Idaho

We took a pretty epic road trip this summer to see some of my relatives out west.  6,000 plus miles in a 12 year old Dodge Grand Caravan…and not a single breakdown.  We were blessed.

We spent 3 days with my cousin on some land I inherited when my Dad passed away.  Northern Idaho is beautiful.  I remembered this from the trips we took to the land when I was a child…but it had been 30 years since I’d seen it, so I had a lot of gaps in my memory to fill in.

It was great to see how much my family enjoys traveling.  When you have a group that enjoys the journey as much as the arrival it really makes a trip a lot nicer.

So a big trip like that can be our “shakedown cruise”…circumnavigation of the globe should be next.

another cup full

There’s an old story about a Zen master talking to one of his students.  After offering the student a cup of tea, he starts to pour …but when he reaches the brim of the cup, he continues to fill the cup.  “Stop, master…the cup is full!” the student declares, tea running onto the table and down his leg.

At this point, the teacher tells the student, ” You are like this cup…full of your own opinions and conclusions.  How can you learn until you first empty the cup?

I am afraid that I might have a second cup handy to handle the overflow.

It is easier to build a new container for the extra than it is to get rid of it.  I’m not sure why it is so hard for me to “empty the cup”…by choice, I seem to want to hold on to a lot of things that get in my way.  I curse the wastebasket I left in the middle of the room…finally moving it and realizing that I didn’t have to trip over it in the dark…realizing how easy it all was when I finally took some action to fix the problem. Until something changes, it’s “the way we’ve always done it”…and I continue to work around an issue that’s “fixable” until I decide or someone else decides to fix it.

There is a story about a holiday ham.  The man in the story loved his hams…prepared the same way every time.  Each time the ham was being prepared, his wife would cut the end off the ham before she put it into the oven.  Finally, one day he said, “Why do you cut the end off the ham?  Seems kind of wasteful…”  His wife replied, “Well…that’s the way my mother always did it…you like my mother’s hams don’t you?”

The man replied, “Well…sure I do..they’re delicious…but that still doesn’t answer the question.”

His wife said, “well…why don’t you call Mom.  Maybe she can give you an answer to your question”.

So he called his mother in law.  When she picked up the phone, he asked her the question about the ham.  She told him that “she didn’t really know…it was just the way it had always been done in her family. Why didn’t he call her mother and ask her why she cut the end off the ham?”.

So, sure he was getting closer to an answer, he called his wife’s grandma. “Hi”, he said, “I have a question for you.  Every time we have a ham, my wife cuts off the end.  Apparently, her mother did the same thing for years.  They say that you taught them to do it.  Why do you do that?  What does it do for the ham?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line…and then Grandma said, “Well…my pan was too short.  I had to cut the end off to make it fit.

I know how to cook a ham….the same way I’ve always done it…and nobody’s going to tell me different.

My cup is full.

 

 

a shelf full of simple

I love to accessorize.  I don’t mean that I love purses and shoes….( I’M A DUDE!!!!)…I just love to gear up for whatever might lie in my future path.  At this point, I should say that it’s probably not politically correct to make a gender based comment about guys that buy purses and shoes…so I’ll say “to each his own” and let it go at that.  I personally feel no need to buy any purses…and would rather buy boots than shoes.  I will end up with a drawer full of 13 mm box end wrenches from time to time…though I’m not sure how or why that happens.

So…I’ve established in a long-winded and disjointed way that I love to accessorize.  I love to prepare.  I love to gear up.  I love to defer the actual work by getting ready for the work.  I’ve realized this about myself…I put things off by making sure all my ducks are in a row.

“Not yet,” I’ll say, “almost there..soon it will be time”… and buying one more clamp or a measuring device or a different tool is going to get me to the place where starting a job is the only way left to go.  I’ve prepared myself into a corner…NOW I’ll have to start.

I see videos of guys overseas making a chest of drawers with a toothpick, a sharpened license plate, and some reconstituted coconut milk for glue.  That’s pretty darn impressive to me.  I’m not like that…I live in a developed country…and I prepare.

Looking at my sagging bookshelves I realize that , scattered among the shelves, I have way too many books about living the simple life.  I may even have books about what books to buy to help me in my quest to live the simple life. I have books about living the simple life, I have books about other people trying to live the simple life, I have books about people complaining about people who don’t live the simple life…I have a lot of books about the simple life. It is confusing to me in the end…and I don’t have time with all my reading to live simply.  It takes a lot of work to get ready to do something simple.

That doesn’t really even touch on the section about living a minimalist lifestyle.

I desire a simple life…stripped to it’s bare elements, freeing me up for family and friends, freeing me to be the kind of person I need to be to really LIVE…not just sleepwalk through my years. I tell my wife, “a pair of boardshorts, some flip-flops, 2 t-shirts, a toothbrush…that’s all I’d really need.”  I think she knows, though, that like Steve Martin in “the Jerk”, I’d be grabbing at least 10 of my “simple living” books on the way out the door.

I know that I am almost there.  There is a revised edition of the one book that will push me into action coming out in the Spring…I can hardly wait.

I will be an expert on simplicity if it takes the rest of my life.

 

Lutefisk…and the Odor of Christmas

I grew up in a Norwegian household.  My father’s mother was born in a sod house in the Dakotas, one of the first generation to be born in the United States. In my father’s home growing up, his parents still spoke some Norwegian…and he spoke some while I was growing up. I don’t know any Norwegian…although I did try and listen .

One of the Christmas traditions that we had during the holidays, along with lefse and swedish meatballs and a whole bunch of different kinds of Christmas cookies, was my parents cooking and eating lutefisk.

Lutefisk is a Norwegian delicacy.  I wish that I didn’t know that…it speaks volumes about the Norwegian culture.  It makes me question a lot about a culture when some of their favorite foods have any of the strange attributes that lutefisk has. Norwegians can be quiet…and weird (it takes one to know one, you know?)…and this lutefisk thing is a good example.  Maybe it’s like getting a tribal tattoo …some stoic Viking holdover…a strange display of fortitude…”look what I can swallow!!!” …or, to be more in line with the Norwegian inflection, “look what I can swallow.”  I’m not really sure.

Back in the days when refrigeration was non-existent, cod was hung out to dry for a couple of weeks…and then reconstituted in a lye based solution to finish out the process.  It is then purchased by a Norwegian, brought home, and cooked as a special holiday treat.  It is a gelatinous meal…one that I’m told doesn’t have a whole lot of taste except for the butter that you pour over it.

My parents would wrap the lutefisk in cheesecloth so that it would hold together while it was being boiled.  The kitchen would be full of the aroma of potatoes cooking, swedish meatballs…peas…and the overpowering (thanks to the lutefisk) stench of vomit. Not to take away any of the appetizing potential of a big tray of lutefisk or anything….but it really does smell like vomit.

Ho, Ho, Ho…and Merry Christmas. It wasn’t intentional child abuse on my parents part…it was just part of the celebration of a longstanding cultural heritage…but from here on out , whenever I smell someone’s stomach distress, part of me wants to look around for the lutefisk and expects to see Santa just around the corner, ringing a bell in front of a little red cauldron.

I’ve heard that our sense of smell is one of the most powerful “memory triggers” that we have.  What a powerful trigger lutefisk is. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forget it.

My parents are both gone now…we haven’t had lutefisk for a long time.  Maybe it’s a Christmas tradition I need to start in my home?  Cook up some lefse…break them all in with something delicious…and then hit them hard with something strange like lutefisk. If I can get them all to keep their noses pinched, they’d never see it coming. That’s what parents do…help build memories,right?

 

Old Cars

Old cars will leave you hanging.  They break down far away from those you love…they squeak and squawk and growl and groan…they act differently than you’d expect…all these things and more can be expected when you drive an old car.  But….

you always remember your old car.

A new car is old after you’ve owned it for a while.  It is never going to be as old as a car that started out old, though.  It will have your scars…it will be full of memories that only you could remember.  An old car will have your memories, to be sure…but it will also have the mystery of the owners before you. An old car has MOJO.

Old cars can be inexpensive to drive. If someone hasn’t decided that it’s a “classic” yet you can buy an old car for a song. It all depends on the context, I guess…old is old and if folks don’t recognize that it’s an “antique” that’s all it will ever be in their eyes…just old and “in the way”.  Parts can be cheap…who would need a neutral safety switch for a 1974 Plymouth?

When you drive down the road in an old car, it’s like being inside a rolling time capsule.  Old cars are a nostalgia trigger for a lot of people….”my family used to own a Valiant…I remember that..” and it feels good to be a part of a good memory.

Cars are a marker, too.  Now the cars from the 90’s are old cars…and I catch myself thinking, “Nah…that’s pretty new“…until I realize that it’s 20 years old already.  Sometimes we gauge time by what we were driving when we worked at the hatchery, or the warehouse, or the grocery store, or the bookstore…a rolling resume of a random work history.

When we brought our first child home from the hospital, we treated her like she was made of glass.  Into the back seat of the old white Valiant,  strapped her into the thrift store car seat…carefully driving back to the apartment we were living in across from the Fuddruckers in Asheville.  If a child were to draw a boxy car, it wouldn’t hurt to have a Valiant as a model.  It was just an old car…bringing home a new life.

Now…almost by default…we drive newer cars.  They’re easier to drive…don’t take as much attention and upkeep and “listening for the new squeak” as the older cars do…but we sure do miss our old cars. Maybe someday we’ll wax nostalgic about our Dodge Grand Caravan…but I doubt it.  It’s something about the MOJO factor..or lack of.  If it didn’t start out cool…it’s not going to end cool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty in the Musty

I love books.  I should expand on that thought and say that I love actual books.  I have an e-reader and I think it’s pretty cool to be able to read a download…but I can’t fool myself into thinking it’s an actual book. I’m reading what I know is something they call a book…but it doesn’t look or smell like the books I know.  Turning a page on a screen just doesn’t feel the same as holding a collection of paper with words printed on it in my hands.  Sometimes if I need to find a real creative way of looking at it, it makes me feel like one of the apes in the movie 2001…clambering around the obelisk…unable to process this new thing in their lives.

I have a big collection of books.  When you bring them home a handful at a time, over the course of 30 or 40 years, the pile can grow to an unmanageable size.  It’s not hard to find yourself pushed out of your own house…and everyone in it paying for your interest in a too wide-ranging list of subjects.

Recently, we remodeled and I got rid of a bunch of books.  I actually got rid of truckloads of books. It was a lot of books that I got rid of.  I think that at the time, I was pretty traumatized…but now I’d be hard pressed to name any of the ones that I got rid of.  It made a small dent in the pile.

It is a lot harder to take a book to the book sale or to a thrift store than it is to press delete.  The e-reader is a boon for the minimalist lifestyle.  If your Nook ever smells musty, something in your life is seriously wrong.  The pages of the digital files will never yellow…never harbor black mold…never tip off the coffee table…but will never feel like a book, either.

I think that it’s my perception of what it means to own a book on my “electronic reading device” versus an actual physical book that’s really starting to kick in lately.  It cheapens the value of it all…it’s not a part of my experience with books so it doesn’t have the magic that discovering a title that I’d been looking for has.  I don’t remember ever feeling my heart race over my good fortune after doing a successful Amazon search for an ebook I was looking for.  Something so easy to find…and so easy to delete…just doesn’t feel right.

I deliver the mail.  I deliver the physical mail that people still write to other people.  Legal notices, fliers about free pizzas, magazines, passports, packages full of surprises of all kinds…it’s all real and all capable of giving me a paper cut at any time.  I don’t think that people are going to keep a file on their computer filled with all their love emails (unless you’re General Petraeus, I guess) …it’s too hard to perfume them and wrap them up with a piece of red satin. We need the physical thing for it to have any importance long-term.

I can’t imagine anyone saying, “Ohhhh, my…I remember this tweet.  Remember when Grandpa sent us this tweet when he was still alive?  Oh, what a tweet that was.”

Every generation has a chance to rail against what they think they’re losing.  When I was younger, it seemed like time moved slow enough that I could believe that nothing was ever going to change…now it seems like it’s all speeding up.  We’ll miss books someday. Maybe they’ll be an archaic curiosity, something we trot out like a fossil from the sandy cliffs…maybe they’ll all end up in a box with the old 8-tracks, I don’t really know.

I love books.  The must and smell and falling apart and stained covers…the dogeared pages and some other person’s highlighting…the randomness of finding a used copy of a treasure that’s had a life of its own.  I love it. I hope it sticks around for a while.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood vs. The Flintstones

I have a bad tendency to wax nostalgic over things that I knew in my younger days.  I’m really not that old…how did this happen?  Cartoons are an especially easy target.  The cartoons of the 30’s were drawn more artfully, the cartoons of the 60’s were cooler, etc….on and on, spouting opinions like they were something more than something everybody has.

Now two of our children are almost grown…driving around and going to “big kid’s school”…and every once in a while I’ll hear them talk about things back in the day…like Pokemon or some other “old” cartoon that just was a little better than what’s coming around now.  (They’ll say, “Awww…we never liked Pokemon!!!!  What are you saying?”  and I’ll have to tell them it was just an example.)

One of our children is still pretty little.  This fact brings me to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.  It’s based on Fred Roger’s Neighborhood and it is a wonderful show.  Each episode covers an “issue” that a little guy or girl might be going through…like trying something new…or, especially helpful at our house right now, going to the potty.  They sing a little song that we’ve adopted as a reminder:

“When you have to go potty…STOP and go right away! Flush and wash and be on your way!”

It’s a simple, simple, simple thing….but hard for a little one in the middle of building the tallest block tower ever to remember.  I’m a big fan of this show.  I am a huge Backyardigans fan.  Children’s programming right now offers some amazing choices. Daniel Tiger is shown on PBS…and like my wife’s favorite grown up show, “Love it or List it”, we don’t miss it if we don’t have to.

Which brings me to the Flintstones.  Oh, back in the day we watched us some Flintstones, Now!  But…it really wasn’t all that …all that.  It was funny, sure…It was a fresh concept at the time, sure…but good grief…I use Hanna-Barbera as my example of the low water mark for animation. It wasn’t all that great.  Kind of like watching a rerun of an old Seinfeld show…leaves you wondering what you thought was so hilarious the first time around.  The animation in any of the Hanna-Barbera stuff was flat and workmanlike….it got the job done but didn’t elevate…didn’t bring any new beauty to the table. The humor was sort of accessible for kids, I guess…but… (I just realized that the Flintstones was originally a primetime show…like our modern day Simpsons…so being a “kids show” might not have been an issue at the time…but DANGIT….it’s a kids show now so I’ll stand fast on my opinion).

Fred and Wilma are icons.  They are fond memories.  My little one likes to watch them on occasion …but they aren’t Daniel Tiger.

I guess when you get down to the root of my displeasure…it’s to be a grown man and realize that there was not a single show on television in my era that helped me learn to go to the potty.  It’s a skill that I’ve pretty much mastered by now…so it’s not really an issue…but I’m more aware of my lack of television based training having seen Daniel Tiger’s teachings.

I do know how to run a car off the power of my feet, but the Flintstones taught me exactly ZERO about going to the potty.  Thanks for nothing, Fred.

Back to Watermelon Sugar

My cousin gave a copy of this book to my mother back in the early 1970’s.  She read it…and later let me read it.  I was pretty young and unformed at the time…and this story of the commune Ideath had a big impact on my developing worldview.

Richard Brautigan was a troubled man who seemed to respond to his harsh early years with an innocent approach to his writing.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the poets known for his work during the earlier Beat period and an editor and proprietor of City Lights bookstore, said of Brautigan,

“As an editor I was always waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer. It seems to me he was essentially a naïf, and I don’t think he cultivated that childishness, I think it came naturally. It was like he was much more in tune with the trout in America than with people.”

I think it’s this innocence that I was, and am, drawn to.  Water seeks its own level…and even though, after all these years, I’ve seen enough to know that the world is not always an innocent place…I’m drawn to a benevolent way of looking at it.  Richard Brautigan might have been trying to create an idealistic world in his head…and his writing was right for an idealistic time like the 60’s.

In the early 80’s, Brautigan’s writings were maybe not seen as relevant any more.  His writing was tied to an era…represented an era to some degree…and when the era had passed his importance had passed also. In 1984, at the age of 49, he committed suicide with a 44 magnum pistol. His body was discovered a month or so later by a private investigator.  Despite rumors to the contrary, he did not leave a suicide note.

He suffered from depression and alcoholism most of his adult life…his childhood was about as rough as it gets…but his writing was gentle and full of humor.  Even after he started to slide off the radar of popular culture in our country, he had a big following in Japan and was popular in Europe.  Much of his writing was compatible with the ideas of Zen Buddhism, so his popularity in Japan made sense. When I was a child I didn’t understand any of this…had no knowledge of who the man was who wrote the book about the “hippies”…but I loved this book.  It had short chapters that read like poems…chapters that painted a picture and left room for my imagination to fill in the blank parts.

My mother wasn’t a hippy.  She did want to put giant flower stickers on our new Fairlane station wagon…my Dad talked her out of it…but she wasn’t a hippy.  In California, it was easy to have a little hippy living inside of you and be pretty straight-laced…easy to be a “covert hippy” in attitude and a horn rimmed accountant in execution.  This book is one of the artifacts from my childhood…not as important as most of the events that really shaped me…but still a part of what matters to me.  Many of his books are still in print…and available through any bookstore.

stacking marbles

 

I’ve been writing this blog every morning for less than a month.  At this point, it hasn’t been a marathon yet…more like one of the half mile races I used to attack with mediocrity….going into the final curve….sucking wind and wondering what was going to happen next.

When you write and send it out into the void, you kind of feel like the crazy man at the edge of the woods…whispering into the wind, “come here, come here….listen…I’ve got something to tell you”…not even sure if the people across the field can even see you, much less hear you.  That’s the beauty of crazy…you’d do it anyway.  If it’s only for the response it’s never going to be something sustainable.

Some mornings, it feels like I’ve fallen into a swiftly moving river.  Everything I write seems to just move along of its own momentum…effortless and fast…pouring out onto my computer screen as quickly as I can type.  The fact that I’m a moderately slow typist doesn’t bother me…it just makes it all seem like it’s coming even faster.  I don’t know why that sometimes happens…but relish it when it does.

Other mornings, it feels like I’m sitting at my desk stacking marbles.

I am sure that at some point, someone is going to wake up to the sight of me scrambling around on the floor, chasing the rolling glass…trying to contain a situation that too much coffee and too little control set in motion. “What are you doing?”, they’ll ask….”NOTHING!!!NOTHING!!!”, I’ll reply…a little too close to the truth. There was a sense of order and possibility at some point. Slow and meticulous, each marble or word a struggle for perfect placement…and then, the falling down and moving away…my marbles not even making a good path to lead me back to the river.

I won’t always get it right.  Sometimes I’ll burn the french toast…mix the concrete too wet…stop just  shy of digging “deep enough”…say too much or too little in this blog from time to time…but I’ll keep trying to stack those marbles. If I don’t completely understand that it can’t be done, well…I guess that’s pretty close to thinking it’s all possible, right?

photo by Ton Terhorst used by creative commons license http://www.flickr.com/photos/anthony68/

the freedom of repetition

Six days a week, I make the same lunch and carry it to work.  I know that the chips are in the basket on top of the refrigerator, the juice is in the door of the refrigerator, the cold pack is in the freezer, and the peanut butter is in the jar. If we haven’t had a chance to shop, I make something else…but for the most part I’m a creature of habit…freed by repetition.

I could, and often do, make this lunch in my sleep.  I eat my lunch in the same place everyday…at about the same time…always just about the same except for the wild turkey sightings and the occasional hawk.

What can I say?  I’m a postman…same is my middle name.  If boring things didn’t become automatic, I think I’d probably go insane.

Other people might say, “variety is the spice of life…why so much same?”….and it would be a good question.  Maybe I keep some things the same to free up the chance for variety in other parts of my life…maybe I’m just lazy and unimaginative…I don’t really know.

Helen and Scott Nearing, authors and simple living pioneers, believed in same.  Much of their life was routine….the same breakfast every morning, eaten out of a wooden bowl with a wooden spoon…the same chores season after season…but their lives were anything but boring.  They had a full life of necessary routine. Both of them lived to be reasonably old…Scott passed when he was 100 (by fasting)…and Helen died when she crashed her truck into a tree at the age of 91. They authored more than 50 books…built many stone structures on their Vermont homestead….lectured extensively…and somehow found the time to eat the same breakfast out of a wooden bowl every morning.

I’m not advocating repetition for the sake of repetition. I’m not saying that eating your breakfast from a wooden bowl is going to make you holy. What I am saying is that we have the ability to prioritize…and if our priorities take us towards something that is more important to us than eating a different sandwich 365 days a year that it’s nothing to apologize for. The “how could you live like that?” question could just as well be answered by saying, “how could you not live like that?”.  Choice is the final frontier…it’s the only real power we have anymore.

Helen and Scott wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” in the 1950’s.  It wasn’t called “Buying the Stuff to Get Real Simple” or “Gearing Up for Good”…it was just “Living the Good Life”…and it became kind an early primer for all the folks in search of an alternative way of living in the 60’s.  They balanced the conflicting worlds of living a quiet life…and of being spokespeople for quiet living.  It was their choice to live that life.

Many religious disciplines talk about repetition and getting closer to God by freeing your mind to concentrate on Him.  The “chop wood, carry water” approach is one of them…”pray without ceasing”…I’m sure there’s many others.  I don’t think that making the same sandwich every morning is my personal form of spiritual obedience…it’s not some strange peanut butter ablution that purifies me for the perfect communion of a day of delivering mail…it’s just making the familiar lunch every day so that I don’t nod off mid-route in a hypoglycemic coma. If any of the other stuff happens along the way…well, that’s just the GRAVY.

Helen and Scott Nearing lived a good and simple life by design. They “set the wheel in motion” and rode it all out until the end…and influenced generations with their philosophies….both by word and example.  The Nearings were consistent…and while many would say that the repetitive parts of their lives was boring and unnecessary, it was always real and in service to a life of thought and contemplation. I am going to have to really work hard at being more mindful when I’m smearing my thick layer of peanut butter on Monday if I’m going to catch up with them in that department.