Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Daily Meandering

Lately I've been contemplating the artificialities of modern life.

I'm reading David McCullough's "1776," about (obviously) the Revolutionary War. And always when I read of this time period or before, I'm struck by how people existed back then with so little relative to modern times. They seemed to live quite well without all the shit we think we can't do without today. People made their way even very long distances on foot--sometimes on horseback--and this pretty much guaranteed that the common person traveled lightly: a change of clothes, a book perhaps, maybe a letter of introduction. It also guaranteed a general level of fitness, and served as a limbo stick for some key thing in life: if you couldn't withstand the travel, you couldn't go (or perhaps you couldn't get back). Many people did not travel widely, and so those who did occupied a special place in the public imagination.

So much of this seems different from today. Hospitality was more extensive then, visits were more liesurely. I imagine our sense of hygiene and grooming is much changed today, our sense of what is acceptable in odor or appearance. (Don't you wonder in a movie like "Pirates of the Caribbean" what they must have smelled like? And how any woman could possibly be in love with a guy who smelled like a barnyard, much less act on that attraction?). The Eighteenth Century seemed a much more animal time for humanity. Or maybe it's better to say it was easier back then to see our humanity as something unrelated to our material achievements. Nowadays, we seem to be ushered into the human race by our adoption of the trappings of accumulated technology and knowledge--something quite different. People were defined by the their trade, I suppose, as they are today, but many people lived closer to the bone, without nearly the safety net that exists now.

This is not a new subject for me. Some time back in this past year I wrote a post about an old flying buddy who, on his days off, would ride around the country by hopping freight trains. I'm quite mesmerized by the idea of this, and by the suggestion of the depression-era lives of the hobos who lived in the shadows of the railroads. I don't mean to be flip or silly-romantic about people who were destitute and suffering; but the fact of it raises questions. The hardships these people suffered are maybe more familiar than other, positive things which must have attached to some degree to this vagabond lifestyle. What would it be like--good and bad--to have nothing more in the world than what one carried with one? How would our self-image change if we were forced to evaluate ourselves solely on the basis of who we are, rather than what we have, what we do, what we've attained? I have this recurring image--no doubt hopelessly, foolishly romantic--of a hobo making his way cross country, jumping off his train at the end of a long day of travel some distance outside a rail yard to put up trackside for the night beneath a clump of trees or next to a small country stream. And always a fire. I can imagine a contentment in sleeping outside under the stars next to a quietly-crackling fire, with no place one had to be, no obligations to anyone, no bills or appointments. It's like a prehistoric existence, where one's main job is to find food and shelter and be happy.

I know this little vision conveniently ignores physical danger and disease and lots of things. But the revelation for me is that without our social safety net one could fall, but how far would one fall? Only so far as to leave our modern world behind and live as humanity and proto-humanity lived for many thousands, perhaps millions, of years. The guy during the depression riding a train from place to place looking for work and a soup kitchen seems not so different from, as I read, a young man who starts off on foot to the distant town of Boston where he believes there is fighting going on. He surely has little if anything with him, and likely little money. But there's an adventure going on and he chooses to steer his life in that direction and see where it leads him.

My own life will not fall apart, I know, if my cell phone or my computer stop working. In fact, I think back to my years between marriages when I stored my stuff in a $130-a-month room in St. Paul and more or less lived out of my truck as I roamed from place to place to fly. I had pretty much no savings and few bills of consequence and I kind of lived day-to-day, hand-to-mouth. At the time, I wanted a bit more stability and to put some roots down, but looking back now it's cool to have been so untethered. Well, at least in the context of this post!


Mandy said...

I can totally relate - after living for a few months out of the contents of one suitcase, and not really missing much of anything, you really realize just how much stuff you *don't* need. Some good books, clean clothes, toiletries - that's about it, my friend.


Of course, I also put on three different outfits before going out one night last week, regularly rotate my fifty bazillion pairs of shoes, and am often a slave to my cell phone. But I do clean out my closets a lot more regularly these days.

wunelle said...

Actually, the idea of putting on three outfits to find the right one is intriguing in this light, as it reflects some circumstance that in a leaner situation would not even exist. And, as we say, might not even be missed.

Yet we all refrain from living leaner when we have the option. I can't claim to have been much changed by my suitcase days; but it suited me in some way (the way that stands in opposition to my toy and gadget fetish!).

Jeffy said...

Not only do we seem to have a propensity to accumulate possessions, but the more we have the more we seem to need. Many of our things create a need for related things. And it all adds up gradually. When we moved into our current house 15 years ago it was essentially empty. It is now full, but much of the stuff is stuff that I probably would not miss if I didn't have it. However, now that I have it I don't want to part with it. I dread the day that I move again.

woolf said...

These last few years I've had a rule about buying clothing: if I buy something--especially if I don't need it--I have to put something (a shirt I've worn once, a dress I thought I'd wear all the time but didn't) in my Goodwill bag. I stuff the Goodwill bag into my tiny, still overfilled closet and let it sit for a few months. If I haven't noticed the absence of said clothing I know I never needed it in the first place. So off to Goodwill it goes!!

I don't pretend to be overly saintly about it, and often i've dug out the garment right before I leave for the thrift store, but I've found that it kind of has a nice "circle of life" feel to it when I do it.

When I was in high school (nearly 10 years since then!!!), my friends and i would get together before school started and have a fondue party/clothing exchange. Whatever was left over we'd haul to the thrift store. I guess this kind of Goodwill-bag scenario is a tribute to those times.

One final thought: right now Tom and I live in a tiny studio. When we moved in we got rid of so much stuff (mainly books), but I think we've regained a lot of different stuff--including books! Our little piece of Manhattan is stuffed to the brim. But I know in my heartest of hearts we could fill up a bigger apartment just as quickly.

wunelle said...

Our situation is just like your, Jeffy. We started in a tiny, tiny apartment (though we both had storage units full), and have gradually had bigger and bigger places, which we've promptly filled. Our current house is suitable for a family of 4-6, but we've filled it full with just two of us. Moving will be hard indeed.

JW--I always thought at this stage of my life I'd be living on a sailboat, and I was aware that I'd be unable to collect nearly the stuff I would otherwise have; that seemed OK to me, a spur to cull and prioritize. It hasn't happened, of course, but you guys' situation reminds me of that same thing. But in return for your limited space you get Manhattan at your fingertips. This would not be to everyone's taste, but it sure would be to mine. Your situation seems a good contrast to mine: you must keep material things limited, and so you concentrate perhaps on more meaningful things, on what you see and experience rather than what you buy & accumulate. I think this is a part of what I've been thinking about.

Dzesika said...

Wow. Excellent timing on this one.

It looks at the moment like I'll be leaving all my stuff spare a few suitcases of clothes and some clarinets behind, and moving back to the States, and, well, yeah, I kind of needed some convincing that the nomadic life is okay. So cheers. :)

matty said...

Great post. 1776 is a good read though a little bitall over the place, I guess it was a supplement to the Adams book. Anyway, could you imagine everyone smelling like a barnyard? Ladies included? Yikes.

I will look forward to your review of the upcoming movie Flyboys, which I think will be released shortly. WWI flyers, looks cool.