We’ve moved again. Such is the life of an Escapologist. Escape is mobility.
You may remember that we returned to Scotland from Canada and, very fortunately, were able to rent a flat quite cheaply from a friend who, making her own great escape, had left her home for pastures new. “Do you want a tenant?” I asked. For over a year we enjoyed a fine Escapological economy, our rent funding a friend’s escape and her property providing us with a hassle- and paperwork-free landing pad.
Well this was always going to be temporary. We wanted a better-situated HQ and our landlady would make more money renting her flat to real people instead of her slacker pals. So two months ago we moved to Hyndland, a part of Glasgow which, Wikipedia boasts, is home to “young bourgeois bohemians including a number of noted authors, poets, actors and footballers.”
I don’t know if I’d describe a footballer as a bourgeois bohemian (I suspect this is the result of two edits, footballers being tacked on by someone, perhaps a Hyndland estate agent, who doesn’t know what is meant by bourgeois bohemia) but you get the idea.
It’s quite posh in a tumble-down, half-reclaimed-by-nature sort of way and our neighbours all seem to be couples who, despite low incomes, won’t tolerate discomfort and ugliness. Suits us.
Almost as soon as we moved in, friend Landis came over from Chicago to live in our spare room for a couple of months. It’s been like having a pet artist. He sits at his drafting table all day long, feverishly cross-hatching and coming out, bleary-eyed, for a snack every full moon or so.
It’s been great having Landis over and our home has felt like a little artists’ colony, with he and Samara drawing and me writing at my laptop and something spicy simmering away on the kitchen stove. Not bad. Every now and then we get together and ad-lib a little project like this podcast about notebooks. We look like this:
When we moved in, all we owned was eight boxes of books and clothes, and three small pieces of furniture: even less than in our last move. The flat was unfurnished, so we had to place orders at Ikea and spend some time mooning around in thrift shops. This is all fairly contrary to my nature, so I’ve tried to see it as a creative venture — making something — rather than simply an acquisitive one.
We’ve been guided by minimalism — Is this thing necessary? How few bookshelves can we get away with? Shall we jettison these? — in an act of what in fact is a considerable expansion to our total mass.
This is a good lesson. Even in acquisition (especially in acquisition) be guided by minimalism. Also, “minimal” is relative to your needs. Just don’t kid yourself about your “needs”.
Having Landis over has been helpful in these early weeks, as he’s been able to help build our flatpacks. In fact, the whole move as been a barn-raising exercise with friends coming over to help with bits and bobs. This is nice not just in that it makes the process easier — many hands, light work — but also in that it imbues a corner of the flat with a memory. The bathroom door is now the door Alan sanded down for us. The futon is the futon Neil helped us to build. The sofa was put together by Peter and Sam. etc.
In other news, the Patreon campaign is going fairly well but perhaps not as well as I’d hoped. I think we’ll be okay but I do need more people on board. Dig deep, if you can, and subscribe to the new essay series for as little as £1.
A funny postcard arrives in the mail this morning from Sam’s parents in Canada, depicting scenes of toque-hatted Montrealers trudging through the grey slush and snowmobiles ploughing through the streets. I am so glad to be in Glasgow right now! But bless you, Canada.
A couple of people said they wished Escape Everything! had contained a bibliography. I’m sorry it didn’t. This was a bit of an oversight on my part. Since I’d usually name the book or article I was talking about in the main text, I didn’t immediately see a need for a bibliography. But this missed the opportunity to talk about books, which is quite unlike me. So here it is: the missing bibliography. It’s thorough but not comprehensive, itemising the widest shoulders I stood on and pointing to further reading. Still, I hope it’s useful and fun. The book links are affiliate links but be certain to check your local library first. Happy to discuss these books or provide extra information in the comments thread.
The Houdini biography alluded to is The Secret Life of Houdini (2006) by Larry Sloman and William Kalush. Details on Lulu the vanishing pachyderm come from Hiding The Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible (2003) by Jim Steinmeyer. The quote from Adam Phillips comes from his book Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape (2002). For some printed Simon Munnery, I recommend his little volume of aphorisms How to Live (2005) and my own history book about his early work You Are Nothing (2012). Grayson Perry wrote a wonderful book called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011) and another called Playing to the Gallery (2014). Myles na Gopaleen is the Irish Times pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan (AKA Flann O’Brien), his finest peluche collected in The Best of Myles: A Selection from Cruiskeen Lawn (1968).
Chapter One: Work
Bob Black’s wisdom comes from his essay The Abolition of Work (1985) and is essential reading. The Buckminster Fuller quote comes from an article in The New York Magazine (1970). David Graeber’s popular essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs comes from Strike! Magazine (2013). The “Richard Scarry” quote from Tim Kreider is in The Busy Trap, New York Times (2013) and also inspired a nice cartoon by Tom the Dancing Bug (2014). My history of work material came from many places but one short book I recommend is The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work (2000) by Joanne B. Ciulla. Notes from Overground by Tiresias is an amazing book, giving the account of an intelligent person’s life in commuter hell.
Chapter Two: Consumption
The idea that your consumption is someone else’s work and the business about a country’s GDP comes from Enlightenment 2.0. (2014) by Joseph Heath and perhaps also his earlier title Filthy Lucre (2009) which delivers in its promise to give “remedial economics for people on the left.” Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) by E.F. Schumacher is a core text of alternative economics. The prediction of a 15-hour work week comes from Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930) by John Maynard Keynes, but I found it through How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life (2012) by Robert and Edward Skidelsky. Bea Johnson’s blog can be found at zerowastehome.com. Enough: breaking free from the world of more (2008) by John Naish is a very inspiring book about living within one’s means. The Music of Chance (1990) is an absurdist novel by Paul Auster and contains all that wonderful stuff about debt, labour and thankless wall-building.
Chapter Three: Bureaucracy
The detail about “International Business Machines” comes from IBM and the Holocaust (2001) by Edwin Black. Green MP Caroline Lucas’ book is called Honourable Friends?: Parliament and the Fight for Change (2015) and is marvellous and must be read before parliament is reformed and it goes out of date!
Chapter 4: Our Stupid, Stupid Brains
The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Coming Up for Air (1939) by George Orwell are both essential reading for free thinkers; the former being a collection of journalism on working-class life, and the latter an absorbing novel about nostalgia and the present. Sartre’s idea of Bad Faith is articulated in Being and Nothingness (1943), which is barely readable and best avoided, perhaps in favour of his novel Nausea (1938). Roald Dahl discusses his life as a Royal Dutch Shell employee in his lovely memoir Going Solo (1986). Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is that neat little book about Resistance. David Cain’s wise essays can be read for free at Raptitude.com. Brian Dean’s great website lives at anxietyculture.com and he also wrote a nice article, “Escape Anxiety,” in New Escapologist Issue 3 (2009). Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004) is essential stuff, especially the “thesis” page and the Bohemia chapter. Mark Fisher’s essay is called “Suffering with a Smile” and appeared in The Occupied Times (2013). Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Free (2006) is the most essential reading of all and his How To Be Idle (2004) and Brave Old World (2011) are good too. Musigs on the prisoner’s dilemma comes from Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath’s The Rebel Sell (2004).
Chapter 5: The Good Life
The Kama Sutra is an ancient Indian text on the good life, a goodly portion of which is dedicated to rutting. Lin Yutang is the writer of, among other works, The Importance of Living (1937), which is highly readable and worth your time. Much has been written on Eudaimonia and the core texts are probably Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics. The stuff about consumers versus appreciators comes from Happiness: A Very Short Introduction by Daniel M. Haybron (2014). Palliative nurse Bronnie Ware’s Regrets of the Dying is a blog post from 2009. For more on Epicurus I refer you again to Status Anxiety (2004) by Alain de Botton. For more on the Stoics try A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) by William B. Irvine. I make brief reference in this chapter to The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (2009) by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, The Cloudspotter’s Guide (2006) by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, both of which are worth a look, and Look Up Glasgow (2013) by Adrian Searle. For books to get you excited about astronomy, you can’t go wrong with Cosmos (1980) by Carl Sagan or some of the amateur astronomy introductions by Patrick Moore. I make passing reference to The Fruit Hunters (2008) by Adam Gollner. “The last piece of chocolate in the universe” is the idea of my child self but something similar apparently appears in Savor (2015) by Niequist Shauna. I make a incorrect claim that the 10,000 rule comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) when in fact it comes from the same author’s Outliers (2008).
Chapter 6: How Escapologists Use Their Freedom
The crab anecdote comes from an extremely charming work of naturalism and neurology called The Soul of an Octopus (2015) by Sy Montgomery. The quote about Wall Street and toilet cleaning comes from Vagabonding (2002) by Rolf Potts, which is worth reading if you ignore the garbage about working for one’s happiness. The Oscar Wilde quote about “the perfection of the soul within” comes from his gorgeous essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891). Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent (2009) is about how to combine reproduction with boozy indolence. Simeon Barry’s essay about travel with a young family is “Nothing But Time” and appears in New Escapologist Issue 3 (2009). The concept of “Filling the Void” is well-trodden territory but that phrasing of the problem comes from The 4-Hour Work Week (2007) by Tim Ferriss. The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) is Charles Darwin’s account of his five-year voyage around the world and is surprisingly readable for its age and highly likable.
Chapter 7: A Montreal Year
“That Will Do” is what Houdini said to the McGill University student who punched him repeatedly in the stomach just before he died, a fact that comes from the Houdini biography referenced in the introduction section above. Much wisdom can be found in A Philosophy of Walking (2014) by Frédéric Gros as well as The Lost Art of Walking (2008) by Geoff Nicholson. For approachable natural history, try anything by Gerald Durrell, Leonard Dubkin ad Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Passing reference is made to Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe and I’d also recommend a novel about it’s author Foe (1986) by J. M. Coetzee. If you’re interested in eating your way to immortality, Fantastic Voyage (2004) by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman is the go-to text albeit a little old.
Chapter 8: Preparation
The quotation from Charles Simic (not Simi – a typo I had nothing to do with) comes from The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks (2008). “I never hear the word ‘escape'” is a poem by Emily Dickinson and can be found, strangely enough, in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. The details about Robert Graves’ assertion that there’s no money in poetry comes from Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (2002) by Virginia Nicholson which is essential to read if you’re interested in Bohemian life, though I also refer briefly to his memoir Goodbye to All That (1929). An account of Alexander Supertramp’s life can be found in Into the Wild (1997) by Jon Krakauer. Dandelion Wine (1957) is a lovely if a tad bucolic novel by Ray Bradbury, a quote from which appears in New Escapologist Issue 1. The cancer diaries referred to belong to the library of a hospice I worked in.
Chapter 9: Escape Work
Arbeit macht frei means “work sets you free” and appears in the ironwork gates at the Auschwitz work/death camp, a fact I first learned from If This Is a Man (1947) by Primo Levi. Jacob Lund Fisker’s book is called Early Retirement Extreme (2010) and evolved from his blog of the same name. I make passing reference to an item from The Onion (2015) and another, The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit, from GQ magazine (2014). Rob West’s blog charting the progress of his house-building project in British Columbia is called The Hand-Crafted Life. Ben Law’s core work on traditional house-building techniques is called Woodland Craft (2015) and Mark Boyle’s “Moneyless Man” column (2009-10) is archived at the Guardian website. Nicolette Stewart’s item about tiny homes can be found in New Escapologist Issue 8. Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854) by Henry David Thoreau is the obvious starting point for anyone considering a life in the woods near their mum’s house. Montreal Martin’s blog is called Things I Find in the Garbage. The interview with Michael Palin referred to is in Idler 37 (2006); I’m in it too, albeit under the wrong name, with a cover story called “Death to Professionalism”. How to Avoid Work (1949) by William J. Reilly is a witty if tricky-to-find postwar career manual. Wringham’s escape plan first appeared in New Escapologist Issue 3 (2009).
Chapter 10: Escape Consumption
Mr Money Mustache has a blog of that very name. Diogenes of Sinope can be encountered in Diogenes of Sinope – Life and Legend (2013). Some of the practicalities of minimalism were first printed in New Escapologist Issue 3 (2009). Joshua Glenn’s The Wage Slave’s Glossary (2011) is an electric little book and is in fact a sequel to his The Idler’s Glossary (2008).
Chapter 11: Escape Bureaucracy
Roderick Long’s “delusional street person” comes from Just Ignore Them (2004) in Strike at the Root. La Boétie wrote Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1576) which I came across in the dazzling How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell. Kafka’s The Trial (1925) is the go-to work of fiction for bureaucratic absurdity. Narnia and Bas-Lag are the worlds of C. S. Lewis and China Mieville respectively. I don’t recall where I read about Chiune Sugihara but there’s a nice item about him in the Japan Times (2015). The Pomodoro Technique (2006) is a cute but effective productivity system concocted by Francesco Cirillo.
Chapter 12: Escape from our Stupid, Stupid Brains
Naked Stephen Gough’s point about being good comes from a Guardian (2012) item. The stuff about fear of flying versus rationalism comes from Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (2008) Dan Gardener. The mags I recommend for longform journalism are The New Yorker, Jacobin and Aeon. Much of my info on the Bohemians of history is from Among the Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (2003) by Virginia Nicholson. Caitlin Doughty is mentioned, whose first book is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2014). The Wise Space Baby was orginally mentioned in New Escapologist Issue 10 (2014), and the “damning conclusions” drawn by astronauts on the international space station are alluded to in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (2013) by Chris Hadfield. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale (1967) is a real thing and can be seen on Wikipedia. The stuff about Quat leaves comes from The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee (1999) by Stewart Lee Allen.
Chapter 13: The Post-Escape Life
Henry Miller’s list can be seen in Henry Miller on Writing (1964).
“Love laughs at locksmiths,” comes from a signed photograph of Houdini but has an older origin, featuring on an 1805 satirical print held by the British Museum. The other Houdini epigrams come from Handcuff Secrets (1907), Magical Rope Ties And Escapes (1920), Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920), Houdini’s Paper Magic: The Whole Art of Performing with Paper (1922).
In the wake of the Panama Papers I’d like to offer some advice to The Elite.
There are far easier ways to avoid paying tax than what you lot get up to. Why trouble yourself and sully your reputation over complicated offshore affairs when you could simply work less?
I join the nation in calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation, but unlike the nation I have the PM’s best interests at heart.
In the UK, as a politician of all people should know, you can earn as much as £11,000 before you’re asked to pay anything to the tax office. That’s plenty to live on, so stop earning, silly. Millions of people earn far less without the motivation of tax avoidance!
Bertrand Russell observed this long ago: “In view of the fact that the bulk of the public expenditure of most civilized Governments consists in payment for past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money to a Government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of the man’s economical habits is to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling.”
Unfortunately, if you’re serious about this, there’s also consumption tax (that’s VAT here in the UK) to avoid. This means ceasing to buy so much stuff. This is called minimalism or voluntary simplicity. Historically, it’s been seen as a highly virtuous way to live.
You can still do your civic duty by paying at least some consumption tax–perhaps on groceries and other noshable goods–and by paying your council or municipal tax. I love to pay my council tax because it funds the things I like and things that benefit the community instead of the central government and those armed forces and bombs. £140 a month (between two!) for clean water, sewage removal, garbage and litter collection, schools, libraries and parks is a bargain. Moreover, when you work less you’ll really get the most out of those things.
My advice to the tax-dodging rich is to get real and do it properly with your reputation intact. Stop working. Nobody will miss you. Retire with dignity to a nice cottage with a view somewhere and write your memoirs. Quietly. Maybe your book could be called How I learned to stop swindling the nation and love to loaf.
George Monbiot today on the inherent problem of consumerism and economic growth.
Governments urge us both to consume more and to conserve more. We must extract more fossil fuel from the ground, but burn less of it. We should reduce, reuse and recycle the stuff that enters our homes, and at the same time increase, discard and replace it. How else can the consumer economy grow? We should eat less meat to protect the living planet, and eat more meat to boost the farming industry. These policies are irreconcilable. The new analyses suggest that economic growth is the problem, regardless of whether the word sustainable is bolted to the front of it.
It’s not just that we don’t address this contradiction; scarcely anyone dares even name it. It’s as if the issue is too big, too frightening to contemplate. We seem unable to face the fact that our utopia is also our dystopia; that production appears to be indistinguishable from destruction.
It’s a tricky article if you’re not into economics and you might have to hold tight through the explanation of “decoupling” but it really is worth it if you want to think further about the social value of Escapological traits like minimalism and quitting your job.
The decluttering movement has a phoney moral force to it but is no less potent for that, and at any given point most of us are somewhere in the endlessly recurring cycle of buying stuff that makes us happy, watching it pile up, which makes us sad and buying books about how to get rid of it, which makes us happy again, until the effect wears off and we start the whole thing again.
A few people have shown me this op-ed piece.
I think they assume I’ll be annoyed by the columnist’s assertion that decluttering is a trap, but the fact is: I agree!
I’m an advocate of Minimalism. Decluttering to Minimalism is what a crash diet is to a healthy lifestyle. We’ve said it several times in New Escapologist and it’s true.
I also agree with the columnist that “the industry set up to help us deal with the deluge has inevitably just generated more stuff.” This is why, while I write about minimalism sometimes at this blog, I’ve resisted the urge to write a book about it. (I am, however, mulling over the prospect of a stand-up comedy show about this very issue called Can’t Get Enough Minimalism).
“Decluttering” has a nice, Buddhist ring to it, but it is not a transitional stage on the road to enlightenment. It’s a trap. You have to keep buying stuff to regenerate the buzz of throwing it out and you will never, ever be free.
I suppose this is true if you think in terms of decluttering rather than minimalism. In minimalism, you wouldn’t “keep buying stuff to regenerate the buzz of throwing it out” because (a) throwing things out is not done in pursuit of a modish thrill but a sustainable, portable lifestyle; (b) you understand that disposal is only one half of the equation, the other being more cautious acquisition, and (c) you simply don’t think in terms of ownership any more: once you’ve seen a thing in the world, how does buying it and putting it in your house make it (or you) any better?
Perhaps we can train ourselves to live a denuded life in which everything is digitised and nothing around us has any resonance at all. Or we can allow that some measure of disorder is a function of not being an android. Old receipts, swollen notebooks, outgrown baby clothes; ugly cushions from homes that we no longer own: the ascent of meaning and memory over clean lines and good taste.
Oh. Well. Of course, there’s no accounting for taste.
Stoic wisdom is eminently quotable and often found dotted around in modern self-help. Tim Ferris, remember, loves Seneca and quotes from him a lot in The 4-Hour Workweek.
To round off our series of posts for Stoic Week, we’ve gone straight to the main sources of Stoic wisdom (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius) and collected some passages for your quiet contemplation, focusing on subjects most relevant to Escapology.
Seneca on the employed:
They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.
Seneca on money:
Wealth is the slave of a wise man. The master of a fool.
Epictetus on consumerism:
Who’s my master? Whoever controls what you desire or dislike.
Marcus Aurelius on simple pleasures:
Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.
Seneca on taking our leisure now, not later:
You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? […] Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!
Epictetus on escape plans:
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
Marcus Aurelius on internal cultivation:
You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
Seneca on choosing freedom:
Man is possessed by greed that is insatiable […] by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless.
In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal.
Epictetus on minimalism or simple living:
Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.
Marcus Aurelius on going it alone:
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.
Seneca on want:
It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.
Epictetus on distinction or competitiveness:
If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
Seneca on reconnecting with childhood interests (something we cover in New Escapologist Issue 9):
Hang on to your youthful enthusiasms — you’ll be able to use them better when you’re older.
Epictetus on freedom:
No man is free who is not master of himself.
Epictetus (and this one’s beautiful) on life:
You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.
All for now. Remember there’s a handbook about Stoic Week if you’d like to indulge in the experiment (the week itself is over but nobody will know if you do it anyway) and New Escapologist recommends William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life as a guide to practical Stoicism.
This week is Stoic Week.
Since Stoicism is relevant to Escapology we’re posting something with a Stoical theme each day this week. Today is the third entry.
The Stoics believed that the good life was to live in step with nature and, like Epicurus, taught that simple living was the path to the greatest happiness. Where the Epicureans focussed on the pursuit of pleasure, the Stoics tended to advocate the development of self control and fortitude as a way to overcome misery.
Among other things, the Stoics practiced negative visualisation: a deliberate attempt to value a thing through contemplating (briefly, not obsessively) its loss.
Imagine how it would feel to lose something you currently enjoy. How would you cope if you lost your computer, your looks, your teeth, your winter coat, your favourite coffee cup, a loved one, your mobility, your ability to read? All nightmares of varying degrees of severity.
Contemplating these potential losses makes you deeply grateful for what you have while you have it (and history tells us that gratitude is healthy).
Negative Visualisation is also a way to psychologically prepare yourself for occasions of real loss. In other words, if you do lose something, you’ll on a very important level be prepared for it. It can equip you through rehearsal for when stress is unavoidable.
I read Chris Hadfield’s memoir a couple of years ago. He dedicates a whole chapter to “the power of negative thinking” and attributes it in part to his success in becoming an astronaut:
It’s puzzling to me that so many self-help gurus urge people to visualize victory, and stop there … Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive … You don’t have to walk around perpetually braced for disaster, convinced the sky is about to fall. But it sure is a good idea to have some kind of plan for dealing with unpleasant possibilities. For me, that’s become a reflexive form of mental discipline not just at work but throughout my life.”
Negative visualisation is useful in Escapology. Do you best to escape, but always keep in mind that you might get re-ensnared. What would that be like? Could you face it? Of course you could! At the worst, you’ll be like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape being comically marched back to “the cooler” again and again. That’s not so bad as worst case scenarios go. Better a perpetual escapee than a battery hen.
This all reminds me of Tim Ferriss and his “fear setting” wherein you imagine a worst case scenario and muse around what you’d do should it occur. The contingency plan is probably not as bad as you might have initially imagined, and probably doesn’t even look like total failure.
You come away from that exercise realizing, ‘Wow, I was getting extremely anxious and all worked up over something that is completely preventable, reversible, or just not a very big deal.’
Negative visualisation can fortify against insatiability, making you less likely to want more than you currently have and less likely to fall into the trap of endless consumerism. I think this technique might be the true engine behind my tendency toward minimalism and could be a good (and wholly accessible) way of finding contentment beyond materialism.
Stoicism. It’s what’s for dinner.
Brace yourself, reader. It’s a minimalism post! Contains tortuous detail. Only suitable for consumers of the pornography of orderliness.
Last week saw a trip to my parents’ house, the house I grew up in, to declare war on my remaining dark matter, by which I mean “estranged and hidden possessions I’ve been disingenuously ignoring and discounting from my claim to be a perfect minimalist”.
Dark matter is like dental plaque. Both are tedious accumulations of barely-noticeable debris yet they periodically require you to take drastic action. If you don’t take action, your teeth fall out. I refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with this metaphor.
I’ve wanted to take care of this stuff (to dispose of it or incorporate it into real life) for a long time, but things like the Atlantic Ocean kept kept getting in the way. I’m back in the UK now though, so I can finally act on my little fantasy. Imagine! Every last one of your personal possessions accounted for, collected, ordered and treasured in a single place: the very place you sleep.
The plan was to tackle this once and for all in a single KonMari-style blitz. I’d sort though it, one item at at time, deciding what to jettison and what to bring home. What’s more, the fact I was travelling by rail with one suitcase imposed a limit on what I could keep.
I didn’t know how much I’d want to bring back, but I wanted to be able to fill the case to capacity, so I packed little else. It was fun to carry the large but empty case through a crowded Central Station, effortlessly holding it aloft like Desperate Dan hefting a fridge.
On the train, I was dying for someone, ideally a staunch security official, to ask to look inside the huge case so I could reveal its unlikely contents: a pair of underpants and a toothbrush.
When I got to the house, I assessed the scale of the project. It wasn’t too bad. There was a large bookcase replete with books (which I’d been anticipating) and four desk drawers of general equipment and keepsakes (about which I’d forgotten).
I spent some quality time going through the keepsakes and discarding old letters and photographs in a fashion non-minimalists would probably find callous. I enjoyed re-reading them and recalling the past, but it’s time to move on. I’m not in touch with any of those people now and I want to give my whole heart to the people I know today.
Even so, I’m not completely without sentiment. I felt funny condemning such items intact to the recycling bin. I didn’t want workers at the recycling plant handling my letters however briefly and maybe catching a glimpse of their content. I don’t know why I felt this way, but I think that letters should be either kept and treasured or responsibly destroyed by their intended recipient, so I spent ages reading over the doomed correspondence and tearing it up into the bin.
There were miscellaneous bits of kit in the desk drawers–pencil sharpeners, hole punches, staplers–I couldn’t be arsed finding new homes for, so I binned them too. With one exception, I followed Mari Kondo’s advice about not allowing relatives to see what’s being discarded lest they want to salvage any, allowing it to clutter their own drawers.
The exception was a Swiss Army Knife, which I offered to my Dad. “Can’t you find a place for it?” he asked, simply not understanding why anyone would want to dispose of a Swiss Army Knife. “No,” I said, and explained why. It’d been in that drawer, untouched for over ten years. If I kept it, the same would happen again. What’s more, there were many other neglected items along the lines of the Swiss Army Knife so the problem was bigger than it looked. Dad looked at me like I was bonkers and accepted the “gift” but I’ve a bad feeling that it’ll spend another decade in pointless neglect.
Annoyingly, putting out the garbage on my parents’ street comes with a lot of rules. You can only, for instance, put out a single bin per week. What doesn’t fit in the wheelie bin on trash collection day can’t be disposed of until next time. But what if you have a clear-out like the one I was having today? Too bad. Surely this can only lead to constipated houses. Since my parents’ bin was already almost full, my bag of disposed-of stuff had to sit in the driveway for a week until finally going today. Not ideal for a minimalist cleansing ritual.
With the books, I was ruthless. Over two thirds of my library went to charity shops. They’re good books, but not ones I’d ever read again (or in some cases, ever read), largely left over from my intense-young-man period and not relevant to my life today. Who in adulthood can be arsed with Camus?
Still, there were quite a few books I didn’t want to part with: volumes that either hold too much sentimental value, or books I know Samara and I will enjoy. I hadn’t predicted this. I filled the suitcase and then some. In the end, I put aside twice as many keepsies as I could comfortably bring back on the train.
I broke my self-imposed “one blitz” rule and postponed the realization of my orderly, minimalist Valhalla. Yes, folks, there remains at my parents’ house one last box of books, requiring a second trip to retrieve.
This is a bugger actually, as I was hoping to jettison the suitcase itself upon my return, but instead it will have to sit in the top of my wardrobe, taking up valuable oxygen space, until I can do another trip like this one. But at least this provides another opportunity to show my underpants to a security official.
Here’s another nugget from my book to whet your appetite:
As a point of lurid interest, refusing to buy anything may be anti-materialist but it is not anti-capitalist even if that’s your intention.
When you stop buying things but continue to earn money through work, your earnings continue to serve the capitalist machine. The bank in which you store your wealth “spends” your savings when they invest it. (That’s why the bank pays you interest: as a reward for letting them play with your money.) Perversely, saving and spending actually amount to the same thing so far as the economy is concerned.
But when you reduce your income as well as your spending, it actually does hurt the capitalist machine! If your motivation to engage in minimalism is to smash the system, you must remember to reduce your income as well as your spending. Thus, only Escapological minimalism, since it aims to reduce work as well as consumption, will genuinely throw a spanner in the works of capitalism.
The words “Stuff Management” should be in my family crest. I’m a firm believer that a family crest should contain a weak play on words.
We have just three weeks left of our four-year residency in Montreal. After that, we’re travelling in Spain for a while and then living in Scotland. We’ll be in Scotland for at least two years if not permanently, though “permanent” is a pretty loose word when you’re Escapologists.
For various reasons, I’m really looking forward to being back in Scotland. For all the lackadaisical liberties of Montreal and the wonders of the wider world, Scotland (specifically Glasgow) really is my favourite place to live and I’d like to make it a more permanent base of operations.
For the first time ever, I’m moving with (what feels to me) quite a lot of stuff. As you all know, I’ve been a fairly extreme minimalist since embarking on my great escape six years ago and my stuff has rarely exceeded the contents of an easily-lifted suitcase.
This time, however, there’s my wife’s stuff to manage. To her credit, Samara has embraced minimalism too and we’re down to just nine medium-sized boxes and three small pieces of furniture to which we both have a sentimental attachment. This is pretty impressive. Sam’s also prepared to deal with it all herself, but since we’re married now and the move to Scotland is really all my fault, I feel obliged to accept a goodly portion of the fretting and expense of moving it. I’m okay with this, even if it sounds to you like the kind of thing that would drive me nuts.
Getting to the nine-box stage has been fun. A couple of months ago we initiated a minimalism crusade, which was challenging when you remember we were minimalists already. I enjoy this kind of cultivation and stock-taking though, and since I’ve not had anything substantial to jettison for a long time I relished the opportunity to lose some stuff. We ditched as much as we comfortably could, doing our best to do so in a socially-responsible way. We gave a lot to a local “give box” (a self-regulating community resource where people leave and take household goods for free), some to Renaissance (a chain of charity shops) and by giving stuff to friends and neighbours.
I also discovered that, as good as the give box is, you can essentially make your own by simply leaving stuff in clean and open public places. People can instinctively tell through an item’s vestigia that it’s been abandoned and is free to take. I’ve taken to leaving things by the recycling bin in our building’s mail room. They usually get claimed within a couple of hours.
We sold some stuff through Craigslist and Kijiji to help offset the cost of shipping the rest. This was an interesting experience. Our adverts always stressed that the furniture for sale was quite large and that the buyer might want to hire a u-haul to get it home. The buyer never hired a u-haul though, consistently turning up in a small car. Somehow, however, we always managed. An armoire crammed quite miraculously into a hatchback with the rear door half-battened down with guy-ropes, and our iron bed frame fixed fairly precariously onto a roof rack. Montrealers never fail to amaze me. They just don’t give a shit.
The bulk of our stuff will be shipped to Scotland on a boat, which takes about six weeks. We’re using the time lag to our advantage, using it to travel in Spain before arriving in Scotland to receive our stuff. Because we don’t want to be travelling for a full six weeks though, we’re shipping our stuff a couple of weeks before leaving Montreal. This means a fortnight living in our apartment with practically no stuff. That’s going to be interesting too.
The only stuff we’ll have to live with will be our mattress (to be jettisoned on the last day), some kitchen basics (also to be jettisoned on the last day) and the single suitcase of clothes we intend to travel with. That, I think, will be it.
We’ve been very lucky when making plans to actually have an address in Glasgow, to which we can ship our stuff and have mail forwarded. It came about because Scottish friend Heather, nudged, she says, by New Escapologist recently decided to up sticks and move in with her boyfriend in Germany. He runs a flying school and Heather now spends her time learning a new language and flying the German skies in an actual zeppelin balloon. Remembering that Heather owns a flat in Glasgow I asked if we could rent it. She agreed and the bureaucracy of flat renting suddenly shriveled away for us all. And so an Escapologist rental economy was established.
Over the past two months, when not fretting over our stuff, I’ve been writing the New Escapologist book, Escape Everything!. It goes well. A full draft is now complete and I’m now at the stage of trawling my notes to make sure I’ve said everything before the final edit. The publishing fund is also nearly complete. Please go here to buy your copy in advance so we can get this book out soon.
Mobility, folks. It’s what’s for dinner.