Category Archives: Philosophy

Wonderful Excess

At its bare minimum, life really doesn’t require much. You breathe, you eat, you drink, you go to the bathroom, you sleep. Being able to walk between the bedroom and the bathroom helps, but is optional. Shopping for food and cooking it, cleaning the bathroom, or even working to earn money is another level up..

But that minimum isn’t what life is really about. Life is about having the exuberance to go out and run and dance or play, or the passion to make a difference in the world, or the drive to have a successful and interesting career, or just a wild and crazy dream to follow wherever it takes you.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m watching how much energy and life is left inside Prussia. When she was younger, she was the picture of that delightful excess, and would run around and play, and jump and try to catch birds or attack any other cats she saw. In the last few years she became an old cat: She wasn’t really into playing and very seldom ran anywhere. We had trained her not to get on kitchen counters, eventually she couldn’t jump there from the floor even if she wanted to. She slept a lot, but cats always do that. Just the same, I thought she was sleeping more. She still wandered all over the house, still hated other cats and let them know it. Recently, we start placing “steps” for her, so she could climb up to places she used to be able to jump easily.

Prussia has been hanging in there at the bare minimum level for about three weeks now. We can clearly see that there is hardly any flesh between the bones and the fluff. But the harder thing is to watch is how little life is left in her. She manages the bare minimum pretty well. She breathes. (And we check to make sure that she continues) She sleeps. (Probably twenty-two hours a day of sleeping, napping, and resting.) She still drinks, but not much, and is pretty dehydrated. She eats, now mostly a little gravy around the catfood. She goes to the bathroom. (with difficulty, and I won’t gross anybody out with details!) She can walk, but she isn’t very steady and doesn’t try very often. Sometimes it looks like she didn’t find the energy to put her tail where it belongs but just sat on it in a un-cat-like way. Her world is getting smaller.

Whenever we see a sign of energy above that bare minimum, we celebrate. Even if it is just her tail twitching in annoyance at us, her mother hens. This morning we woke with her at our feet and heard her purring. And when we offered her food, she ate it. Two or three times in the last week, she found the energy to climb the stairs and check out the upstairs of the house. Once she even walked out the front door and wandered through the yard.(Margaret had to convince her not to crawl under the fence into the neighbor’s yard for fear that she would get in a cat fight that would finish her.) Other times she is just very alert and bright-eyed, looking around at us. I wonder if she remembers jumping to the top of the fridge or the fireplace mantel.

Some people I know aren’t able to live life with all this wonderful excess; they are just able to manage the basics of survival, plus (perhaps) a job of some sort. I know some people are sick, or depressed, or very old and infirm, or just somehow lost, but it saddens me to see life a reduced when it doesn’t need to be. I hope to live with as much of this wonderful excess as I can for as long as I can — maybe even equivalent to Prussia’s ninety-and-counting cat years.

The sky really IS falling

Looking back at the essays I’ve written for this site, I see a lack of controversial topics. It’s time to change that.

I am angry, I am sad, I am frustrated. My dream of early retirement, living on a boat and sailing around the world, is threatened. I thought all we had to do was work hard and save our money, and we could then enjoy it. Sure, there is turmoil in the world, but it shouldn’t affect us personally. I was wrong. It will affect us personally, and sooner rather than later.

Joseph Conrad described my awakening in his 1900 novel, Lord Jim:

“It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertbeless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of these rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much — everything — in a flash — before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence.”

My awakening came about a week ago, on Monday. Barry and I had enjoyed a delightful retired day, visiting with friends. In the evening, we sat talking with Dave over a bowl of red beans and rice. From his pocket, he pulled a folded piece of paper, a printout from a laser printer. “Have you seen this?” he asked.

It was a page from somebody’s website, as evidenced by the lengthy URL printed at the bottom of the page. A technical-looking graph was centered under the unwieldy title of: “Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group — Oil and Gas Liquids 2004 Scenario.” Barry and I shook our heads, puzzled, but curious.

Back in the 1950’s, a fellow by the name of Hubbert figured out a way to model the production of an oil well. It looks like a classic bell curve. Each well starts out slowly, then produces more and more oil. Eventually, it reaches a peak and begins to decline. Interestingly, the model also works for a group of oil wells. So you can model the production of all the oil wells in a county. Or a state. Or a country.

The Hubbert model was applied to the whole U.S. oil and gas industry, and predicted that 20 years later, the top of the curve would be reached, and from then on, there would always be less and less oil and gas available in the U.S. In the 70’s, it happened, just as they said it would. I remember the lines at gas stations, schools closing to conserve heating oil, and Jimmy Carter lowering the thermostat and putting on a sweater.

But in the 1980’s, the U.S. became users of global oil, relying less and less on our own supply. We had no choice — here in the U.S., there was less and less available.

It’s been a long time since the 70’s energy crisis. Like many people, I became complacent. As long as there is plenty of oil in other parts of the world, and as long as the U.S. has the money to buy it, there should be no problem. Right?

Dead wrong.

You can use the Hubbert curve to model any group of oil wells, including all the oil wells in the whole world. That’s what Dave’s printout showed, the model for the whole world.

Dave took out a pen and marked a little “you are here” arrow. The year 2005 is right at the top. Like a roller coaster ride, we’re poised to tip over and start going down. Supplies will go down, while demand will continue to grow.

We sat around the table, talking about the implications, until late into the night. “Transportation’s going to be the first thing affected,” one of us commented, thinking of personal transportation. “What about transporting goods around the world?” I added. The discussion turned to the impending implosion of the airline industry. From there, one word came up: “Plastic.” We tried to imagine a world where the gas in your car has to compete with the fossil fuel used to make your plastic grocery bags. “Even food,” Dave pointed out, saying that much of it is fertilized with fossil fuels. Eventually we came around to the economic implications: No more fuel for growth in the stock market. Imagine a stock market that will shrink by five to ten percent every year.

I went about my business for the next few days, but the impending change was always on my mind. Why isn’t anybody talking about it? This is the end of an era, a paradigm shift beyond imagining. Does anybody know this is happening? Where are the news stories, the government statements?

The government knows. As Dave commented, “Why do you think Cheney’s energy commission is keeping their proceedings secret?” They know, but they’re afraid the public will panic. A blinding light bulb went on in my head. You mean to say the Iraq war really IS all about oil? Asked why the topic is getting so little press, James, a friend who is a journalist, says, “It’s not an exciting story. There’s no who, what, when, where, why.”

I was frustrated by this, and then I started getting angry. I’m angry because our culture is so wasteful, and I can’t do anything to stop the impending train wreck.

When I drive on the freeway and I see all the people commuting, one person per car, I want to shout the truth at them. “Ride the bus! Carpool! Get a bike!”

I’ve always hated stores that shrink-wrap the fruits and vegetables, so you can’t smell or feel them. Now, thinking of the wasted styrofoam and plastic wrap, I detest them. But I can’t stop people from shopping at Publix or Wal-Mart. I thought about standing in front of Wal-Mart with leaflets. I don’t think they’d let me do that for very long.

At the height of the dot-com boom, a friend of ours took a trip to Japan for the weekend. It was a total lark. He came back with a bunch of pictures of himself standing on Tokyo street corners, and a funny story to tell over beers.

But at what cost? His 747 burned gallons of jet fuel per mile. What if everybody on the plane was flying for a lark? Maybe I could accost people at the security gate and say, “Are you sure this is a necessary trip? Can’t you just do your business by phone or e-mail?”

I know everyone would accuse me of being Chicken Little. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! But it really is. According to “A volatile epoch of recurring price shocks and consequential recessions dampening demand and price is now regarded as more likely, with terminal decline setting in and becoming self-evident by about 2010.” Buckle up, folks. We’re headed down on the roller coaster, and it’s going to be an interesting ride.

The Cycle of “Stuff”

“The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”

I feel strongly that the more you pay for a possession, the more it owns you. That’s why I’m a thrift store junkie.

When I buy something at a thrift store, I pay so little that I consider the cost to be merely “rent.” When it’s time to part with the item, I can give it away freely, or sell it for about what I paid.

Ten years ago, Barry and I were in acquisitive mode. We spent our time at thrift stores and yard sales, picking up dishes to fill our cupboards and clothing to fill our closets. We bought furniture, books, CDs, tools. We had rented a 3-bedroom house in suburban West Seattle, and to live the American dream, we needed to fill it.

One afternoon, we stopped at a garage sale in the neighborhood. I don’t recall if I bought anything. But the memory of that sale has stayed with me ever since.

It was not your average clean-out-the-garage to get rid of 1970’s shoes, souvenir ashtrays, and stained placemats. This house sported a “sold” sign in the front yard, and the volume of stuff spread on tables in the yard looked like it would fill the house to bursting. Good stuff.

As I poked through the garage, looking at rakes and edgers, I overheard the owner say, “We’re moving onto a boat.” For me, it was a watershed moment.

I was filled with envy, wonder, amazement. Imagine living on a boat, being free to sail anywhere in the world. It didn’t occur to me that the process of getting to that freedom would be painful or difficult.

How could I know then what was in store for me?

Within three years of that yard sale, I was eager to sell our house and move aboard, too. We’d graduated from our daysailer up to “big boats,” and now counted liveaboards among our sailing friends.

But Barry is powerfully stubborn. And he wanted to enjoy the house we’d bought, with its landscaped yard and view of Mount Baker. As a result of the acquisitive phase, all 2400 square feet were furnished with chairs, tables, desks, sofas, beds, and artwork. Every closet was full. Barry was proud of his workbench in the garage, with its wall of hand tools, shelves of power tools, and sturdy vise.

There was a basic difference between us: My early childhood experiences were nomadic, pulling up roots and relocating every few years. Barry grew up living in one house and went to school in the same city from kindergarten to college.

It has taken a lot of effort and struggle to get rid of the stuff from our acquisitive phase. We held a yard sale, advertised things on the Internet, gave away or loaned the most precious items to family members and close friends. I made trips the dump, almost in tears over the unnecessary waste. Whenever I struggled with what to keep and what to get rid of, I would take a walk through one of the massive thrift stores. A new trashcan cost 99 cents. An alarm clock for $1.50. That made it easy to part with the old ones.

But still we fought. Blazing rows over what to keep, what to get rid of. Screaming, throwing things, sulking. I was afraid we’d end up with 100 boxes; Barry feared that I’d get rid of everything.

Finally, our possessions were whittled down to 29 boxes, three pieces of furniture, two bikes, and a tiny rowboat. Plus one 2400 square foot house, now the subject of the blazing rows, disagreements, and sulking fits. It owns us, and it’s time to sell it.

We moved into the house, temporarily, with our meager possessions. It’s a strange form of camping. We sit and sleep on the floor, but we can cook gourmet meals in the kitchen. We have hundreds of CDs, but had to borrow a small stereo to hear them. Most of the 11 rooms are empty, echoing. We can’t sell it like this; it needs to be cleaned and furnished, or “staged,” in real estate language.

In 2003, we sold our vacuum for $10 to a couple with a 20-year-old son. “Now he won’t borrow ours, and return it with a broken belt,” they said. Being thrift store junkies, we drove to the Goodwill yesterday and found a vacuum cleaner for $10. It’s the largest physical item we’ve bought since the Squid Wagon.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that owning possessions is cyclical. I came to the world with nothing, and I’ll take nothing with me. In between, I get stuff, get rid of it, get different stuff. Keeping the cycle in mind, I don’t get attached. When I acquire something, I think, “How would I get rid of this?” When I sell or discard something, I think, “How would I replace this?”

I won’t need the vacuum cleaner for long. In a couple of months, it will find a new home, and I’ll soon forget we ever had it. I am not owned by my vacuum cleaner.

Visiting Home

A week or so ago, I sat alone in the hot tub in Barry’s parents’ backyard. A silvery bright half moon shone over the black silhouettes of towering conifers. The only sounds were the soft gurgle of the water and a chorus of distant frogs. I relaxed completely, leaning my head back and wondering about this strange concept of “visiting home.”

To Brian, Cayenne is truly a home where he has invested time, emotion, and blood. Although he didn’t like New Orleans much, he was not terribly interested in returning to Seattle before we began cruising.

But Barry and I were willing to drive for three days straight in exchange for a few days visiting home, family, and friends. Coming over Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 on Wednesday morning, I was exhilarated. The road was lined with pine trees, frosted with snow. The air smelled like wood smoke. In places, there were waterfalls beside the interstate. Even the drivers were better, using turn signals and driving considerately. Their license plates all had Mount Rainier on them.

I am not a native of Seattle. I have only lived there for eight years, far fewer than my twelve years spent in Columbus or nine early years in the New Jersey shadow of the Big Apple. But those places did not fit me, so they’re not my home.

The Northwest is a place apart from the rest of the country. I felt that strongly, viscerally, when we drove the pass. The flat lands of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and eastern Colorado ran together. The mountains of Colorado and Utah and Idaho did, too. But crossing the Cascades was like coming up the front walk of a home that you haven’t been to in a while.

What exactly is “home?” Is it possible to have more than one?

While in New Orleans, we called Seattle “home.” But while visiting Seattle, I said things like, “When we get home, we should…” Which is it? The place where you fit in and your soul feels at rest? Seattle, for me, is this place where I fit in, where the horizon ringed with mountains is like a border around my life. If so, why am I content cruising the rest of the world in a sailboat? There must be another home, one where you spend your days and nights. For me, that’s Cayenne — and like a happy turtle, I love the fact that we take our home from place to place.