(Warning: non technical jottings ahead!)
I tried a little experiment in 2008: living smaller.
I caught public transport only. I got rid of extra lightbulbs. I baked my own bread. I froze my own dumplings. I didn't buy any gadget. I didn't buy any CD. I didn't get a flatscreen TV. No home phone; no home internet; no cable TV; no new art; no gin. I only took one international trip (which was quite important) and two domestic flights (to my dear parent's 80th birthdays) but turned down several work opportunities that involved flying, even though it meant less satisfactory participation at SC34 WG1. I let my passport lapse.
When my kettle broke, I didn't replace it: I use a pot. When my contact lenses broke, I didn't even replace them (which means that when I saw the Benjamin Button movie last week, Brad Pitt looked the same in every frame, unfortunately.) When my socks had a hole, I repaired them; I didn't buy any clothes, and I avoided wearing clothes that would need dry cleaning or special treatment. When my courtyard grapevine died due to amorous possums, I didn't replant.
I worked less, and earned way less, and spent more time writing and thinking. I was asked to write a book, but I decided against it in 2008: living simpler means avoiding tar babies. I am increasingly attracted to the small house idea, a dogtrot house perhaps or La Maison de Plougrescant. And look at Jane Austin's writing desk!
At various times I let my mobile phone lapse too, and toyed with the idea of getting the power cut off: a fantasy involving those camper lights with solar power and a gas burner for small meals evolved and the climate in Sydney is such that you can get away with no heating or cooling if your abode is insulated, at a pinch. Indeed, having no after-dark power might be the best thing for my night-owl-ism (which verges on diurnal manic depression, clinically.) But I couldn't go that far...
This leads to a very placid lifestyle: I don't think I have ever been less engaged with the rat race, and at the same time, less restless (outside office hours.) Part of this is undoubtedly due to the lack of bad news this year: I had no more rare and surprising illnesses and my three closest mates all recovered from addictions or the sicknesses coming from the needle: crystal meths, nicotine and heroin's hep C.
2008 was a good year for my friends: no leap forwards, just the removal of long-standing shackles that moved me to tears of joy on more than one ocassion.
I don't think I could be an eccentric recluse like a hermit unless it was in the middle of a bustling, pretty cosmopolis like Sydney: just this week I had coffee with my favourite Mongolian who had just finished his first novel in German; perhaps I should be more attracted to people in more populated categories. But perhaps a boyhood outside the metropolis gives the gift that the glamour of things is not so strong: I don't know if a lack of consumerism will be a virtue in these molten-down times (making a virtue out the necessity of belt-tightening and small footprinting) or a flaw (since we need to spend to stimulate our economies.)
In Japan under the Shoguns, there were tight sumptuary laws that prevented ordinary people from such luxuries as chairs and tables. The result was a culture rich in fabric, ceramic, paper, lacquer, gardens, calligraphy and small objects that could be stored away. There is little stark about a simple traditional Japanese tatami room, which can be contrasted with the starkness of the ideological modesty of Shaker furniture, for example: indeed, the plainness of tatami room merely provides a frame which shows off the beauty of craftsmanship, design and display. So simplicity is not antagonistic to beauty.
The experiment of 2008 is over. I need my lenses. I don't particularly feel I need my mobile, but my friends consider it unfriendly not to be at their beck and call, to invite me out to watch the transvestites at the Taxi Club or to commiserate with them when they have returned, drunk and repentant. This week I sneaked a connection to a neighbour's unprotected wireless internet and felt very naughty: I think I will offer to share the bill with them rather than getting my own connection however. I have accepted a sponsored overseas speaking engagement for the new year.
So what did I learn? Simplicity is great if it is coupled with quality household goods, but terrible with commodity goods that bust all the time. I am using my grandparents' table knives: they use a kind of steel that has not been produced for about 70 years now: they are thin blades that never need sharpening and cut as well as a carving knife. They are great examples of the kind of quality I am looking for: when you know you will be eating with a sharp knife, you don't need to make concessions in your cooking to making all food soft and mousse loose (which seems to be held up as a sign of good cooking in America, despite being the continent of jerky.) High quality uncomplicates the things it touches, it seems to me. Though not all our modern anxiety can be directly attributed to poor metalurgy, unfortunately.
So simplicity does not let us escape entirely consumerism, in the sense that it leaves one free from considering things: indeed. it seems to merely lift the game. If I want my knives to be in continuous use for fifty or one hundred years, they need to be good. And the quality equation only makes sense over commodity goods if they are beautiful or excellent.
Having zigged in 2008, probably it is time to zag.
Best wishes to all my readers in 2009. I have really enjoyed your comments and private email on the things I have written about, and I am embarrassingly flattered to have such a quality readership.
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." Mr Micawber, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
I wish my readers happiness, even if it is just the simple one of the nineteen nineteen six, in 2009.