22 February 2008


As I was getting my lunch prepared this morning, I loaded up on typical items: hummus, apples, bananas, Grape Nuts, and, of course, pita bread. A normal sandwich bag isn’t big enough for the typical slice – it’s about the size of a 45-RPM record (for those of you who actually remember how big one of those is) or about seven inches. As I rooted through the kitchen drawer containing all sorts of plastic bags (many re-used several times), I came across the perfect parcel for my pitas: the inner bag from a box of Mini Wheats we’d finished a day or two before. I remembered saving it, but I didn’t know why at the time. I just thought it was a good bag and I didn’t want to waste it. The box got recycled. As I slid the two slices into the thick plastic, I smiled, and was vaguely pride of myself for having found another use for something normal people would have thrown away.
Thinking about it now, many of the things in our household are either re-used or adapted. In the kitchen, many of the sandwich bags we have are the same ones we were using several months ago. We simply wash them out (if needed) instead of buying new ones. Many twist ties for plastic bags are re-used until they break, and the plastic bags from all sorts of products are saved for another day. The cereal boxes we go through in a week are recycled, as are all of the cardboard boxes we go through in a week. Next to the sink, two thrift-store Brita water pitchers (with new filters) clean up the Mississippi River water that flows through our pipes. In our silverware drawer, plastic silverware from various picnics and meals is saved in case a giant magnet comes in and swipes all the metal in our kitchen. Just kidding. Nothing really matches, but that’s not the point.
The same theme is carried through other parts of the house. The couches in the basement were free. All of our nice furniture came from my parents as a wedding gift (including two clocks that are wind-up and use no batteries). Most (actually, 98 percent or so) of our belongings come front thrift stores. Whatever is bought new is bought on clearance, and never exceeds the $10 barrier.
I’m not writing all of this down to brag or to seem cheap; if anything, I think it’s rather humble to admit one’s own economic limitations. I’m a journalist – there is little money in this profession, and I hope my children understand when Daddy isn’t able to be able to be as giving the way my parents were to me as a child. Still, there are perks to the situation – they just aren't obvious. My idol Henry Rollins once said, “The more you own, the more it owns you,” which is a simple yet elegant saying regarding the dangers of rampant materialism. The urge to collect and manifest giant collections of various nick-knacks runs strong in me. Growing up, I knew many people who owned many, many things, and I always took note of the complaints and worries surrounding those precious objects. If they were home, they'd fret about the next thing needed to complete the collection. If someone isn't happy with less, why should they be happy with more? It’s impossible to have just one thing – one always begets two, two always begets three, and so on. The point I’m trying to make is that living simply isn’t as simple as it sounds when the world outside your front door tries to hammer home the message that the things you own speak volumes about who you are as a person. Times of plenty and peace are a relative rarity in the scope of things. Just ask someone older than 70.
My grandfather has a friend named Andy. Andy, like Grandpa, grew up during the Great Depression, and I think he'll carry the lessons of that experience with him to the end. My favorite story about him is that he’ll save the appetizer bread from a restaurant meal and take it home with him. Some consider this behavior to be cheap and crass; I, on the other hand, consider it to be pragmatic, and therefore worth emulating. Like Andy, I’m not entirely convinced that another Great Depression couldn’t happen. In fact, I worry about such a thing, keeping an eye on world markets and the price of oil. Most of the news I read isn’t good. I’m thinking of starting a basement shelter stocked with food and emergency supplies in case of a horrible “other” event (terrorism, pandemic, storm, riots, etc.). If Katrina showed us anything, it's that the government can only do so much when the chips are down. So far, I’ve found a good location (underneath my basement stairs) surrounded by concrete and underground. There are no windows worth mentioning (and even those could be boarded up, should the need arise) and there is plentiful storage for food (which will be put in large Rubbermaid bins and sealed). This survival instinct is nothing new; back in 1997, when the year 2000 was fast approaching, I decided I would spend the night in my crawlspace with a flashlight and enough beef jerky to last a few days. By the time the actual event happened, I’d forgotten my plan and spent the night with friends. This time, it’s different. I’ve got a wife, and want to start a family. It’s about protecting the little we’ve been given (our lives, our dignity, etc.) and making do in a bad situation.
Many I know might call this sort of thinking crazy, but I’m a student of history. I know that times famine and chaos are the usual norms. The world around us is nothing more than a veneer held together by illusion and cheap glue. In the event part of that system fails, it will begin a domino effect. Say the power grid fails for several days. In that event, local streets would turn into snarls, food would spoil (especially in the summer) and heating (in the winter) would be flame-based. What would a city dweller do in such a case? Where would we get water? Who would defend us from the inevitable looting? Well, well-prepared, with an emergency shelter and blankets, people could hold out until such time as other action became necessary. Thinking this way isn’t a way of being a pessimist; I consider it to be a form of pragmatic realism. In short, I’ll sum it up thusly: enjoy the good life, but know it can be taken from you. Enjoy the fruits that come with easy labor, but be prepared when the crops begin to wither on the vine.
In the end, all is taken from us anyway. A few things we have will be passed on to posterity, but the majority of what we spend our lives amassing is sold off for dirt-cheap by relatives eager to dismiss and disperse any unnecessary reminders of your passing. So, with this in perspective, does it really matter that the pillowcases my wife and I sleep on don't match?

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