January 31, 2013 § 14 Comments
So just a few days following my uncharitable comments regarding those who capitulate to their innate cowardice and flee the heart of Vermont winter like sad little rats slinking into the protective shadows, I found myself wanting, more than anything, to get the hell out. Just a day or two, and it didn’t even have to be somewhere warm… just somewhere different (at my lowest point, even New Hampshire would have sufficed), somewhere where an inch of rain wasn’t about to fall from the sky, bringing ruination to my daily ski and painting the whole damn place with an ugly brush. Everywhere, piles of cow shit and dog crap and all the small bits of detritus we never got around to picking up in November. There’s nothing like a hard rain in January to make our little farm feel dingy and ragged and sad, like some bassakwards, backwoods hovel where the father spends his days in a sprung recliner, intermittently snoozing off the prior evenings drunk and raving about the gubmint, while the wife stirs a pot of rendering lard on the cookstove and the children run feral through the woods, trapping and skinning small, fur-bearing animals. Wait a second…
As feared, I awoke this morning to transformation; the bulk of our pasture is now bereft of snow, and while there is a sort of crumpled, maudlin beauty to the faded browns that dominate the landscape, it felt as if I carried the weight of all that rain on my shoulders. I got the woodstove hummin’, made coffee, and shucked into my jacket for chores, the whole time wishing, pathetically, that we’d made so many different choices, choices that would have afforded us the freedom to simply close the door behind us and leave. No animals. No wood heat. More money. And all that.
Once outside, I smelled something at once familiar and strange, and for a moment I struggled to place it. And then I knew: Earth. The ground. I fed the pigs first, then the cows, and by now the sky was light enough that from the height of our land, I could see across the valley, to the patchwork of fields and forest that comprise Morgan and Jen’s farm and Lynn and Roman’s hayfield, where in five months we’ll be mowing and tedding and raking and baling and throwing bales until we literally shake from fatigue. I know it sounds strange, but for a second, I swear I could actually feel that fatigue, the memory of it stored somewhere in my synapses, and I stood there for a moment and let myself sink into it.
And that was it. That, right there, was the escape I needed. I came in from chores with the rain pattering my shoulders and smearing into the remaining patches of snow. I landed a boot in a pile of dog shit and then, on the very next step, slipped on a patch of ice and fell on my ass. Fifteen minutes prior, it would’ve made me curse my sorry life. But now, all it did was make me laugh.
January 29, 2013 § 3 Comments
Yesterday afternoon at about 3:45, I snuck outside and stepped into my skis. Snow was falling, and it was the best kind, both thick and soft, and moving through it was like moving through one of those half-dreams you have when you’ve woken early and drifted back to sleep. Everything had a muted, insubstantial quality: Every color a shade of gray, every sound absorbed by the thickening layer of snow. Even the ground lacked its usual certainty.
I skied for an hour or so, first down in the woods below the house, and then into Melvin’s upper field. At one point, I skied along a length of barbed wire fence, many times repaired and restrung, dozens if not hundreds of posts representing thousands if not tens of thousands of blows with a maul, never mind the countless hours spent felling and honing lengths of cedar. I am always comforted by evidence of rarely seen and even more rarely heralded labor, which feels to me like a refutation of all the dishonesty that dominates our contemporary economic landscape. Perhaps it is merely my naïveté, but I can’t help viewing such efforts as evidence of a live well lived, a life that is full of the honest contentment inherent to a day’s hard labor, the sight of a fence made straight and true and the muscle-bound memory of that maul being lifted over and over and over.
Of course, I know all too well (having done it) that one can spend a day pounding fence posts, the whole time cursing the rocky soil, the high, hot sun, the blisters swelling and oozing, the damnable cows who will one day find the weakest section and waltz through as if it were nothing more than a whispered suggestion. But the truth is, I think, that even these days matter. Even these days – hard as they may be, interminable as they may seem in their unfurling – are the building blocks of satisfaction. And satisfaction – or contentment, or whatever you want to call it – is the foundation of a good life. Not simple happiness, which is nice and all, but something more complex, something that encompasses a broader range of human experience.
• • •
Regarding my recent posts on money, it occurred to me that I should maybe back up a bit and talk a little about why it felt important to me to explore the issue, rather than bullin’ and jammin’ right into the gritty details (bullin’ and jammin’ being something of a specialty of mine). So, in no particular order, here are some reasons I wrote SAVED in the first place.
1) Money is a defining force in almost everyone’s life, whether they are rich or poor. It defines how we spend the majority of our waking hours, and it often defines where we live, and therefore, whom we associate with. Who we call our friends. In many cases, whom we choose for a life partner. A high percentage of our day-to-day interactions involve money. And yet, how many people truly understand where it comes from? What it represents? Why it works (or doesn’t work) the way it does? The juxtaposition between money’s impact on our lives and our societal lack of understand regarding its mechanics is fascinating to me.
2) I am simply curious about my own relationship to money and how it impacts my life.
3) Just as I wanted to better understand the mechanics of money, I wanted to better understand the mechanics of my friend Erik’s life, Erik being the fellow who lives quite happily on $6k annually. How does such a life actually work? And why would he choose such a life in the first place? Part of what made Erik’s story so compelling is his obvious contentment and the richness and depth of his community, along with the tremendous beauty in his life. Do these things correlate to his monetary poverty? If so, are they the result of his relationship to money, or has his relationship to money evolved out of these factors?
4) Is it possible that the accumulation of money actually weakens our connection to others and to the natural world? If so, how and why?
5) What is money? I mean we all know that even a one hundred dollar bill is useless without the societal agreement that it’s actually worth something. So is it possible that money isn’t even really a thing, but an agreement?
6) How might what I learn about money and from Erik define the balance I strike in my own life between the accumulation of money as a safety net for an unknown future, and my increasing awareness that how I spend my time is how I spend my life? In other words, what am I actually trading for the “security” of accumulated monetary wealth?
And with that, I will shut up about money for a while and return to my regular habit of revealing the deepest secrets of the universe. Thank you for reading.
January 28, 2013 § 6 Comments
First, thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and candid comments relating to “Relax.” Keep ‘em coming. There are many issues to navigate when thinking about money, and it often seems to me as if there are few clear solutions. I just spent a full 18 months thinking and writing about the subject, and my ideas are still evolving.
However, there are a couple of things I’m fairly certain of (as of today, anyhow):
1) There is nothing inherently wrong with money. However, the nature of contemporary money, which is really just credit (if that makes no sense to you, well, you’ll just have to buy my book), is that it conveniently externalizes the majority of the true costs associated with the production/consumption of just about everything we purchase. It does this by facilitating globalized trade in the context of a economic system that rewards cost-cutting and profit-making (I think it’s called “capitalism”). Money is extremely powerful in its capacity to do either good or bad in this world, and I believe that we should assume the responsibility of acknowledging its impact and doing what we can to make choices that emphasize the good. Of course, pretty much every piece of consumer marketing ever produced is designed to ensure that we don’t think twice about how we spend. Or, as is increasingly common, is spun in a way to make us feel good about our consumption; witness the “greening” of some of the most inherently destructive industries ever invented.
2) This is hardly original thinking, but I also believe that the most pure form of wealth is measured not in how much you have, but in how little you need. SAVED is based largely on the life of a dear friend who lives on about $6k/year, and one of my goals for the book – beyond simply making the point that one can be happy in the absence of much money – was to examine how, precisely, his life works. How his personal economy works (an interesting aside: The Greek root words for “economics” have nothing to do with money), how he manages to survive and even thrive in the context of such deep monetary poverty. I tried very hard to avoid romanticizing his life, or to let him off the hook from his inevitable dependence on others. Because the fact is, I’m pretty sure you can’t get by on six grand a year in 21st century America without, as Joe Cocker would put it, “a little help from [your] friends.” Still, it is fascinating for me to consider how most of us have exchanged our dependence upon one another for dependence on a commoditized economic system, an arrangement that gives rise to cute little phrases like “too big to fail.” In many ways, this is an enormous convenience: Being dependent upon one another is messy and humbling work, and there are times when it’s a real blessing to simply hand over a pile of dough and be absolved of all those complications. But make no mistake, it’s still a form of dependence that in many ways ultimately leaves us more vulnerable and even less connected to others.
I’ll leave you with another short excerpt from SAVED.
When we settle our debts via monetary exchanges, we extinguish any lingering obligation. True, it may at times feel inconvenient or even uncomfortable to feel indebted to someone, to “owe them a favor.” But this discomfort arises only from the illusory wealth of money, which has largely absolved us of the need to rely on others and likewise, to have them rely on us.
It was through this accounting that I fully and finally began to understand how it was that Erik viewed himself as being not frugal but rather downright rich. Because he views assessments of his prosperity in much the same way he views his economy: as being about more than money. He doesn’t have many of the things money can buy, that much is irrefutably true: no car, no iPad, no television or cell phone. His life is bereft of anonymous goods, purchased with anonymous dollars, created by hands made anonymous by distance and cultural divides. In this regard, he is poor and, to the extent that one views these goods as desirable and even essential, perhaps even pitiable.
But the more time I spent with Erik, the better I understood that any measure of prosperity based on the compiling of generic goods, no matter how technologically alluring or promising of convenience and comfort, was at best an example of half-done math. The world is awash in these homogenized items; the prosperity that comes of owning them is a homogenized prosperity, no amount of which can fill that void that comes of the disquieting realization that perhaps we are becoming homogenous, too.
The allure of these manufactured goods is built on story after story: First, and almost always, the once-upon-a-time story that they will somehow free us to live the life we truly want to live, a life that always seems just beyond our reach, like the rainbow’s end, or the proverbial carrot on a stick. Often, this story is rooted in the premise that contemporary technological marvels – faster computers, talking cell phones, wireless freakin’ everything – will not only simplify our lives, leaving us with more free time to spend with loved ones or engage in the leisure time activity of our choosing, but will usher in a new era of abundance for all. Increasingly, however, the leisure time activity of our choosing seems to be engaging with the very technological marvels that promise more leisure time. In 2010, Americans set a record for television watching, at thirty-four hours per week; that same year, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that teenagers spent fifty-three hours each week immersed in digital media. A new generation is already on the hook.
January 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
You might be a redneck if…
… after dropping your son’s kittens at the vet to be neutered and picking up one of their friends for a play date, you overhear this snippet of conversation, which followed an in-depth discussion of the various methods for castration:
J (friend): “It makes my balls tingle just thinkin’ about it.”
Fin: “What do you mean?”
J: “Oh, you know what I mean ’cause yours are doing it too!”
F: “Yeah, I guess they are twitchin’ a bit!”
Rye (emphatically): “Mine are goin’ all over the place!”
January 25, 2013 § 21 Comments
In a bit less than six months, my next book comes out. It’s called SAVED: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World. In full candor, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this title, which does not really covey the complexity of the issues the book explores. On the other hand, there’s a certain truth to it that I appreciate: On some level, I do feel as if through the process of writing SAVED I was saved from much of my angst over money and furthermore, that I have evolved into a world view rooted in an appreciation of the immense non-monetary wealth surrounding me.
The truth is, however, that I have not fully quit worrying about money. This reality was brought into distressingly sharp focus this week, with the arrival of a statement from the holder of my dormant IRA account, to which I have not contributed in many, many years. In fact, I’d forgotten the damn thing even existed, and given the paltry sum it represents, it might as well not. At some point about a decade ago, Penny and I made a conscious decision to fully commit to our long-held belief that our best “investments” would be in our land and infrastructure, the retirement of our debt, and time spent with our boys. Any money that might have been squirreled away as a safety net for an unknown future has instead been spent on things like fruit trees and soil minerals. Two greenhouses. A pond. Our last mortgage payment was three years ago, and we carry no other debt. Our primary vehicle is a 17-year-old Subaru. (Not so long ago, Penny picked up a hitchhiker. He got in, twitched his nose, and said “This car smells like the farm I used to work on.”) Over the past decade, I have steadily earned less and less, to the point where we now live on just under $30,000 per year. This allows me a degree of autonomy regarding how I spend my time that has become unusual in contemporary America, and for this I am enormously grateful.
Nine days out of ten, I feel good about our decisions around money. I truly feel as if I have quit worrying about money and become the richest dude in the whole cotton pickin’, dangblam world. But on about every tenth day, I get a little panicky. Yeah, we have some savings, but it ain’t much. And yes, I have enough work lined up that I can claim job security, at least for the next six months or so. Hell, that’s more than an awful lot of my friends and neighbors can claim. But still: The nature of my work means that I am responsible for maintaining my income flow. Once one project ends, there are only three people I can rely on to find the next: Me, myself, and I.
I’ll leave you with this short excerpt from SAVED and ask, if you’re interested in sharing, about your relationship to money.
Yet I cannot deny a certain degree of resentment that money – or a lack thereof – commands so much of my attention and generates the overwhelming majority of the strife I experience. I cannot help feeling somewhat bitter that, no matter how hard we try, no matter what deprivations we endure (and there have been plenty, I assure you), Penny and I remain beholden to the monetary realm. I am bothered by the fact that for the majority of my adult life, I have fretted over money. And then, ridiculously, I fret over my fretting: Why have I allowed myself to worry so much? I have never gone hungry, or spent a night unsheltered from the elements. I have never even been at risk of these things. Most of my worry, I have come to realize, has emerged from a place of uncertainty and fear. Not over the present, mind you, or even the medium term future, but over the belief that I should be accumulating monetary wealth in preparation for an unknown future. Why? Because it’s what I’ve been told I must do; it’s what we all have been told we must do. And so we collect the nuts, trading our time – which is to say, our life – for them, and squirreling them away and then worrying about whether or not they’re squirreled in the right place, at high enough return, to enable us to live the life we someday hope to live.
January 24, 2013 § 3 Comments
It’s been cold ’round these parts of late, though not as cold as I’d quietly hoped. Fourteen below seems to be as low as we’re going to see during this snap, if the forecast for moderating temperatures over the next few days holds up.
I’d hoped for serious cold not out of malice toward anyone who wished for the opposite, but because frankly winter’s gotten a bit weak in the knees over the past few years and I’m worried about her. And I guess there’s part of me that worries that if winter gets weak, I’m liable to get weak right alongside it. I want to be pushed a bit, tested. I want to feel that sense of having overcome the elements, however much that smacks of hubris. I like the sense of comradarie a hard winter brings, the small superiority those of us who do not jet off for a week or two of vacation feel over those who do. Wait… did I just admit to being an asshole? Well, darn, I guess I did.
There’s one other thing I like about the cold: I like the way it feels. I go out in the morning to scrape the wind blown snow off the solar panels, and I stand for a minute in the coldest piece of the day, that push-pull hour at the cusp of dark and dawn, and I let myself sink into it. Or I let it sink into me, I’m not sure which. Probably both. It’s a curious thing, the way serious cold feels like a burn, the way my cheeks actually feel hot at fourteen below. So I stand there for a minute until I’m hanging over the edge of uncomfortable, and then I scrape the snow off the panels and just that little bit of work brings the blood to my fingers and face and that feels good, too. In a way, it feels like taking a breath.
In a way, it feels like being alive.
January 22, 2013 § 11 Comments
A couple of days after we slaughtered the pigs, we ushered a couple of lambs into the freezer. As usual, the boys were enthusiastic participants, keen to wield the blade, so to speak, and so once the second lamb was hanging from the gambrel Penny and I retreated to the house to warm our toes, leaving the fellas to finish separating skin from flesh. Again, I was nervous about it: What if they screwed up? What if one of them got cut? What if, what if, what if…
The truth is, I sometimes struggle to trust my kids. Not “trust” as in “believe them,” but “trust” as in “believe in them.” It’s a crucial distinction, I think, the difference between simply believing they are honest, and believing they are capable. Of course, one does not preclude the other, and honesty is a revered quality around these parts. But capability is equally revered. Perhaps even more so, it is the act of becoming capable that we revere and our desire for them to have the sense that the process of becoming capable in any particular skill or pursuit is transferable to other skills and pursuits. Frankly, I don’t think this can happen if we don’t trust them. If we don’t just believe them, but believe in them.
I’m not sure our culture believes in its children as fully as it once did, and I think this is because we have created institutionalized arrangements that simply can’t afford the imprecision, uncertainty and occasional chaos that fully trusting children entails. I think about the tremendous rise in diagnosis of “behavioral disorders” and the subsequent increase in prescriptions of psychotropic drugs among school-age children: A twenty-fold increase over the past three decades. In 2011 alone, a 19% rise in sales of Ritalin. Are there really that many more kids with these issues, or is it possible that the arrangements we have created have made it extremely difficult to accommodate those whose personalities do not conform? Furthermore, if you’re asking a child to take drugs to modify their behavior so that they might fit within the accepted boundaries set by an industrialized educational system, are you not essentially suggesting that you do not trust who they innately are? To be sure, there are cases that might warrant such intervention, but still: A 2000% increase in 30 years? A 19% increase in the sales of just one of these drugs in a single year? Clearly, there’s something else going on, here.
I might be wrong about this, but I am beginning to think that many aspects of contemporary American life are not compatible with trusting our children. On a purely pragmatic level, believing in children takes time, which so many of us feel unable to spare, pushed as we are by careers and our collective faith that “busyness” is the hallmark of a life well lived. I know I could have skinned that lamb far faster than my boys, and there was a part of me that wanted to push them aside purely for that reason: It was a full day. There was much to do. And the biggest lie of all, I couldn’t spare the time. I think of a day a couple months back, when I was laying out the cedar poles that would form the uprights for the shelter we’re building over the sawmill. Rye wanted to help, and I had to stop myself from turning him away, because of course his “help” would slow down the process. And what if he measured to the wrong spot, or misidentified the numbers on the tape measure?
So trusting kids takes time, and it demands enormous patience, because of course the process of attaining capability does not begin with capability. Indeed, it begins most often with failure, or some version of it. Here too is another aspect of contemporary American culture that does not lend itself to trusting our kids, because of course we are socialized to not believe in failure. We are socialized to believe in American exceptionalism, in individualized achievement. In excellence.
To be honest, the boys did not achieve excellence with the lamb. “I think we sort of screwed it up,” Fin told me, when he ventured inside to retrieve Penny and me. And in a sense he was right, although the damage was primarily cosmetic. But in another sense, he was entirely wrong, because by taking on the job in the first place, the boys had done something even bigger than forcing me to believe in them: They’d believed in themselves.