26 December 2013

For an Old Kentucky Anarchist

I never thought one could have a favorite song, but having discovered this one a year or so ago, it is hard to imagine one that speaks more true.There's a lot bound up in it for me, but essentially it seems a celebration of an authentic life against an artificial one. It falls within the fascinating and delightful realm of music known as 'folk punk'.

High upon a mountaintop, lay a garden untended and dry
'Twas a yard that hadn't felt children's feet runnin',
for the mother long ago taught her children how to fly
Within a simple cabin, untouched by industrial hands,
sat the aged mother in her home.
"You can't escape the picture frames -- there's too many," she said.
"They keep me from bein' alone."

Well, she spoke -- "He was an honest man, he worked hard to put food on our plates
"Well, we had more babies than we had arms -- we struggled all our lives, but the rewards were great
"And when my son came home from the war, he rested his head on my breast, and said:
"'Ma, I'm tired of being used and grinded down, I feel so low -- can you make me feel like I'm the best?'

"Well, my best friend truly wed a savage man -- he wore her like a bad tattoo.
For his only love was for a bottle; she said 'There's only thing left for me to do.
'To be wild once again, to take back my life, ran away and set flames to his truck
He won't ever know what he's been missin', I did every day -- joy, freedom, dance and love
Joy, freedom, dance, and love..

These are the stories this mother spoke to me as I brought her garden back to grow
I was rewarded with a warm meal, tales never to be told --
Some call it poverty, but they'll never know.
She said, "All I got's my stories and this old guitar.
"My crops have all come and gone away
 "I got a head full of recipes enticin' to the taste,
and a likin' to wake up and greet the day
"Got a bad back from raisin' my children,
"From huggin' my husband so tight
Hell, I never much for any government --
" -- and I got my Jesus when I feel the time is right
"Singing, 'I'm the richest I'll ever be --
"I embrace the world I have all around me
"So sing a dying song and slap your knee
"Have a taste of true anarchy!"

07 December 2013

Accidentally Evil: Considering Libertarianism

For years my operative definition of 'libertarian' was 'someone with all of the vices of a Republican, and none of the virtues'.  That is, I regarded them as people who not only wanted to let the beast of the free market run riot over people and the environment, but who at the same time denied the wisdom of government maintaining systems too important to turn on profit - like education and healthcare. The appeal of libertarianism, I thought, must be limited to big business and psychopaths.

I eventually learned the difference between libertarianism, which had 'good' (read 'left') roots, but had been hijacked by the right, and Objectivism, which was what I took the former to mean. For most of my life, I regarded socialism and communism as functions of a coercive, oppressive State:  those words were synonymous to me with Stalin and Mao. Thus, while the idea of equality and such was very nice, it wasn't workable because that kind of power cannot be trusted to human hands. If growing up under an authoritarian god and religion, and later revolting from it, had instilled in me anything, it was a contempt for force and coercion. Emile Carles' A Life of Her Own introduced me to leftists who believed in peaceful, democratic communism -- a government in which the ideals of communists were realized through democratic, not autocratic, means. They saw communism not as an ideal that had to be enforced from the top down, but which was a perfectly logical application and extension of democracy: self-rule. How could any one be at liberty when they did not have economic self-command?

This, for me, was the most valuable idea in Marxist thought. The labor theory of value was fine, the historical dialectic made sense enough, and class struggle was simply the human way of the Darwinian struggle for existence. But economic independence? It was an idea that took on momentous importance. At this time same, I was studying the life of Gandhi, whose commitment to nonviolence was seductive -- but his thinking was not limited to that. He stressed the importance of economic self-reliance for India and for Indians in general: they should not be swallowed up by the state economy or the world economy, but function as as people living in thousands of largely self-sufficient communities. For him, this was of spiritual importance -- and for me, a new student of Stoicism who now put great stock in self-command and independence, it was part of the allure. The essential reason for economic self-reliance, however,  was practical:  if you can fend for yourself, you won't depend on the Leader, or his Army, or the government. This I thought key to keeping endeavors at equality from being the victims of power. Keep the power distributed among the people, and you can have your revolution without simply replacing one tyrant with another.

All of these ideas -- Marxism, Stoicism, Gandhigiri -- mixed together in my mind, and I emerged from my university studies someone who thought of himself as a left-libertarian. I made no association with the so-called libertarians of the right, the Americans who were simply dressing up free market profiteering with the principle of liberty,  but I shared with them a sharp disdain for authority and force. This was where the libertarian label came from in the first place: I didn't think I or anyone else had the right to order anyone about. Although I shared the ideals of communism in part, in truth my ideal community was a bit more old-fashioned. While thousands of communes in a world republic was fine, I'd be happy if the people in a given town owned the businesses in that town, and they bought their food from people who grew it just outside of town, and the people growing that food likewise lived just outside of town. The idea, for me, was that each community was independent and nominally self-sufficient. Though connected to a world economy that it purchased goods from, it was largely self-contained: people who know one another and be responsible on that basis.  This is an old-fashioned notion, of course, but it was mine and it remains mine.

 I've been mourning the loss of small-town communities, the kind described above,  virtually all of my thinking life without knowing it.  Early on I developed an obsession with cities of the early 20th century. At first I thought this owed to my wanting to live in a big city, but eventually I realized it was because I saw in these cities of the past a shadow of what I wanted in the present: to live in a town of healthy buildings filled with people whose lives connected to one in a myriad of ways every day. I realized this after I moved to my university town of Montevallo, whose setting evoked that feeling quite strongly.  But before I realized that, I was obsessed with cities in general, and this has lead to odd interests in the details of transportation, energy, planning, infrastructure, and the various systems and technologies and practices that keep cities alive.  Since graduating from the university, I've been engaged in private study of the holy trinity of urban civilization: food, energy, and infrastructure, which includes transportation.  This is how I became slightly evil.

Without realizing it, studying the history of these subjects lured me into the dark side: the Other Libertarianism. The American libertarianism. The market-obsessed libertarianism.  When I studied urban planning, I came to realize how the government promotes city-destroying urban sprawl through zoning codes and highway and housing subsidies. When studying food, I grew disgruntled after realizing how successful regulations and subsidies are to letting corporate giants monopolize farming and make it an industrial enterprise, reliant on disaster-inviting monocultures and cheap oil that destroys the land.  Every field I studied attentively,  I found regulation in the way. I was a big fan of regulation: I viewed big business with fear and wanted a government that would keep a pistol pointed in its face all the time. I wanted the lion of the market to be chained and caged. But now I was seeing instances of it hurting people -- and not just getting in the way of productive endeavors, but promoting power accretion. At first, I merely winced -- oh, here's bad regulation, we should remove it and make new regulation, regulation that will be good -- but as I continue to run into those bits of bad regulation, I realized they were popping up with unfortunate regularity. They weren't exceptions to the rule; they were the rule, an example of what happens when we ignore the limits of our knowledge and assume we can make things so by legislative fiat. I believe these community-destroying forces of sprawl and big business would hoist themselves on their own petards were they not on the life-support of public funding.

Though I've begun to appreciate the market as a means of sorting things out, I'm only slightly evil.  I do not believe the chief end of man is self-satisfaction, or that money is the measure of  a good life. My roots remain in simple living and the  cultivation in myself the best fruits of the human condition.  However much I might admire Emma Goldman's individualist stance, I don't know if it is one I share, for we cannot escape our biological status as social creatures, and more importantly as mortal creatures -- creatures for whom a connection to the group, to a community, to a folk of our own is our  hope of living beyond the grave. If we live, it is because we are remembered. The philosophical mind may know there is no sting in death, but the animal flees from it as the instincts of million years triumphant urge it to. Not for me is the atomization of humanity into billions of self-absorbed creatures,  who sit in a puddle of time and space and think themselves masters of the cosmic ocean. The older I get the more I recognize the importance of our connections to one another, connections perhaps more important than an idealized notion of liberty.

14 August 2013

Skepticism's sound and fury

I must admit to being impressed by the prowess of the nascent skeptics movement, which in the US has managed to collapse into schism without even a credo to argue over. If you consider yourself a skeptic or rationalist and frequent the blogs and websites of the American movement, you're probably familiar with the ongoing debacle, starting from the initial ginned-up scandal of Elevatorgate and continuing as the two sides become increasingly shrill and entrenched.  If you have spared yourself the misery thus far, I hesitate to be the one to inflict exposure:  in general terms, the war wages over sexism in the skeptical movement -- how serious it is, and how firmly it ought to be combated. The  tenor of controversy baffled me at first, and has since completely soured me on the American skeptics. The Center for Skeptical Inquiry,  to my knowledge the oldest and most accomplished skeptical organization in the United States, has been the loser, seeing contributors and staff desert it after its inadequate response to the call of the witch-hunt revolution.  Point of Inquiry,  once the most laudable of the skeptical podcasts, is now on hiatus. I'm sure Paul Kurtz and Carl Sagan would be quite proud of the skeptical movement: absent George Bush in the White House to rally against we have apparently decided to self-destruct.  Bravo, skeptics.  I am sure once the CSI has fallen under the ragefest of the puritans or its seeming inability to realize there are  concerns to address,  the American movement can be maintained by PZ Myers posting octopus pictures and pissing in the face of the Catholic church like a petulant schoolboy.

For years my concern with the skeptical movement has been that it limits itself too much to simply attacking religion, attacks which inspire nothing but defensive reactions and do little to apply the discerning blade of critical thinking against more pliable foes, improving the lives of people by arming them against consumer fraud (for example), establishing that skepticism is a useful tool for everyone, and not just the Foe of Religion, for which so many people have a sentimental attachment for. This skeptical schism is erasing whatever credibility we ever earned by broadcasting to the world: skeptics are just as irrational as the people they attack, and are willing to butcher one another in civil war to prove it.  The New Skeptics are not the vanguard of a revolution that will create a humane world: we are doggedly working to become mere footnotes at best.  Far from enlightening the world, from spreading reason's flickering flame as a candle in the dark, we are making skepticism to be a tale told by an idiot -- full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

20 July 2013

au Natural

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans advocated living according to nature, though each sought inspiration with different eyes. The Stoics believed in a universe bound up by a divine plan, and that a life of virtue meant living according to that plan, accepting what happened as the will of God -- or cosmic fate.  Deities and their wills were more immaterial to the Epicureans, however, who saw more chaos than order in the cosmos and believed virtue lay in making the best of what we were given, of enjoying life while it lasted. There is wisdom in learning to adapt to whatever life throws at you, just as there is wisdom in enjoying it fully and not getting too distracted by mental chatter -- but there is more to living naturally than either.

What does it mean to live naturally? Outside of culture, beliefs, and ideology, human beings are fundamentally members of the animal kingdom in full standing. We use ideas to put distance between ourselves and that kingdom, but we are its subjects at every moment of the day whether we think we are or not. We are motivated by the same needs and instincts as every other animal on the planet, even if we dress those instincts up as feelings.  Our instincts and needs are the products, not of perfect creation, but of imperfect evolution, of millions of years of trial, error, fix-it-on-the-fly biological compromise.  To live naturally, first, is to respect that fact.

Before going forward, however, there is the matter of the naturalistic fallacy to address. Just because something is Natural does not mean  it is good, or to be desired.  Wariness and hostility toward strangers might be a natural instinct, but in modern times, chances are that the sudden arrival of group of strangers will not be a raiding party intent on killing your young,  eating your fruit, and kidnapping your sisters -- a scenario our genes may be expecting when they produce anxiety in us at the appearance of an unknown person.  Here is the wisdom of philosophy, in teaching us to overcome instincts that work to our detriment.  However, we will presumably function best in the environment in which we evolved. That environment is not limited to the physical climate, but includes the kind of behaviors we're allowed to enact, the relations we engage in. Thus, humans are happier with one another than alone; we are happier sheltered from inclement weather than exposed to it; we are happier eating fresh food than rotting.

We must be conscious of our status as natural creatures, because instincts will manifest themselves with or without our permission.  Hierarchies are ubiquitous among social animals, for instance, and in mammals there is often an alpha individual who rises to the top through strength, cunning, or in the case of certain primate species, cunning. Why then are we so surprised at the regularity with which political systems produce strongmen, and our easiness in accepting them?  That monarchies persisted for so long, and that democracies become oppressive, is less a condemnation of political organization and more a mark against the systems which allow our natural weakness to lead to unnatural brutality. If Hitler had been the alpha male of a group of hunter-gatherers,  the same strengths which brought him to power might have let him lead the tribe against threats -- and if they did not, or if those strengths failed him, he could have been displaced with ease.  Civilization, however, has given alphas armies to expand their own power beyond natural limits, and given them means (like tradition or media outlets)  to control by influence what they cannot touch by brute force.

We cannot turn back the clock and become hunter-gatherers. We must learn to work within the limits of our biology. In the realm of politics,   the most rational response to our hierarchical weakness is to decentralize power as much as possible. Charismatic, strong, and cunning individuals will rise in every population and hold influence over people, but there is no reason their power must metastasize and become cancerous, dementing and corrupting them while abusing the public. Despite the lessons of the 20th century, political power, especially in the United States, is tending to become even more centralized, a trend that needs desperately to be reversed. Equally problematic is the power amassing in corporate entities, who are just as liable to tyranny as politicians, but who are even more wily, turning the very chains of regulation that we try to bind them by into weapons to whip their rivals and opponents with.

There is more to 'natural living' than politics, however. Evolution is starting to guide medicine more than in years past: we are now realizing that dropping anti-biotic bombs into our guts isn't the wisest course of action  given our dependence on some bacterial species for basic processes like digestion. Some researchers suggest that our bodies need 'hostile' bacteria in them just to give our immune system something to do: otherwise, it attacks its own body.  Or take matters of diet:  just as a cat would not fare well on salad, or a dog on plankton,  or a koala on anything other than eucalyptus leaves, so do we not fare well on  many of the modern 'foodstuffs' filling the grocery store.  In recent  years a 'paleo' diet movement has arisen, maintaining that people should eat what we evolved to eat: meat, fruit, nuts, and some vegetables, leaving behind artificial food products like snack cakes, rolls, margarine, and imitation crab meat. 

Many of the problems we face are caused by our attempting to live as something we are not, as creatures in a world of our choosing. We cannot drastically change our circumstances of living and expect the consequences to be marginal.  We create an environment filled with fake food and no opportunities for the physical exertion our bodies were designed for, then wonder why obesity and diabetes have soared. We allow children to keep themselves overly stimulated with games on their tablets, or force them to sit in a box for seven hours a day quietly listening, and then label mark them as having attention deficit disorder.  Perhaps it is our way of living, not ourselves, that are disordered. Maybe if children were taught the way they were evolved to be taught -- in the field, through the experience -- and played as they evolved to play,  skin on skin with physical playmates --  they would not be bundles of neuroses. Perhaps if adults spent more time with one another and their families, and less time slaving at jobs producing profits for other persons, or stuck in traffic, they would not be as easy marks for depression and energetic religions.

Truth be told, I don't know what it means, entirely, to live naturally. I have some ideas, which is why I eat real food,  voted libertarian in the last election, and practice simple living.  In abstract, I can only say: to live naturally is to embrace our humanity -- to guard against our weaknesses while revelling in the experience of being human.

22 June 2013

The Edukators

German-language, English subtitles

What happens when three young soldiers of the class war accidentally take a prisoner?  Jan, Peter, and Jule are working-class twenty somethings, each passionate about fighting corruption, injustice, and the values of consumerism, but with different means. Whereas Jule's placard-waving and protesting in the streets stays within bounds of acceptability, Peter and Jan go further.   Breaking into the homes of the rich, they rearrange their furniture  and leave the ominous message: Die Fettenjahre sind Vorbei.  The days of plenty are over.  Their actions are illegal, but do no harm other than rattling the cages of the powerful.   When Jule sees her peaceful sign-holding friends beaten in the streets, loses her job, and is evicted in quick succession, she's invited by Jan (Peter Bruhl) to join him on a nightly raid. She's thrilled, but it results in their being surprised by the too-soon return of one of their targets. With no time to think, they act --  and kidnap him, fleeing into the mountains.  There the revolutionaries and the fatcat live with one another as the kids grapple with what they should do next -- and with their consciences, for now they've gone far beyond their expectations. What does it mean to have a revolution?

As the four live together, they are forced by the virtue of interaction to see him less as a Class Enemy and more like a man -- one dangerous to their freedom, if he escapes, and one whose values they despise, but a man all the same. And for all their rage against the concentration and abuse of power, and for all of their petty acts of resistance, they are not vicious people. To hold him hostage and use media coverage to bring attention to their grievances is tempted, especially if they can get his wife to actually produce ransom money...but are they willing to pay that price? Their hold on the moral high ground is already tenuous, and they become even more uncertain as they talk with their foe, who reveals -- astonishingly -- that he, too, was once a class warrior. Their grievances are not new: another generation held them. That generation, the youth culture of the 1960s, once held every convention of society in contempt and sought to radically change it...but things change, and so do people. Or do they?  The ardent beliefs of his captors stir something within the captive (whose name is Hartenburg),  as he remembers his own youthful yearning for a better world, and wonders where he lost it.

I initially purchased this movie to both keep my ear for German tuned and to enjoy the passion and action of three rebels whose beliefs I have much sympathy for, and enjoy rewatching it ever so often just to witness the cross-generation conversation.  In this age of overwhelming corporate power, the abhorrent triumph of consumerism and profiteering over the human soul and anything graceful, a movie like this is satisfying -- not only in portraying people putting resistance into action, but not losing sight of the fact that even 'enemies' are not as different from us. We are all vulnerable.

You may recognize the lead actor, Daniel BrΓΌhl playing Peter, from Joyeux Noel and Goodbye, Lenin!

10 May 2013

Zero Waste

Ever since I lost so much weight and began experiencing life in a fundamentally new way, feeling perhaps like a once-earthbound caterpillar feels like when it emerges from its cocoon and begins to fly around, I've been obsessed and driven by the idea of making everything in my life "lose weight" -- eliminating excess, concentrating on essentials, and making lean, potent effectiveness my goal.  One idea I've been batting around, and intend to start working toward, is that of Zero Waste.

Waste has become endemic to modern living. Virtually everything sold in supermarkets comes wrapped in plastic, and even if it is sold by itself, as perhaps clothing is, cashiers will insist on throwing it in a plastic bag. Food, too, is wasted, filling the dumpsters of grocers, and the trash bins of people at home. The urban environment of America is waste made visible, in the form of suburban sprawl which forces people to make automobile trips for every need, and to drive hither and yon across the landscape because no place is near any other place worth going. Laws, too, promote waste:  traffic lights mar every intersection in cities, even in quiet neighborhoods, forcing drivers to sit burning gasoline to go nowhere, obeying the god-machine above them and defying common sense: no one is coming, so go. And if they do go, a police cruiser materializes out of thin air and promptly fines them. And the waste is not merely financial:  people work fifty and sixty hours a week enriching someone else, while their children grow up on the sidelines,  most of their childhood lost forever to their parents.

I have grown to hate waste. Life is short; time is dear. This is part of the reason I've been thinking more on simple living and minimalism. I am motivated,  too, by my abiding belief in personal responsibility. I consider frugality a virtue: I despise spending money for the same reason I loathe realizing something I own has no worth, and am disgruntled at throwing  something away. This belief in personal responsibility is interwoven with my sense of citizenship:  every bag of trash I might produce is a municipal burden,  every second a lightbulb glows is a teensy bit of local coal burned (though happily, most of my local power is generated by a hydroelectric dam).  Why use the city's resources when I can open a window and let the sun in? Why burn petroleum when I can bike?  Considering the United States' dependence on importing goods, saving energy and using less isn't just personally responsible and fiscally wise; it's positively civic.

So, how to work toward Zero Waste? Some ideas I have had..

  • Using hand tools instead of electrical ones. I had never used a hand-powered can opener before my electric one died; I'd never even seen one. But since then, I've found I enjoy the experience much more than listening to the screech of the machine.
  • Avoiding processed foodstuffs (always sold in boxes, bags, and individually plastic-wrapped packages)  and buying whole foods instead, like fresh greens that aren't shrinkwrapped. Not buying processed foods means cooking my own, and exercising complete control over what is used and what isn't -- and culinary uses can be found for everything
  • Bringing canvas sacks with me to the grocery store instead of using plastic bags;  if said bags are used, take them back to the store. Both of the supermarkets I reluctantly patronize (no local grocers save seasonally-open produce shacks) have places to return plastic bags. 
  • Only using kitchenware that is durable:  dishes and utensils meant for one-time uses are obscene. Plastic glasses are a conundrum   they're more likely to survive falls than actual glasses, but they can't be recycled and possibly leach toxins over time. 
  • Finding simple entertainment offline, with people, instead of online. I choose to play frisbee with my nephew, for instance, instead of playing Call of Duty with him. It helps that he only has CoD on X-Box, and I am a PC purist and can't move quickly enough with one of those hand-held controllers..
  • Turning off lights when not needed, especially wise considering that in the summer, incandescent bulbs not only waste 90% of the energy put into them, but that waste comes in the form of heat that fans and air-conditioning have to combat. 
  • Doing errands on foot or by bike instead of by car;  I intend on  putting a rack on my bicycle so that I can transport items like groceries with it. I also plan on moving closer to my work so that biking is more practical. I currently live three miles from work, but the first part of that is on a busy highway that is somewhat perilous on weekdays. 
  • Growing my own food in a garden; unfortunately, this is where some of my ideas conflict. I can live in the city and walk to work, or live outside it and have a garden, but doing both isn't possible until I can afford a small home with a backyard, or an apartment with green space that the landlord allowed gardening on.  I have an uncle who gardens, and am thinking of 'apprenticing' myself to him to learn the lore.
  • Refusing to buy goods that are shabbily made, or are made of materials (plastic) that can't be repaired. This means investing in a few high-quality items that retain their value. 
  • Making my own household goods, like shampoo or jam. Not only would I avoid using a plastic bottle, but I'm sure I could find a recipe that's environmentally friendly. The jam, and other food-preserving ideas, would depend on having a garden. 
  • Composting organic scraps that qualify: right now I just take biodegradable scraps out into the woods and scatter them. Composting them would help in gardening instead of scattering the nutrients willy-nilly.
  • Using a clothesline instead of a dryer to dry clothes. This would also be less doable were I living in a city apartment, considering that moderns see a clothesline as an unsightly indicator of poverty. I'm also concerned about the everpresent humidity in Alabama preventing clothes from actually driving in the summers: if the air is saturated with moisture,  it seems to me water would have a hard time evaporating from the clothes. 

All these pertain to resources. I've yet to start running red lights, though these days I have to stop myself from treating them like stop signs, which is how I think they ought to be treated.  I've been extraordinarily lucky in finding work in a field that is not only spiritually fulfilling (public service means helping people),  but gives me enough hours to make a living but also allows for more leisure time than most people get. I work thirty hours a week on average, which is plenty for me considering my simple tastes. I decided years ago that working for money was not the life for me: I'd rather be poor and happy than wealthy and stressed.  Money is only  valuable inasmuch as it enhances our quality of lie.

Zero waste is an exacting goal, a high standard; I doubt that I will ever achieve it. But I intend to come as close as I can, so that my life brims over with value. 

18 April 2013

The Forge

Every morning, I run through the Forge.  The Forge is not a physical location in the neighborhood where I run;  it is a temporal location which can manifest itself anywhere.   My morning runs always start off easily enough: I am immediately awakened by the bliss of moving swiftly through the universe, my legs churning beneath  me. But soon enough they weaken,  and my resolve to effect will into action is tested. This is the Forge. This, the place wherein I am most weak, is where I find my strength.  For in those moments when the joy of running evaporates away and I know only the work of exercise,  I am not merely laying the groundwork for easier running tomorrow. True, my stressed body is being tilled for growth: the message to my brain is being communicated, invest resources here. Build muscle. Strengthen bones.  But more importantly, I am exercising the power of my mind, my will, over my emotions, over my body.  I am pushing aside any inclination to laziness, to procrastination. I'm disciplining myself, forcing positive changes. I am applying a steady hand to the rudder of my soul, turning the ship of my being in the proper direction.

Exercise, running or cycling on my part, aren't the only places where the Forge is present   although I experience it most tangibly there when I gallop down the road, focused only on the distant telephone pole I have chosen as my goal. It as though I am on a conveyor belt  of ore, passing through a smelting fire, where the impurities are burned away and on the other side, behind the telephone pole, only gold emerges. The Forge is where weak things become strong, where iron becomes steel. We can all experience it:  the Forge appears when we're raking leaves and think, "I'm tired of this;  why don't I go inside and watch TV now, and do this tomorrow?" It appears when we're working on taxes, and tired of math, or when confronting other people and we wonder if maybe we couldn't just let the matter slide "this time".  But nothing improves without effort, without energy, nor is anything maintained without the same. The best-built bridge will, in time, decay and fall.  The most meaningful relationships will fade, the most beautiful garden will wilt,  the best-toned muscles will soften without regular attention, without the chronic effort to turn will into action.  And the effort has to be regular; the Forge works best when we pass through it repeatedly.

I don't regard the Forge with anxiety, or trepidation. Adversity is my ally, not my opponent.Because of the Forge,  I can run faster, farther, longer, day by day. Because of it, I can spurn temptations. As Seneca wrote..

We see wrestlers, who concern themselves with physical strength, matching themselves with only their strongest opponents, and requiring those who prepare for a bout to use all their strength against them; they expose themselves to blows and hurt, and if they do not find one man to match them, they take on several at a time. Excellence withers without an adversary; the time for us to see how great it is, how much its force, is when it display its power through endurance. 

And similarly, from the same source:

Fortune lays into us with the whip and tears our flesh; let us endure it. It is not cruelty but a contest, and the more often we engage in it, the stronger our hearts will be: the sturdiest part of the body is the one that is kept in constant use. We must offer ourselves to Fortune so that in struggling with her we may be hardened by her; little by little she will make us a match for her; and constant exposure to risk will make us despise dangers. So the bodies of mariners are tough from the buffeting of the sea, the hands of farmers calloused, the muscles of soldiers strong to enable them to hurl the javelin, the legs of athletes agile: in each case the part of the body exercised is the strongest. It is be enduring ills that the mind can acquire contempt for enduring them.

Both of those quotations are taken from Seneca's essay, "On Providence".

23 March 2013

Reopening those "Simple Gifts"

Recently some friends of mine and I were talking about the personal issues we are facing, and I brought up my having gotten away from simpler living. I used to be passionate about it, and still am -- but recently the value of simplicity hasn't been visible in my life. I adopted simple living as self-defense  years ago, before I began living with intent. Starting my first job taught me that everything had a price not in dollars, but in time. After figuring out what my daily take-home pay was, I could evaluate every purchase as one which cost me hours of my life. Whenever I had an itch to buy something, I'd ask:  is this worth a day and a half of my life to pay for? Three hours? Usually, the answer was no.  Simple living became a lifestyle for me when I moved to university, though, aided by the fact that I was penniless. I had an on-campus job, but after tuition and so on I was reduced to practically nothing in terms of discretionary spending -- enough to make one trip home every month, and buy the odd used book.

 Despite the lack of money,  those first two years remain two of the best of my life, because I found everything I truly needed was there at the university.  Not only did I have the basics of food, shelter, and companionship, but I was surrounded by beauty -- living on a campus of tasteful architecture, tied together with cobblestone roads and flowers -- and even outside of class,  opportunities for intellectual and creative stimulation, like lectures and art galleries, abounded. The town library, that portal to a world of infinite ideas and experiences, was only a short walk away. Though my living quarters were spartan, I lacked for nothing. Stuff was valueless: my life was filled with meals shared with friends, days spent lounging under trees reading, and nights of stargazing or conversations over coffee.

Although there the simple life was forced on me by financial circumstances, while living it I learned to appreciate minimalism as a concept -- starting when I read Erich Fromm's To Have or to Be? wherein he criticized our tendency to base happiness on what we possessed, rather than who we were. Ever since then, I've been increasingly critical about consumerism. Simplicity became a 'spiritual' value for me:  I enjoyed having so little to worry about -- not only did I have few things to protect or maintain, but I wasn't interested in getting more, or bothered if people thought less of me for not spending as much money as they did. My mind was as free of clutter as my room.

My studies, both private and academic, encouraged the flowering preference for simplicity. Inside the classroom, I studied history and sociology, where Marx redoubled my hostility toward consumerism and I began to see the world more deeply through the lens of conflict theory, and thought that if people were content to live simply, the needs of all could be provided for, and no one would need waste their lives in joyless work: I remembered all too well my days working in a factory, and counted every hour locked away in that noisy, dank warehouse cut off from natural light as a loss.

Outside the classroom, I explored philosophy --  Thoreau and the Greeks. I found many intersections between their critical perspectives and the knowledge I gleaned from history and sociology. Epicures promoted a quiet life of self-sufficiency, modest tastes, and the company of friends.  Epicures is associated with an indulgent lifestyle, for he taught that the only good in life is pleasure, or enjoyability.  His name is thus attached to revelers and hedonists, as well as to wine snobs and food critics who cultivate extravagant tastes and demands -- a cruel joke history has played on a man whose idea of a feast was a ‘little pot of cheese’.  Epicures believed that if we keep our tastes simple, we are easy to please and hard to inconvenience.  He preferred to live away from the hustle and bustle of the city, where people make livings by convincing other people to buy things they do not truly need.  Stoicism taught that the only good in life was virtue, and that only the degree to which we conformed our lives to he will of nature mattered. Caring about the judgments of other people and trying to construct our idea of self around our possessions was nothing but foolishness.  This echoed Erich Fromm's criticism  of the modern conflation of ownership and identity.

There is thus no question for me about the wisdom or practicality of living simply.  What has changed is not the value I place in it, but the environment in which I live. I don't currently live in a location where I can walk everywhere as I did in Montevallo, though one day I will, for Selma still has a downtown core which functions: it has lost some of its commercial activity, but not its soul, to sprawl.  My peers have changed, as well: my companions at university were hippies, Buddhists, and environmentalists. Now I have peers who the Joneses aspire to keep up with. Financially, I'm much better off than I was as a student. I now have ample discretionary money to devote toward Buying Things, and bought them I have: the amount of money I spent on books last year, even though most of them were used and some purchased for a solitary cent, is embarrassing.  And where have those books gone?  Everywhere.  When I returned home from a retreat a few weeks ago, I just sighed to view the disorderly stacks awaiting me.  I used to dream of surrounding myself with books, of sitting serenely in a private library with books covering the walls. The dream has come true and I view the multitude of objects as a burden.

And so I have decided to begin reclaiming my life. I have already donated two boxes of books to the library, and plan on giving more:  others are being circulated to friends.  I am too ardent a lover of books to turn into a minimalist though: even when I am finished decluttering, I will still probably have "more books than blood cells", as I once mockingly described myself.  My hope is that I can also dampen my rate of future acquisitions by using interlibrary loan more, and not becoming a book glutton. Last year I almost purchased five books on garbage and waste management. (I blame SimCity 3000 for ensnaring my interest in  municipal elements as mundane as sewers, power lines, and potholes.) I need to adopt the same discipline towards book purchasing as I've learned to have toward eating: go more slowly, enjoy what you have, and sit back from the table lest you have too much.

My first steps toward reclaiming simplicity have already made me feel a hundredfold better. Living simply means far more than decluttering, though, and I am intent on continuing to rediscover the old contentment to be found in having less.

02 March 2013


Years ago, when I began this blog, I was a much younger man who had just escaped a constrictive, shallow culture and had to build my own worldview from the ground up -- my foundations being skepticism and human-centered values. I was then just starting my twenties: I am now entering their twilight, and feeling the advance of age (I am sure older adults will find that risible),  not so much for a declining body but for the increasing weight of responsibility and outside demand for deepening maturity. That owes, in part I suppose, to age, but perhaps more to the fact that in pursuit of certain ends, I have voluntarily placed myself into positions where more would be expected of me. Such, I believe, is the key to self growth.

The ends I speak of involve my community of Selma. After having lived for three years in Montevallo, I was won over completely to the charms of small town life, and in particular to the fact that I spent so much time relating with other people in our common place. My friends ate together, we explored the town together: we frequently bumped into one another in the course of seeing to our own separate affairs. When I returned to Selma, I was determined to restore that sense of community in my life. Although Selma is my home, I had never considered it such until then. After returning from university, I began to walk its streets, and immersed myself deliberately in what social fabric it had: I began volunteering at the library as I looked for work, and even began attending services at the local Episcopal parish, since they offer opportunities for community life and spiritual/personal growth without the usual downsides of religion, the suppression of thought and coercion to authority. (The Episcopal church is of course very traditional, but the relationship between humans and tradition there is proper: there, traditions exists for humans and are maintained or changed at will.)  In the time since I began both endeavors, I have become a member  of the library's reference staff, and an increasingly involved member of the parish life of the church.

There's an essay in my making peace with religion, one I have attempted to write but have never published because it invariably involves experiences of mine which had  a profound impact on my perceptions, but which are impossible to communicate to other people.  Not that I was felled from my horse on the road to Damascus, but I eventually realized there was sometimes more to people's faith in divinity than an arbitrary, stubborn belief in a Santa Claus for adults.  I think most people believe in deities for meaningless reasons, but I've developed an appreciation for the realm of mystery, of people being moved by things they can't explain.  I don't think religion can be banished from the human mind any more than the abuse of authority can be riven from human politics.  And while usually I wouldn't be one to settle for defeat, in this case I'm more willing to bury the hatchet with religion, and perhaps even embrace it as an ally, against anomie, meaninglessness, and consumerism. Marx wrote that religion was the heart of a heartless world, the soul of a soulless situation.  It will remain with us for as long as people need comfort against oppression, and I cannot imagining that changing.  That doesn't mean giving religion a free pass: I see it as useful, and sometimes benevolent -- but ever dangerous. It's like fire: protected against itself, kept in its place, it does good work and is charming in its own right. Outside of those bounds, destruction waits.

So the years have seen the furious fire of idealism within me be tamed into a murmuring hearth of their own; quieter now, but still hopeful despite a lessening of intensity. I think it a safe assumption that most people here will never be won over to some of the ideals I cherish, and so in the interests of relating with them and working with them, I turn to more pedestrian matters, matters of interest to everyone, subjects that cannot be boxed up and buried in a partisan camp -- matters like transportation.  As I spend more time with people of different political convictions, I realize how perfectly asinine the liberal/conservative dichotomy is. Why should fiscal conservatives embrace war and the waste of suburban sprawl? Why should liberals tolerate the increasing dominion of the state over individual lives?  The world of beliefs and values is more complicated than I ever imagined.

My own beliefs are not free of contradictions. There are moments when I am still the young social democrat, who believes in government and who thinks people should make health and education public issues out of pride: of course we should work together to do  this, we're a team! And there are moments when I want to run away, to retreat into the woods living a simple life and subsist on fish and mushrooms or something. I dream of the future, of what the human race can achieve -- and yet look nostalgically toward the  simpler past out of despair for what eager attempts to Create the Future have resulted in. In the end, of course, my world will neither be transformed into a Star Trek utopia, nor fall apart to such a degree that I would be justified in not being concerned with it.  What is left for me is to continue to live in the world I currently inhabit, the one with messy politics and people who act in distressing ways -- to continue to live in it, and to work to create and preserve a worthwhile life, to make my local community a better place to live...to practice the noblest virtues humanity has conceived to aspire to.

In future posts, I will be working through the contradictions occupying my mind -- the tension between individualism and community life, for instance, or between the value I place in science and the annoyance I have with human life being overly complicated by and dependent on gadgets and technotoys. Practical philosophy, especially Stoicism, is still of interest to me, but I may muse about the human environment more, from the viewpoint of a concerned citizen.  The particulars of the world in which I live are of increasing importance to me, not only because they give me an area to work with others to improve,  but because as I grow older, I look at the world through the eyes of someone who may one day introduce children into it...and I want it to be as conducive to human flourishing as possible.