Going Against Type

It’s human nature to extrapolate what we know about one another to predict the future. More simply, thanks to our pea brains, we put people in boxes. Case in point, my “friends” love nothing more than making fun of me for my sometimes frugal ways.

Truth be told though, I can open my wallet wide open, it’s just that it takes me a lot longer than the average person to be convinced of something’s value. In the last 18 months I’ve cracked the wallet wide open at least four times. From most to least expensive:

• New crib. Hard to express how fortunate I feel to have been able to make this purchase, the largest of our lives. I looked at enough waterfront properties in Olympia over the last several years to know the agreed upon price represented excellent value. We won’t make money on it because of real estate commissions and a 1.78% excise tax, but we won’t lose any either.

• New car. 2015 Acura TLX. It would be nice if I lived close enough to work to walk, run, or cycle. And close enough to everything else to ZipCar. But the crib is 4-5 miles from civilization and work is 30 miles. Amazing vehicle, no regrets, 90-95% as nice as luxury cars twice as expensive. The linked Edmunds review summary is a joke, my last tank, almost exclusively highway, I got 39.3 mpg. At that rate I can push 600 miles before finding a Costco gas station. I’ve averaged 35-36 from beginning. Perfectly quiet; excellent acceleration if you switch from “eco” to “normal”; buttery, Barbara Streisand-like smooth. Only blemish is a tech glitch. Occasionally, brake warning alert flashes on at random times. Last software update didn’t fix that. And since Dan is wondering, yes, a lot of women check me out while driving my new ride, but that’s been true since the first VW Bug beater, so can’t really credit Acura for that.

• 27″ iMac Retina. Three days old. Just read this article on it. Wowza, like being in Kenya. Never thought I’d own another desktop, but probably shouldn’t put myself in a box. Dig it.

• Last, but not least, this bad boy. The new crib sits amidst a lot of large trees. The wind blows most afternoons. This thing is total kick ass. One of my fav purchases in a long time.

So to my friends, put that list of purchases in your collective pipe and smoke it!

 

 

 

Nostalgia’s Lure

The move is 95% complete, meaning apart from my fancy pants $10 pen and running gloves, I can find most things most of the time. It also means I’m piecing my routines back together, including the morning green tea latte and the evening viewing of Grand Design.

Taking stock of everything we own has inspired lots of thinking. In particular, taking stock of our photographs and related mementos of people and experiences. I can’t help but wonder, why are we so insistent on taking, storing, framing, and otherwise archiving so many pictures? More simply, why does the past have such a hold on us?

Positive psychologists keep telling us that meaningful relationships with family and friends is the key to happiness. I wonder, do the seemingly endless images, photographs, and related memorabilia of people from our past, whether alive or not, constitute some sort of community? I’d be more inclined to think that they represent some sort of social capital, if we looked at them and talked about them with some regularity, but we don’t because we have way too many. Most of them are out of sight and mind all of the time.

And I wonder if there’s an opportunity cost to nostalgia for the past. I’ve wondered this for at least 15 years, about the time I started going to my childrens’ recitals and school plays. Inevitably, many of my peers arrived armed with tri-pods and the smallest, newest video players, working hard to record the events to the best of their abilities. Sometimes I thought those events were pretty grueling live, and couldn’t imagine gathering friends and family to watch them again at a later date. Watching legions of amateur videographers made me wonder if you can be fully present when in “recording” or “documenting” mode?

There’s also an opportunity cost to the ease of digital storage today. An author of a recently released book states that U.S. citizens take more pictures in two minutes than were taken by everyone in the world in the 19th century. The end result, is endless hours of video and tens of thousands of images that make any one minute of video or any particular image much less valuable. We’re left with no needles, just digital haystacks.

I’m always skeptical of wildly popular trends, and mindfulness is getting close to qualifying, but I’m down with it because it’s main emphasis is on being fully present, meaning not living in the past or future, which of course sounds much easier than it is. What if we were to delete some of our images we haven’t looked at for years or chuck entire photo albums from the 1980s? Could it help us be more mindful, more present with those we will interact with today?

Ultimately, I suspect our penchant for photography and videography are manifestations of our fear of being alone and of dying someday. If I’m right, as we age, those impulses will intensify. But taking more pictures won’t extend our lives, so I’m going to swim against the status quo current. I’m going to take fewer pictures to both appreciate them more and be more mindful.

I’m not trying to convince you to join me in taking and storing fewer pictures. Like a lot of what I write, I could have this all wrong. Maybe my minimalist tendencies are getting the best of me. Maybe you’ll end up convincing me that I need to stop with the incessant questions and get a lot more snap happy.

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In Praise of Digital Minimalism

I just spent five days* cycling on some of Central Oregon’s most beautiful roadways and I don’t have a single picture to show for it. Mount Bachelor and the surrounding mountain lakes were spectacular, as was the Prineville Resevoir, Paulina Lake, and McKenzie Pass.

I wish I had taken a few, but three things conspired against my picture taking—limited jersey pocket space, riding most of it at a very brisk pace, and a reaction against camera happy people who fail to live in the moment because they’re preoccupied with capturing “the moment” for other people and future reference.

I always marveled at the phalanx of parent poparazzi** at my children’s athletic competitions, artistic performances, and graduations. I wanted to ask what’s it like trying to organize all of those images? And even more perplexing, I wondered when exactly they planned on breaking out the 7th grade piano recital video? At halftime of the Superbowl when all of their friends are huddled in front of their television? “Hey, want to watch something even better than Beyonce?!”

In the interest of quality over quantity, computer sanity, and realistically accessing images with some regularity, I’m considering a limit on my digital images. No more than 500. That would make at least one of my daughter’s nauseous. Yes, I’ve heard of the cloud, but what good does it do to have tens of thousands of images or hours upon hours of video if you hardly ever make the time to access more than a tiny fraction of your digital library?

On Saturday, I’m looking forward to attending my eldest’s college graduation in Minnesota. I’ll probably be the only guy not taking pictures or filming for future reference. Why? Because I want to be fully present and I’ll be surrounded by family and friend fotogs***. I will ride their digital coattails just like you can view the ride I took Sunday up and over McKenzie Pass if you click the link in the opening paragraph. The YouTube video shows you some of the fantastic video looping in my head tonight.

* actually four days—I swam, ate, napped, and ate one day while the rest of the gang rode another 100 miles

** damn, that may be my best use of alliteration ever, thank you very much

*** I know how to spell photog, it’s just that sometimes my genius for alliteration gets the best of me

 

 

 

Expanding Minimalism’s Reach

If our government’s closed, why are politicians still appearing on my television? I guess once you get in the habit of working really hard for what’s in the best interest of the people, you just can’t stop.

On Fox News I learned the shutdown’s Obama’s fault. Their refrain is “the American people don’t wan’t ObamaCare.” Guess I don’t count. At times like this, all you can do is watch Saturday Night Live.

My vote for most interesting Affordable Care Act article of the recent past, “An Overlooked Obamacare Flaw: Too Many Choices“. The gist of it:

. .  .the typical family will be able to choose from 53 health plans, on average, with a few states, including Florida and Arizona, offering more than 100. “There’s no way people are going to be able to make optimal decisions, except by luck,” says Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore University and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “If you have 40 or 50 insurance possibilities, there will be less uptake and people will make bad decisions.”

The seminal study of excessive choice was a 2000 paper recounting an experiment at a California grocery store in which two tasting tables were set up side-by-side: one offering samples of six jams, the other offering samples of 24. The “extensive” selection of jams attracted more shoppers than the “limited” selection. But only 3% of the extensive samplers made a purchase after tasting. Of those who sampled from the limited selection, 30% made a purchase.

“An extensive array of options can at first seem highly appealing to consumers,” the researchers concluded, “yet can reduce their subsequent motivation to purchase the product.” Too much choice, they found, can be “demotivating” and leave shoppers confused.

The same dynamic applies to decisions in which a lot more is at stake than deciding what to spread on your toast. After the government passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit in 2003, seniors suddenly could choose from dozens of plans that would help lower their prescription drug costs. But many found the offerings so confusing they didn’t sign up, while others mistakenly chose a plan that didn’t lower their costs nearly as much as it could have.

“Decision quality deteriorates as the number of plans increases,” one study reported.

Minimalists focus almost exclusively on decluttering tangible items that often overwhelm—clothes in closets, papers in file cabinets, everything in garages—while ignoring the less tangible, but equally cluttered areas of our lives.

We’re not just overwhelmed by our mindless consumerism and the trail of material possessions that results from it, we’re overwhelmed by a steady torrent of stimuli—whether it’s hundreds of insurance plans, emails, interpersonal interactions, television channels, or advertisements.

Advanced minimalism is the art of narrowing one’s focus and decluttering one’s mind by consciously setting limits. For example, I allow myself to read ten blogs at any given time. That means if you send me a link to your mind blowing blog, I’ll have to decide whether it deserves more of my limited attention than one of my current ten. In the same spirit, I recently deleted some television channels that were more popular with the birdies before they flew the coup.

Social science suggests that if consumers had ten insurance plans to choose among, they’d be much better off. Less is almost always more. This was, in large part, Steve Jobs’ genius—off-the-charts focus. Once he shrunk Apple’s product line, customers weren’t confused, sales caught fire, and the company quickly rebounded.

Another way to impose limits is to lean on others for help. Some of the most popular websites on-line help citizens and consumers narrow their choices to a more manageable level. For example, for bibliophiles, there’s FiveBooks. And for people who want to manage their time better and be more productive there’s Lifehacker. And for consumers overwhelmed by Amazon.com, there’s The Sweethome and The Wirecutter.

My aim is different than the people who write for Lifehacker. They want to help readers get more done. My question to them is, for what purposes? Set limits on stimuli that tend to overwhelm to think about larger life purposes. If we just let any and all email, media images, and the cacophony of modern life wash over us, we’ll live day-to-day without any sense of purpose.

Minimalism must be about more than cleaning out garages. Our goal should be to create silent spaces in our lives, and from them, purpose.

The Problem with the Simple Living Movement

The high priests and priestesses of minimalism don’t know it, but they have a problem. They’re seriously disliked by the majority of people who are struggling to get by. Ordinary people deeply resent the “voluntary” nature of most high-profile minimalists who write about the joys of downsizing on their numerous blogs, or for the New York Times, or Sunset Magazine.

Take for example how Graham Hill starts his New York Times essay titled “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” 

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

I have come a long way from the life I had in the late ’90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff — electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.

Half way into Hill’s story, I started to guess at the vibe of the 329 comments already posted. As David Brooks can confirm, New York Times readers are an unhappy bunch. Hill probably wanted praise, but I’ve seen this car crash enough times to know how it transpires. A lot of readers tore into him. Like Michelle from Chicago:

There is a big difference between choosing minimalism and minimalism being a harsh aspect of daily life. At any moment, Mr. Hill could choose to buy more things. If one of his 6 dress shirts rips, he can simply buy a new one. It’s a far cry from a minimum wage worker who has this lifestyle by default, because there isn’t money to rent a larger apartment or money to replace a torn shirt.

The sad fact of the matter is the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is so great the “have nots” are unable to give any credit to the “haves” for living below their considerable means. I believe Hill and others like him deserve credit for their thoughtful and principled simplicity, but it’s naive for him, for me, for anyone to expect those trying to live month-to-month to cheer well-to-do minimalists for critiquing conspicuous consumption.

I was mindful of this dynamic when commenting on a blog recently. I was responding to a post about the recent highs in the stock market. I wrote that many people are starting to invest in stocks which means it might be a good time to take some profits. And then consciously added, “for those fortunate enough to have them.” If I hadn’t added that phrase, my comment would’ve prompted other replies of the “who has profits these days” variety.

Where does this leave Hill, myself, and many other minimalists who recommend voluntary simplicity? Can it be done without offending? Probably not. Which makes me think maybe we should stop writing about it altogether. Maybe we should just live it and wait to see if anyone asks, “What gives? Why do you live the way you do? Why such a small apartment? Why so few possessions? Why don’t you ever check bags when flying?”

Someone now leave the obvious comment. Nevermind, I’ll do it myself. “What the hell Ron, why do you assume people can afford to fly?”

What I Learned From a Forced Digital Sabbatical

Despite my charming personality, my university students have a very hard time unplugging from their phones and the internet for the length of a class session—one hour and forty-five minutes. I just did it for 100 hours. I know, total badass.

My digital sabbatical was forced in the sense that I didn’t volunteer to participate. Some families from church were going to Holden Village in Washington State’s Cascade mountains, a four hour car trip, seventy minute boat ride, and slow 11 mile uphill bus ride away. They asked if we wanted to join them. Betrothed wanted to go. Happy wife, happy life.

Actually, I dig Holden. We had been once before, about ten summers ago. Beautiful setting in a dramatic, heavily forested mountain valley. Simple living. Eat, hike, read, pray, socialize, repeat. This time there was 4-5 feet of snow.

Lessons learned:

1) It’s good for introverts to (interpersonally) stretch on occasion. As a card carrying introvert, I like solitude. At Holden I actually have to talk to other human beings at meals, on group hikes, at church services, and in the evenings. I enjoy socializing in moderation.

2) One can read mad amounts when unplugged. I took an unread novel on my iPad and decided to leave behind a hardcopy nonfiction book I’ve just started. Mistake. Thanks to some reading marathons, I blew through the 300 page novel and then scavenged for additional reading material including three sample chapters previously downloaded to the Pad and the cookbook that derailed my reading in the middle of last year. Then I found and read a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. I often wish I read more. All I have to do is step back from the laptop and television.

3) Group living is more exasperating, but ultimately, more enjoyable. One of our carpooling friends decided on the way to the boat to stop and visit her sister in Wenatchee on the way home. “Your kidding me,” I thought to myself. When we turned away from home for that detour I was running low on patience and wishing we had driven separately. But the visit was short and nice. The sister’s husband sells apples all over the world. He had just returned from Germany and Italy and explained how he had tried unsuccessfully to visit a large (10,000 boxes) new customer in Libya. The apple snack was delicious and the family was personable and interesting. I’m glad I met them even if we got home an hour later. We also would have lost out on a lot of joking and good conversation if we had driven separately.

4) While unplugged, the world will continue pretty much as is. In the summer, I think the boat runs daily, so there’s always a day-old New York Times in the village library, but last week there was only our Friday and Monday boat arrival and departure, so no new papers, causing a serious uptick in blood pressure. To make matters worse, our carpoolers drove all the way home without turning on National Public Radio. What if North Korea nuked the South I wondered? Did UCLA beat Stanford? Did Christine Gregoire get a new job in the Administration? Alas, the Russian asteroid and the South African para-athlete girlfriend’s shooting and death were still headline news. It was as if a global news gatekeeper was saying, “Okay, nothing to look at here, move along.”

5) Teenagers are prone to exaggeration. Everything was going fine until Saturday night Contra dancing. Shit, sounds like something Oliver North might have done in the mid-80s. The GalPal was a tad excited. After sticking a fork in my novel, I dragged myself to the dining hall where the tables had all been pushed aside. Betrothed and Seventeen were having a great time. After their dance, Seventeen made a bee-line for me and said, “You HAVE to dance with mom! It will MAKE her life!” “Nahhhh.” “No SERIOUSLY Dad, it will MAKE her life!” Well, who knew, it turns out I have mad Contra dancing skills. And now, apparently, Betrothed can die in peace. I will spare you the photo album and video library of the event.

6) Teenagers aren’t just funny looking, they’re funny. I may have doctored the whiteboard next to the teen’s door. Shortly afterwards they returned serve with this salvo, which as you can see, I doctored.

Advantage twelfth graders.

Advantage twelfth graders.

7) In ping-pong, as in life, quit while you’re ahead. The first night I opened a can of whup ass on the GalPal. We rolled through 7-0 and it ended up something like 21-13. The second night, she also made a stirring comeback, but ultimately succumbed, 22-20. The third night, somehow, she couldn’t find me.

8) I’m a legend in my own mind. Despite turning a year older a week ago, I can still reverse slam dunk with a backpack on.

Mad hops

Mad hops

How long could you completely unplug? I’m guessing somewhere between 1 hour and forty-five minutes and 100 hours? Don’t hurt yourself trying to replicate my feat, but do consider a Holden Village get-away. It’s great for the soul. You don’t have to be Lutheran or even Christian, and you can decide how little or how much to participate in Village life. The lodging is rustic, but clean and comfortable enough for a few days or weeks. The food is mostly vegetarian, plentiful, and tasty. And don’t forget, if you volunteer to scoop ice-cream, you get a free serving afterwards.

A Minimalist Life

I’m easily distracted. In church on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think about minimalism. As one part of “Scout Sunday” the pastor asked past and present scouts to recite the scouts’ values. They did okay until about the ninth value. Twelve?! That’s about nine too many. And when I should have been concentrating on the sermon, I was thinking about this quote from a minimalist Londoner who just built a home.

People do comment on our tidiness, but I find it fascinating that they find it fascinating. If you have a thing of beauty, like a piece of architecture, and then you fill it up with things, then you somehow diminish it and you cannot really appreciate the space you live in. We have exposed the things we really love, like the photography and the books.

One group unnecessarily complicating things, one homeowner purposely and thoughtfully stripping things down to their bare minimum.

People associate minimalism with life simplifying projects, whether recycling old clothes, shredding unnecessary office papers, or decluttering a garage, but it can be a helpful organizing principle for all of one’s life.

Minimalism is about embracing limits that others mostly ignore. The starting point is the ultimate limit, one’s mortality. Minimalists are more mindful than most that their time is limited; as a result, they tend to be more interested in the quality of their life experiences than accumulating lots of money and possessions.

Minimalists believe stripping things down is liberating—whether electronic data, personal commitments, and friendships. Consider each.

Electronic minimalism. This one’s tough because digital clutter can be neatly contained within a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. If you’re like one of my offspring, your desktop may be proof of that. To practice electronic minimalism, create folders for loose documents, and use folders within folders. But first, delete as many unnecessary, out-of-date documents, bookmarks, and email messages as possible. I DIG that electronic wadding up and shredding of paper sound my MacBook Pro makes whenever I empty the trash. Like a Pavlov dog, I’m motivated to trash things just to hear the sound.

“Zero email inbox” is a futile, overly perfectionist goal, but if you typically have more than 20-40 messages in your inbox, delete more often and create and use more folders. Same with website bookmarks. Delete those you haven’t used in a long time and put the the remaining ones into folders. This makes it easier to avoid mindless web surfing. Same with applications. Some people have over a hundred apps. I find that odd because the fewer you use, the easier it is to quickly and easily access them. Maybe some mega app users would say they use folders and don’t have a problem, but most people probably use 10% of their apps 90% of the time. Why not just remove most of the 90%?

Electronic minimalism is based on the premise that fewer docs, email messages, website bookmarks, and applications makes it easier to find things, get one’s work done, and then enjoy life off-line.

Scheduling minimalism. As an introvert, and often to the GalPal’s regret, this one comes relatively easily for me. This is the countercultural practice of not committing to many activities—whether one’s own, or a partner’s, or one’s children’s. It’s saying to oneself, “I’d like to attend that event, participate in that weekly activity, or go on that trip, but I’m okay missing out on that fun because the busyness trade-off isn’t worth it.” Obviously, “too busy” is a subjective concept. The key is to know your particular physical and social limits and to intentionally err on the side of underscheduling.

Interpersonal minimalism. This is the related, countercultural practice of purposely focusing on a limited number of close friendships. I’ve written about the quality versus quantity of friendships conundrum before here. Young people’s embrace of social media has made this type of minimalism especially rare. Many high school and college aged young adults have a thousand plus Facebook “friends”. Interpersonal minimalism means focusing most of your friendship activity on people who you interact with face-to-face on a weekly basis.

Stripping down activities creates momentum which leads to additional ideas for simplifying not just one’s garage, but one’s life. In what other aspects of your life has less proven more?

[My favorite book on minimalism—Francine Jay’s The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide]