Minimalism: my personal Ideals

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About a year ago I read Everything That Remains  by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. A book based on the wonderful, if not original, idea of cutting out all the unnecessary possessions and focusing on the really important thinks. People have been advocating living a frugal, simple lifestyle to magnify the remaining elements since Sparta. If you want to get Biblical: Adam and Eve could have been the original minimalists: they, at least before they were expelled from the garden, lived to worship God–what little else they needed was provided them.

Still, Millburn and Nicodemus, or the Minimalists as they call themselves, put a fresh coat of paint on the idea and have taken it to almost a religious level. (They have a documentary coming out next year. See the teaser below.) They are like voices crying not from the wilderness (as if to continue the Biblical references), but instead of a wilderness it is more like the crushing throng of the post-modern world where we all are bombarded with ads telling us we are somehow incomplete or insufficient without the latest car, clothes, bling, electronic gadgets, or things that would make us look beautiful, sexy, and well, you get the idea.

Before reading Everything That Remains I felt I needed more crap in my life to make me happier. Perhaps the most emblematic of this problem is my collection of satchels, messenger bags, backpacks, briefcases, and panniers. I would buy one, tire of it quickly or see another one in a catalog or on someones body and decide I had to have it. Only three weeks ago I was walking out of my work with my friend Chip and I saw he had an urban backpack. (A single-shoulder, European-styled pack.) I never had one and the pang to pull out my phone and look up this kind of pack ran into my fledgling minimalist sensibility. (Be advised, dear reader, I may have embraced minimalism, but Madison Avenue’s programing is tough to shack and I still feel the need to “Keep up with the Jones.”)

It hurt, I was always looking for the latest thing to carry my crap. I can also say the same thing about watches, PDAs/smartphones, tablets, not to mention books–books that I could check out from the library, but would rather have just one more clean, shiny book with the smart-looking binding for my burgeoning and bulging bookshelves.

I embrace minimalism for two reasons. The first is for similar reasons the Minimalists have: It simplifies my life and therefore amplifies “what remains”–what is really important. For me that is my family, yoga, meditation, and reading.

The other reason is a political one that could have been the sole reason why minimalism was created, but wasn’t. The more stuff we buy that is manufactured outside of the U.S. the more we justify the international trade agreements like NAFTA and all the other free trade agreements that have wrenched our economy and has helped destroy the middle class of this country. By purchasing less stuff created in free trade centers by workers that earn 15 to 20 cents an hours and either make do without that very cool urban backpack or not jumping at the latest iPhone I am saying No to the free trade economy that is killing our middle class not to mention people in sweatshops in the Third World. Besides the free trade argument there is also the carbon footprint we leave behind by buying more and more junk not due to necessity, but because it is the latest style, etc.

The fruits of living a minimalist life purely on political or ecological reasons is tough to see because it does not reap any immediate benefits like the personal reasons do.  I like to look at our walk on this earth as foot prints. How heavy will your foot prints be in the sand by caring all the junk you have collected over your life span. Time to lighten up!

“This Changes Everything” Book Trailer

It is standard operating procedure for me to run around and tell me friends that the current book I am reading is “great,” “excellent,” and–sometimes–“the best book I have ever read.” Well, Naomi Klein’s third book, “This Changes Everything” is all of that and more. It has changed my approach to my clicktivism.*

She will be releasing a film on the subject in 2015. I am both excited and thoroughly depressed. Only a book like “This Changes Everything” can do that.

* Being a combination of old, lazy, scared, and–as far as state politics goes–bound by my duties as a Confidential Employee of the State of California, I am not much of an activist. I sign petitions and give money to Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, W.E.A.V.E., Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, as well as political groups and movements like Occupy, Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday SuperPAC, along with supporting Bernie Sanders and being a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. But I do not put myself between riot police and fellow protesters, nor do I chain myself to equipment to prevent/slowdown development of drilling, fracking, and other destructive actions. For that, I can’t help but feel ashamed.

The Wilder-ness


The tour guide gave us an action item of sorts as we traveled back to Skagway after visiting the toe of the Davidson Glacier. “Get out into the wilderness more often, even if it is your backyard,” she explained that our backyard is a wilderness because it is “wilder” than the indoors. I guess she is correct; although, I have been in backyards of some condominiums that have been nothing but concrete and fences. Personally, I have always been a concrete kind of guy, perhaps that is why I always liked the idea of condos. Even growing up around dirt bikes, dune buggies, campers, boats, and fishing, I have always been the kid that wanted to stay home.
The excursions I took while on my Alaskan cruise didn’t seem too tough; I was well cared for by tour guides, and I returned to a nice comfy cruise liner at each day’s end. Besides, this was during the relatively warm months in the great Northwest. I wasn’t walking on a glacier in the freezing blackness of the Alaskan winter. With that said, here’s a very brief travel log of my vacation complete with images. I won’t bore you with the onboard details. Not to say that the time onboard was boring, it’s just that, unless something like a murder or a diamond heist occurred while at sea, I don’t see much point in telling you how well I was fed and how much reading I did with a breathtaking view of Alaskan/Canadian coast just over my shoulder.
June 28, Juneau: The Icefield
While in Juneau, I hiked on the famous ice field. The Juneau Icefield covers nearly 2,500 miles and includes over 20 glaciers. I was so in awe of the spectacle while flying in a helicopter over portions of icefield that I forgot to ask the pilot which specific glacier we would be hiking on; however, referring to the icefield map afterwards, it appeared as though our group hiked on the Mendenhall Glacier. After donning gloves and helmets to our already fitted boots, pants, and jackets, the tour guides helped fasten crampons and harnesses and gave us each an ice ax and a backpack. For three hours, we trekked along the icefield viewing stunning blue ice where the snow had accumulated and had compacted the underlying snow layers from previous years into solid ice, causing changes in volume, density, and crystal structure. The ice appears blue because it absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum, except blue, which it transmits.
Perhaps the most magnificent component of the glacier was the icefalls, created when the glacier would move downhill on a steep slope. These icefalls are literally hanging glaciers, falling slowly over time by the force of gravity. As the glacier advances down the mountainside and into valley, it breaks apart and accumulates into massive piles of melting and solid ice with huge gaps separating ice blocks the size of houses. The ice blocks then continue to tilt and twist under the weight of the ice above them. Occasionally, we would have to jump over a crack in the glacier only about 18 inches wide, but over 100 feet deep. We could hear a waterfall deep under the surface. When we reached the point where the water dropped off into the narrow gorge, we dumped our bottled water and filled our bottles with the real thing—glacier water. It tasted far better than anything I have ever drank.
We would occasionally walk on what looked like water, where organic material, such as leaves blown in from the nearest mountainside, had landed, and their energy would melt the ice only to have it freeze over, creating a bright clear-blue frozen pond. We all led with our ice axes testing the ice to ensure it was not water; it was that clear. When we crossed the clear-blue ice pond, I could see the base camp tents and knew our excursion was about over. I would be lying if I said that the rest of the cruise and the excursions were anticlimactic, but without a doubt, the best part of the vacation was at an end.
June 30, Skagway: The Davidson GlacierIn Skagway, we took a ride on a 3200 horsepower catamaran to a secluded area near the toe of the Davidson Glacier called Glacier Point. On the beach where the catamaran dropped us off, the mosquitoes were so thick a person could hit at least two with a single swat. We hiked through a rain forest where the guides assured us that, while this was Grizzly country, the trees were too close together for bears to hunt. Still, I regarded the narrow trees to see if I could climb any of them if one of the behemoths was too hungry to care about the tight fit forest or happened to discover our eight-foot-wide trail.
In the center of the forest, we found our guides’ Spartan living quarters. Before using the outhouse, the guide implored us to put our used toilet paper in a box adjacent to, but not directly in, the waste pit. The guides said they dig out the pit every two weeks and add the fortnight’s produce to a nearby compost pile; if there is any toilet paper in the pile, they have to remove it by hand. On the outhouse deck were a half-dozen bottles of mosquito repellent. After dousing ourselves with the spray, we took a short hike to canoes where we paddled to the glacier. One thing that fascinated me about the guides was that the mosquitoes were not attacking them. Additionally, they did their presentations without a single swat at the bugs—as if the bloodsuckers flying around their head were not there.
The glacier would have seemed awesome had I not be hiking on the Juneau Icefield a couple days previous. Still, when the guide explained why we couldn’t get any closer than about 100 feet from the ice, I was impressed. He told us that if the glacier corked (i.e., if the bottom of the glacier, underwater, broke off and shot to the surface), the displacement of water would be so great that we might be knocked over or hit by the giant wave. This explained the outboard motors on all the canoes. We did see a part of the glacier calve. Actually, everyone in the canoe, except me, saw the giant piece of ice break loose from the glacier and splash into the fjord; all I heard was the violent CRACK and when I turned around, I only saw the big splash and heard everyone saying, “Wow, did you see that!” It’s ironic that years ago I began what ultimately turned out to be a ten-year harping to my wife about going on an Alaskan cruise on the prospect of seeing a glacier calve. I missed my only chance.
July 2, Prince Rupert, B.C.: Whale WatchingI saw a Humpback Whale in the waters off Prince Rupert, British Columbia. It is amazing to get so close to one. Now I know why all the people fresh from Alaskan cruises either talk about their experience seeing one up close or whine about not seeing any at all; it’s a stirring experience. Since we missed the season when most Humpbacks are in the area, the guide played down the whale-watching portion of the trip and talked about the seals we were heading out to visit. When the Humpback surfaced, we chased it for a while until its tail fin appeared, signifying it was going down for a long dive. We caught up with it sometime later; however, it did a long dive again, and we headed back to the dock.
Before we took our Zodiac craft out to try to track down these gentle giants of the sea, our guide drove us only a few yards from where the craft was moored to point out Bald Eagles in flocks as thick as seagulls. The majestic birds have grown lazy, roosting near a dock. They now wait for the fishing boats to come back to scrounge for food. This was not the habitat I imagined the iconic American bird to have. Perhaps they are just lazy in Canada.
The sad thing about the excursion was that it was, minus a trip to an old cannery later that day, the last one on the trip. The next two days we were at sea, much of that time was spent eating, reading, and packing. Even in fifty-degree weather, I was beginning to feel the heat of Sacramento.
Home: Smoke and Heat
Four days later, back at work, I just stared at my LCD’s wallpaper, an image of the giant Mendenhall Glacier, fondling a small wooden box I bought in Skagway, supposedly made by natives; it’s the only thing I can touch that came from the place. I feel a little like Peter Riegert’s character in Local Hero—an outsider who falls in love with a foreign land and its rugged beauty but has to return to his lonely office.
I’m now at home playing fetch with our dog in triple-digit weather. I’m in my backyard—the “wilder-ness” and am amazed that I can’t see clearly from one side of my yard to the other; the heat and the smoke from all the Northern California fires have made me long for Alaska. Even the ruggedness of Glacier Point would be a welcome substitute—at least you can swat mosquitoes, you can’t swat smoke.

On Certain Saturdays

Occasionally, when the weather isn’t prohibitive, I walk to a café about two miles from my house. It’s good exercise—and usually boring as hell. The route I take brings me by a small camper, maybe only 15 feet long and not very tall. I’d imagined it was for sleeping only—no stove or toilet, like some have. On one Saturday, while I was walking by the trailer I saw a man in his forties, and what I assume was his teenaged son, unlatch the back wall of the trailer and set it down, revealing two dirt bikes. As they wheeled the two four-stroke motorcycles out of the trailer and onto the front lawn, a melancholy feeling swept over me. I wanted to abort my health walk and start a conversation with the father figure. I had a thousand questions for him and many tales from my youth I wanted to impart. Even if I’d had the nerve to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, and he was friendly enough to reciprocate, he would get tired of all my questions and my “When I was into dirt bikes…” stories. Still, the feeling hung with me like a dull ache for many days following the encounter.

First thing the following Monday morning, I emailed someone at work who I knew was a dirt bike enthusiast about some of the changes in the dirt bike world over the last few years. “Ben,” I’ll call him, was happy to fill me in on the details, though, being younger than me, he could not fill me in on all 30 years that I have been away from the sport; in fact, his emails took on a kind of anxious tone when I kept the email correspondence going far beyond his own interest. (Perhaps it was a good idea I kept walking the other day.)

Ben helped me understand why these two dirt bikes I saw, which clearly were racing bikes, replete with number plates, had four-stroke engines—when I followed the sport the four-stroke engine was relegated almost exclusively to the street due to the engine’s weight and poor, low-end performance. California’s green legislation, Ben told me, has hurt the two-stroke motorcycle owners. One can ride a four-stroke dirt bike (also known as a “thumper” because of the low-pitch sound that it makes) year round compared to two-stroke bikes, which can only be ridden when air quality permits; this is determined by the Air Quality Index (AQI). This translates into two-stroke bikers can’t ride on public land during the warm weather months. Also, if for some reason air quality is poor during the cool months, they may not be able to operate their bikes on those days either.

I was a true wannabe dirt biker when I was a kid. For the year or two that he competed, my father was an accomplished novice racer, winning trophies in Enduro, Hare and Hounds (Scrambles), and Hillclimbing competitions. He didn’t like Motocross—what I believe to be the coolest and most exiting motor sport in the world—because “you just go around in circles.” Typically self-effacing, he would come home from a race with a huge trophy, walk directly into the garage, and throw it up in the attic, never to be seen (at least by him) again. I used to go up in that crawl space, set up his trophies—which included awards in auto and boat racing—like a shrine. I couldn’t understand how someone could actually win something like a trophy (and some of them where big, from big events), then just chuck it like an ugly dish won from a coin toss at the State Fair.

In my near 50 years, I have never won a trophy; the closest things I have are the numerous certificates a State employee receives for training. I feel so special when I receive the decoration on multipurpose printer paper and see the blank line where I am supposed to enter my own name, for sleeping through a class on “Professionalism in the Workplace.” Some of my father’s trophies have his name etched on gold plaques.

Though my father was not an expert rider, he occasionally raced with accomplished professional riders like Hall of Fame inductee Dick Mann, who is featured on the 1974 Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday; though my dad admits he couldn’t keep up with the legend. I saw the Brown film with my dad when it first came out and then again just a few weeks ago after all these feelings of longing hit me on that street where I saw those two dirt bikes. I think my dad had hopes that his two sons would ride with him, but when he brought a little 50cc Honda mini bike home that fateful day, we were petrified of the little thing.

Later, when I grew out of my fear of falling and, to some extent, my fear of my father, I asked him for a 125cc Honda Elsinore. By that time, he was no longer interested in dirt bikes; he now ran around in the dirt with a dune buggy. I guess he didn’t want to spend the money on a new bike for me since he sold his last bike, or maybe he thought I was just all talk. He later bought me a 70cc Honda. I don’t recall what happened to that bike. However, I do remember riding that bike and my mom’s old 90cc Hodaka, but he only took me out to an OHV park a couple of times to ride it. I usually went out to the gravel pit (now William B. Pond Park at the East end of Arden Way in Carmichael) and played around there.

Similar to how I watched the Oakland Athletics when I was playing little league, I kept up with the professional racing side of the sport, subscribing to Dirt Bike magazine. I had my favorite riders, just as fans of baseball have their favorite players and teams. Only a Motocross maven like me would call it an honor to be clocked by Brad Lackey’s handlebars when we went to Livermore to see an International Motocross. It didn’t feel like an “honor” at first—more as as if I had just walked into Barry Bonds’ wheelhouse as he was swinging for the Bay. I saw all the leaders go by—Swedes, Fins, Belgians, and Germans, then I leaned over to get a better look and Lackey came in close with his lime-green Kawasaki. The next thing I knew I was grabbing my arm and trying not to faint.

I would have loved to get the future World Champion’s autograph next to the big bruise; alas, it would have faded away much as the bruise did. What paled in comparison to the Lackey bruise was the bruise I received by a line-drive foul ball in a 1972 ALCS game at the Oakland Coliseum. I don’t even remember the batter’s name. Who cares who that Baltimore Oriole player was; I got a black, blue, purple, and sickly yellow bruise by Brad Lackey! I would later get 500cc World Champion Roger DeCoster’s signature on a cool 8×10 glossy of him on his Suzuki when I saw him at Carmichael Honda a few months after the race, but I misplaced it. If I ever find it, I will probably also rediscover the banquet program with the autographs of the future 1972-74 World Series Champions; yes, I had a dynasty on a 1968 fund-raiser program and I misplaced it.

In my correspondence with Ben, he also told me about Monkey Butt!, the book written by Dirt Bike magazine’s first editor, Rick Sieman. (The title comes from a condition, the author states, where a person has been riding dirt bikes for so long that his rear end starts to look like a monkey’s ass.) The next day, Ben came down with his worn copy of Sieman’s book. I didn’t ask to borrow the book and felt somewhat awkward taking it, but after I started reading it, I was transfixed. Monkey Butt! is poorly written, poorly edited (if edited at all) and—for someone like me who experienced this subculture (albeit from the cheap seats) some thirty years ago—a blast of a read, typos and all.

The book is a collection of very short essays that range from the whimsical to the outrageous to the occasionally poignant. Sieman is not an accomplished writer; his style is provincial at best, but what better voice for this subject? A friend once told me I was a fool to read Dirt Bike, he told me Cycle World was a better-written and more serious motorcycle magazine. In retrospect, he was correct, but that wasn’t the point—Cycle World was more like the Establishment: proper, sober, and shiny—like a chrome stock fender. Dirt Bike was the Counterculture: irreverent, funny, and as gritty as a Carlsbad berm.

Sieman captures the excitement of experiencing a brand new pastime much like the Bruce Brown film so beautifully celebrates. However, Sieman’s book goes back to the dusty alleys where street bike enthusiasts would tinker with top-heavy, ill-handling road bikes that were stripped down for racing in the desert. The book chronicles the rise of a different kind of motorcycle club dedicated to dirt and desert racing, documenting the synergy of this movement with the evolution of the two-cycle dirt bike to meet these hungry new enthusiasts’ demand of lighter, faster machines. Just like in surfing—which was gathering momentum at the same time—southern California became the Mecca for the dirt and desert racing subculture. In typical American style, dirt bike racing became an “American sport,” despite Europe’s legitimate claim to the pastime. Monkey Butt! is a remembrance of this discovery.

While the first half of the book focuses on the early, developing years, the second half is mainly about the battle between off-road bikers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the other “eco-nazis,” as Sieman calls them. This part is where my love for the dirt bike runs smack into my liberal politics. Still, Sieman puts up a strong argument for desert racing, claiming that the ecosystem of the Mojave Desert, just to name one, is always in a state of change:

“One sandstorm in the Mojave can move millions of tons of sand and dirt over hundreds of miles. One flash flood can tear away the base of a mountain. How can this compare with a set of tire tracks over shifting sands? If all the dirt bikes in America got together and rode around in a circle for a month at a spot in the Mojave, one sandstorm could wipe out every evidence of them having been there. Overnight.”

Still, I know there are other arguments that support the abolishment of desert racing, such as the endangerment of the Mojave Desert Tortoise and other wildlife, but that does not stop developers from creating fire roads, mines, and other types of development that do just as much damage. If Sieman is very critical of the BLM, he equally doles out harsh words about the American Motorcycle Association. He believes they have been impotent against these powers and act like a puppet for Japanese motorcycle corporations who do not support the very people who buy, ride, and race motorcycles because they want to avoid making waves in the U.S.

Reading the book only exasperated my longing for a time I never truly experienced first-hand. I was more like a third-string high school football player, permanently pined for the season, watching my teammates win the State Championship. With each story in the book, I recall names and events that I knew of, but because of either my age or my situation, I was always on the outside looking in.

My last bike was a 125cc Yamaha Enduro DT-1, but I never rode it in the dirt—it was my ride to and from high school for a couple of years. When I got my first car, I was already deep into listening to and writing about rock music and movies, and lost interest in the dirt-racing scene. I never returned to the dirt bike world. Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, and Bob Dylan had replaced Joel Roberts, Roger DeCoster, and Dick Mann in my personal pantheon.

The years went by and I only heard bits of news of the dirt biking world: There’s this thing called Supercross, kind of a combination of motocross and, I don’t know, football? Anyway, it takes place in a stadium where you have an assigned seat as though you’re at a football or baseball game. Hell, that’s no fun; you can’t freely walk around the track to the best berm or the starting line or finish line, where you are inches away from your hero and his handlebars. Ironically, Dirt Bike was instrumental in organizing the first Supercross: the Superbowl of Motocross held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1974. Then there’s the latest thing that I’ve seen on TV, Freestyle Motocross (or FMX) where riders take dirt bikes and try to do daring, artistic moves way up in the air. It looks more dangerous than Motocross, but it still is kind of lame; the whole thing flies in the face of real Motocross, where you want to get as little air as possible. Also, FMX is not a race, but rather something contestants are judged on—like figure skating. Anyway, I guess this old fart is out of it.

On another Saturday walk, I find myself spying on the dirt bike family getting ready for the races. I have my mobile phone to my ear, as though I’m talking to someone, and I stare through my dark shades at the father and son checking out their bikes. The trailer door is down and is now a ramp. (Oh, the trailer is more spacious than I thought, and the amenities!) The father starts one of the bikes. It has an electric starter. Hmm, that seems kind of sissy compared to the old kick-starting method in my day. They look over at me standing in the middle of the street, “talking” to someone on my mobile phone, and then father says something to his son that I can’t hear over the thumper’s pulse. Perhaps they are wondering if I am some kind of wannabe. They don’t know half the story.