Friday, July 18, 2014

The Practical Minimalist.

For me, my minimalism started out of divorce. Shortly after I found myself alone in an apartment in lower manhattan - before I owned a kayak - While Desperate for an end to sadness, I discovered Feng Shui. I read that my environs affected my emotions, and the first step to happiness was an organized space. And the first step to an organized space, was decluttering. I threw out a lot. Honestly, I threw out, gave away, or sold most of what I owned, and it was freeing. I don't know if it was Feng Shui or not, but I definitely felt better.

Today - nearly 20 years later - I consider myself a practical minimalist. I have made up that term so let me explain what that is. The past year or so I have spent a lot of time at a couple of specific subreddits at the website reddit. Particularly r/minimalism and r/tinyhouses. I enjoy both because they both align with more simplified life. There is r/simpleliving as well, which I like, but it doesn't grab me as much. Here is the problem with r/minimalism. probably 50% of the posts relate to a lifestyle that isn't practical. I love the photos of the desks with just a macbook air on it claiming to be a 'workspace', but that isn't going to be me. I do too much video work to edit on a little screen, and my desk is always covered with a) the piece of gear I need to fix b)the piece of gear I just fixed c) the Gopro camera that is charging d)the materials from the class I am about to teach, or did just teach. Another popular post subject on r/minimalism is "everything I own fits in this 30 liter backpack". Which is invariably posted by someone who writes code for a living, and can do it with a macbook air at a cafe in Paris for his client in wherever. He doesn't need a desk, he sleeps in hostels and has one change of clothes and two pairs of underwear. This is a great lifestyle, and I wish I had it, but I love my wife and my dog, and I am not getting rid of them because my entire life doesn't fit in a back pack. And apparently to be a minimalist you really have to have a macbook air, apple should use this in marketing. But despite the fact that I don't live my life on a 13 inch screen most of my friends and acquaintances are fascinated by my lifestyle. A month ago if you came to my house and wanted to sit in the living room, you were either on the floor or a piece of folding camp furniture.

I recently moved, and everything my wife and I own fit in half a 14 foot U-Haul. I don't have a TV. I don't have a DVD collection. I didn't move a bed - I got a new Tuft & Needle discovered on r/minimalism - and I didn't have a couch.  I own about 20 books. I am constantly giving away gear, and books. If I am done with a book, and I think you might enjoy it, I am giving it to you. I am regularly selling old gear when I need to upgrade. I don't buy a piece of new gear unless I need it - not want it. If I have no use for a piece of gear, to me, it has no value. If you would enjoy it, I get pleasure out of giving it to you! I actually own dishes (okay, only 8 dishes and 6 bowls) and cook wear, but I am not buying a unitasker kitchen item.  I have a very small wardrobe and three pairs of shoes. I do one load of laundry per week - As a side note, if you live your life in the outdoors and most of your clothes are wicking/quick dry, your 'drier time' is very short.

I moved recently because I bought a house (This kicks me immediately out of the minimalist club!). My wife and I have been renting for years. Burned in the housing bubble we were hesitant to make the investment again. But we realized that we are going to be in our present location for at least 6 or 7 years, and a mortgage would be a few dollars more than our rent. Literally a few dollars. So we found a house we liked, in a neighborhood we liked and I moved the kayaks. We didn't move into a tiny house, even though I love the idea. We did move to a house that was smaller than our rental. My rental landlord, was flabbergasted to hear we were moving to something smaller. This smaller home will be easier to heat, and cool. And because we don't own much, it still looks and feels  roomy. At the moment we think we may retire to a tiny house. It would really only be about 700 Square feet smaller then what we are in now. My friends are amazed because we actually bought a couch. The living room in the rental was mostly empty.

This is what I consider a practical minimalist lifestyle. I have the things I need. If I don't need it, I don't own it. The important distinction here is need versus want. Most Americans buy what they want. I am not purging absolutely everything I own so that my life fits in a 40 liter backpack or dry bag, but I am also not buying things I don't need. When we moved I realized that for some reason we had 18 spoons. I got rid of 8 of them. If there are four people in my house for dinner, and we have dessert, I could need 10 spoons. Twice a year I have six people for dinner. I may end up washing a couple of spoons, but that's okay.

My house has a very uncluttered feel. In fact it feels very open. It is soothing. It is lovely.

This is one of the reasons I like expedition kayaking. Everything I need is in the boat. If it isn't there, I am living without. But even this is open to change. Because we were making the film on the last trip I had a lot of gear I didn't have before. Solar panels and Sherpa Batteries, and multiple cameras, and tiny tripods. I felt like I had more gear than I needed. But after thinking back through the trip, there are only a couple of things I had in my boat that didn't get used. The first is my first aid kit. I carry a large one on expeditions. I am not getting rid of that. The other was my fire starting kit. Despite the fact that AJ really got into making fires on this last trip, he only used one thing from my fire starting kit. The whole thing can be made much simpler. Certainly smaller than the pelican case it is in now.

Also on this trip Beth used my backup paddle as her primary paddle. The wiggle in the joint got noticeably worse, so when I got home, I put it on craigslist and sold it. I  decided on the trip to make my Kalliste my back up paddle, and I want to downgrade my primary paddle to the Werner Camano.

I am downgrading for a couple of reasons. The biggest, is weight. The Camano weighs less than the Killiste (and costs less). The other reason is, I am not sure the foam core in the blade is actually benefiting my paddling. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but if it isn't helping me, it is hurting me. So why not go back a step. It is simplifying, plain and simple. Much like the reason I don't use a bent shaft. It weighs more, costs more, and I don't think it is actually providing a benefit. I don't have to have it, just to prove I am a great kayaker. (and for the record, I have a long way to go before I consider myself a great kayaker)

For a long time I felt like people didn't take me seriously as an instructor because I didn't use a fiberglass boat. I came to learn my gear isn't dictating my skill level. It may however be dictating your perception of my skill level. And that is a level of crazy I am not interested in dealing with.

Similarly, when I go back to New York - where I am from - I am very self conscious that my peers will think I am a failure because I don't have a high power job, making a lot of money. I have a friend who is a successful chef. I have a friend who is a photographer for the NY Times - and does many books. I always wonder what they think of my job teaching kayaking, and map & compass and things like that. The last time I was there, I met an old friend for lunch. She is a judge. An actual NYC Judge, and she makes a very good living. She asked if I was going back to Alaska this summer, I said I was. Then added that I wasn't making any money - projecting my own concerns on what I thought she was thinking - Her response was "You are living the dream!" So while I was concerned she was judging me for my simple job and lifestyle. She was actually envious of me and the things my lifestyle allows me to do. There is no way a chef, or a judge, can take off 5 weeks to go kayaking. I stopped worrying about it then.

So what do I want? Well, I am practical, and I am a minimalist. So my wants are both of those things. There is a list of places I want to paddle that I haven't. Cape Cod. Newfoundland. Norway and Patagonia. I do want to continue to shrink my personal possessions but it is getting more and more difficult. I simply don't own that much.

My goal, as a practical minimalist is a simple lifestyle. With very few worries and stressors. I want to enjoy my life, while having a minimal impact on the world around me. I want to have the time to enjoy little things. The swell rolling under my boat. The sound of rain hitting the water as I paddle through the ice. A good cup of coffee on a cold morning. Of course, I only have one coffee cup. So I won't stress over which one to use.


  1. Well put PO. Well put, indeed. All I can add is..."amen", to everything you've expressed. Best wishes, Duncan.

  2. Some of my best and happiest times were paddling, in northern Canada. One time, I paddled with an otter for what seemed like forever. He just didn't care that I was there. I tried whitewater, but it wasn't what I wanted in kayaking, it was for extreme people who seemed bored. I wanted to be serene. Flatwater does that for me.
    I sold my boat to get my dog. I don't regret that one bit. :)