Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Material Wealth

I’ll preface this entry by confessing that I’m in a bit of a foul mood. I don’t know if it’s seasonal depression, the usual funk I get into when I contemplate my life and my future, or something that happened on New Year’s Eve.

In all likelihood, it’s a delightful cocktail of all three.

What sucks is that it’s too damn cold to retreat to my campsite for a rejuvenating break. So I can count on this mood to last a few weeks at least.

I made a split-second decision last fall that locked me into a twelve month lease here in Wisconsin. Predictably, being in this state during the dead of winter, I regret that decision. I stayed here because of my friends. The fact that I hardly ever see any of them throws salt in this particular wound. They seemed happy to see me on New Year’s Eve. But as I seldom hear from them, I question the sincerity of their greeting. I know I’m not socially-outgoing and that I create most of my own isolation. Still, it would be nice to be thought of once in a while, and not just during high holidays. (More on that in a little bit.) Anyway, I regret staying here, and it’s increasingly likely that I’m going to leave it all behind and go back out west when this lease is over.

The Pursuit of Happiness

I keep thinking back to that moment last summer when I was driving on Colorado State Highway 340. That epiphany of euphoria. It’s helpful to remember that – for a time, at least – I had found happiness. And on days like today, when I’m feeling down, those memories are bittersweet.

Mount Hood

It might not look like much, but this image (taken at Mount Hood National Forest) is burned in my memory as a place of tremendous peace and joy.

As I plan for my future, I find myself asking what it will take for me to find happiness like that again. I imagine myself back in the forest of Mount Hood with Remy, basking in nature and enjoying life. There is a very fine needle that represents a life that is both livable, survivable, and sustainable, and one that is tolerable, enjoyable, and comfortable. But I feel like I’m trying to thread that particular needle with a fucking garden hose.

So I contemplate the meaning of life. Am I meant to shop for a legacy? Should I seek immortality so people will remember me after I’m gone? I doubt it. Nice thing about being an atheist is being unconcerned about what other people think of me – or even if they think of me – once I’m dead. Besides, on a planet with over 7 billion people, legacy shopping is a futile endeavour. Even our most influential and memorable historical figures – I’m certain – are not remembered the way they hoped they would.

Am I meant to share my life with someone else? That seems plausible. Many of my achievements in 2017 felt emptier because I had no one to share them with. But I favor solitude for a reason. I find people so terribly disappointing. Even people I love and consider my friends… disappoint me. I don’t think I expect very much from people. Either I’m right, and their failure to meet even my lowest expectations is why I am so disappointed.

Or perhaps I am so different from the rest of the world that my expectations are unrealistic and I don’t realize it. It is increasingly – and painfully – clear to me that I am a round peg trying to live in a square world.

Am I meant to simply have purpose? A thing to give my life direction and focus without the burden of shopping for a legacy?

Rewinding to the Flash Point

About a week before Christmas, I received my fifth greeting card of the season. Five cards have found their way to me, despite the fact that I’ve been telling everyone I know (for several years now) that I don’t celebrate Christmas and asking them not to send me gifts or cards. I don’t appreciate being made to feel like an asshole for not reciprocating.

Currier & Ives

I love you so much that I got you the same card I’m sending to my boss, whom I despise. Because– social convention!!

But what really struck me about these greeting cards was how they reached me. For the most part, I’ve kept my new address a secret, so each one of these cards reached me through some degree of extra effort and persistence. This compels me to ask whether there is a pathology at work here. A psychological or religious issue of some kind – that I am unaware of – compelling people to insist upon sending me a card over my express wishes? Are priests threatening eternal damnation? Is Hallmark employing some sort of guilt-laden marketing strategy? I ask because it’s bizarre – this need to visit a holiday upon someone who couldn’t give two shits about it.

And that led to this thought… That people have been conditioned to believe that they can purchase friendship. That for the cost of a stamp and the card itself, they can issue a pre-printed card with meaningless platitudes in silly fonts (the same one they’ll issue to everyone else, including people they don’t particularly like) once per year and think themselves a good human being. These same people won’t give me the time of day the other 364 days a year. But I’m supposed to feel good about our relationship because I got something reminiscent of Currier & Ives?

At best, a greeting card is an empty and disingenuous gesture. If you want to prove your love or friendship toward someone, invite them to dinner. Take them out for drinks. Invite them to a movie. Go on a trip with them. Hell, send them an actual letter or e-mail telling them what you’ve been up to since the last time you saw each other. Share experiences, not credit card debt. And don’t just do it at Christmas!

Maybe if we stopped thinking that relationships and friendships can be purchased with a Black Friday deal, we’d all stop being such assholes to each other the rest of the year.

The Root of All Evil

I am not so addled-minded that I believe that all of the world’s problems can be boiled down to one simple thing. With over 7 billion people on this planet, the nuances of what shape this universe are mind-boggling. Yet, when I think of two examples of problems, I can’t help but notice that most of the causal factors can either be reduced down or traced back to money or the accumulation of material wealth.

Take Donald Trump, for instance. Congress could remove his bloated ass from the Oval Office. But it wouldn’t solve the underlying problems that exist in this country that led to his insertion into the White House in the first place. Let’s look at just a sampling of the things that contributed to his rise to power.

  • To the extent Russian meddling influenced the election, you can bet financial concerns were at the heart of collusion. Mueller might not have proven it to the public, yet. But between a real estate mogul and Russians he did business with – it’s a given that people had a financial stake in the election’s outcome. You would have to be ridiculously na├»ve to believe otherwise.
  • Rampant racism and xenophobia. I’ve come to realize that racism is usually the economically downtrodden looking for scapegoats to blame for their misfortune. Anti-immigration people always cite “stolen jobs” to defend their racism.
  • Sloppy journalism thanks to profit-motivated budget cuts. Sensational news coverage driven by a need to attract both viewers and advertisers.
  • Donors and special interests essentially purchasing elections. Evident by the recent tax bill that GOP congressmen flatly admit was motivated by the need to placate their donors.

Off-Grid LivingNow, let’s take a look at my own personal struggles. I want to get off the grid, but I find myself constrained by economic forces.

  • A lot of the “sustainable” methods of living off grid have been rendered illegal by various municipal building codes. These are the same sustainable methods used by our ancient ancestors before the invention of modern housing. The existence of private property (and the fact that virtually all land on this planet is owned either by a private citizen, corporation, or government entity) means that you must have money simply to exist in a place – either to purchase the land or to rent it. Buildings must have a foundation, be maintained, be connected to municipal utilities, taxed, and conform to aesthetic standards. Else your risk fines, eviction, or even arrest.
  • In today’s world of convenience stores, who among us have the skills to feed ourselves? But even assuming that you have those skills, many regulations restrict or outright ban such activities. It is illegal in many places to collect rainwater. Hunting is highly regulated. I don’t know much about gardens or farms, but I’m guessing foraging has its own legal pitfalls.

Publicly, officials will state that these rules are to meet minimum safety standards for people. In reality, they’re designed to discourage off-grid living so as to keep money flowing into the coffers of governments, utility companies, and grocers. And once you are economically dependent on them, you’re required to have a job, which introduces a whole new set of other living requirements. Before you know it, you’re participating in consumer culture, whether you want to or not.

I look at other people who have figured out a way to make it work – they are sources of inspiration for me. But I lack the survival skills to do this on my own. And I lack the support structure to do this with help.

Consumer Culture

This is not the first time I’ve railed against consumerism or capitalism, or spoken in favor of minimalism. That’s about half of what this blog (and my personal journey) has been all about.

But my feelings on this subject have grown intense lately. I’m frustrated by all of the legal and societal constraints in place to prevent me from living the lifestyle I lived last summer on a permanent basis. It should not be mandatory for people to participate in consumer culture. It should be optional. What government can and should be for is to provide the basic living necessities for its citizens. No one should be forced to pay for a place to live, food to eat, or water to drink. And if we are expected to pay for the convenience of the thing (a pre-built home or food stockpiled in grocery stores), then we should not be legally barred from seeking those things (building a hut, hunting, or foraging) for ourselves.

We should have to pay for conveniences… for luxuries… Want the latest iPhone? Get a job, work for some money, and purchase one. We should not have to pay to live. We should not be impaneled to participate in consumer culture.

If we have a choice, most corporations could not survive. If we can choose for ourselves that we do not need a thingamajig, whatchamacallit, or doodad, then we could opt out. Their useless junk becomes obsolete and they make no profit. So they find ways to turn luxuries into necessities. Lawmakers mandate insurance coverage. It’s virtually impossible to have a job nowadays (which you need to feed and shelter yourself) without a vehicle or cell phone. Think what would have been considered a “living necessity” two hundred years ago and compare it to what’s considered a living necessity today.

We impoverish ourselves to make a select few in power richer.

Rage Against the Machine

The worst part about being anti-consumerism is just how outraged I get over advertising. As a bankruptcy attorney, I was already acutely aware of the sleazy tactics companies use to get you to buy their shit. But as an anti-consumerist, it’s even worse. I leave my television tuned to the local weather station all day for some background noise for the dog. Accordingly, I listen to the same half dozen commercials over and over and over again. A couple of them stand out.

Material Wealth

One insists (quite adamantly and with a tone of disapproval) that if I haven’t renovated my kitchen in ten years, that I need to upgrade. Who the fuck renovates their kitchen every ten years?!! And in what universe is that considered a necessity?

Another commercial suggests that I throw out and replace my glassware if it’s lost that “new shine”.

These aren’t even the worst offenders. They’re just the two at the forefront of my mind because they are recent and repetitive.

Watching advertisements on television makes my blood boil. So do billboards on the side of the road. So do the commercial breaks on the radio. Or banners on websites. Or the hundreds of other ways advertisers have found to shove their shit in our face. All selling us shit that we don’t need while insisting that we do actually need it.

Glimmer of Hope

I don’t hold out much hope for change on a large scale. I have to take control of my own life and make the sorts of changes I want for myself. That may require me to break some laws. It may require me to redefine what I consider to be comfortable – or at least tolerable – living.

But I do hold out a glimmer of hope, because I know I am not the only one. The absurdities of the modern world are not lost on younger people with the freedom to think for themselves. It’s not easy to resist the existing world order. The system is rigged against true independence and freedom. Many of us eventually fold and cave. But I hold out hope that enough people will work together for a better future.

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