10 things I couldn’t live without

Over the last few months, I’ve written 10 posts about modern conveniences I’m content to live without (the list is here). Today I’m appreciating 10 things I wouldn’t want to live without, parts of my life that I really enjoy or feel grateful for. How does this relate to simple living? After compiling this list, I noticed that almost all of them don’t require spending any money.

10. Ping pong. I’ve been playing this game since I was a boy, and now play at least once a week. It’s a game of skill and strategy, and I think it sharpens my reflexes.

9. British TV. From “Downton Abbey” all the way back to “Upstairs Downstairs,” I’ve gotten lots of pleasure from BBC series. Best of all was “Poldark,” and the best recent one was “Home Fires.”

8. Gardening. I love the planning and the planting, as well as the watering and weeding. Nothing beats the freshness of food directly from the back yard.

7. Crosswords. I do a Sunday puzzle most days, and like the New York Times ones best. I go into a trance-like state while working on them, losing track of time. Crosswords help prevent Alzheimer’s.

6. Running. My marathon days are long past, but I still run three or four days a week. Running keeps me healthy physically and mentally, and is a kind of meditation.

5. Reading. I love reading after breakfast and before sleeping. I’ve read almost everything that Bill Bryson, Ken Follett and Joanna Trollope have written. I also enjoy reading the New York Times online.

4. Friends. Simple living without community is just poverty. I cherish the relationships I have with all my friends, and I need to devote more time and energy to turning acquaintances into friends.

3. My home. For 30 years, I’ve lived in a creaky old farmhouse on a street that gets little traffic but is less than a mile from the center of Amherst. I love our solar panels, our woodstove, our garden.

2. Health. Both my parents lived to 97, and I hope to stay healthy and enjoy my life as long as possible. As you get older, health becomes more and more important.

1. Betsy and family. I’m fortunate to share my life with a kind, industrious, smart, beautiful woman who shares my values. I have two wonderful though very different sons and many other beloved family members.


Living without 10: debt

This is the last in a series of 10 posts I’ve written on modern conveniences that we avoid. The others were: cellphones, dishwashers, cable TV, subscriptions, a second car, air travel, new clothes, air conditioner/clothes dryer and factory farms.

Betsy and I don’t owe any money to anyone. We paid off the mortgage on our house several years ago, pay cash for our cars and, although we have credit cards, we recognize them as hazardous instruments and try to pay them off monthly. Although we have never had a high income, we have been able to be debt-free through a combination of good fortune and extreme thriftiness (or what I called in a previous post radical frugality).

The average amount of credit card debt in the U.S. is $7,281 per household, and the average mortgage debt is $153,500, according to the Federal Reserve. The total American consumer debt is $11.6 trillion, up 3.8 percent from last year. That includes $880 billion in credit card debt. Among people between 35 and 44, 10 percent are having their wages garnished over unpaid debt, according to an NPR report this week.

I’m grateful to be able to avoid this whole morass. I think my inclination to thrift began in 7th grade, when I was asked to memorize a passage from “Hamlet” that included the line, “Neither a borrower or a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” Now there’s an old-fashioned word that deserves a rebirth. My dictionary defines husbandry as “originally, management of domestic affairs and resources (and now) careful, thrifty management.” A good goal for all us husbands!

There’s financial debt, and then there’s interpersonal and spiritual debt. When interacting with other people, we can try to give more than we take, to listen more than we talk. In my belief system, I recognize that I have a debt to the Creator for all the blessings of my life, but (lucky me!) that debt has been forgiven. I can’t say this better than Barbara Brown Taylor:

“Someone to whom you owe everything — your life and breath, your blue eyes, your fondness for fresh tomatoes, your pleasure in the moon and stars, all the loves of your life — someone who has given and given and given to you and who has gotten precious little in return has examined your enormous debt in great detail and knows from your credit rating that the chances of repayment are nil. Someone who knows all of that has taken the stack of your IOUs and torn them in two, balancing your books in one fell swoop for one reason alone: because that someone wants to remain in relationship with you and wants you to be free to respond.”





Living Without 9: Factory farms

I stopped eating supermarket meat a few years ago, after reading Michael Pollan’s New York Times article about his visit to a horrific feedlot where a steer he had bought was pumped up with corn, soy and antibiotics in fetid conditions before being slaughtered.

We still eat meat several times a week, but we buy it from local farms. We are about to switch from buying eggs at Whole Foods to buying them from local farmers, and we may do the same with chicken. Our lamb and hamburger cost a lot more than at Stop & Shop, but we like supporting the local economy and feel more confident about the quality of the meat. Most of the animals from local farms have eaten grass, as nature intended, and not been mistreated.

There are lots of reasons to avoid meat from factory farms. First, there is the confinement of animals in a high-density, unclean conditions, where they are fed genetically modified corn and soy and growth hormones. Most animals must be given antibiotics to avoid infection resulting from these practices, increasing the possibility of these miracle drugs losing their effectiveness as bacteria develop resistance. Waste runoff from factory farms can pollute nearby water supplies.

Then there’s the impact on climate disruption, which is increasing as more people in developing nations desire more meat in their diets. According to a U.N. report in 2006, meat production causes more carbon dioxide and methane releases than either transportation or industry. The report estimates that eating a half-pound of hamburger is the equivalent in climate impact of driving a 3,000-pound car 10 miles. If you want to have an impact on the planet, giving up meat can do more than giving up a car.

If people continue to eat more meat, and more corn and soy are fed to animals instead of the humans, there could be a world food crisis in about 30 years, according to a report from U.K. scientists released this week. Coupled with population growth, increasing agricultural yields will not meet future food demands unless humans start eating less meat, the reports says.

We do not feel motivated to go all-vegetarian, because we like eating some meat and think that, in moderation, it’s good for us. The high price of the meat we buy might seem at odds with our lifestyle of radical frugality, but what we put into our bodies is important enough to make an exception.

Betsy adds: Another way we reduce our meat intake is by eating smaller amounts of meat per serving.  When we make meat sauce for spaghetti, we saute up 1/4 – 1/3 pound of ground meat or sausage instead of the pound of ground beef my mother used.  We often make stir-fries with one cup of meat combined with lots of vegetables and served with rice or other grains.

When she visited in July, my niece Kate told me about the way she stretches ground meat for burgers by mixing it with grated vegetables.  This inspired me to extend the expensive grass-fed ground beef  I had purchased to make enough burgers  for the 14 people at our family gathering in August.  Here is what I did.  In a big bowl,  I mixed 2 lb grass-fed ground beef, a grated carrot, a grated small zucchini, a finely chopped onion, 2-3 stalks of finely chopped  celery and leaves, 1 cup quick rolled oats, 2 eggs, salt and pepper.  I formed the mixture into 16 patties which we cooked over the charcoal grill.  They turned out to be delicious!




Living Without 8: AC/CD

Air Conditioners and Clothes Dryers have such high costs, in terms of both dollars and carbon, that we don’t use them. And we find that the alternatives get the job done at much lower cost, and are often more enjoyable.

Here a Top Ten List of reasons we pass on these two appliances, five for each:

10. Air conditioners are carbon hogs. They eat up about 25 percent of the energy used in homes, and central air costs about $129 a month, a window model $50. The average central AC uses 2,800 kilowatt-hours, causing the release of two tons of carbon dioxide.

9. They create an artificial environment. In summer it’s supposed to be hot, and I like living in a region with weather extremes.

8. Fans work fine. They do the job of cooling off the body at a tiny fraction of the cost. And this summer, with few days over 90 degrees, they’ve been more than adequate.

7. Noise. Many window air conditioners make a racket that interferes with the enjoyment of life.

6. Who Ya Gonna Call? Older air conditioners have a way of breaking down, and then you have to call a repair person or buy a new one and probably be too hot for a few days.

5. Clothes dryers are energy-hungry. They use the third most electricity of all appliances in the home, after refrigerators and washers. If you do 400 loads a year, that’s the equivalent of burning 900 pounds of coal and generating 2,300 pounds of carbon dioxide.

4. Clothes calls. Drying clothes on a line outside can extend their life by not over-drying them, which can cause them to thin out and wear out faster.

3. Indoor environment. Using racks and lines indoors during the winter adds moisture to the air of your house at a time when the humidity is often too low.

2. Going public. Making a public exhibition of your drying laundry lets your neighbors know you care about the future of the earth. We like to think of drying clothes as flags.

1. It’s just more fun. Going outside to hang up laundry lets you smell the fresh air and listen to the birds, and the act itself can be a meditative experience.


Living Without 7: New clothes

Most of the clothes Betsy and I wear we got at church fairs or thrift stores. In general, the only clothing we buy new are underwear, socks and shoes.

In 2013, we spent $572 on clothes (yes, we keep records of all our expenses), and in the first half of this year we spent $197. According to my Internet research, the average household spends 3.8 percent of their income on clothes, or about $2,000 a year.

There are other reasons besides cost to seek out used clothing. There is the justice issue, because much inexpensive new clothing was made by low-paid workers in sweatshop-like factories in the developing world.

We don’t want to support the fashion industry, whose ads encourage consumers to change the style or color of clothing on an annual basis. We think this is another form of planned obsolescence, to get people to buy more stuff when they already have functional items. That seems wasteful and ecologically unsound. So we buy good used clothes, and one can often find higher-quality items for reasonable prices. We like the motto “Use it up, wear it out, or do without.”

We like our clothes to be comfortable, presentable, clean, modest, practical and easy to care for. I don’t care much about style and don’t experience a thrill from shopping for new clothes. We don’t expect everyone to have the same taste in clothes, but these choices seem to suit us.

I think I was soured on expensive clothes early. I had to wear a tie and jacket to school from 4th through 12th grade, and hated it when my mother insisted we go to fancy department stores to buy new clothes for me. In my late teens, I even had a tuxedo that I wore to debutante parties! I guess I reacted against these early experiences. Luckily for me, I had a career in newspapers, where a certain scruffiness is tolerated or even expected.

Right now I’m wearing a t-shirt and cut-off jeans. I have a drawer full of t-shirts I’ve gotten for free as event promotions, and my jeans come from the Salvation Army store. I get much of my clothing at very low prices at the First Congregational Church of Amherst’s Cranberry Fair, which is on Nov. 22 this year. When I visit my sister on Cape Cod, we usually make a trip to a place that gives away clothing.

My biggest clothing expense is new running shoes, on which I spend over $100 a year. I’ve figured out that they last longer if you have two pairs and alternate them. When a pair wears out, they become outdoor shoes, and when they wear out some more, they become garden shoes.

During the last year or two before I retired, I wore black shoes I had bought for a dollar at the Cranberry Fair. Only after I retired did I notice that the two shoes didn’t match each other! It got me wondering if there was someone out there who was in the same situation!