The Left Hand

June 17, 2013 § 17 Comments


For those of you wondering where yesterday’s post disappeared to, after only a few short hours of life, well, as it turns out, I’m not quite as comfortable with overt self-promotion as I thought. Henceforth, I return to my regularly scheduled broadcast of subvert self-promotion. You have been warned. 

A few nights ago, at my reading in Warner, NH, a young fellow introduced us all to the term “left hand economy,” a reference to the underground economy that prevailed in Soviet Russia in the years before the union disintegrated. I like the term, in part because Penny is a leftie, and I’m keenly aware of the extent to which my personal economy is dependent on her hard work and support, but also for what it stands for: A way of life and commerce that occurs on the fringes of the dominant economy. To me, it speaks of subverting the hierarchal moneyed economy, and if there’s anything that gets me out of bed on those mornings when I’d so much rather drift back into the soft, halcyon world of my subconscious, it’s subverting the hierarchal moneyed economy. That’s actually not entirely true, but I like the way it sounds.


There were two small events from the previous week that I wanted to share, both of which quietly (and hearteningly, I’d say) point to the existence of a left hand economy in my own small corner of the world. So settle in: A little story-telling is about to commence.

On Wednesday morning, our 17-year-old Subaru began to emit a wall of noise from the point at which the exhaust connects to the manifolds. Now, our poor car is challenged in myriad ways – excessive oil consumption, non-functioning door locks, a passenger window that does not lower (which is good, because if it did lower, it would not raise), a sizable rusted-out void in a rear frame member, and so on – but all of these we’ve learned to live with until we stumble across something better or until the car simply disintegrates beneath us. But the exhaust noise? Egads. Awful. And me with many miles to travel over the next few weeks. Even Rush’s 2112 turned up to 11 would do little to sooth the sonic roar emerging from beneath our horseless carriage (as the boys are fond of calling it).


So it was that I found myself in Shon’s garage at 8 on Thursday morning. Yes, he was busy, and had no time to fit me into his normal business hours, but if I came down early, he said, we’d have us a look. Shon is fast, and knows what he’s doing in a way that is almost graceful to watch. He had the manifold studs off, the deficient gaskets smeared with gasket compound, and the whole thing bolted back together, car on the ground and idling quietly (well, as quiet as the ole girl gets) in no more than 30-minutes. “Shon,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”

He squinted at me through the smoke rising off his cigarette. “I don’t know… you got five bucks on ya?”


The next day (and this is again motor related, which does make one wonder, does it not?), our neighbor came over to help diagnose a frustrating and recurrent problem with the sawmill, involving frequently fouled spark plugs. We puttered for little while, before he determined that I had a bad right side coil that was not providing sufficient spark to the plug. “Here’s what you need to do,” he said, and showed me exactly how to replace the coil and set the appropriate gap between the flywheel magnet and the coil itself.

“Luke,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”

He glanced over at our little sugaring rig, which is situated within spittin’ distance of the mill. “You got a spare quart of syrup?” he asked. Indeed, I did.


I think a lot about the extent to which it is possible to live wonderfully rich and contented lives on the margins of the moneyed economy. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I might move my own work into these margins. I have this fantasy – which may never be realized, but then again, maybe it will – that someday I will be able to offer my services on a pay-as-you-are-able basis. How cool would it be if I could simple give away copies of my books, and readers could pay me based on both ability, and what they felt my work is worth to them, personally? (Of course, this raises the thorny possibility that I might actually start receiving bills from those readers who felt I had so utterly wasted their precious time with my drivel).

For now, of course, I remain tethered to the traditional model of publishing: An advance paid out, a book produced and marketed, price affixed to its glossy cover, with no room for negotiation. For now, when someone asks me to come speak at an event, I feel compelled to charge a particular fee, which I will be paid whether or not half the audience winds up slumbering in their seats (for the record, I’m fairly sure this has never happened). How might it change the experience – for me and for them – if I were to be paid based not on what the market has determined is the value for a speaker, but instead on the extent to which my talk enriched their life experience?


In a few days, if weather forecasts hold, we will embark on our annual haying adventures with our dear friend Martha. As I wrote in my keynote at the PASA conference a few months back

the story of our haying with Martha is a story that strikes back at the myth of reliance on industry and corporation for the simple essentials of our lives and it comforts me precisely because it shows how we can survive and even thrive outside this myth. 

The older I get, the more I understand the extent to which the full richness of my life is dependent on all the small exchanges that are, for lack of a better term, part the left hand economy. And I suspect this is true for many, if not most of you. The moneyed economy does not want us to recognize, acknowledge, and participate in this realm (indeed, did you know that barter is actually taxable? Assuming you report it, that is…), but of course that is only because the masters of the moneyed economy have not determined how to profit from these exchanges.

And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.


§ 17 Responses to The Left Hand

  • Nancy Settel says:

    so who won the book? nancy settel

  • Linda Pastor says:


    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hi Linda,

      I’m pretty sure you have to unsubscribe yourself I don’t think there’s anything I can do.

  • Donna Claar says:

    Wishing more folks had your outlook on life.

  • vpfarming says:

    Amen. It sounds hypocritical for me to say it – because by day (for now) I make a living as an investment guy, where every last molecule that isn’t strapped down is measured in dollars and cents – but I get intense satisfaction out of our little “left-handed” trades.

    Raw goat milk for horseback riding lessons, grape juice for healthcare, and – my favorite – doughnuts for access to my neighbor’s considerable toolshed and expertise.

    It is 100% liberating. And addictive.

    (I have ~400 lbs of surplus grass-fed beef coming in autumn – anyone wanna trade?)

  • Wendy says:

    I love that phrase, ‘left-hand economy’ – mind if I borrow it sometime? Much better than the overused phrase ‘alternative economy’. Interesting that this is coming up, as more and more are needing to turn their attention to what has been in existence since the start of man (most likely). It’s heartwarming to see it become more the norm for folks who basically don’t need the moneyed economy to live (smart ones that they are).

    Also, there is now a movement gaining momentum toward social entrepreneurism, which speaks on what you said about ‘paying what you think it’s worth’. Many socially conscious businesses are going that route – online ones, anyway – and it’s helping to change the face of business. (An idea who’s time has come, no doubt.) Paraphrasing what an online speaker once said , ‘After all, how much money does one really need to live on?’ (he sounded somewhat guilty about making a low 6 figures at the time, even though he lived in a high-cost city). Well-grounded folks just KNOW when enough is enough, don’t they?

    Your book will be a beacon among (amongst?) them, I’m sure – one that will lead people back to the land of sanity, I hope, for common sense and sanity are sorely needed! Keep it coming, Ben …

    Oh, and Shon is THE man, isn’t he?

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hey Wendy,

      Sure, run with it. It’s not mine to lend, anyway.

      Yeah. Shon is a much-beloved fixture in our lives, and not just b/c he’s an excellent and generous mechanic.

      • Lindsay Koehler says:

        Ben — I was happy that your previous (deleted) post was waiting in my inbox, and thrilled for you that your promotional events are going so well. I used to plan author events, and it is the happiest of all problems to have to scramble for MORE chairs. If you are getting a good butt-in-seat ratio, I am sure your sales will be good, as well. Congrats in advance.

      • Ben Hewitt says:

        Thanks, Lindsay. I really appreciate the words of encouragement.

  • MamaAshGrove says:

    Beautiful photos. :)
    I totally understand about the self-promotion thing!

  • Chris says:

    Thank Penny for us. Wish I could be a part of some of these talks you’re doing at the book stores. Can’t there be some online version like that? Or can you get somebody to video it? You don’t have a video of that first one you did w/central character, do you?

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hey Chris,

      Thanks for the note. I don’t think anyone has recorded/videoed any of these talks, but that’s a great idea. Maybe I can make that happen for a future talk.

  • Yes indeed Ben! The left hand economy (I like that!) is alive and well here too. I finished your book and am still ruminating on it and talking about it to everyone who will listen, hopefully generating more sales for you. You are on to some important stuff that needs articulating, and you’re good at it. Thanks for sticking with it, and I pray that you are always able to continue doing what you do so well. Your voice is needed. I love the concept of paying what you feel something’s worth, and have had the opportunity to purchase this way. I have paid more and sometimes less based on my financial state, so things seem to even out. Your photo story is a hoot! I have photos of my two taken with an underwater camera around the ages of your two. I miss the unbridled and joyful immediateness of boys.

  • Dawn says:

    I am about half way through my copy of $aved having spent the time during my boys last two afternoon naps reading it instead of doing all the many things I should? could? be doing. Time very well spent, I must say. I find myself laughing, rereading paragraphs to let certain ideas sink in and fighting the urge to raise my fist in the air and shout, “Right on, brother!” at various points you make. I also find myself, not for the first time, wishing I had a bit more of a like-minded community such as you have. I live in a farming area but it is horse farms (not criticizing as I have horses, too) but not one of my neighbors grows a single tomato or have anything living on their farms which can feed them. Of course, that puts me in a unique position as they buy my produce and eggs and I farm-sit for them when they go out of town (which most of them do a lot) so I am not complaining. But, I do struggle to find ways to build a like-minded community at least at a certain level. Sometimes, I feel like I would need to move to an intentional community to have that kind of life but I also believe in the “bloom where you are planted” philosophy so we’ll see if we can persuade people by example.
    Regarding this post – I am reminded of a book Stephen King published for readers of his website called The Plant. This was many years ago (had to be 10 or more) before I had ever heard of a blog if they even existed back then. He wrote it a chapter at a time and put it up for free but asked for a donation in the amount of the readers choice. I seem to remember he did not finish it as not many contributed. But, this was many years ago and I think the idea would not seem so foreign to readers today. Anyway, if you were paid based on the impact you have had on just my life through your previous books and just what I have read of the new one thus far, you would probably not change your life too much but would have a lot more zeros to add to your tax form next year. You are one of the best I have ever read, in my opinion. Thanks, Ben.

  • Carrie says:

    Hi Ben

    I’m buying $aved (in the UK) – look forward to receiving it.

    The person who writes the TinySpell software [] has an interesting business model that could work well for self-published e-books. In a nutshell, you pay a set price for the software but you have the option (drop-down list) to select a price that select a price that matches your satisfaction and your financial means. I’m not sure how well he/she does with that but it seems a neat idea.

  • Suzanne In VA says:

    Ben, I just bought your book, downloaded to my PC Kindle cause I am too impatient to wait. Really looking forward to delving in!

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