My simple Boulder apartment overlooking Flagstaff Mountain is tiny—and maybe unusual. People are most welcome, but less welcome are pretend people—Siri and Alexa, for instance—as well as most other agents of “convenience.” What I consider “convenient” may be skewed by recent life in China and the chance to step outside my familiar box, the opportunity to adapt to living with fewer conveniences. Upon return to the US some years ago, it wasn’t too hard to imagine continuing to live with fewer conveniences, which for me include living without a car and an air conditioner and more. So at what crazy price have I embraced inconvenience? For what inconvenient truths? And for whom?
Here is just one of many ways—my particular way—to embrace inconvenience. There’s little room on my tiny kitchen counter for a microwave, but, strangely perhaps, I don’t really miss a microwave’s promise of saved time and trouble. I’ve whipped up stuff with a whisk or spoon, not owning an electric mixer or even a hand egg beater. I make drip coffee one cup at a time with a little tea strainer. This might seem weird by US standards, but I witnessed plenty of cooks in China, many of whom were superb, make do without a lot of electronic gear. There, I rarely heard the pulsing of Cuisanarts or the whirring of electric blenders. Instead, I’d hear the rat-a-tat-tat of vegetables being chopped on scores of chopping blocks throughout my apartment complex at roughly five o’clock each day, followed by the collective zzzz of greens hitting hot oil, and I’d smell strong and soft flavors wafting in from dozens of other open windows. Just a few sharp knives sufficed in each little kitchen. Little was wasted; most dishes were delicious. I learned to love the sensory supercharge. Here, what I chop may not be particularly exotic—mostly onions, garlic, mushrooms, peppers, cabbage and this or that—but I enjoy the colors, the smells, the sounds, the occasional variety. At least some sensory stimulation. I enjoy it.
I don’t have a lot of stuff period, electronic or not. Instead of seeing how much I can fit into 500 square feet, I think of my apartment as a little architectural poem, with each object selected, valued, weighed. Do I need it? Really? Does it fit in the harmony of this little space? What’s here is intentional; everything counts. White space and fresh air and light matter almost as much as the stuff. I like being in this space.
Likewise, my grocery shopping is limited to what fits into a hand held bag and to the weights that my shoulder can bear for the mile or two home—if I venture at all beyond Alfalfa’s next door. Perhaps my grocery shopping is more European by having to shop frequently and locally. Fresh food for fresh use. Or so I like to think. I’d flunk the foodie test, but I like shopping frequently and close to home.
Sometimes, with or without a bag of produce over my shoulder, I stroll along Broadway, taking in the shadows cast by the mountains, and find myself keeping abreast of rush-hour traffic. While I’m looking closely at, say, crabapples nearing budburst or the human parade all around me, car drivers are staring blankly at dozens of tail pipes in front of them. Occasionally, I get to the next cross walk about the same time as, say, an FF1 bus that’s just been playing tag with me up Broadway. Instead of being cooped up in a car, I can feel the base of my spine and the working of my glutes—and am so grateful to be moving. I’m fit, and I admit that I like the feeling. I’m curious and my senses are constantly stimulated. I think the way to know a place intimately, mile upon mile, is to travel on foot. I know and love this place. I enjoy walking.
So, isn’t this account of radical simplicity a bit romanticized—and a little bit too self-congratulatory?
For sure. It so happens that the simplicity I’ve chosen is just that—it is something that I’ve chosen. I’m lucky. Choosing simplicity isn’t always possible, again, as I observed among a few western Chinese peasants whose poverty was so imposing and so constraining that they never ventured far off the path from bare mud home to rice paddy, where villagers seldom had the luxury of dwelling on the mists rising from distant mountains. Sometimes minds were imprisoned in illiteracy and deadening routine. Here, along Boulder Creek, I see unshaven homeless men trundling along with a simple backpack and bed roll. I see forty men bed down on Thursday nights with only a blanket separating them from the sanctuary floor of St. Andrews. These same individuals live so simply they don’t see doctors or dentists. Twenty-four year-olds are missing teeth. Fifty-three year-olds look seventy. Some die young.
So, I don’t want to pretend otherwise: Convenience is indeed worth something—a good measure of it is needed for wellbeing and for our humanity to flower. Radical simplicity if a byproduct of poverty or brainwashing is no joy.
I’m lucky, of course, that I’ve reached a time in my life and am in a position to choose the simplicity I embrace—and to eschew the “conveniences” that I find so dull and mind numbing. I chose this minimalist lifestyle. I choose what I keep with me and what I let go of—and I have plenty of options to choose from in the first place. This is a luxury. I get it. And it’s a lifestyle made even more possible at a stage of life when I no longer have the time pressures imposed by extensive family and work responsibilities. Living like this would not have been easy twenty or even ten years ago when fully employed, when my boys were home and my ailing mother was not far away.
But maybe Timothy Wu is right, when he claims that we in the fast moving digital age are too often tyrannized by convenience. He doesn’t deny that a measure of convenience afforded us enough leisure to celebrate our humanity, but he laments what he calls the “second wave” of convenience, a wave of virtual convenience that has come to stifle our engagement and actually limit our individuality and humanity. Amen! I embrace technology and some smart phone conveniences, but I don’t need Siri or Alexi or my cell phone or FB algorithms to do all of my thinking or to help my already-atrophying mind and muscles to atrophy more. I don’t want to be disengaged from primary living any more than I already am in the name of convenience. And yet, I fear, lots of affluent Westerners are.
This lack of engagement with the very tissue of experience is lamentable enough for individuals today. Much more frightening are the consequences for the whole next generation: The price of a century of such pursuit of convenience is a century of consumption, of waste, of lost resources, and the demolition of sustainable practices. Because of that, climate change is here and is threatening everything in a future once taken for granted. The potential chaos awaiting us is so hard to imagine that many just don’t—don’t imagine, don’t try to make significant shifts in lifestyle. But adapting our lifestyles is possible if we allow ourselves first to imagine the consequences of not immediately taking action to stabilize a changing climate—and then to imagine the consequences of adapting, sometimes joyfully, to life with fewer fossil-fuel-driven conveniences. We don’t have to succumb to a failure of imagination.
Some of my acquaintances must think I’m an extremist. What sane individual would limit herself to walking and taking mass transportation if she could just drive a car? Who would avoid taking airplanes when long-distance travel by bus or train is inconvenient to the nth degree?
Here’s my main point: Whatever personal, sensory, and observational pleasures I get out of many of these inconveniences are relatively short term; I’d like to think the long term benefit of embracing inconvenience is leaving my granddaughter and her generation a future, a sustainable future. A sustainable future, of course, is in question—partly because too many of us have had a failure of imagination. Too many of us find it too inconvenient to imagine the implications of what climate scientists having been telling us, for instance, in the IPCC’s recent Global Warming report. But we can—we really can imagine and live with fewer “conveniences”—and even like it. At the risk of being an outlier today, I’ll continue to take the long way, the inconvenient way, for you, Julia—and for your generation.
Sumner, Thomas. Changing Climate: Ten Years After an Inconvenient Truth.
Wu, Timothy. The Tyranny of Convenience. NYT Op Ed.
Teaser photo credit: By FotoosVanRobin from Netherlands – La Zi Ji (Chicken with Chiles) Uploaded by Partyzan_XXI, CC BY-SA 2.0