Here’s one small metaphorical leap from travel literature: the journey of life can be enjoyed even in cheap hotels. This idea is standard in any folk philosophy — better to have modest means and do what you enjoy. Even in the carpeted corridors of yuppiedom, people are considering “downsizing” their frenetic careers, although this is more a search for sanity than the pursuit of an ideal. What I advocate is more radical than winching down from six digits of income to five.
The simple life I refer to would qualify me for the “underclass,” that great specter created to assist the mainstream economy in distancing itself from those not like itself. Living simply has been central to our mythos of the artistic life, conjuring a smoky demimonde of ill-heated flats, spartan furniture, a diet of staples like potatoes and peanut butter, and a rustic kind of self-reliance that draws inspiration from the inability to afford anything beyond rent, if that. But such archetypal images do not explain the merits of a simple life, which can be discovered only by the examination of particular lives.
Statistics are even less helpful, revealing inputs and outputs but little of how we shape the process itself. There are vast differences in the lives of an unemployed single mother of four who can’t read, a houseful of broke graduate students, and (in our case) a marriage of writer and oboe player who accept a lower income to focus on their avocations.
There’s my uncle, who spent many non-lucrative years painting canvases, listening to music, reading, making pottery, and generally shaping a life that he maintained even in flush times. He was variously a bohemian, a beatnik, and a hippie — depending on the decade and on how self-indulgent he was feeling.
In the days before futons, he and my aunt slept together on a single mattress. Their home was a lovingly remodeled corner of the warehouse from which they ran a seed business. Extra cash went for exotic travels or artwork. They held insurance in contempt, preferring to rely on a samurai-like state of relaxed alertness to fend off life’s mishaps. As with most alternative ways of life, it worked well when they were faithful to its principles and accepting of its costs. When my aunt developed cancer, she couldn’t afford chemotherapy — but she didn’t want it, either.
My parents, though more conventional — indulging in such ordinary vices as insurance and packaged dinners — had similar leanings. Not until I was an adult watching friends get on the consumerist treadmill did I realize my family had purchased almost no consumer items since 1969.
Their reluctance to shop made a certain sense if you looked at their heritage: small farmers and Methodist preachers, out on the prairies. (Farmers didn’t shop — they went into town for supplies.) They inherited a reflexive skepticism that helps one resist social fashions. They wore clothes of indeterminate (“classic”) style until threadbare, without much concern for the vagaries of fashion. Every car we had, we kept into the failing ball-joint years. As a child, I had to make my own way biking, busing, or beating my feet.
If this was austerity, it didn’t present itself as something requiring discipline or special vows. It was just what we were used to. Once, in a shadowy past, my parents had bought a sofa and a few Danish Modern chairs. There was a television which breathed out antiquity — black and white and crammed with tubes. We accumulated books, but most of them were free review copies. To house them, my father built bookcases. He made tables to provide suitable platforms for the immense clutter of magazines and newspapers. He covered the bare areas on our walls with his own artwork. A house to enrage burglars and bewilder claims adjusters.
My parents didn’t wring their hands over my monetary health. Any consumer goodies, such as my first motorcycle, I had to work for. It was hoped I would find an occupation I enjoyed, but I was not booted off to college as though it were tacked on to high school or a hostel for post-adolescents too restless to keep at home.
It is not surprising that non-materialism fit me like a pair of old shoes. When I met my wife, I was bike touring, practicing Buddhism, and working in a clerical job. My furniture consisted of a mattress and a low table at which you sat Japanese-style. I had no TV and no car. Doing without them allowed me a smug contempt for the fossil-fuel and video junkies. My principles owed their origins to no single tradition, but were, rather, a bulging sack from the Grocery Store of Alternative Beliefs. There was a cheap thrill to being Mr. Unorthodox — but the essence remained even as I got older and less gee-whiz about it. While some of my friends let their ideals erode, disappearing to sell insurance or work for IBM, a few of us continued to shlep along in such untaxing day jobs as clerk or bike mechanic, while we identified ourselves to others by what we did in our free time.
Whether this way of life brings wisdom or happiness is an unfortunate framing of the question, though the way I usually hear it. In our society we are not trained to think or observe in terms of intrinsic satisfaction. The question also implies a closure — as if I had lived enough of my life to pass judgment on it. My conclusions must be tentative; the experiment is still running and some of the results won’t be in for years.
One thing this life does bring is perspective, a heightened awareness of some paradoxes of modern life and a chance to do some ruminating that otherwise wouldn’t be done. Here’s a generic conversation I have with those in weary pursuit of the American Dream:
Me: Why do you need two cars?
Them: Because we both work.
Me: But you both work so as to afford two cars. Gina doesn’t even like her job that much. She chafes at the lack of time she has with the children.
Them: Uh. Well, there’s all that stuff for the kids.
Me: But if one of you stayed home, or if you both worked part time, you wouldn’t need so much of that. More family activities would fill the vacuum. Your children would get to know you. You could read some interesting books.
Them: What, are you crazy?
There was a time when it was possible to be poor and still consider yourself OK. Songs like Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just A Lucky So-And-So” spoke clearly of happiness without money. In the movies, poor people were honest and often heroic. This was before the storming of so many cultural ramparts by the forces of corporate marketing. Their dominance of all media meant the ascendance of the consumer as the archetype of success.
A small grunt of disgust occasionally comes from the national subconscious, most recently in the glut of movies with anti-materialistic themes, such as The Fisher King with its homeless schizophrenic and down-and-out drunk in search of a modern Holy Grail, or Regarding Henry, where a cutthroat lawyer becomes selfless and childlike after receiving a bullet in the head. The prognosis is not good, however, if the message is that only the lunatics and brain-damaged can find a higher meaning outside the mainstream.
The poor have certainly been co-opted by the throwaway aspect of culture, leaving them inept and careless when it comes to preserving things. People used to know more about sewing their clothes, fixing things that fell apart, and other methods of coping that sustain pride and keep one off the dole. My wife and I routinely encounter people who think we’re idiots because we qualify for food stamps but don’t take them. The idea of self-reliance, of making do with simple meals, is greeted with a cynical sneer.
The anthropologist Ashley Montagu has defined culture as the way a society solves its problems. Extending this definition, I would say that a decadent culture is one that no longer provides adequate solutions for a significant portion of its members. In the interest of revitalizing said culture, I submit a modest list of some economies — as a catalyst for thought, not in any way a comprehensive set of how-tos.
1. Budget as little as you can for groceries. I know a family of four that spends four hundred dollars a month on food. Our family of four spends about one hundred dollars — and we don’t fast or subsist on brown rice. We avoid food that is packaged or imported. We buy items like cereal, rice, flour, and potatoes in bulk. There are stores that specialize in bulk and “defective” foods. Some food is discounted because it’s not up to some aesthetic standard; most shoppers accept blemished produce only if it’s from their own back yard or labeled “organic.” And we buy generic items to get around the name-brand companies that charge you mostly for the color-print packaging and advertising. I realize some people cannot begin their day without seeing Tony the Tiger or the Lucky Charms leprechaun leering at them over their cereal bowls. To them I say, “Keep the box and refill with bin cereal as needed.”
Perhaps the most useful principle is called Stay On Outer Aisles (“STOA” for short, as in “grocery stoa”). Observe the layout of a supermarket and you’ll notice that basic foods are found on the perimeter aisles: fresh produce, dairy products, eggs, meat, potatoes, and baked goods. If you traverse only the perimeter, you will get an excellent diet and buy food that’s less packaged and processed — for example, bags of potatoes versus potato flakes or frozen hash browns.
2. Use bikes, buses, feet. To all who bleat, “But a car is so convenient,” I usually ask how convenient it is to deal with parking, insurance, repairs, traffic jams, stench of fumes, medical problems for lack of exercise, and the myriad other personal costs of owning and operating such a machine.
No matter how carefully I present the simple and healthful joys of walking and biking, or the conviviality of taking a bus or train, my fossil fuel junkies have a ready repertoire of objections. The classic one is, “Well, maybe you can do this and that on a bike, but what about groceries and what about picking up children?” (I have noticed that few who so argue would ever confine their car use to the transport of groceries and children; oil addicts will engage in any sophistry to support their habit.)
Yeah, sometimes a car is nice, especially when the weather stinks or you’re going out of town. For the grocery/child dilemma, a bike trailer works well. Ours carries two small children (total weight capacity of about 150 pounds) or a lot of groceries or one child plus some groceries. This requires some effort, but it also provides the same rewards for which people drive to the health club.
It should also be mentioned that children over the age of four are usually capable of walking or biking considerable distances. I am always amazed at parents who chauffeur their children around and then chastise them for being physically inactive and bemoan their inertness to other parents. These people are defining for their children that artificial boundary line between exercise and transportation.
3. Deprogram yourself from the Cult of the Shiny. Lots of us pay lip service to recycling, and some of us actually stomp cans and bundle newspapers and the like. Yet many cannot overcome the feeling that there is something undignified or perhaps impure about buying used goods — though it’s actually a better way of recycling and taking things out of the waste stream.
Go to garage sales and thrift stores. You will see junk, but you may also be surprised at the decent goods that people toss out. I’ve never bought new jeans; the ones I find at the thrift store are clean and pre-washed to a high level of comfort. Garage sales yield almost anything. If you happen to live near a college, a veritable gold mine of free stuff is created yearly by what I call the Desperate Trashing. Graduating students, frantic to get out of town, won’t even bother with a garage sale; into the dumpsters go furniture, clothing, books, small appliances, toys, you name it.
4. Redefine toys. Children weary quickly of toys with a defined function. They prefer things on which they can exercise their imagination and creativity. Keep those toilet-paper tubes.
5. Borrow and share. In every neighborhood is a man with too many power tools who will be thrilled to show you his workshop and insist that you borrow something. (Excuse my gender stereotyping, but I have yet to meet a woman who compulsively collects power tools.) Or consider an artifact like the extension ladder: how many does one residential block need?
6. Incorporate potlucks into your socializing. These were better in the days when humans knew how to make more than pasta salad. Still, it’s possible to enforce some variety. The economics of a fully functioning potluck are excellent and embody a fundamental principle: there is no better group activity than eating. (Yes, I know there’s dancing and singing — but levels of skill vary so much on those; everyone knows how to chew and swallow and say, “Mmm.”)
7. Heat and cool sensibly. The relevant austerities are odious to Americans because they involve adapting ourselves to the climate, rather than the reverse. Routine to our forebears were such measures as decent ventilation, window awnings, and comfortable clothing. In winter, apply the Jimmy Carter principle: put on your sweater and keep the thermostat down. As for dealing with hot weather, I like this comment from a friend of ours who spent a year in El Paso: “Only a real weenie is afraid to sweat.”
8. Size your dwelling according to your real needs. America is the only country in the world where a small family thinks it needs two thousand square feet of living space. If you want open spaces, go outside.
When people ask me my income, I generally refuse to answer because that is not the point. You first have to break the spell of America, which John Updike once described as “a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” Do that and you may find yourself in a landscape where the motels are primitive but the views are unobstructed and breathtaking.
Don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper.