Ideology makes wisdom inaccessible

Remember the Y2K mania? Plenty of folks would like to forget it, since they embarrassed themselves mightily by loudly (and profitably) proclaiming doom and gloom in the years and months leading up to January 1, 2000. Me, I always wanted to celebrate it after the fact, since it woke me up to the unnecessarily complex and fragile nature of modern society. So what if the potential disaster never became actual? Just because we dodged a bullet didn’t mean they weren’t shooting at us.

The other thing I learned from Y2K is that ideology makes wisdom inaccessible. There was (and still is) an awful lot of good stuff that could be learned by taking a close, skeptical look at the nature of modern living. But once an ideology was attached, it went from being a matter of thinking deeply to one of choosing sides, with people on each side now motivated to automatically despise whatever the other side had to say, wise or not, simply because they were on the other side. In the Y2K debacle the preppers overreached and then lost the argument—spectacularly so—rendering themselves an object of easy ridicule. Anyone re-raising any of their qualms about modern living is now easily dismissed, simply because the preppers were exposed as fools one January morning.

I followed the Y2K discussions closely, and learned a lot. I didn’t buy into it to the point of making preparations, but we did spend New Year’s Eve in 1999 at our remote vacation home in Colorado, and I was, uh, open-minded about what I would find when I tried logging onto the internet the next morning. Perhaps because I wasn’t invested to the point of embarrassment I wasn’t deterred from looking deeply into modern life, and since then I’ve concluded that the preppers are basically right about the deep flaws of modern society, regardless of how accurate they’ve been in making practical predictions. And I think it’s a shame that their joy in making dire predictions has obscured the wisdom they’ve managed to uncover/recover.

Which is why I was really pleased to come across this article about Lisa Bedford, the Survival Mom. I haven’t studied Bedford’s site yet, but I will. The article makes it clear that she has found a niche by cleverly opening up the world of prepperdom to average people with average concerns, rescuing wisdom about preparedness from those who tend to bundle it up in ever-more-extreme ideology. Here’s a bit of common sense at its finest from Bedford:

When did being completely unprepated for everything become a virtue?

Bedford’s approach is inspired, and (to me) inspiring—I’m already thinking of ways I might adapt it to grant access to some of the wisdom I’ve found tightly embedded in different ideologies I’ve studied.

Step aside, old man

Here’s a bit of wisdom you don’t hear often enough these days:

Those who are older than 55 should certainly still work as they are able (that includes me!). But we should leave administrative and executive functions aside — that is what aging leads us away from. Instead, the older among us should engage in the work of discernment — of prayer, study, listening, writing, and counsel. That’s what age prepares us for, and leads us towards.

The post it comes from is well worth reading, as is the Francis Bacon essay the writer cites. Reading them reminded me very much of the opening events in one of my favorite movies, The Seven Samurai. The men are arguing about how to deal with the bandits that repeatedly raid their village. Finally one says, “Let’s go ask the Old Man!” They go and talk to him. He gives counsel. They decide to follow it. My anarchist heart is strangely warmed by it all.

Two unorthodox theologians

In keeping with my notion to shift the focus here to pointing at things I’ve found useful, I want to mention two modern-day theologians whose blogs I’ve found to be richly rewarding.

I’ve only lately begun following Richard Beck, though I’m pretty sure I’ve read blog posts of his over the years when others have linked them. I added his blog to my RSS reader after coming across this post on conscience vs. tradition as the source of authority, which I thought knocked it out of the park. Then when Rene Girard died recently I decided from mentions of his work that I should learn more, and discovered Beck’s seven-part series (start here) on Girard’s notion of Jesus as the final scapegoat, which nearly blew the top of my head off—the notion, though the posts are good too. And he is currently posting a 6-part series called A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option (start here) which pulls no punches when pointing out flaws in conservative approaches to Christian community which are proving fatal.

I’ll be mining Beck’s blog for many months to come, since it is well organized and he has posted every weekday for the past ten years. Here are a few scattered posts I’ve found especially tasty:

My other favorite blogging theologian is Andrew Perriman, who I’ve mentioned before and have followed for more than a year now. Studying Perriman’s narrative-historical method for reading and understanding the Bible has worked a major overhaul on my own approach, and I think for the better—at least, I am now very much at peace with my own understanding of Scripture and able to completley focus on living out that understanding.

Perriman organizes his blog sort of like a wiki, peppering each post with links to other related posts, so the best way to read him is to pick an entry point and start chasing down references. But he does have a list (under “Method” in the menu bar) of posts which make good introductions. My favorite is a recent one, This Changes Everything, since it describes the delightful disorientation one experiences when the method begins to sink in. The other six are as follows, in no particular order—if a post title strikes your fancy, start there.

Vulnerability and Shame

I thought it might be good for a season to post links to things I think are edifying, with minimal commentary on my part. As you might imagine, I have a healthy stash of them.

I have mixed feelings about the phenomenon of TED talks, but among them there are some real gems, clear and blessedly brief introductions to a thinker’s substantial work. Here are two good examples, in which Brené Brown presents two vital truths she learned in her work:

  • Vulnerability is the key to living wholeheartedly
  • Shame is what keeps us from being vulnerable

As with many such secular talks, excellent as they might be on their own they leave the Christian viewer to recognize and fill in important gaps. To my mind neither of the talks explained why these truths should be true—what is it about vulnerability that makes it vital? how do we overcome shame? I have my own answers. Briefly stated:

  • We can’t live for others without being vulnerable
  • Following Rene Girard, Jesus through his death made it possible “to found human community on a nonsacrificial principle: solidarity with the victim.” Put another way, shame was once an essential principle for structuring community, but after Jesus it no longer needs to be.

The year ahead: 2016

What follows is not a list of New Year’s resolutions. I’ve mentioned before that for me the first indication of eventual failure is powering through any reluctance by force of will. I do best when I go deeper, find the things that keep me from wanting to do what I know I should be doing, and treat them as difficulties to be addressed. As my friend Cindy Rollins might say, it’s all about ordo amoris, getting my desires properly ordered.

So these aren’t things I’ve resolved to do in 2016, but rather possible outcomes I’ve decided to focus on as I continue the deeper work of ordering my desires. I hope they’ll align to a large extent with the successes (and failures) I report in my next year-end review.

Frank Viola wrote recently that a practice which has helped him stay on track is to pick a single word for the year. In 2015 his word was simplify, and it helped him streamline and declutter his life over the course of the year. That one wouldn’t work for me, of course—one of my life-words is simplify, and has been for many years (humility has been on the list even longer). So I thought about it, looking at where I had been recently and where I was likely to go in 2016, and chose this word: integrate.

For awhile now I’ve had the feeling that the time has come to stop seeking out new answers and turn instead to turning what I’ve learned so far into a coherent whole. Partly this follows from confronting my own mortality—I’ve learned a lot over the years, but what’s the point if I don’t take the time to turn the information into knowledge, and the knowledge into wisdom? And partly it comes from a growing clarity about how to properly assemble the elements. So I think it’s time to quit scavenging pieces to the puzzle and start fitting together the ones I have, reshaping and discarding as necessary, filling in gaps as needed.

I’ll continue my studies, but I don’t expect to add any new topics to the list, and precious few new writers. The topics I plan to explore in more depth are Zen and Christianity (especially presence and mindfulness), disciplines for building Christian character, and non-sacramental approaches to Christian living. (Simplicity undergirds it all, but I know plenty about that already and will no longer explore but only read to fill in gaps.) Writers I’ll focus on: Dallas Willard (of course!), Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Charles Taylor, Alasdair Macintyre, Richard Beck, Andrew Perriman, Rene Girard, Thomas Merton.

The above is for deepening my understanding of what I know, and is reasonably straightforward. How I will set it all down in concrete form is less clear to me. Ultimately it should be written out, as a book or something like one, but that needs to be preceded by an awful lot of organizing, something that could be valuable on its own and therefore worth doing publicly if possible. I already do my initial organization using Microsoft OneNote, great for my own purposes but not so great for publishing. So I am looking into tools for creating a website which would be more polished and navigable for a reader than my OneNote files, but still nowhere near a finished book. I currently think of this as my braindump website.

I plan to focus on writing privately. There’s probably a better term for this, since all I mean is writing things in forms I don’t intend to publish—journal entries, rough drafts, fragments—something I haven’t really done up until now. I’ve enjoyed the discipline that comes with always writing publicly, but it has inhibited me in some ways—I often redact as I write (or even think) so as to spare others, and as a result some thoughts are never worked through. I think it will be good to spend some time working through those things in writing first, and then deciding whether to discard or pursue them.

I’ve decided to work on my handwriting. I’ve toyed with the idea over the years, but only recently have all the pieces come together to make it a live possibility. (There will probably be a post in the near future about the path that led me to this point, the goal being to illustrate how the internet has opened fantastic new possibilities for those of us who are autodidactically inclined.) I’ve been practicing a form of italic script for the past few weeks, moving from pencil to gel pen to round-nib fountain pen, and I plan to incorporate an edged-nib pen for the proper italic look (thick/thin strokes). Following this path can eventually lead to calligraphy, which I may end up exploring at some point, but for now I am focused on establishing a practice of writing things out by hand.

I have multiple reasons for doing this.

  • My current hand is lively but also very sloppy, analogous to a singer with good instincts and scattered giftedness but only basic skills. With work I think my handwriting could approach excellence—not the most vital achievement, but one that would both please me and be useful to me.

  • The aesthetic angle takes me into an area I don’t know much about, but in a much gentler manner than, say, learning to draw (another skill I’d love to have but totally lack). I’ve always enjoyed craftsmanship in my work, and even as I’ve been practicing I’ve looked at it as a matter of crafting something, executing the job well and with quality—which in this case has forced me to contemplate the elements and rules of visual design, something I don’t know much about, especially in a hands-on way.

  • Many of my trusted sources when it comes to writing suggest writing things out by hand, as a way of slowing down and of making the process more tangible. Some even emphasize the value of copywork, where one writes out passages from a source one wants to model, slowly and deliberately, taking the time to ponder the construction of the passage, noticing choices the writer made, feeling the words actually flow off the end of one’s pen.

  • I like the meditative aspect of it. As I’ve practiced I’ve often played ambient music in the background, and spent an hour where my mind is neither occupied with work nor chasing after distractions, but simply focused on a simple, optional task. Other folks do this by pursuing hobbies, but those usually don’t work for me—either I get frustrated with the ultimate pointlessness, or lose the benefit by getting obsessed with hobby-related trivia to the point where it resembles work. There’s a bit of such danger even in handwriting (just look at what fountain pen enthusiasts discuss!), but the basic tools seem to be satisfying me as I’ve begun to establish this habit.

So I expect that a major change in my routine this year will involve writing things out by hand—copywork, journal entries, and (I hope) first drafts of longer pieces. And I’m looking forward to the change.

I will continue to improve my health, but in gentle ways, focusing mostly on eating well (especially as I transition from losing to maintaining weight) and gaining good posture (there’s much left in the Gokhale method for me to work on). I’m mostly satisfied with my current level of physical activity—I think my routine is basically healthy. I’m now non-sedentary enough that I’m not as lazy as I used to be, no longer reluctant to exert myself when the situation calls for it, e.g. walking up the stairs to fetch something, weeding the garden, settling for a parking spot on the periphery of the lot and walking in.

But I do want to reintroduce walking to my routine, this time in a way that is more likely to stick. Lori had some excellent suggestions in her comment on my previous post, and all of them zero in on the difficulty I need to deal with—I must want to walk. Part of my failure last year was due to inadequate motivations—burn a few more calories, take some time off from working, get some fresh air—but I was never actually interested in the activity. All those other motivations are good things, but not enough make me want to do it. I need to find one or more very good reasons to walk, possibly from Lori’s list, and then pursue them.

I’ll plant a garden again. I’ve known people, mostly from earlier generations, who couldn’t imagine not planting a garden—it’s just what you do. Given my starting place and the years left to me, I doubt I’ll ever achieve that attitude. But I do hope to make our garden a routine thing, something that supplies our table well without being a burden. We have garlic in the ground now, and next year we’ll expand a bit beyond tomatoes, though I’m not sure yet into what, only knowing it still won’t be too ambitious.

I will play board games regularly with the younger kids. This is a weird one for me. Mostly, I hate board games. I don’t enjoy the competition, or the strategizing, or whiling away my time on an unproductive activity. But I noticed this year that our younger kids, now ranging from 8 to 13, love to play them together. And I also noticed that it was surfacing some of their weaknesses with interacting socially, controlling anger or bossiness or frustration or pride, and so on. It occurred to me that the skills needed to overcome those weaknesses are things learned by example and taught by modeling, so it would be good for me to be right there with them in the games, guiding their behavior by example and gentle suggestion.

Fortunately I discovered what is sometimes called the eurogame style of board game, and found that I liked it much better than the ones I already knew—which is to say they are tolerable, even a bit fun for me. For Christmas I gave the family copies of Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, and they were big hits. And when those get a bit too familiar, there are other good prospects—I have my eye on Ticket to Ride. I’ve played both games with the kids over the past few days, and the experience was much like I thought it would be. I think that doing it regularly will be just the venue for working with them on their social skills.

There are also a couple of work-related items on my list, new areas I plan to venture into, but there’s no particular benefit in spelling them out here. The items listed above are not objectives set in concrete. I’m sure when I do my year-end review I will have succeeded with some, failed with others, and also pursued possibilities which aren’t on the list. The list is merely what I’m able to imagine at the moment about the year to come. I thought it would be interesting and perhaps even helpful to share how I go about contemplating such a thing, as well as introducing a bit of accountability by saying it all out loud.

The year in review: 2015

I don’t think I’ve ever done an end-of-year post before. Often they sound to me like Christmas letters, sanitized and self-promoting. But my previous post summing up what we’ve learned over the past ten years has put me in a reflective mood, I suppose. And I’ve recently recommitted myself to following David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) discipline, which includes a time where you review the past week’s work and plan for the next week. And I’ve also come across suggestions online from trusted sources that an end-of-year review can be helpful in spending the next one productively.

So below I’ve gathered and summarized the past year’s accomplishments and failures, which I’m glad to share for the sake of accountability and perhaps inspiring others who are dealing with similar challenges. But please keep in mind these are mostly notes to myself. I’ve allowed myself to ramble a bit, not expecting anyone to read from beginning to end. I plan to follow this one with a second post (much shorter!) reviewing what I hope to get done in 2016.

Our cash flow went positive. This is not so much a specific accomplishment as it is a notable turn of events, the result of many other efforts converging. When we set out in 2001 to find a different way to live, our cash flow immediately went negative and stayed that way—intentional, but still scary at times. Not that we lived entirely off savings, but the things we did for income produced varying amounts, and never covered our expenses. But for many different reasons our expenses continued to drop, and eventually I found a path which produced a small but steadily growing income while still allowing me to do meaningful work of my own choosing. And it’s been comforting to watch our bank balance go from ever shrinking, to hovering at a nervously low level, to slowly but steadily increasing again, all without extraordinary measures on our part. On our small budget we can eat well and buy all the things we need and many that we’d just like to have—but, of course, that ability depends heavily on what we’ve come to think of as eating well and things we need and things we’d just like to have.

I got my eating under control. This was big for me, as you might imagine. I started this effort at the beginning of October 2014, have lost 80+ pounds so far, and expect to lose another ten or so, probably by mid-March, before adjusting my eating so that I stay stable. As with many of these items, there is much I could say. But here are a few observations about the experience.

  • I call it “getting my eating under control” rather than “dieting” or “losing weight” because that describes my approach, one I think was critical to both current and future success. Before this my eating tended to control me, though in subtle ways. I wasn’t powerless before food, but I looked at it in ways that limited my control—as a reward, a treat, a comfort, something I deserved or had earned, an indulgence, an entertainment, a defense against hunger, a defense against boredom, something to appreciate the finer points of, and on and on. Now the only essential thing to me about food is that it is fuel, i.e. in order to live I need to eat a certain amount. Saying it that way probably gives the wrong impression, suggesting that I am now indifferent to food. Disinterested might be a better word. I still enjoy what I eat as fully as can be—but I can also leave my favorite food untouched if that’s what circumstances call for, e.g. I’ve eaten enough.

  • I used a scale to track my progress, but after awhile only to be sure my weight wasn’t rising. There were occasional short stretches when the needle didn’t budge, and the rate slowed towards the end. I started out with a target number in mind, but a bit of research taught me a couple of things. First, my target number, or imaginary ideal weight (where I had been when I got married) was about twenty pounds too high, based on the weight charts. And second, it wasn’t really the scale number I should be concerned about, but excess body fat. As I approach the end I can see very clearly the amount and locations of what body fat remains, and so I am only guessing that I have another ten or so pounds to go—the true goal is to have that fat gone, whatever the ends up landing on the scale.

  • I generally do my eating between 11am and 5:30pm, starting with a large salad at lunch, followed by an apple, banana, and grapefruit during the afternoon, and then a modest supper. There’s nothing sacred about that menu, but it’s easy for me to follow, and after lunch I’m no longer hungry, not even when I first wake up in the morning. I get hungry towards lunch, but I view that as a positive practice. There have been occasional times when I’ve had to go hungry much longer before eating, and it doesn’t bother me much—it’s just hunger, and I know I’ll eat before any true physical problems like faintness set in.

  • I look at my current pattern as the default from here on. The main change when I’m done losing weight will be no longer preparing a separate supper but just eating a modest amount of what the rest of the family is eating. What gives me hope for continued success is that even now I don’t feel deprived. I like my salad, and my fruits. I watched birthday desserts and Christmas cookies and pies and cakes go by, perfectly content. (In fact, I expect I’ll be skipping those things from now on, just to make room for calories in forms I prefer.) There is nothing in particular I’m looking forward to eating “once the diet is done.” I ate both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner as the family did, but eating modestly—plenty of my beloved turkey, a little stuffing, a little sweet potatoes, some corn and green beans, a buttered roll—that was more than enough.

I made GTD a regular practice. I’ve written before about David Allen’s approach to planning, called Getting Things Done (GTD). It is a discipline, not a panacea, and only provides benefits to the extent one practices it properly and diligently. If you haven’t made it a habit the practice is an easy one to let slide, and especially in this day and age the path to making something like GTD a habit is vague and puzzling. I’ve tried multiple times without succeeding.

But this time around it seems to be sticking. Most important, there were bits and pieces of the practice I had continued to do for their own sake, e.g. keeping a todo list, zeroing my inbox daily. And I kept reading advice other GTD practitioners had to give. A common refrain among them, which originated with Allen himself, is that “If you aren’t doing the weekly review, you aren’t really doing GTD.” And that most people who fail at GTD do so because they don’t do weekly reviews. I heard the refrain often enough that I finally decided to settle down and figure out why that was, and what I needed to do to establish the habit.

A weekly review is nothing more than a set-aside period of time where you do no work, but simply gather together all the relevant information (emails and such), then review in detail the things you accomplished last week, plan your tasks for the week ahead, and brainstorm about longer-range things. Simple, but also vague and superficially non-productive, making it easy to finesse. I decided to simply set aside a time for it for a season, where I would worry less about whether I was doing it right and more about not doing anything else during that time. These days we have a two-hour stretch on Sundays between breakfast and leaving for church, so that was the time I designated.

After two months, I’m comfortable that the habit is established, and also that it was the missing piece. GTD insists that you look at all your responsibilities, figure out the next thing you need to do for each one, and put those things on a list. The genius is this: once you’ve done that, you can rest assured that everything is covered. No more wondering about what you should do next—it has to be one of the things on the list. No more wondering if there is something you ought to be doing—if it isn’t on the list, you don’t need to be doing it.

Imagine if you could go through life not worrying about what you should be doing, or if you were missing something! I think the key role played by the weekly review is that, beyond helping to insure that everything is covered, it builds your confidence that this is really true. Spend enough time repeating the cycle—and seeing the truth confirmed in your everyday life—helps you achieve a very high level of peace. I had this peace partially through my imperfect efforts, and the 1-2 hours I now spend reviewing the week pays back in almost total peace that things are under control, which allows the energy previously spent on worry to be spent on new things.

I learned how Christian character can be developed. This is something I’ve written about a lot on this blog during the past year, so I won’t repeat it. The main turning point for me was rediscovering Dallas Willard. As I caught up with his later books and re-read the rest, all the bits and pieces began to fall into place. I’m working my way through his books again, and it still rings true. My sole objection is that Willard was only partly successful in making his insights concrete—which is really to say: if only his life had been three times as long! So there’s much more work for me to do in order to realize those truths in my own life. Work I continue to do.

I learned how to read about Zen. Again I’ve written about this before on this blog, so I won’t repeat it. Simply put, I was finally able to make the connection between the Zen vision of harmonious living and my own growing understanding of the Christian life as a matter of aligning oneself with God’s economy. One happy result was that when I started looking into kindness as a key Christian virtue, I was able to recognize as I did some research how important kindness is as a Zen concept.

I learned a different way to read the Bible. I haven’t mentioned this much, and won’t go into detail here. But a friend pointed me to the work of Andrew Perriman, and in effect gave me new eyes through which to see the Biblical story. Perriman’s narrative-historical hermeneutic didn’t turn my understanding upside down so much as it realigned my thinking with Scripture. Things fit together much better now, to the point where I feel like I have a handle on the truth and don’t need to dig any deeper. I continue to read Perriman and other theologians with interest, but not looking for answers—rather, I’ve turned my attention fully to accounts by folks who are trying to live out a particular Christian vision.

I improved the health of my back. I’ve had back trouble for a long time now, every few years being immobilized for multiple days by back pain. I never did anything about it besides being slow to get completely upright in the morning and moving cautiously the rest of the day. Then during 2014 I became increasingly uncomfortable sitting at my desk, something I needed to do all day—not just back pain, but general aches and pains.

This was around the same time we began hearing the refrain “sitting is the new smoking”. I don’t believe that—as Esther Gokhale points out, sitting is not exactly a recent innovation—but it put the spotlight on deskwork and pointed out some alternative approaches, in particular standing desks. I figured any option that got me out of my chair was worth exploring, so I put together one of these. (Actually, I use a second IKEA table to hold my second monitor, so my standing desk cost me about $40 total … but, still!) Because I have both a desktop computer for working in Frankfort plus a laptop computer I use to take my work with me to El Paso when I visit my dad, I set up both computers in Frankfort, one at the standing desk and one at a normal table, and switch between them. In El Paso I set the laptop on a single-table standing desk and a connected monitor/keyboard on the table beside it, allowing me to switch between standing and sitting, but giving me only one screen rather than my usual two.

This has been a major success. It took awhile to get used to standing while working, and when concentrating deeply I still prefer to sit, but I probably spend half or more of my computer time standing. For those who might explore this possibility, some notes:

  • Both at my standing and sitting desks I elevate my monitors so that the top of the screen is more or less level with the top of my head, allowing me to look straight on without tilting my head, seeing all parts of the screen by moving my eyes. As monitor stands I use stacked reams of printer paper from Sams, making the stand roughly adjustable, and using three per stand at $2.50/ream, it’s a cheap and solid solution.

  • I splurged on a quality desk mat, which keeps me very comfortable while standing for hours.

  • I also keep a children’s step stool at my feet so I can vary how I stand—which I do, and it helps a lot.

After using the standing desk for awhile, I happened to mention it to my boss, who also has back problems. He told me that his own problems had mostly gone away once he started regularly doing “core exercises” . I had to Google it, of course, and came across this particular slideshow of exercises, which strike me more as stretching routines than exercises—just my speed! So I began spending 20 minutes each morning on this—it’s a regular practice now, and I think it has helped a lot, replacing the hour or so it used to take me to slowly get upright.

After mentioning all this here on the weblog, my friend Kelly gave me the best gift of all, a reference to Esther Gokhale’s work. I watched an hour-long presentation she gave at Google, then a couple of other videos, then bought and read her book. I’m a convert! Gokhale’s approach is precisely tuned for a pre-modern geek such as myself, one who marveled when he learned about Weston Price’s work. (The idea? Basically, if you’re wondering about the source of and remedy for a modern malady, study one or more pre-modern cultures that doesn’t suffer from it.) Gokhale’s method is to encourage a certain kind of posture common to pre-moderns and still seen around the world today in less industrialized societies. I’ll spare you the details, but I’ve slowly incorporated her ideas into my own sitting, standing, and walking, and though there’s a lot of work left to be done I can feel benefits, and have been able to establish some new habits.

One thing Gokhale suggests is “stacksitting”, sitting upright without leaning against the back of a chair. To build that habit I switched over this summer to sitting on this IKEA stool at my desks. It is the right thing, but lack of core strength plus bad habits made it difficult for me to do properly—I would start out sitting upright, but soon would be slumped and then uncomfortable, eventually remembering to sit upright again. I didn’t track my behavior closely enough to know if I was improving at all. Then just last week I read about this gizmo, basically a back brace that makes it easy and comfortable to sit upright. Mine came yesterday, and so far I’m thrilled—it feels good just to use it, though it puts enough pressure on the knees/shins that I’ll need to build up some stamina. Users also claim that the effect carries over, i.e. that your posture will become better even when you aren’t using it. We’ll see. It’s compact, and definitely coming with me to El Paso, where I find sitting around even more difficult.

I returned to programming. Even after leaving the corporate world in 2001 I tried to keep my hand in as a programmer, but only as a hobbyist—no one else needed me to write programs for them, and I had little need of such programs in my own life. But when I took on the job of managing a network of bluegrass teachers, I could see that much of the job could and should be automated, and after spending the first two years developing office procedures I spent the next two creating a program-backed website to do them for me. That has given me a lot of unexpected pleasure, since it’s an area where I have both natural gifts and decades of experience to draw on.

In 2015 I continued that work, plus took on a side job as on-call IT guy and webmaster for Earth Tools, a locally-based seller of walk-behind garden tractors. I ported their main website to a new server, created an online store for them, and am about to give the main website a major overhaul. I am also sometimes able to help shoestring operations I like with their websites, such as EcoFriendly Foods, the farm where Maggie is now working.

I don’t expect to be seeking out such business in the short term, but work such I’ve done above puts me in a good position to do that if it ever becomes necessary. (As I mention below, I need to continue working for at least another eight years, until I hit 70.)

I started gardening again. Since we moved from the farm in May of 2012 we didn’t plant a garden that year, and continued not to plant one until this year. It was pleasant, in a lazy and self-indulgent way. But I recognized that it wasn’t healthy not to be growing food when it was an option, and so I took re-starting the garden as an opportunity to think hard about how to approach it in a way that would be incremental, sustainable, foundational, and above all enjoyable and satisfying.

We decided to plant tomatoes, the only homegrown produce I dearly missed. We plowed up a small bit of land right out the back door, where we would constantly see it. We bought some seedlings from Lowes, and dealt with the consequences of that bad decision (fungus problems all season). We planted eighteen plants, easy enough to maintain yet still producing more than we could eat. I made a point of diligently weeding in the early weeks—very easy, with so few plants—and experienced the blessing of a nearly weed-free garden for the rest of the year. The work took perhaps 10-15 minutes a day, less as the season went on, and we enjoyed a bounty of garden fresh tomatoes from late July through late September.

The project was successful enough that we’re certainly motivated to do another garden in 2016, a bit more ambitious, a bit more thoughtfully managed. I remembered in time to order some stiffneck garlic seed, which the kids planted in this year’s plot last month. The prospects of next year’s harvest, plus the many blessings that flowed from growing some of our own food, and thinking about it deeply from seed to plate, made the practice far more to me than a matter of putting delicious tomatoes back on the menu.

I began visiting my dad regularly. This began in January 2014, just after he had a health scare (which ended well, he’s again as healthy as an 86yo could hope to be). I started making long visits to him, partly to lend support but mostly to offer company. This eventually became a three-weeks-every-three-months pattern, which continues.

Although the change in pattern was ostensibly for the sake of my dad, I benefited in many ways. It was good that I was forced to look around and come to a quick decision to make the change, and to figure out how to make it work. It was good to decide things solely on the basis of what was helpful to others, both here and elsewhere, and still find a solution that was workable and even beneficial for me. It has been good for me to commit to spending extended stretches of time living in a way I wouldn’t normally choose, and still find a way to make it pleasant and edifying. It has been and continues to be good to get to know my dad better.

One unexpected benefit was that it prodded me to clean up my working procedures. I now have a setup where I can work on either of two computers while in Frankfort, or throw my laptop into a bag and take everything to a customer elsewhere in town, or to El Paso, and continue my work uninterrrupted. Plus copies of my data all live contentedly in three locations—the laptop, the desktop, and the cloud. Much better than it used to be.

I confronted my mortality. My dad’s health scare came as I was about to turn 60, encouraging me to spend some time pondering the fact that my own time here is limited and drawing to a close. For years now nothing has filled me more with dread than the prospect of being caught up in the modern healthcare system. And as I age that becomes ever more likely, so I’ve started to do what I can to ward it off—hence the weight loss and the back work. I’ve also tried to get smarter about how the healthcare system works, how to avoid needing its tender mercies, and what if any alternatives still exist.

If I could get folks to read just one book about this, it would be Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which will probably surprise you as it tells truths about being elderly in today’s society.

And if I could ask people to do just one thing to prepare for their golden years, it would be to become thoroughly familiar with their own Social Security situation. I happen to think that SS will continue to be around in more or less its current form for many years, and I have no qualms about using it. And the two most important facts I’ve learned about SS lately are: (1) Although I am eligible for the “full benefit” at age 66 (your situation will vary), the amount will actually increase each year I choose to defer it, up to age 70; and (2) A surviving spouse can choose to receive either the amount their own benefit, if any, or the amount of the other person’s benefit, which they will receive until they die. Given that Debbie is seven years younger than me and will therefore receive my benefit for many years after I’m gone, I would do best to maximize it by waiting until age 70 before taking it.

I stopped performing music. The stopping began in early 2014, when I started making regular visits to El Paso to visit my dad—being gone for multiple weeks at a time made for unpredictable gaps in our schedule, and, well, after four straight years of weekly performances we were ready for a break. Taking a break felt good. And then a regional bluegrass band asked Chris to fiddle for them, so he did that through the end of 2014 and it was enough music for him.

This year we both stayed stopped, mostly, with Chris moving on to other things himself. We reunited briefly for a few weeks in June when a Lexington restaurant asked us to play one of their events, partly for the fun, partly to make sure we could still do it. We rehearsed for a week, played a church picnic, plus two Sundays at our old coffeeshop venue, then the restaurant gig—and then we were done, glad to have done it but just as glad to have the time back again.

Thus concludes a project which began nearly 13 years ago. I could probably write a book about the value both Chris and I gained from it—if I ever see any value in writing such a book.

I stopped looking for Christian community. This began in September 2014, when we moved to a local Baptist church simply because it was nearby, as an acknowledgment that we no longer getting any spiritual sustenance from church attendance and weren’t likely to in the future, but still holding out hope that spending time with our neighbors might lead to something more. That hasn’t happened, but attending Sunday services down the street is not a burden, is a good family practice for the younger kids, and holds some interest to me as an observer (the church is old and dying, very sweet people who seem to know that the old patterns no longer work but have no idea how to proceed).

So I hadn’t quite stopped looking when we made the move, but have come around to that thinking over the course of 2015. Over the years I’ve seen various sorts of promise in different forms of Christian communal living, and we’ve tried a few—but none have delivered on the promise for us, and meanwhile we figured out a way to live and flourish as a family. I don’t rule out the possibility of finding a deeper Christian life than we currently live in some sort of community, for others or even for ourselves. We wouldn’t turn down more, but what we currently have is enough—I think.

I stopped writing publicly. This was mainly a decision to focus my writing energy elsewhere, or at least a certain sort of it. A post like this may be a good example, being more a set of notes to myself which I’m glad to share. Before I would have taken the time and effort to tighten things up, address the reader properly, and say more substantial things. That approach now needs to be applied to pieces of writing which I think are best developed privately. The blog will catch the rest. Which may be liberating, or may eventually lead to radio silence—I’m not sure yet.

I failed to walk regularly. I got a start on this, but failed to establish it as a habit and it went away. Mostly I didn’t want it enough, and tried to make up the difference with will power, which never works for me in the long term. I enjoy walking when the weather is good, not too warm and not too cold. I started in El Paso this past winter, with temps ranging from cool to nicely warm. During a winter stretch in Frankfort I toughed it out, sometimes walking in box stores just to get the steps in—those two things told me I’d have a problem later on. Finally it got hot in Frankfort and very hot in El Paso, and I found reasons to let the walking slide.

I do want to give it another go. I will probably start up during my next visit to El Paso, which comes in a few weeks, and then maybe continue at a local indoor walking track when I get back. But it still sounds dutiful, which is where failure begins for me. I want to want to take a daily walk, and still haven’t put together the pieces to get there. I hope that a short season of dutiful walking will give me further insight into what else I’ll need so that can happen.

I failed to learn Spanish. Having spent a quarter of my time for the past two years in the perfect place to learn and practice Spanish, I have still done basically nothing about this. I have a list of priorities, and this one never rises to a level where I decide to spend time advancing it. This is disappointing, but I know exactly what has to happen before I will make progress—something else has to go on the back burner. And so far I’ve preferred the things I’m currently doing to the task of learning Spanish. But the years stretch out ahead, and I hope that as other projects are completed this one will rise high enough up the list for me to turn to it.

How we live now

In 2001 I left the corporate tech world and, thanks to substantial savings, we began a slow process of figuring out how we wanted to live. We had always gravitated towards simplification, and for the next four years we tested out simplicity and (eventually) agrarianism. By 2005 we figured that our three teenaged children and three very young ones would do best on a rural farm, so we moved onto 30 acres in an isolated part of south central Kentucky.

My series of blog posts on simple living was written just prior to our move, and they give a very clear picture of what had led us to the farm and what we hoped to accomplish. But to summarize, the objective was not to establish a successful commercial farm but to establish a new way of life for ourselves—I always thought of the farm itself as a testbed for experimenting with ways to live, experiments which might or might not lead to a working operation. And the farm itself ended up not happening. We raised produce for market, chicken and pork and beef and goat for ourselves. Much of what we ate was home grown. We lived frugally, buying used and maintaining and repairing rather than buying. We stayed home, and learned to enjoy that. We got to know our neighbors and attended a small church a couple of miles down the road. Those and many other changes, large and small, worked their way into our lives for seven years.

Life as a whole was pretty good, and could have continued on indefinitely but for two things—our cash flow was negative, and our children were getting older. The farm itself was not producing enough income to sustain the family, and we didn’t want to make the changes necessary for that to be a possibility. And while the older kids enjoyed farm life, they hadn’t embraced the farm itself as central to life—farming was just one of many options available, and in important ways not a very attractive one for them. But since we were so isolated, all their better options involved moving a fair distance away from home. So rather than force them to split up the family as they pursued those options, we decided to relocate to a place where options would be closer by. We now live in Frankfort, a small town (25,000) with a higher-than-customary level of urban resources due to being the state capital, situated near three very large cities—Lexington, Louisville, and Cincinnati.

We’ve been here nearly four years now, and the family is still largely intact. Chris (27 today!) has a room over the separate garage, which serves as a workshop where he fabricates, uh, metal things—most importantly gasifiers, i.e. gizmos which turn wood into combustible gas which can run engines, even auto engines. He also co-wrote a book on building a wood-powered truck, and created and runs a membership website for woodgas enthusiasts. Maggie (24) has focused on designing and creating clothing in various modes. She worked locally at both a “fiber arts” (yarn etc) store and a fabric store, before deciding this summer that she wanted to get back to farming, specifically meat and dairy. So in August she signed on to apprentice at an organic farm in southwest Virginia, which turned into an assistant manager position which she’s accepted for at least the 2016 season. The farm is a five hour drive from here, so she visits regularly. Matthew (about to turn 21) stayed for a year after finishing school, then decided to see the world and checks in occasionally. The younger four—Elizabeth (13), Jerry (12), Benjamin (10), and Peter (8)—are still being schooled at home.

Earlier this year it occurred to me to write a counterpart to my Simple Living series of posts, explaining in detail how each of the ideas panned out in real life. That might still happen in some form, but likely not as my usual first-draft blog posts, since it is a sort of reflection I now want to in writing which is initially private. But I thought it might be helpful to briefly note some of the lessons we learned on the farm which stuck with us.

We eat simply. This was initially a response to our new circumstances. The farm was producing, well, the sort of stuff a farm produces, and we wanted to learn to eat it. And we lacked convenient access to other options, the closest supermarkets and restaurants (of any sort) being at least 30 minutes away. So we gravitated towards eating in a way which was a good match to fresh food at hand and once-a-week trips for supplies—simple ingredients prepared at home in a simple manner, nothing artisinal about it, eaten together as a family. And rather than feeling bored or deprived, we learned to appreciate and enjoy such meals for their own sake.

Since moving to town our eating habits haven’t changed, and I think they’ve blessed us in many ways—good health, modest expectations, time spent together, low grocery bills, no money spent eating out. It’s not that simple eating was key—what was of key importance was consistency, finding a way to live in which all parts were in proper balance. Eating simply, with the habits and attitudes it required and reinforced, played a role in our efforts that reached far beyond the food on our table.

We don’t buy much (and what we buy doesn’t cost much). Again because we lacked convenient access to other options, we learned to make do with what we had, and to squeeze the last bit of life out of it before replacing it. It helped tremendously that we had a teenaged son with a growing interest in tinkering—I can’t tell you how much money we’ve saved over the years through the repair and maintenance work Chris has learned to do for the household. And as his expertise grew, our appreciation and understanding grew for where the value in material things actually resides, and we became a household content and even pleased to overhaul our 15-year-old washing machine or buy a 20-year-old car. We hand down clothes, or buy from Goodwill or the cheaper selections at Wal-Mart, except in cases where quality and durability are a significant factor (e.g. work boots). We buy much of our food in bulk. We frequent the local library (physically and digitally), and make good use of online used book stores.

We don’t earn much. Our savings ran low at roughly the same time we had decided to leave the farm, two years before we managed to sell and move. But our gradually increasing frugality made for a soft landing. In 2010 I began working with Pete Wernick, our musical mentor and friend, to establish a network of bluegrass music teachers, which turned into a paying position—not a high paying one, since my income is tied to what this still-young business brings in—but enough that our negative cashflow eventually turned neutral and then a bit positive. I also earn a bit on the side from doing occasional IT and website work for a couple of local businesses. We currently have more savings in the bank than 80% of Americans—which isn’t saying much, but it takes the edge off.

What’s been important is this: our frugality has made it possible for me to pursue work that I think will fit in with the rest of our life, with little regard to how much it pays. Jody Stecher, one of our musician heroes, once told a friend that as a young adult he consciously decided to choose his work first, then figure out how to live on whatever it paid. Wise man!

We stay home. This has in fact been a defining characteristic for us since the kids first came along. We have lived in remote locations several times, each time getting a bit better about centering our activities around home life. When we joined an intentional Christian community in 2001, that preference ended up being a sticking point—most of the rest wanted to spend what seemed to us to be interminal hours together, and after brief attempts to fit in we simply withdrew, declining nearly all invitations to socialize. I still think that for us it was the better choice. Our family ties are for the most part strong and healthy. Seven years on a rural farm put them to the test, one that only strengthened them. We continue to reap the primary benefit, a rich life that doesn’t cost much to sustain.

We keep tech at bay. But only by comparison to the normal run of folk—the Old Order Anabaptists still put us to shame! I have mixed feelings about where we are at with respect to tech and media consumption. There were a couple of points early on where we might have forsaken them altogether, and I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if we had (and whether we could have stuck with it!). Instead we periodically took half-measures to limit their roles in our family life, then allowed them to creep back in to an extent. Any efforts we made were well repaid, but they were far from comprehensive or complete.

Where are we now? Well, I spend most of my waking hours touched by computers, both for my work and for many of my extracurricular activities. The rest of the adults have and use them, though in a supplementary role, for entertainment and research. The older three kids weren’t given access to computers until they turned 18, and I think we will stick to that rule for the younger four. Chris and Maggie have smart phones, which they use primarily as mobile computers. And we own a $10 prepaid cell phone. I’m not against them, but since I work from home I don’t need one and otherwise have no interest in them.

We all watch video in varying amounts, mostly older movies, lately some of the better recent movies and TV series. The younger four kids are allowed videos on Friday and Saturday afternoons, 6-8 hours a week total. We make use of Netflix and DVD rentals from the public library. We don’t watch cable or over-the-air TV broadcasts. Debbie, Chris, Maggie, and I all own Kindles, and we love them.

We don’t worry about career tracks for the kids. Or outcomes of any sort. I can’t say exactly what role the farm played in this, but it was the period when our oldest three transition into adulthood, and as that happened we realized that as parents we were in the business of equipping our kids, period, and doing that well was as much as we could do to help them thrive as adults. So once they turned eighteen we switched to a support role, offering but never imposing what help we were in a position to provide as they began traveling paths of their own choosing. We haven’t, for example, expected them to go to college, but would be fine with any decision to do so and would help as we were able—room and board maybe, tuition not at all. None of the oldest three have chosen that particular path.

I make regular visits to see my dad. I’m not sure this fits on the list, but it is a significant part of our family life right now. Until 2001 our entire family made regular visits to see my folks in El Paso, but since then it’s been difficult both financially and geographically. Around Christmas 2013 my dad (84 at the time) had a health crisis, and for a few months afterwards I spent more time with him than here at home. To do so, I figured out how to make my work totally portable—when I go to visit now, all I take is a small bag with my laptop and a few other accessories. My dad recovered well, but he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed providing it, so for the past two years I’ve been making three-week visits every three months. This puts some extra strain on home life, but thanks to Debbie’s efforts and the solidity of our usual routines it hasn’t been burdensome.

The above list isn’t meant to be comprehensive. In writing it I wanted to give folks who have been following our adventures some feel for how it has played out in our everyday lives. I know that time and again I’ve been majorly disappointed when some Christian teacher or lifestyle guru finally pulled back the curtain on their own circumstances—usually when forced to—and allowed us all to see them as all hat and no cattle, all pious exhortation and no practical follow-through. Worse, the results in their own lives often disproved the message they preached, something they downplayed so as not to endanger their livelihood. I’ve tried in my own writing to be modest and tentative in presenting the convictions we’ve chosen to embrace, and honest about the experiences good and bad that followed. We’ve finally been at this long enough to draw a few conclusions with a measure of confidence—but still, we can only go by what we’ve lived and what we’ve seen in the lives of others. As always, your mileage may vary.