Archive for the ‘basketball’ Tag

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.

The Rhythm of Contemplation   3 comments

When I was young, I loved to play basketball. I played in the street, on a pair of facing hoops in the cul-de-sac where my family lived. At times, I played games with other neighborhood children, but I more often played on my own, shooting on both baskets, practicing my layups and turnaround jumpers, the fundamental off-balance three. Sometimes I did what so many children do, pretending to be in the last seconds of the fourth quarter of a critical game, my team down by one and me taking the final shot for the win. Still other times I slipped into the steady rhythm of running, dribbling, shooting, retrieving the ball, running, dribbling, shooting and so on, over and over, until my breath came hard and steady, each pull and release of my lungs a recognized necessity. During these stretches of play, my actions never quite followed the same pattern on a micro level, but they did on the macro and thus provided a steady rhythm. I would run up to the basket, make a lay up, grab the ball–never stopping–and rush out to where I imagined the free throw line would be, taking a quick, long step and flinging my body round as I rocketed off my right foot, falling back, tossing the ball at the basket and half the time nearly killing myself as I landed awkwardly on the pavement, sometimes stumbling. This was terrible form, of course, but I didn’t care. It was exhilarating and the extreme actions pushed my body–burning lungs, dripping sweat, flushed skin–to the point that I began to feel it all, to be aware of the full depth of my limbs, the beating heat of my torso.

After perhaps fifteen minutes of this physical rhythm, this tiring play, another love of mine began to assert its presence: the imagining and writing of stories. I often best constructed the plot and characters of these stories within this realm of physical exertion. As my body succumbed to the labor of play, the tempo of my breath and blood would focus my mind, allowing me to continually engage in physical activity while existing to a large degree within an internal world. The movements between baskets became automatic–the ball an extension of my body, the basket’s whereabouts a constant underlying knowledge, my musculature’s actions programmed and unconscious–and I could slip ever-further into these constructed realities, fleshing them out and devising plot points, providing myself the particular therapy of self-imagined worlds. My mind and body worked together, but toward different goals. It all happened simultaneously and provided for some of my more joyous moments as a child.

As a teenager and adult, I’ve been a regular hiker. I don’t backpack, but I take day hikes, immersing myself in beautiful places. Typically these places involve significant numbers of trees and often a good amount of elevation climb. As such, my hikes prove good exercise, providing burning muscles and strained lungs, as well as moments of turning a bend to see only more elevation gain and thinking, son of a bitch. During these climbs, though, I often find myself slipping into a steady rhythm of steps and breaths and swinging arms and there typically comes a point–if I allow for a continuous process and don’t stop too often for breaks–when the various functions of my body that serve to propel me up the path sync up into a kind of balance that suggests sustainability. It’s not that in that precision I could hike forever, but there is a stretch in which it feels that way. For a transcendent moment of time, the exhaustion of the hike becomes a fuel in and of itself and I think I might never have to slow–that I could take myself anywhere.

Of course, there’s the inevitable moment when I must stop to fumble for my water bottle or the grade becomes a bit too steep or my breath too hard and I pause, beneath the trees, and succumb to the realities of being human, being of a body that can only take me so far. And yet, those moments when everything syncs up become something particularly special–a stretch of time during which I can do some of my best thinking, my mind able to function clear and robust, undisturbed by physical discomforts because those discomforts have been elevated to a point of brief transparency.

This is not a state I can reach outside of physical activity. It’s part and parcel with the functioning of my body. In other words, it’s only in the use of my body that I can most effectively use my mind.

In 2009, when I first began to farm, I read Anna Karenina with a good friend. We both made note of a particular passage in the book: Part 3, Chapter 4. In this chapter, Levin–the owner of a farm in the countryside–chooses to help mow with a scythe alongside the muzhiks, or Russian peasants. He does so because he enjoys the work but also because he “need[s] physical movement, otherwise [his] character definitely deteriorates” (from page 248 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, linked above.) As Levin finds the rhythm of the work, Tolstoy writes that he “lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his work which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light” (p. 251).

I loved this passage then as I love it now. I find it a wonderful illustration of the phenomenon I noted above. But I also love it’s placement within the context of farming. There are certain aspects of farming that I particularly enjoy, and they tend to be the more laborious aspects. For instance, two of my favorite jobs on the farm is broadforking and 3-tooth cultivating. The former involves using a tool that looks suspiciously like a large, broad fork to aerate the soil. You place the tines in the bed you’re working, step down on the tool as you would a shovel to sink the tines down as far as they’ll go, then pull back to gently break up the soil beneath. It provides better drainage and looser dirt for the plants to grow within without actually turning over the soil and destroying its structure. The latter–the 3-tooth cultivator–makes use of a tool designed by Eliot Coleman to stir the top soil of a bed, incorporating fertilizer and compost. You do this by placing the three claws of the tool into the soil and then pushing and pulling it back and forth, keeping the tool in the dirt. It’s surprisingly good exercise, working core muscles and inspiring a sweat in short order.

These two jobs tend more toward the manual labor side of farming and I appreciated them greatly. Both tools involve rhythmic and challenging work and, given a long enough bed, they provide me a few moments of the sort of exertion-inspired concentration that basketball and hiking can provide me. There’s a certain uncomplicated pleasure in knowing that both jobs are straightforward and involve not the application of complex thinking, but of work of sufficient strength and duration. That frees my mind for other pursuits, allowing the consideration of ideas or the observation of my surroundings (or, in many cases, conversation with a co-worker.)

In December 2010, I attended a ten day course in Vipassana meditation. It wasn’t for me, for a variety of reasons I likely will write about in a future essay. It was, however, a helpful and, in certain ways, a rewarding experience. It taught me lessons, one of which being that I am not particularly adept at sitting very still and meditating. I begin to focus on every slight physical discomfort and my mind looks for distractions. It’s likely that I should spend some time working on this tendency, as it may be a challenge I should attempt to overcome. However, I also think this was the simple realization that I am often better able to think in conjunction with physical activity.

During the course’s specified free times, I would walk the limited trails on the center’s grounds. I found my time on those trails a consistent source of insight and revelation. I would walk and circle and mix up my routes a bit but still slip eventually into a rhythm of movement and breath and pulse. And in that rhythm, I began to uncover thought processes I simply was unable to access while attempting to sit motionless on a cushion, in a meditation hall. There, the process was constricting. Outside, the process opened itself, thriving on my body’s movement in and reaction to the natural world.

I gained multiple insights during that time and, after the ten days, walked away with a greater understanding of my place in the world. But I don’t think those insights would have arrived without my daily walks. Yes, the contrast between that time of walking and  my time inside, trying to sit still, was a significant driver of those insights. But I still needed the physical movement to complete the picture. It was what allowed me to understand my place.

For now, this is simply a series of experiences within which I’ve noticed relations. I believe there are greater implications here–implications that I have yet to fully uncover. Perhaps a long hike would help me to discover them.

Posted December 19, 2011 by Joel Caris in Farming, Hiking, Work

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