Saturday, August 12, 2006

Better Off

Better Off , by Eric Brende, was one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking books I've read in a long time. It's the real-life story of a couple who live "off the grid" in an Amish-type community for 18 months. Their purpose is to research by experience (for his MIT master's thesis) what modern culture may be missing by its dependence on technology.

His findings were fascinating. One of the most interesting, to me, was the way that technology causes us to compartmentalize: we go to the office to work, we go to the gym to work out, we carve out "family time" here and "a social life" there. In the low-tech lifestyle, one gets plenty of exercise while working, and without audio or video/computer images to keep folks company, work becomes an excuse for social occasions as well.

[I admit this kind of thinking is in my blood. Growing up on a farm, we had fruit trees and a large garden, and my mom would sometimes call a friend to come over and visit and help her can tomatoes or pears. She had no qualms about making me and my best friend sit down and shell peas with my brothers--"many hands make light work," she'd say--and I remember lots of joke-telling and hilarious pea-shooting fights that made the time go fast. Corn-freezing day started with Dad and Grandpa picking the corn at daybreak; we kids would be pulled out of bed to help husk, while Mom, Grandma, a hired woman and my aunt boiled, cut from the cob, and set up, filled and labelled boxes with corn destined for the freezer. Some years the last box wasn't filled till 9 or 10 p.m. It was a long, tiring day, but also peculiarly exhilarating to have accomplished--so much--together.]

I was also intrigued by his observations about community. Distance isolated people, yet work and their faith brought them together regularly. When he and his wife left this community, they looked for somewhere they could transport the principles they had learned. They chose a downtown area of St. Louis, in a regentrifying area that was not yet expensive, in which church and the stores they needed were within walking or bicycling distance. They have a car, but use it mainly for cross-country trips. They have a phone, but he comments that in the course of bicycling to stores and customers, he usually sees, in person, most people he needs to speak to. (This near-idyllic existence is being threatened by the impending arrival of a Walmart on the fringe of town.)

[And the suburban-dweller's lament is: (All together now?) "It's so hard to get together/make it to church during the week/arrange playdates when we all live so far apart!"]

Their work is all home-based. He finished part of their home as a bed & breakfast; they make soap--which they sell and also trade for organic veggies; he takes engagements to play piano; and he takes tourists around St. Louis on the weekends in a bicycle-powered rickshaw. They've begun homeschooling and are amazed at the fruits of a childhood without computers, movies, and iPods. They don't eschew technology across the board--he outlines criteria for when it makes sense--but in most cases, they find that the low-tech solution serves them best. (One interesting point he makes is that machines should serve us, not the reverse, yet technology can place a great demand on our time, attention and resources, even sucking the very life out of us, as the movie The Matrix chillingly portrayed.) [That last bit was from Papa Rooster. I doubt Eric Brende saw The Matrix, but I bet he'd agree!]

I'm not ready to turn Amish or pitch my laptop, but I am inspired to view my life a little differently. This week I drove Chicklet 3 to a local VBS every morning. The church is all of 3 blocks from my home, but it didn't occur to me till the last day to ride my bike (with child carrier seat) over to pick her up! Even with gas prices what they are, it's just a habit to start up my minivan. But how much more enjoyable, mind-freeing and spirit-lifting it was for both of us on my bike.

A quote from his time with the "Minimite" community:

Time moved more slowly but also...we had more of it...we were able to relax and read the way we were doing right now; in the absence of fast-paced gizmos, ringing phones, alarm clocks, television, radios, and cars, we could simply take our time. In being slower, time is more capacious. The event is only in the moment. By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it.

I think I'll start by letting my answering machine get the phone.

I like the irony. Technology... serving serve technology!


Sherry said...

Thnks for writng about this book. I must say that books like this one fill me with frustration sometimes because I DO live in suburbia, and I'm not really willing to give up my VCR or computer or van. Yet I can see the advantages of a simpler lifestyle.

I guess I had better read the book before responding to it :)
I will be interested to see what Mr. Brende has to say;.

tonia said...

Looks great! I'm adding that to my wish list.

Islandsparrow said...

It does look interesting. I'm always fascinated by that type of lifestyle - some people move here to PEI because they think that we have a much simpler lifestyle. We still have a strong community based society but people here can also choose to live frenetic lives. I think it is really a matter of the heart.

Anonymous said...

I've been amazed about how much more simple our lives are after moving into the city. I thought we'd find more hustle and bustle, but everything is so close by...our church is 1 street over, my university is 9 blocks down the hill, my husband gets on a bus right in front of our house for a 10 min commute to work. 90% of our friends and the people we go to church with live within 1 mile of our house. Taking a meal to a sick friend or new mother is such a simple thing now. When we lived in the suburbs, that would have been a 45 min ordeal. It’s been such a delightful surprise.

Anonymous said...

I always forget to sign my name since I sign in as anonymous! This is Jen in Seattle. :-)

crygibb said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I too am fascinated by what life would be like without all this technology. Like you, im not ready to go Amish or give up my computer, but wouldnt it be nice to see what God really has for us, and experience the bonding a simplier life can be for a family. Amish life has always fascinated me, would love to stay with a family. Thanks for suggesting this book, i think im going to read it.

Anonymous said...

I read this book several months ago, and I really liked it. I do live a fairly simple, slow-paced, hands-on life (by choice), and though I use the computer daily, mostly I'm something of a "technological minimalist". I like quiet. I like to hear *real* sounds. I have a food processor, mixer, dishwasher, dryer... but I try not to overuse them. I like doing things like kneading bread by hand, smashing garlic and spices in a mortar and pestle, hanging clothes on the line, getting my hands in the soapy dishwater. Both Eric Brende and Kathleen Norris would say that these are the sort of tasks that free one's mind for contemplation, and I like that! And if one is not over-busy, there's plenty of time for this kind of thing.

Like you, I've been trying to walk when walking is feasible. Instead of driving from store to store downtown, I'll park somewhere and walk all over. If I lived in town, I hope that I would ride a bike or walk most places. (I think I would.)

Enjoyed this post!

Ann V. said...

The library has it and I am signing it out...
Ann V.