Monday, July 19, 2010

Book Review: Possum Living

Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No Money, by Dolly Freed

'Possum' means in Latin 'I can'. In Spanish it becomes 'Puedo,' in French 'Je peux', in Italian 'Posso'. Possum, in its Romance sense, is the subtext of this manifesto, and yet Freed asks us to think of the animal properly known as the opossum. I think 'I can' is a better description of her advice, as I don't want to meet my end as roadkill.

This book is Do-It-Yourself manual on how to escape the money economy, even if it means occasionally behaving like an opossum, like dumpster-diving. It talks about subverting property law, how to make moonshine, raising rabbits for food, and never buying new clothes again.

This is a seminal work in Minimalism. It's blog-like instructions on how to live large on almost no money. It's quirky, full of bad recipes and bad tax advice (much like this blog), and a few good ideas (unlike this blog), like how to raise rabbits and get others to do your business for you (Hello Amway!).

And Freed did all this in 1976! And it was published almost underground. The first blog. The first blow against the Traditional Media. To that, I toast a glass of homebrew, and wish I had I the audacity to publish my own thoughts on the failure of mod life in 1995, but alas, Nirvana beat me to it.

To bring the reader up to speed, Freed's parents abandoned a successful candle-making business to buy a house in rural Pennsylvania. Her mother grew tired of living off the grid and left Freed and her father to fend for themselves with just the house (she took Freed's little brother and the car in the divorce).

Freed's first lesson is to not be like the "welfare chiselers" who breed like flies (Who knew that Reagan pulled his welfare queen myth out of the pages of a teenage homestead hooligan's manifesto?). That' very audacious admonition from someone who's not even eighteen and had yet to do more than just leech off the money economy. Her possum living was premised on three things: wealth, naivetée, and property. If you've got 'em, you're ready to live the leisure life off the grid in rural 1970s PA.

First: Wealth. While 'Real America' was trying to figure out a way to afford food and buy gasoline, Freed didn't own a car--so much the better for her--though she didn't get out that much. Freed didn't know it, but she was lucky--very lucky--to not be born poor. Her baseline was a good place to start going off the grid.

Second, naiveté: She seldom admits that she couldn't live off of $5000 a year if it wasn't for their homestead, but without it, she and her father were nothing. She goes on to advocate tax fraud and using intimidation instead of lawyers to settle debts. The Minimalist advocates living within ones means and paying one's taxes (afterall, I love the Internet, which was invented by Al Gore and paid for by the government). Dolly Freed of 1976 was actually living an unsustainable lifestyle and would have been reduced to true poverty in a few more years if she'd kept it up. However, hers is a lesson in how long one can push the bliss envelope. Longer than I thought, apparently.

Third: Property. Nice homestead, bought and paid for with the money economy. While I applaud her effort to show others how to scrimp and save enough to buy their own arable land, it's impractical now as it was in 1976.

I don't think I can suggest repeating this experiment in the 2010s. Homegrown food is more expensive to cultivate and it's much, much cheaper to buy mass produced imported goods and edibles. If you aren't already Amish, you're going to find it difficult to build a house even if you have the carpentry knowledge and an arable plot to build it next to. Nixon made food so cheap that the poor are the fat ones in America, not the rich.

The Afterward: This is the best part of the book. We learn that Freed went on to work for NASA, a government organization that relies on a populace paying it fare share of federal taxes. She learned to love the taxpayer afterall! Yippee! Also, she currently lives in Houston. With A/C. That is the antithesis of Possum Living. So much for sustainability.

The Minimalist is left with a dilemma. I don't know whether to canonize Freed or burn her (both?). Her advice on cooking and slaughtering is the opposite of what I love. Her advice on used clothing shopping is spot on. She did both and lived well. More people should grow, raise, kill, and cook. More people should stop buying new clothes.

I don't eat meat because I won't kill an animal and I don't like the environmental impact it takes to raise chattel to consumption status. Freed points if you didn't kill it, don't eat it. So far, so good. But then she goes Godwin on page 121: if vegetarian is supposed to about living placidly, how do we explain Hitler, a vegetarian? You know what else Hitler was? He was white, a German, a painter, a Christian, and had only one testicle. Which of those things, in any combination, make one capable of genocide? As a vegetarian, the only populations I've wiped out are that of cockroaches and squirrels, and they mock me when they come back with a vengeance. More simply put, to note false correlations between eating habits and maniacs is an exercise best left for right-wing bloggers, be in 1976 or 2010. She likes meat, so what? But vegetarians aren't Hitler and it's too bad this stupid passage made it into print.

That said, she got a lot right, and these are the points I think come out strongest and are most important to The Minimalist:

1) Your personal fortune is not a measure of your success. If you've got three kids, a condo, and you don't hate your job, congrats, you've arrived. If the Jones make you jealous, you're petty.

2) You can live with less. You don't need broadcast TV. Even PBS is selling you Elmo. The television--contrary to it's inventor's intentions--is made to make people feel bad about themselves in the guise of adverts, dramas, documentaries, or infomercials, thus necessitating perpetuation of the consumption culture. You're only freed when you learn to genuinely like living without stuff.

3) You can live with (almost) nothing. While I'll never condone the killing of rabbit, the qualities you need to thrive are smaller than you think. The Magnetic Fields nailed it: Love, Music, Wine, and Revolution. Mrs. Freed at eighteen had it all, and she lived in bliss. The joy of living Off the Grid is under-rated, and Mrs. Freed did it for a few years without gods or guns.

The Minimalist is all about reducing one's dependence on modernity, specifically, modern American consumptive culture. Possum Living is the same goal, but Freed is taking a different path.

Early on in the book we're treated to Diogenes, an Athenian who lived at time of Alexander the Great. He lived in a barrel and shunned material wealth. He's the patron saint of Possum Living. When offered fortunes, he turns them aside in favor of a nice spot to tan.

The Minimalist's Athenian patron is Socrates. The philosopher went about questioning and challenging his society's basic assumptions on such trivialities as what is takes to be happy. The Minimalist asks these kinds of questions of too.

Both paths are about discovering the joy of living with less so that we can enjoy more. But Freed and I diverge because I think Diogenes was a free-loader and a crank. He lived in a barrel, saw only Athens, ate only Athenian food, shat in Athens gutters, and died in Athens's streets. He gave up absolutely nothing and only had a nice nice suntan to show for it. Socrates, on the other hand, started off with more, and ended up throwing out the stuff that impeded his happiness. He had less, but enjoyed it more.

Freed is a Diogenes when she wrote this--a welfare chiseler like the ones she loathes, doing nothing for her own self-betterment, and leeching off the free society that gives some of its citizens that choice. Later, she learns a little more and becomes a Socrates. Civilization exists because those who came before us wanted to make life better, and the least we can do is better ourselves, and hopefully better our world for the next generation. Life is for learning, not sitting like a pickle in a barrel.

I'm glad Freed came out of her shell. It happens first as she wrote the book. Then sought out a publisher, then went to school, got a job, and took her formative life lessons with her. It's funny that she considered herself lazy, but she was anything but. She was as industrious as the money economy folks she abhorred, she just literally made bread instead.

Freed doesn't live in a barter economy anymore. We need cash to buy things we cannot make. I try to buy only what I need, and like Freed, I'm always looking for things I don't need. In a way, I have it worse than her, as I have the option to downgrade, where it was foisted upon her. But with the money I not spend on plastic crap, or gas driers, or entertainment centers, I build my reserve capital.

The Minimalist thinks that we should spend our capital and feel good about it, not out of guilt or piousness or because we think because we work hard that we're owed (a theme that comes up often in the book). I personally like vacations. And hats. Freed's vice seems to be refrigerator magnets. To each their own.

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