Thursday, January 05, 2006

Making Changes

This is counter-intuitive, but ultimately, I think radical change is easier than incremental change. The more radically and dramatically you transform your life, the harder it is to slip backwards into old habits, and the more compelling the arguments for adaptation, rather than rejection.

To use our own experience as an example, we picked up and moved out of our urban home, and out to the country, and took up growing our own food. DH and I gave up our fantasies of a two career academic coupling in exchange for more time, less money, and less need for money. Those are all transformations we might have made in another context, but I suspect we would never have fully succeeded in making them had we stayed where we were - the temptation to revert to our prior ways would have been too compelling, and everything about the demands of our life would have drawn us in a different direction.

I understand the desire to stay in an urban environmentand make money. Our own experience (YMMV, of course) was that it wasvery difficult to save money when we lived in Boston. In one of themost expensive housing markets in the country, more than 50% of ourincome went for housing costs. Here in upstate NY, my 4000 sqft farmhouse on 27 acres with outbuildings cost about the same as a condo in an exurb 45 minutes from downtown Boston (that was five years ago - now there's not a chance we could get a condo for that!). The taxes areconsiderably lower. Cost of living is substantially lower as well -gas and oil prices, cordwood, cars, clothing, childcare, food - allare lower here, and mostly of higher quality - ie, the used car onecan get for 2K here is considerably better than the same used car for2K in Boston. The food I can buy most cheaply here is local in-season produce, bought direct from local farmers, and of much higher quality than even the trucked in local produce in an urban environment. On the other hand, farmer's market produce in Boston was extremely expensive. Moreoever, it is easy to eliminate certain costs. We can cut firewood. We can grow much of our own food, including eggs and meat. We can barter for honey, milk and beef with neighbors. Salaries in rural areas are lower - but my observation isthat they are not proportionally lower - that is, the lower salary ismore than offset by the increased resources and the lower cost of living.

Moreover, the lifestyle is different. In the Boston area, most people live in fairly class-segregated communities - rich people do not live next door to poor people. And because of that, the standards of the community are extremely rigid - just try to leave your lawn uncut in most middle-class suburban neighborhoods. Here, however, we literally have mansions next to trailers (just up the street), and there is no single economic or aesthetic standard. Thus, when we couldn't afford a lawn mower for an extended period, we were not the only people with grass up to our waists.

Fighting the class system is hard work - it is hard to get over the embarassment of doing things that people associate with poverty, it is hard to change your standards of beauty to see the homemade wooden bench as more beautiful than the embroidered couch, and it is hard to live cheap. It is also wise. But for those without a strong sense of self discipline in that regard (like me!), I think a radical change is in many ways better and easier than small transformations.