Principle 8: Nature vs. Artifice

IMG_1579_1

 

Stay close to who and what you really are.

 

Every tool invented by mankind is essentially an extension of man’s hand or mind.

  • A pneumatic hammer, which drives a nail into wood or masonry, is basically a claw hammer on steroids. The claw hammer itself is just a fancy rock. And a rock is what a primitive human used to bash things that he couldn’t bash with his hand.
  • A jet plane is a horse and wagon, crossed with a ship, only really fast. Any vehicle does exactly what the human body can do—travel distances over land or water—only faster, farther, and loaded with cargo.
  • A computer does exactly what the human mind can do: store and retrieve information, perform mathematical computations, and manipulate data, only more quickly, more accurately, and at greater volume. These days a computer also frequently takes the place of paper and pen, and can even replace a drawer full of art supplies.

So, simplicity means doing only what you can do with your bare hands, traveling only as far as your own feet will take you, and doing all mathematics and information management in your head.

Just kidding!!

Tools and technology improve our lot in life by protecting us from the elements, enabling us to procure and prepare better food, allowing us to prevent and treat diseases and injuries, and making it possible to do things beyond the tasks essential for sheer survival.[1]

Modern modes of travel are wonderful, allowing us to connect quickly with all points of the globe for purposes of commerce, education and cultural enrichment. On a more local level, technological transportation, such as automobiles and mass transit, increases a person’s employment options, allows greater autonomy and personal liberty, and makes available a wider range of goods and services. (Even a person who doesn’t own an automobile can get around by taxi, bus, or train.)

But too much reliance on tools and technology has negative effects on us:

  • Technological advances in high-speed transportation and communication have indeed shrunk the world and made it easier than ever to “connect” with other people. Nevertheless, modern men and women in technologically advanced countries typically report a prevalence of loneliness, psychological disorders, stress, and dissatisfaction with life.[2]
  • Despite advances in agriculture and the availability of more and more options for healthy food and more and more leisure time that could be used to stay active, modern men and women in technological societies are fat and unhealthy like never before in history.[3]
  • The stay-at-home mom may be one of the loneliest occupations in America. Where did everybody go?[4] They’re all at work, doing everything they can to earn enough money to pay for their numerous cars, their spacious homes, their cable or satellite TV subscription and the several flat screen plasma TVs to watch, their internet service providers, their handheld smart phones, tablet, laptop, and desktop computers, their ready-made, pre-packaged boxes, cans, bags, and jars of food.

The 8th and final principle of simplicity is about preserving at least some of the essentially human touches in our lives and keeping at least some things immediate and scaled to human proportions. Examples of this principle in action:

  • If the weather is nice and the distance is reasonable, walk.
  • Instead of listening to prerecorded music on an mp3 player, grab a guitar, some friends, and sit around a bonfire making music.
  • For entertainment, when was the last time you attended a live theatre production? Or got together with a bunch of people and played board games?
  • Do we really need to buy pre-packaged cheese and crackers? How hard is it to put a handful of crackers in one Ziploc bag, a few slices of cheese in another? Instead of buying chili powder for seasoning your taco meat, did you know that you can make your own from salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper?
  • Connect to living food by growing at least some of what you eat. Even an apartment dweller can enjoy fresh summer tomatoes from a container on the balcony or grown in a rented plot at the community center. If you have a sunny window you could grow fresh herbs year-round.[5]

A review of the previous Principles of Simplicity:

Principle 7: Collaboration

Principle 6: Vigilance

Principle 5: Empty Space

Principle 4: Freely Chosen Constraints

Principle 3: Pruning

Principle 2: Detachment

Principle 1: Needs versus Wants

 

[1] See Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture for much more on this last subject. Men and women who do nothing but work degrade their humanity and actually begin to lose their cultural refinement.

[2] http://thelonelyamerican.com/

[3] http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0734692/

[5] http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/smart-techniques-growing-herbs-indoors

 

 

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Principle 7: Collaboration

Balance prudent self-reliance with healthy, interdependent relationships.

Some time ago, I came across a book called The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century[1](written by two psychiatrists). A quote from the book:

“Being neighborly used to mean visiting people. Now being nice to your neighbor means not bothering them.”

I think this anti-social attitude has infected much of the technologically advanced world, not just America. We leave people alone because we think that’s what they want, yet loneliness has become a hallmark complaint of modern men and women. We dare not show our faces on our neighbors’ front porches…

…yet we scrawl updates on the walls of their facebook pages, we tweet until our smart phones are hoarse, we forward emails to all our contacts. It’s paradoxical. We have an explosion of online social networks, endless opportunities to “connect,” but how many of us scroll through our computer screens, feverishly hitting the delete button, just looking for something—anything—from someone we actually know or that we actually want to spend time reading?[2]

It’s good lift up our eyes, away from our screens, and be really physically present to other human beings.

illustration from the front cover of O Come Ye Back to Ireland, painted by Christine Breen

Susan K. Rowland, in her book Make Room for God, discusses at length Sarah Lanier’s[3] comparison of “hot-climate” and “cold-climate” cultures:

“Hot-climate cultures are communal, group-oriented, inclusive and spontaneous. Cold-climate cultures are more individualistic, privacy-oriented and interested in structure and productivity.”

My parents grew up in England—which has elements of both hot- and cold-climate cultures—but cultures definitely collided when she encountered the true hot-climate culture of southern California in the 1960s. She and my dad had just moved to America with their infant daughter (me). After several months of dealing with the apparently certifiably insane population of La Mesa on the odd side of town, they moved into a new place. My mom, expecting the worst, battened down the hatches, unwilling to interact with more of these crazy Americans.

To no avail: one morning there was a knock on the sliding door of the kitchen. In walked her new neighbors with freshly baked goods and coffee. Long story short—these two or three families spent the next five years raising their small children together, and even though they now live across the continent from one another, they are friends to this day.

What does any of this have to do with simplicity?

Living and working in close proximity to other people, and building intentional community with them, simplifies things because you can pool resources of time and energy, tools and materials, emotional strength and physical skills.

“Many hands make light work.” (John Heywood, 1546)

Cocooning with just our nuclear family on the back deck while the front porch remains unused isolates and limits us. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel—you can ask your neighbor if you can borrow his wheel. And, even though we are sturdy, self-reliant Americans, we don’t have to do everything alone in this increasingly cold-climate culture:

  • The Amish and other “plain living” subcultures excel at the principle of collaboration, with their barn-raisings and other community activities.[4] [5]
  • Busy yuppies Niall Williams and Christine Breen experience the beauty of community and collaboration when they move from Manhattan to rural Ireland and work side-by-side with their neighbors on their farm.[6]
  • In The Way (2010, Directed by Emilio Estevez), a man grieves the death of his son, and also honors his son’s memory, by walking the historic “el camino de Santiago” (“the way of St. James) in France and Spain. On the journey he discovers the beauty of community and collaboration.

I’ll finish with a little anecdote from my own neighborhood. A friend who lives nearby was over at my house putting the finishing touches on some electrical work he had very kindly done for me.

As he was leaving, he said, “I think I’ll take my ladder home with me today, because I’ll need it for a project I have to do at my house.”

“Okay,” I said.

Then, after a moment’s thought, I said, “I think that ladder might be mine.”

“Hm,” he said, furrowing his brow. “Are you sure?”

We went to look at the ladder. It had been back and forth between his house and my house so often in recent months that neither of us could remember whose ladder it actually was!

He took it and used it for whatever it was he was working on, and I think it’s in my garage at the moment.

“Any culture emphasizing productivity cannot allow us to spend much time socializing.” (Susan K. Rowland Make Room for God)


[1] The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz (2009).

[2] Social Clear Cutting: Can Our Social Media Behaviors Destroy Our Social Environment?” This is a very good post by author Kristen Lamb. She writes passionately about the need to forge real connections with other people. Her target audience is other authors attempting to construct social platforms to promote their creative work, but her articles and books (We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer) still speak to anyone disillusioned by online social media and searching for rewarding interactions online.

[3] Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures by Sarah Lanier (2000)

[4] Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender (1989)

[6] O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen (1987)

…in which I review “The Way to Eden,” the Star Trek space hippies episode

Summary:

An insane cult leader and his followers, in search of a simple life in an idyllic paradise, hijack the Enterprise and take it to a planet they call “Eden.”

This episode is much-maligned by Star Trek fans because of its unintentionally humorous elements, namely the outlandish depiction of the “space hippies” and the episode’s numerous musical numbers (four) and musical interludes (three).

Not to mention Chekov’s massive back-to-front comb-over, which is truly frightening.

Actually, I think his Davy Jones hair might be worse:

Yet, the episode’s interesting concepts, though sadly eclipsed by the goofy stuff, are still worth noting.

Story synopsis:

The episode opens with the Enterprise chasing down a small stolen vessel, the Aurora. Attaching tractor beams to the vessel puts too much strain upon it and it begins to break up, so Kirk orders the vessel’s six occupants beamed aboard.

The newcomers’ leader is Doctor Sevrin, a brilliant scientist who, sadly, carries a deadly bacteria and is also mentally unstable. The group begins causing trouble almost immediately, first by refusing to leave the transporter room and ultimately by taking over the ship’s auxiliary control room and diverting course to their paradise planet, Eden.

The peace-preaching counterculturalists, however, turn murderously ugly: Sevrin rigs up a system of ultrasonic sound waves designed to at first merely disable the crew of the Enterprise while he and his group escape to the planet on a shuttlecraft, but he knows that ultimately the sound waves will kill everyone left aboard the starship.

Kirk manages to shut off the ultrasonics before the effects prove fatal. He beams down to the planet with Spock, McCoy, and Chekov. The planet is indeed beautiful, but it turns out to be dangerous and toxic: touching a flower gives Chekov second-degree burns on the palm of his hand. They find one of the young people dead on the ground with a partially eaten piece of poisonous fruit next to him. They find Sevrin and his followers in the shuttlecraft, their bare feet horribly burned. Sevrin refuses to be rescued; he rushes to the nearest tree, takes a bite of the deadly fruit, and dies almost instantly.

Story analysis:

This is not one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek, but despite the silly stuff, I don’t mind it all that much.

The most interesting element of this story is the imaginary Synthecoccus novae bacteria, which infects Sevrin the way Salmonella typhi infected Typhoid Mary. Like Typhoid Mary, Sevrin is immune to the bacteria but serves as a source of infection to the people around him. For that reason, he has had restrictions placed on him that require him to travel only in areas with sufficient medical technology and resources to deal with any accidental infections he might cause.

Favorite moments:

At Kirk’s request, Spock interviews Doctor Sevrin, trying to persuade him to keep his followers in line and offering to help Sevrin find the planet Eden. During the course of this interview, Sevrin displays his willingness to expose the population of a primitive planet to the deadly Synthecoccus novae bacteria because he believes the primitives can cleanse him. During Sevrin’s brief soliloquy, Spock’s expression changes from one of placid curiosity to extreme concern as he realizes Sevrin is totally insane.

I also liked the moment at the end of Act 3 when Sevrin rigs up his deadly ultrasonic panel to the tune of a ballad about Eden. He activates the ultrasonics and the crew reacts, wincing in pain and collapsing under a soundtrack of pleasant music: “No more trouble in my body or my mind,” space hippy Adam sings, as the camera pans over the crew of the Enterprise, on the floor writhing and dying at their posts.

Favorite quotes:

Spock: “There is no insanity in what they seek.”

I’m glad Spock acknowledges this, because the space hippies, nutty as they are, merely seek a simple life[1]

True, they seek a parody and a caricature of a simple life, where they will live among primitive people in harmony with nature, frolicking barefoot in the meadows, eating fruit from the trees, free from the oppressive concerns of modern, technological life, but I sometimes entertain myself with dreams of such a life: getting off the hamster wheel into a world devoid of email and TwitFace appeals to me greatly.

However, like all utopian movements, it’s a great-sounding concept, but in practice it would be, at best, much more challenging than they imagine. Modern experiments in low-tech self-sufficiency are doomed to failure unless you go into them with full knowledge that it’s going to consist largely of demanding physical labor and hardship. Other elements that may crop up, depending on how far “off the grid” you go, include danger to life and limb[2], threats to health from disease and lack of proper sanitation and medical care[3], wild animal attacks[4], the possibility of starvation[5] — all the things our forebears sought to avoid. The reason the average human life span has increased over the past few centuries is largely because of technological advancements that protect us from nature.

The trick is to choose carefully and deliberately (freely chosen constraints) which aspects of modern life we accept and which we reject.

What happens, though, if technology backfires on us?  In the imaginary world of Star Trek, the deadly bacteria is a by-product of their way of life, and vaccination against Synthecoccus novae is required by law in order to save lives. In the imaginary worlds of many dystopic novels and movies[6], technology empowers corrupt governments to control its citizens and sharply limit their freedom in ways that are far less benign.

These are fictions, but if we don’t pay attention (vigilance) will we someday find that life has come to imitate art?


[1] This theme occurs in some other episodes of The Original Series, including This Side of Paradise, Return of the Archons, The Apple, and The Paradise Syndrome. Other film explorations of the desire to “return to nature and a more pure way of life” include Dances With Wolves and Avatar (which are actually the same plot: the first is set in 19th century earth, the second in an imaginary future).

[2] Remember the episodes in the first season of Lost, in which Boone suffered a life-threatening injury and died because the only trauma care available consisted of Jack’s expertise as a physician and the few supplies he found in the plane wreckage?

[3] Several examples come to mind: bubonic plague, yellow fever, scarlet fever, the myriad diseases affecting the destitute poor of just about every novel by Charles Dickens. I know several people — including myself — who would have died in infancy or early childhood from complications due to severe congenital heart defects, were it not for modern advances in medicine and surgery.

[4] An acquaintance who is a priest in Zambia recently told me of a woman in a local village who was attacked by a lion as she went outside to relieve herself during the night. The woman’s injuries were severe enough to require emergency medical care at the nearest hospital a day’s drive away, but unfortunately such care was not available to her because the village’s only vehicle was in use: the previous day another animal attack victim had been taken to the hospital. The second woman had to make do with the inadequate medical care available in the village clinic. I’m not sure of the circumstances of the first victim’s injuries, but indoor plumbing and sewage infrastructure would have prevented the second victim’s injuries.

[5] The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1940

[6] 1984 (George Orwell 1949); Brave New World (Aldous Huxley 1932); The Last Enemy (Masterpiece Theatre 2008); Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury 1953)

Original airdate: February 21, 1969

(The Original Series, 3rd season)

75rd episode produced

75th episode aired

Written by Arthur Heineman (story by Arthur Heinemann and D.C. Fontana, writing as “Michael Richards”)

Directed by David Alexander

Update to “How to live comfortably in a tiny little apartment”

Now I remember where I read all those statistics on house size and family size from my previous post: it was in Tsh Oxenreider’s book Organized Simplicity.[1] Here are the numbers:

In 1950 the average square footage of a new single-family home was 983.

In 2004 it was 2349 square feet.[2]

In 1950 the average family size was 3.67 persons.

In 2002 the average family size was 2.62 persons.[3]

This means that in 1950,  average-sized single-family home had 268 square feet per person.

By 2002 / 2004, the average single-family home had ballooned to 896 square feet per person—the amount of square footage that 50 years ago housed an entire family of 3 to 4 people.


[1] Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living2010 Betterway Home Books / F + W Media

[2] “Housing Facts, Figures and Trends for March 2006” National Association of Home Builders

[3] Here Oxenreider cites U.S. Census Bureau figures found in an article by Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland “Small is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment.” July 12, 2005. Currently available at GreenBiz.com

Principle 6: Vigilance

My Teetering Inbox

Pay attention to what is happening in your life. Maintain focus on what is truly important.

It was January 2009, and simple living had come off the rails:

Sunday, our day of rest (ha!) began with driving my 6th-grader to an 8:30 am volleyball practice, returning home to drive my teenagers to church to sing in the choir at 9:30, getting myself ready for church, driving to pick up my 6th-grader from volleyball so she could get ready for church, then going to church with her at 11:30. Somewhere in there the teenagers reappeared, having apparently wheedled a ride home, so at least I didn’t have to go back to church a third time: all those trips back and forth were giving me highway hypnosis, and it wasn’t even noon yet…

I was also working full time, trying to go to an early morning exercise class three times a week, one of my daughters was an altar server at church, I was spending my lunch hours trying to do the errands and other household business.

Every time I began one task, it was impossible to focus because I felt like I had a chorus of hooligans behind me shouting out all the items on my to-do list. For every task I said “yes” to I seemingly had several dozen equally important tasks I had to say “no” to.

…this maelstrom I found myself in proved that in modern America, you have to fight to keep things simple. “Stuff” is always creeping in, piling up on my desk and on my bedside table, adding itself mysteriously to my schedule and my to-do list, insinuating its way almost imperceptibly into my life and into my family, until a week like that comes along and slaps me awake.

If I may be permitted to paraphrase Wendell Phillips, the price of simplicity is, truly, eternal vigilance[1] because “entropy increases.”[2]

(To read the entire post, go here: “Simple Living in a Complicated World.”)

Emergencies and special circumstance arise and overwhelm us, and we must deal with them, but being chronically overwhelmed is not good for us. The key to dealing with incremental overload is vigilance. Other words and phrases for this concept include mindfulness, watchfulness, paying attention, attentiveness, intentionality, or, as Thoreau put it in Walden, living “deliberately.”

Without vigilance, you go through life on autopilot and eventually start to wonder what happened…

Behold my wonderful desk:

Behold the same desk about a week later:

Stuff creep!

To avoid creeping stuff and the unsightly, teetering, Dr. Suess-like piles of things all over your house, you could employ one or more of the numerous personal productivity systems out there, in print and on the internet, including:

Getting Things Done by David Allen. He recommends regular “reviews,” in which you take care of all loose ends daily, weekly, monthly, and so on.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peopleby Stephen R. Covey. He suggests we categorize our various tasks into four quadrants: urgent & important; urgent & unimportant; non-urgent and unimportant; non-urgent and important.

Organized Simplicity by Tsh Oxenreider. She blogs at SimpleMom.net. And no, I did not misspell her first name. It really is spelled “Tsh.” 🙂

 The Power of Lessby Leo Babauta. Leo is a minimalist. He suggests we make a “short list” of 5 essential things that we want to do daily or at least regularly. He also blogs at ZenHabits.net.

Keep this in mind, though: any personal productivity system, by its very nature, buys into the myth that maximum “productivity” and “getting things done” are one of the highest and loftiest goals to which a person may aspire. Susan K. Rowland, in her book Make Room for God: Clearing Out the Clutterchallenges this modern truism:

I believe our Western (American) culture keeps us from developing spiritually…This is not surprising. We live in a fallen world. Our particular culture seems to worship the god of productivity. It is isolationist and consumerist. [We] believe a whole set of cultural tenets: Good people get a lot done. God expects us to work hard in this life. Everyone else is doing fine, and I am not if I can’t do what they are doing. These beliefs are actually part of our cultural “religion,” which many of us accept unquestioningly and unconsciously. They are not true…

When dutifully doing things becomes the focus of our lives, we will never fulfill [our] true purpose or our deepest longings. We will never come to the end of our to-do lists. The world will never excuse us from one task or duty. We will never get to the really important things in life unless we intentionally carve out time for them.

Our essential selves, our purpose in life, our relationships…have too long been put aside and belittled by this culture that worships accomplishment.

So here’s the question: what’s at the top of your to-do list?


[1] “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) American abolitionist, orator, and writer. A contemporary of Henry David Thoreau.

[2] The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Too much information, too little thought

sunrise in the garden at Little Portion Monastery, Arkansas

In any case, silence and stillness are not enough for us. They might be for a little while, as an immediate escape from the din and demands of daily life. But they are means to an end rather than ends in themselves.

The search engine has an almost godlike power to deliver the information we want. But even amid the swirling tides of information on the internet many people find the ultimate questions of life confronting them: “Who am I? What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?” These point to the desire for truth…

I’m “reblogging” today. The above quote is from Carolyn Moynihan, writing on MercatorNet, Friday May 18, 2012: “Too much information, too little thought.”

Which principles of simplicity does the article illustrate?

Principle 5: Empty Space

Pursue quality, not quantity.

If you type “simplicity” into your internet browser, you will discover that simplicity is all about having a stack of rocks…

…a handful of fruit…

…or a single drop of water on a leaf…

I’m obviously being facetious: we all know that artfully arranging a handful of smooth stones on your coffee table does not simplify your life.

To simplify deeply requires artfully arranging all the details of life.

The spare, Zen-like, aesthetic points to something real, though. For example, ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. It is a true art form, with certain conventions that all practitioners follow. The most important convention of ikebana is Empty Space:[1]

 In an ikebana design, space is just as important as the flowers and branches themselves. An ikebana practitioner seeks to create space rather than fill it.[2]

In a piece of music, the rests—the silence between notes—are just as important as the notes themselves. A page of text without any white space is indecipherable.

Modern life becomes complicated when we try to fill space: in our homes, in our closets, on our shelves, on our calendars, in our minds. He who dies with the most toys, wins.[3] We know in our deepest hearts that this is false, and we respond to the images of simplicity because they mirror what we long for, both inside and outside. Like all the principles of simplicity, you can practice Empty Space both exteriorly and interiorly.

Exterior empty space:

  • Simple, spare furnishings and décor
  • few possessions
  • solitude (space between yourself and other people)
  • silence
  • limited commitments and activities

Interior empty space:

  • Silence
  • limited input (TV, radio, music, internet, books, news)

The lists above certainly aren’t exhaustive. Can you think of more ways to create Empty Space?

Go deeper: why do the practices on the list simplify things? Where does the empty space form?

Exercise: consider creating empty space by going on a “media fast.” [4]

Top photo credit: http://ikebanabyjunko.co.uk/AboutIkebana.htm

Other photo credits:

http://onlyfathomed.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/thoughts-on-simplicity/

http://www.freegreatpicture.com/fruits-and-vegetables/fruit-29964

http://jojofeelings.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/simplicity-who-is-it/


[1] Ikebana International, Chicago Chapter   http://chicagoikebana.org/

[2] Ikebana by Diane Norman and Michelle Cornell.

[3] Contrast this sentiment with this quote attributed to Andrew Carnegie: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”

[4] “I took a complete 10-day media fast and felt like I’d had a two-year vacation from computers…Once you realize that you can turn off the noise without the world ending, you’re liberated in a way that few people ever know.” Tim Ferris, from his blog Experiments in Lifestyle Design.

Principle 4: Freely Chosen Constraints

Define the limits within which you will be truly free.

On December 10, 1941, Thomas Merton, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, embarking on a life devoted to silent prayer and contemplation. He had been to the monastery before, to visit. But this time, he was coming to stay. For good:

The Bardstown bus was half full, and I found a somewhat dilapidated seat, and we rode out into the wintry country, the last lap of my journey into the desert…I could not get my bearings until some low, jagged, wooded hills appeared ahead of us, to the left of the road, and we made a turn that took us into rolling, wooded land.

Then I saw that high familiar spire.

I rang the bell at the gate.  It let fall a dull, unresonant note inside the empty court…Presently, the window opened, and Brother Matthew looked out between the bars, with his clear eyes and greying beard.

“Hullo, Brother,” I said.

He recognized me, glanced at the suitcase and said: “This time have you come to stay?”

“Yes, Brother, if you’ll pray for me,” I said.

Modern men and women bristle at the very idea of a young man locking himself behind the walls of a monastic enclosure. It’s like going to prison. Indeed, men and woman living in monasteries call their little rooms “cells.”

Yet, those who enter such a life freely regard it as anything but prison. After Thomas Merton entered the monastery…

 …Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.”[1]

Freely chosen constraints simplify any undertaking.

For example, for me, it’s actually easier to write poetry that conforms to some kind of form or scheme, such as a sonnet, or a limerick, or a haiku, rather than free verse.[2] Even if I’m trying to write free verse, imposing some kind of structure on myself that I make up, even if it’s just for that particular poem, somehow sets me free to be more creative. When I was writing my novel, I aimed for twenty pages per chapter. Many of my chapters ended up longer or shorter than this, but the constraint gave me a goal. A book review I just wrote for a newspaper had to be between 500-600 words.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37 Signals,[3] include in their book of advice for business and life and chapter called “Embrace constraints.”[4] Deliberately setting limits forces you to innovate.

Once your framework is in place, there are certain decisions you no longer need to make:

  • both marriage and a vow of celibacy simplify one’s relationships with the opposite sex.
  • actress Jamie Lee Curtis wears only black & white
  • vegetarians can walk past the meat case without a first glance, let alone a second one

Something to think about:

Are you saying “yes” to too many things?


[1] The Seven Storey MountainThomas Merton, 1915-1968

[2] free verse: non-metrical, non-rhyming lines that closely follow the natural rhythms of speech. See the full definition, plus examples, at The Poetry Foundation.

[4] Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Modern-day Thoreau?

Try to imagine Thoreau married, with a job, three kids, and a minivan.

The quote above is from the jacket copy of a book I just picked up at the publication party of the Prairie Light Review (the student-edited literary magazine at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois). I bid on one of the items in the silent auction and won — a pair of books (autographed) by COD English professor Tom Montgomery Fate:

  • Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild
  • Steady & Trembling: Art, Faith, & Family in an Uncertain World


I’ve skimmed through both books and they look good. Here are some links if you’re interested:

Tom Montgomery Fate

Prairie Light Review

A Market Researcher’s Worst Nightmare

I just got off the phone with a market research company. They were screening me for an upcoming market study.

I’ve been on this company’s list for a long time, and have only qualified for one study, and that was in my capacity as a professional, not as a consumer.

As a consumer I guess I’m pretty lame. They ask me questions like:

“Did you recently purchase or will you, in the next 6 months, purchase a major appliance such as a refrigerator, washer, dryer, or dishwasher, or range?”

No.

I don’t plan to replace major appliances. I replace them when they break.

I didn’t qualify for that study. I guess you have to buy a major appliance every 5 or 6 months…

“When you purchase a new mattress, what factors do you consider the most important when choosing a brand?”

The last time I purchased new mattresses was twelve years ago, for my children. I think I just had the children lie down on them and pick the one they liked, as long as it wasn’t too expensive.

Cost and comfort.

I recently replaced my 18-year old daughter’s mattress by trading it for a newer mattress my mom had in her guest room but hardly ever used. Does that count?

Once, after a recent move, the children and I did find ourselves short one mattress. My son and I stood at the window discussing this problem, and a moment later the neighbors across the street came out of their house carrying a mattress and box spring, placing them on the side of the road and affixing the garbage stickers to them

My son and I looked at each other, said “Huzzah!” and went across the street to pick up the mattress and box spring. Carefully, I peeled the stickers off and knocked on the door to return them (no sense letting municipal garbage stickers go to waster…)

The neighbors were grateful. They said the mattress was still perfectly good but they were replacing it with a larger size. “Here,” said the woman of the house, handing me a plastic bag. “This is the sheet set.”

Relying on Providence doesn’t sit well with marketers, apparently, because I didn’t qualify for that study, either.

“How many times per month do you go to the movie theater?”

Let’s see…

I go to the movies maybe twice a year, when a highly anticipated movie comes out, usually something our family wants to see together. In fact, I can recall by name all the movies I’ve seen at the theater in the past 10 years, more or less in reverse chronological order:

  • The Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2
  • Of Gods and Men
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1
  • Star Trek
  • District 9 (sort of a strange choice. My son and I went to see it…)
  • Inception
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • Prince Caspian
  • Bella
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Return of the King
  • The Two Towers
  • Fellowship of the Ring
  • Shrek
  • Monsters Inc.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Needless to say, I was not chosen for that market study. They want somebody who darkens the door of the Cineplex more than 0.16 times per month.

Nor was I chosen for the one I just got off the phone about. The interview went like this:

“Do you have any children living at home? What are their ages and gender?”

An 18-year old girl and a 14-year old girl. My son, 20, no longer lives at home.

“Do you have any children under 11 to whom you are related, or with whom you have a close association?”

Yes. My youngest nieces are 8 and 5, respectively, and my youngest nephew is 3. I also have several close friends who have small children: two 9-year old girls, two 6-year old girls, one 10-year old boy, one 6-year old boy…let’s see…I think there are more…

“That’s okay. You don’t have to list any more.”

I took that as a good sign.

“In the last 30 days, have you shopped for toys for any of the children in your life?”

No.

“In the last 30 days, have you shopped for clothes for any of the children in your life?”

No.

“In the last 30 days, have you shopped for books for any of the children in your life?”

No.

Rats! I can tell where this is going…

“In the last 30 days, have you taken any of the children on a special outing? For example, to the zoo, the movies, a museum?”

Yes! We went to see The Hunger Games! And I took my daughters to Caribou Coffee yesterday.

But it was too late to redeem myself:

“At this time, ma’am, your answers are leading us away from the direction the company wants to go, so you do not qualify for this particular study. But we will keep you in our database and contact you about future studies.”

Questions for Reflection:

Which principles of simplicity cause me to consistently strike out with market researchers?