Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Simplify, Simplify

All the talk about "living simply" (or, as the Philistines would have it, "living simple") is starting to stick in my craw. Crabby person that I am, I find it at best disingenuous, and at worst self-serving and fundamentally dishonest.

What can be simple about spending a fortune on storage items for accumulated crap? Unless it is simply good for the economy (as the recent sale of The Container Store might indicate). Now, I have nothing against the Container Store itself; I owe what organization exists in my house in large part to the versatile Swedish bookcases I can only buy there. But the very existence of a store whose sole purpose is to help us stow away (fashionably) all of the excess detritus of our consumer-driven lives seems to be counterproductive if our aim is "simple living." Such simplicity seems to come easily to those who live in half-million dollar McMansions with pristine carpets, designer furniture, California Closets, and a plasma television set in each of its five bathrooms. A trip to the Whole Foods in a nearby neighborhood (a bedroom community for the telecom industry) one recent winter brought me into contact with a mink-cloaked woman whose grocery basket was packed with $40 wine, exotic cheeses, organic frozen dinners, and a copy of Real Simple. My inner communist was so offended that I didn't return to the store for over a year, and then only because it's located right down the street from my cardiologist (allowing me to combine trips, and save time and gas--major "simple living" goals). Some of the efforts to effect simple lives seem to have the right idea (the Simple Living Network, for example), but others seem to be missing the point.

So here's the conundrum. How do we channel Thoreau in a modern world that constantly militates against anything that even vaguely resembles what happened at Walden Pond all those years ago? The situation reminds me of what Morris faced as an early Socialist who could only do what he did because he had inherited wealth (and wealth from mining interests at that). His dilemma arose because although he advocated well-designed, hand-crafted items of what we would now call (shudder) "home decor" for everyone, only the wealthy could afford them. The problem persists today, because many of us who still appreciate the Arts and Crafts aesthetic don't have the income to afford it. At best we can buy cheaply-made "Craftsman" or "Mission" style knockoffs because they resemble the real thing; but then we're stuck with piece-of-crap imitations that quickly show their true colors. The Craftsman ideal involved honesty, after all, and the imitations are anything but honest.

If we truly want to simplify our lives, it seems that what we really need to do is stay out of stores altogether: Educate our desire, as Morris would put it. Determine what we really need, versus what we only want. A bit of navel-gazing in that direction is usually instructive, as I have often found when I'm short of cash. I automatically switch into what I call "poverty mode" and what had seemed like a compelling need for a new (insert item) the day before is seen for what it truly was: a desire brought about by reading one too many bungalow shelter magazines (what somebody has appropriately termed "house porn" because they're so arousing). I don't leave the house except for work, don't shop for anything except bare necessities (usually coffee, milk, and/or wine--none of which are, in fact, necessary), and around pay day the mode subsides and I hit the bookstore--sometimes for more house porn. Because I teach in a design school, I regard my magazine fetish as an occupational hazard. But I'm cutting back, in an effort to simplify.

I wonder, however, if we have lost the ability to educate our own children's desire. When mine were young, I exercised certain power: no Cabbage Patch dolls, no Barbies, no GI Joes, no Izod--no clothes with logos (why should I pay some guy to advertise his name?). But we were awash with Star Wars toys, Strawberry Shortcake (smelly, but cute), Matchbox cars, and Happy Family dolls. We were the last family on the block with a color television (a little 13-inch job bought in 1980 solely so I could watch Cosmos in color), but bought a Commodore 64 as soon as they came out, even though we couldn't afford one. As a result, I think my children are somewhat more skeptical about advertising and somewhat more thoughtful about consumption than their peers--but neither of them lives particularly "simply." They are kind-hearted (rescuers of stray dogs and cats), and more ecologically-aware than most, but they live in lofts and condos, and spend far more money than I ever would on modern technology.

It's hard for most of my students (who are now somewhat younger than my thirty-something children; I've been teaching for twenty years or so, and there used to be much more overlap) to understand that all of this technology has become available in the last century or so. My great grandfather ran a stage-coach station in western Nevada, where my grandmother was born in 1897. The family moved to the Owens River Valley when she was about 11, traveling over the mountains on the narrow-gauge railway (The Slim Princess). By the time she died, at 104, she had seen just about every major technological innovation that had occurred since the Industrial Revolution--including electricity and standard indoor plumbing. She used to remind me, when I was feeling particularly picked-upon because I didn't have all the stuff my friends had, that they got on quite nicely without electric lights and air conditioning, and without cars. She did own up to rather liking flush-toilets, radio (she avidly listened to Night Owls, one of the original talk shows), and the souped-up '69 Nova she bought to replace her '57 Chevy. And she especially appreciated not having to boil up her own bathwater on a wood-burning stove.

The idea that imperialist types have to save the world from "poverty" by inflicting modern technology and consumer desires on unsuspecting folks dazzled by the glamor of iPods, cell phones, computers, televisions, and the like seems to indicate more about our own guilt than any true humanitarian impulse. We need to re-think the idea of "poverty" in the first place, because some aspects of it lie at the very heart of real simplicity. Not having electricity does not make someone "poor." Not having access to basic medical care, clean water, sufficient food, and reliable shelter does. Being able to educate one's children, foster community, take care of the land, and live thoughtfully are all possible with minimal technology. Yet, the West seems hell-bent on eradicating "poverty" among people who could sustain themselves if we just left them alone to live they way they have for millennia. Most of us couldn't last a week in the wilderness without at least a space blanket and a good sized bag of trail mix, but we think the way we live is "rich." It is certainly rich in stuff, but we seem to be having a great deal of trouble trying to understand what to do with it all.

Instead of buying fancy (expensive) new boxes and bins to house our clutter, perhaps we should think about not buying all the clutter in the first place. I guess it starts with leaving the magazine on the bookstore shelf, but I really do understand how difficult that can be. Especially when confronted with a beautifully-photographed essay on pared-down living in a Green and Green bungalow. Sigh.

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