our water supply.

With three kids, a house full of battery-operated toys is as American as apple pie. Gradually, though, as the kids age and the toys either break or quit working, we’ve rid ourselves of most of them. The toys, that is, not the kids.

We also try not to buy products requiring batteries when possible. When we do, we use rechargeable batteries, although they’ll ultimately end up right next to the disposables in a landfill somewhere. They’ll just take longer to get there.

Someday we’ll be battery free. Somehow.

That New Car Smell

A few years and two kids into our marriage my wife’s car broke down on the highway. Not a meandering, country-road kind of highway where some kind soul might happen along and ask about your well-being, but a six-lane urban interstate where you might get the finger from a passing motorist just for having ever been born. She had our first two kids with her at the time and was five months pregnant with number three. It was July and the temperature was in the upper 90’s. She was not happy.

There was no way we could do without a second car, so we did what any typical American family with two incomes and a good credit rating would do and went to a dealership.

We wanted a safe, reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle, one the whole family would fit in – the five of us (all three kids were in boosters or car seats,) plus Grandma and Grandpa. I drove a mini-van on a daily basis, which the whole family would fit in, but it was on its last legs. It had a gazillion miles on it and, more importantly, no air-conditioning. We didn’t trust it to take extended trips and, at least during the summer months, didn’t want to anyway.

At the dealership, we found a cross between a mini-van and an SUV that got relatively good gas mileage. It had a third row of seats and the rear seats folded down to create more cargo room. Although the young salesman who sold us the car didn’t convince us to buy the extended warranty and myriad other things which make the dealership money and rarely benefit consumers, we still drove away in a $25,000 car that was, in the blink of an eye, worth $15,000.

The broken-down old car had been towed to the house where it sat immobile in the driveway for months. The transmission needed replaced and I couldn’t think of a good reason to spend the $1,500 required to replace it.

We talked about donating it to charity, but I couldn’t fathom how giving away a broken-down car would benefit anybody. Besides, I reasoned, what if my mini-van broke down; then what would we do? It was backward logic, but I had no reasonable explanation for my desire to keep the car. My wife’s insistence that we do something with it finally convinced me to have it fixed, so I dug out a credit card with enough room on it to pay for the repairs. A few weeks later, we heard about a family who needed one, so we gave it to them.

We never regretted giving away the old car after spending $1,500 to fix it, but still lament our spur-of-the-moment $25,000 decision to buy a brand new one. It was a good feeling knowing we had a reliable vehicle, but the $475 car payment (financed over five years) added that much more to our already long list of monthly burdens. Every time we thought about selling it to buy something cheaper, we rejected the idea because we owed more than it was worth. Why trade a good car for one less reliable and still owe money?

The experience left me bitter. My wife was slightly less bitter, mostly because although we’d paid too much for the car, at least it had air-conditioning. My mini-van still didn’t.

With or without air conditioning, in the future, we promised to pay cash our next vehicle and never, ever buy another new one.

Heirloom Cookware?

In the early days of Our Simplicity Project, we cooked on old, worn out pans. They had started out as fairly good quality Teflon, but after so many years of use, the Teflon coating was chipped on most of them. We started wondering where the missing Teflon flakes went. Did they end up down the drain…or in our food?

Suspecting the answer was probably both, we wanted new pans, but really couldn’t afford expensive, ostensibly higher-quality cookware.


My great-grandmother’s pans

We took advice from my Aunt Jerry, who’d cooked on cast iron all her life. We also took a couple of old cast iron pans she wasn’t using. She described the process she used to season them and keep them non-stick and in good shape for decades.

Eventually we ended up with a 12″ skillet, a 10″ skillet, two 8” skillets, one 6″ skillet, and a Dutch oven. It took some time to get the rust off of one or two of them and cure them all enough times to make them truly functional for everyday use, but once we did, and after some practice, we were able to cook with them on a daily basis.

We learned to love cooking with them. Cast iron takes a little longer to heat up, but the heat is distributed more evenly and they’re as versatile as any cookware.

Cast iron pans are the most practical long-term solution, sustainable over potentially many lifetimes. Theoretically, we will never have to buy cookware again.

From a simplicity perspective, they are heavy in terms of weight, but light in terms of longevity and durability.

And my children cook meals in pans their great-great grandmothers cooked meals in. How cool is that?

Empty Cup

On occasion I like to totally clean house. It’s hard to do with a wife and three kids. The house isn’t just full of my stuff, but theirs’ too. Much as I’d sometimes like to, I can’t simply box up their books and movies and knick-knacks and cart them off to Good Will, as I’ve done with most of my things over the course of the last decade.

We’ve spent a ton of time and energy over the last few years paring down our belongings. Decide what’s valuable and keep it. Decide what’s superfluous and get rid of it. It’s a simple concept until you actually try it. And with five people in the house, clutter is inevitable no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

What’s sometimes more frustrating is mental clutter. Even metaphorically, it’s hard to clean house when the stuff I want to get rid of is not my own.

Mind clutter piles up and becomes overwhelming. I can’t hear myself think because of all the noise inside my brain, let alone all the noise and distractions from outside.

So many outside influences affect the quantity and quality of mental clutter. Sometimes it’s nice to just cut it off. Ignore every book on the shelf. Ignore all the movies. Ignore the computer, the tablet, the phone, and the mp3 player, along with any other electronic distractions. Turn off the TV and anything else that makes noise.

Ahh, silence. A moment of bliss.

Until somebody, any one of the other four people in my house speaks, or turns on the computer, or does anything else that breaks the silence.

That’s when I get the urge to go for a walk. Alone.

Not that I don’t love having all four of my housemates in my life. They all bring me joy in myriad ways, every day, and life would be meaningless without them.

But when the mental cacophony reaches a fevered pitch, it’s time to clean house.

Sometimes a short walk does the trick. Sometimes it takes a long walk. Either way, it’s silence I seek. Without silence, I can’t shut my brain up long enough to think.

It’s like the metaphor of a cup that’s so full it’s overflowing. There’s no room for the cup to hold another drop, and still, we keep trying to fill it.

Sometimes I want to turn the cup upside down.

Boil all the Voluntary Simplicity Movement and minimalist ideas down to their most basic elements and the concepts become, well, simple. Just turn the cup upside down every once in a while. You can fill an empty cup with anything you chose.

In a full cup you can only tread water.

Or drown.

Awesome Food

My family eats exceptionally well. Wonderfully wholesome meals, full of flavor. Mostly whole foods (meaning unprocessed,) prepared ourselves. Yes we spend more time in the kitchen, but we don’t care, we don’t have a TV.

If the average American spent as much time in the kitchen as watching TV, the world would, at the very least, be a quieter place.

There’s no particular diet we adhere to. We’re omnivores, sometimes vegan, sometimes vegetarian, sometimes unapologetic carnivores, but always with the goal of putting the best, most nutritious and wholesome foods in our bodies. Well, almost always. We occasionally indulge in cakes, cookies, or ice cream, but it’s not a habit.

We recently started drinking cow’s milk, which we hadn’t had in our diets for many years. A friend has a cow that eats grass a few miles from our home. Our friend milks the cow and shares the milk with us. I don’t think you could get any more wholesome without personally milking the cow.

We don’t hunt but have friends who do. They share the meat with us.

The weather turned cold and the ground froze and we haven’t been able to grow anything in our garden for two or three months, but we’re still consuming vegetables we grew last year and fruit we picked from trees in our yard. We have food in the freezer and food in glass jars. We have apples wrapped in newspaper and stored in boxes in our fruit cellar that taste today as sweet and juicy as the day they were picked four months ago. We have bags of dehydrated apples and pears that, at snack time, taste like candy.

The key to awesome food is following Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

And to repeat (from my previous post, Real Food)…

Follow these three simple rules to drastically improve your diet and health:

1. Don’t consume anything that contains high-fructose corn syrup.

2. Don’t consume anything from a restaurant unless it’s raw (like a salad).

3. Don’t consume anything from a grocer unless it’s raw (like fruits and vegetables).

Finding alternatives is an achievable goal if you try. You don’t have to personally milk the cow.

You don’t need the cow at all. It’s possible to get calcium in your diet without consuming any dairy products whatsoever.

We live in the information age, which goes without saying, although I said it anyway.

Living in the information age means we get to Google everything under the sun. Wiki this and Wiki that, until you find what you seek: Awesome Food.

Then, sit back, relax, turn off the TV, and enjoy.

%d bloggers like this: