Friday, August 31, 2007

On adaptation

I haven't worked steady since March. I got married in June and have been working very infrequently since then. This has given me a lot of time to read and think about things related, not coincidentally, to saving money, consumption issues, and why I worked full-time at decent wages for eight years and have not much to show for it.

Now, I'm about to start a full-time contract job that will last at least until the end of September. It doesn't pay amazingly well, but it is steady money. It's money that I know when it will arrive and how much it's going to be. It's stability.

There have been some hints and allegations from my loved ones (none taken the wrong way, of course) that when I'm solvent again, I won't be so heavy into the anticonsumer, not buying it mindset. The implication is that I made myself believe that living a nonmaterialist lifestyle is the right thing to do because that is the ONLY thing I could do. The implication is not that I'm hypocritical, but that I had to adapt.

Like a person who's been diagnosed with a fatal disease and is given a year to live might start believing in God and heaven, to take an extreme example. That way she keeps herself sane and keeps herself from completely falling apart into the hopelessness of it all. But say she's cured or that she was misdiagnosed, and now she can look forward to a long, healthy life again. Will she forget about her strong belief that she'd taken up during her illness, since it wasn't serving her needs anymore?

I don't think she would. And I don't think I will. The anticonsumerist mindset is not a trend or a fad, for me. I feel very strongly about it. Of course when I'm working I'll have to go out to lunch sometime like I would when I was working full-time before. But now, I can think about what I'm ordering, where it came from, whether it's got ingredients in it that I'm not comfortable with, what kind of systems are in place so that I could get that food, in addition to how much I'm spending on it.

The philosophy I'm developing isn't just about saving money, it's about workable systems. Not just workable for me and my family and our budget, either -- workable for society, for my community. The anticonsumerist philosophy is environmental, economical, psychological, political, and sustainable. I've mostly talked about the psychological aspect in this blog, because that's the part that fascinates me -- why we're so susceptible to brainwashing by this machine. But it entails all those aspects, in varying degrees of progression and understanding.

The personal is political. This journey has taught me that I don't need to consume to be a professional, or to be successeful at work. And while I'm on my lunch break, if I buy a $2 McDonald's value meal, I'm saving money -- but I'm not holding true to my ethic, I'd only be serving one part of that ethic. There aren't very many things that can serve every part of the ethical construct. But I've got to try to do better than just one piece of it.

So while I'll have more personal income soon than I have had, I'm not just going to ditch this journey I'm on. That doesn't even follow for me. The perspective I've gained now will benefit me the rest of my life -- that's what my best friend told me when we talked about this the other night. She's right -- and it will benefit me whether I become a millionaire or move off the grid and live entirely self-sufficiently. I think this is what's called a personal philosophy. I never entirely had one before.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On dichotomy

The market has united us all as consumers, but divided us as citizens. I don't mean divided us into two parties or anything like that. I mean divided each one of us into two parts: the "I-want" consumer and the "We-should" citizen.

Here's an example I'm dealing with right now. If I eat locally and organically, maybe a hamburger and french fries dinner will cost about $7 for me -- that's if I cook at home, not if I eat out. If I eat the same amount of food, with the same amount of protein and "fuel," at a fast food restaurant, I can spend as little as $2. Obviously there are health issues at play, but all things equal (amount of grease and salt used, etc.), the mass-market option costs me less. That's money I can use, since we're none of us rolling in the dough. Five dollars saved for dinner is not negligible.

Then there's WalMart. The writer I'm reading, Benjamin Barber, calls the new economy "the WalMart economy." The WalMart economy divides each of us between our desire and sometimes our need for cheap products -- not because we're supporting Asian sweatshop labor but because we do not have $200 for a local, renewable-resource, craft-made set of dishes. What we have is $30 for the on-sale stuff made in China, and sold at WalMart. But given the choice, would you buy the same toilet paper for $1 a four-pack on sale at WalMart, or $3.50 at your independent drugstore? Well?

That's the problem. For me, and most of my friends and family, the issue is not "I want it cheap and I like to go to WalMart!" (as Barber claims is our infantile "gimme" desire). The issue goes beyond that into what can we actually afford in this economy that looks to go sideways at any time, and leave our generation with no Social Security and no retirement funds. But we also know that the WalMart and fast food model is not something we can afford, either, as a society.

So I've figured out the way to get out of it. Of course, it's theoretical ... and on something like TP, you can't really do this ... but the only way I see to get out of this is to get off the ride of where to get this stuff entirely. Just jump off. If I think I need something and can get it for cheap at a big box, or I can get it for too much money locally made, maybe I don't really need it. I can improvise something else, I can get it for free on freecycle, I can buy it secondhand in any number of places, I can borrow it from a friend, I can fix what I have that the new product would replace, or I can just do without it.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

That's why I want to grow and raise my own fruit and vegetables. This gets me off the organic/local is expensive / Safeway is cheap seesaw. Right now I just try to compromise and buy local, organic, and cheap stuff.

And then when it comes to the TP, the only option is to support my independent drugstore. I can save that $2.50 by failing to go into WalMart at all and picking up those other things that seem to attach to big box shoppers like leeches.

Monday, August 27, 2007

On Christmas

This Christmas I hope to do all homemade, used, or edible/use-up-able gifts. I HOPE, I'm saying. Not "I resolve" or "I will" or any of that. Right now it sounds incredibly easy. Just knit socks for the parents and the husband. Well, I don't know how to knit a usable sock just yet. That's OK. I can learn.

For my dad's birthday (December 3) I want to make him a spice collection with herbs and spices from the co-op. The container will be hard to find but I'll figure out something -- likely something I already have or from a thrift store. Then for Christmas, I'm going to write him a book of my recipes (many using the spices!). He knows how to cook, he just doesn't have much of a repertoire.

For my mom's birthday (December 21) I'm going to send her a bunch of books from here. She lives in a very small town without a bookstore or much of a library -- and what library there is, she can't use because she's highly allergic to cats and if someone with a cat has touched the book, and my mom opens it, she'll have trouble breathing. She doesn't feel like driving an hour to the nearest Barnes and Noble is a good use of her time and fuel and I agree. So I have more books than I can ever read in a lifetime, including a lot that I've already read and don't intend to reread. Off they will go. For Christmas it's the socks, or a hat if I can't seem to make the socks. It just doesn't sound that hard to spend time on gifts that are usable (not macrame things that people have to find space for on their walls), gifts that don't take up too much space in someone else's house, and that don't cost more in money than in time, and that don't add to the endless consumption machine that eats us alive, especially around the holidays. The hell with all that! Socks ahoy!

Friday, August 24, 2007

On toys

I'm reading "Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole," by Benjamin Barber. It is simultaneously blowing my mind and echoing back what I think. I'm not going to quote the author, but I'm not even 100 pages in and it's already stirring up some pretty good questions, new ways to think about how we "all are."

When did adults start wanting toys? The deeper you get into this stuff, the weirder it gets. I first wanted to say it was the advent of the PC. No, it was video games (but weren't those first for kids? I don't think I knew many adults who played video games when I was a kid). No, it was muscle cars, points out my husband. No, maybe it was even before that. I go back to my life's source material, Little House on the Prairie, and I remember Pa whittling checkers and playing Laura, and then playing the men in town. Were all those men guilty of infantilism? Or is a game not a toy? I would hardly have thought the men who played checkers during the Long Winter were playing with children's toys, but does it fit under the definition?

When did marketers -- merchants -- ANYONE lose their souls enough to consider children "the prime target"? And can you protect a child, your own child, from this without raising them in the woods? We don't seriously consider having children, as I've mentioned here before, but if we did, I would push hard for homeschooling -- not to keep my kid safe from other kids or whatever they may have to deal with socially at school, or even to give them a better education than I think they could get at a public or private school. I would homeschool to avoid the Coke sponsorships in the hallways, to avoid Channel One and its Nike advertising, to avoid the story questions about "If Chris has four Oreos and Melissa has eight Oreos ..." with an Oreo coupon on the paper book cover.

I will paraphrase Barber here. He says: We may think we have a choice -- the choice not to participate in the consumption machine. But our only choice is really HOW we will participate, not if.

That is something I just don't buy, excuse the expression. I'm just not there yet. I don't think buying veggies at a farmer's market counts as participation in the consumption machine. I don't think making your own sweaters does -- even if you buy the yarn. I don't think making your bread does, even though you have to get the flour from somewhere. You could take it further back and say, like Father did in Farmer Boy: On a farm, a man is free and independent. You grow what you wear (they raised sheep), you grow what you eat, and you cut your shelter from your own timber. But Father bought the first pair of sheep from someone; they didn't rise from the ground like tree stumps. He bought seed potatoes and seed carrots. He bought the loom that Mother spun the yarn on. He bought the woodstove she cooked on. He bought the saw he cut the trees down with. You get the idea.

So that's where Father drew the line on participation in the machine. Buying the raw materials is OK; buying the finished product is not. For me, I draw it a little further down the line than that -- and hopefully it's not just because this is what I do. To me, it's about the where, and the who grows what you buy question. So tomatoes from Safeway are part of the machine; tomatoes from the farmer's market or the CSA are not. Bread you make yourself isn't, bread you buy is. A pair of jeans bought second hand is not. A pair of new jeans is. These are all my lines in the sand, and I'm drawing new ones every day.

My husband said, "I know you're just walking over this ground for the first time," with regards to consumerism dominating my reading, writing and most conversation. That's the truth. I just wish it hadn't even taken me this long to get here.

(Postscript: When I was in high school, I wouldn't buy anything unless it came from a thrift store. Six years later it was all Banana Republic, Victoria's Secret and Old Navy, all the time. So it seems I have been here before, in a sense.)

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Humanity

Some days I don't feel too good about humanity. I feel like most people I know, and everyone I don't know are judgmental fuckatoos who won't cut anyone else any slack. I feel like we're a warped society, manipulated and brainwashed into the idea that image and "cool" are everything, or contorted into the idea that we have to reject those things and so does everyone else or they are just "mundanes." Either way it's a hell of a lot of judging, condemning, smack talking, and general asshattery. I hope you pardon the language in this post but I'm just about at the end of my rope here.

People are cruel, and it's worse than seventh grade. I'm not the victim of this because I manage to straddle enough people's "cool" lines to get by fine, but I certainly see it often enough, and hear it out of my own mouth a lot of times, and those of my friends, who are really good people yet we all feel compelled to judge and critique each other into the ground (not face to face, of course). In talking to my mom, who's in her mid-50s, this is also how her friendships operate. I don't need to talk to my 16-year-old cousin, who got flamed online for being "ugly" and having the audacity to have a girlfriend who loves him, to know it happens in that age group. My point is not that some people are judgmental. My point is that it's systemic across society. I don't know when it happened or what to do about it, so I probably need to stop paying attention for awhile or I'll make myself into as much of a crank as the type of people I'm (you guessed it) kvetching about right now.

Here's what it has to do with simplicity. One of my mantras is: "It's not too late for a little bit of clean living." And it's not.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Little House

I learned to read early, and the first things I ever read that weren't picture books were the Little House on the Prairie books. I took a break from them in high school and college, but since becoming an adult I've had a Little House renaissance and am closely reading them again for all the details, as well as reading every bit of Little House scholarship or lit crit that I can find. It's getting to the point where (so says my mom) I'm an expert in my own right on these books. I'm not sure if I'd go that far. She thinks I should publish a book. Right now I'll start with a blog.

I'll get into the domestic details in a later post (my favorite character was always, and remains, Ma). Right now I want to outline a few reasons why I have Little House worship. In short, the 1880s-90s are my ideal decade, and the western frontier my ideal time-travel destination. Here are some reasons why:

There was no advertising.
There was minimal "pop culture."
The family was the center of life.
The community was the center around that center.
Everyone made something.
You knew where your food was coming from (barring Long Winters).
You knew what ingredients were and were not in your food.
You had to work with the Earth.
Your rhythms were in sync with the days and nights.
Nobody was "cool."
Nobody was "ironic."
You didn't have to worry so much about your life path, only how well you were doing.
You had to wait a few months to get a letter. You enjoyed the letter a lot more.
Ditto for new clothes, household items, and the newspaper.
Nobody got bored.
There was always something that needed doing or the structure wouldn't hold.
There was a sense of purpose.

Now for some cons, or reasons why I'd probably like it better now:

You had to be a Christian.
Women couldn't do anything but marry or live at home.
Women had no control over parenthood. They spent a lot of time pregnant.
If your family were assholes you couldn't leave.
If your family was poor, often there was no way to improve the situation.
Medical care was poor, rare, and prohibitively expensive.
Disabled people had to stay home and could not have their own lives.
Women whose husbands died often fell into abject poverty.
Children of such families often couldn't go to school.

So from these off-the-cuff lists, I have a conclusion: If things are normal, life in the Little House era was wonderful. But if anything went wrong, everything could get far more screwed up and more seriously screwed up than now. There was less margin for error, acts of God, disasters, sickness and death. There was not much of a safety net.

The question now is how to take those positive aspects (family, community, purpose, thrift, busy-ness, ignorance of pop/cool culture) and integrate them into the very safety-netted time we're in now. I suppose this is the best of all worlds and I hadn't looked at it that way before.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On community

A lot changes in your life when you get married, goes the conventional wisdom. Maybe your name changes (mine didn't), maybe you plan to start a family (not so much here), maybe your relatives got too drunk and now they aren't speaking to each other (thankfully, a negative).

I'm not going to get into the relationship aspects of what changed for me when I got married. But one thing that did happen was a pretty seismic shift in the way I looked at community. It happened on our honeymoon, in a cabin at Willamette Pass, Oregon. Before leaving Ashland, I had just finished reading a blog post by an Internet friend, where she asked for advice on what to do with a financial situation. As it usually happens online, 30 or 40 people responded with suggestions. As it usually goes with people telling you what to do online, she took none of them (and was no better off for it).

I was venting about this, in our cabin, to my new spouse. It sounds funny to call him that when I've known him seven years, but there you are. Why even ask!?, I complained. Nobody's going to ever take the advice of someone on the Internet. So then we got into this discussion, while I cooked pasta puttanesca on the stove and the temperature outside dropped into the 40s, about what online communities are good for. I said, kind of tongue-in-cheek, they were good for naming your dog and your kid. Who hasn't seen those polls? "What should I name my kid" and then 5 suggestions which you're supposed to vote for. I wonder if the one that wins ever gets picked. In my experience the name that's chosen wasn't even on the original list, proving that these people had the capability to pick out the perfect name without ever involving the Internet.

He said: "For all of history before 1990, people were able to name their dogs by themselves."

Anyway. With the dog name poll out of the way we started talking about more serious Internet and community issues. I won't reproduce the entire conversation here, but what I came out of it (and this is the changey part) is this: The greatest investment of one's social energy should be in their in-person community.

This is way different from how I'd thought before. I know people for whom "the Internet" IS their social life. I never thought it was weird, just figured there were more people they could relate to online. The problem is, is it really relating, especially when it's blogged (I'm thinking more LiveJournal than blogger) and not directed to anyone? Email is one thing. Email is like a phone call, but quiet. Text BBSing and LJ, the two Internet social avenues that I've had anything to do with, feel to me more like ... consumption. Oh, it's all coming together, isn't it. Well, it's funny, but it is.

When I read a post from someone I have never met face to face, and it's not "to me," I feel almost like I'm reading a book (depending on the quality of the writing, I suppose). Who hasn't wanted to jump into a book and make friends with the characters, or tell them exactly what they think? Maybe give them advice ("It's coming from INSIDE the house! Don't trust that guy!"). Maybe just bond with them because you're so much alike. Is the Internet one big book, and we all are characters and we all are readers? I think for some that might sound actually attractive. But to me ... well, I like to have a drink with my friends. Go over to their house and play with their dog, swap clothes, have them over for eggnog. I think I may be stuck in the 1950s. (Really it's the 1880s. I'll get to that in another post.)

There's a certain kind of energy you have to put into face-to-face interactions. It takes way more investment -- emotionally, physically, mentally -- sometimes financially -- than doing the same thing online. There's a certain part of the brain that lights up when you see another human face, and it does not light up when you get even the most personal of messages sent to you online. I think the investment is worth it. I don't think face to face, local, in-person community should fall at the hands of something that's much EASIER.

The Internet is good for a lot of things. What I'm doing now, for instance -- reading others' progress toward a certain end (simplification, financial independence, environmentalism) and sharing my own experiences toward this same end. The point is to gain understanding about what we've undertaken. I'm likely to add a thrift blogger to my reading list, but I'm not likely to add a monster truck fanatic's blog to it EVEN IF I love their "personality."

The Internet is good for information, and relating in a goal-driven way. The Internet is great for keeping in touch with friends (the ones you see and love in person) who are far away. It's cheaper than long distance and it's a good way to send family photos. But the Internet is not a substitute for community.

This is so different from what I believed since I got online in 1995 -- even while maintaining a pretty large circle of real-life friends and acquaintances -- I felt like you could never have enough Internet friends, too. Even ones I'd never met. Even ones I met and didn't get along with in person. If someone was interesting (and who isn't?) I felt compelled to add them to my list of Internet friends, and this was before LJ collated them all into "friends." But it started going into overdrive. The bigger your Internet circle gets, the more interesting people you meet and the more you and they start to think of one another as "friends." And become invested in each other's lives -- emotionally, not just intellectually invested.

When it got to the point where I'd rather sit home and chat online (to someone I'd never met in person) than go to dinner with some friends of the family, I knew something had gone wrong. We only have a certain amount of energy that can go toward socializing. I'm pretty energetic and I have this limit. When time is invested toward online friends, that energy and time will take away from OFFline friends, or even people right there in your own neighborhood. The relationship with your store clerk, I will argue, is more important than the relationship with someone who shares your interest in the poetry of Phil Rizzuto (RIP, Scooter) who lives across the country. I hadn't believed this to be true until a few months ago. Now it's pretty much unshakeable.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, including: my mom's assertion that you can't be picky when it comes to local community (you may not like the way that store clerk dresses, but unless he's a total asshat, it's still important to interact with the guy); the Internet's ability to feed the instant gratification urge (I write something; I don't want to wait till I can show it to my girlfriend at dinner in a week. I want feedback on it NOW!); the Internet as a place to share things you would not share with your girlfriend at dinner or with anyone who knows you in real life and is liable to label you a freak based on what you share (I wouldn't show my cousin or my husband's best friend's wife this Harry Potter fanfic, but there are 20,000 women online who will eat it up) -- and whether that stuff should be shared at all. Does every bit of information about every person out there with a computer want to be free, as the open sourcers say? Or is there some value in the self-censorship we have to do to maintain our real-life relationships?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

On consuming

I can't condemn my younger self for anything; we all grow, and this is the phase of life I'm in now. But I wish I'd known when I was younger -- even two or three years younger -- what I understand now about buying things to fill up my life instead of doing things to fill up my life. The desire for things that was actually a desire for a different aspect of my life. The wish for status, at the expense of the future.

Right now I don't see myself having any kids, but if I did, the thing I'd try to teach them (because who else would listen to me except, maybe, my own offspring?) is that the consumption machine is just that -- a machine, which we're fed through since we're conscious -- since we're 1 and 2 years old all the way until the day we die (and even after, if you want to buy a prestige coffin...). The work-to-shop, earn-to-spend ethos is so ingrained in our society that it's a wrench to get us out of it. But now I know: we do not need all the shit we're told we need, or even that we're told that we should want. You can be a classy person without the goods. You can be a smart person without the accoutrements. You can be attractive without all the product, even. That's what I know myself, now, and what I wish I'd known earlier.

In my 20s, I bought because I earned. I thought I earned it -- the word does more than imply it, the word tells you you deserve what you want to buy from the machine, because you work so hard. I'm not advocating stopping work and stopping spending. I wish I had thought, when I was 24, that I didn't need the $40 blouse I saw just because I could afford it. It's not the large things I regret. It's the small things -- all the small things, since I started full-time work in 1999. It was the comfort shopping, the shopping out of lack of anything else to do, the shopping because I was missing meaning and community. And then when I moved to San Francisco in 2001, I had meaning and community, but I also felt I had to shape up for The City coming from a smaller town where fashion was purely the domain of teenagers. Here, fashion was more for adults: people exactly my age. I bought into that, and I bought -- everything I thought I needed. I didn't spend $300 on a pair of heels; that wasn't my bag. I didn't buy anything much over $100, whether it was clothes or anything else. But it doesn't really matter about the numbers. I BOUGHT because I could.

Now I can't so much, and that's what it took. Now I know. I wasn't raised with materialistic parents, didn't grow up with the cheerleader gang, didn't go to an Ivy League school or move to a rich neighborhood. So even someone moderate like me still ended up buying the line: you need to buy, because you deserve it, because you can.

Well, now I deserve not to buy. I don't remember the last time I went shopping for something that was for me, and not for my wedding or a gift, in the last four months. Four months is not a long time, but I feel like there's no going back. Something final has shifted. I value almost anything now more than consuming.

But even with this knowledge, even with the forgiveness of the younger me, the line keeps running through my head, "Why didn't I know it then?!"

Friday, August 10, 2007

Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region

The title comes from a Whitman poem, repurposed by Veda Hille into a lovely piece of music.

I might use this to write about: urban self-sufficiency, downshifting, compacting/not buying, baseball, San Francisco, physical vs. virtual community and a-plenty of other things as they come to me. But mainly I wanted to have a Blogger account so I can comment on other people's blogs without it showing up as Anonymouse every time.