An Article About "Living the Simple Life" : LUSENET : Country Families : One Thread

Living the Simple Life Making the Transition from Vanity to Sanity by Steven H. Simenowitz

My wife and I had it all - or so we thought. Two lucrative careers in the corporate world, an enormous home (with two enormous mortgages), two shiny new cars (with two shiny new car payments), a housekeeper and nanny for the kids. So why weren't we satisfied?

One night I took the family to the circus. There we saw a performer who had about a dozen or so poles (looked like the fiberglass electric fence poles) which he stood up one by one and spun plates on. As he added plates, he would run back to the earlier ones and re-spin them to keep them all simultaneously "afloat". Occasionally one would fall and break and he would just grab another and set it aspinnin'.

That night I had a revelation. That circus act was the perfect metaphor for my life. I realized that I was the guy with the poles and that unless I did something quickly, I was forever doomed to an existence of running around to keep plates spinning and the more plates I spun, the faster I had to run to keep them in motion. I began to realize that many of the trapping of our success were illusory and that they were exacting an unconscionable price from our lives - time with our young children, peace of mind and contentment of spirit.

Around that time, I had occasion to attend the Northeast Organic Farming conference (NOFA) . I participated in a workshop aptly entitled "Getting by on Less". During the workshop, one participant pointed out that he subsisted on $7,000 a year. I pithily remarked that $7,000 would not have carried me to the 15th of any given month. That alone gave me serious pause for thought.

A second seminar introduced me to a wonderful book by Linda Kelley intriguingly entitled Two Incomes and Still Broke (Random House 1996). The basic premise of the book is that much (if not most) of a second working spouse's income is eaten up in "JRE's" (job related expenses). If the tax bite doesn't take a huge chunk of it, childcare certainly comes in a close second. Ditto for all the higher priced conveniences necessitated by our hectic schedules. Prepared foods, higher dry cleaning bills, auto maintenance and for what? My wife thus concluded that despite her title and dizzying salary, when the dust cleared and the net, net, net was figured out, she was an essentially minimum wage slave to a demanding, thankless career - fast food income with Wall Street accountability!

We needed to escape so we hatched a plan. First we listed all of our liabilities and assets. Then we vowed to eliminate all debt from our lives and start getting by on less. We rapidly started dismantling the empire of "stuff" with which we had painted ourselves into the proverbial corner. Garage sales, classified ads, auctions, etc. I realized that I didn't really need three of these and four of those. For what we sold an acre of vacant land on Long Island, NY for, we were able to buy a smaller home with some acreage in a small town in Vermont.

In addition to being able to live on less, far from the malls and black tie balls, small town living has thrown off unanticipated dividends. It has helped us hone our sense of self as well as our role in the community. When we were first considering the town we currently live in, a well meaning friend told us, "Readsboro would be a great town if it weren't for the 'Mayberry' thing". Well it is precisely the "Mayberry" thing which held the greatest promise for us. We soon felt connected in this little town of barely 600 souls in a way we never did living in a suburban enclave of 50,000. Before we were even settled in a truck pulled up with a number of claw footed bathtubs in the back. The driver told us, "we heard you were bringing horses up and we were wondering whether you wanted any of these as watering troughs".

Along the same vein, a neighbor's house burnt down about six months ago. They had no insurance and immediately the community sprang to action. Benefit events and concerts were held, everyone donated clothes, furniture etc and the local mills donated lumber and building supplies. A house raising was held evidencing a community cohesiveness that would make any Amish community green with envy!

We've since settled in with little fanfare, making our transition to self-sufficiency while developing the potential of our land and ourselves. We haven't become Luddites. We have found however that technology is greatly overrated and comes with its own set of baggage. Bigger is not necessarily better. Faster is not necessarily quicker. We don't believe that technology is per se evil - it is actually somewhat benign. It's how and when you use it that counts.

For example, while some hailed the Internet as the next epidemic (and I can't say I was shocked to learn that it had recently been declared an addiction along with drugs, alcohol and gambling), to us it represented access to educational sources previously out of our reach and worlds of new contacts, especially critical given our physical isolation. Witness this newsletter - promoting simpler living throughout cyberspace and the lovely community of like-minded souls it has attracted! (Our carrots are soundly asleep for the winter in buckets of sand thanks to one of the Lehman's e-mail newsletter subscribers). Likewise, we have a television - we just don't get any reception up here in the mountains (that's kind of an interesting philosophical paradigm which allows us to appease the grandparents -- "yes mom, the kids have a TV" -- while preserving our bragging rights among our greener friends!)

We have electricity and a truck. We just like to leave a "lighter footprint" wherever possible and prefer the quiet reflective mood created by gas or candlelight with less dependence on non-renewable fuels. While I can certainly drive my truck into town, my true thrill is hitching up a cart and taking the extra time to notice the changing seasons on the road down the mountain. It's incredible how much detail you can observe at 4 m.p.h. that totally escape the eye as you whizz by at 50 m.p.h. The Draft Horse Journal recently reprinted an amazing statistic. "The average speed of a horse-drawn vehicle through London in 1888 was 8mph. The average speed of traffic through downtown London in 1988 was 8mph." Think about that for a moment. It kinda gives the famous New England maxim "can't get there from here" a whole new meaning!

"Multitasking" is a huge corporate buzzword these days. In the corporate jungle it could be cynically defined as "the art of doing many things poorly at the same time". Under the prevailing corporate philosophy, one should be receiving e-mails remotely while on line through one's palm pilot while simultaneously seeing a client via remote video hookup while attending a high level meeting being piped over the radio waves directly to the interior of your Land Rover.

Multitasking to us has taken on a gentler meaning. When I hitch up one of my horses to a tine harrow and harrow the fields, I am simultaneously exercising myself, my horse, (all while strengthening our working partnership) alleviating a manure problem and increasing the fertility of the soil that feeds my family. Put that in your pipe and smoke that you corporate raiders! Putting the cost of that health club membership back into my pocket hasn't hurt either.

While on the subject of health clubs, aren't all those people on treadmills and stairmasters getting nowhere in a hurry just the perfect metaphor for the rat race? I read recently that one enterprising politician ran on a campaign platform that would make it mandatory to hook up generators to all of those treadmills and stationary bicycles. Imagine a city powered by couch potatoes and not fossil fuel. Hmmmm!

Even though we are relatively "low tech" we still take some time to allow our spirits a complete rest from all things technical. On our Sabbath day we don't use electricity or the phone or the cars or cook in accordance with the various Old Testament injunctions pertaining thereto. As a result, we return to the chores of the week renewed and refreshed in body and spirit. It seems that more than us keeping the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps us! When I asked an Amish friend about sleeping accommodations within walking distance of the recent Horse Progress Days in Lancaster PA, he asked "don't you even drive your horses on Saturdays?" When I told him we didn't, he laughed and said "you're worse than us!"

To be sure we are still in the "transition" phase as we jokingly refer to it. Yet we have never looked back and said we shouldn't have done what we did. As we approach the new millennium with its myriad of Y2k concerns, I am confident in the knowledge that I will still be able to tap our sugarbush with my trusty old hand brace (no embedded microprocessors) and collect sap with my state-of-the-art, Y2k compliant sap-transporters - our team of Percherons, Prince and Bill.

-- Melissa in SE Ohio (, April 27, 2002


Living the Simple Life II Part 2: Transition from vanity to sanity by Steven H. Simenowitz

From the volume of e-mails, calls and snail mails I received in response to the last installment of "Ruminations", one would think that there is a full-fledged revolution underfoot - a draft horse- drawn race towards simplicity and a wholesale disentanglement from the tentacles of corporate America. Let's hope that's the case!

I thought it might be helpful (as well as cathartic and perhaps even fun) to respond to some of the recurring questions.

One question which cropped up time after time was how does one find that special "corner of the sky"?

Tea leaves, dice, coin tosses, darts and pins in the map are as good places as any to start! Seriously, there is no one way to locate your dream homestead. A healthy mixture of inspiration and perspiration will make matters somewhat easier, but it's inevitably going to involve some tough decision making.

The top three criteria in choosing real estate have traditionally been location, location, location (any questions so far?). As always, "the devil is in the details". What constitutes a suitable location? That's where the fun comes in. Do you want to grow oranges or make maple syrup? How rural do you want to get? Paradoxically, many homesteaders rely on tourist dollars, whether to support a horse and carriage business or a "pick your own" type venture. This necessarily presupposes that you will need, to some degree, to be accessible to a larger population center. While the Internet has certainly opened up marketing possibilities to the rural set, it's still pretty tough to get a team of Percherons into the modem!

Obviously agriculture has specific needs as well. Is the land cleared (or can it be cleared or even should it be cleared)? Can it support crops? livestock? Does it have water? Is it on the grid? Off the grid? Is it buildable?

There are a host of books and pamphlets about finding and buying your place in the country such as the tome aptly entitled Finding and Buying your place in the country, How to buy land cheap and the extremely useful pamphlet Buying Country Land (published in Pownal, a couple of towns over from us). Especially helpful is Buying and setting up your Small Farm or Ranch, which even contains a chapter on choosing farm names, written by the tenacious Lynn Miller, publisher of Small Farmers Journal. To a certain extent, they all deal with zoning and legal issues, financing, escrow (no, that's not a leafy salad green), timber rights, and riparian rights (a fancy name for what you can do with that stream or river which runs through your property). An in-depth exploration of any of them would obviously be beyond the scope of this article but perhaps our experience in homestead hunting will shed some light on more than one of these amorphous concepts.

A cautionary word. Imagination is a wonderful thing and a powerful catalyst for change. However, try not to paint too vivid a mental picture of your dream farm or you are bound to be disappointed. Reality can only fall short of expectation.

There is a story told of a king touring the countryside. He saw a row of targets painted on the side of a barn. All of the bulls-eyes were shot out. The king immediately halted his procession and demanded to meet this expert marksman, intending to draft him into the royal militia. The farmer begrudgingly agreed to accompany the royal procession back to the capital. He did however share the secret of his skill with the king before their departure. He told the king "you should be aware that I shoot the hole first and then paint the target around it!"

So too with homestead hunting. We actually went into the venture open minded and looked at what each parcel had to offer rather than try to fit a given parcel into a prepackaged notion of preordained perfection. If it was mostly cleared land, we explored its potential for crops and grazing. If wooded, we looked at possibilities for sugaring, sustainable logging, and wagon and sleigh trails. The lack of a definite agenda gave us a great deal more emotional freedom that we might have otherwise lost had we been hopelessly locked into a mental image of a picture perfect Currier & Ives farm scene.

We began house hunting about three years ago. Ironically, we were initially drawn to the town we moved to by an ad for a log home (we had always wanted a log home). A local broker showed us the home and he seemed thrilled at the prospect of a sale as the house had been on the market for quite some time. The house was not perfect - it had no barn, was fairly contemporary inside despite the rustic interior and I had reservations about the quality of the log construction itself. The siting was also questionable (on top of an exposed hill which was washing away daily. Nevertheless, we were motivated to make it work. Incredibly, when we were ready to make an offer on the house, we were told that a competing offer had been received the day before!

Not wishing to get involved in a bidding war given the amount of housing inventory in the area, we told the crestfallen broker that we would pass on the house. He begged us to wait three weeks as "many deals tended to fall through" by virtue of the inability of prospective purchasers to get mortgages or a house not appraising or a half a dozen other reasons. As we sadly drove down the hill into town that evening, we were mesmerized by the glowing lights illuminating the valley and the sleepy little town snugly nestled inside it. The folks at the general store helped us find a broker specializing in Readsboro properties. We immediately found another house that we liked even more for less money on the next road over! It was something out of a picture postcard - perched securely on a hill sheltered in the rear from the bone-chilling north winds by the mountains and flanked in front by two stately maples. The fields in front of the house sloped gracefully to the south and the wooded acres were interspersed with healthy mature sugar maples and assorted hardwoods. But it was really the barn - a magnificent 18th century English barn with hand hewn post and beam frame that did it for us! We went to contract a week later.

True to his word, when we got back to New York after going to contract, the broker was on the answering machine informing us that the other deal had fallen through! Needless to say, the log home has since had a number of chimney fires and leaks, much of the hill has washed away and a later set of purchasers abandoned it leaving it a forlorn, vandalized, boarded-up foreclosure. Call it what you will, but for reasons unknown to us, somebody "upstairs" apparently didn't want that house on the market while we were house hunting!

A gentle footnote on the "Currier & Ives" thing. We met a couple a few years ago at a draft horse workshop. They were also looking for their dream farm and kept talking about the Currier & Ives factor. Everyone got a big kick out of it and they were unceremoniously dubbed "Currier & Ives" for the rest of the weekend. On reflection, however the Currier & Ives thing is more important than one might realize at first blush. In retrospect, I find that no matter how many times I take the team out on the roads, when I come up the driveway and see that little house peeking out from behind the maples, knowing that the woodstoves are lit and my family is warm and safe inside, I feel that our homestead provides shelter for our spirits as well as a roof over our heads.

-- Melissa in SE Ohio (, April 27, 2002.

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-- Melissa in SE Ohio (, April 27, 2002.

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