A Hoarder in Spring

Hoarders
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Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment. –Mark Twain

I have a predisposition to bizarre, out of the ordinary true stories. It is not schadenfreude that compels me to read about or watch TV shows that deal with some deformed corner of the human condition. I find no relief from other people’s misfortune. But I am drawn to them – the way a campfire child already paralyzed with fear begs for yet another ghost story. “Please stop scaring me some more!”

I am uncertain of the genesis of my macabre fascinations.   Perhaps, it started when I read my first “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” paperback book. The stories ranged from the feral child raised by wild dogs to Eng and Chang Bunker, conjoined Siamese twins who each married different women and sired twenty-one kids between them .  (I still wonder what they had to pay for a hotel room).  I recall my magnificent obsession with weird, disjointed cult movies like “Eraserhead” and the 1932 Tod Browning cult classic, “Freaks”  – a horror movie about sideshow performers with names like Half Boy, Bird Girl and the Human Skeleton.

My spouse simply cannot understand my ghoulish predispositions.  She has nothing but empathy for the objects of my fascination and resents their exploitation by the media.  My nighttime malingering around television documentaries that profile people afflicted with exotic and improbable circumstances annoys her to no end.  Despite her scowls of disapproval, I plop down each evening in my great green chair and channel surf scouring the programming horizon line for anything tattooed, incarcerated, insane, disfigured or possessing some bizarre or debilitating condition. There is one show in particular that draws me in like no other. It is simply called “Hoarders”.

Each week, A&E drags its dysfunction hungry viewers into a hard to comprehend docudrama chronicling the lives of psychologically challenged human pack rats whose lives have become so unmanageable that the department of Health, Human or Child Protective Services is in the process of evicting them from a home that is literally consuming its inhabitants with junk.

A certifiable ‘hoarder’ cannot distinguish between valuables and “stuff”.  Hoarders compulsively purchase, collect and accumulate every imaginable material possession – often filling their entire home and yard with useless junk. Some hoarders actually appear normal to the outside world. They are not always reclusive mental patients. Some hoarders just lack the synapses that seem to regulate the emotional and mental connections that help us sort through our needs and wants. In other cases, a trauma, old age or an emotional event may trigger or exacerbate a person’s predisposition to hoard.

The condition of these homes is hard to describe and even harder to imagine.  The rooms are usually uninhabitable, yet the hoarder chooses to burrow among the debris like a hamster.  In one hard to fathom episode,  a woman had over a dozen cats entering and exiting her house through openings created by goats that had chewed holes in her family room wall ….(yes, goats)

To help rehabilitate the hoarder, it is critical to help them solve their own problem by ridding their home of the trash.  They must agree to allow a special cleaning unit to dispose of a large percentage of the debris. Often, the hoarder cannot handle the intervention and becomes despondent, combative or hysterical at the prospects of having their bizarre clotted world dismantled.

Ok, I confess. I am totally fascinated and at the same time, appalled at the living conditions of these seemingly normal people.  Last week, an apparently together thirty-something guy made the mistake of inviting his new girlfriend of six months to see his townhouse. There was just one problem. He was a hoarder.   His bachelor pad looked like the Salvation Army had thrown up all over his house. His soon to be ex-girlfriend wandered his home like a post nuclear blast survivor – – staring with a frozen smile that masked her horror.  Finally she mustered a question, “ How can you live like this? “ I sort of sided with the guy as my college dorm room was not too far from his house.  Who knows?  If I had known him in 1982, I might have borrowed some of his trash until I could accumulate more of my own.

The all-time nadir hoarder story involved a woman whose toilet had broken three years earlier and had solved for this problem by wearing adult diapers and tossing them into an adjacent room – where the stack had now grown to eight feet tall and blocked the door.  At this point, I made a low squeal of disgust.  I looked up and realized my youngest son was watching over my shoulder. We were temporarily united in our revulsion and both decided that cleaning the cat’s litter box was child’s play compared to removing the mummified carcass of a cat from under a two-year crush of junk. As the cleaner lifts the dead cat with a shovel from under some shelves, the hoarder brightens momentarily, “Oh, that’s where Twinkles went off to…”

At this point my son turns away in disgust.  I hear him distinctly mutter, “I want to go clean my room.”

I begin to worry.  Could I become a hoarder? I have always attached great sentimental value to things and my office is cluttered with an odd menagerie of toy soldiers, books, baseball cards, old Sports Illustrated magazines, maps, paintings and well, just stuff, lot’s of valuable stuff.

Fortunately, I am married to an anti-hoarder. Each spring, she throws open the windows and gets a crazed look in her eyes.  This pre-purge game face is all business and it appears just before most of our possessions are given away to the Goodwill or Salvation Army.

I am usually handed a broom, list of chores and a hefty bag, and forced to confront the detritus that we have accumulated over the prior year.  Her goal is simple:  shed items like winter weight – – ridding our lives of things that have long since become empty mementos of our past.  As master and commander of our ship, it is her prerogative to rid from our lives any inanimate objects that slow our forward progress.

The spring clean initiates each year usually after some disgusting encounter in the boys’ bathroom. I can hear her debating upstairs with the children about old toys, stuffed animals, clothes and books.  In the end, she always prevails and the first snowflake of what might have become a hoarder’s avalanche innocently melts under her resolute stare.

I am next in her crosshairs.  I am rarely successful defending against her cleansing blitzkrieg.  She would rather die than become even a junior hoarder. We wrestle over a stack of Military History magazines and an old set of stereo speakers. Hey, I might need those some day. My partner moves stealthily toward my closet.   I move to intercept her.

“I’m going to toss those shorts that you wore last week to baseball.  They are a little “too” short.

As usual, I am offended but also embarrassed.  Somewhere along the way, I lost my sartorial sense of what a man with my physique can now wear without looking like the blond cop in dolphin shorts on Reno 911.

” I think they look fine.” I say defensively.  “They are running shorts.” She just smiles that ” I am doing you a big favor” smile and continues to rummage through my workout clothes, gathering up torn and undersized shirts and shorts.

“I am sure someone else could use these. What about this shirt?” It is a tie dyed Grateful Dead shirt replete with skeleton wearing a crown of roses. ” When did you last wear this ?”

“Um, probably 1985”, I say incredulously.  “That shirt is a classic!”

“Jerry Garcia is dead.”

“Bob Weir is alive and I can probably sell that on EBay for $100!”

“That’s a great idea!”

Just then my son walks in and asks me to go outside and play catch with him.  Forever being haunted by Harry Chapin’s ” Cat’s In the Cradle”, I have never refused a child’s request to play anything in seventeen years.  I am trapped.  I leave her alone in my closet.

She smiles, waiting for us to leave.  I have been too busy defending my Dead Head shirt to notice all the other things she has targeted for Goodwill while we are playing outside.

You see, she knows there is a little hoarder in all of us.  And she is determined to keep it that way.

A New Prosperity

A New Prosperity

 

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining; behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.

 

The Rainy Day – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

A recent book entitled, The End of Prosperity hits the bookshelves as a best seller.  The sense of gloom and uncertainty settles like wisps of ground fog on a region where 16% of jobs are connected to the financial sector, more than twice the average of other parts of the country.  Movies like Revolutionary Road depict affluent suburbs as soulless Edens, corrupted by ambition – a dark land where character and dreams of selfless idealism are sacrificed on the petard of material pursuit.  Prosperity it seems has committed suicide.

 

Prosperity has long been a mysterious and ever changing alchemy whose elemental chart is defined by a society through the building blocks of culture and shared values.

 In Colonial America, a prosperous person was a self reliant individual who had sufficient food, and shelter and land.  As America matured, property and possessions – acreage of arable farmland, livestock, silver and gold, possessions, power, and influence became the weights that tilted the scale of public opinion of a man’s value.  Somewhere along the way, our net worth became synonymous with our total worth.  If one achieves material success, society deifies them for their ability to create and harvest wealth.  For some, this reward of temporal immortality proves a golden calf trap leading to broken promises, lost dreams and shattered interpersonal relationships.  The insatiable pursuit of prosperity drives some people to compromise values and ideals.  The journey of life and the joy of finding one’s cadence and role in society can be preempted by the pressure to engage in reckless sprints and exhausting pushes toward a material mountain top that ultimately proves a false summit. 

 

As we navigate these troubled times, we are confronted with changes that threaten to rearrange our best laid plans in life – OUR best laid plans.  John Lennon said that “life is what happens, while you’re busy making plans” Our definitions of success, community and values are under siege from a perfect storm that is engulfing the entire global economy.  Some are better off than others, piloting more seaworthy craft.  Yet, each day brings a worrisome vigil as we peer through the rain streaked window at a never ending succession of white caps and rough seas that climb and heave around us.  A rogue wave sweeps across a neighbor’s schooner and it melts beneath the surface.  We mutter a silent prayer thanking God for his blessings. “There but for the grace of God go I”. Yet, I wonder if less hardship and pain is indeed grace or the left hand of God temporarily exempting me from the harder shaping that might mold me into the person I am ultimately intended to be.

 

My uncle is a liberal iconoclast and the diametric opposite to his older brother, my father, the entrenched conservative.  Eight years my Dad’s junior, my father’s brother attended the University of California at Berkeley at a time when society was under siege by a generation questioning the course of our country.  He graduated and served for eight years in the US navy as an officer, seeing much of the world, and returned home with a devil’s advocate need to solve for the omnipresent inequities of the world.  He is a brilliant professional water color artist who lives deep in the mist shrouded, lichen covered woods of the Pacific Northwest.  During one of our rare dinners, we were freely skating over the thin ice of politics and religion.  Always the contrarian, he was questioning a slip of my tongue as I described a situation where I had been at grave financial risk and I had been “blessed” when I was spared a bad outcome.  “I suppose to follow your theology to its fullest extent would mean that anyone who does not have financial success is considered not to be blessed?

 

This is where I always get uncomfortable as I do not want to apologize for realizing some of the dividends of my life’s hard work nor am I prepared to voluntarily allow him to redistribute my life savings like a commissar in Zhivago’s Russia.  Yet, he is constantly leading somewhere – always coaxing me out of the shadows of self interest, down a difficult slope into a gentle valley where common humanity and empathy run like streams filled with nuggets of gold.  In this fertile plain, you get what you need, not necessarily what you want. He is always quick to assure me he is not admonishing me nor advocating I divest my holdings, donate them to a non profit so I can realize my true purpose by serving lepers in the gutters of India.  However, he is reminding me that my things are merely accessories to my life and that a prosperous life is a life whose balance sheet is measured in deeds and lives touched.

 

“Michael, I have travelled the world and I have seen levels of poverty that would undermine your faith in humanity.  I have seen communities where neighbors support one another and where no child will ever become orphaned.  I have lived in places where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day and cares for multiple generations of family members.  In these same societies whose life expectancies lag ours by decades, there are fewer incidents of suicide, use of prescription drugs for depression and a higher incidence of faithful religious conviction and tithing than in our most affluent communities.  What exactly is it that makes us believe we are blessed by our ‘quality of life?’ He paused.  He is not affiliated with any church but instead professes a belief in a universal higher power that runs like an aorta through the religions of the world.  “What if, as your King James Bible says, that it is harder for a camel to move through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.  (I hate it when he does this to me.  It ruins dessert)

 

But as usual, he gets me thinking.  Instead of agonizing over an end to prosperity as a material society might define it, why not be open to a new era of prosperity?  This prosperity will not be defined by a social hierarchy based on financial gain but instead on the deeds that further our aspiration that all that live in America might be free from fear and want.  This does not mean everyone should own a home but it means we should aspire that everyone might have some place to live.

 

 A new prosperity will be characterized by a realignment of values where as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, “the content of one’s character” is celebrated over all other visceral measures.  A noble society is what the ancient Greeks described as one where “old men plant trees that they know they will never rest underneath”.  It is where people make provisions for the most frail and vulnerable among us.  It is where people accept responsibility and do not seek to blame someone else for their circumstances.  A new prosperity sweeps away business and political leaders who have been corrupted by power and their myopic pursuit of personal gain and supplants them with leaders who have the courage and restraint to achieve responsible success and who view every employee and their families as assets and investments.   In a great society, we take notice of and make provisions for older citizens whose fixed incomes have been savaged by the collapse of the financial markets and who are terrified over their futures.  We should be celebrating our teachers, peacemakers, civil servants and mentors that work together to prepare a next generation that must shoulder our mistakes and lead us toward sustainable solutions. 

 

We long for fragrant, easy nights and soft pastel days without want or fear.  A great society strives for these things for all its citizens.  It is a time of opportunity and transformation.  Sometimes the very outcome we feel we need is the thing that ultimately threatens to hold us back from a better possibility.  In the words of Tennyson,” Ring out the false pride in place and blood; the civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of odd disease; ring out the narrowing lust of gold; ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

Now that’s what I call prosperity.

 

The Budget

The Budget

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship”– Benjamin Franklin

When last October’s Wall Street bombshell tore jagged lacerations in my net worth, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that the bleeding had not abated.  There were myriad fiscal punctures in my lifestyle leaving a trail that even a blind hunter could follow. My frugal spouse was pleased when I suddenly expressed interest in our finances.  It seemed I had finally awakened to smell the financial coffee or at least I had started to count the beans.

I freely admit to not grasping the concept of moderation. More is better and better still, is now.  I have never been a profligate spender but I have not balanced a checkbook or kept an ATM receipt in 15 years.  A budget was simply the absence of deficit spending and taking any surplus and burying it like a jar of pennies in the retirement yard.  My discretionary spending vices are confined to collecting antique lead soldiers and roaming the endless stalls of eBay while in a $ 4 triple latte blackout.  Like many Americans, I pay for convenience and for the ability not to wait in a line or on a line.  I am in fact, the ultimate target consumer for the retail industry.  When I need to update my wardrobe, I buy everything I need for the next 24 months in one store in less than 30 minutes.  The first time my wife went shopping with me she became physically ill from what looked to her like a feeding frenzy of a starved hog.

In these recent hard times, I have become disgusted by my lack of fiscal discipline. I find myself muttering the word,” simplify” as I notice for the first time the price tags on everything, It’s like a witch has put a curse on me: “ You will now clearly see the cost of everything!“  “ No, no, please! Anything but that!”

I daydream of living near Walden Pond in a ramshackle, drafty railroad hut penning manifestos against the materialism, corruption and greed in America. In saner moments, I realize that if I actually did go off by myself into the woods, I would probably have to fold my own laundry – a thought that terrifies me.

I dreamed the other night about our first house – a 1200 square foot cottage, three miles from the beach in Southern California.  Air conditioning was achieved by opening a window.  Heat was achieved by shutting the window.  There was no basement engine room filled with heating units and oil tanks that seem to be in perpetual need of a $ 700 refill.   I am not sure the close quarters of that Newport Beach hobbit hole could accommodate our family of five without a domestic dispute consigning us to the police blotter, but I do recall waking up with the nostalgic longing for that low mortgage payment, small garden and a downsized lifestyle.

I became determined to take action against the rising swarm of enervating expenses that swirled around my head like summer midges.  My first target was America Online. To embolden my efforts, I drank an entire pot of coffee and, with my legs twitching like a second grader in church, I grabbed the telephone.

A few days earlier, I realized I had been paying $25 for an AOL Premium Service that I could essentially get for free.  I was outraged that AOL would take advantage of my ignorance and lethargy.  I called the 800-number and immediately got “ Sam”, an outsourced Eastern European service technician, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, grinning through the phone like the Cheshire cat.  At one point in the call, I heard what sounded like automatic gunfire.  I asked Sam if he was in danger of being executed if he did not convince me to keep my premium plan.  Sam laughed and assured me that the staccato hammering was merely construction on his building.  When I explained my situation, Sam was very sympathetic and offered me the $11.99 fee instead of the $ 25.90 fee.  I assured him I just wanted free email.  Sam offered me the $ 9.99 package.  No, Sam, I am.  Green eggs and ham and free email, man.  But Sam was good.  In fact he was hungrier and more determined than this reformed consumer.  After twenty minutes of verbal rope a doping and more information about firewalls and technical support than my over cauliflowered ear could possibly handle, I relented to the $9.99 plan.  I needed to lie down.  Saving ten dollars a month was hard business.

I called the oil company ready to threaten cancellation unless they could offer me the Hugo Chavez super economy rates.  I did not have a back up plan, other than ordering twelve cords of wood to be delivered as soon as possible. The oil company agent was obviously an out of work securitization specialist who detailed a complex algorithm for locking in a rate that involved hedges against Russian wheat and Moroccan olives. The topic shifted uncomfortably to ways that I could cut my utilization costs.  He asked me highly invasive questions about my insulation and energy efficiency.  Was he implying that I was not green?  I have natural insulation but that is not the point.  “I want cheaper rates or else.”  “Or else what?” He asked.  “Or else, …I’ll hang up.”  Just about this time, I felt a 20 degree draft knifing through the living room – coming from the patio door that one of the kids had just left wide open when they got up to take the dog out.  I am quite certain if anyone were to drive by our house with an infrared camera, we would look like Chernobyl as the fuel rods were melting.  Perhaps the price of the oil was not the entire problem.

I graduated to cable, broadband and phone. Between being charged for an Optimum Online voice mail box that is jammed with irretrievable messages dating back to ancient Rome – “ Hail, this is Caesar, please ask Senator Pretorius to send more men and supplies.  I have crossed the Rubicon. (Silence) I hope I am dialing the right numerals” – and 900 activated channels including an entire network dedicated to Latvian folk dancing, I am paying more for cable than I am contributing to my 401k.  However, weaning a couch potato from cable is slow and must be achieved similar to dosage reduction from steroids.  Just moving from hi-definition to non-HDTV makes a person feel as if they have glaucoma.  On second thought, let’s hold off on the cable.

I had my list of other remedies that would help suture my thousand cuts – teenaged I pod charges, gasoline, electricity, vacation expenses, dry cleaning and food.  My scorched earth austerity efforts went on all morning and yielded over $ 300 a month savings.  It was not exactly the greatest return on investment but it felt good.  It was the same feeling you get after cleaning the basement or garage.  Life seemed a little more in equilibrium.

My son walked in with tangled morning hair and stretched his arms, “ Dad, what have you been doing in here?”  I explained my jihad on non-essential spending.  He listened with that bored vacuous expression of a person who is just waiting for an opening to ask for something.  “Dad, all the guys are doing this lacrosse thing and I was hoping I could do it to.”

“ How much does it cost, buddy?”

“I think Teddy and Harry said like $300…”

I laughed out loud.

 

 

The Harvest List

The Harvest List

 

THESE are the times that try men’s souls…. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.  Thomas Paine, The Crisis

 

My good friend was recently thrown into the abyss of unemployment, a casualty of the catastrophic climate changes that have engulfed the financial services community.  He was sharing with me his journey to find employment and how he found himself interviewing at a surviving bank for a position that he had held years earlier in his career.  “I was interviewing with a kid ten years younger than me. When it was over, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to shake his hand or slap him”.  We talked for a long time.  It seemed our summer fields were infinitely more vulnerable to the vagaries of life’s winter storms. I knew that in the next few years, we would see more turbulence, uncertainty and financial insecurity sweep across our land.  The barometer was dropping, twilight had arrived and all we could do was watch as the storm rolled towards us.

 

For many, the current financial crisis is a catastrophic storm wreaking havoc after years of Indian summer – – a placid stretch of warm days and cool nights propped up by a high pressure system of easy credit and leverage.  During periods of fair weather, even the most veteran of farmers can gain a false sense of security and begin to believe in their own power to prevail over the forces of nature. Affluence is a warm wind that lulls us with a sense of independence and a belief that we have gained immunity from misfortune. In periods of abundance we attach enormous value to our “things” and at some level, to ourselves.  When the unexpected occurs, our self-esteem, now lashed to the limbs and stalks of our personal possessions, sometimes breaks at the very time we need courage and fortitude. Fear becomes a tornado touching down indiscriminately, conjured in the depths of our imagination, blocking out all light.  We can give up, or we can carefully replant, giving thanks for the real wealth we have harvested in our lives. 

 

Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.” Kahil Gibran

 

In the days of agrarian America, Fall was a time of harvest – – reaping the benefits of good weather and their own hard work of ploughing, planting, gathering, mending and managing.  The harvest was a time to take an inventory of what one had accumulated for his/her efforts and to give thanks. In a period before science and technology had conspired to de-mythologize life and the cosmos, uncertainty was a silent stalker, following each person just out of the corner of their eye. Disease, famine, wars, and economic downturn could sweep unannounced into lives leaving wreckage and devastation in their wake.  People had to cope with tragic events as a condition of human existence.  It was rare to find the man who did not understand his fragile contract with the fates.

 

Society was more religious.  People understood out of necessity that a community bonded by common interest was significantly less vulnerable than a fragile archipelago of self absorbed islands.  Churches and societies became critical affinity groups for people who sought the companionship and support of a larger foundation of shared values.  These groups were defined by principles that advocated service as a framework for survival – – serving each other and in doing so, ensuring that the most at risk did not suffer. In the Great Depression, families were keenly aware of one another circumstances, not out of the human frailty of being preoccupied with another’s misfortune but out of the understanding that “no man is an island” and any family’s failure diminished another.  A mother might gently suggest to her child to invite a particular friend over for dinner, knowing that that child’s family was struggling and that one less mouth to feed might provide some modicum of relief to a family navigating the white water of misfortune.  At dinner, grace was shared to remind everyone of the essential blessings of life, health and community.

 

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Cicero

 

Each of us possesses a harvest list.  It’s assets might include the laughter of a child who sees the world as a magical place of endless possibilities.  It’s the warm fire of humanity kindled by a thousand tiny sparks of those who serve others.  It’s a house jammed with friends and family. It’s having somewhere to go and someone to see.  It’s not being alone.  It is knowing someone will always be there for you.  It’s the smell of autumn smoke hanging in the early morning air.  It is seeing someone we love achieve something important.  It is watching a close friend beat an illness.  It is holding hands and waiting for the darkest hours to pass to witness yet another glorious dawn.  It’s having the courage to ask for help and having the magnanimity to offer it.  It is the bounty of a community that cares about one another.  It is generosity.  It is people who serve as the mortar that connects the bricks of our daily lives.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that each person has a choice of either lighting a candle or cursing the dark.  The sand foundations that we all periodically build our lives on eventually destabilize.  The rocks that form the strongest foundations in our lives rest near us.  They elevate us so that we might rise above the clouds of fear and see our possibilities and breathe the deep fresh air of hope.  Those rocks are our family, our church, friends, neighbors and even those whom we have never met but through the act of helping them, they actually enrich us.

 

Life will carry on.  The autumn leaves still play chase across muddy ground, restless after falling from treetops colored from a miraculous divine palette.  The low rock walls predictably curl and duck along narrow roads as dark ponds slowly prepare to for winter.  It’s the perfect time of year to remember that everything happens for a reason and that there is a plan for each of us.  The darkest moments precede the most magnificent personal awakenings.  Fear has no role in the passion play of life.  It disables us and distracts us from realizing our potential.  It causes us to ignore the bounty we have been given.  In this time of loss, change and challenge, our harvest list remains rich. We just need to be sure to take the time to recognize everything that we possess – – physically, intellectually and spiritually.  It’s all there, right underneath our noses, between the lines – – our priceless intangibles that rest on the other side of our temporal ledger. 

Simplify

Simplify!

About twice a week I travel into New York by train, preoccupying my time with my Blackberry, the Journal, Will Shortz’s latest Times Crossword or a business brief that screams for my immediate attention.  As the week carries on, fatigue and a flagging vocabulary conspires to prevent my completion of the crossword and retard focus on anything related to business.  In these rare moments, reflecting in the seams between work and family, I find myself staring out a chattering train window and wondering whether my daily routine is a path to a mountain top or a rut leading into a deeply carved canyon.

As a college literature major, I studied the impassioned and idealistic views of the early nineteenth century Romantics and Transcendentalists.  Over 150 years ago, another New Englander Henry David Thoreau listened to the whistle of another commuter train that passed off in the distance from his crude shack that he had built on the edges of Walden Pond.  Thoreau hated the sound of the passenger train – – “a devilish Iron Horse, a bloated pest whose ear rending neigh is heard throughout the town”…carrying within it “masses of men leading quiet, desperate lives…..chained to commerce.”  Hey wait a minute, Henry, you’re talking about me.

My theory is once in a while, we all poke our head above the parapet and wonder, “is this what it is all about?”  It’s usually after that great vacation to Jackson Hole or that really bad day where someone throws up on your shoe in the subway.  David Byrne of the Talking Heads put it another way, “And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. And you may find yourself in another part of the world, And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, And you may ask yourself -Well…How did I get here?”

Thoreau acted on an impulse that many of us secretly covet from time to time.  He chucked it all in – – leaving behind comfort and companionship to live alone in the woods.  He breathed life into that hidden non conformist that struggles within every man  – – the one that pulls against the shackles of pragmatism, fear and lack of self confidence.  Thoreau’s “ experiment” carved a path that others might follow.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die discover that I had not lived…”

Thoreau’s move to the woods was an ideological protest, a lightening rod rooted in a nascent philosophical movement, Transcendentalism, In Europe, famine and revolution were at the epicenter of a massive tidal wave of immigration to America.  Philosophers and intellectuals longed for a Utopian society to mute the effects of social inequities brought on by unrestrained capitalism.  Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto.  Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle began to question the very origins of man.  When Ralph Waldo Emerson published Nature, he urged the pursuit of simplicity – – in spirit, lifestyle and ideology.  To the Romantics, there was dignity and importance in simplicity.  They believed that children descended into corruption as they became adults and that adults were essentially corrupted by society.  Nathaniel Hawthorne considered man a “god in ruins”.  Poets looked instead to the wilderness as refuge and metaphor – – a pathway to self discovery and poultice for an infected soul.

In March 1845, Thoreau moved to Walden and disassembled an old rail worker’s shack, fashioning a functional shanty from old nails and warped boards.  This simple habitation would serve as his home over the next two and one half years.  He raised vegetables and a simple harvest of food sufficient to barter for what he needed to live.  Thoreau was intoxicated by the natural ebb and flow of the woods.  He reveled in its ever changing splendor and its utterly predictable character.   He found himself and a renewed serenity through the sheer simplicity of shedding material needs and communing with nature.

“ This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water.”

Thoreau mourned what he considered to be the “worn and dusty…highways of the world, and how deep ( were ) the ruts of conformity and tradition”.  A modern day Diogenes, he seemed to be advocating that man could only realize his virtue through the simplification of his lifestyle.  Thoreau was not wedded so much to poverty as he was to material simplification and the need to celebrate all that was sacred in nature and in man.

As I stare out of the Metro North and catch glimpses of hidden paths leading into a cat’s cradle of woods, I feel the siren’s call of the Romantics.  I am grateful when I can disappear along the trails of Waveny, Devil’s Den or Pound Ridge State Park and wander along rocky outcrops, get scolded by a blue jay or startle to the sudden bolt of a white tailed deer.   Alas, these moments like the ambitions of the Romantics and the Transcendentalists, never last.  The obligations of my life return to tug at my sleeve like an impatient child.  Yet, Thoreau and his time at Walden remind me to take a deep breath and to seek to simplify my life.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours…If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put foundations under them.

For Thoreau, his experiment led to a lifestyle focused on simplicity and nature.  He left a path for others to follow who also sought a tonic for the pressures of their own time. Upon his deathbed, Thoreau was asked if he had made his peace with God to which he cleverly replied, “I did not know that we had quarreled. “