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Reflections after a Month on the Road

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It turns out we were both working on posts about how things have changed since we left New York. Written individually but presented together, we hope they offer some insight.

Zach:

It was a difficult decision to drop everything and travel. I gave up a job I liked for an organization that I believe in. I said goodbye to an amazing group of friends that continuously brought new and exciting things to my life. I left behind the best city in the world.  In the days and months approaching my departure, I spent many sleepless nights wondering if I was doing the right thing.  Would I miss it? Would I regret making this move? After a month on the road, I’m confident that I made the right call.

But I wasn’t wrong about the things above. I miss my job. I still check in on my old projects religiously – and the paycheck was nice. I certainly miss my friends and family, whom I think of often. New York restaurants make my mouth water from the other side of the globe.

It was still the right decision. In a few weeks I’ve realized immense clarity about myself and my future, a clarity that has eluded me for my previous twenty-eight years. A supernova-sized weight has been lifted off my shoulders. If that weren’t enough, I’m learning how to do things that I’m excited to take back home and having a blast. Without this fresh perspective, filled with new people living different lives and new experiences outside of the cocoon I’d constructed, I never would have been able to examine my priorities this way. I didn’t even realize that I was unhappy in my old life. So I guess there’s one less thing to miss.

If, unlike me, you’ve got the self-awareness to acknowledge your own unhappiness, make a change.  The answer might be hidden in one of those cracks that you haven’t examined in years.  Sometimes shaking things up is the only way. Yes, you have responsibilities you should be aware of, but all too often we create a false sense of obligation. Give your two weeks notice, put your couch on Craigslist, take care of the things that are tying you down, but don’t let them dictate your life.  You aren’t obligated to live a life that doesn’t completely fulfill you. A job is mostly just a way to pay your rent; a couch is just a collection of fabric and wood. Give up the things standing in your way.

This doesn’t necessarily even equate to an extended time traveling.  Maybe it’s moving to a new city, or separating yourself from an unfulfilling situation, or opening yourself up to a new experience.  Travel is just a convenient way to remove oneself from a previous life and force the kind of introspection required for real answers.  Plus you get to meet new people, experience new cultures, and become inspired along the way.  If you have the tiniest of inclinations to travel – do it. Find the means. There was a time in my life when I thought I might never discover what I wanted to be. Escaping from that over the last month has been one of the benchmarks of my life, and I want everyone to experience this euphoria.  Please join me.

 


 Stina:

3:45 am Woke up to pee like an hour ago. Can’t go back to sleep. Writing always helps. The BIG IDEA here is that life is changing in a major way and I don’t think I can or want to go back. I like living simply. I like growing food. I like being on a farm. 

This trip started out as a bit of an experiment. When we first set out, farming was something that I was interested in, but working on farms was largely a means of traveling. Not any more. The more I learn and do, the more this way of life makes sense and feels right.

For example, composting table scraps makes sense. We have yet to fill one garbage bag in the three weeks that we have been here at Uma Rapiti. We eat as much as possible from the garden, compost food waste, then put it back into the garden. All while reducing the grocery bill and eliminating the need for soil mixes from Home Depot. Having chickens that lay eggs make sense. All you do is feed them and they give you eggs. It is like getting a present every morning! Oh really, Stina? You’re impressed that chickens lay eggs? Did you miss that part in first grade? No, I didn’t. I have just never seen it happen. I have never had free eggs. FREE! (Note: Free Range, Organic eggs are $8 at the Union Square Farmer’s Market)

Maybe that is my favorite part of all of this, that we are helping to produce the best tasting, healthiest food and it is free if you just put in the time and work. I can totally do that. I can only imagine having a pig and eating that, too. So many delicious parts… loins… chops… ribs…. And that is what now guides our next step. I can only imagine having a pig. Okay, so let’s go see what having a pig is like. September is a vineyard, October is TBD and November is pigs, cows and chickens. Or chops, milk and eggs.

I learn something new every single day. Whether it is through talking to Chad and Lizzy, the farm managers here, who have worked with all sorts of animals on farms of all different scales, through the books we are reading, or by getting my hands dirty in a new project. How to keep slugs out of the garden, use a table saw, brine and marinate olives, use a sewing machine, how to fish. Doesn’t it make sense to know how to fish if you eat fish?

I’ve also figured out that my interest in farming stems from a good meal: good for you, good tasting, and sustainable so you can do it again and again. I love learning about food and spending time preparing something that makes others happy. There is some combination of plants, animals, cooking, eating and sharing with others will be how we make our way in the future. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I’m curious and excited to find out. We are going to spend this year exploring anything and everything that seems interesting. What do we like? What could we see ourselves doing? Our trip has become a workshop for our next phase of life.

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The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

A few years ago, reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma flipped my world-view on its head. It showed me that many of the problems we face as a society (health and energy, notably) can be solved by more responsible agriculture.  As that book began my path toward eating more naturally, The One-Straw Revolution (1978) hammered it home.  If you care about food, farming, or achieving a sustainable society, it’s truly revolutionary.

Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a proponent of “do-nothing” farming.  That’s a bit of a misnomer, as his methods still involve lots of work, but he certainly did a lot less than the average farmer. Distilled, his philosophy is: let plants grow as they do in nature. He advocated four main principles:

  1. No cultivation. This means no tilling or disturbing the natural structure of the soil.
  2. No prepared compost or chemical fertilizer. This comes with a few qualifications, but essentially it’s: keep the level of fertilization in the soil balanced.
  3. No weeding by tilling or herbicides.  “Weeds play their part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community.” Though he does admit that weeds should be controlled through other means – ground cover, mostly.
  4. No dependance on chemicals. Duh.

So some of his ideas are radical even for the crunchiest of alternative farms. After having seen the beautiful vegetables that thoughtfully prepared compost produces, I’m having trouble reconciling the idea of giving up that black gold. But his explanation makes sense: when you add or subtract anything from soil, you’re upsetting the natural balance.  Weeds will grow better in compost too!

The book is mainly about food and farming, but delves into some interesting facets of his own brand of eastern philosophy.  Some tasty nuggets:

I do not like the word “work.” Human beings are the only animals that have to work, and I think this is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Other animals make their livings by living, but people work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive. The bigger the job, the greater the challenge, the more wonderful they think it is.

High five, Fukuoka-san! I can certainly get on board that train.

Nature’s Food Mandala, by Masanobu Fukuoka

Of course, the “food mandala” above will vary based on where you are in the world, and I’m sure you’ve heard the “eat seasonally” refrain, but boy-howdy does it help to see it laid out like this.  The meals practically jump off the page, don’t they? I’ll take some of this, with a little of that, and voilá! Here’s a balanced, seasonal, and healthy meal. I’ll pass on the pig fish though.

By realizing “no-mind” without becoming lost in the subtleties of form, accepting the color of the colorless as color, right diet begins.

Ok, that one is a little kooky, but I included it to give you an idea of what you’re in for.  Most of the book is totally normal, practical advice and evidence about farming, but at the end he goes off the rails a bit, getting occasionally touchy-feely and frequently soup-spoon obtuse. I didn’t want you to read through the book and think I was about to join a commune in Nepal. Fear not, I still wear nylon.

So this is all very nice, but hardly revolutionary.  Well, the best is yet to come. You’ve heard the old adage: “you can have it cheap, good, or fast: pick two.” The same applies to local, organic, and cheap, but you’re usually allowed only one.  Imagine if you could have all three! It would absolutely be revolutionary, as Fukuoka insists.

But, how? He contends that because his principles are easier and cheaper than more intensive organic farming (remember, “do-nothing”), he can match or beat the prices of the good ole boys using nasty chemicals and petrol-guzzling combines. All of a sudden, we can have cheap, local and organic!

Nothing will change consumer’s habits faster than hitting them where they feel it most: the wallet. When the modern organic grower realizes this, they will truly have a toehold in the marketplace.

The One-Straw Revolution made me think long and hard about some principles I’d taken as fact and offered solutions to some major hurdles of modern organic agriculture. If you’re game for a similar adventure, pick up a copy today.

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School Kills Creativity

While enjoying a post-workout glass of wine and some sweets this afternoon, the conversation among my fellow couchsurfers (there are six of us here) turned to education.  Javier, a kind young Argentinian, suggested we watch Sir Ken Robinson’s related TED talk.

It has absolutely nothing to do with NZ, but a lot to do with why we’re here. It’s also bit long (20 minutes), and a bit old (2006), but it’s filled with hilarious jokes, amusing anecdotes and, of course, inspiring and eloquent speech. Highly recommended:

Personally, I’m just now starting to realize what I want to “be.” I certainly wasn’t ready to make that decision as a freshman in college, as most American students are encouraged to do. So I bounced from one course of study to another, and another again, and finally just settled on something that would get me that piece of paper in a reasonable amount of time. And I’ve never used the material I studied since.

During our recent move into storage/massive purge of old things, I was finally able to throw out my old econometrics and public policy tomes.  This was cathartic — I could finally admit to myself that no, I am not and will never be a professional economist or politician. Thank god(s). It’s not that college was useless, I learned some critical thinking and social skills.  Oh, and I met my beautiful and wonderful-in-every-way girlfriend. So I think of her every month when I’m sending in that student loan check.

But I didn’t make the most of college because I didn’t have any direction.  I wish I’d taken creative writing, foreign language, and public speaking courses. Of course it’s easy to say that now, but if I wasn’t forced into a track, any track, and rather encouraged to take a general course of study I would have inevitably hit a few of those by chance. Sure, I had some elective options, but I was so burnt out by heavy academic courses that I took bullshit like Human Sexuality and Sacred Music because they didn’t sound difficult and fit into my drinking schedule.

Back to Robinson’s point, I was never a particularly creative kid.  In fact, I rebelled against art and music classes because I thought they were a waste of time.  Why did I think they were a waste of time?  Because they weren’t given the same importance as math or science. So I don’t think that early education killed my creativity, but I do wish that I wasn’t allowed to ignore it.  I excelled in what they told me to excel in, but let the rest fall by the wayside because I could. It was a rational decision, there are limited hours in the day and I concentrated my efforts in places where I’d see results.  Wait, maybe I am an economist at heart?

Finally, this is why we travel.  It’s these conversations with strangers from far away lands that end up inspiring a rambling blog post. Serendipity is a wonderful and fickle mistress.  Grab her by the neck when you can.

Now, it’s happy hour.  Things are good. If you can believe it, winter in Auckland is 60 degrees and sunny.  Gin and tonics all around!

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New York: I Love You, but…

Via Longform, I recently discovered this article, by Cord Jefferson, about living in and leaving New York.  It begins as a somewhat haughty journal of dreams about moving to our fair city, early career struggles and cliched complaints (rent! winter!), but evolves into a touching and lovely examination of place and identity.  Oo la laa! How apropos!  Yeah, I know, but humor me for a bit.  I liked this part:

Getting out of New York helped me rediscover the outside world, while living in LA has reminded me to ignore the world if you’re happy with where you are and what you’re doing.

It sounds trite, but the thesis of the article really hit home for me.  I’ll offer you my own haughty journal and cliched complaints in explanation.

In my youth, we often took family trips to New York.  Both my parents went to college here, so they knew their way around and I was toted around from subway to cab, restaurant to show, never knowing which way was up and constantly feeling lost. This is probably a very common childhood experience, but it didn’t jive with my adolescent neuroses/know-it-all nature.  I liked knowing where the hell I was, and how to get out of this concrete jungle in case of zombie apocalypse.  Plus I think I got dog poop in my Tevas once. Oh, hell no.  So New York intimidated me, and it was dirty, and I’d made up my mind – I didn’t like it.

Then, when I was wrapping up my last year at Syracuse (G’Orange!), all my friends decided that they were moving to New York.  By this point I was a bit more comfortable with myself and new places, so gave it a go.  My dad was living in a nice place in Bay Ridge, so I spent my first three months here slingin’ burgers and beer uptown and riding the R train into the wee hours of the morning back to Shore Road and a futon couch.  This was a fun way to spend a summer, but certainly didn’t feel like the glamor and glitz that I’d heard about.

Once Dad and I had worn each others’ nerves sufficiently I started looking for cheap places to live.  Ah, there’s nothing that will wake a starry-eyed young boy faster than dealing with NYC real estate brokers during the height of the rental bubble: 2007.  I don’t think I ever even saw a single apartment – they were either non-existant bait-and-switch attempts or were snatched before I even made it to the open houses. But as is often the case in life and real estate: its all about being lucky and knowing the right people.  A friend needed a roommate in her $3k/month Upper East Side shoebox.

“Welp,” I said, “I can’t afford that, but how about if I move in with Stina! We..uh..don’t take up much space!”

Luckily, said friend was kind enough to let that slide and we had our first real grown-up place.  Or at least, tiny room with dark living room and one-person kitchen.  But it was OURS, dammit.  I commuted every day to work on the packed 6 train, pleased with myself for rubbing elbows with the elites and not the slightest bit annoyed when one of them farted nearby.  “My air is your air, friend! We are all in this together.”  I had made it, or so I thought.

Of course, we grew tired with that tired of living flanked by fratty bars and lunching ladies, and soon the search was on again.  “The perfect place is out there.  I know it.”  We wanted a one-bedroom and the only things in our price range were in less desirable ‘hoods.  There were some nice blocks of central and western Harlem that attracted us, but we ultimately settled on another friend-of-a-friend’s place: a massive converted loft in the South Bronx.  Yes, SoBro (as realtors kept calling it) was a bit avant garde for two young white kids, but Christina taught nearby and I could commute the entire way to work on the 5 train (interminably, it seemed at times), so it made some sense.  Anyway, the apartment was awesome.  It was a warehouse that had been home to a variety of industries – we could pry discarded sewing needles from between the floorboards – but had been bought decades ago by an artist and occupied by a variety of her peers in some attempt to create a pocket of utopia amid the drugs and violence of “SoBro” in the eighties and nineties.  She’d since converted it to condos and was selling it off, floor by floor.  We lived on the fourth floor in a unit recently bought by a parent’s friend.  The rest of the building was occupied by some remaining artists, academics, and others with similar ideals.  At times it still felt a bit utopian.  At others, we felt trapped.

So, through another stroke of luck and timing, we ended up in what we once thought was the perfect apartment in the perfect neighborhood.  And it still may be.

New York has been my only adult “home.” I know I’ll miss it desperately, but I know there’s also a lot more out there to see. It’s hard to picture living anywhere else, but as soon as the time comes I’ll remember Jefferson’s words from above: “ignore the world if you’re happy with where you are and what you’re doing.”  The grass will always be greener somewhere else; find your spot and make it the greenest it can be.

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Preparing for the Slow Life

Don’t get me wrong — I’m beyond excited to GTFO of New York City and start adventurin’ (patent pending), but as the date of our departure approaches (August 1) I’ve come to dread the inevitable shock of not being able to drop $50 on dinner if we don’t feel like firing up the stove on a particularly sweltering evening (like today in NYC).  We’ve been fortunate; with no kids and steady gigs, we’ve rarely had to sacrifice a fun time for the sake of saving a sawbuck here and there.  But soon, when the paychecks stop coming in, we’ll have to make some tough choices about what we can and can’t spend our money on.

At least initially, the plan is to live frugally and find free and fun things to do.  Our expenses should be pretty minimal, considering we’ll be WWOOFing in exchange for room and board.  Fixed monthly costs should be limited to cell phones and student loans (student bailout, anyone?). At least, I think so.  It’ll be interesting to revisit this after a few months in NZ, to see what our real monthly costs are. No doubt I’ve forgotten something already.

Transportation is obviously another consideration, but that’s closely tied to entertainment.  My grand vision is that we’ll be within a stone’s throw of awesome beaches and hikes and just hang out, write, talk, read, and enjoy the slow life for a while. Sounds…perfect! Right? RIGHT?!

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A Million Little Reasons

When I tell people I’m leaving the grand ole USofA to hang with some sheep and kiwis across the world, I usually get one of two responses:

  1. Wow! That’s awesome.  I’m totally jelly.
  2. Why?

The first one is more common, but the second pops up enough that I’ve developed a mental list of responses I draw on at random based on who I’m talking to.  There are a million reasons, some are simple, others are complex, some are trivial, others are important.  In no particular order, I’m traveling to get away from:

  • sitting inside an office at a desk all freakin’ day
  • car horns and ambulance sirens
  • drivers trying to kill me on my bicycle
  • a government that doesn’t treat all of its citizens equally
  • the inevitable zombie apocalypse
  • clocks
  • a broken agricultural system
  • taxes funding wars I don’t believe in
  • neighbors that don’t hold the door for me

A note on the last point: New Yorkers are very nice to outsiders.  I think this comes from years of people portrayed as assholes in the media.  However, they continue to embrace the stereotype of brash, apathetic, and rude behavior to their fellow New Yorkers.  The city instills an extreme tendency to be competitive, whether its in a race up the corporate ladder or the escalator from the subway.  Mostly, I want to get away from the constant rush to the top.  We all have our own definition of happiness, and that isn’t mine.

 

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Why?

I often ask myself why we’re doing this.  Why leave solid jobs and great friends?  Why dump the contents of our life out of this carefully constructed reality, with no guarantee that things will fall into better places? I have a great life, why change anything?

There are many answers, but the one that I keep falling back on is: if you don’t try something new, you’ll never accomplish anything great.  Fear of failure is a healthy and normal reaction, but totally counterproductive.  Do you think that Edison and Einstein got it right the first time, every time?

I don’t expect to change the world with our adventure, but I do expect to change myself — and I’m certain it’ll be for the better.

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