Finding your self-sufficient sweet spot

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?



[This article originally appeared as a guest post on Self Reliance Exchange, but that site no longer exists and the successor site doesn’t seem to be using my post. Rather than just let the article disappear, I figured I’d post it here.]

Fabric on loom
Fabric on Loom

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

My wife spins and weaves. I have a beautiful sweater that she hand knit from hand spun yarn. It’s wonderful—and it’s comforting to know that my household is not only self-sufficient in woolens, we produce a surplus that we can sell or trade. But the fact is you can buy a perfectly good sweater at Wal-Mart for less than the cost of the yarn to knit it.

If you try to be genuinely self-sufficient—in the sense of producing through your own labor everything your household uses, like a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer—you’re going to be poor. Your neighbor who works at a job for wages or a salary is going to be better off by almost every measure.

Oh, his factory-made microwave meals won’t be as good as home-cooked food from your garden and his furniture from Ikea won’t be as good as what you make in your wood shop. But he’ll have so much more! In the time it takes you just to build a kiln he’ll earn enough money to buy a thirty piece set of Corelle ware. Unless he’s only making minimum wage, he’ll probably have enough left over to buy an iPod—and you’ll never be able to make your own iPod from sand and vegetable oil.

That’s why we have trade. If everybody specializes in one or a few things, and then trades with others for what they need, everybody can be better off. It raises your standard of living, but it means that you can’t be self-sufficient.

There are still many reasons to do for yourself. You can make exactly what you want, instead of having to make do with whatever happens to be available on the market. You can use superior materials, and take them from the environment in a sustainable manner. You don’t have to worry that the stuff you use was made in a sweatshop by children or prisoners or slaves. You aren’t dependent on the continued smooth functioning of the vast global economy. But you can’t be self-sufficient in very many things—even if you had the skills and the tools and the land, you’d quickly run out of time.

So, we find ourselves trying to figure out where we belong on the continuum between actual self-sufficiency and ordinary self-reliance. How do you find the sweet spot? Here are my thoughts:

  1. Focus on necessities. It’s a lot more important to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and housing than it is to be self-sufficient in tennis rackets and rollerblades.
  2. Focus on capabilities. Instead of trying to fill your pantry by hunting and fishing, do enough to maintain and improve your skills—and then start developing your next capability.
  3. Focus on what’s practical. It’s really hard to be self-sufficient in window glass and impossible to be self-sufficient in digital watches. Don’t waste your time.

Start with the few things where homemade actually is cheaper, like gardening. Then move on to things that can be done as a hobby—and that you’d enjoy doing as a hobby. Don’t let point #1 above (necessities) keep you from developing self-sufficiency in something that’s fun and interesting just because it’s not important. It may not be important to be self-sufficient in beer, but the equipment is cheap, brewing is a pretty easy skill to acquire, and the result is better than what you can buy.

Finally, remember that there’s a vast range between being “self” sufficient and being dependent on a global supply chain. It’s almost as good as self-sufficiency to source things from your neighbors. Short of that, it’s still an improvement to source things closer rather than farther—your home town, your region, your state, your country.

Once you set your priorities, don’t hesitate to go with the cheapest option for things that don’t make the cut.  That frees up money that you can use on the important underpinnings of self-sufficiency—things like land and tools in particular, but also things like books, training classes, materials to practice with, and so on.

Then you’re in your sweet spot.

Characters who learn

I want to talk about something that Patrick Rothfuss does very well. It’s really a small piece of his vast array of skills—the lyrical language, the masterful worldbuilding, the high adventure, the compelling characters—but I think it’s integral to the way he manages to hit those powerful emotional high points over and over again.

His characters learn. They learn all the time.

Most stories are about characters who learn. Not all: James Bond doesn’t grow and change; a lot of older episodic fiction was structured so that characters returned to the status quo ante by the end of every episode. But most stories are about a character who needs to learn better. The story leads the character through a series of events that somehow provide the needed education, and at the end the character behaves in such a way that we understand that the necessary lesson has been learned.

A very short story can be not much more than this. In a longer story, though, the result is often quite unsatisfactory, especially if the cycle—flaw leading to wrong action leading to suffering—is repeated. By the time we get to the end of a story like that, I no longer care much whether the hero will learn to care about other people or overcome his addiction or stop blaming himself for some long-ago mistake.

One way for the novelist to handle this is to have other problems for the hero to overcome. If the hero is busy saving the world, it’s easier to accept that he’s not overcoming his personal problems as quickly as we’d like. When, in the end, he does overcome his personal problems—especially when doing so is also key to saving the world—it can be very satisfying. But to make that work, the reader has to be kept aware of the flaw, which means once again we have repeated cycles of flaw, wrong action, suffering. Cycles that I find tedious and frustrating.

The other, better, way for the novelist to handle this is to have the hero make incremental progress in learning what he needs to learn. It’s both more realistic and more interesting. The problem is that it tends not to lead to the sort of rising action that makes for a satisfying climax. Partial learning leads to less wrong action which leads to less suffering—this is not stuff from which it is easy to form a compelling climax.

This is where Patrick Rothfuss displays incredible virtuosity. His characters (not just the hero, but also all the characters around him) learn stuff all the time. Because they learn stuff, they make fewer mistakes, they cause less suffering for themselves and the people around them. And yet, tension continues to rise. How does he do that?

Part of it is that, as they learn, their capabilities grow, and as their capabilities grow, their mistakes have larger consequences.

More important, as their capabilities grow, they choose to take on greater challenges. That’s realistic and interesting, but in less capable hands it often leads to stores that are too episodic. (Rothfuss overcomes that through the structure of a wrapping story, that lets us see early on that all the episodes are leading somewhere.)

I really want to learn to understand this better, because this feature—characters learning— creates repeated mini-climaxes. And here is where the virtuosity becomes manifest.

In inferior stories, the reader can plainly see what the hero needs to do—quit running away from his problems, quit being so full of himself, quit acting like a jerk, whatever—but has to wait to the end of the story for the hero to figure it out. In The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, by the time the reader understands what the character needs to do, the character is well on his way to understanding it as well. And when the character does learn (and demonstrates that learning by making better choices, and the better choices lead to better results), the reader feels the same glow produced by the climax of a great story. Over and over again.

And yet, tension continues to rise. Virtuosity. I want to learn it.

(Oh, and just as an aside: I once won a free book by writing the winning caption for this picture of Patrick Rothfuss.)

Who are the middle class?

As someone who’s written quite a bit about what’s a decent standard of living, I was intrigued by the post on the growing global middle class that Tobias Buckell just linked to in his post the exploding middle class to come. Toby includes a graph from the source article that shows a rapidly shrinking population of poor people, squeezed by modest growth in the rich combined with surging growth in the middle class.

I quickly clicked through to the source article, to see what their definition of “middle class” was, which turned out to be daily spending of between $10 and $100 per person.

Now, in a sense, that’s pretty reasonable. For a family of two that would multiply out to annual expenses between $7,300 and $73,000. At the low end there’s considerable overlap between “middle class” and “poverty” (the US Census Bureau has $13,991 as the poverty threshold for a family of two), but I think that’s fair: From a global perspective, just barely in poverty in the US probably counts as middle class.

But I know, from my own experience writing about our rising standard of living, that people have very strong feelings about these sorts of things. Would a couple getting by on $14,000 a year in the United States feel middle class? Some would. Some people, especially rural folks living a subsistence lifestyle, feel very strongly that they’re not poor, despite a money income below the official poverty threshold. But I don’t think that will be a typical response.

I wrote an article called “Our High, High Standard of Living,” that made the case that, just like in the 1950s, a working man could still support a family with just one income—as long as they lived at a 1950s standard of living. Full-time work at minimum wage would bring in just over $15,000 a year—not only solidly in “the middle class,” but comfortably above the poverty threshold. And yet, many commenters on that article suggested that it would be utterly impossible to support a family on that income.

My sense is that it would only be possible to live a middle-class lifestyle on $14,000 to $15,000 per year under very specific (very lucky) circumstances. At a minimum, you’d have to live in an inexpensive part of the country and you’d have to find unusually cheap housing close enough to where you worked that you wouldn’t need a car. You’d also have to be young and healthy. (My wife and I would qualify as part of the global middle class just on our health insurance spending. But if we had no money for food or a place to live, we wouldn’t feel very prosperous.)

I think this order-of-magnitude spending range for “the middle class” is also at the heart of Toby’s deeper issue—whether or not a rising middle class is good for the planet.

If we see surging growth in households moving out of poverty into the lower end of this range—able to spend $7,000 to $14,000 a year ($10 to $20 per day per person)—we’re likely to see some positive effects. People with that sort of income are in a position to say no to the most pernicious efforts to turn their neighborhoods into dumping grounds for toxic waste, to insist on some level of protection for nearby natural areas, and so on. But if we see surging growth in households moving into the upper reaches of middle class—able to spend $70,000 a year or more—I think we’re in big trouble.

Those people are going to want cars.

After the thaw is over

After the thaw is over

A week of warm weather melted almost all the snow. But now it’s back below freezing. The puddles are just starting to freeze, beginning with little rings of frost on and around individual blades of grass.

We had two January thaws this year, one in December and one in February.

The December one was pleasant, and not very dangerous. We could enjoy a few days of mild weather without any risk of thinking that we didn’t have a full three months of winter ahead of us.

When you get your January thaw in February, though, you have to be careful. It’s easy to hope that you have seen the last of the winter weather. But that hope is a dangerous one—the sort that’s all too prone to be crushed under ice and snow and brutal cold.

Preferring to keep my hopes uncrushed, I’m trying to remember that it’s still a month until spring.

Early morning writing

I’ve known for a long time that writing every day is very helpful to my productivity. In the past couple of days, I’ve been reminded that, at least for my fiction writing, it’s also very important to start early in the day.

I’ve always found this a little hard. It’s tough to get going on fiction, even if I’ve got an outline, or have left off writing at a ragged edge where I know just what needs to come next. Faced with that—or, especially, faced with a blank page—it’s very easy to fritter away a few minutes (or a few hours).

Over the past couple of days, I have started early, and have rediscovered a bit of magic: Once I get my brain back into the story space, it solves problems wonderfully well—even when I’m not writing. While I make a mug of tea, I’ll realize that a scene with a phone call should be redrafted as a face-to-face meeting. In the time it takes me to walk to lunch and back, I’ll figure out that two cardboard characters can be combined into one three-dimensional character. As I shower, I’ll figure out how to replace a dull scene with a one-sentence lead-in to the next scene. (But only if I take my shower after the first writing session of the morning.)

This happens all the time, and if I don’t get started writing until late in the day, it becomes a source of frustration. The ideas will start coming, and I’ll still be fresh and anxious to start working on them—but I’ll be out of time. It’ll be evening. I’ll want to spend time with Jackie, doing something together.

So, a reminder to me: If I’m writing fiction, I want to start early. It’s more productive and more fun.

Public art in Chrysler’s Detroit ad

As a big fan of public art, I was particularly impressed with the fragments of public art featured in Chrysler’s “imported from Detroit” Superbowl ad:

There’s a lot to like here. There’s a lot of art deco, and I like art deco. There’s a lot of different kinds of art—murals, sculpture, architecture. And the spot features the sort of public spaces that are being phased out these days (in favor of commercial spaces that are technically only open to customers). The public square is important, and neither the mall nor the parking lot of a strip malls is an adequate substitute.

Anyway, one of the good things about public art on display in public places is that it’s available for use in spots like this. It’s part of our culture.

My favorite holiday: Groundhog’s Day

I’m a latecomer to Groundhog’s Day fandom. I blame my second-grade teacher. She told us about the holiday, but who somehow failed to get through to me that it’s a joke.

That unfortunate early experience aside, the cross-quarter date is important to me. Just like Halloween marks the time when I tend to start worrying about the approaching dark days of winter, Groundhog’s Day is when I start to feel like the worst is past.

That wasn’t always true. I used to think that February was the worst part of winter. It always felt bitterly unfair that I’d (somehow) make it through January, only to have to confront another whole month of winter—with no guarantee of relief in March either. (We often get mild weather starting in late March, but it’s also entirely possible to get a whole winter’s worth of snow in the first few weeks of spring.)

But the sun follows a more rigid schedule. The days will get longer—and at an increasingly rapid pace over the next few weeks. And, despite the idiosyncrasies of the weather in any particular year, the longer days will lead to warmer days. It would take a volcano to make it otherwise.

So, I’m a fan of Groundhog’s Day and its promise of spring—whether early or on its regular schedule.

Like a Hawk in its Gyre

“Like a Hawk in its Gyre” is up at Redstone Science Fiction, issue #9, February 2011, edited by Michael Ray.

Cover of Redstone Science Fiction, February 2001 (issue #9)Like a Hawk in its Gyre” is up at Redstone Science Fiction, February 2011 (issue #9), edited by Michael Ray.

The bicycle noticed someone was following before Kurt did.  Watching for a tail was a habit he’d finally broken himself of, but not before the bicycle’s impressionable brain had picked it up.  Its low warning hum sent a thrill of adrenalin through him, giving power to the part of his brain that wanted him to sprint away.

Update: “Like a Hawk in its Gyre” has been reprinted in audio form on Escape Pod, read aloud by Tim Crist.