Sunday, March 29, 2015

How To Retire Early

It is odd that I mention "early retirement" in the subtitle of this blog, but seldom talk about what some readers would care about: "how the hell can you possibly do it?" One reason I shun the topic is that I get accused of being anti-woman.

How generous of Fred Reed to offer up an essay "Against Marriage," which provides me with easy "cover." Although he doesn't mention early retirement per se in his essay, his arguments against marriage apply triply to somebody who wants to retire early. 

But let's be clear: his essay is against getting sucked into a destructive legal/financial relationship (aka, marriage) with a woman. It is not anti-woman. People who reflexively trot out that old canard do so as a crutch: they don't want to look at the arguments against marriage honestly and intelligently; they would rather perform character assassination on the man making the argument.

If you read the essay, you will probably find it provocative and witty, in Fred's usual style. But it may leave some readers with a bitter after-taste in their mouth. We are only cut out for a certain amount of brutal truth. Beyond that, we come away discouraged and depressed. It helps, when reading his essay, to remember that his "contra" theme could be balanced by a second essay on the cheerful and positive agenda of being single and retired early.

Some would argue that marriage itself is not injurious to early retirement, but rather, the blame should go to children, divorce, and the ballooning cost of college. Strictly speaking, this might be true.  But an individual only has 100% control over whether they get married. 

But once you do get married, how much control do you have over the issue of children and divorce? As a rough guide, you only have 33% control; with another 33% belonging to the spouse; and 33% belonging to the mores of your society.

Can you be satisfied with a mere 33% control over your destiny?; over financial ruin?; over working at a (probably disagreeable) job until you are a matter of months from medical problems taking over your life?

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Brave Little Beast

A couple birds carried-on a noisy aerial dogfight over my trailer. It's not unusual for a couple small birds to get after a large raptor, but here a single small bird held forth, valiantly. The fight went on for half an hour. My dog was annoyed the entire time.

But isn't it amazing what inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras can do these days! Those two birds were up there, say, 300 feet. I took the optical zoom way out there, so far that it was hard to keep them in the frame. And yet the box turned green -- focus was achieved. And even after digital zoom was added, the photo is still pretty clear:

I am now reading Jack London's "The Sea Wolf," so my mind takes to "wind sports". I wonder if London ever wrote a couple paragraphs on something like what is in this photo, and what meaning he read into it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Balanced Scenery

'Balance' is a subtle form of beauty in a landscape, but it is a real one. It is also a rare one in the West. When people show postcards of western scenery and describe it as 'breathtakingly beautiful', they are being narrow and philistine. What they mean is that something in landscape -- hopefully reddish -- is freakishly large and vertical.

The truth is that much more balanced scenery exists in the East and the South, and a little bit in the Great Lakes region. Imagine a place that actually has pretty forests full of a variety of trees that have leaves (!),  a creek, a barn, and some productive fields. In most of the West (other than the Willamette Valley in Oregon) forests are nothing but dreary monocultures of some species of needle-tree.

The lack of balance and variety in the West just means that I have learned to appreciate those rare places where it can be found. One of those places is southeastern Arizona. That is the theme of today's postcard.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Are Extreme Sports an Answer to Shackleton?

Is it crazy to read about Ernest Shackleton's adventures when our modern world lacks real adventure? Everything on earth has been seen. If you were to sign up for XYZ Adventure Tours, they would have you sign legal disclaimers, despite nothing genuinely dangerous being permitted. And you would be encased in safety equipment.

In the world of travel, people who might see themselves as "adventurers" are actually like a lazy student who looks up the answers in the back of the book, rather than attempting to work the problem out on his own. With Benchmark and DeLorme atlases, Wikipedia, websites, blogs, and Google Earth, everything is known.

So are we just looking back at the good old days of Shackleton, when men were made of iron and ships were made of wood, with romantic nostalgia?

But there is still this thing called extreme sports in the modern world; marathon running, peak bagging, bicycle racing, etc. These don't offer the glamor of the unknown, nor are they particularly dangerous. But, as with Shackleton, they do give people a chance to climb way out of their comfort zone.

Actually, when you go outside the comfort zone, you are going into an 'undiscovered country', in a sense. It isn't "undiscovered" in the same sense as it was for Magellan or Shackleton, but it still counts.

I experience "extreme" sports a little bit, when acting like a pseudo-racer in the winter bicycle club in Yuma. There is something of value there. Ordinarily, I would be repelled by the repetition needed to get physically fit. Recall my standard stump speech in favor of not going past the point of diminishing marginal utility. Endurance athletes and racers go way beyond this point.

Perhaps that is the real value of a snowbird winter: to take a vacation from our usual way of thinking even if we like our usual way of thinking.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What Would Shackleton Think of Modern "Adventurers?"

It was time for a rematch with a slot canyon that I love. Well, it isn't exactly a slot canyon in the Utah red-rock sense of the word. Actually, it's creepier because it is a steep gash in packed dirt, with layers of gravel every couple feet; except that it seems too hard for dirt, and too soft for rock.

The gash is only about 75 feet high. It seemed to be cleaned out -- deepened -- compared to last time.

Believe it or not, the photograph shows my limit of penetration. Physically it was possible to walk another hundred feet, and I would have done so if it had been real rock. But the idea of the "angle of repose" kept spooking me out.

Ah well, I walked out of there and had a good chuckle about myself. It accomplished a little something. It seems that any time nature affects you in something other than the standard scenery-tourist way, you have experienced something real, non-trivial, and memorable.

But it is humbling to the extreme to look at a little experience like this with historical perspective. I am currently reading "Shackleton," by Roland Huntford. Bad timing! It is a biography of his entire life, not just the famous "Endurance" debacle. 

On his second trip to reach the South Pole, a few years before the Endurance debacle, Shackleton and his men were the first to use the route up the Beardmore Glacier.
"Glacier" hardly conveyed the feeling. This was a monstrous estuary of ice, 30 miles wide and over 100 miles long.

The headwaters of this monster were hard to conceive. There was a sense of irresistible, pent-up power behind its forms, like a tide caught in a moment of full surge.

The first day on the glacier they began to feel like true discoverers. Nothing had prepared them for the sensations by which they now were overwhelmed.

Without crampons, each step was an essay in uncertainty... 

Worse still was the mystery of what lay ahead. One thing at least was clear. The sheer size of the glacier hinted at the mass on which it fed. Shackleton was heading for a vast ice cap [over 10,000 feet in altitude] on which the Pole would probably be found.

The blue ice of the days before had given way to snow in one of its most treacherous forms; a thin, brittle wind crust that looked solid to the eye. It masked the crevasses, so that day after day everyone repeatedly broke through, saved only by their harnesses from falling into the fathomless pits below.

They did this without knowing the cause of scurvy or the word, vitamin. Unlike us, there was no
  • GPS coordinates, wireless, or weather forecasts. 
  • hooded parkas or good boots.
  • goretex, polartec fleece, nylon and polyester.
  • modern pain-killers, aspirin, or penicillin. 
  • quickie, dehydrated "backpacker" foods.
They didn't even have skiis, dogs, or dogsleds! They tried to use ponies.

And yet they were the first men to discover the glacier, climb it with no fatalities, and trudge halfway to the pole on the high polar ice cap. 

Where does that put you and me? We're still a little higher than an earthworm, I suppose. Although it is almost too bleak to contemplate, let's honestly confront our puniness these days; not for the sake of wallowing in self-criticism and unworthiness, but for the sake of seeing the Big Picture of what we are and where we could go.

I would rather focus on 'where we could go' than 'should', since the latter might be impossibly long-winded.

I really can't get any further tonight. I am too weak and puny against a vastness of a different type than what a person usually thinks about. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Architecture Enables Lifestyle

Most people probably think that architecture is partly civil engineering and partly artistic design and beauty. How important is the subject of beauty to architecture? For the moment let's interpret 'beauty' the way that most would: a combination of shapes, colors, and textures that are somehow pleasing to the eye.

Shapes?  A rectangle is a rectangle, an arch is an arch. There are only so many building materials and most of them are flat, so you can build with only so many shapes. Even when you see a structure as radical as a geodesic dome, you have to eventually say, "So, I now know what an equilateral triangle is."

Colors? How many colors can a building have?  White, earth tones, metallic grey, rust. Anything else would look ridiculous or age in an unseemly way.

Texture? Rough or smooth.

Of course, reductionism like this is unfair. Couldn't we also say, "How many notes are in the musical scale? So when you've heard a few minutes of any music, you've heard it all?"

Or if you were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Paris in spring, and the young buckaroos were doing some serious girl-watching, would you volunteer, "Well after all, they all have the same parts. The end result is just diapers and bills-to-pay?"

OK, so I admit that beauty does exist in architecture, but unless you plan on hiring an architect and spending millions of dollars on some edifice, how important can it really be to most of us?

So then, let's dismiss (visual) beauty from our consideration of architecture, and find something else to value.

I gave a hint in the title of the last post, What is Architecture? Recall Tolstoy's book, "What is Art."  He rejects the conventional idea that art is all about beauty, and decides in favor of defining art as a work that infectiously transfers emotions from the artist to the viewer/reader/listener.

Let's do somewhat the same thing regarding architecture. Last post, a commenter started maneuvering towards the idea of architecure possessing moral beauty and expressing cultural values. This is the right direction, I think, but it would take a book to discuss it all. Let's specialize the value of architecture to the question of,  "How does it let me live?" (I am not discussing how one should live.)

In the rat race, one's life is pretty much consumed by the standard things. Even in retirement, I'm not sure that the architecture of a stick-and-brick house would affect your lifestyle all that much.

The best examples of how architecture can affect your lifestyle are:

1. Sailboats, especially during the Age of Discovery, when Europe basically took over the world.
2. Tepees of indigenous tribes in North America.
3. The wagons of the Roma, aka gypsies.
4. Wagons of the North American (European) pioneers.
5. Igloos of the esquimaux. 

Alas, these are all in the past. In the modern world, the architecture of RVs is probably the limiting case of  architecture-leading-to-lifestyle. And yet it so easy to design or buy an RV without really focusing on how it will let you live!

Despite all my years of experience in this racket, when I think about the design of a rig, my mind doesn't switch to "How will it let me live?" as rapidly as it should. Instead, it wallows in secondary issues such as motorhome versus trailer, size, weight, brand, color, style, floor plan.

I will skip the ritualistic flailing at, and spoon-feeding of, "practical"  details. Anyone who is near retirement age and has owned a house can work all that out for themselves. But they may benefit from being reminded to always put "How will I live" at the front of their mind.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What is Architecture?

Perhaps a recent commenter was correct in thinking I wouldn't learn much about being an architect just from re-reading Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead."  But at least the book has me thinking in terms of architecture, a different perspective for me. But let's resist rushing off to build philosophical skyscrapers...

1. My host in Patagonia took me on a walk to the ruins of a stucco hunting-cabin. It was used as recently as 15 years ago, but now Mother Nature is rapidly reclaiming it. The main room was about 50% bigger than my converted cargo trailer.

Spartan? Not compared to the Outdoors where the hunters spent much of their day. 

Beautiful? Not really. The appliances and materials are not significantly different than modern ones. There are no exotic shapes, structures, or colors.

So then why did I feel a small lump in my throat when inspecting this little cabin and the neglected cemetery outside it?

2. Down the street from me there is a house that I fawn over every day. Somewhat old, but not to the point of being "historical", cute, or exotic; a simple gable roof-line of corrugated metal; nice porches on two sides, held up by wooden poles.

Although the house is beautiful in a classic ranch sort of way, no architect would be the least impressed with it. 'Beauty' doesn't seem like the right issue. This house exudes integrity, somehow.

It seemed strange to be so bowled over by something as stately and sedate as 'admiration.'

3. Down the street from my rental lot in Yuma there was a house that made me flutter my eyelashes every time I walked by. It was just a block-shaped stucco house, but they had huge overhangs on the east and north side. They also had a redundancy of arches that might seem pointless to some people.

Imagine finishing a bicycle ride with the boys on a warm morning in Yuma. You are trying to make the season last longer before you flee north, where it is cold and rainy until July 5.  You sit in that luxurious shade and catch any breeze the comes through the arches. How glorious!

On my daily dog walk in the desert, there was one crucial angle where I could actually see through three layers of arches. Everyday this inflamed my imagination. Recall Edmund Burke's "...The Sublime and Beautiful...":
"Judgment is for the greater part employed in throwing stumbling blocks in the way of the imagination, in dissipating the scenes of its enchantment, and in tying us down to the disagreeable yoke of our reason.

Hardly any thing can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds...

 A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea."
Three layers of arches can inspire so much? Well, we use only three dots of ellipsis in mathematical notation, when describing an infinite series. I guess that those three layers suggested infinity to me as I walked off into the desert. The remarkable thing is how emotional and exciting it was.

4. Rarely does a normal house make a positive impression on me. The rare exception occurred once when visiting a Canadian couple in Loreto, Baja California.  A house with at least five different degrees of indoorsiness! Other than that, the house was normal and uninteresting.

Perhaps it is time to come up for air. Think about examples like this or other rare structures that actually inspired you over the years. Next time, let's put it all together and try to explain things. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Different Kind of "Open Range"

After sermonizing about grasslands in the last post, I started wondering whether this could be just one example of a general urge that some people have...

It all started when my Patagonia AZ host tried to make an "honest man" out of me.  No more driveway mooch-docking and eating delicious leftovers from her catering business: now I had to earn my keep with a "small" repair project in her house.

How lucky this turned out to be! It made me furious. All it required was a bit of electrical wiring, and then mounting something to the ceiling with four screws. Sounds tough, eh?  But it was enough to remind me how frustrating it is to find something solid to sink the screw into! That is true of stick-and-brick houses as well as standard RVs. 

I have been infuriated with this all my life, until I converted a cargo trailer into my new trailer. In a way I don't want to lose the ability to become enraged when the Half-Insane is widely accepted as normal. 

The desirability of plywood walls in the converted cargo trailer can be seen here, although most people wouldn't appreciate it:

Your screw hole was off by a quarter inch? No biggie. Just move it over.

Those plywood walls are a type of vast open range for the necessities of life. To tweak in your improvements, you need only get out your drill and zzzip, another pilot hole into the plywood. In seconds the project is done, inexpensively; and it is strong.

Del Norte, CO: a grass and sage range at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.
Perhaps there is a common denominator in aversions to:
  • unscrewable walls, 
  • zippers that jam up,
  • campground spaces in RV parks, 
  • sharp corners or trees at the mouth of a driveway,
  • over-sized pickups in parking lots or narrow forest roads, 
  • dense forests, 
  • overly steep mountains, 
and an overpopulated and over-regulated world, in general. Some people feel a type of "kinetic" claustrophobia about any restriction on their movement.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Falling in Love with the Half Beautiful

Looking back on a winter in the desert, it is gratifying to learn how to appreciate it more -- no, not the postcards of saguaro cactus or red sunsets. Those present no challenge to an experienced traveler. Rather, it is the touch-feel of harsh rocks, rocks that almost cause your hands to bleed if you lose your balance on a trail and put your hands down, to regain your balance.

Perhaps the "credit" should go to the youthful orogeny of volcanic sky islands. But when you are out there, immersed in the sheer horribleness of it, you can't help but think that aridity is the cause. Surprisingly you see that rocks are somewhat rounded in arroyos that flow only once per year, if even that often. Ironically that is where aridity makes it greatest impression.

By this time of the year we have started the Great Loop. We've moved up to 4000 foot grasslands in southeastern Arizona. My friend in Patagonia was boasting of the winter rain, so I came here expecting verdancy. But little was to be found. My dog and I did a long mountain bike loop the other day. I was overwhelmed, as usual, by universal tawniness in these parts. Tawniness doesn't seem like it should be impressive, at least not like floods, storms, and volcanoes.

Grass seldom responds to winter rains in the Southwest. It ain't even tempted. It waits for the monsoons of late summer to "verde" up. Until then a horseman or mountain biker must surrender to what is actually here. At first you resist all the dry stickery stuff and sepia tones.

There is more annual rainfall here than in the desert, or grass wouldn't be growing in the first place. But ironically it seems dryer here than in the desert because the vegetation is 100 times thicker. 

Our species is not a ruminant that can digest grass, nor can our eye-brains feast easily on grasslands. We want something easier, something more like a photo cliche with a bar code on it. But with persistent effort you can see these tawny-wastes as glorious.

Think of the freedom of movement that grasslands give animals and humans. It was the great inland sea to ancient and medieval Eurasia. It enabled the Silk Road, finally leading to communication between East and West. It enabled our starving ancestors from over-crowded Europe to own their own farms. It led to the fabled trails of the pioneers. And while thinking of this, contrast it with the horribleness of overgrown, thicket-like forests.

Even more, there is a beauty to a Balance between the useful and the merely pretty. What results is a natural experience that has integrity and authenticity. 

What are mountains and deserts good for? McMansion subdivisions, and that is all. It is only the people of a spoiled, post-industrial, and over-populated civilization who could see such places as beautiful. Such lands have contributed very little to civilization. 

This is the sort of experience an outdoor traveler should want over and over: a place where there is just enough easily-recognized beauty to arouse your eye-brain, and then the rest is up to your imagination and the sweaty straining of your body.