Twenty things and “the toothbrush that is at me”

Holly writes to me: “I read the post you did for that other blog, is it really true you only own 20 things?”

At my mum’s house in England there’s a bookcase which definitely belongs to me but I don’t count it because (a) other people use it so it’s kind of a gift to them; (b) I only see it a couple of times a year, so it’s like an estranged son; (c) if pressed to take responsibility, I would cut it loose.

Aside from that semi-concession, I own something in the region of twenty things. I should mention that this figure was never a goal or even particularly deliberate. This is how it happened:

– I’ve never bought furniture or utensils because I’ve always rented furnished apartments.
– I mainly wear a single suit, which means substantially fewer clothes to most people.
– There are always plenty of books in my orbit but they belong to libraries.
– I consider CDs, magazines, show props (I’m a performer) and DVDs ephemeral, so these things are sold or swapped or given away once I’m done with them. I never have many in hand at one time.

My total cache is something like: a suit, some shirts, a couple of bitchin’ t-shirts, shorts, underwear, a pair of handmade oxfords, some long-serving hush-puppies, a pair of snow boots, a small DJ case of favourite DVD discs (I throw away the box if a film makes it into the elite of keepsies), a laptop computer, a toothbrush, a safety razor, two pairs of specatcles and a wallet.

When making the ‘twenty things’ claim, I’ve often wondered if I should count consumable mainstays like olive oil and flour, condoms and toothpaste. Although they’re ephemeral, they are always present. If such things count then I probably have something closer to fifty things (though Leo Babauta doesn’t count consumables in his list either).

A final thought on the subject of ownership:

In the Gaelic language, my friend from the Scottish Western Isles tells me, there is no possession. Instead of saying “my toothbrush”, you say “the toothbrush that is at me”. There are exceptions (if memory serves, you can grammatically own your body, your spirit and your blood relatives) but the language generally treats objects as being temporarily ‘at you’ rather than in your posession. As an exercise, try thinking about “your things” as “things that are at you”.

A different kind of budget

I was thinking about budgets today. I’ve never used them. Instead, I stick to a general rule about finding the cheapest way of doing something without compromising too much on quality.

Suppose the typical cost of air travel between NYC and London is $800. If you find an alternative flight for $650 but this flight takes an hour longer to get there, you would be wise to take the cheaper option (assuming you can’t make $150 or more during an hour on the ground). The saving of $150 is worth taking because the quality of your trip is not sufficiently reduced. If, however, the cheaper deal were to result in three connecting flights, an overnight stay or passage on a pirate ship, the sacrifice of quality would negate the saving of $150.

From this emerges a different kind of budget: one that focuses on quality rather than money. Where a conventional budget asks you to consider how much money you are willing to sacrifice on a given exploit, my kind of budget asks how much quality you’re prepared to sacrifice in order to get the most cost-effective version available (the cheapest option available within your quality budget).

For another example, my tailored suit cost £600. I could have had one made from a more expensive fabric for £1000, or I could have bought a non-tailored one for as little as £75.

I didn’t choose the £600 suit because it satisfied a pre-determined ≤£600 budget. I chose it because the advantage of buying a better quality cloth was negligible. The one I had chosen was aesthetically pleasing, highly durable and better fabric than that of anyone else in my office. It was the best I could reasonably expect to need, so anything better (the £1000 option) would be waste. Moreover, any off-the-peg option, no matter how financially cheap, would fall outside of my quality budget. In my opinion, I had found the best ratio of cost to quality.

So, in a way, I do use budgets after all. I just spend ‘quality’ rather than ‘money’. A budget of this nature would allow you to consistently find the cheapest option (defaulting to our original ‘general rule’) without compromising your personal expectations of quality.

Portable Telephonic Gimcrack: why I gave away my iPhone

The following is a guest post from my excellent friend, Mark Wentworth.

With my Escapological love of transience, I spend much of my spare time roaming city streets by foot and country lanes by velocipede. As such, I have toyed with the idea of acquiring mobile Internet access for over a decade. When Apple Inc. released an intensely desirable portable telephonic gimcrack in the form of the iPhone, it seemed like exactly the sort of gadget I had in mind.

I didn’t rush out to buy one of those sleek black confections immediately. Instead, I exercised Escaplogical restraint and, besides, it is wise to allow technology to mature before investing in it. This February I finally took the plunge and splashed out a not inconsiderable £350 on an O2 Pay-As-You-Go 8GB iPhone 3G.

By the Beard of Zeus, I should be careful what I wish for.

Just buying the confounded thing was a frustrating experience. First I endured a bout of acute choice anxiety as I examined the relative merits of the 8GB 3G, the 16GB 3GS and the 32GB 3GS (inevitably there is now an iPhone 4). Do I need a compass on a phone? Am I comfortable walking around with a package of electronics worth more than an entire Peruvian village? Do I need the video recording feature or can I abstain from happy-slapping homeless alcoholics outside McDonald’s? After much agonizing I girded my loins and joined the queue at the Carphone Warehouse in Wimbledon.

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No more mindless submission

Perhaps one day, my system of asceticism and refusal to submit to drudgery will prove hubristic and will blow up in my face like a comedy cigar. If that happens, I’ll have to go back to the day job, tail between my legs. But even in these unlikely circumstances, against which I have taken precautions, I will at least have enjoyed some (fit, healthy, youthful) years of freedom and will have something interesting with which to regale my colleagues at the water cooler.

Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme kindly allowed me to write a guest entry at his blog: “No more mindless submission“. The post is ostensibly my personal escape story but contains what I hope is a breakdown of useful practices.

What comes after escape?

We occasionally hear about lottery winners who continue to work in spite of their millions. Moreover, we probably all have relatives who’ve spent so much of their lives in a state of manic servitude that they can’t face their hard-earned retirement. There’s a destructive idea that to be unemployed is to somehow lose dignity or pride.

So what do we do once we’ve turned our backs on the Protestant Work Ethic?

Work on your own projects. I don’t know what you like to do. Maybe it’s drawing, maybe it’s growing your own potatoes. It helps to find a passion. Whatever it is, the post-escape life is your chance to indulge yourself without work getting in the way. Try something you’ve never done before: football fans could consider bonsai and computer programmers might try building a tree house.

Read. It’s fun, stimulating, private and costs very little (or nothing if you use a public library). It has a very low impact on the environment and doesn’t contribute to other people’s misery. Read enduring classics over fashionable fluff, but don’t base your reading choices on obligation. Read for pleasure and to expand your mind. I set up a reading list at the beginning of the year but I know this is an unusually disciplined approach and is not for everyone.

Walk. Some friends and I walked from Parc La Fontaine to Westmount Public Library yesterday. Without work or studies to dictate our actions, we didn’t have to save time by getting into a car or a bus. Instead we set out early and walked. I saw parts of the city I’d never seen before (including a district which looked so much like Glasgow, I thought I’d found a wormhole back to my old town) and got some exercise to counteract the knish we ate for lunch halfway.

Travel. Your budget for this may be limited but there will be interesting travel options for within your own country or local area. Americans only have to hop on a train to visit other states and Europeans have amazing opportunities to other countries for very little money. If money allows it, why not visit the place you’ve always wanted to see (or better yet, somewhere you you might not even want to see)?

Be with real friends. When you work or study, the company you keep is dictated by situation alone. Whether or not you would socialise with colleagues after work, you still spend most of your time with them. In the post-escape life, your relationships must be maintained more deliberately. The result is that you spend time only with people who matter, people whose opinions you value and people whose company you genuinely enjoy. I’m crossing an ocean next month with the main intention of seeing my parents, Neil, Laura, Dan and Tim.

Tackle an issue. If you’ve been bothered by a political issue, environmental problem or social inequality, now is the time to stand up and challenge it. Write letters, join initiatives, start a thinktank. You have the gift of time.

Cultivate your life. Instead of tolerating the environment in which you live (including the environment inside your head), you now have the time to improve it bit by bit. Like a statue waiting in a block of marble, the good life hides within the glut of possessions and activities.

Learn to do nothing. Embrace nothingness. Meditate. Learn to be quiet and to appreciate silence. Learn to exist without consuming or producing.

Live. Each day lived outside the systems of oppression (debt, work, consumption) is a day well spent. Your only masterpiece is the life you lead. Each day spent deliberately is a vote against drudgery.

Feminism and Escapology

The following is a guest post from Holly Meier. Holly co-runs a Feminist blog called Tiffany and Amber and the jolly funny zine, The Pigeon Press.

Nothing gets my pulse racing like a nice intersection, and I’ve recently realised that feminism, which is easily the thing I love most in the world, shares many an aim with the philosophy of Escapology. Now, at first glance this may not appear to be the case. After all, every single article in the last issue of the New Escapologist was penned by a man. But feminist Escapologists out there (are you out there?) need not despair! When you get to thinking, they’re kind of the same. Let’s take a closer look, in list form.

1. Anti-consumerism

Escapology has it that when we buy less stuff, we reduce the burden of needing to earn so much, and thus the need to be tied to a depressing job and/or location. Now, we all know that women constitute the group to whom the single biggest, most useless, and most damaging amount of stuff is marketed, through the beauty (and other) industries that constantly tell us we are fat, ugly, stinky, and generally repulsive in every way imaginable, and that this sorry state can only be corrected by the constant purchase and use of a bewildering array of shit from eyelash curlers to weightloss pills.

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Interview with Everett Bogue

I conducted an email interview yesterday with Everett Bogue from Far Beyond the Stars, a blog dedicated to minimalism and location independence (two topics we address in Issue Three). Here are Everett’s generous responses to my questions:

Do you believe freedom is the natural state or a modern privilege?

Freedom is a choice, one that we’ve been brainwashed out of taking by advertising and factory culture. We’re taught to conform, we’re taught to buy until we fill our oversized houses. All people have to do is make the choice to stop consuming and freedom becomes an easily grasped reality.

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Strive to do and to be, not to own

Few would consider freedom unimportant. We value liberty and the right to live with minimal restrictions, yet we typically dedicate our lives to acquiring permanent residence and a cache of possessions. Instead of dedicating our efforts to travel, we tend to focus upon mortgage. By shedding some material worth and tempering our desire for goods we can use our financial and intellectual resources more wisely and follow the mobile ideal.

I’d almost forgotten to report that we published a capsule guide to the minimalist mindset over at Alain de Botton’s School of Life blog.

The first half is new material written by myself and the second half is an abridged version of Timothy Eyre’s “How to Live Minimally” in Issue Three. I think it’s pretty (and appropriately) concise. Enjoy!

Never forget

Never forget the things from which you’re escaping.

I walked past an office building in downtown Montreal this evening. I was on my way to meet my girlfriend for a family meal, which we would follow by attending a magazine launch party. Inside the office, meanwhile, the desk jockeys were working overtime beneath florescent lighting.

No more of that for me, thanks. I felt immediately grateful for the fact I was on the outside of the stone wall and not on the inside any more.

Some things I do not miss:

– Clock watching
– Commuting
– Unsuitable working environment
– Pointlessly frequent fire drills and other health-and-safety obstacles
– Being unable to enter a productive (or leisurely) mood when recovering from a day’s work
– Mindless submission to tasks that do not matter
– Representing an organisation in which you have no interest
– Being an apologist for other people’s bad decisions
– Petty office politics
– Counterproductive cross-business politics
– Staring into a computer screen for 80% of the time
– Pointless meetings
– Frequent and demeaning training exercises
– The dreaded early rises

These are just a few of things I do not miss. I’m sure there are others.

Even when I worked though, I found ways around a lot of these things:

– I’d find ways to work from home whenever possible
– I’d volunteer to attend conferences so I didn’t have to sit at my desk all of the time
– I’d wear an immaculate suit almost as if to satirise office etiquette
– I took an hour-long lunch break every day instead of eating at my desk
– I moved my home to within a ten-minute walk of the office so I didn’t have to commute so far or rise so early

Interestingly, few of my colleagues took these measures even when I was providing a precedent. They seemed more content to complain about the conditions that were being imposed upon them without realising that even within the framework of their office life there were small freedoms to be found. Why did they not take them? Did they prefer to complain? Were they the victims of peer pressure or Bad Faith?

On Living Well

Spending 40 years of my life working just to buy stuff seems a bit extreme to me. Yet working that much is the norm in the US. It is so ubiquitous that spending all day away from home does not factor into people’s “comfort calculations”—only leather seats and oversized furniture do. However, living is about what you do, not what you have.

Jacob Lund Fisker runs a truly amazing website called Early Retirement Extreme. The site disseminates ideas around the maxim that life is too short to squander on mindless drudgery. Instead he recommends sage financial prudence: frugality, asceticism and sensible investment.

Any one of Jacob’s posts is worth a read and I’d encourage anyone to buy his upcoming book as soon as it’s available. To get you started, I’d point you at this recent post or this concise manifesto. You’ll soon be hooked. In fact, I’m reading the whole website from the first post.

It’s entirely possible to eliminate the need for pointless graft.

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