Turning off the Grid- “Things were better before there was television.”

Canning for Survival

Last week, the RV park gathered for their monthly donuts and coffee breakfast.  About 20 old-timers sat around over glazed donuts and talked about their world; knitting, beading, quilting, RV roof sealer, which vendor had the best deals on lawn chairs, and on, and on.  The women all gathered on the porch and showed off their latest creations and the men stood around the coffee pot and talked about cars, politics and the weather.

When I say old-timers, I’m referring to the median age of 70 and up.  I’m the youngest by 40 years or so, which makes the conversation even more interesting for me.  It fascinates me to think of the time span my fellow breakfast mates have lived through and the moments of modern history they experienced.

Happy J's RV park residents gather for their monthly soup luncheon.

Happy J's RV park residents gather for their monthly soup luncheon.

“Things were better before television,” one tiny little lady commented when the conversation drifted to stories of their childhood.

“We didn’t have electricity until I was in high school.” Another lady stated.  High school- can you imagine?  I always proudly state, “back when I was in college, we didn’t have cell phones or email.”  But wow, no electricity, and many of the ladies agreed with her.

“We didn’t get hot water until I was 16,” stated another woman.

“One summer, when I was 15, they pulled me out of summer camp to go home and can for the summer.  Mom was sick, and they came and got me and I had to can all the vegetables for the coming winter.  Took me all summer.  If I hadn’t canned the food, we wouldn’t have eaten at all that winter.” Carol the quilter made this statement and I just had to pause and take that in for a moment.

If I had to can my entire family’s food for the winter, we’d be in serious trouble.  I can’t even bake a loaf of bread properly, that whole patience and baking gene was not passed down to me.  Imagine the summer when you were 15 years old.  Canning vegetables for survival couldn’t be any farther removed from my reality at that age, or even now.

From the Great Depression to the Great Recession

The irony in so many of these folks lives is that they entered the world during the time of the Great Depression and now they are beginning to leave this world under the time period of the “Great Recession”.  But they know survival, they know sacrifice, they can create and they can endure.

And when I look at my generation and our troubles and woes through their eyes, I don’t quite know what to think.  On the evening news tonight, a story about long-term unemployment spoke to the rising trend in my generation of people who will spend years in unemployment.  And as I’m listening to this in the same room with my 87 year old uncle, who has spent a lifetime starting small businesses and making a living any way possible- and doing a great job of it.  I can’t help but wonder about our motives from his perspective.

Granted, we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but politics aside, what does his generation think of a younger generation that sits around and waits for someone to hand them the same job they just lost?  When you spend a summer canning vegetables for survival, what runs through your mind when you hear about people spending 2-3 years or more out of work and resigning to the inevitability of joblessness? And, I guess coming from a service industry background, I have to wonder why we can’t just go get any job when the one we want is not available.  I know it requires swallowing quite a bit of pride and shoving aside our egos, believe me, I’ve done it, often.  But when we did we become so beholden to inevitability, rather then just changing our reality and seeking our own solution.

Conversing over coffee before the soup luncheon at Happy J's RV Park.

Conversing over coffee before the soup luncheon at Happy J's RV Park.

Finding our Survival Skills

When did we lose our survival skills?  When did we resign our fates to our bosses and supervisors and CEOs?  Why are we so afraid to seek the unknown and find a new skill or a new profession?  Why are we unable to just shift gears when troubles arise and plow forward into the unknown?

What will we do if canning food in the summers is our only means of survival?  I wonder if one day, we’ll be sitting around a table of donuts and pots of coffee reminiscing about the time the televisions went away and we learned to can our food and generate our own power.  I wonder when we are approaching the end of our years if we’ll sit around and compare our masterpiece quilts and handmade jewelry and talk about what life was like before cell phones and recessions.

Or will we be talking about the time we lost our jobs and failed to seek a better destiny for ourselves?  Will our conversation drift to the time when our government failed to function and we turned to ourselves for survival?  The time when we returned to community, farming  and family and rebuilt lives filled with sustainability and self-reliance. Lives where the television was turned off- permanently- and we learned to can vegetables from our own garden, build our own homes and knit our own sweaters.

I wonder if we’ll sit around our coffee and donuts at the end of our lives and say, “life was better after the television went away.”

authors note: I wrote this article Sunday evening during a windstorm with the RV swaying in the gusts and tried to publish prior to bedtime but could not access the internet. The following morning I wandered over to my trusty outpost with wifi only to find that the entire town had lost its internet, phone and ATM capacity during the storm.  Oh, the irony!

An Italian Biker and the 1890s Outpost

As I pulled out of the RV park and headed towards my morning espresso office, I racked my brain to try and think of something to write about.  Something a little different then the “lifestyle design” soapbox I’ve been standing on lately, something interesting and compelling.  And, I was at a loss.

I walked up to the coffeeshop/outpost/Jerry Springer live episode and a gorgeous road racing bicycle with baggage expertly strapped on-top sat outside the door.  Remember, I’m in a town where the locals ride bicycles with lawnmower motors attached because they are too lazy to peddle or don’t have a drivers license, so an expensive Italian road-bike is reason to take notice.

Main street in Quartzsite, AZ.

Main street in Quartzsite, AZ.

Inside the coffeeshop is a tall, Italian man ordering espresso, decked out in road biking gear.  Am I in the right place?  Or, better yet, is he? We started chatting and he asked me to pull up his blog on my computer.  He has been riding and posting articles since San Diego from his iPhone and has no idea what his blog looks like.  How fabulous!  His face lit up when he saw his images and his journey through the eyes of his audience.

Lucas is from Italy, just outside of Florence and is riding cross-country on the trip of a lifetime.  We talked over our espresso- finally- someone else who drinks straight espresso in the morning.  Though he did chase his espresso with a cappuccino. So Italian!

I digress.  Lucas said he’s a taxi driver in Italy and had planned on returning to work after his journey, but, he said with a shrug, “now, I don’t know.” He mentioned maybe returning to San Francisco and writing a book.

I just love it!  Here’s a person who stepped back, looked at his life and found this one thing that he must do.  And in doing this one thing, he’s opened up a myriad of opportunities and different perspectives.

We talked a little further and he mentioned his girlfriend who he had planned this adventure with.  He said she was unable to accompany him because she was in an accident back in Italy and had passed away.  “This trip is in her honor.  Its a little sad, but wonderful.”  He said this with sad eyes, but a genuine smile.  Lucas has a warm smile that kind of lights up his whole face.  Refreshing to say the least.

And now the whole picture makes a little more sense.  A bittersweet journey on a bike across a foreign country and the shedding of the past in the process.  Or, at least a little bit of the past.

So, I guess the coffeeshop/outpost/wild-west saloon (I actually saw a fellow in here the other day wearing a side-arm- with a 12 inch long barrel- yea-that’s real) held a little story for me today.  It never ceases to amaze me the people that will cross into our lives during the most mundane or routine events. How many people have you met over coffee or a beer and had your life or your perspective shift- even just a little.  I can think of many in my life.  And, when we open our eyes a little, it seems that life puts a little lesson in front of us or a living embodiment of a perspective or philosophy we are embracing.

In parting, Lucas said goodbye to everyone in the outpost and said, “I see you next time.  Maybe on a Harley then!”  And with a big smile, he put his hands on his imaginary Harley handle bars and walked out the door saying, “Ciao!”

Just fabulous!

The 1890s outpost/office/espresso shop/jerry springer show/wild west saloon.

The 1890s outpost/office/espresso shop/jerry springer show/wild west saloon.

The ‘Anatomy of Restlessness’ and Pondering the Wandering.

During my time in Walla Walla, I had access to my dear friend’s amazing personal library and stumbled upon Anatomy of Restlessness, by Bruce Chatwin.  Many of his passages resonated with me at a time that I needed the words of a wandering writer.  I came to this passage and knew I had found the voice I needed;

“Those of us who presume to write books fall in to one of two categories; the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.  There are writers who can only function at ‘home’ , with the right chair, shelves of dictionaries and encyclopedias and now perhaps word processors.  and there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, who believe naively that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.”

Chatwin nailed it.  That’s me.  Completely.  And not necessarily as a writer, but as a photographer and creative being in general.  Creativity, for me, is harbored in the unknown.  When I travel, all the details and burdens of my “sedentary” life just melt away.  I am completely in the here and now.  I choose to travel by train for a reason, as I stare out the window, my internal creative gnomes crawl out of their hibernation caves and spring to life with ideas, adventures, plans and ponderings about the people’s lives I’m privy to while staring out the window. I often  find myself wanting the train ride to continue on past my destination.  To just keep moving, and staring out the window.

I return to this passage now, because I find myself at a crossroads of sorts.  And I have a feeling many of us in today’s world are at a similar crossroads- just different road signs.  I am faced with a decision, and while I know the answers, I am going to flesh them out here- just in case someone else is standing at that crossroads and unsure of the right path to choose.

A rare double rainbow appears over Happy J's Trailer park in Quartzsite, AZ.

A rare double rainbow appears over Happy J's Trailer park in Quartzsite, AZ.

I’ve consciously made a decision to not to return to the “normal- in the box lifestyle.”  I’ve jokingly been making this threat to myself for years, but I think this walkabout has finally solidified that which I’ve known for a long time.  There is a different way of living.  Obvious statement, yes, but how often do we provide ourselves with the opportunity to step back and actually make a conscious decision to live our lives differently.  And I don’t mean different in the “let’s paint our house a different color than the neighbors and vacation in a more exotic location than everyone else.”  I mean different in a “let’s not buy a house with a foundation first, let’s get a home with two axles that hitches up to my bumper,” way.

Now, this way of living isn’t for everyone.  I have many very dear friends and family who love what they do and fit in well in their worlds.  But, I’m sensing that a multitude of my fellow Gen Xer’s and beyond are actively seeking a different way of living.  A different definition of home.   There’s a reason this year’s Super Bowl ads were littered with unhappy 30-something men justifying their submissions to the suburban-consumption lifestyle with fast cars, beers and flat screen TVs.  Madison Avenue was speaking to a large demographic that has trapped themselves in unhappy lives and does not know how to change it- buy a shiny car- that will fix things.

Uh, no.

I chose a different route a long time ago, but I periodically drift back into the “normal” world.  But, I believe that is coming to an end.  A home, that for a duration of time, provides the opportunity for perpetual motion, is what I am seeking.  If I am of the same Chatwin cloth- and I know that moving is what keeps me sane- then the logical decision would be to choose a lifestyle of perpetual motion.  For a time- and see where such a life would take me.

I’ve spent the last month or so with many “old-timers” who have chosen a different way of living as well.  Now, they made this decision after adhering to the social norms- and in many cases- establishing the social norms that my generation is now playing out in real time.  I look around this traveling community and I don’t see any of my generation or the possibility that my generation would ever choose this life- at any age.

A walk during the 'magic hour' in Quartzsite.

A walk during the 'magic hour' in Quartzsite.

Why wait until the best years are past us to embrace this different world.  How many of us would unlock that creative gnome that lives dormant inside waiting for the moments of travel, motion and the loss of normalcy to surface? What would the world look like if more people stepped away from the rat race, even just for a few months, and took a glimpse into another world?  Would they find that inner child who was silenced when they hit puberty and were told that you had to get a degree and climb the corporate ladder to reach the golden ring at the end?  Would they find that playing in the garden was more fulfilling than a multitude of board meetings and executive lunches? Would they then take that playful exuberance and turn it into a trade, business or profession that allowed the inner child to run free and play in the garden?

At the time that Chatwin wrote this, traveling was rugged and raw.  People departed on long journeys into the wild or unknown cultures seeking something they could not explain, but knew they had to experience.  No guidebooks, no tour guides, no marked trails.  Months or years to roam and find the thing that eluded them, haunted them and drew them out into the world.  And some of the greatest literature of each generation was written by that wandering soul.  By that person who sought to find that which he could not name, but knew he must seek.

What will happen when we stop seeking that which we can not name?  What will the world become if people insulate themselves with fear rather than face the unknown or embrace the abnormal path?  What would your inner creative gnome become if he was unleashed onto the world, if you chose to move- to seek- and in doing so found something you never knew existed?

I believe my inner creative gnome has spoken, and it loves the desert!  It loves this nomadic lifestyle, and I believe I will have to find my balance of motion, of home and of the unknown.  I came to the conclusion this week that my immediate future holds an Airstream, outfitted with a mobile photographic studio and inhabited by my dog and myself.  I believe that throwing myself into the world and everything the open road has to offer is going to be the journey that I’ve been restlessly seeking all these years.  And I want to share this world with those who read this blog.  In fact, the writing of this blog is a motivating factor of this decision- and I think the nomadic and alternative living themes are becoming the dominant voice here at the Storyteller.

After coming to this conclusion, I’ve had two dear friends make a similar conclusion.  One of them jokingly told me tonight that it looks like I’ll have a company on my adventures. How exciting!  He is struggling to find work in the academic world- and he is rather brilliant, holding a PHD and several years as a professor under his belt- but has been bitten by the Airstream bug.  I believe he is opening his eyes to the possibilities, though he is intelligent enough to know they exist without anyone pointing out the obvious, and he’s starting to warm up to the creative energy that exists within this lifestyle.  He’s a writer who needs motion- so the possibility of some amazing literature spurting out of his creative gnome is rather exciting.

And I know there are a few other folks out there staring down similar crossroads.  I know I’m not standing there by my lonesome, and I know my PHD friend isn’t either.  The real question is not that we are standing there making these decisions, its what decision will we make?  What decision will you make?  When you stand at your crossroads, is your view obstructed by all the what ifs and if onlys or can you stare down your roads and see beyond those arbitrary questions to the journey that suits you- not your family or your friends- but is best for you?

Past Lives, Present Selves and Future Paths.

Is the past linear?  Is the past cyclical?  Or neither?

History is doomed to repeat itself, we hear it all the time. Society seems to repeat its own missteps.

But are we, as individuals, doomed to repeat ourselves?  Are we on a linear path in our own history- continually moving forward, closing doors on our past as we travel through time.  Or are we on multiple cycles, where moments of our past resurface and manifest themselves in their full glory as we age.

I am famous for procrastinating.  I excel at starting a project and putting it on a shelf.  If you ask me what I do for a living, well that depends on what month it is or which pot on my stove of activities is starting to boil over.

Are we meant to be this one thing in life, this one activity or career that defines us? Or are we meant to continually revisit our past lives and our past beings and then make them better at a time in our lives when we are ready to embrace some part of our selves we placed on a shelf many years ago, for whatever reason.

Largest full moon of 2010, seen from the blackberry

Largest full moon of 2010, seen from the blackberry

About 6 years ago, I was bartending at a small restaurant on the Outer Banks.  The town population in the winter was about 300 people or so and we would close the restaurant at 8 p.m. and be done for the night. One of our cooks was in his mid 50s and the most intelligent man I have ever met- but no one would give him a second glance if they passed him on the street.  Our waitresses called him sticky-whistle tooth and you really didn’t want him cooking your food.  We would all sit around the bar, have a few drinks and he would take the conversation to places I could hardly wrap my brain around.  He could talk to the political situations in Palestine and switch to quantum physics without missing a breathe.  Truly amazing.  He made a conscious decision at some point in his life to not participate in the circus.  He worked under the table, traveled onto the next location when he felt the need and was a life-long learner.  He exposed me to books and music that shaped my perspective on the world and was an underlying reason I returned to university at age 30.  Sitting at that bar in the middle of nowhere with such enlightening conversation made me realize, there is more out there.  And I’m being lazy in not finding it and seeking this knowledge for myself.

He exposed me to Ani Difranco, Utah Phillips, Orwell, Huxley, Rand and a host of others.  I’ve engaged with this art and felt compelled to move the world, wanted to right the injustices that saturate the fabrics of our society, wanted to retreat to or create the utopia spoken of in atlas shrugged.  I’ve been moved by this music and literature to do and to seek.

In my more recent life, I’ve placed many of those intentions, many of those projects in a box, locked away while I searched to embrace the traditional roles in society.  Put that person that ignited the passions in the closet in order to make a living, to support my projects with the money some of them need to come to life.  And while I have no regrets- every step and misstep in this world serves a purpose and teaches a valuable lesson- I am starting to really see why the day cook said screw it and stepped off the hamster wheel.

I’m listening to an Ani Difranco concert and that past flame is firing up again just listening to her lyrics.  Seven years ago, on my last trip to Quartzsite, I started dabbling in jewelry making, beading and leather craft.  I loved all the stones and crystals I found hiding at the swap meets.  I saw this amazing alternative life and economic system and thought, wow.  This is something else.  I made some plans to learn lapidary arts and start a small business as a gemstone and crystal wholesaler.  I made plans to travel to distant lands and visit crystal mines and gather stories- and stones.  And while I brainstormed and daydreamed a little, complete with an airstream, a dog, a map to mineral mines and the open road, I put that project on a shelf.  And I did some fabulous things.  I pursued my passions for documentary photography in an academic setting, traveled the world and learned some absolutely amazing things about myself, my talents and what I am capable of doing.  And I met some dear friends along the way.

And now, sitting here in a motor-home in the desert, listening to Ani, I feel as if the past circles of the last 7 years of my life are converging.  I see that my artistic passions, for photography, for writing and for storytelling are merging together and making room for the new passions that have yet to fully manifest but are growing each day.

So, I guess this slightly narcissistic rambling into my past is to just share with you my belief that our past endeavors, placed on hold for whatever reason, are not lost or forgotten.  They are just waiting for the right time to re-emerge. These passions and projects lay just beneath the surface waiting for the time when we are prepared to build what we began years ago.

And if you decide to shift gears, decide to pick up that project, dust it off and become one with it, decide to pick up that trade and do something else and someone asks, “well, i thought you were going to be a ________ or I thought you were doing ______.”  Well, just tell them that there’s no need to define yourself by yesterday or tomorrow.  I am this person today and what I become tomorrow, well, I may not know it if you ask me now, but I’m sure it will fabulous, none the less.   And when your friends look at you and question your sanity, your response may be, “no, I’m not crazy for wanting to live my life this way- are you crazy for never stepping off your wheel to question your path?”

And if you need a little  musical inspiration- something to make you feel like, yea- I’m gonna do this and just be f****** fabulous about it, put on some Ani and listen closely.  Her record label isn’t called “Righteous Babe” for nothing.

Embracing a Trade: find a skill and put food on the table after the apocalypse

The end is near?

Over the holidays, while everyone was feeling jolly and joyful from all the yummy home-cooked food and merry spirits, the History Channel chose to bring its viewers down to earth with a week full of “apocalyptic” programming.  Every possible end of the world scenario was created and filmed for our viewing pleasure, so of course, my friend and I watched each and every depressing show.  Every night a new theory on the end of our civilization was presented- and oh, by the way, its just around the corner!  So, it got my wheels spinning.  If society were to crumble, the lights went off and we were to return to our agrarian roots, what could I offer in exchange for the essentials- food, shelter, water and a little moonshine to keep me sane.

People can’t eat photographs, if the power grid goes poof a web site is totally irrelevant and I seriously doubt anyone will need a promotional multimedia video when their DVD player becomes a pillar for their bookshelf.  What can I offer?  Can I knit a sweater to keep myself warm?  Can I grow a vegetable from seed to harvest?  Can I capture rain water in a cistern and hydrate myself. No. No. And no.  So, if the end of the world happens, I’ll be that poor sap clinging to her camera looking for scraps of food with the rest of the 2012 survivors.  Uh, I’d rather not go there.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I’ve decided to gather a few trades while the lights are still on and I can support myself with my freelance career. This week I began learning Lapidary arts. While people can’t eat rings and jewelry either, trading stones and jewels is as old as civilization itself.  Seems like a logical place to start.

Next I’ll tackle knitting, sewing and then maybe a little vehicle maintenance.  I don’t think I’ll ever have the patience and talent to grow anything from seed to harvest, so I will be moving close to friends who can and I will continue developing my trades for bartering.

A bumber sticker from a nomad's car in Arizona

A bumber sticker from a nomad's car in Arizona

Embracing a Trade

But seriously, do you have a trade?  We, as an “evolved” society have deviated far from our agrarian roots and we no longer emphasize the essential need to have a trade or a skill.  Beyond the whole survivalist scenario, having a trade is a wonderful change of pace from our normal intelligence based work.  We’ve deviated from working with our hands to working solely with our minds, and while some amazing innovations have come from this period of intellectualism, might we all benefit from working with our hands-just a little?

Matthew Crawford explores the topic in his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work and while I have yet to read it, watching interviews with the author made me want to dive deeper into the art of having a trade.  The Christian-Science Monitor interviewed Crawford recently- here’s a little excerpt:

“As with blue-collar jobs a century ago, white-collar work is now suffering a similar intellectual and skill degradation, Crawford argues, whereby “the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers – clerks – who replace the professionals.” Corporate culture and teamwork have taken the place of individual responsibility. Brand projection has replaced the actual production of goods (now largely outsourced). Workers are judged subjectively by their somewhat opaque contribution to the bottom line, over which they have little individual control.”

While sanding down my little piece of agate in the rock workshop this morning, I found this wonderful sense of calm.  Working with my hands, watching the stone move back and forth over the sander and letting my mind wander aimlessly was so rejuvenating.   I was so inspired to create, I came home and baked cornbread from scratch using a recipe I found in a Native American Indian book about healing.  What better way to learn to live off the land then from those who have done it for thousands of years.

My first Cabachon and the start of my lapidary arts endeavor

My first cabochon and the start of my lapidary arts endeavor

So, again, I ask, what’s your trade?  Have you thought about ditching the cubicle for the workshop?  Is it possible to have both worlds?  Can you scale back your “real work” and incorporate some carpentry side work, working as a seamstress or selling your handy-work on Etsy.com?  Have you thought about becoming an apprentice for a blacksmith or have you always wondered about becoming an herbalist?  What’s stopping you from learning these trades?  And no, your mortgage is no longer an excuse for not pursuing things your interested in or curious about.  Carpe Diem, my friend, because according to the History Channel, time’s a wasting!

Go dig in the dirt, hammer some nails or shape some stones.  Go do something that allows you to look back at the end of the day and say, damn- I made that.  And while you’re at it, ditch that cubicle and find a way to make your trade your profession.  And if you’ve already ditched the cubicle- nice work!  Share your story and your knowledge with us in the comments section.