The Circus Comes to Town   29 comments

An entry in How To Be Poor

As has likely been noticed by regular readers, the How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty has not seen a new entry in over two months. In the last post in the series, Ending Our Exuberance, I wrote of my intention to address some of the ways in which I would have to manage a new living situation so as not to fall into the traps of an overly abundant lifestyle, instead staying focused on my attempts to scale back my life and live within modest means. I planned to write about ways to craft the context of my living so as to assist me in my goals, making that the subject of the next few posts in the series.

A few occurrences have conspired to keep me from that goal, however. First of all, I find I need more time to figure out something of a coherent philosophy and set of behaviors for how to live well on the grid. I’ve been spending some time thinking on this, but I’m not yet ready to write any particularly helpful posts in that regard. Furthermore, as I noted in my last post, I recently slipped into some bad habits and a resulting mental funk that has distracted me from this blog and some of the behavioral goals the blog is about. That accounted for much of my quiet over the last few weeks. However, it also has provided me the opportunity to think about the subject of distractions and habits and how they relate to my attempt to live a simpler life. And so, being an opportunist, I want to recalibrate the current thrust of this series to address the topic of distraction.

This isn’t a complete reversal from the previous topic of context, as distraction is a part of the context of my current living situation. Of course, distraction has been available at every place I’ve lived—the difference lies in what kinds of distraction are available and prevalent. Ultimately, the reality of distraction comes down not to the specific place I’m living, but my own behavior and mentality. The simple truth is that I tend toward distraction, in ways that can border on, and even slip into, addiction. I’ve known this about myself for awhile now. For instance, I spent a good chunk of my childhood addicted to television, consuming it for hours on end and losing much my life to the flickering images of easy emotional comfort. I grew overweight and depressed watching TV, which tended to reinforce my addiction. It wasn’t until I started to play basketball that I began to watch less (but still plenty of) TV and dropped quite a bit of weight, playing myself into a healthier state.

Coincidentally, basketball is my current distraction. Not playing it, though, but watching it on TV—which is available in the place I’m living. The NBA playoffs are in full swing and I’ve been watching them for a month now. Anyone who happens to be familiar with the NBA knows that, up until the championship series, there is generally one or more games on every single night. And while I certainly haven’t watched every game, I’ve watched enough that I’ve given a majority of nights over to this particular distraction.

While I don’t consider watching basketball a sin of the highest degree, it is most certainly a distraction from the multitude of goals I have for myself this year, particularly with the gardening season in full swing. I work two jobs (though even between the two, they don’t make for a full 40 hour work week) and am trying to get a large garden going. I’m also writing this blog and aiming to get a full compliment of homesteading activities in place. Add into all that my propensity for reading, a desire for semi-regular socializing, the urge to revive my fiction writing, household chores, cooking, and the fact that I’m the sort of person who enjoys and benefits from a decent amount of rest or recreational time to think and reflect, and I’m looking at a mighty busy schedule—provided I follow through at least somewhat on all these goals. Such a schedule requires not just a general lack of significant distraction, but also an avoidance of negative, patterned behavior.

Except that significant distraction and negative, patterned behavior is exactly what I’ve provided myself throughout much of the last month.

Watching basketball most nights not only took away from the various aforementioned activities, but worked to slip me into a pattern of negative behavior that saw me actively avoiding much of that work. I still did my regular jobs, of course, and kept up with my obligations to others, but the work that depended on my own personal motivation began to fall by the wayside. Aside from watching basketball, I spent more time clicking around aimlessly on the internet. I started to fall into a trap that I know too well, in which I shirk certain duties for a bit too long, causing me to then double down and avoid them out of guilt for having not already taken care of them. It’s a bad pattern of behavior to get into and I fell head on into it.

Now, before I roundly flog myself, I will note that I did accomplish some things. I worked up a couple beds in the hoop house and planted tomatoes. I started to go up to the farm I lived at last year for some socializing with newly arrived WWOOFers. My work hours picked up a bit. But there still were many days with multiple free hours during which I could have done more work on the garden or experimented with some homesteading, written posts for this blog, responded more readily to comments, did some reading, or revived my long-dormant fiction writing ways. There was no shortage of productive work I could have been doing; just a shortage of motivation to do it.

This is an interesting phenomenon to think about. I don’t think I’m particularly alone here in America in falling into this trap. While I know plenty of people who are much better at getting to work than I am, I also have seen countless others who lose an incredible number of hours to television or the internet, video games, movies or other distracting media. At the risk of sounding like a broken record—but keeping within the theme of this blog—I can’t help but see the tie to an overabundant lifestyle. Much as it’s bizarre to speak of voluntary poverty as a challenge, it’s a bit bizarre to speak of doing the work that needs to be done as a challenge. This isn’t because work can’t be hard—it certainly can be, though it can also be invigorating and joyous—but because we live in an overly abundant society in which distractions are available and pervasive. Furthermore, we live in a society in which we are cultured to partake in these distractions at every possible point, and at the expense of a more meaningful and satisfying life. This is bizarre not just because of its ability to disconnect us from good work and good living, but also because it’s rooted in an abundant wealth that provides the possibility of our turning away from the necessary work of making our living, instead outsourcing it to the industrial economy.

That’s odd. Every other animal goes about making itself a basic living and acting out fairly natural behaviors. Humans, on the other hands—in recent centuries—have gained access to amazing amounts of temporary wealth and resources and used that odd happenstance to specialize to an unprecedented degree and plunge a significant percentage of the population into a life that centers, as much as anything, around manufactured distraction. The circus is forever in town and we’re handed a loaf of bread and a ticket to the main event each day after our allotted work schedule. Our agency plummets, our unease rises, and society crows about how all its ducks are in a row, even as the ducks teeter and topple. Every night the circus tent looks a bit more ragged and the loaf of bread is smaller, but we continue to watch the ever-more-chaotic show.

How odd, then, that as I write this blog about skipping the circus, breaking away from the allotted work schedule and at least occasionally baking your own bread, I found myself suddenly spending more and more nights at the circus, unhappy and disappointed in myself, yet still somehow enthralled by the spectacle. It’s nothing new for me; I’ve spent much my life vacillating between activities that are a distraction from larger goals and the necessary work of achieving those goals.

It’s been a long road for me, getting away from the spectacle and distraction, and I’m only partway down it. I take occasional detours. I get discouraged by the long haul and at times explore a side path, even if I know I need to stay focused on the long term goal. Not to mention—and I’m going to be talking about this more down the line—I live in this house alone and it’s hard not having a partner to help keep me on track. I’m most effective in keeping my obligations to others. When I have only to keep an obligation to myself, I’m far more likely to fail. I think that reality grows out of feedback patterns as much as anything else. I don’t tend toward having a dominant will. It shows up at times, granted—I can get on a tear under the right conditions—but I’m far more likely to go with the flow, to move within the current. That makes this path much harder, as the cultural and societal current is very much going in the opposite direction from where I want to go.

That’s why it’s important for me to craft a different sort of life, featuring different pillars of support and encouragement than our standard society offers. I need others around me who understand and at least somewhat support what I’m doing. I need the natural feedback that the land and the seasons offer. I need those glorious moments of accomplishment that confirm the beauty and necessity of what I’m doing. I need sunny and warm days, or enthralling storms, or the quiet doings of the many other creatures around me, always somewhere within my view, ready to remind me of what’s real and honest and important. I need nights of good socialization, with drinks and campfires and home cooked pizzas and the ease of a night on the farm, the soft glory of a warm summer evening, laughter and shared experience and a place where this life is normal, not bizarre and contradictory.

I also may need, on occasion, the promise and opportunity of a 90 by 40 foot patch of tilled earth staring me in the face. As I wrote in the last post, it was the sudden and unexpected sight of that soil on a warm and sunny day a couple weeks ago that brought me back to a good place. The farmer within me responded with a surprising ferocity and I grew giddy at the thought of what I might be able to do with that gardening space. Since then, I’ve planted potatoes, lettuce, chard, kale, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, parsley—and I keep adding more tomato plants in the hoop house and will soon be getting in peppers, summer and winter squash, a couple globe artichokes, basil, direct-seeded carrots and beets and, well, so much more. I’m a bit slow going on the garden, but every time I get out there and work on it, it brings me a joy and confirmation and sense of purpose that just resonates throughout me. It’s so, so good. It’s so much better than an evening spent watching basketball.

However, I’m still doing that on occasion. Should I? I don’t know—it’s debatable. But I’m watching the Western Conference Finals, which is playing every other night. On Tuesday, I watched it after a long day of building fence and hauling wood, followed up by a few garden maintenance activities. It felt earned at that point and I watched without guilt. Yet, at the same time, my intention to write this post after the game ended gave way to the fatigue brought on by the long day of work. If I had skipped the game, I likely would have finished this post and had it up Tuesday evening. So there are trade offs.

Yet the distractions aren’t going to go away anytime soon. Much of it may yet go away in my lifetime, but I’m not going to get the easy out of all these societal distractions suddenly no longer being available. I’m going to have to either make them more unavailable to me or become better at avoiding them, at choosing the good and necessary work. Or I’m going to have to fail in my goals. These really are my options and I think they’re the options for many people attempting a path similar to mine.

Voluntary poverty, voluntary simplicity, a simpler way of living, a life lived with less resources—whatever you want to call it, it necessarily involves a lot of work, much of which is not sanctioned by our society. It’s the sort of good work that the media-based distractions so prevalent in our society are designed to lead us away from. A life with more agency, more community, and more good work is a life that leads one to spend less, to be less dependent on the industrial economy, and to tend toward a greater degree of self-determination and, I dare say, a greater degree of skepticism toward the so-called leaders in our society. There’s a reason that all this distraction exists: it serves the existing power structures well. That’s not to say it’s a vast conspiracy, as I don’t believe it is. It’s just that there’s money to be made, a system to be maintained, and power to be held onto and the various distractions available to us in America and in many other industrialized nations serve those goals. They arise naturally out of the system.

As such, any attempt to live one’s life in a scaled back and more self-sufficient manner is going to necessarily involve divesting oneself of many of those distractions. They reinforce behavioral and thought patterns that are antithetical to voluntary poverty and consistently reinforce the values of a society that is actively hostile to such a life. I speak from way too much experience on this topic. In the coming weeks, I’m going to use that experience to explore some of the ways in which our society offers up distraction, how we can go about avoiding those distractions, and how we can turn the natural desires and needs that those distractions target away from the destructive fulfillment that society at large offers and toward a more human-centered set of behaviors. I’ll be exploring different forms of media, what they’ve become in our industrial society, and in what ways they might serve as a healthy part of a community. Then I’ll be turning this all back to an exploration of the necessity of human community in a world of restricted wealth and resources.

That’s the goal, anyway. We’ll see how many detours and side paths I discover on my way there.

29 responses to “The Circus Comes to Town

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  1. Well, Joel, there always have been and always will be distractions – and not all of them are of human construct; as in beautiful clouds floating in a pure azure sky being a distraction from turning the compost, for example.

    I have found that one can choose to be distracted or not and the ‘not’ side of the issue does not require an immense effort of will; just an honest decision and the willingness (as distinct from ‘will’ or ‘willpower’) to abide by and live up to one’s decision as being a promise made to oneself rather than a measure of one’s ‘inner strength’.

    There’s also the possibility that distractions can be a beneficial safety valve lest one work oneself to an insensate nub doing that which one ‘must’ do.

    Then there are distractions as addictions, such as you have noted. I don’t see what you have described as being addiction, as such, but rather a way of realizing instant (more-or-less) gratification in the face of the more methodical and perhaps long-delayed gratification one may – or may not – realize from such things as preparing a garden or posting to one’s blog or learning to farm and/or live in voluntary poverty.

    One thing that struck me in your essay was the reference to having to divest yourself of many of those distractions, which sort of struck me as being a self-imposed punishment for being distracted in the first place. I would offer an easier way – give the distractions their due, within some carefully examined time allotments, and otherwise prioritize them along with those things that are on your ‘to do list’. Also, I’d suggest you give some time to an examination of that list – it seems awfully full, to me, and that alone may be part of what’s driving the choice to be distracted.

    • Martin! I feel like you just smacked me with some wisdom, and thank you for that.

      I’m actually multitasking watching the basketball game and responding to this comment right now. Earlier, I transplanted some summer and winter squash; direct seeded carrots and beets; and seeded some squash, cucumbers, lettuce, and kale for eventual transplant. I also wrote this post, of course. I’m feeling pretty good right now and am watching the game without guilt. It feels like a legitimate distraction. So I agree with you that a certain distraction allotment, so to speak, isn’t such a bad thing. It can be a definite safety valve. I usually have a show or two I’ll be watching at any one time, as well, for nonthinking entertainment. (Dexter, True Blood, Parks and Recreation, Veep . . .)

      My concern springs more out of the way in which I fell into a trap of negative reinforcement that just kept me away from doing much that felt productive. I really didn’t like that. And that’s the sense in which I thought of it almost as an addiction—because I could see the ways it was having a bad effect on my life, but I kept making the bad decisions that perpetuated it.

      I don’t know if I put that through very clear in this post or not. I started to meander in my point a bit.

      You’re right in that choosing not to be distracted doesn’t require an immense effort of will. When I’m on the right track, it’s pretty darn easy. The focus on gardening has been reinforcing my desire to keep gardening and to not spend multiple hours of my day inside wasting time on the internet. Work tends to inspire work because it reminds me of the rewards and spurs me on to accomplish more goals. But man, I can transition into a different feedback loop in which I get down on myself and use that to continue my bad behavior. It’s something I’m working on. I do recognize it and it happens far less often these days, but it’s something I still do struggle with at times.

      As for my to do list, you’re right. My to do lists always tend to be unwieldy and beyond what I’ll ever accomplish. On a day like today, I (mostly) don’t let the things I didn’t get done worry me. As long as I had a productive day. Maybe one of these days I’ll learn to make a list that’s near-accomplishable. We’ll see.

      And finally, I often get distracted by the clouds or some equivalent of them. I never worry about those kinds of distractions—that’s just connection to the world. Nothing bad there. But it does raise the question of how we define distraction, and that’s probably something I’m going to write about. I read a lot and I almost never feel guilty about that, but I question if there’s any reason for me to consider reading not really a distraction but watching a television show a distraction. It’s an interesting distinction, and one I do have some tentative thoughts on.

      Anyway, thanks for your advice. It’s good, and it’s helpful.

      • ‘Twas mostly just an observation, Joel, based largely in my own experience, but you are welcome anyway.

        I offer the following haiku exchange between an old friend and myself from many years back:

        Compulsions exist
        The Sun rising and setting
        Shows us how it is

        Rising and setting
        The Sun shows us how it is,
        Old habits die hard.

      • I think possibly the distinction you may be looking for in the types of distractions are entertainment vs. amusement. Entertainment is passive, “consuming” a “product” created by an industry. Amusement is an active, self-generated process.

    • Oh, and thanks for the bread and circus inspiration, too, from your email.

  2. As I often remind myself, “Procrastination is a five syllable word for sloth :-) . On one hand, I look around and remind myself I’ve only been here four months. The living room, kitchen and bathroom are pretty well cleaned and organized. Except for the 3 or so shoulder high pile of boxes in the living room. The “office” and bedroom? Well, best keep those doors closed. Of course, a lot of this splendor is due to the fact that for the first time I had guests for lunch last Sunday. The night before ran very late.

    Outside? Nothing in the ground. Sigh. Mailboxes and gutters repaired and a good dent in the blackberries, but that’s about it. Of course, I had the trauma and drama of the first major move in 15 years. Closing the store and retiring. But deep down I know hacking blackberries would have been more therapeutic. And, preparing some garden beds. I have been working on some beds along a fence line. Brussels Sprouts starts need to go in. Some peas. Start small. After my nightly commune with Beau the dog, who came with the place, I go on slug patrol. Half ammonia and half water in a spray bottle does the trick.

    Bread and circus. Made my weekly trip to town with my weekly swing by the library. Usually, I just swing through the drive up and pick up my holds. Not much to pick up this week, so I went in. So, instead of a few items I REALLY want to read or watch, things that will aide me in my new live, I ended up with a pile of mostly distraction. I haven’t had “TV” in years. When I moved in here, I got Internet and a land line. I did not get cable TV. I know myself too well. A couple of years ago, I had Netflix for awhile. And, the siren call is strong to get it again. But, I think I can live without seeing the movies that attract my attention. And, there’s the cost.

    I am also a “True Blood” and “Dexter,” junkie. Add “Primeval,” “Warehouse 13,” “Walking Dead,” etc. etc. ad nauseum. But, I wait for the library to get those. Watched the first season of “Smallville.” And the library has 9 more seasons! I tell myself I’ll unpack boxes as I watch, but it never seems to happen.

    Oh, well. Cut blackberries for a couple of hours this morning, and will hit them again in the late afternoon. That feels satisfying. Thanks for bringing up the topic. I’m sure there will be lots of comments.

    • Oh man, as someone who has moved pretty much every year since 2009, I’m terrible at fully unpacking. I get a certain amount done and then a number of boxes of books, random junk, and old clothes get tucked back into a closet—if there’s a place to get tucked. Otherwise, they get “tucked” fairly conspicuously into a corner. Eventually it just blends into the background and I hardly think of it again until I’m having a guest over and suddenly feel a bit of embarrassment at lingering messes. So I most certainly identify.

      Slug patrol is good work, as is repairing mailboxes and gutters and hacking away at the blackberries. You’ll find no condemnation here on the things you haven’t yet got to—I know well how that shakes out. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at my gardening, though. Once I started in on it, it’s turned into one of those positive feedback loop that inspires more work. Granted, I’m still going at quite the leisurely pace (the things I’ve done over the last couple weeks would probably have been finished in two days at the farm I worked on last year) but just today I went out after a long day of working the farmers market and got a jar full of sprouted peas into the ground before I then came in for a beer, a grilled cheese sandwich (I’m far too tired and uninspired to come up with anything more complicated) a bit of basketball, and answering these comments. After that, probably some reading and an early bedtime. But it sure felt good to motivate myself to that extra hour of work and know I have those peas in. They should’ve gone in yesterday, but that turned into a trip up to Astoria with a couple neighboring WWOOFers—which was quite the nice reward.

      But if those peas hadn’t been sprouted already, I would’ve put it off until tomorrow. Many of the plants in now are starts. Knowing they’re getting a little big for their pots pushes me to get them in the ground. Responsibility to another living being. That always helps me.

      Still, the gardening—well, I’m starting to think that I need to write a post about a few things I’ve noticed. So I guess I’ll stop rambling about that here and save it for the next post.

      I had Netflix some odd years ago. I loved it. And I’ll never get it again. Not only will I not spend the money on it—awhile back I cut out all my monthly subscription entertainment fees, with Emusic being the last to go—but I know I would lose endless hours to it. That’s way too dangerous an access to have, so I stay away from it. The library, though, I used quite a bit in Portland. Their system is fantastic and you could get just about any book, DVD, CD . . . I definitely borrowed out seasons of TV shows and went to town. So, again, I’m well familiar with what you’re talking about.

      I hope you’ve obliterated many more blackberries. There’s something very satisfying about seeing a tangle of that evil gone and having the tracks of blood on your arm to speak to your work. The fence-building I mentioned in the post involved quite a bit of blackberry removal. The multitude of scratches on my forearms are about half-healed . . .

  3. Hi Joel,

    An interesting post and it should also be an interesting direction for future posts.

    I hear you man. Your post reminded me about how much knowledge, skills and planning people put into a productive/edible garden/orchard/food forest/animal system (whatever). To apply these skills you have to sort of plan ahead, know when to do certain activities and think about the future. Society as it stands today is pretty fluid and as you say it’s really a reflection of the resources available. If they weren’t there we’d sing a different tune for sure! I haven’t reconciled myself to this discrepancy either as like you, I have one foot in each paddock. I dunno as I haven’t sorted my thoughts out about this.

    I lost a couple of mates to World of Warcraft a few years back. Some of them lost their families. To shake the addiction, they moved to Rift Wars and then more recently on to Skyrim. Scary stuff.

    I’ll think about your post a bit more as it was pretty deep stuff.

    Regards

    Chris

    • I haven’t had any good friends lost to World of Warcraft or one of those types of games, but I’ve certainly known of some—friends of friends, basically. Those games are dangerous and, in my mind, just beautifully tap into the alienation, loneliness and yearning that seems to be one of our society’s primary outputs. I had a stretch of playing a lot of video games—though more on the video game console side, and not so much the perpetual world RPGs like WoW—and they are very addicting. They can be excellent at sucking your time, too. They also can be an excellent way to shut off your mind in stressful situations.

      Anyway, the one foot in each paddock situation seems the origin of much of this stress on my part. I keep falling into the trap of wanting to craft a life for the different world I see coming right now. But it’s not really possible to do that fully while we still live in this (rapidly changing, granted) reality. So I have to try to find that balance of learning skills I need to learn, changing the way I live my life, creating community and relationships but also recognizing that I can’t do it all at once and there are certain things I either can’t or perhaps shouldn’t do until some of these changes actually manifest themselves. Striking that balance is a definite challenge.

      You lucky readers get to read me essentially thinking through this stuff. Fun stuff, eh? Still, the comments to this post have been particularly helpful in providing me some perspective, some honesty, and some understanding for myself.

  4. Hi Joel,

    Had to think about it and then get a second opinion about your post.

    What we collectively decided is that you have a case of the Nimbin hippy conundrum. You’re probably going, “what the ….”.

    So, I’ll try to explain. A bit of background first about the town Nimbin:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nimbin,_New_South_Wales

    As a bit of a short story, I’ve travelled fairly widely around Australia (which is unusual in people my age) and one day back in 1998, just happened to find me in Nimbin of all places. I parked the car and got out and some guy came up to me before I’d even had a chance to look around and asked if, “I’d be wanting any smokes today”. Unfortunately for him I don’t smoke, but I was going like, “what the ….”. Where was I? It was a bit surreal. So, to fortify myself I dropped into a nice looking cafe and had a cappuccino and vege wrap plus a bit of cake and really took the time to look around. I spotted the hippy museum which I visited and found to be a very moving experience not because of what was, but for what was lost since those early heady days (it pre-dated me, I’m not that old!). It was a bit sad really. So then I walked around the town, visited the hemp embassy and generally looked at and observed the people. I left the town in a bit of a funk really.

    Hang in there please, the story does work its way back to you!

    The funk settled on me for a few days because I wondered whether the people that I’d observed in Nimbin were leading a more full, interesting and enjoyable life? It was killing me because I just didn’t know the answer to this question.

    Then it occurred to me after a couple of days/weeks that there was no answer to this question. As the Archdruid would say, it was a predicament rather than a problem.

    Back to your concerns though. What you are questioning is a value judgement. Only you can say whether watching the NBL is a valuable use of your time. It would be hard for others to say this.

    Sometimes, I work too hard and sacrifice too much and I don’t know whether this is the right way to go in life. There really is no answer. I try to live today, with an eye on tomorrow. All I can add is that you only get one life and I’ve witnessed enough death by now to know that our time here is short lived, I’m under no allusions on that matter.

    The Archdruid says that we’re all sort of heading in the direction of the Third World and I kind of tend to agree with him. Well, it’s kind of unfortunate for me that I’ve actually travelled to the Third World and seen it for myself first hand and like they say in the film “The Hangover” there are some things that you can’t unsee (good film). It is the rod that keeps pushing me on to make this place more sustainable and defensible in the long term.

    I can’t give you a value judgement on your life because I reckon you’re doing well anyway as you (in my mind) are well ahead of the competition. The land will be provided to those with the network and the skills when the time comes, plus you may want to consider that your life may be enhanced with a partner that shares your goal congruence (whatever that is). No judgement here, man as I don’t have any answers either.

    Regards

    Chris

    • Thank you, Chris. I like the explanation of the Nimbin hippy conundrum and I think you’re right that this is something of a predicament. The responses here have really helped me to think about where I’m at in life and with my goals, what I’m getting done, and so on. It’s been really helpful. One thing that it helps me to keep in mind is that, even if I think I should be doing more, I’m already doing a lot more than a good percentage of the population. I don’t mind that as a crack on other people, just a good reminder that even though I know others who are getting done much more than me, I’m not really slacking off, either. I’m still getting quite a bit done.

      The other thing I’ve been thinking about lately is that I feel like I’m in a good position for the future. I’m in a flexible position. I already have a lot of good skill and knowledge and am learning more every year, I don’t feel a need to hold onto too many material goods, and I don’t really expect much from the future. I really just would be happy to get by and find my bits of joy in the life I live. I have no idea if that will translate to things working out for me, but it feels like a pretty good place to start. If I can garden and make a bit of money working as a farm hand, do some homesteading, hang out with good people, spend lots of time outside and enjoy some good food and drink, I’m living a damn good life. And if a good number of the luxuries I do have suddenly go away—if we get a bit Third World-y in the near future—I won’t be surprised or angry about it. I’ll just go on about trying to get by.

      It feels like there’s a certain safety and security and empowerment in that. Doesn’t mean things can’t go terribly awry, but it feels like it makes it harder for them to.

      One of the lessons I’ve been trying to learn while writing this blog is to avoid too many sweeping statements or judgements, recognizing your point that many of these concerns are based partly or completely in a value judgement. I think avoiding that pitfall is going to be a challenge in my writing about distractions, but we’ll see how it goes.

  5. Hi Lew,

    How good is Dexter? The subject matter is just so wrong, I know I shouldn’t enjoy it, but there you go. I enjoyed the first season or two of True Blood too, which a neighbour loaned me, but it did get a bit silly so I stopped watching it. There is no TV reception at all up here. Hope your garden is going well and blackberries + stone fruit make a ripper jam, pity the council poisoned them all here last year.

    Chris

    • How’s Dexter? Well, I like it :-) . I mean, for the most part, he bumps off really, really bad people who’ve slipped by the law. I like the other characters and their story lines are interesting. The acting is top notch. I’ve never been to Miami, but it looks like a fascinating place, the Anglo / Cuban mix. The music, the food.

      This posting kind of lit a fire under me. The blackberries are off the drain field and the back deck has been reclaimed. A lot of people think I’m a little nuts to not just spray the heck out of them but I’m trying to proceed with at least an eye to permaculture and organic principles. Unfortunately, blackberries don’t compost well. They just re-sprout. So, it’s burn barrel after burn barrel for disposal. At least I can scatter the ashes about. I also like the hands on approach as another gardener lived here, once upon a time. I want to discover what’s left. A neighbor tipped me off to the possible location of an old Briar Rose and I think I found it, today. Still struggling along under a mat of blackberries. I’m trying to get the blackberries away from the house as they’re beginning to get under some of the siding. Not a good thing. Once they bloom, I won’t be able to get near them due to the many kinds of bees and wasps we have here.

      I have a blog just sitting there that I haven’t done much with. Really need to get it up and running. Sometimes I feel like I’m hijacking Joel’s.

      So, “stone fruit?” As in, peaches and plums? I have what has been described as a plum thicket, but more likely, Italian Prunes. Everyone here calls them plums. They grow all over this part of the Pacific Northwest and have pretty much naturalized. Had one in the yard when I was a kid. Very tasty and they make a great Hoisin sauce or filling for Scandinavian baked goods.

      • I’m going to hijack this comment thread to let you know, Lew, that I’m happy to have you “hijack” (which you’re not doing at all) this blog. I love the feedback and the relating of others’ experience. And I love you and Chris and Martin, Jordana, all the regular commenters here. It feels like a small community and, well, that’s what I’d like this blog to be, even if it is my soapbox.

        Plus, these comments are really helpful for me. The things I write about here I don’t often talk about in such detail with the regular people in my life—even with people who kind of agree. It’s an odd subject to broach unless you’re talking with someone who’s in more or less full agreement and is familiar with some of the same sources of information, so . . . well, a lot of these thoughts brew around in my head without anyone to talk with about them in full detail. So these comments become something of a source of conversation and I’ve found them extremely helpful in providing me perspective.

        So please keep hijacking!

        Also, Dexter is, morally, a fairly horrible premise in my mind, but it’s still a terribly entertaining show, even if I think it’s been downhill since season four. True Blood is completely ridiculous and silly but I still find it entertaining. Last season started to push the boundaries of my tolerance, though. But no doubt I’ll watch the new season.

        Also, I hesitate to turn this into more television talk, but I highly recommend Firefly for those who haven’t watched. Short lived but wonderful series. But then, I’m a super Joss Whedon fan. Buffy, Angel, Firefly . . . love ‘em all. (Also, The Wire. One of the best shows ever. And Six Feet Under is great melodramatic fun/misery. And now I’ll stop. This is terrible.)

      • Oh, and as for more helpful and productive suggestions, have you heard of hugelkultur? Here’s a link to a permaculture site writing up a guide on making a hugelkultur raised bed that made use of cut down blackberry vines: http://gaiacraft.squarespace.com/permaculture-composting/2009/1/17/70-hugelkultur-and-permaculture-plants.html

        I can’t vouch for it as I’ve never done it, but I’ve heard of some other people being excited to try it. Might be something to look into for those vines. I wonder if Chris has ever tried this or knows of anyone who has?

        I’ve also heard of stripping blackberry canes of their thorns and then using them to weave baskets. If you really want to get ambitious.

        • I played around with a couple of hugelkultur-type beds a number of years back. Worked o.k., but it took a couple of years to really get going. Might’ve been that the base material I was using (trimmings from a couple of fruit trees and an overgrown laurel hedge) was just too big and/or too fresh.

          • I don’t have any personal experience YET with hugelkulture, but from what I’ve read, I seriously doubt the size of the trimmings was a problem. On the other hand, the freshness of the trimmings is likely to slow things up, it seems like the punkier the wood, the better. Still, as with much of permaculture, taking a few years to reach optimum is more of a feature than a problem. In the biological world, getting great results immediately is generally incompatible with getting great results long-term.

            • Now I’m very curious about trying a hugelkultur bed. Maybe I’ll gather some old, ragged wood bits and find a nice place for one. Do you know, John or Martin, if there are any plants that are supposed to do particularly well in this set up?

  6. It’s funny, as I was reading this post I soon realized that I share many of the same challenges, guilty pleasures and distractions as you. I very much look forward to your analysis of powered-down, voluntarily poor living. One of the challenges I face is that there is almost no support from my peers. Most everybody I know is commited to maintaining the system and I have to resort (no offense) to the internet to discuss these issues. Second, I still am beholden to the system myself, at least until I can pay off my student debt. At this rate, that should occur by next year, but I’m interested in ways I can slowly back out of society while still honoring debts I owe to it.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful post, and I’ll be following you closely going forward. Good luck!

    Glaucus
    http://www.planningdown.wordpress.com

    • I feel a lot of familiarity with your post, Glaucus. I’m lucky in that I have a local community that understands at least somewhat what I’m doing, though I’ve perhaps taken it in some philosophical directions that not everyone totally identifies with. Digging down into the details of this stuff seems to work a bit better on the internet, just in terms of finding people who are very much on the same wavelength. I always prefer in-person interactions, of course.

      I’ve been working on paying off my credit cards this year and have been making good progress there. Within a year or less, I think I’ll have that checked off. The student loan debt is a trickier issue, though. I’m on income-based repayment and likely will stay there for the foreseeable future. I really just don’t have the money to make the regular monthly payments, so I’m taking advantage of what options are available to me. I hope that doesn’t turn into a detrimental choice in the future.

      The slow backing out of society is a good way to go. Hopefully, you’ll also slowly find others doing much the same thing to fill in your community. I’ve managed to do that to a certain degree and it helps tremendously. Those people are out there—it just can take time to find them.

  7. Hello Joel

    There are a few posters who’s comments I’ve enjoyed on the ADR and you are one of them.
    I’ve followed your blog for a bit now and have found it really inspiring. You express your experience and thoughts in such a humble and genuine way that is very refreshing to me. I hope that you won’t find me too bold in offering my experience and perspective on what you’ve written in this post.

    Something about the way you wrote about escaping into tv as a kid, as a sort of emotional comfort zone, reminded me of my own escaping into books as a child. For me, as an adult, it manifests as compulsive knowledge gathering. Reading that eats up so much time that it takes me away from me being more actively engaged in the world in the way I hope to be. So instead of practicing the skills and philosophies I value as much as I’d like, I find myself spending hours upon hours reading about them- and then feel totally bummed that I’ve let so much time go by and have nothing to show for all my “studying up”!

    This compulsion/habit/addiction bothered me so much that I started to do some deeper enquiry into the “why?” of it all. I discovered that deep down it is rooted in childhood feelings of loneliness and lack of connection.

    (I can’t help but think that much of America’s escape into mindless pursuits and consumption is a symptom of the same thing- lack of true intimate connections and lack of community. The popularity of things like WoW, watching sports, workaholism, even blogs… whatever it is that we as a society are substituting for a sense of belonging, of inclusion, are *symptoms* of a disconnected world not the causes of it. Its a vicious feedback loop though as all of the above can compound the feeling of isolation by removing one from the immediate connections of life- hence the WoW divorces, internet addiction, etc.)

    Since I’ve figured this out about myself, as soon as I start to see myself slipping into the behavior I allow the uncomfortable feelings to arise without judgment, I hold a little compassion for myself and where I am right now in my practices and in my circumstances, with no “shoulds” allowed, and I hang out with the feeling until it passes. In the words of Carl Jung “What we resist, persists”. Often lately I will invite friends over for a meal as a sort of a real time community re-up and that usually helps get us all back on track and feeling more engaged and energized with where we are as a community right now.

    Anyway, my point is, it’s crucial to make time to connect face with those who share our values and aspirations, especially when you’re creating a life outside of the main stream! Not only is it a good way to kill the tv watching but it feeds the spirit, too!

    Good luck and go gentle on yourself!

    – chela

    • Hi Chela,

      First of all, thank you so much for the kind words! They really mean a lot to me. If some regulars hadn’t found this blog and stuck around, I’m not sure I would still be going on it. It means quite a lot to me to hear of anyone being inspired by what I write.

      As for books, you’ve hit on something that I plan to write about. I’ve also been a huge book reader throughout my life and still keep up a pretty good pace—50-60 a year, generally—and I, too, have gone through that internal debate questioning at what point I’m spending too much time learning and not enough time actually doing. I think I’ve come to strike a better balance these days, but the question still comes up at times.

      Books are interesting to me, too, because they don’t feel as “passive,” as John put it in a comment above, and they also feel more traditional. In that sense, I give myself far more leeway with books than I do with, say, television or the internet. Staring at a printed page feels much more acceptable and useful to me than staring at a screen. (No Kindle for me.) But I find my making that distinction very interesting, especially since much of my time on the internet is spent reading things.

      Now, as for alienation, I agree completely. And again, you’ve hit on a theme I’m going to be writing about. I think these distractions and our over use of them (not any use of them, but turning them into a crutch) is absolutely related to a desire to fulfill basic emotional needs that are otherwise going unfulfilled. But, like junk food, it’s empty and ultimately unfulfilling—just a temporary fix that exacerbates the problem as much as anything else.

      At least, that’s what I’ve come to think in observing my own behavior. As always, I worry a bit that I might be projecting my own experiences out too much onto others. But it’s good to hear from your feed back that you seem to have come to similar conclusions.

      Compassion is good and it’s something I’m usually good about heaping on others and not as great about providing for myself. I’m working on that. I love your idea of inviting friends over for a dinner when you’re feeling disconnected from community. That’s a great response. Lately I’ve been going up to the neighboring farm for socializing on Wednesdays (which are becoming cob oven pizza night up there) and it’s been good having a regular visit there.

  8. Hi Joel, Martin and John.

    Ha, this is too funny!

    Blackberries are considered by some people to be a bit of a weed around here. Every year I’d been collecting the berries from all about the place and was supplied with enough to make jam (do you guys call it jelly?) for the entire year. I usually eat about 350g of the stuff every week and a half or so. This year as they were ripening the local council came around and sprayed all of the spots that I’d previously picked just before I had a chance to pick the ripe berries. This meant that there were no blackberries to be picked at all around these parts and I’m now a bit light on for home made jam this year too. That’s how it rolls though.

    I saw that permaculture article on hugelkuture and being up in the forest and having access to lots and lots of trees a plan has been brewing for a while now.

    I’ve been collecting small bush poles and dumping them in a spot where I was going to cover them with compost and mulch and give it a bash. Funnily enough I’m going to put in all of the blackberry cultivars (on my land where the council wont see them or be able to spray them) that I’ve been separating for the past few years. I’ve got a fair few of the Chester and Waldo thornless varieties and every year there are more of them. Because they’re thornless too I can just run over them with the mower if they get too feral. Most of the blackberries fruit on the second year canes so I’m hoping to get them all moved before Spring.

    They were a bit of a nuisance under the fruit trees anyway as it was too humid and the competition stunted the trees. Planting them there in the first place was one of those ideas that seemed like a good one at the time.

    I’m not sure how it will all go yet. Some things work and others are a total disaster.

    Chris

    • Ha, I love the thought of you putting blackberry cultivars in your hugelkultur bed. That’s great. I’ll be intrigued to hear how it works, though I suppose you won’t know until awhile down the line. If the internet hasn’t come crashing down around us by then, you’ll have to give me a determination.

      We have a ridiculous amount of blackberry bushes around here, too. In fact, we haven’t gotten around to cutting them back from around the house. I expect a huge berry crop later this summer, as usual, and I plan to go a bit crazy on it since it’ll be my only large supply of free berries. Jam, syrup, soda—planning to have a blackberry party and make all that. I’ll have to rope in some neighbors from the other farm to help out.

      They’re a pain, admittedly, but I can never get that mad at blackberries. Every year, they’re just offering abundant, delicious fruit everywhere. That’s not too terrible a trade for their annoyance.

  9. Joel: Don’t sweat not being perfect in your goals and your ambitions.

    Too much of the time people forget that we are just hairless apes and as being such, there is a component of our being devoted to loafing. If you watch men playing basketball while loafing, you are still just following your biological imperative. Watching chimpanzees loaf around reinforces this belief.

    What you are hearing is the protestant work ethic that someone surreptitiously installed years ago.

    As long as you get the important stuff done, feel free to loaf for a bit. Just make sure that you do one thing that you can put off each day and you will stay above water.

    As for watching basketball, it beats the hell out of picking lice out of your neighbors hair

    • Thank you, John. I like your perspective.

      I swing between being forgiving with myself and being very critical. I’ve gotten a lot better at easing off the self-condemnation, but it’s still a work in progress. But yeah, that protestant work ethic did get through to me. Amazing how pervasive it is.

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