Thursday, May 12, 2016

Pleasure: The Primary Motivator (part 2)

I've heard for years and years that most men tend to seek out women partners rather like their mothers in unhealthy ways. It can happen for lots of reasons, and I'd like to share one aspect of how I saw this dynamic within me and how embracing pleasure helped me grow emotionally so that I no longer seek out partners in the same way I used to.

Growing up, I never decorated my living space. My mom, perhaps with help from my dad constructing the furniture, would always decorate the space for me. For example, when I first arrived at college my freshman year, my dad took me and my mom insisted he help make the bed and take pictures for her so she'd know I started off with a nicely-prepared room.

I never felt comfortable decorating my own space. I remember when I studied abroad in Germany the summer before my senior year of college in 2007, I did nothing to decorate my room for weeks, then I bought 2 paintings but didn't even have the energy to put them up - they just took up floor space awkwardly learning up against the wall until I left at the end of the summer. This has often meant that I don't feel very comfortable where I live, that I've found the space unattractive or cold visually or tactilely. I have never summoned the energy to actually imagine an alternative and implement it.

Another example: after buying a house in 2009, I put up a few pictures and promptly lost all energy for improving the space. A few very energetic and generous friends dragged me to a store to pick out paint colors, buy paints, and then we spent 5 full days together painting my living room and kitchen and mounting a projector on the ceiling in the basement. No way in hell that would have happened if they didn't have that initiative. [And I remain as grateful today as I did then ;) ]

I recognized this dynamic, and I also realized that some of my past girlfriends had had the energy to decorate my space, and so I got stuck in an anxious dynamic: I wanted to find a girlfriend in part to decorate my living space with her (I had the energy to decorate with someone, just not alone somehow), but I also suspected my living space was also off-putting to potential partners, perhaps making it harder to find a partner. Catch-22!

So you can see the 'man needs a partner like his mother' dynamic: I wanted someone to fill that decorating/home-making role my mother played for me growing up.

Pleasure to the Rescue
A few months ago, I began embracing pleasure as a way to motivate everything I did. As part of this, rather than numb or ignore anxiety about my living space as I'd always done, I embraced that anxiety and reflected on it. Why do I feel anxious? How could I imagine my living space redecorated so I don't have any anxiety? And could I imagine an attitude towards redecorating such that I enjoy it rather than feel repulsed?

\Well, I did all those things and successfully redecorated my space. I have pictures but they're not available as I write this post... I'll update it someday when I can add the pictures. But I cleared out lots of carpet space for moving and stretching, I covered all flat surfaces besides the bed with colorful yarn to make it visually and tactilely attractive, and made the best of not having a dresser nor much storage space. I organized things so I woke up facing the mountains where the dawn sun rose. I carefully cleaned the floor and washed my bedsheets more than once a [long time period].

I designed the space to need minimal maintenance. I've learned to like cleaning, but only when there's no unnecessary cleaning. I never like putting away my clothes when I take them off, and I always like dropping my pack as soon as I get inside without worrying where it belongs (you may suspect, correctly, these preferences go back a long ways ;) ). So I designed the room layout so I could continue these habits without adding clutter: I made space for my pack at the entry point, and I made space near my bed where I would feel comfortable just dropping clothes without further consideration (not a hamper though; when I live in the woods I where clothes a bunch before washing).

Rather than impose an arbitrary definition of cleanliness or order, I figured out what I needed, what would bring happiness, and made it happen. I didn't keep it perfectly tidy after that either, but kept it within bounds such that I never felt anxiety or discomfort about my living space.

Increased Emotional Maturity for Me and My Future Partner
One cool aspect of this particular transformation is that I no longer long for a woman partner to help make my space beautiful - I have the strength to do it. I no longer look for that mother-role in a potential partner, someone to take care of the needs I have which I don't take care of on my own.

Now, many women expect to play that mother-role to a male partner, and see it as natural and a way to be valuable to someone they care about. In that way, it can become an unhealthy codependency where the man needs the woman to fulfill needs he ought to be able to meet himself, and the woman needs the man to have those unmet needs so she can feel valued and loved. I don't claim every household with a female home-maker is like this, just that this emotional dynamic seems pretty common.

Now that I no longer depend on a woman partner for this way of caring for me, I expect I will seem more attractive to women - we can each relate to each other as independent peers rather than co-dependents with various anxieties or traumas motivating our behavior in unseen ways. Perhaps I'll attract women who want a man who doesn't need a woman to play that mother-role in unhealthy ways.

And sure enough, shortly after I cleaned my space this past winter, I got a surprise first visit from a lover  and showed her my living space with no chance to even prepare it - and she really liked it.

When seeking to grow emotionally, I don't often get concrete markers of progress. However, this was definitely such a marker, and it felt really good!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Pleasure: The Primary Motivator (Part 1)

I've spent a lot of effort considering how to build and maintain motivation for all the different things I want to do. After all, I have no external authority like a company boss to set objectives or schedules, nor is there even something as concrete as a profit motive. My vision is long-term, amorphous, self-defined and often conflicting in various ways or with difficult opportunity costs to weigh. And so it'd be easy to lose motivation or direction, or become depressed at the seeming lack of progress, or have some other emotional issue derail me.

In response, I'm developing a 2-track approach to maintaining motivation:

1) Only do things I find deeply pleasurable and fulfilling. Pretty much no exceptions.
2) Through various strategies, consciously self-recondition so that I find pleasure in every activity, human interaction, etc that helps me build the life I wish to lead. Explore ways of achieving a goal or doing an activity pleasurably, or explore more pleasurable alternatives to that goal/activity.

I've pulled ideas from tons of sources and traditions, including observations I made of indigenous from the Amazon. All this leads me to believe that pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance, (as opposed to obligation-fulfilling and stress/guilt/shame/anxiety-avoidance) is how native, unexploited humans and communities motivate themselves. This works because the native culture conditions each member to align their sense of pleasure with behavior that is in both the individual and collective long-term, wise interest. Thus the two-step process: learn to feel meself and seek pleasure, and self-recondition so that healthy and pro-social behavior feels pleasurable and anti-social or unhealthy behavior, unpleasurable.

This has been an effective strategy so far. Pretty much every day seems rich and happy. If something isn't fun, I'm learning to pause, reflect, and ask a few questions:
1) Do I really want to accomplish what I'm trying to accomplish? If the desire has changed, then I halt the activity. For example, maybe yesterday I decided that today I would read about a particular kind of mushroom, and today I don't care for some reason. I just stop reading; I have no feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, etc.

2) If I still want to accomplish the goal, I enjoy finding a more pleasurable way to go about it, or remember why I felt excited to reach the goal or do the activity in the first place.

3) More profoundly, I've learned to find pleasure in activities that used to seem peripheral to life and that would bore me. I enjoy cleaning the kitchen or hand-washing clothes or cleaning the bedroom; I enjoy decorating my living space and writing thank-you notes; I feel comfortable sitting still for extended periods without music, computers, or other distractions.

There's a lot to it, but basically the idea is to recondition meself so that everything I seek to do brings a deep pleasure, not through some arbitrary process of self-tricking, but through a) A deep commitment to loving meself, b) conscious recognition of the wide range of benefits of every activity and relationship and how they form an interrelated web which supports the new life I seek to build, and c) using meditation and other activities to directly understand sources of anxiety or ways of self-sabotage that may otherwise derail me. Nothing is single-purpose or done only to please someone else I feel obligated to please or just to make money (although I am making enough to sustain a very frugal budget – and enjoying that process too).

For example, to show the interrelatedness of everything:

The meditative practice builds self- and other-awareness and empathy, supports vastly more emotionally intimate and pleasurable sex, and improves observation skills, presence, composure, self-love, and comfort around other people.

To pick just one of those, the 'comfort around other people' benefit leads to new relationships, opportunities to practice meeting strangers, chances to practice listening and empathizing, and possibly to work-trade, volunteer, or apprenticeship opportunities with myriad possible benefits.

I'm learning to forage and identify wild plants. Benefits: makes the forest and wilderness a home rather than a scary, foreign place full of 'resources', helps me learn to eat locally and seasonally, saves money on food bills, makes me more resilient in the case of food shortages and increasing food costs, allows me to contribute to a community if/when, in the future, difficult times demand more self-reliance, gives me a powerful skill to offer others to help free them from the industrial system, gives me a new possible income stream as I can accept money to teach others what I learn… the list goes on, at scales large and small. I could make similar lists for my knitting/crocheting/weaving/spinning skills, or pottery work, or cooking, or music-making.

I welcome every consequence and side-effect, intended or otherwise, though I acknowledge the environmental costs I incur as part of this transition strategy (i.e. I do drive to go meet local experts for plant walks, tree planting events, etc, when outside of biking range. Though I did a 60 mile bike ride recently to buy an ex-knitter's yarn, so the range is pretty far!).

And each and every activity supports in multiple ways the effort to achieve three overarching goals:
1) Learn the individual skills (both 'hard' and 'soft') that enable me to live in mutual relationship with the land, enriching the world around me and living consciously and joyfully as part of it, rather than separated.
2) Learn to relate to others so that I can be part of a joyful, powerful community that collectively lives in mutual relationship with the land and each other (this part is ridiculously challenging, but I feel psyched to figure it out).
3) Enrich the ecosystems around me to enable the life I'm building with (1) and (2). This involves everything from reforesting and river cleaning to political activism and who knows what else.

It's intense; every time I consider, “Why am I doing [this activity]?” I can mentally race through 5-6 really compelling reasons for how the activity helps me reach one or more of these goals. Working with the chickens, knitting in the coffee shop or offering to teach knitting to new friends, practicing empathizing with strangers, decorating my room beautifully, learning to forage wild plants and fungus and learning how to support their habitat needs, everything. Everything! And I feel so happy with my vision for the future, the life I wish to lead, the people I have and will surround meself with, that somehow, when I see clearly that a particular activity or attitude or relationship helps me 'get there', it becomes easy to feel pleasure in doing/having that activity/attitude/relationship. And of course, there is no 'there', no final achievement point like a job title or salary level or retirement date; just an ongoing journey which will end when I die, every step of which I'm determined to celebrate and enjoy in the moment.

That doesn't mean I always feel pleasure each time I do a given activity, like for example following my exercise program. When the activity brings pleasure I do it, and when not I don't, with no sense of guilt/shame/anxiety. If I go on long enough without doing an activity – say, continuing in my exercise program – I reflect deeply and ask 1) Do I still wish to do this? 2) If so, why don't I feel pleasure at the prospect of doing it? And sometimes I seem to be low on energy or in an unhappy mood, and I learn not to self-hate or draw unhappy conclusions, but just respond to the needs I feel in the moment.

And often I slip into a mental space where I cease to feel aware that I'm doing things out of habit and not enjoying them; sometimes this can last for hours or days - so it's not like every second of every day is pleasurable, but I move in that direction.

In this way, I become really honest with meself about me needs and feelings, never numbing them or ignoring them in order to do something I feel I 'should' do, and never succumbing to cognitive dissonance. With this honest self-understanding, I can creatively find ways of reaching goals through joyful play. And I have felt really surprised at how high I've kept the sense of motivation with this approach. Not every moment of the last few months has been blissful, for sure, but it's been a happy process of moving in that direction.

When every single activity is play and every relationship playful, I feel so energized and full of love; it's hard to describe.

And certainly I still feel stress or sadness from time to time about money or state violence or environmental damage, among other things. I'm learning to deal with all this awareness in a healthy way. This could be its own book. I've met so many people who fail to handle this awareness healthfully. Some cease being aware (stop learning or stop thinking about issues deeply), some stop self-loving (feeling guilt or anxiety from a feeling of helplessness or doing less than they feel they could to help), some delude themselves about their ability to cause change or the need for change, some numb their feelings so that things like cops beating up peaceful school children or profit-driven wars do not offend them or prompt a meaningful response… the list of dysfunctional responses to awareness of ongoing social and environmental challenges seems long. I'm not saying I've figured out the perfect attitude, just that I feel like I'm learning to handle the awareness in a healthy way.

This post feels a bit rambling, but it's difficult to express all this: I'm integrating so many new emotional, social, and spiritual concepts into how I relate to meself, others, the natural world, time, change, money, risk and uncertainty, debt, power, cooperation and competition, language, love, and more. It'd take a thousand pages to describe it all and how it interrelates.

I'm even creating my own dictionary with new vocabulary and new grammatical constructs to allow me to better express certain thoughts and feelings, which I expect will enable more precise expression, stronger, more intimate relationships, better recognition of individual and collective needs, and more. This will be a collaborative effort with a few other friends once I get the website I'm building for it up and running (which itself has multiple benefits, including keeping me computer skills sharp). I've sprinkled some of the new language concepts into this letter, such as using 'meself' instead of 'myself' as a mode of expression. I prefer 'meself' because I contain no separate entity which possesses the self - it's just me! I say 'me hand' or 'me feelings' in the same way, using 'me' to describe whose thing without separating the body, feeling, need, etc from the sense of self. This represents a profound shift in a lot of ways, but that's for another letter. Some other changes are less noticeable, as for example I just avoid using certain common English words or expressions like 'good' or 'bad' (though sometimes they still slip through!).

I avoided using other new vocab or constructs in this letter which I thought would seem too confusing without explanation. I'm in the early phase of experimenting with actually using these language changes as opposed to just brainstorming them. It's another fun aspect of life right now.

In part 2 of this post, I'll share how this attitude towards pleasure has really helped me mature emotionally and relate to women partners in a healthier way.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Update after Earth Skills April

Leaving my grandmother and family in California in February was hard - I had no particular obligation to return to, nor a particular deadline! My lovely family asked me to stay another day, and then another, and a few more. I protested thusly: I don't know all the people I'm going back east to see, but I know I'll love them when I meet them! I don't know what I'll be doing, but I expect to grow more than I can imagine. I don't know where I'll live, but it'll be a beautiful space in or near the wilderness where I want to learn to live. Eventually, I left and returned to western North Carolina to start figuring out more concretely what the heck I'm doing this year.

And my predictions have pretty much come true! I have a gajillion partially-drafted posts, but after a super-rich April mostly away from electricity, much less the internet, I don't have any ready to share.

Here's a quick update though:

Piedmont Earth Skills
I attended in 2 earth-skills gatherings, one called Piedmont Earth Skills in central North Carolina and one called Rivercane Rendezvous in northwest Georgia.

Both were great experiences in very different ways. At Piedmont I continued a practice I've been developing for a few months which deserves its own blog post: as it got colder, I took off layers of clothes rather than put them on. Then, to warm me, I moved and played. This involved lots of running and sprinting around the land that hosted the gathering and lots of pullups and cartwheels and such.  At the morning or evening campfires, when others swayed gently as the wind came through, I dropped and did push-ups.

And this felt great! I love it for a few reasons:
  • 'Exercise' isn't a separate event or activity, but something integrated throughout the day
  • I stay stretched and limber throughout the day
  • I play rather than exercise - it's fun and I learn about me as I do it; it's not a chore
  • Sometimes I inspire others to play with me in the same way
  • Intensive physical activity helps me breath deeply more easily both during the motion and throughout the day. 
This last point is perhaps my favorite. When I feel lethargic, I have the sensation that I must work hard to force the air into me; when I feel energized and very active, I have the sensation that life energy forces itself into me - the air demands to be breathed with no extra effort on my conscious behalf. This relation to air and breathing alone seems very energizing to me, beyond all the other benefits. My vision gets much sharper, I think and feel more clearly, I become more present and playful and calm.

I also tanned my first deer hide, organized a highly-modified (and way more fun than usual) game of capture-the-flag, and help a friend in a health emergency.

Herbal Medicines in an Emergency
I don't have time to share much about the health emergency, but one interesting point she had a pretty sudden trouble breathing and it got really bad. I ended up calling 911 while others sat with her. The first aid person on hand gave my friend a few drops of an herbal tincture, and it made a big difference for her, opening her throat and helping her breath more easily. It was the first time I'd ever seen an herbal remedy help in an emergency. I spent the evening with my friend and 3 others at the hospital, making a few new friends in the process.

Rivercane Rendezvous
I did a full work-trade at this gathering just as I did at Piedmont, so I arrived early and stayed late setting up and tearing down various structures and generally helping out. Thus I paid very little to attend, but even better I got a lot of really quality time with other people deeply involved in the earth-skills community here and made some new friends to boot. Doing shared work to create the space for a gathering was way more valuable than just showing up and paying money.

Experiments in Intimacy
After arriving at Earthaven, I first learned of polyamory. In theory, it just means being open to having more than one sexual or intimate relationship at a time or being open to your partner having more than one such relationship. To me, it means that in my relationships to my partners (and friends in general), I welcome and help them to find happiness and fulfillment wherever and with whomever they feel most able to do that, not putting restrictions or boundaries on them just because we're intimate with each other - and expecting the partner to have the same attitude towards me. Thus, while being careful about STDs and pregnancy, I'm exploring all manner of relationships in the gray areas between acquaintance, friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, and spouse. I've never just had a lover before, and certainly not more than one at a time, but that is happily changing.

I tell ya, I'm getting some good experience at navigating the poly-waters! I've talked to lots of women and men about it, and instincts around jealousy and partner-control seem very common and deeply ingrained. A few women have described how they're open to polyamory in theory, but in practice demand exclusivity because they have such a strong fear of abandonment. Men have voiced similar concerns to me too.

I pay special attention to communication and awareness, both of my own feelings and needs and my partner's (especially the feelings/needs they don't express verbally). With that awareness and communication, and a deep desire to care for each other and have fun together, I feel excited to see how these various relationships work out. I still feel open to making various sorts of commitments as they make sense, but not just because I feel like being in partnership to someone.

For most of my teens and 20s, I entered into one short sexual relationship every 1.5-2 years. I felt strongly I'd rather be single than in an unhappy relationship, and that meant being alone a lot, at least in terms of sexual and emotional intimacy with a close female partner. That was really hard for me. I really value the attitude I described above of unrestrictive loving support, and I want to maintain that in my life regardless of other experiments in loving relationships I try. It feels so freeing knowing that I'm not 'cheating on' or betraying the trust of someone I care about just because I also feel attracted to someone else too.

Besides the polyamory angle, I've really clicked with a lot of people in these alternative communities I've found. I already feel very at home and good friends with a lot of different people I didn't know 3 months ago.

Explorations in Nudity and Gender Norms
Two years ago I'd never been nude outside, at least that I recall. 2 months ago I met my first new friends while nude, and at one earth skills gathering I decided to help set up tents before the event while nude. I already knew several fellow workers and knew that this group, in general, had a positive attitude towards the body and free self-expression. I didn't ask anyone for permission, just slipped out of my shorts while getting a drink and returned to the tarps setup team to continue setting up!

This had lots of consequences, all of them positive.

First of all, I felt way more comfortable, since it was pretty hot out. The wind felt great, especially in the genitals which really don't get much wind. And I didn't feel any anxiety or body shame, and didn't receive any shaming from anyone else.

I only went nude during setup, but over the course of the gathering, four women approached me unprompted and told me they felt really happy that I'd gone without clothing with the attitude I had - that is, the attitude that it was no big deal, and nothing to be ashamed or anxious of. One woman had decided to work topless during the setup period after seeing me nude. Other women kept their clothes on, but felt happy that I'd defined the space as one safe for that sort of self-expression, as body-image safe.

I struggle to put what I did into words, since I didn't do anything except not wear clothes - I didn't make any statement, or act differently, or anything. I just worked, ate, and sat by the campfire naked. Then when the full event started, I kept my shorts on.

No men joined me in being nude or commented on it to me in private, though everyone seemed comfortable with me without clothes on.

I also ended up in one conversation with 4 women about how to start conversations about changing the culture to welcome women to go topless or nude when they wish. Maybe I'll write more about this another time.

Anyhoo, at my friends' places and where I live, we're way more comfortable going nude and unlearning any feelings of negative body image or shame we've learned, so I'm spending more and more of my time nude in the garden, woods, kitchen, library, or stream. And it feels great!

Living at Wild Roots
Now I live at a place called Wild Roots, a space north east of Asheville, NC purchased a few years ago by someone who chooses not to live there - instead, they want to make it available to anyone who wishes to come and learn to live with other humans and the land. There's no electricity or plumbing; we fill jugs of water from a stream and drink without any further processing, which feels awesome. It borders a national forest, so I'll spend much of the year taking extended trips into the woods and learning about the plants, animals, fungi and other life and how to live with them comfortably, among other big plans for this year. 

This essay is long enough; I'm going back in the woods. Chao!

Thursday, March 17, 2016


After a river clean-up event, I was talking to a guy, probably in his 50s or 60s, about this and that.

He ends up sharing his theory of value and really doesn't like where I take the conversation...

Him: Value comes from labor. All things of value come from human labor.

Me: Really? All valuable things?

Him: Yeah, you've got to work hard, not take the easy way out.

Me: What do you mean?

Him: I'm a farmer, I till the soil for example. I raised kids, and that was really hard.

Me: How was that hard?

Him: Well, you know, there were a lot of things I didn't want to do. But, you know, value came from... changing the diaper, I didn't want to do that, but it was valuable. Today, we moved a lot of trash in our cleanup effort. That was hard, lots of lifting trash up hills. I could have sat in my chair at home, much easier.

Me: Interesting. I find sitting still hard. It was easy for me to do our clean-up today, much easier than sitting still would have been.

Him: Well yeah, sitting still is moving towards death. It's the easy way, but hard work brings value.

Me: Work brings value?

Him: Yes, all value comes from labor.

Me: I don't get it. Doesn't sunshine have value? Or fresh river water? Or clean air? Human labor didn't create those.

Him: Well, here... think of it this way. Joy is the presence of value, and think of misery as the absence of value. Just imagine that paradigm.

Me: Ok.

Him: So think of what brings joy in life. Joy comes from real accomplishments, from doing things. I just cleaned up that river, or I just bought this land.

Me: Can joy or value come from not-accomplishments? Or from not working? What about just sitting and watching a sunset? No labor there.

Him: No, all joyful things comes from labor, from inconvenience...

Me: What? Joy comes from inconvenience?

Him: Yes, yeah, joy comes from inconvenience...

Me: Do you find joy in making love to a woman?


Me: Or a man! Or anybody. There you have joy, and no inconvenience or labor.

... at that point, the work leader interrupted us volunteers to make a final announcement to end the day.

Afterwards this guy and I chatted a little more, and I shared my views that if everyone worked less we could be much happier. He called that 'lazy' and said that sort of laziness caused the 2008 Wall St crash and corrupt behavior generally. No short cuts, he said.

But I think I made my point ;)

[I recommend the whole essay I linked above, "In Praise of Idleness" by Bertrand Russell. One glorious snippet:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Paving Paradise

California is suffering a nasty drought and with water becoming more and more expensive, the leaders of many companies and households are choosing to pave over their lawns with gravel or concrete. I feel incredibly sad to see it.

Then I learned that my own family is considering paving over the lawn of our home in Morro Bay to 'save water' and create a patio for a deck+chairs.

I wrote this note below in support of a different plan.

On the possibility of turning lawn into concrete at the Morro Bay house:

I've heard a few reasons for paving over the front lawn with concrete:
  1. Save money on watering costs.
  2. Reduce water use generally (i.e. 'save the environment')
  3. The concrete would make a patio we could place chairs and a table on
Let's consider an alternate proposal and see how it meets our needs:

Rather than pave the lawn, let's plant large areas of it with native, low-water-consuming plants such as cactuses as well as with healthy groundcover and flowering plants. We would reserve an area with grass or low groundcover, such as clover, where we could put a table and chairs as we feel the desire.

The short-term benefits of this alternative plan:
  • the greater diversity of plants supports a richer soil and more soil life, making the whole mini-ecosystem less dependent on human care (and human expense)
  • the greater diversity of plants provides habitat for more soil critters and other insects, which then feed the birds that Grandma loves so much
  • the flowers would feed the butterflies and pollinators, like bees, which we, especially farmers, depend on so much. Pollinators like bees are under severe threat from environmental toxins currently.
  • the greater root density and root depth of the various plants would trap more water each time it rains, reducing the need for watering.
  • cactuses and possibly other plants, if we choose the plants wisely, can provide tasty, healthy human food, reducing our need to consume food from far away and our current need to pay large corporations for the privilege of eating
  • the scent of the flowers would invite us outside
  • the soft touch of rich soil and healthy plants (especially the groundcover) invites us to play on it in a way concrete does not. This is especially true of children and adults who've remembered how to play as children do.
  • We could do the gardening ourselves. Whether we go into the woods to find the plants or go to a nursery, the total cost would be quite low - less than $200 easily compared to $thousands for concrete. 

Now let's consider the long-term effects of each plan.

Paving over living soil with concrete creates a permanent desert. Any future rainfall not only fails to support life in that space, it rushes off the flat paved surface and creates erosion further downhill, damaging other planted spaces as well. Concrete guarantees there will be no rich soil, no habitat for insects, soil critters, and plants. Thus paving guarantees there will be no habitat for pollinators, butterflies, birds.

Concrete is death. Rich soil is the foundation for life. Why would we pay thousands of dollars to bring death when we already have life for free, and when we could bring much richer life easily and for minimal cost? We might think we're "saving" water by not watering, but I disagree. Water does not fall in deserts, including concrete deserts. Nor will rivers run in concrete deserts, with no plant roots to trap rainfall and slowly release the water over time in streams. Plants invite rainfall which supports plant life in a virtuous cycle. Likewise, deserts invite no rainfall and support minimal life, in a sad cycle of their own. Which do we want?

A tradition among the native Iroquois was to think 7 generations into the future when making any decision. Will our great-great-great great-great grandchildren be grateful we paved? Will they be grateful for a world with even more concrete, or will they be grateful that we preserved living space for them to garden, explore, and play in? More than any material gift, the richness and cleanliness of the environment we pass on to descendents will define our legacy. How happy would you have been growing up on concrete instead of the soil of the farms, gardens, woods, lawns, and grassy fields?

Joni Mitchell in the 1970s sang about how we "Pave over paradise to put up a parking lot." Let's not make that mistake. We can do better!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Why did you sell your home?

A few days ago, a friend told me she is considering buying a home and wanted to know why I sold mine and whether I'd buy a home again. I wrote this in response.

I bought a home in December 2009 after several years of intensive searching and saving. I had a 15-year loan, steady work which paid enough that I could save and invest each month while paying down the mortgage, and I invited in renters who paid some of the cost and were good company. I loved hosting friends and being able to walk to and from work.

The night before I bought the home, I read an essay explaining how owning a home is a poor financial decision for most people. It made sense, but I was committed emotionally and financially to buying the home. The next day, I bought the home, put the saddening ideas out of my mind, and enjoyed the benefits of home ownership.

In 2011 or so I read a short 5-part series I just looked up for you here: The Growth Ponzi Scheme.

It was my first introduction to, well, the sad situation surrounding housing, debt, infrastructure, ugly inhuman communities, fraud, and more. Municipal budgets interact with taxpayers, states, and fed gov't in such a way that requires growth in order to balance the budget; current infrastructure rarely pays for itself, especially in suburbs. Thus, new (and subsidized) infrastructure that invites new taxpayers is required to pay for maintenance on current infrastructure. The series goes into compelling, visual detail; I highly recommend it. Short version: no house has any value if the roads, electricity, plumbing, or other infrastructure fail; further, the same local governments that cannot maintain that infrastructure long-term (or even short-term) are also reducing fire, police, school, etc budgets as the growth-based economy runs up against various limits to exponential growth people had assumed would never end. All these issues reduce the value of the house in financial and non-financial terms and destroyed my hope of using the house as an investment vehicle, or at least life-long savings preserver. No one's buying a home in Flint, Michigan with their lead-water problem right now, and lots and lots of communities look like Flint but don't get in the news!

Ultimately, along with other research, I got to understand the crash of 2008 in some detail and it impacted my expectations for housing values as well as society in general. Here's a short version of my understanding: Ideally and slightly simplified, house values rise and fall with people's ability and desire to pay for available houses. However, starting in the 70s-ish, income for the bottom 90-95% flat-lined as the rich effectively retained all income gains, but house prices kept going up, starting to skyrocket in the late 90s and then reeeeeally going up in the early 2000s. This was totally unsustainable; people simply didn't have the money to pay for the houses, but it was extremely profitable for the banks to give mortgages and support house flipping, as they made a fee on every sale. The financial sector collectively engaged in 3 major frauds in order to keep the profitable housing boom going a few more years.  (summarized here:

  • appraisal fraud: the banks encouraged massive appraisal fraud, blacklisting appraisers who did not give appraisals they liked - high ones! 
  • underwriting fraud: "ninja" loans were common: no income, no job, no assets, etc. Only a bank that was willing to tolerate massive defaults would give out such loans, and they did this in droves.
  • fraudulent resale of these bundled mortgages to pensions and other investors by lying about the quality of borrowers whose mortgages were bundled. You may have heard of 'mortgage backed securities' or 'MBS' or 'collateralized debt obligations' or 'CDS'. The reason the market for gajillions of dollars of these securities evaporated was that all of a sudden everyone realized the crash was going to be worse than expected and given all the lies, no one knew how to value the securities, and no one wanted to touch them with a ten-foot pole. Hence the major banks' investment portfolios going from many billions to, um, much less over a few weeks :(

To these three frauds described in the link above, I would also add rating agency fraud, where the banks would pay the agencies to rate their securities, steering rating work to agencies that would give high ratings. You could also add political fraud, where the FBI publicly warned in about 2004 that they were understaffed compared to the amount of finance fraud going on after Bush had reassigned massive numbers of FBI staff from white collar-work to 'anti-terrorism'. [Which brings up an interesting question: if the 9/11 terrorists' goal was to damage the US, and their attack encouraged or gave political cover for the US leadership to turn a blind eye to massive fraud and waste causing trillions of dollars in losses as well as loss of faith in the US gov't, then did the terrorists succeed? And who let them succeed?]

I learned about all this largely from Bill Black and the Naked Capitalism blog, though I read a bunch of others' work too, such as Matt Taibbi's. Black was an excellent regulator/lawyer who fought savings and loan fraud in the 80s and wrote a book called "The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One". The executives of these banks would have preferred legal profits, but the public couldn't afford that, so the bank executives made decisions that guaranteed short-term profit and guaranteed long-term loss, maximizing personal profit at the expense of certain corporate insolvency someday. They made the calculated political decision that they would not suffer for this decision. When Obama and his team came into office, bailing out the banks and prosecuting none of the executives who did this, he showed they financial executives had gambled well, becoming massively wealthy as they wasted huge national wealth and committed truly epic crimes.

Rather than fix the economy by prosecuting the elite criminals, removing moral hazard, reducing inequality, reducing the finance sector's control of politics, etc, the administration bailed out the rich but not the poor. To 'save homeowners' (in reality, the banks), the gov't/Fed did everything possible to raise house prices, including taking interest rates to 0% for years which has really screwed up pension funds, savers, and others, encouraging wildly irresponsible investing in a desperate search for 7-8% returns that investment managers expect and used to get relatively easily. There are a lot of other counter-productive aspects of the government response, but to list a few: risk is now more concentrated in fewer highly leveraged financial institutions, these criminal executives KNOW they are above prosecution and thus free to engage in all manner of fraudulent and risky behavior, inequality has skyrocketed, the job situation is worse (ignore the official unemployment number; look instead at employment a percentage of working-age people, which still ignore underemployment), income is STILL flat, and... house prices have recovered to the old bubble peak in many markets. The problem of overindebtedness was solved with - you guessed it! - more debt, not increased capacity to pay debt (i.e. many people having higher paying jobs).

Now in 2016, with interest rates already at or near 0% and no political will for bailouts, we see a multitude of issues as folks prepare for the next crash, two of which being:
  • the possibility for negative interest rates, where you pay the bank to hold your money. These exist in Europe already; in one country (Denmark?) people actually have negative rate mortgages. Lots of rich people are publishing editorials saying we need to ban cash, meaning you can't get your money out of the financial system, meaning you can't escape negative interest rates where you pay the bank to hold your money, meaning you have a constant drain on all savings. Bloomberg just had such an editorial a few days ago.
  • bail-ins, where insolvent banks get bailed-in by the depositors losing their deposits (as opposed to 'bailed out' by governments). The US FDIC and others have already prepared for this. If you read about Cyprus in 2013, you know this has already been done in a European country. This would lead to a widespread unhappiness, I expect.
It seems clear that there were meaningful ultimate and proximate causes to the '08 crisis, and not only were those not addressed, they were vastly worsened by the government/corporate response. If you're wondering how this happened, I suggest you review ex-Attorney General Eric Holder's current employment. After 6 years leading the department of (in)justice under Obama, he's making millions of dollars each year at a law firm serving the banks whom he ought to have been prosecuting while in office, but didn't. Others from the (in)justice department and other government institutions, such as the SEC, followed the same path. Plenty of books and blog posts, very well researched, document all this fraud and corruption in gory detail if you have the time and energy.

I'm avoiding discussing the environmental and resource constraints to our society and financial situation, focusing on the narrower social/political/financial perspective of the housing bust. I'm also ignoring all manner of other frauds and immoral behavior I learned about which changed my feelings about the culture I was born into. I'll just say that all this research lead to my belief that the problems are systemic and not likely to change anytime soon, and that I didn't want to be part of and dependent on such a culture. Selling the home was the first, most obvious step for achieving this!

Back to Strong Towns: Other articles from the Strong Towns site are great; in 2011 I started  obsessively reading everything they wrote along with the work of other researchers, verifying things as I could. The Strong Towns group describes insane tax breaks major corporations get in terms of tax-per-square foot, infrastructure subsidies (like large highways going to a Walmart, or counties paying road maintenance for frackers whose trucks are terrible for roads), regulatory bias (such as requiring parking or construction elements that only large corporations can afford), etc. If you wondered why shitty chains dominate retail and restaurants in the US, now you know. Furthermore, the way suburbia and most towns are designed makes actual human community - you know, face-to-face time to have fun, get to know each other, and make important decisions together - well, suburbia and almost all town/city design makes that very hard and very rare. No wonder when you walk along a street, you can see all the TVs flickering through the curtains - often on the same channel!

In the end, I started learning a lot of other stuff that made me seek out real, profoundly meaningful human community with deep love, intimate connection to our sustenance and wilderness, and other qualities I value. But it started with reading that series I linked above.

Phew! So that's why I sold the house. Basically I feel free of decades of poor financial, ecological, and social decisions made by others. Understanding these left me feeling trapped when I owned the home. Now I feel free of a criminal financial system that maintains housing prices
fraudulently, and I feel free of lots of other things too. It feels good!

To answer your last question more specifically: I will own a home again. I do not expect to 'own' the land, but I will have a beautiful dwelling made by hand by my friends and me with healthy local materials and integrated beautifully into the landscape. I will not care about the financial value of the building, only its utility, aesthetics, and impact on the land around me.

One more P.S. There's so much propaganda around 'The American Dream' and 'Owning Your Own Home'. Combine this with home owners' emotional and financial investment in their home and in the financial and infrastructure systems undergirding its value, and, based on my experience, you're unlikely to find many good conversation partners on the issues I discussed above. I had nobody at all I could talk to in order to come to a decision. Then, I had nobody that emotionally supported me in the decision to sell and the process of prepping, showing, and selling the house, including my two renters and close family. In the end, I just had to do what I felt was right. And that was good practice for future decisions ;)

Monday, February 15, 2016

I wouldn't have believed it

If anyone had told me they could write a 2-3 page essay with succinct explanations of both mass schooling and the 'war on drugs', I wouldn't have believed them.

I found this pretty compelling: What Sort of Person Does Evil or Stands By While Evil Is Done?