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Thursday, December 13, 2012

On deliberately not living large

A repost that may be timely for some.

The target audience for this post is that downwardly mobile demographic formerly known as "middle class Americans." Many people in other places or circumstances already know how to live, and might wonder what the fuss is about.

I have written over 700 posts here, mostly about the joys of a simple life in the country. Occasionally I get preachy with my ruralism, largely because I strongly suspect that a complex civilization running on nonrenewables with a "just-in-time" approach to inventory puts its urban population at risk in the event of disruption.

Long, tough sentence. Okay, put it this way: live in town? Might run out of stuff to live on at the same time as everybody else. Live lightly, and you can escape much more easily if it comes to that.

So, although I know the arguments in favor of urban life as per-capita more efficient (given our present modes of distribution), those arguments always leave me asking, "what if?" And "if" does happen. There were twelve $1,000,000,000 disasters in the contiguous United States this year; a record. And we're still not over Katrina. Also, we're, I don't know if you've noticed, becoming something of a disaster ourselves. I'd say there are connections here, but that's become a hot political football, and I want to talk about something else.

This is also not about economic inequity. I'm in agreement that there's a lot of injustice on the docket right now. But one aspect of the attack of the rich on the well-being of the poor is the attack on the commons. With a strong commons, you don't need nearly so much money or possessions as you do in a world where everything is for sale, from the rich to you, in cheap quality and of dubious utility. Whether you are in the city or the country, protect your commons and your commons will protect you.

Now, on to our post.

I recognize there are compelling reasons why nine out of ten of us are still in town and that's not likely to change much ("Lord knows, I tried," weeps the inner blogista), so let's talk about urban simplicity.

Let's assume that you have work. Big assumption right now, I know. If you're running out of unemployment, it might be time to think about making some work. Grab a copy of Small Time Operator and start selling something you can make or do. Because rule one in spending less than your income is have an income. Even if you're a vegetarian selling hot dogs.

Aside from disasters (and you've done your minimum preps for those, right?), debt is likely to be your big issue. It's what's holding you back from heading for the country, if that's what you wanted, or from living the "American Dream," whatever that is. A shortage of disposable income and freedom because of, you know, the student loan, the car loan, the mortgage, and the credit cards. And you're not as happy as you thought you were going to be.

There are lots of strategies for debt reduction. Seek and ye shall find. We've used doubled mortgage payments ourselves, effectively. To make such things work, though, the first thing to do is bring outgo below income. Bring frivolous outgo to a halt and you are on your way.

"Voluntary simplicity" is touted as a proper response to modern malaise, but John Michael Greer's analysis suggests this is what people talk about when they're afraid to take the real plunge and go for the gold: voluntary poverty. Maybe it's anything but voluntary, letting that word "poverty" slip in there, but if your goal is to rise up from slavery (and debt is exactly that), it can be necessary to redirect our pride.

In the reality we've been brought up to, validated not by our own good sense but by a lifetime barrage of television and other advertising, we're supposed to aspire to "more" -- a shinier house, a shinier car, bigger and brassier parties, endless gadgets, and smarter and smarter phones, all of which which we're dumber and dumber to get in hock for. The trick is to voluntarily take pride in, not these ultimately empty and unsatisfactory acquisitions, but the opposite: de-acquisition.

If there are more than one of you, it might take a very, very serious "family meeting" to all get on the same page, but it can be very focusing to open the meeting with, "here's one thousand dollars a month we can count on for the time being; how do we get by on nine hundred?"

Sounds unrealistic, I know. Maybe your line in the sand is three times that, or more. Goodness knows, a buck is not a buck anymore. But that's going to get worse, so ... well, here's a story.

When I had my mid-life crisis awhile back, I moved (with family permission) temporarily to town for over a year. They depended on my income, so I got a budget of four hundred a month (in 1998 dollars). Here's how it was done.

First, we did research on rent. The best deal (cheapest housing) was, as it happened, two blocks from my university library job. It was what is known as a quad: a room with a vanity sink corner, sharing, from a tiny common hallway, a bathroom and kitchen with three other such rooms. They are intended for students who can't afford an apartment but don't want to live in the dorms. With heat, electric and dumpster fees, a set of shelves, a bed, two chairs, and a table, it was under three hundred a month. So I moved in.

I took with me about ten changes of clothes (good ones in which to do library reference work, mostly), a coat, a box of bathroom-y/personal hygeine-y things, a bedside clock-radio, two boxes of good books, a lamp, a couple of bowls and mugs, utensils, a good kitchen knife, a sharpening stone, and a rice steamer. You can get all these at a thrift store. Some of them I did.

I also took along a bicycle with a rear rack and pannier baskets. I had found the bike, a decent old ten-speed that still knew where six of its speeds were, leaning against a driveway fence with a sign taped to it: "Free. Take me." Best bike I ever had. With it I brought along my bike helmet, cable, padlock, and key, which I put on a keyring with my quad key.

On the bike I rode to the discount grocery store, stopping to top up the air pressure in the tires at a filling station along the way.

Inside the store I grabbed a shopping cart and sought out a twenty-five pound sack of white beans, another sack, same size, of long-grain rice, a ten pound sack of yellow onions, a ten pound bag of russety Idaho potatoes, a pound can of salt, and a family-sized jar of Italian seasoning. I also splurged for some rolled oats and a head of bok choi.

You might think all this would not go home on the bike in one trip, but it can.

I now had more than a month's food, purchased for under fifty dollars, rolling home beside me as I gripped the handlebars.

Sure, people looked at me funny. So? In most places, it's how you roll.

Back at the apartment I set up the steamer on the "dining room" table, near the wall, and loaded it with water. This was a little Sunbeam with a forty-five minute timer -- much better ones are available, but as Goodwill steamers go, it was not bad. Its plastic rice dish was long gone, but I could put a cup of rice or beans or diced potatoes in one of the bowls, add the appropriate amount of water and some salt and Italian spices, set the timer, and, by and by, take out the bowl and there was dinner -- or breakfast, or lunch.

Waitaminnit! says the careful reader. Surely not rice for breakfast!

Why not? And without coffee or tea, usually. Didn't miss them at all.

Reader: But -- but --

Or beans. Or potatoes. Usually with onions. And a glass of tap water.

Reader: But you couldn't --

Yes, I could. For months on end. I lost a little weight, but in my case, that was a good thing. None of this required refrigerating, if managed carefully, and though I was charged for it, I never haunted the communal kitchen, which was a howling disaster area non-maintained by my three unmet student roomies. There was no need.

 I should mention our town seems to have a good supply of unattended cherry, apple, pear, plum, and Asian pear trees and no end of blackberries, dandelions, lamb's quarters and such free for the picking, for all of which the bike baskets came in handy. And over time I got to learn how to ask grocers what they were about to throw out. When company came, I felt I was in a position to be generous.

Wind in the Willows. Arthur Rackham. Children's Imaginative Illustrations

Reader: And the rest of your time -- ?

No problem. I slept, or bathed, or ate, or thought, or went for walks or bike rides. Of course, if you are at all like me, it helps immensely to do this sort of thing in a university town. A university town has, in effect, a functional commons. I went to town meetings, galleries, museums, free concerts, free plays, and lectures. I read many books; all of my own several times and all I could carry back from the library. I spent long evenings in that library, which closed at eleven p.m. (it was only two blocks from home, remember). I had access there to not only books but music, videos if I wanted them (I generally didn't, and kept no television at home), magazines, newspapers, and of course the Internet. I worked on my volunteer project, at my own desk after my colleagues had gone home for the day, and produced first drafts of thisthisthis, and this. I was also in school (full-time employees could take classes for next to nothing), and when I could I would take the bus and go do a stint of parenting and farm upkeep.

Reader: [Weakly]: On -- on $400 a month?

Yes, with change left over. One family goal was to pay off the country place ASAP. I couldn't spend too much on my mid-life crisis because we were making double payments. It was a twenty year mortgage and the idea was to clear it in less than fifteen. Which we did.

And I want to emphasize that I am telling you this because if you think things through, and have a bit of luck to go with it (I had no major illness during that time), you can live on far, far less than you may currently think you will need, and perhaps even be happy doing so.

A commons in action :


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