Voluntary Simplicity Part 1

A part of maturing into adulthood is the realization that restraint is necessary for human flourishing.  Many of the struggles of human lives (particularly in the rich, luxurious environment of privilege which I inhabit) involve controlling the desire to indulge and exercising restraint.  Restraint is a habit which can be practiced and improved; it is a psychological muscle which requires development and maintenance.

While restraint is necessary for all human adults to some extent, we all give ourselves over to particular indulgences while forgoing others.  I was recently inspired to think about the choice of where to exercise restraint.  This inspiration came in hearing about a university course taught by a human geographer on a topic which she called `Voluntary Simplicity.’  The course was a study of the various luxuries and comforts that a human in civilization might choose to forgo, from the superficial task of turning off your phone for a day to the extreme religious examples of vows of poverty and monasticism.  I was lead to two questions.  First, what do I forgo and why?  Second, what’s the religious motivation for giving up the comforts of the world and how does that play into my own decisions?  (I guess that was four questions.  In any case, I’ll leave the religious questions for this post.)

Without trying to make a claim of moral superiority, there are certain life choices I’ve made (along with my wife) which involve restraint, going without luxuries that many in our peer group enjoy.  (The reason that I emphatically do not wish to claim any moral high ground is my awareness of all the other luxuries in which I do indulge; but more on that later.)  We’ve chosen to live without a car.  Though we could afford something larger, we’ve chosen to live in a relatively small condominium suite without external storage.  (The fact that these are choices for us, where many live in small quarters without vehicles by necessity, is evidence of our wealth and privilege.)  These two choice are obvious enough that they come up in conversation; many of our friends want to know why we’ve made these decisions.

There answers are complicated.  Resource use is one reason, for sure.  Our footprint (in many senses of the word) is made smaller by cycling and living in high density housing.  Lifestyle is also a part.  We enjoy the activity, exercise and (some of) the culture of cycling.  There are behavioural reasons as well: making cycling a necessity ensure exercise; living in a small apartment puts a brake on our ability to accumulate possessions.  There are also problems with our choices.  Our ability to visit family is hindered by the lack of a car, which has caused tensions with some family members.  Likewise, our small apartment limits our ability to host guests overnight, particularly family, which also causes tension.

And to balance it out, there are many rich luxuries we do allow ourselves.  We travel frequently, including several trips to Europe in the last few years.  We buy imported goods, in my case including imported whiskey.  We spend most of our money on ourselves: travel, indulgent food, alcohol (at least for me),  hobbies, etc.  By global standards, there are many other luxuries and indulgences that I’m not mentioning for lack of awareness, simply because I take them for granted.

Should I forgo more of these luxuries?  I think about this question with some frequency.  I ask myself, in particular, about meat, alcohol and air travel.

Of the many argument for vegetarianism, the most convincing for me is the argument from resource use.  Animal are inefficient sources of nutrients, consuming far more in feed than they produce for our benefit.  The appalling treatment of food animals also give me pause.  (Interestingly, I’m not at all convinced by the position that eating animal is inherently ethically wrong.  I would have absolutely no ethical concerns at all if I solely ate meat from hunting where there is an overpopulation of hunt animals.  Maybe I should take up hunting?)   My only reason for not going vegetarian is convenience, which is pretty weak.  Well, convenience and the fact that I really, really love fresh fish.  Going without mammal and bird meat seems like a pretty easy sell, frankly, but fresh fish — that’s something else entirely.  As it happens, I live in the middle of the continent and only get fresh fish rarely, so maybe it’s not such a big deal.  Maybe I should take up sport fishing (where there are plentiful stocks, of course).

I also think about going without alcohol.  I appreciate the argument that alcohol is fermenting perfectly good grain supplies; while some calories still carry over, it’s not exactly a reliable stable food source.  Alcohol seems to me the perfect instance of the archetypical luxury in our society: normalized enough to seem a natural part of our culture but a completely unnecessary use of potentially valuable food resources.  (To say nothing of the difficult behavioural consequences of alcohol abuse.)  I can easily imagine going without alcohol on the grounds that at long as hunger is a world problem, good, arable grain land should be used to grow grain staples that actually feed people.

Lastly, I have long interior musings every time I book a plane trip.  It’s obvious to me that one of the most pressing instances of restraint required in the modern world is restraint in using fossil fuels.  A substantial part of our decision to go without a car related to fuel and energy use.  However, basically any good we’ve accomplished by all our cycling is easily overcome by the indulgence of frequent air travel.  Resource use, fossil fuel reduction and climate change give a very compelling argument that air travel is unreasonable and unsustainable.  I’m quite swayed by these arguments, but evidently not swayed enough, since I’m still booking plane trips.  It’s an interesting struggle.  Among the many reasons, I see two major hurdles.  The first is friends and family who live far away.  I’m not willing to resign myself to never (or very, very rarely) seeing my close friends and family who live more than a couple hundred kilometers distance.  I don’t think my family would be particularly pleased with me if I thought otherwise.  The second is more obviously selfish: I like travelling to interesting and beautiful places.  My vacations trips and years living overseas have been the source of many of my most formative experiences.  There is a great yearning to travel more, see new places and experience new cultures.

Of these three, giving up air travel seems by far the most difficult. For meat and alcohol, the impact of my potential restraint is almost entirely personal.  I’m slightly more difficult to entertain — going for drinks would be limited to tea or coffee — but that’s not a hardship I’d really regret imposing on my friends and family.  But giving up air travel has a huge impact on many of my important relationships, particular with my parents.  That’s a much harder pill to swallow and a much harder demand to make on the other parties in those relationships.  Why final question for this post is this: are my reservations reasonable?  It is acceptable to enjoy a luxury which wastes energy and produces huge amount of pollution because it is important to my relationships with my closest friends and family?  How does the ethical trouble of burning large quantities of fossil fuel in an airplane balance against the ethical good of going to visit and spent time with the people who love you?

Book Review on Vacation

Vacations are for reading.  This trip’s epic undertaking was Thomas Mann’s `Joseph and his Brothers’.  However, I’m only 1000 pages into the 1500 of that novel, so it’s review will have to wait.  (It will come, though — I have many things to say about this novel.)  I did read two other books, about which I’ll share a few comments.

The first of the two was `The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd.  (Spoilers here.)

This is a fairly well known and well received American novel from a decade or so ago.  I also understand it was made into a relatively successful film.  I enjoyed the book well enough, but I have some serious reservation about certain aspects of it.

First the good: the main character was engaging, the prose was functional for the most part and occasionally exquisite, mostly when talking about the bees.  I like bees, honey and beekeeping, mostly due to some very, very early childhood memories about the bees my parents kept.  The title isn’t just a slight reference: there is a great deal of material in the book actually about bees.  Almost of all of the bee-related material was lovely.

The religious content was quite interesting.   The Black Madonna, a religious tradition that I was previously unaware of, plays a central role.  A number of the characters form a home grown Christian-influenced religion based on their experience of a Black Madonna statute.  This religion and its practice heavily inform the arc of trauma and recovery in a way I found fascinating.

Finally, the emotional arc of the novel was compelling as well; the best written scenes drew tears and I cared about the pain of the characters.

However, let’s talk about the pain of the characters.  This is a childhood trauma novel: it’s about a adolescent with a terrifying early childhood experience.  At age five, she accidentally killed her own mother with a pistol.  She spends the next decade repressing the memory and living with a emotionally distant and often abusive father.   The book, essentially, is about her coming to deal with this trauma.  It’s about starting to heal core wounds, in the language my own mother uses.  While a compelling and classic archetypical story, it’s also one that I tend to approach skeptically.  As I said before, the novel is well written enough that I was often caught up in the emotional journey.  At other moments, though, the severity of the situation serve to remove me as a ready.  The trauma is so extreme is it almost ridiculous. Sometime when reading these novels, it feels like there’s some competition between authors to see what’s the worst kind of childhood trauma they can throw their characters into.  Pushed too far, it feels like unintentional satire.

The other main issues with the book are about race.  The book takes place in the 1960 in the southern US, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  Violence towards the supporting black characters is frequent and horrendous.  However, it’s still essentially a book about a white child protagonist and the issues (however horrendous) of her white family.  The black characters are all supporting and their struggles and sufferings secondary.   In addition, the protagonist finds her salvation in the support and wisdom of a black community.  This immediately set off alarm bells for me: I’ll let TV Tropes and their Magical Negro article sum up the issue:

This can work somewhat as An Aesop about tolerance and not dismissing individuals from underprivileged groups, and it’s certainly an improvement on earlier tendencies to either never depict minority characters at all or make them all villains. However, ultimately it’s usually a moral and artistic shortcut, replacing a genuine moral message with a well-intentioned but patronizing homage to the special gifts of the meek. Minority characters still all too often aren’t portrayed as the heroes of their own stories, but as helpers of standard white, able-bodied, middle-class heroes, and they aren’t depicted as, you know, actual people with their own desires, flaws and character arcs, but as mystical, Closer to Earth plot devices.

The second book was the short story collection (in translation) entitled `Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ by Haruki Murakami.

I’ll be more succinct about this second book.  Many of the stories were well structured and I appreciated the relaxed, nonchalant style of the writing.  Reminiscent of Douglas Copland, it wasn’t what I expected from a Japanese author.

However, the collection suffered from one very serious flaw, which I feel I can simply label as Male Gaze.  Most of the stories are from male perspective, and in those stories, female characters almost always are presented a available and willing sexual partners.  It felt like every man in the stories was non-descript and every woman was given explicit physical description, (almost always including the shape and prominence of her breasts, sooner or later).  By halfway through the collection, whenever a woman was introduced, I was asking how many paragraph would it take before she and the protagonist were having sex (or at least, she had offered to have sex with him).  Even in the (two or three) stories with female protagonists, the same problems arose.

In general, I’m happy with stories about sex.  Sexual relationships are so strange, rich and complicated that a collection of short stories about people and their sex lives is perfectly natural.  However, they need to be about pairs of real characters, not default men and always-sexually-willing-and-available women.  This collection, at many moments, felt like a sexist muddle of wish-fulfillment stories from the mind of an adolescent (heterosexual) male.

Europe Trip 2015

We returned from our vacation yesterday.  We spent the last 17 days in Europe, seeing both friends and sights.  Visiting and staying with friends was fantastic: many thanks to Anne, Del, Malcolm and Anne.  As for the rest of the trip, we were moving quickly between many destinations.  Instead of a full travel report, I have a series of quick, point-form observations and notes.


  • Oxford was impressive and heavily steeped in tradition.  I am ambivalent about academic tradition, but I enjoyed parts of it.
  • The highlight of Oxford for me was going to a high Anglican choral Evensong service at Exeter College.  In addition to the regular service material, the choir sang an amazing anthem from Benjamin Britten.  I also really enjoy Anglican psalm chanting, so it was lovely to hear it live in a very traditional setting.
  • Luton Airport is just as miserable as everyone says.  Flying cheap European airlines is still cheap and still annoying.
  • By contrast, travelling by train, particular high-speed train, is the epitome of civilization.  (Or, I suppose I should say, civilisation.)
  • Walking around Utrecht and seeing our old haunts was way more fun that I expected.  Thanks to Steph to insisting we do this.
  • Heidelberg is a lovely city.  It is exquisitely placed in the hills at the edge of the broad Rhine valley.  The castle is impressive; in particular, it is much more expansive than I expected.  I could have spent a whole second day walking around the old town and its environs.
  • Strasbourg is a very civilized city for cycling, though the signage in the old town could use some work.  It’s a beautiful city.  We saw otters in the canals.
  • The mixture of French and German culture and history in Strasbourg is amusing.  Our hosts kept joking about it, asking us how we were enjoying our time in Germany.
  • Paris was as lovely and hectic as ever.  We failed to enact any of our plans in our first full day, but had a lovely time just walking around.
  • Musée d’Orsay is a great place to spend half a day.  Having missed it on previous trips, I was very happy to get there this time.  The building itself is worth experiencing, to say nothing of the excellent collections.  I like the impressionists.
  • I like art museums more than historical or archeological museums.  Steph is the opposite (though she also does like art museums).  However, it all works out.  We balanced it out, doing Orsay for art and archeology/history at a museum in Stuttgart.
  • Iceland is the perfect destination after the population density of Paris.  Plenty of room to breath.
  • Iceland is also ridiculously expensive.  We were told this before hand, but I still wasn’t really prepared.
  • Iceland is also amazingly beautiful.  Again, we were told this, and again I still wasn’t really prepared.  We rented a car to drive around for day, which was a great choice.
  • Gullfoss is the most impressive waterfall I’ve ever seen.
  • The landscape along Iceland highway 42, to the south-west of Reykjavik, might be the actual highlight of the entire trip.  I can’t even begin to describe it, and I feel that pictures will never capture the sensation.
  • The Blue Lagoon is a lovely hot spring and sauna with great ambience.  However, I found it didn’t live up to its hype or it’s price tag.  In addition, we’re spoiled in Alberta/BC.
  • Travelling with Steph is awesome.
  • It’s nice to be home.

New Photos

I’ve uploaded most of our old photos under the Photos tab on the new WordPress site.  (I sill have to make a new wedding gallery).  In addition, there are some photo sets which never made it up on the old site which have now been posted.

First, I have two sets of photos from our vacation last summer.  We did a bicycle tour with Sophie in Washington State, followed by a week with family on Vancouver Island and Galiano Island (one of the gulf islands).  Here are those pictures:

Second, I have a very enjoyable set of photos which Paul took well over a year ago.  He had the idea of doing a set of photos of me in my office, getting `The Mathematician At Work’.  I’m super-pleased with how these turned out.  They are a very, very silly set, playing with impressions of what academic life and work should be.

Lastly, I have a small set of photos which Ken took of my recital.  Last January, I sang a voice recital which was the result of several terms of voice lessons at Kings.  Ken was kind enough to photographically record the event: