Simple living: the ecological nature of life

Neil Postman is fond of pointing out that any human innovation needs to be dealt with in ecological terms. That is, when you introduce a new element into an environment, you don’t simply have the old environment plus a new element, you have a new environment. A new element will come into relationship with things, which changes to some degree the relationship those things had with other things, and so on.

Similarly, if you plan to simplify your life by stripping away some element, you can’t look at your new environment as simply the old environment minus the element, you must look at it as an entirely new environment. Moreover, that environment may be severely out of whack after removing the element, requiring many adjustments to get things back into balance.

I thought about this while reading a good discussion on the simple life at Chad Degenhart’s weblog. One of the commenters, Randy Jenkins, writes this:

The key is being willing to accept, and still enjoy, an 1890’s to 1910 standard of living. I’m almost there; but the family is lagging waaay behind, if you know what I mean. It’s tough to convince the wife that washing clothes by hand is a good thing when she has a hard time keeping up with the laundry now.

This is a good place to think ecologically. Start by assuming that we want to do away with the automatic washing machine and dryer. If we simply remove it from the environment without changing anything else, the chore of laundry has just become dramatically more difficult. If the chore was already difficult to manage with an automatic washer and dryer (it certainly is around here), it may now be close to impossible. An attempt to simplify by doing away with the washer and dryer while keeping everything else the same is doomed to fail. Other things need to change before such an attempt could succeed.

One thing we might look at is the current standards of cleanliness that lead to the amount of laundry we commonly do today. We wash clothes often because we expect a clean change of clothes at least once a day. But is that really necessary? Not too long ago it was common to wear some garments (aprons, undershirts) in order to keep other garments (dresses, shirts) clean enough to wear for longer periods. People who do manual labor will often distinguish work clothes from other clothes, and only wash the work clothes when they get intolerably dirty.

As recently as one hundred years ago, laundry was not done as frequently as it is today:

Much time and energy were required on the old washday and it took far longer than today for the laundry to be laying clean in the cupboard. For this reason the white wash was generally only done twice a year. For one reason there was far more important work to do in the summer. Another reason was the mild days of spring and summer were used for a “general cleaning”. The months between the two laundry days were tided over with supplies from the “laundry cupboard”. This explains the large number of shirts and bedclothes contained in a proper dowry. The coloured was cleaned every four weeks as described above – not least because there was not so much of it.

If our rising standards of cleanliness are part of the reason that we launder so frequently, then we need to look at why the standards have risen. Part of it is that being clean is pleasant, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be allowed to spend discretionary time on making our lives more pleasant. But another part of it comes from the fact that companies stand to make money from a rising standard of cleanliness. Lever Brothers, the soap company, forced a dramatic increase in that standard (and made a lot of money as a result) by convincing the public that “B.O.” (body odor) was intolerable and a reason for shame—but one that could be easily fixed by frequently washing with their antiseptic soap. Clothing companies benefit from the amount of wear on clothing caused by wearing an article once and then washing it, as well as the extra stress that results when clothing once washed by hand is washed by machine. Whole aisles of supermarkets are devoted to products needed to maintain a certain level of cleanliness.

Is it possible to opt out? I don’t know. Reasonable or not, today’s standards are today’s standards, and they are in large part enforced by social pressure. Would returning to the level of cleanliness practiced by your average non-slovenly citizen of 1830 make you a social pariah? I don’t know, because I don’t know how such a person would smell. Probably it would make you unfit for work like cubicle dwelling, but wouldn’t make much difference to farmers and other manual laborers.

People who look to the past for wisdom on such matters are often dismissed as hopelessly nostalgic. It is not nostalgia. It is a search for answers about how to bring life into balance once certain elements are eliminated.

Vested interest

When I’m seeking wisdom from others, I’m always interested to know if they have a vested interest in the topic, vested interest being defined as “a special interest in protecting or promoting that which is to one’s own personal advantage.” Having a vested interest doesn’t mean that their wisdom is worthless, but it does mean that it is likely to be one-sided, and that needs to be taken into account as I weigh it.

For example, I wouldn’t bother discussing with a youth minister or Sunday School teacher whether the church should have age-segregated programs, or with the choir director whether there should be “special music” during worship, or with a paid clergyman whether clergy should be paid. I would listen to what they had to say, provided they were thoughtful people, because they would be able to make a strong positive case for those things. But I wouldn’t expect them to be objective in considering the case against—simply because it’s too much to ask someone to objectively consider the case against something they have committed their life to.

Given that, I’m always impressed when I hear about someone thoughtfully deciding to act against his own interests; it adds a lot of weight to their decision. I just read about one such case on Tim and David Bayly’s weblog:

The law gives pastors the rare privilege in their first year of ministry of choosing whether or not to be a part of Social Security. If they wish, they may opt out and this has a huge impact on the financial well-being of any pastor who makes this choice.

To be specific: for the first nine years of Tim’s ministry he pastored a yoked parish in rural Wisconsin. During that time his total income (salary plus fair rental value of the manse owned by the church that he lived in) averaged somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000. Then for the past thirteen years, he’s ministered in Bloomington, Indiana, and his salary has averaged about $57,000. Federal tax law has determined that, in connection with Social Security, the pastor is self-employed and must pay a little over fifteen percent of all his income–including housing allowance or fair rental value of any manse the church asks him to live in–to Social Security.

Do the figures and you’ll see that opting out of Social Security would have saved Tim around $151,650–about $7,000 per year (and he could have used it). Talk to financial planners and they’ll tell you he could have taken just a small part of that total, invested it privately, and realized a return much larger than the return he’ll get from the Social Security system. So why didn’t he opt out?

The key detail Gary North left out, neither mentioning it nor even alluding to it at his Gordon-Conwell lecture, was that the U.S. tax code requires pastors who opt out of Social Security to do it for theological reasons only. We may not opt out because we think Social Security is a bad investment and we can get a better return on our money elsewhere.

Now ask us if we have a theological objection to Social Security and we’ll tell you we don’t. We have political objections, many financial objections, U.S. Constitutional objections, and so on. But we see no basis in Scripture for telling the federal government that Scripture forbids our participation in Social Security.

And truth be told, those friends and colleagues of ours who are pastors and have opted out of Social Security have never yet made a theological case to me of their conscientious objection based on Scripture, so we’ve told them we think they are wrong to have opted out. True, we can’t know their hearts, but we have a sneaking suspicion that most pastors who have opted out have done so for the very reasons Gary North said we ought to: namely, because Social Security is an awful investment.

I remember wondering about that when I first saw the IRS Form 4361, which says the following:

I certify that I am conscientiously opposed to, or because of my religious principles I am opposed to, the acceptance (for services I performas a minister, member of a religious order not under a vow of poverty, or a Christian Science practitioner) of any public insurance that makes payments in the event of death, disability, old age, or retirement; or that makes payments toward the cost of, or provides services for, medical care.

Note that it doesn’t say “consicientiously opposed to taking the payments”, but “conscientiously opposed to having the insurance.” I was reminded of this again when reading about the Amish, who are adamantly opposed to taking any such government benefits, yet have deliberately not asked to be exempted from being taxed for them.

Although I wondered about it, I never bothered asking a clergyman who had taken the exemption, because I didn’t want to put anyone in the position of defending an irrevocable decision like that just to satisfy my own curiosity. But I would probably enjoy talking it over with the Baylys sometime.

Building a library

Until about five years ago, I had the habit of buying any book I saw if I thought I might want to read it someday. Too often I had been in the situation where I needed a book I had seen in years past but hadn’t bought, and was unable to find a copy when I needed it. I don’t do that as much anymore, because with online services like Amazon and Abebooks you can find nearly any book that’s ever been printed and have it in hand in a few days. But I’ll still buy books I don’t intend to read right away, because many times when I’ve suddenly gotten very interested in something it’s been helpful to have a good book on the subject at my fingertips.

Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of money building up our bluegrass and old-time CD collection. It hasn’t been difficult; the hard part is to choose among so many good options. Even though bluegrass and old-time comprises a tiny portion of the commercial music spectrum, the fact that it’s been around since recordings were first made means that there is an awful lot of important stuff on record, even if you restrict yourself to the very best. And there are a number of record companies like Rounder and Bear Family and Smithsonian/Folkways that are devoted to tracking down good stuff and making it available on CD.

Box sets devoted to the entire recorded ouput of an artist are fairly common these days, and provided you can stand to pay the high price you can have comprehensive collections of recordings by Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, The Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, Bill Clifton, The Blue Sky Boys, The Delmore Brothers, or just about any important act you can think of.

We own those box sets and quite a few more. The point in owning them is not to be able to listen to ten straight hours of Louvin Brothers, but to have particular songs available when the time comes to study them. We’ve listened through the entire Louvin Brothers set a couple of times, but we’ve listened much more frequently to a couple of the CDs they recorded at a certain point in their career, and a few of the songs we’ve probably listened to dozens of times.

One way I justify the cost of our ever-expanding music library is that in the process of building it we often stumble across songs that are pure gold to us. When Chris and I play, folks often comment on our repertoire, specifically on the fact that we play lots of great songs that they’re suprised they’ve never heard. Such a repertoire is nearly priceless for a musical act. The same thing could be said for our library of books. I’ve owned a lot of books over the past thirty years, maybe a tenth of those were worth keeping, and maybe a tenth of the ones worth keeping have made it into the Draught Horse Press catalog—but what a treasure trove that 1% is.

However, that borders on being an excuse, and it obscures what I think is the real value of building a library, which is the process itself. One of my favorite books is The Joy of Reading by Charles van Doren, sadly out of print. In the introduction he writes of his own history of learning to read. In the following, he has just decided on a topic for his master’s thesis.

I made a long list of literary works that I should read, all of them dating from the seventeenth century—my major period. I showed it to my father. The list contained hundreds of items: “Is it too much?” I asked. “Not nearly enough,” he answered. “You won’t know much if you read just those. What about Pope? What about Wordsworth? What about Browning?” “They’re not seventeenth—century,” I replied rather lamely. “Nonsense,” he said. Of course he was right.

I decided I knew nothing; my mind was a literary tabula rasa; I would have to start from scratch. I went to Butler Library, the great library of Columbia University, and obtained a card for access to the stacks. English literature, I learned, was shelved on the sixth floor of the stacks; there were more than ten thousand titles. I entered the sixth—floor stacks for the first time on a September day and began to read every book on every shelf. I emerged on a bright day in the following May, my eyes blinking.

Of course I did not read every one of the ten thousand titles. But I held almost every one in my hands; I hefted it; I flicked through its pages. I read some pages of every book, or almost every one; and I read many books from beginning to end. I did practically nothing else that year. It was a happy time, although I would not want to repeat the experience. I have recommended it to students; to the best of my knowledge none has ever done this. Perhaps I am the only person who ever “read” all the books on the sixth floor of Butler Library in a year.

In dark moments I was encouraged by my father. “How will I ever remember all those books?” I would complain. “Don’t try,” he would say. “It isn’t important to remember them all. What is important to know you will know, at the end of this year. What isn’t important you’ll forget.”

Looking back, I realize that what happened during the year was that certain books emerged from the sea of literature that surrounded me, unmistakably and remarkably. There was a long shelf of Elizabethan plays, hundreds of them, each the subject of a textual analysis that had won some student a Ph.D. I read many of them; the experience, as much as anything, taught me how good are the plays of Shakespeare. I skimmed through dozens of volumes of eighteenth-century satires; the experience confirmed the uniqueness of Dryden and Pope. The scores of three-volume novels by nineteenth-century women writers that I flipped through established with certainty the greatness of Jane Austen and George Eliot. I came to understand at that time which books are good and which are not and why. It is a lesson I have not forgotten.

You can’t understand the best unless you have a broad knowledge of the whole. I can’t understand, say, the Stanley Brothers unless I know a fair amount about the music that preceded them, what was different about them when they first appeared, what traditions they carried on, what innovations they made along the way, what influence they had on their contemporaries, how other similar-sounding music was pale by comparison.

Or take the Neil Postman trilogy, which I first read fifteen years ago and still consider a pinnacle of modern cultural commentary. Perhaps I could have saved myself a lot of time by only reading those three books. But I understand them so much better after having read many other books on the same topic, some not very good, some in agreement with Postman but not nearly as insightful or well written, some just as insightful and well-written but in strong disagreement. I learn new things every time I re-read Postman’s books because in the interim I have read other things that raise new questions or suggest other perspectives.

I am curious about how this will play out for us in the next generation. Chris and I are side-by-side on the musical journey, sorting our way together through the good and the bad, pointing each other to treasures we stumble across. But right now I am giving Chris only the books that I think are best, after years of my own reading. Is that a good thing, or am I denying him something important by not having him read some of the less-than-the-best?

Opting out

The Disney boycott is apparently dead now. The official excuse seems to be that chairman Michael Eisner will be leaving the company soon. The more likely reason is that it had no detectable effect on Disney’s bottom line. Plus Disney now has a tasty enough bone with which to lure Christians back into the kennel—the marketing campaign for the upcoming movie version of Chronicles of Narnia.

Disney has hired several Christian marketing groups to handle the film, including Motive Marketing, which ran the historic, grass-roots efforts for The Passion. That film has grossed $611 million worldwide and is now in re-release. “From a marketing point of view, it could be a marriage made in heaven — if the movie is any good,” says Adele Reinhartz, professor of religion at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. [….]

Paul Lauer, founder of Motive Marketing, declined to comment on his campaign for Narnia, apart from confirming that his firm is handling it.

“Disney, as the consummate corporate animal, is looking at Paul as the guy who delivered the audience of The Passion,” says Barbara Nicolosi, of Act One, a program designed to bring Christian writers and executives into the entertainment industry.

Another Christian firm, Grace Hill Media, also has been hired, and several groups have joined the marketing effort. For instance, the Christian Web site launched a special feature on its site last week devoted to The Chronicles of Narnia. […]

And like with The Passion, Christian movers and shakers are being encouraged to get behind the ministry potential of the film.

So far, small groups of Christian leaders and opinion makers from Western states have been invited to Disney’s Burbank studios for briefings and screenings of sequences from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian-oriented Movie Guide, called the presentation a “wonderful dog-and-pony show. I think they’re going to do a great job marketing to the church.”

When it was first announced, we participated in the boycott, although “participate” is too strong a word. We agreed that Disney was using its wholesome image to promote less-than-wholeseome ideas, often very subtly. And we thought it would be good not to help them promote their agenda. So we adopted the course of action the boycot leaders were suggesting: don’t take money from your pocket and put it into Disney’s pocket. For us, that meant that we would no longer buy anything with a Disney logo on it, visit their theme parks, or attend movies made by Disney Studios.

But we never cared anything about the advertised purpose of the boycott, which was to cause Disney enough financial pain that they would change their ways. We didn’t start tracking Disney’s stock price. We ignored the many articles about hypocritical Southern Baptists who supported the boycott but still managed to consume massive amounts of Disney product. And we didn’t wait for an announcement from on high that the boycott had been successful and that we could go back to putting money in Disney’s pocket. We had simply decided that Disney wasn’t healthy to associate with, and we were done with them.

And we never thought that using a Disney product would somehow taint us. At the time the boycott was announced, we owned a shelful of Disney videos, some of them quite recent. We had thought those videos were OK for our kids before, and saw no reason to change our minds. So we kept them, and let our kids watch them until they went with the rest of our videos in the Great Giveaway of 2002.

For the most part, it wasn’t a hardship to live with the decision. The Disney movies being released had little attraction for us, and there are plenty of other sources (well, some) for stuffed animals and logo’ed sleepwear. But it was always on our mind. Quite often the kids would see something in a store that they might want, and then say “Oh, Disney ….” and then move on.

The one difficulty for me was Pixar Studios. I was a big animation fan, and “Toy Story” was a major event in the history of animation. When I heard that the post-boycott “Toy Story II” was supposed to be even better, I got a bit itchy. But I put my rationalizations aside and toughed it out. (Later a friend, not knowing that we were avoiding Disney products, gave our kids a copy of the video; since it was a gift, and wasn’t money from my pocket into Disney’s, I watched it quite happily.)

Now that the boycott is dead, will we go back to consuming Disney product? Probably not. We’ve been ten years without it, and don’t miss it much anymore. And our reasons for opting out of the Disney market haven’t changed at all; Disney certainly hasn’t cleaned up its act, so why go back to deciding on a film-by-film basis whether the compromises we’d have to make while watching it are worth the entertainment value?

Today I took the first step in implementing a similar decision by going to a new grocery store. We’ve decided for various reasons to stop taking money from our pocket and putting it into Wal-Mart’s pocket. Again, our intention is not to send any sort of message to Wal-Mart; they just happen to have blazed the trail for what we think is a very bad trend in modern life, and we’d like to distance ourselves from what they’re doing. And we’d like to prove to ourselves that low prices aren’t important enough to us to make us compromise in other areas.

The store I went to today, Kroger, is also a national chain. The reasons I went there today are (1) it wasn’t Wal-Mart, (2) it is a five-minute drive from the house, and (3) I don’t know anything yet about any of the other local stores. There are some regional and even local chains in town, and I will probably be checking them out.

One thing I do know is that the decision, while not traumatic, will not be hassle-free. The prices were not astronomical, but they were higher. Some of the items we usually buy cost more than I wanted to pay, so we may have to change our eating habits a bit. The selection wasn’t quite as extensive. The baskets were smaller, which means I’ll either have to use two baskets or shop more than once a week.

None of these things will bother me much, though, because they fit in with the anti-convenience direction our family life is taking. This summer we plan to grow a few things in the garden, but the major change will be to buy as much as we can from local farmers and then prepare it ourselves. It will be less convenient to can tomatoes than to buy canned tomatoes, to cut corn from cobs and freeze it ourselves than to just buy bags of frozen corn from the store. Although it will probably taste better, that isn’t the reason for doing such things. I want us to get out of the mindset that our convenience is paramount. I want us to learn that convenience is a minor thing, easily outweighed by other considerations.


Although encouragement has its place, we try to teach our kids to be motivated by reality. We teach them to assess their abilities and achievements accurately, and we teach them to keep it all in proper perspective. No, that wasn’t the world’s greatest essay, or guitar solo, or needlepoint project. Yes, it was very good for someone as young and inexperienced as you. And greater achievements await you—if and when you apply yourself.

My ear is a great encourager—unfortunately. When I’m singing, I sound much better in my opinion than I do in reality. Strangely, this hasn’t changed much in two years of intense study. If I ever get complacent about my singing, I just record a bit of it and then play it back. It’s like a bucket of cold water poured over my head; the flaws become painfully, cruelly obvious, and now I have a lot more work to do.

At one time I was grateful that my ear was so forgiving, because I thought it had enabled me to get started singing bluegrass music. I never thought I would want to sing bluegrass until I heard Hot Rize’s So Long of a Journey CD. Lead singer Tim O’Brien’s voice is very appealing to me, and his range is more or less the same as mine. I spent weeks singing myself hoarse as I drove around listening to that CD. And I thought I sounded pretty good—not quite as good as Tim O’Brien, maybe, but still pretty good.

When Chris and I went to our first bluegrass jam camp, I got more encouragement. I can sing loud, and I can sing on pitch, and I don’t mind singing in front of people, so I had a number of opportunities to sing. Which brought some general positive feedback, and a fair amount of attention from Pete Wernick. But instead of letting me leave the camp too pleased with myself, Pete did me one of the biggest favors I’ve ever had done for me. Towards the end, he pulled me aside and told me that it was good that I could sing loud and on pitch and without embarrassment, and my voice had an appealing quality of its own—but the bad news was my singing didn’t sound anything like bluegrass singing.

Well, there wasn’t any reason that it should, since at that point I’d hardly even started to listen to bluegrass music. But it still stung to discover that my self-evaluation was so far off the mark. And there were a number of face-saving responses open to me—I could have made some excuses, or thought to myself, “Well, that’s just your opinion,” or told myself that it was more important to find my own sound rather than to copy someone else. But fortunately I decided to swallow my pride and ask, “Well, what can I do to make it sound right?” He told me some things to try, and I did.

It would make for a crisper anecdote if that brief conversation had been all that was needed to set me on the path to proper singing. Instead, the next two opportunities I had to work with Pete unfolded roughly the same way—I came in thinking I now had it nailed, and Pete very kindly told me that I still didn’t sound bluegrass. But he also saw that I had worked on the things he had told me to work on, and that I really wanted to fix the problem, so he was perfectly willing to tell me some other things to try. (The last time I worked with him, he told me that I was finally starting to get a bluegrass sound. Starting, mind you.)

So, was my encouraging ear a help? I don’t think so. It’s almost certain that I would have sung anyway. Pete is very insistent that every bluegrass musician should sing to the best of his ability, because singing plays a very important role in making a bluegrass jam go. Even though my singing sounded nothing like bluegrass, it was perfectly adequate for informal jamming with friends. If my ear hadn’t gone and inflated my self-esteem, Pete’s honest assessment would not have deflated it, and I would have found his advice even easier to absorb.

Fortunately, my eyes are much less encouraging as I read what I write. For the longest time I thought I might like to be an acclaimed writer—just be one, mind you, not become one—and occasionally I would sit down and take a shot at writing something. And each time it was unbearable to read what I had written, and so I would toss it out and put that daydream aside for awhile.

I had to learn a number of things before I could write properly. They are obvious things, and if I had wanted to become a decent writer I could have easily planned to learn them. Instead, I learned them in the course of other pursuits. At one time I was very much involved in online discussions, and very frustrated at how ineffective I was at getting my point across; as a result I worked very hard at learning how to choose words and assemble them so that they said what I wanted them to say. In the process I discovered that the writing was much easier when I had something interesting to say, so I learned to stick to writing what I know about—and learning as much as possible as the topic I’ve decided to write on.

Over the past few years I’ve had new opportunities to write—this weblog, the Draught Horse Press catalog and website, the Every Thought Captive newsletter—and though I can stand to read my own writing now, I’m rarely pleased with it. Why should I be? It’s rarely as good as it could have been, given more time, more diligence, more inspiration … it’s the displeasure that keeps me from becoming complacent, that spurs me on to find ways to improve my skills. And though I’m displeased, I am usually satisfied with what I’ve written, knowing that it is adequate to the task at hand.

Ridgewood Boys update

There’s not much on the performance schedule for the Ridgewood Boys in the near future, so we’re using the lack of short-term pressure to explore a few new things. We’ve run across another brother duet we really like, the Bailes Brothers, and we’re pondering their stylistic distinctives and trying to learn some of their songs. During the 1940s they were the most popular act on the Grand Old Opry, more popular than Bill Monroe; now hardly anyone remembers them.

Roy Andrade is back in town, so we’ve started up regular lessons with him. Roy has been working on his fiddling lately, so we asked him to teach Chris a few things about playing the fiddle; that has gone really well. We also used some lesson time to have Roy help us upgrade Chris’s Deering Goodtime banjo, the one he started on. Chris played it so much that it sounds really good, and he decided that with decent tuners, a fiberskin head, and a better tailpiece, it would make a good second openback banjo. It does sound mighty fine now.

Last night we went to Big Stone Gap for the string band class at the community college there. Ron Short couldn’t make it, so he asked us to take over for the evening. We didn’t have anything prepared, so we spent a couple of hours teaching the basics of bluegrass jamming, and also playing through some bluegrass songs standards. The class usually plays old-time tunes and not too many songs, so it was all new to them. I think they enjoyed it.

Tonight Chris and I set up our “studio” in the basement, with three microphones for vocals, bass, and guitar. It took about an hour to get the microphones positioned and the levels set so that we were getting a decent sound. Tomorrow we plan to record a bunch of our current songs, and maybe make a new demo CD from the best of them. Since we’ll be recording live with no overdubbing, we should be able to get quite a few songs done.