“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” So wrote the rebellious wunderkind, Henri David Thoreau while he occupied his elder mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property; building his much vaunted cabin there back in the 1840’s.Or to paraphrase Thoreau—we are only as rich as the things we can live without.
Perhaps you remember reading Thoreau’s Walden back in college-- before acquiring that mortgage, car, second car, second mortgage and that LED television that takes up a wall of your two-thousand square foot house that sucks enough energy to power a small village in Latin America? Thoreau lived at the dawn of the industrial age; some 150 years before the Information age. I’ve often wondered what would good Henri David have to say about this Information age---specifically cell phones? What would he think about 3G, 4G, texting, sexting, internet capable, photo and video publishing-to-Facebook, cell phones? Would Henri own one in order to inform Ralph Waldo that he’d be over for dinner after he was done hoeing his beans and writing that last chapter on Economy?For myself, I don’t own one (a cell phone). Don’t need one. Don’t want one. I don’t need that extra bill. Nor do I want the capability to spend ten minutes looking at a tiny screen, eyes straining, non-agile fingers inevitably fumbling the wrong miniscule button while trying to type out some meaningless text message about the status of my desires. Am I old fashioned to think that a text message should have some text to it? More than 140 characters? Vowels intact?
I don’t use text speak; I see it as a fart upon the English language. I prefer my sentences to be mostly complete. And I don’t mind if I get a message from someone that actually uses a noun, verb, direct object and some of the other finer implements of language. Hell, I even like complete words. Dnt U?We get along just fine without the little Star Trekian communication devices. (Beam me up, Scotty!) But then again, we aren’t your normal family. We live “off the grid” dependent upon a generator and a few solar panels for electricity. We recently went three years without a hot water system, and probably would still be using a water bag lying in the sun for showers to this day, if it wasn’t for the complaints of some soon-to-be teen-aged girls who inhabit our home. One winter we had to haul water thirty yards from the well to the house when the water line froze. It took us two years to get the money together to get a proper wood stove (our only source of heat). Not that we don’t have our luxuries: we had satellite TV and Internet years before we got our shower to work. Priorities.
Which brings me back to Henri Thoreau. “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify”—he wrote. Thoreau claimed he could live on six weeks of income for an entire year. Easy to do when you squat on your friend’s property and show up for dinner at Mom’s every day. Yet, he was right about the simplify statement. And he was correct to say that we are as rich as we are capable of living without things and implements of luxuriant modernity.The current recession/depression has forced many of us to simplify. Tighten our belts and do without. Poverty sucks when it isn’t voluntary. I wonder how bad things need to get before we part with our cell phones? Have they become one of Mazlow’s needs yet? Are Cell phones as important as food, water, shelter, sex? Have they become such a necessity that we will do anything--live on beans, hawk the wedding ring, sell plasma, give up a meal a day---in order to have one? I wonder…