Pop-culture dropout

I am shockingly ignorant about mainstream culture. I have never read a Harry Potter book, and I have not seen a Star Wars movie since the 1977 original. Of the 15 best-selling record albums this year, Taylor Swift is the only artist whose name I recognize, and I couldn’t begin to describe her music.

Do they still call them record albums? And what is it with this Adele person?

Although my cultural obliviousness is a limiting factor in crossword puzzles, I don’t regret my decision to concentrate on other things. Separation from mainstream culture is part of our simple-living lifestyle. It’s a way to remove ourselves from consumerism and focus our attention on the reality of urban homesteading and trying to live an authentic life.

I overdosed on network television between the ages of 10 and 15, and have avoided it ever since. I have never seen an episode of “The Cosby Show,” “MASH,” “Seinfeld,” “The West Wing” or “Friends.” I have never seen “The Sopranos” or  “Breaking Bad.”

We got rid of cable TV about 20 years ago and got an old-fashioned roof antenna. We pick up four PBS stations, plus the local ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates. We enjoy watching PBS shows, mostly British TV dramas, and I get DVDs at the library. I watched the first season of “House of Cards” but felt like taking a shower after each episode.

I do watch TV or videos about an hour a day. The national average is said to be five hours, though I don’t see how that’s possible.

I have seen only three of the 100 top-grossing movies this year: “The Imitation Game” (#47), “Selma” (#54) and “Woman in Gold” (#76). “Selma” is the only one we went to a theater to see. I hope to patronize our wonderful Amherst Cinema more in 2016.

I picked up a few John Grisham novels this year. I find his books tasty but not filling, and usually give up halfway through because I feel manipulated.

“The Girl on the Train” is the third most popular novel this year, but after 40 pages I didn’t see the point of it. I did like “The Invention of Wings,” tenth on this year’s bestseller list. I read all the Lisbeth Salander thrillers, but now I can’t understand why.

For a list of my 10 favorite books and movies/videos this year, click here.

I have bought only one rock or pop album since my Elvis Costello phase in the late 1970s. Music is the one cultural area where I want to expand my horizons in 2016. We tune in “Sunday Baroque” every week, but other than that, I listen only when cooking or doing dishes.

I can keep up with conversations about national and local politics, the Red Sox and Patriots, or “Downton Abbey.” But when talk turns to “The Hunger Games” or “Game of Thrones,”  I’m out of it.  It’s a conscious decision, and one I’m comfortable with.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 150 past posts in 13 categories, including simple living, frugality, cooking, gardening, living without and climate change. Or click on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.











Saying ‘no’ to negativity

I’ve written about how we live without cable TV, air travel, a second car, dishwasher or cellphone. Now I’m trying to give up not a modern convenience, but rather something that has vexed people for ages: negativity.

No matter how much I simplify my life materially, I cannot achieve serenity as long as I let negative feelings about other people weigh me down. Simple living is a lot more than frugality.

I’m tired of separating people into those who agree with me and those who disagree with me. My political opinions are so eclectic that no one is going to agree with me on everything anyway.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and have always been interested in politics. But I believe that most issues are complex, not simple, and that well-meaning people can disagree. I’m a Democrat, but I’m not supporting either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. I agree with each one about some things but not others, and I think both have strengths and weaknesses in electability and capacity for being an effective president.

In my 32 years as a journalist in Amherst, I stayed neutral on local issues. In retirement I have occasionally expressed opinions publicly, and now I’m part of a group that wants change in our town. This has sometimes led to draining arguments with people who favor the status quo. Although I still have opinions, contentiousness interferes with my peace of mind, and anger makes me stupid.

IMG_20151028_080022100_HDRPolitical divisiveness is only part of my challenge. I’ve often divided people in my mind between those I like and those I don’t like — or, worse, those who can be useful to me and those I can ignore. This has not only cut me off from many people and caused me to devalue their essential humanity. It’s caused me to act in ways contrary to my aspirations, to not be true to myself.

I’d like to look at other people’s behavior as an anthropologist might, accepting that everyone is the way they are for a reason. I’d like to ask, “What is this person’s story?” and “What can I learn from this person?” and even “How can I be of use to this person?”

I’m not a Pollyanna, believing things are getting better and better. I know they’re not. But I want to stop expending energy on political and personal differences, because I’ll be more content if I concentrate on the good in other people.

As David Grayson of Amherst wrote 100 years ago, “We are beginning to learn that unity is as much a law of life as selfish struggle, and love a more vital force than avarice or lust of power or place. A wandering carpenter knew it, and taught it, twenty centuries ago.”

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 140 past posts in 13 categories, including frugality, simple living principles, cooking, gardening, living without and climate change.






Faith and simple living

I recently heard the word “Christians” used to describe people who vote Republican, think gays and lesbians are sinners, and believe that faith  brings wealth.

But there are many of us who call ourselves Christians and have completely different beliefs. We believe that excessive consumption can distract us from what’s truly meaningful in life,  that all people have the light of God in them, and that community and integrity are more valuable that money. These beliefs are closer to the actual teachings of that man who lived in the Middle East 2,000 years ago.

Pope Francis, who will visit the U.S. later this month, has urged a conversion of our hearts, minds and lifestyles to avoid climate disaster brought about by consumption and industrialization. And he sees this conversion not in terms of sacrifice but of fulfillment.

“A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment,” Francis wrote. “To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment.”

As a boy, I spent nine years at a school affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and spent two summers volunteering in a low-income area of the city I grew up in.  As a young man, I was influenced by “Living More With Less,” a book arising out of the Mennonite tradition. Today, I attend three churches that profess a progressive form of Protestant Christianity.

Why do I bother? Don’t I know that in America today right-wing evangelism, atheism and “spiritual but not religious” are more popular?  I go to church to experience the community of like-minded folks. I go to be in touch with the past, both my own youth and with centuries of Christian tradition. And I go to remind myself of the kind of person I want to be.

In the gospels, Jesus talks about wealth frequently. There’s “do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” and “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” There are admonitions about trying to serve both God and money. There’s “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?”

Although most people would say that they value closeness to family and friends more than what society defines as success, their actions often say something different. But for many of us, simple living and faith come together in service to others and promotion of a more even distribution of wealth.

We recognize that we are privileged to uphold voluntary simplicity as a virtue at a time when for many people it is involuntary.  But we feel more in communion with the less fortunate around the world by living in a small house with a modest income.

We have on our refrigerator this quote from William Ellery Channing, the 19th century Unitarian preacher from New England: “To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury; and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable; and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasion; hurry never…to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common; this is to be my symphony.”

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 135 past posts in 13 categories, including simple living, frugality, living without, cooking, gardening and climate change.






Be Prepared 3: Food Security

IMG_20150706_092641010_HDRMy double life used to be a secret.  I have one foot in the current social and economic reality. My other foot rests in a place where we are threatened by the decline or collapse of the systems on which our civilization depends.  In earlier posts in this series, I recounted how I arrived at this viewpoint.

Of course, I don’t have a crystal ball and don’t know exactly what the future will bring. However, preparing for the possibility of economic and environmental  collapse is the reason I do a lot of this crazy homesteader stuff.

I’m preparing for a time when abundant energy from fossil fuels is no longer reliably available or affordable, when the  impacts of climate disruption are more frequent and felt more widely, and when the global economic system is in crisis.  It’s scary stuff, but preparing gives me a sense of control and empowerment.

So how do I get ready?IMG_20150706_095214904

 I have always really liked to eat.  So food is where I put the bulk of my preparation effort.

We are learning how to grow some of our own food and I do some foraging.  We also support the local food system by shopping at farmers’ markets and Amherst’s All Things Local market. But like most people we still shop at supermarkets too, buying some food that travels thousands of miles to our table. Learning to be more self-reliant and local requires us to acquire new skills and tools.

Tools and skills for food gardening: We are fortunate to have a yard to work with. We are slowly turning our whole yard into productive space for growing food. We have accumulated basic equipment like shovels, hoes and watering cans.  Last Christmas Nick gave me a new pruning saw, which has made it much easier to hand-saw small-diameter wood (see photo).  IMG_20150706_095344608We have just made a trellis for our hardy kiwi vine. (Nick is shown sitting on a bench that helps brace the trellis.)   We hope to build a greenhouse or walk-in hoop house. A new skill I am learning is how to propagate bushes, vines and trees. Since I am a plant person, this is all really fun.

IMG_20140912_155832899Tools and skills for food preserving: We have learned to can tomatoes, fruits, preserves and pickles  (high acid or high sugar foods that can be processed in a hot-water-bath canner). We store root vegetables in our unheated crawl space over the winter.  A new skill I am still learning is preserving food by fermentation. I have had good success with sauerkraut and pickles, but want to experiment with other foods and learn to make wine from dandelions and elderberries. Another next step is constructing a solar food dehydrator to supplement or replace our electric dehydrator.

IMG_20150706_092824580_HDRTools and skills for cooking: During the five-day power outage after the October snowstorm of 2011, I got a vivid reminder of the importance of this aspect of preparation.  Our electric stove was dead and the top surface of our wood stove wasn’t hot enough to boil water. After that, we replaced the wood stove, so next time I will still be able to have my tea!

But what about power loss in hot weather? To address this, I have constructed a rudimentary rocket stove that can be used to boil water outside (shown in photos here and at top) . IMG_20150706_102021225_HDRWe also acquired a solar oven and some racks and pans adapted to this use, and are learning how to cook with the power of the sun. The photo shows me cooking chicken stew in the solar oven.

Tools and skills for foraging:  This area of food acquisition feels a bit like a hobby. Yet learning about which wild plants or weeds are edible, and gathering food from nature’s garden has a history as long as human evolution. I spend hours poring over books and websites, learning about edible plants.  This summer I have been bugging Nick to go on some plant walks with me around the town so we can locate trees, bushes and weeds that might have foraging potential.  My next step is to make myself a berry hook for pulling down branches of tall bushes so I can pick their berries.  Autumn olives, here I come!

In future posts I will look at other ways in which I am preparing for the possibility of economic and environmental collapse.  Talk about adventures!

For new readers of this blog, here’s a handy index of more than 100 past posts on simple living, radical frugality, gardening and climate change.









Be Prepared II: Stories and maps

I believe our global civilization is heading into a period of unprecedented challenge. This conviction is based on my reading of the story of human life on the planet and books, movies, parables and myths that provide maps for a sustainable future.

Beyond_the_limits_cover Three books that have had a big influence on me are:

* Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future (1992) by Donella Meadows et. al.;

* Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) by Jared Diamond; and

* The End of the Long Summer The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth (2009) by Dianne Dumanoski.

5thsacredthing coverTry to envision a future world that’s already gone through a decline or collapse of our global industrial civilization. Some novels I’ve read that explore such future worlds include: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M, Miller; Always Coming Home (1985) by Ursula LeGuin; The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) by Starhawk; and World_made_by_hand coverWorld Made by Hand (2008) by James Howard Kunstler.

Stories from myth and religious traditions also inform my beliefs about our right relationship to the natural world and how to approach existential challenges. Some examples are: Icarus’s plunge from the heights, Noah building an ark in obedience to God’s command, and Joseph’s interpretation of Pharoah’s dream about the seven fat cows being devoured by the seven skinny cows. The metaphoric depths of stories like these are like archives preserving the wisdom of those who came before us.

Films, with their powerful visual images and affecting music, have brought home to me how vulnerable we humans can be and the consequences of ignoring signs of danger. Films  that struck me include: The Day After (1983); The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (2004); Children of Men (2006); and What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire (2007).

End of Growth coverAlthough it’s important to admit how we have gone astray and the dangers we’re facing, I am grateful when authors suggest ways forward. SuchThis Changes Everything amazon directions may help us plot a route to collective safety and survival. In this category, I include:

* Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, Rapture of the Deep: Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life (1988) by Dolores LaChapelle;

* The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2005) by James Howard Kunstler;

* The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2005) by Richard Heinberg;

* Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010) by Bill McKibben;

* The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (2011) by Richard Heinberg;

* This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014) by Naomi Klein; and

* The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (2008) by Rob Hopkins.

The Green Boat coverOther books offer emotional and spiritual tools to help us prepare for the likely physical and social impacts of climate disruption:

* The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in our Capsized Culture (2013) by Mary Pipher;

* Active Hope coverActive Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (2012) by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone;

* When things Fall Apart coverWhen Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times  (1997) by Pema Chodron; and

* Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition (2011) by Carolyn Baker.

Web resources that I find interesting include: The Transition Handbook coverThe Archdruid Report, the Post Carbon Institute,  Joanna Macy‘s work, Rob Hopkins’  Transition Culture blog, which includes some guest posts by Amherst’s  own Tina Clarke; Carolyn Baker’s Speaking Truth to Power site and  Peak Prosperity, especially the Resilient Life material.

For new readers of this blog, a handy index/reference guide provides links to over 100 posts in 12 categories, including frugality, simple living, climate change and gardening.