Saturday, September 5, 2009

Review: Living the Simple Life, Part 1

This is the first of a three part review on Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More, by Elaine St. James.

Let's dive in!
[T]ake some time to figure out what simple living really means to you.
What do you hope to achieve by making some changes that would simplify your life? What would have to happen for you to live more simply? And how will you know when you've gotten there? Can you make some simple changes right where you are? Or would you have to move across town, or possibly across the country to get to simple?
When we first moved here to finish up my husband's schooling, we didn't bring very much with us. We mailed some toys and a handful of books for our children, and some of our favorite board games. We actually moved in suitcases, by airplane. We did buy a lot of necessary items when we got here (mostly for our kitchen), and most of what we have, we use regularly. We've been planning on selling a stroller, a desk, a nice chair we thought we'd use but haven't. I just realized today that we don't actually use our microwave very often, and what we do use it for could easily be supplemented with a pot or pan on the stove-top. I think, for us, the first step in simplifying is to get rid of the things we don't use. And after that, perhaps looking at our life and evaluating what we want and need, and which is which.
Simplifying is a process. It no doubt took you years to build your complicated, high-pressure life. It will take some time to simplify it. You can't undo it all today. But you can get started today.

To start simplifying the only thing you have to do right now is decide that you really want to simplify, and then schedule some time to think about it. That's it. Making that decision and setting aside the time is enough for one day.
I do want to lead a simplified life. I want our family to have that luxurious lifestyle where we have time to live and be lazy, to do the things we want to do without the demands of the world pushing on us to do more and be better at things we never took time to realize we don't care about. My husband and I have made that decision together. And perhaps tomorrow is a time when we can consider it some more.
The need to make wise choices encompasses every area of our lives. Since we have time for only a limited amount of stuff, we need to choose wisely what stuff we're going to allow to take up that time.
Do I honestly want to take time to watch television? Maybe not as much as I do. We actually don't own a TV, but watch a few selective shows over the internet. And could probably cut back, or rearrange things so that when I do watch, it's because I'm ready to be thoroughly entertained, instead of a habit I'm sure I don't want. I've cut down, and rearranged, the time it takes to prepare dinners. I took a tennis class a few months ago, and would love to continue taking classes, but it's more important to me to be at home those 2 evenings per week with my family, especially since my boys are at school all day.
Our culture is replete with so-called convenience items...or alternative approaches to situations that at first glance appear to be simplifiers, or which might simplify someone else's life, but which on closer inspection would only complicate our own.
We've found the habit of asking "Will this really simplify our lives?" a powerful weapon in the ongoing battle against the complications of modern life.
I think the key there is "Will this really simplify our lives?" Is this something that is needful to us. Not something that others deem as necessary, not something that we've grown accustomed to. Is it truly needful? for us?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Playing in the Rain: Connecting Children with Nature

These past few months in Phoenix have been hot. Yes, we've been biking to school, and have at times stopped to play in a park, and on relatively cool evenings we've read books out on our patio. But we haven't been outside simply for the enjoyment of being outside much lately.

Last night, as I was getting the children ready for bed, I heard the strangest sound. It took a few minutes to figure it out. It was rain! So, half-dressed in their pajamas, I compelled my children to play on the patio in the rain. (They insisted on having their coats and hats on.) It was beautiful. There was lightning in the distance. We watched the water drip from the roof. We watched and listened and enjoyed. After it had stopped, we came back in to finish getting ready for bed.

Enter Green Hour, a website sponsored by the National Wildlife Foundation.
The National Wildlife Federation recommends that parents give their kids a "Green Hour" every day, a time for unstructured play and interaction with the natural world. This can take place in a garden, a backyard, the park down the street, or any place that provides safe and accessible green spaces where children can learn and play.
The site states that today's children rarely get outside, and are disconnected from nature. The environmental repercussions of said disconnect with nature are enormous.

There are so many things we have to do every day, but maybe we can do some of them outside. Somewhere pretty. Whether it's having a picnic for dinner, reading or studying under a tree, going for a walk, playing or vacationing, we can live more intentionally. Outside.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Paradox of Biking, or Why Biking is Bad for the Environment

I thoroughly enjoyed reading an intriguing paper by Dr. Ulrich at Wharton. He discusses the paradox of biking. Essentially, while biking is good for the environment because it reduces emissions from cars, it is also detrimental because it increases longevity, which in turn increases our environmental impact, almost to a neutral point.
The analysis takes account of the first-order effects due to the dramatically lower energy requirements of transportation by bicycle relative to automobiles. The environmental benefits of human power are, however, strongly coupled to the environmental costs of increased population, due to increased longevity of those who engage in physical activity. Paradoxically, increased use of human power for transportation is unlikely to reduce substantially the use of energy because of this second-order effect.
My favorite parenthetical comment:
(Given that the longevity benefits of physical activity are enjoyed by the individual who incurs the costs of the physical activity, in theory each individual should be able to make an informed decision about engaging in physical activity as a health-related intervention. However, the fact that more than a quarter of the global population smokes cigarettes raises doubts about this framing of the individual decision process as a benefit-cost analysis.)
How is it that even when we know what's best for us individually, we continue to choose otherwise? What do individuals need to do to choose the things which are good?

I think that it might come down to 2 steps. To be informed, and to feel responsible.

Here's the information. If more people used bicycles more often, we would create fewer pollutants in the air. We would need fewer parking lots, and therefore (I hope) we'd have more green spaces where cars used to be, and again, create cleaner air. If more people used bicycles more often, we'd have fewer health problems which result from obesity and inactivity. A few links to sources.

I believe that why we should feel responsible deserves a post of it's own.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Maximizing Community Service

Teaching my children to read is of utmost importance to me. I believe that if a child can read fluently and with understanding by the time he's six, absolutely nothing will deter his education. Teach a child to read, and his world opens.

And so, with my two boys in Kindergarten this year (one a fluent reader, the other still learning), I'm volunteering in their classroom for about 5 hours a month during reading groups.

Volunteering in itself is good, yes. But volunteering about something I can be passionate about every time I go is the greatest contribution I can make.

There is a huge difference between people who do something because they have to and those who truly want to be there, whether it's paid work or volunteering. That I want to be there, that reading is important to me personally, is something that those children will innately understand. And perhaps, hopefully, make a difference in their lives, make a difference in their desire to learn.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Biking, the First Weeks

Week 1 went something like this:

Day 1: I FEEL INVINCIBLE! I mock all those lowly life forms driving on the congested street.
Day 2: Okay, yeah, this is good. Painful, but good. Better than driving, at least.
Day 3: Oh. Pain. This is why people drive. This isn't worth it. This can't be worth it. Groan.
Day 4: More pain. More driving wishes.
Day 5: Finally realize I need to lower my bike seat. Helps. A little.
Day 6: We're staying home. Not going anywhere, thank you very much.
Day 7: Uh, we're driving to church and calling it good.

During week 2, the pain disappeared. Some joy in creating our own transportation returned.

As for week 3, biking had simply turned into what we do each day. It's just part of life. And I do enjoy it. I am pleased (no more pride over here, thank you very much) that I'm not car-dependent. We have adjusted some of our plans because we haven't had a car (getting a birthday cake to the park was simply not going to happen, so we had it here), but overall, biking doesn't take much more time than driving. We always get a good spot at church and the stores. It's just what we do now.

One part about biking that I hadn't expected has been that it brings us closer to our community. To the lady watering her plants in her front yard. To the other people biking and walking. To the gentleman fishing in lake at our park. It's a simple thing, to be seen, to see others live a small part of their lives each day. To say "hello" and "how are you?" and mean it, to be able to take a moment and be a part of a community, rather than be separated from the place that we live.

Monday, August 31, 2009

What about Book Orders?

I love to read more than just about anything. I love the smell of new books. I adore book stores: the lay-out, the semi-quiet, the crisp new pages in thousands of books, the idea that people will be reading book son every subject, that the store wants me to stay in there forever and that I'd like to as well.

Which makes this is an uncomfortable topic for me. Is owning books needful? Will something else suffice?

I'm conflicted on this point. My personal middle ground is to patronize our public library on a regular basis, and to only buy the books that my monthly book club is reading. I host the book club, and choose my favorite books fairly regularly. Book I will read time and again, books which I find personal meaning in.

With the start of school, also came the start of the book order. Book orders don't give me quite the same flood of senses that a book store does. But...

I love paperback books. They're cheap. My kids love to read books. We read their books tens and hundreds of times. We're on our fifth hard cover copy of Where the Wild Things Are, because we've loved that book to death four times already. We take books on our road trips, and in the bike trailer on the way to school. We read cuddled on our bean bag chair, our couch, the floor, outside, on our beds.

A study I read about in Freakonomics found that the only factor in a child's education testing levels was the presence of books the household owned. Not checked out from the library, but owned. Not read, but owned.

Because I love to read, I inherently want that for my children. I get giddy when they request for me to read to them. I glow when I discover them reading (or "reading") to themselves. Seeing them read just makes me happy.

And them having a book order to circle the books they want is like me going into a book store. They can choose. So many beautiful options. Nothing's been loved or abused by somebody else yet. All the books are appropriate for them. And, since we're not in a store and there is no instant gratification, the final decision is up to me with no possibility of impulse buying or tantrums or arguing.

I went through our book basket earlier today and pulled out some books to send to a friend several months younger than my daughter. I think my compromise (at least for today) is to replace books, rather than accumulate them.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Early in August, we decided to forgo our car and use bikes and a bike trailer instead. The first week we still drove quite a bit. But for the last two weeks, we've been solely biking. Today was the first Sunday that we biked to church. Today was the first day I've ever biked in a skirt. A knee-length flowing skirt. Not that non-bikers would consider this afternoon windy, with it's nice and gentle breeze, but I certainly did.

Is biking needful?

Well, no. Biking is not needful. The point though, is that in our family, a car is not needful. We rarely drive anywhere over 3 miles away. We do visit the zoo on occasion. We did go on roadtrips this summer. But when we're at home, we pretty much stay at home. We have three grocery stores on our 3-mile school route, one across the corner from our apartment. My husband's work is 3 miles away, which he goes into once or twice a week. Our church is 2 miles away. Our library is 2 miles away. We have a beautiful city park 1/4 mile down the street. We have a bus system which we haven't needed to use in the past 14 days.

We bought a $3000 used car 12 months ago. Including repairs, gas, insurance, maintenance, and the car itself, an average month cost us $500 to have a car. Which we drove under 150 miles a month other than our two road trips this summer. Yes, the longer we would have used the car, the less the monthly cost would have been, as the car-cost per month would diminish. We spent $250 every month for our car, costs unrelated to the cost of the car.

In comparison, here are our start-up costs for two bicycles:
Bicycle FREE - $150
Helmet $40
Pump $20
Lock $20
Tools $20
TOTAL $250

Yes, those numbers worked out nicely, didn't they.

Our monthly biking expenses will stay well under $50, for new tubes and tires and oil.

Benefits of biking as our major form of transportation include daily exercise (without going to a gym), living closer to our environment, living a greener life, spending less money because we're planning our purchases more, and saving the money from car related costs for things we desire more.

The big drawback is that we sweat. My hair is usually in a ponytail these days and we tend to have sweat dripping off our faces when we bike in the afternoons. This is itself isn't the problem. I think the problem is that other people aren't drenched in sweat everywhere they go, so we're creating a slight social taboo.

But, is it more socially unacceptable to be sweaty, or that we ditched our car in a car-riddled society in the first place?

And, I'm finding that it really doesn't matter to me what other people think. I know that we're doing what is right for our family. And that's good enough.