Archives for July 2017

July 26, 2017

North to Alaska: Intentional Minimalism

Leaving mostly all of it behind to live a more meaningful life.

I spent the first twenty years of my life in Vermont. I spent the second twenty years in Tidewater Virginia. Maybe I’ll spend the next twenty years in Alaska.

The Green Mountains of my childhood were temperate, rural and open. Norfolk on the other hand was hot, humid and dirty, not to mention flat, loud and congested. While I found great pleasure in delivering sandwiches freakishly fast on my bike in Norfolk, that job didn’t pay enough per hour, nor offer enough hours of work. I wanted to do work that I could take pride in. Mentally I couldn’t work in a call center, or flip burgers, or restock shelves, or sell insurance. I didn’t want to spend anymore of my life driving in a box to work to pay for the box that I needed to drive to my job. I didn’t want to anesthetize my soul anymore with alcohol, cannabis and Prozac.

I was past due to graduate from more than a few relationships and environments in Virginia. Too much was stunted and stale. Too many things were draining value from my life, not adding value to it. You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you, as The Minimalists would say. It was time for a change.

I wanted to be passionate about my next job, and my next home. While common wisdom held that I should follow my passion, I chose to nurture and enable it. I was passionate about biking, teaching, music and community. So I looked for a job that would pay me for my passions. And I found it, as a bicycle tour guide in Southeast Alaska.

My old room became a minimalist packing party. Boxes lined one wall, labeled Storage, Donation, Alaska, and Alaska (maybe). I purged my wardrobe, my closet, my books and my bikes. I gave some stuff to charity, and gave more to friends. “Are you sure you want to give this away?” they’d ask me. “Yes”, I’d tell them, “and you should give it away, too, if you don’t use it.” In my last act of divestment, I sold my car to buy my plane ticket. Only the barest of necessities made the transcontinental journey from Virginia to Alaska.

I landed in Juneau, Alaska with a bicycle, a couple backpacks, a dozen books and a ukulele. I rode the ferry north to Skagway, and found a new community that embodied the minimalist ideal that I had chosen for a season. Does it add value? Josh and Ryan would say on The Minimalists Podcast. Put another way by Ben and Jerry, If it’s not fun, why do it? I wasn’t opposed to the joyless or the valueless, but I was certainly less inclined to tolerate them without a first or a second thought, and at least an overarching reason.

I still drive to work, but now I drive a van with a dozen guests to the peak of the White Pass, Kilometer Twenty Four of the Klondike Highway, at an elevation of nearly one kilometer above sea level. From the summit we ride back down to Kilometer Zero. Coasting on a bike down a glacier valley and into the longest fjord in the Western Hemisphere is sublime. Twice daily I get the privilege and pleasure of guiding clients, riding with them as the wind whips their cheeks and roars in their ears and plasters grins on their faces. We see rainbows and sun rings, mountain goats and marmots. We cross over waterfalls and fault lines before reaching the floodplain, where we ride through one of the bike-friendliest little towns in America.

The joy I feel in Alaska doesn’t come from things I own or buy. True, a well-tempered ukulele or a pair of broken-in hiking boots may add value to my life, but they don’t make me happier in and of themselves. Bicycles, books and friends don’t create happiness so much as they enable happiness. They allow me to create new memories that I’ll treasure for years. And while I’ve given up much to move to Alaska, I’ve gained so much more.

I divested in Virginia.
I live intentionally in Alaska.

July 19, 2017

The Great Compromise

Learning that to live with someone, you must live with them.

If you’d have told me a month ago that in a month’s time fees will have been paid and I’d very shortly be moving into a new place with my partner, I’d have looked at you with surprise: Where did that come from?

But about a month ago, as we were sitting in the local beer garden, sipping on our first beers of the early summer evening, conversation moved towards living situations. I asked whether she’d had any luck with online searches for a small place for herself. It was the same as usual: too expensive, too small, no shower. It wasn’t until her next comment that I detected a sign of things to come: It would be much cheaper living with another person. Of course, we both knew this, but it wasn’t until one of us came out and said it that I—and probably she also—decided to pursue the idea more seriously.

We skated around the issue for a few minutes before I plucked up the courage to ask her plainly: Would you want to consider moving into a place together? Being with my partner for less than a year, this felt like a difficult thing to ask. Gladly, she (being careful not to sound too eager herself) agreed that it would be well worth considering. Then, after another five minutes of discussing the benefits, we were determined: we’d immediately start looking for a one-bedroom place to share.

Fast-forward a month and here I am—or here we are—not quite moved in yet, but with initial fees paid to hold a place we’ve found which we both love. So while we’ve been out on the weekends looking for furniture, I’ve been imagining excitedly and a little unsurely where everything will go, what it’ll be like to live with a partner for the first time, and… then comes the big question: Will it be a problem that she isn’t a minimalist?

I haven’t always felt it easy to answer that question with a confident No. Having a mild case of OCD and having a keen eye for how I like a place to look in terms of aesthetics, design, practicality etc., I admit I was a little concerned that our slightly different outlooks on domestic living might clash somewhere down the line. But then I reminded myself: What is the one thing one must learn to accept when being—and especially living—with the person they love? Compromise.

Whole relationships are built on some degree of compromise. We live with it every day, whether we notice it or not—and it’s the healthiest thing we can do. It’s only by accepting compromise that we can be reminded of the necessity of a certain level of external, realistic and maybe even healthy imbalance in our lives: realizing that not everything can be how we want it to be all of the time. Love trumps this want for perfection. We see another, purer kind of perfection in these compromises. After all, how dull it would be if two people were exactly alike in their principles and all other minor preferences.

I don’t ask my partner to be a minimalist and I never will. I only ever asked her to think about it. And she has. What’s more is she’s even seen some of the benefits and has in her own small way started to be a little more ruthless in her approach to decluttering. I respect her decision not to take to minimalism fully, and she respects my own approach. We’re not alike in every way. And that is why I love her.

July 12, 2017

Cycling toward Minimalism

How a simple machine lead to a simpler lifestyle with integrity.

“You are riding to Ohio? On a bicycle?” My dentist was almost speechless. It was fun to reverse the typical pattern. We all know what it’s like to be asked questions you can’t answer while in the reclining chair.

The plan was simple. Meet my friend, pack up a tent, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, an extra inner tube and ride. He was riding to Minnesota, so I’d join him for the first part. It was roughly 700 miles from New England to my son’s house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

I’d done this kind of thing before, but I was sixteen for that ride across the Canadian Rockies. Now at 57, and off a bicycle for 25 years, this was going to be different. But, I was up for the challenge. I spent a year training, both at the gym, as well as on the roads of my home state in Rhode Island.

I didn’t know it at the time, but these would be the early steps of my introduction to minimalism.

For ten days, we road roughly 70 miles per day, most of it along the Erie Canal Bike Path until it dropped us at the edge of Niagara Falls, where we picked up the roads heading west. We camped mostly every night, with the exception of a hotel stay during a vicious thunder and lightning storm. The days and nights developed into a rhythm that consisted of the basics: riding, eating, and sleeping. And there was a freedom to the simplicity. I found there was no time to think about work, no desire to check my Twitter feed, no distractions from the simple push on the pedals.

Six months later I stumbled onto the word, the movement, a book and then a movie. Minimalism. Motivated to rediscover what is life when we strip all the crap out of it, my wife and I are on a journey toward simplicity.

As summer roles around, I’m outside more on my bike. The simplicity of the machine motivates me. There are two wheels, hung on a frame, connected by a chain, and powered by me. Rides are not exercise routines, though they are that, they are moving meditations. There is the rhythm of the breathing, the consistent cadence of rotations, even the interruptions of gears shifting and clanging—again the freedom of simplicity.

Like many in our consumer driven culture, I live in the wilderness of temptation constantly. The acquisition bug is my constant companion. It even infects my two-wheeled vehicle of simplicity. Magazines and websites to consider another purchase; a new helmet, a new jersey, a new bike, lure me. I succumb from time to time, but what is different now is an enjoyment of the wrestling match. In the past, I would just buy and think about how to pay for it later. Now, the questions of need versus want, thrill versus value, instant gratification versus long term goals. It may sound strange, but I look at things differently now. The internal dialogue is rooted in something deeper, namely a desire to be focused, attentive and grounded.

Oh, I’m no monk, no stoic guru. I’ve got my epicurean indulgences, which focus around fruits and vegetables, a fine grilled salmon and a glass of Chardonnay. But, cooking and meal preparation is replacing the nearby Oyster Bar. And yes, I’m still a lover of books, but our state library system is a delight, and quite the budget help. Then there is an afternoon espresso, this cyclist’s main raison d’etre. These indulgences now have more value, rather than mindless activities of consumption.

At a younger more idealistic age, I held a philosophy of living on less for the good of the planet, but that’s all it was—a philosophy. Now, for the first time in my adult life, I’m finally finding an integration of my values and my lifestyle. As I move along this journey of minimalism, it is the beginning of syncing up the ideal and the real that is most satisfying. I’m finally starting to be the person I’ve always wanted to be, someone with integrity.

It’s this discovery that provides the greatest reward, and the bicycle is the tool to get me there.

July 5, 2017

The Light Phone

A phone designed for going light and to be used as little as possible.

The Light Phone is not only an exciting design product, it is more a physical manifestation of philosophical questions. Those question may be:

What does it mean to be connected? Am I connected if I have the chance to get in touch with any person I know or even total strangers any minute of the day? Do I feel connected if I have 80% of the global catalogue of music in my hands in seconds to browse from? Or do I feel connected if I manage to be fully in the moment? If I experience the most mundane aspects of my life with all of my attention for at least some time of my day?

The Light Phone gives you a chance to find out what kind of connectivity feels better. In a way, this phone is a device to create a gradual withdrawal from constant technological social pressure:

The phone does not try to “solve all of our problems” like most other technology products and apps claim to do, but rather to ask questions… Our (smart)phones have become our nervous habit, our invisible crutch, reaching for them without thinking. We love the illusion of productivity and stimulation that is socially acceptable to abuse.

So what if you could feel safe not to miss out on the most crucial messages which usually reach you via phone call, and still get away from all the buzz for a little while? The Light Phone is created to enable exactly that experience. It uses your existing phone number but gives you the chance to leave your smartphone at home. The most genius aspect about it is that it’s such a beautiful object that you’d want to take it with you. It very much encourages to go light by design. And it’s always a conversation starter once you pick it up. So again, the goal to ask questions would be reached.