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'Tis Chic to be Simple 

But as Malcolm Howard discovers, living simply is neither simple nor easy.

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Dec. 7, 2000

I really should work on my voluntary simplicity article, and this would be a good time since my 18-month-old son is napping. But I only have an hour of so before he wakes up. Of course, since my child is sleeping, this would also be a good time to do some of the things I can't do when he's awake. I could clean and restock the basement freezer that I emptied yesterday to defrost. I also have to finish the electrical work I started in the staircase down to the basement, and I should really spend some time insulating the windows. Then there are the big projects that involve tools, like finishing the skirt around the sunroom so it doesn't get so darn cold in there. But all that would take too much time and I'd be too far away from the kid when he wakes up. So I guess I'll write.

As early as the 1930s, simplicity had a certain cache in American pop culture. E.B. White makes hay with this fact in a 1939 essay, which my wife recently encountered, regarding Hollywood's take on the simple, country life in Vermont.

"There [in Long Island] I had everything and was miserable," he quotes Judith, a character played by Bette Davis in the film Dark Victory. "Here I have nothing and am happy."

That concept of "nothing" is what White finds so amusing. "At the moment of making the remark, she was standing in a kitchen that had been modernized at considerable expense," he writes.

"It contained a large new electric refrigerator worth somewhere around two hundred and fifty dollars, or maybe three hundred. It also had an enamelled stove and (I think) a Monel metal sink. These things run into money as anyone knows who has ever tried it. With her in the kitchen were two domestic servants and two English setters."

White then goes on to tabulate a speculative budget for the house, based on other observations of the film, and finds that this simple existence would be (to bring things into a modern context) about equivalent to the kind of three-story starter castles that pass for country living in such hayseed backwaters as, say, Aspen or Vail.

Some 60 years later, the notion of simplicity is just as slippery, and subject to the romantic vagaries and whims of anyone willing to exploit the idea. At the same time, at least among the faithful, the notion of simple living has evolved a more practical, holistic definition, one that serves as a framework for doing the hard work of paring down the meaningless distractions from life in order to pursue one's true values and goals.

The Internet, for example, is full of Web sites, bulletin boards and chat rooms that explore what has become known as "voluntary simplicity," a movement that eschews mindless consumerism in favor of more fundamental values.

This is not a new phenomenon. The shelves of bookstores and libraries have long held tomes on people talking about how to simplify life, get back to basics (see the list of sites, books and articles at the end of this piece). A few years ago, my wife's sister gave her a deck of cards titled 52 Ways to Simplify Your Life, each emblazoned with a small tip for streamlining, reducing and editing the bullshit from life.

A fast-growing sector of both the self-help, personal finance and environmental sections of your local bookstore, simplicity is a small but growing market niche. Products abound that will help you organize your life, and the concept of simplification is peppered throughout tracts hoping to align your finances with your goals, get you back in touch with your family, your spouse or your inner child.

The notion put forth in many of these screeds is that 21st-century humans can substantially decrease their misery index, and help save the planet, by cutting down on one's material needs. The less stuff you need, the less money you demand, and the more flexibility you have in choosing your work, and balancing the needs of life with its simple pleasures.

As far back as 5,000 years ago, Buddhist and Hindu ascetic defined a more extreme variety of voluntary simplicity, while Jesus walked the walk of simplicity about 2,000 years ago. St. Francis took up similar vows ago, wandering around Italy like a hobo, talking to birds, drinking cheap wine and blissfully extolling the virtues of poverty.

More recently, the concept of simplicity weaseled its way into the mainstream with a new glossy, four-color magazine called Real Simple, which simply seeks to give some paring down advice to well-heeled, professional woman.

In the magazine's holiday gift-giving issue, which hawks $300 sweaters and $50 boxes of chocolate, old St. Francis himself makes an appearance.

"'Tis in giving that we receive," he tells us with only 60 shopping days left until Christmas.


Simple math

Dec. 7, 2000

My son is still sleeping, but not for much longer, so this would be a good time to get out my three-inch-thick Franklin-Covey planner and go over my Christmas to-do list.

Go to post office
Xmas shopping: downtown, online
Finish making Xmas gifts
Get boxes out of basement to pack presents
Find wrapping paper, etc, in basement
Think of what to get brother

For most of us, the clash between the hectic, work-consumed lifestyle and the simple priorities of life (family, friends, good times) is most glaring at the holiday. Successful adults, we are told, are able to do it all; to have the material security needed to get everyone a meaningful gift, and also have the time, presence of mind and good cheer to adequately enjoy everyone's company.

It's also a time when the unrealities of the simple become clear. In many years past, I've worked right up to Christmas morn, putting the finishing touches on gifts and wrapping presents, often exhausted and sick from the weeks of stress associated with making everyone a present, all the while muttering, "Next year will be different."

So I'm a pretty good candidate to write an article on simplicity. A 30-something white professional from a do-it-yourself family and painted with a serious green streak, I don't want the kind of excessive material comfort that defines success in American culture.

I've also seen firsthand the effects of consumption: on the Fresh Kill waterway, where a 3,000-acre landfill has become the highest point on the eastern coastline; on the Hudson River, on the former farming lands and waterways of my native Long Island.

And as someone who, for the last several years, has slowly been testing various techniques of simple life against the hard leather exterior of my own human nature, I can attest to its many challenges.

It started in earnest about four years ago that I consciously and actively began working on incorporating simplicity into my own lifestyle.

That's when my wife brought home a book called Your Money or Your Life, written by former Wall Streeters who dropped out and learned to live, relatively simply, off their assets. They did this not by amassing a huge nest egg, but by paring down on the extraneous demands that sucked up their resources.

Around that time, we also got rid of our TV (though I have to admit that was largely because if one's around, I have trouble not switching it on).

After three years or so, we started to realize some fruit from our labors. With the help of Your Money or Your Life, as well as about a half dozen other self-help books, we finally got out of consumer debt, which had reached as high as $12,000.

The net effect of this was far greater than the several thousand dollars we'll ultimately save on interest. We now have, at least some, discretionary income that doesn't go straight to debt.

About a month ago, I worked my last day as a staff employee of the Independent. The move was part of an overall downsizing my wife and I have been pursuing ever since the birth of our first son 18 months ago. As it was, I was working parttime, but since she makes more money than I, it was clear whose job needed to go.

The idea is fairly simple. I'll spend more time doing the things that will improve our quality of life, while saving money by doing things a little more carefully and thoughtfully.

In doing so, we followed the advice of people like Amy Dacyczyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette, who espouses the notion that if one person in a couple stays at home, that couple can save as much money as that person would earn by going every day to a job.

Sounds iffy, especially since we are not obsessively frugal enough to follow Dacyczyn's lead. But already, there are results. On weekends, we actually have a life. There is no longer a list of must-do chores hanging over our heads on Saturday morning. We lie in bed, goof around with the youngun, or go to breakfast and talk about things other than "the list."

As the MasterCard commercial goes, this is the "priceless" stuff that doesn't get tabulated on the monthly credit-card bill or fit into an Excel spreadsheet category.

Still, there are indeed savings. I no longer need a parking card: that saves $40 a month. I also save on clothing, razor blades, money for coffee and lunch, and because I watch the kid for half a day, we save about $400 a month and I have time with him. And we save money on household stuff: most recently, on installing some lighting that would have otherwise cost upwards of $400.

I save time. No longer do I spend 45 minutes preening, ironing and dressing. I no longer spend 30 minutes a day going to and from work.

But there are costs and challenges too. Because I am at home, the heat is on all day, and (this will be hard for my friends to believe) my identity and sense of self worth are tied to the relative cleanliness of the living room floor.

As for the TV, we don't miss it. Finding a TV for a special event is not hard, and in the meantime, we read, play music and enjoy the fully entertaining 500 channels of our 18-month-old son.


Simple interest

Dec. 7, 2000

My son is waking up. Then I can start doing things that I can do with him. Things like errands. I can go to the post office and get stamps, so I can pay the bills, go to Chinook to get a present for my cousin, get guitar strings at the Folklore Center, go to Independent Records and buy a present for "secret Santa" at work, go to the office, Pier One Imports for jars for another set of gifts, pick up dry cleaning while I'm down on that end of town, then go across town for some groceries. Maybe later tonight, I can work on that simplicity article.

The next person who asks me, "So, how's retirement?" is going to get a black eye.

It's a question I get a lot since leaving the Indy as a staffer.

OK, instead of violence, I should just hand them another E.B. White essay, which my wife turned me on to, and hope they get the hint. The 1941 essay, titled "Memorandum" gives a humorous glimpse into the real complexities of life on the farm for a famous author.

The essay starts with, "I should carry the pumpkins and squash from the back porch to the attic," and continues through a three-page list of intertwining chores before ending with: "I've been spending a lot of time here typing, and I see it is four o'clock already and almost dark, so I had better get going."

While there are still as many misconceptions and definitions about simplicity, with some people mistaking simple for easy, White was hip to something: The simple life is neither simple nor easy.

At the same time, the tasks and roles associated with simplicity have little or no value in today's society. As soon as I became the primary caretaker of our son, I was the target of numerous well-intentioned questions, the likes of which have plagued housewives for decades.

"So what's it like not working?"

I can't complain too much because I use the same language as I describe our new lifestyle. But it shows how we view the job of parenting.

"I'm supporting the family now," my wife tells people.

At the same time, I question my own choices.

How do staying at home, writing and doing house projects in the morning, being Mr. Mom during the afternoon, square with my ultimate priorities and values? Did I really quit a good journalism job to become a part-time maid?

More than just learning to wash and reuse Ziplock bags, hang a clothesline or buy in bulk, voluntary simplicity makes you fundamentally question the meaning of things like work, life, time and money. It asks you who you are, what are your values?

On a practical side, the book Your Money or Your Life asks you to consider how much work you must do for each thing you buy. If I make $20 an hour, say, then that $50 box of chocolates is 3 hours of my life spent (calculated as take-home pay). That $500 television is about a week's worth of labor in take-home pay. It's more if that's tucked in with other consumer debt.

When you start to think of your net worth in terms of time, very often the well-paid are pretty poor. They may retire early if they plan well, but that can be a dangerous gamble.

In the context of net time, my wife and I have begun talking about how to whittle out the kind of tempting but unnecessary commitments that seem to gobble up our days from week to week. It just seemed that every night of the week, we went out to something. Could my wife drop maybe one of her three book groups? Could I scale down or take a long-range approach to some of my professional projects and ambitions?

It was in the context of those discussions that my wife sent me an e-mail. She asked if I wanted to join a voluntary simplicity study group, sponsored by the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, that would meet every Thursday for eight weeks.

"Sure, why not?" I said to her on the phone, gritting my teeth.


Simply Put

Dec. 8, 2000

My wife has agreed to moderate this week's simplicity group, but she's been held up at work. She had planned on getting home early to make a Thai dish, but she just called and said she's running late. I've managed to clean up the house but I better start chopping veggies if we're going to have anything on the table for this week's discussion.

Say the words "study circle" and I wanna run. Like most guys, the concept of preplanned conversation, things like book groups, gives me an uncomfortable itching sensation that can only be cured by going outside, checking the air in the tires and, in extreme cases, starting a chain saw.

Not surprisingly, I was one of only two guys in a group of seven.

One of the first things that struck me at the first meeting of the Discussion Course on Voluntary Simplicity was how many different reasons there are for attempting to live a little more simply.

For the peace activists in the group, personal politics played a big role; while for many, it was a sense of spirituality, a sense that fulfillment comes more in life's small rituals and miracles than in material or social gain.

And it seemed that with most of us, all these different reasons intertwine in a complex web of issues that defines our personalities and our reasons for attending the study group.

The course, designed by the Northwest Earth Institute, falls somewhat short of being a practical guide for those who are ready to put simplicity into action.

But in a wonderful way, the course does put the various strains of the simplicity argument between the covers of one small workbook, allowing people in the study to make quick connections between, say, global advertising or new technologies and the loss of local, even household, culture.

Perhaps without intention, the course makes clear how richly complex are the underpinnings of voluntary simplicity.

Rather than pluck you from the "real world" and place you outside the economy, voluntary simplicity places our individual actions consciously in the center of multilayered economic and political realities that define the modern globe.

But as all these interests have evolved, what's amazed me is how neatly the sort of "home ec" simplicity agenda dovetails with the environmental ethos of living simply so others may live -- at least in theory.

Consider, as we were asked to do, the following fact: The average citizen of a developed, Western nation already consumes six times the food and energy as the average "Third World" citizen and produces many times the pollution.

Then consider what will happen if just the $1.2 billion people in China aspire for the other luxuries -- cars, refrigerators, buses, microwaves. With some of the worst pollution already in the industrial world, a consumer revolution in China could have disastrous environmental consequences.

But who am I to tell them to forego the luxuries I take for granted? Which of my guitars am I willing to give away? Which of my appliances? The fact is, though, that meeting the average Chinese peasant halfway would require giving up more than just a few appliances, heck more than just the second car.

As Alan Durning, a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute, points out in one of the essays, voluntary simplicity is inextricably linked to these global issues.

"Voluntary simplicity, or personal restraint, will do little good, however, if it is not wedded to bold political steps that confront the forces advocating consumption," Durning writes.

On top of all this, simplicity is wound with fundamental moral complexities; left unchecked, out-of-control consumer mentality can even lead us to kill.

In 1990, America went to war with Iraq, ostensibly to defend Kuwait, or more accurately, to quote then Secretary of State James Baker, we bombed Iraq in order to defend "the American way of life."

Simply put, that meant cheap gas.

To me, voluntary simplicity is one possible answer to these problems. While eschewing any romanticization of poverty, simplicity proposes a lifestyle that is materially comfortable, yet not extravagant. It's a lifestyle that is less threatened by the whims of Wall Street or foreign leaders than the purely dependent consumer posture.


Simply mah-velous

Last year around this time, I interviewed Scott Savage, a prominent voice in the more hard-core (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) simplicity movement. Then the editor of Plain, a tawny-hued newsletter printed on recycled paper via an old, offset printer, Savage is a devout Christian who has also written two books about his family's journey back to the land, living among the Amish in Ohio.

Dedicated to promoting a serious return to the unmotorized lifestyle, Savage writes eloquently about adopting many elements of the Amish lifestyle -- living off the grid, horse and buggy -- and of the benefits of moving slowly over the landscape.

In his book, A Plain Life, Savage recounts his trek on foot to the motor vehicles department where he intends to give back his driver's license. "The walk confirmed my belief that our modern individualist sense of freedom conspires with our easy, car-based mobility to blind us to our need for one another, for community, for God."

There are many things with which I disagree with Savage -- he says living the simple life in the city is impossible, that simple living is meaningless without God, among other quibbles -- but he has already proven me wrong on one point. At the time, Savage told me that soon the concept of simple living would be co-opted by the forces of consumption that try to sell us the image of simplicity.

We both laughed and joked about simple credit cards, and glossy chic magazines dedicated to the simple life. It sounded absurd. That was six months before the launch of Real Simple magazine.

"If you've ever longed for a simpler life," the magazine's subscription promotion reads, "if you've ever wished you could slow down the pace, if you've ever wanted more time for yourself ... you're going to love Real Simple."

While the editor of Real Simple claims no allegiance to voluntary simplicity, and in fact distances itself from the movement, it's interesting that a high-end consumer magazine, published by Time Inc., would choose such a title now.

When I finally reach editor Carrie Duhy by phone, she's running late, a half hour behind our scheduled interview and our 20 minutes of interview time has been whittled to 10. But she's gracious and seems to enjoy talking about the demographic fueling her magazine.

"We don't see any conflict between material success and comfort and simplicity," Duhy told me.

That message comes across well in the magazine. The first few pages set the tone. A four-color spread showing a woman dressed in a sequined evening gown and pumps riding a mountain bike away from a brand new Toyota RAV 4. Subsequent spreads include ads for the Power Mac G4, Estee Lauder and Saks Fifth Avenue.

You get the idea.

The first real editorial content is a series of letters and suggestions from readers on how they simplified their holidays. The first saved time by shopping online and using her palm pilot to keep tabs on her list. "My last stress-breaker was using my palm, an early present that came in handy for storing e-mail addresses and notes," wrote one woman from Chicago.

A Virginia woman reported that she destresssed her holiday by hiring a cleaning service. You get the gist.

These are not bad suggestions, if you're pulling in 100K. The next editorial feature hones in on gravy dishes, which range in price from $9 to $300, and the shopping spree continues in the gift-guide section, which features a $68 fountain pen, a $49 carafe, and an all-purpose party dress for $190, all under the banner "simple solutions, life's little complexities resolved."

But the magazine is also notable for what it doesn't include. There was no hint of even the least radical strains of the voluntary simplicity trend, things like Your Money or Your Life in which people try to cut down on the work-addicted lifestyle to focus on family and personal goals.

Like many simplicity help books out there, Real Simple is more of a how-to guide for yuppies to enjoy life. In this version of simplicity, you get your cake, and you eat it too. You keep the high-stakes job, and you get quality time with friends. You get to keep the shit, but you don't have to deal with the costs: most notably, the debt.

To proponents of voluntary simplicity, the magazine could be seen as continuing the tradition of Dark Victory, in which even a simple E.B. White-style analysis shows you've got to be pulling in six figures to have any hope of happiness.

Now I don't doubt that the six-figure folks could benefit from the advice in Real Simple. But the real problem is that things like Real Simple perpetuate the long-standing popular image that it's the wealthy, or at least the comfortable middle class, who can do things like buy organic veggies, "downsize" their holdings, move to the country or live with a minimum of stress.

In lieu of even the slightest nod to downsizing, Real Simple's spread for the month of November? A feature about a simple Thanksgiving. The featured couple own all stainless-steel appliances in a spacious urban loft apartment which boasts, among other things, a floor-to-ceiling wine rack.

Ah, 'tis chic to be simple.


Monotasking

Dec. 12, 2000

My son will not go back to sleep. I have taken him out of his car seat, where he was sleeping like a log, and walked him gently back into the house where he promptly awoke and started screaming. I have managed to get him to slumber by sitting back on the couch, but he awakes again when I try to leave. I am impatient; I have things to do. Like finish that damn simplicity article.

This time, I am only successful in getting him to relax after lying on the carpeted floor, with my head resting comfortably on a sneaker. Now I am getting pissed. I don't have time for this.

A few minutes pass and I make my move, gently rolling sideways as I lean up to place him on the couch. He stirs, grimaces and howls, so I lie back down, with my son lying flat across my chest. I've been pinned in three moves.

I take a deep breath and look out the window. The branches of my neighbors willow tree are waving in gentle Colorado gusts, as the clouds, gilded in sunlight, toil across a winter afternoon sky, in a rush to get somewhere.

The other thing the simplicity study group made me realize is that from the very moment I wake up every day, I'm multitasking. When I'm brushing my teeth, I stretch. Sometimes, I read a magazine while I stretch and brush my teeth.

The trend continues through the day. When I'm with my son, I'm doing chores, running errands, or any number of other useful tasks that can be better justified to society, my wife, myself instead of merely taking care of my boy.

This situation is not unique to the 21st century, though technology can certainly exacerbate it. I suspect any farmer, or farmer's wife, from the turn of the century, could juggle more tasks in a given day than most dot-com millionaires.

But I do think that this is a crucial point at a time when we can be located, beeped, paged, called, and e-mailed from anywhere on the globe for any number of stupid reasons.

The simplicity group has gotten me thinking about being more conscious of what I'm doing each moment, focusing on the quality of each task, not merely the accomplishment of multiple agendas.

But as more people ask me what it's like scaling back, I'm happy to report that despite all the challenges and complexities, simplicity is not about giving up things. It's about what you gain when you make conscious choices.

It's about focusing on the things that are truly valuable and timeless, things that don't lose value over time, things that don't require a double-digit interest rate, things that don't get reported in the news.

Dec. 13, 2000

It's 8:30 p.m. I better get my son to bed so I can get up early tomorrow and finish the simplicity article. But he's engaged in a game.

He's taken a small deck of cards, titled 52 Ways to Simplify Your Life, and is trying to pull cards from the deck. It's one of his favorite games. After laboring for several minutes, he manages to free a card, holding it out to me as he toddles in my direction, handing it to me. It was titled "Appreciating the process."

"Editing the elements in your life is half the simplification process; finding a new level of meaning in what remains is the other half," the card reads. "After all, the process of living is just that, a process, not just a matter of arriving at a goal -- and what is that goal anyway?"

I pondered that question, that goal, as I helped my son pick up the cards, so that he could once again pry apart the box lid, and spread them around the floor.


Resources for simplifying your life:

Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Center
29 South Institute
632-6189

A local peace group, the J&P as it's known, has organized discussion groups on voluntary simplicity for several years.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette
Amy Dacyszyn, 1998, Villard, New York.

Note: The practical fiscal bible of the downsizing household. For $19.99, you get essays on money saving strategies, tips on techniques to save time, and lots and lots of money saving advice. Well worth the investment.

Your Money or Your Life
Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
1992, the New Road Map Foundation

Another key guide for fiscal simplicity with plenty of food for thought and steps for taking action.

Simple Living Network
www.slnet.com

This site is oriented around selling books, etc., but it does have some good links and resources listed, as well as discussion boards.

Reasonably Simple

www.blarg.net/~michaelc/simple.htm

This newsletter out of Seattle features a newsletter plus a site for arranging barters and swaps.

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