A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance

In the process of installing some new floors and rearranging a few doors and walls we’ve had to completely empty most of the rooms of the house. In the process I’ve come to realize that I like the look of an empty room or, at least, a room with nothing more than a few pieces of furniture. Call me one of those controversial minimalists (with, in my youth, maximalist tendencies).

A few years ago a group of archaeologists and anthropologists at UCLA undertook a meticulous study of the cluttery habits of 32 families in Los Angeles and published a book Life at Home in the Twenty First Century. The book has the distanced vibe of what it would be like if a group of archaeologists from the future excavated a 21st century home and reported the results. Why the photo shrines on the metal food storage units?

The book is worth reading (ironically, I just sold my copy to reduce book clutter). While I no longer own the book I was happy to discover the short, three part video series on the project which I’ve embedded for your weekend enjoyment.

Part II

Part III

What was especially interesting for me about these videos is that they address the complex intersection of clutter and child rearing, something that we don’t have experience with.

A Brief History of Secret Drawers

In 1642 a young couple, Robert and Susannah Jones, bought a large used chest. The couple lived with the chest for 20 years until, one day, they decided to move it. They heard a rattling inside and did some investigating, discovering a secret drawer. Out spilled a olive-wood rosary and huge amount of papers with mysterious writing and symbols. At some point their maid used around half of the papers to bake some pies before the couple decided to put the papers back in the chest. Some years later when the great fire of London broke out Susannah, now a widow, had the sense to take the papers with her. It turned out that those papers were John Dee’s account of his conferences with angels.

Secret compartments like this used to be a common feature of furniture up through the Victorian period. I’m guessing today’s paranoid tech CEOs probably have a few secret compartments in their modernist survival bunkers.

A desk, built for King Frederick William II by the Roentgen brothers takes the secret drawer idea to its zenith. This thing has secret drawers within secret drawers within secret drawers, all propelled by a complex mechanical system:

For a more recent expression of the secret drawer trope see this impressive desk by furniture maker Lonnie Bird:

The problem, both in the past and now, is that a decent burglar probably knows where your “hidden” compartments are located.

Saturday Tweets: Vive la Revolution!

123 Beekeeping Mistakes I Have Made

On the podcast this week is a recording of a talk I gave to the Long Beach Beekeepers on Sunday August 5th 2018.

Several times you’ll hear me refer to the “Backwards Beekeepers.” The Backwards Beekeepers were a group in Los Angeles that promoted a radical style of natural beekeeping. The group’s mentor was Kirk Anderson who you can hear on episode 40 of this podcast.

I’d like to thank the Long Beach Beekeepers for inviting me to speak. Unfortunately, I had to cut out the question and answer session because of poor recording quality but I’d like to encourage any of you in the Long Beach area to attend one of their meetings. It’s a great group.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected] You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

On the Possibilities and Problems of Groups

I’ve had several conversations with friends recently about the difficulty of organizing groups. Too often a bunch of people get together for a worthwhile cause only to see numbers dwindle, enthusiasm flag and, worse, enmity and strife set in. It’s not that I can somehow claim to be above the problem. I’m guilty of disappearing, of “ghosting” my fellow group members once the initial excitement of the collective idea wanes.

Michel Foucault called our modern society a “carceral archipelago,” a prison made up of individual cells all watched over by an all seeing eye. The advertising that surrounds us has much to do with our carceral condition. Modern capitalism emphasizes our individuality–“Do it your way!”–while, thanks to social media, simultaneously monitoring our every mouse click. It’s hard to argue with Foucault’s prescience in, what I like to think of as our make-your-own-individual-burrito “Chipotle age.”

In order to accomplish any worthwhile goal we have to form groups. Human beings are not meant to be lone agents. The Inuit people I met on a trip to Greenland have a word for individualists, “wanderers,” and in the Inuit culture wanderers are considered possessed of a supernatural malevolence. While most of us don’t have to face the challenges of an arctic climate, the fact is that our individualization has left us all lonely and ineffective.

And yet, the way out of the prison is not to make forming groups an end in itself. This is Mark Zuckerberg great error. At the Senate hearing he said, over and over that his highest goal is “connectivity.” People can connect to feed the homeless, rescue animals or plant trees. Unfortunately, people can also connect to promote racism and hate, something the internet has made worse.

I wish I had an easy set of points on how to form positive, long lasting and effective groups or just how to be a better member of a group. I don’t. But, as in most worthwhile tasks, perhaps the answer is to take things one step at a time. We, in Western countries, have been on a downward individualization spiral since the 1500s. It might take just as long to climb out. Perhaps we need to begin just by sharing meals together, hanging out more and simply doing nothing, but doing nothing together.