Back in 1990, my husband and I were normal.
No really, we were. We were newlyweds living in a rental house in Sacramento. We had two dogs. We commuted on the highway. We each worked 9-to-5 jobs in respectable fields. We went to dinner every Friday night. We bought clothes in department stores. We had get-togethers with friends. We watched television. We walked our dogs around the block. We acted just like everybody else.
But this didn’t mean we liked being normal. Deep down, we wanted to be different. We didn’t want a suburban existence – we wanted to live on a farm. We didn’t want the security of an office job – we wanted to be self-employed. We didn’t want to commute on a highway – we wanted to work at home.
And most of all, we didn’t want to live with regret. We didn’t want to look at each other on our 50th anniversary and say, “If only.” If only we’d moved to the country. If only we’d raised our (future) children on a farm. If only we’d worked for ourselves.
This realization was the end of our normal existence. In 1992 we left our secure well-paying jobs, moved to a different state and embarked on a rural life. We exchanged paved streets for dirt roads. We left financial security for the financial insecurity of a home business.
From then on, our lives have been very, very different than that of our friends. Over the years, this became our new normal – and I forget that not everyone views it the same way.
I didn’t realize this until I started receiving comments from college friends on their yearly Christmas cards. While most of these fine people went on to lead productive and conventional lives as professionals in their fields, living on paved streets, we blundered away in a different direction down a dirt road (literally). During the height of our hard years, it was kind of embarrassing to meet up with these old friends and compare lives. While we struggled, they sailed. While we economized, they indulged. While we patched our old car together with spit and baling twine, they bought new.
And then the Christmas cards started arriving. “How I wish I could live like you,” said a woman, a successful attorney. “I would really love to do what you do,” said a second, a physician. “How I envy you,” said a third, a brilliant man with a Ph.D./M.D. in research biochemistry.
What were these people talking about? We were struggling to make ends meet. We were living in a shack. We were outfitting our kids in thrift store clothes and heating with wood. What was there to envy?
Some asked why we were living this way. Why did we embark on such an unconventional lifestyle? Until a week ago, all I could say is we’ve always fought against the easy suburban existence that seemed our destiny early in our marriage. But I never knew what pushed us, what drove us to embrace such a rugged do-it-yourself lifestyle … until this week.
That’s when I read a brilliant essay in the New York Times by a man named Tim Wu. Entitled “The Tyranny of Convenience,” he outlined why “convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today.”
“Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable,” writes Wu. “Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper.”
We’ve always labored to recapture lost skills because of our concern about what I call “the death of knowledge” – how 5,000 years of skills have been lost in just the last century due to the tyranny of convenience. On our own, we’ve learned home dairying, animal husbandry, food preservation; but it wasn’t until reading Mr. Wu’s essay that I realized we were engaged in a lifelong battle against easy living.
[W]e err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us. It would be perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule. But when we let convenience decide everything, we surrender too much. … As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. … Today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.
So there you have it. For the last 25 years, my husband and I have blundered along, fighting against convenience, learning how to do things through trial and error, and enjoying every (well, almost every) minute. We raised our kids with this quirky disregard for “normalcy” as well. And in every way except financial, our lives have been immeasurably richer because of it.
“However mundane it seems now, convenience, the great liberator of humankind from labor, was a utopian ideal,” writes Wu. “By saving time and eliminating drudgery, it would create the possibility of leisure.”
But the great dark unspoken secret of leisure is this: It’s boring. It’s far better to be busy, especially by working with one’s hands.
Wu notes, “The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it?”
No. That’s why we stubbornly continue to grow a garden, milk our cows, make butter and cheese, earn a living through our woodcraft business, and teach others what we’ve learned. We will continue to mutiny against the bounty, to question what’s “normal,” and shun the tyranny of convenience.
How “convenient” is your life? And what price are you paying?