Jim Curley reports here and here on ideas gleaned from the book Better Off by Eric Brende.  Not a book I’ve read, but I wanted to comment on some of what Jim had to report, because it really seems relevant to us suburban-homeschooling types.  And to contemporary American families in general.

He quotes Brende:

There was this phrase they kept repeating: “Many hands make work light.” The statement was true, though hard to explain. Gradually, as you applied yourself to your task, the threads of friendship and conversation would grow and connect you to laborers around you. Then everything suddenly became inverted. You’d forget you were working and get caught up in the camaraderie, the sense of lightened effort. This surely must rank among the greatest of labor-saving secrets.

What struck me, is that this is the exact opposite of life as a suburban housewife.  Perhaps the reason the feminist movement was able to be so persuasive, even, with all it’s talk of home life being lonely and unfulfilling.  Here I am at home, the only adult around.  I’ve got a few retired neighbors in the immediate neighborhood, and I’ve recently spied another stay-at-home mom who lives a couple blocks from me, but we don’t get together.   It’s me and my mechanical servants (washing machine, plumbing, heat, stove, oven . . .) running the household.
I could get together with my neighbors, or do the more usual thing (as I mean to tomorrow) and drive across town to go visit a friend I particularly like; but doing so cuts into my work time.  Every social interaction comes at the cost of little less housework done.

Now the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way.  My friend Jennifer & I could take turns meeting at each others’ homes to work together, instead of just sitting around having coffee.  Or more radically, I could make friends with the mom who lives on the other block, and she and I could develop a routine for working together.  But we don’t.   It isn’t what suburban american middle-class ladies do these days.   So we don’t.  And I think we are worse for it.

Another implication of the mom-home-alone-in-charge scenario, is that everything hinges on mom.  There isn’t another adult to contribute energy and motivation and accountability on days when the mom is tired or sick or just rather lazy.  It is fun being the mom-home-alone, because I get to be in charge, I don’t have to deal with another adult (children are easier), I can go curl up with a book during recess instead of having to speak to other people.   As much as I suffer for lack of other adults to push me towards greater holiness, I also am not pulled down by those other adult’s little sins that I might learn.  (Come on, you know your extended family is chock full of sinners.  Don’t deny it.  You know, people with habits just as bad as yours, only with a few twists to keep it interesting.)

Anyway, all that just to think about.   Because we do choose how we live.  And there might be a better way.


And another quote that caught my attention:

My dad bought one of the first word processors ever made in hopes of easing the time and effort of writing. He spent so much time with that machine, I almost never saw him again.

This is true!

Before I had a computer, I still spent ridiculous quantities of time writing.  The difference being that I was often within eyesight of my family.  (And thus my poor mother being asked by a grandmother, “What is she writing about??”  And my mother giving the unsatisfactory answer: “I don’t know.  If she wanted me to read it, she would tell me.”)  A notebook is portable.  A notebook is more easily set down and picked back up.  A notebook doesn’t beg for hour-upon-hour of minuscule re-edits as you reread your own writing for lack of something better to do.  For about a dollar, anyone else who wants to ‘use the notebook’ can get their own, ending all arguments over ‘whose turn it is with the entertainment device’.  A computer is definitely an isolater.  I’m not giving mine up, but let’s not kid ourselves.


Finally Jim concludes with a few comments of his own:

But this is the basic case Mr. Brende makes; that a lot (especially more advanced) of technology has a large initial cost, a maintenance cost, an operating cost, doesn’t save as much time as you think, detracts from physical well-being (i.e. exercise) and detracts from social interaction.

I have made my livelihood via technology: in industry as a patent agent and more recently as a book publisher. There is no way I could do what I do at Requiem Press without advanced techonology…and yet this computer takes more of my time each day than it needs to-and it is solitary work. Technology can be a seductive mistress.

Mr. Brende makes mention of a tribe in Africa whose members work only 2-3 hours per week to live (gathering nuts and berries). The rest is leisure time. The trend is there: the more (and more advanced) technology that a society has, the more the members have to work to maintain it. There is a balance between being enslaved by our desire for comfort provided by technology and the nut and berry gatherers mentioned hereinbefore. Each of us must decide that balance for ourselves …

Of course I agree, what with my being a Jim C. dittohead.  But here is a thought I wanted to add: It is very difficult to forgoe a technology that the rest of your community considers ‘essential’.  You get used to it, but it takes a real willingness to be the neighborhood freak.  Fine Homebuilding recently published their latest “Kitchens and Baths” issue, complete with a rousing editorial on the need to make changes in building and lifestyle practices to reduce water and energy waste.  The SuperHusband cynically observes that this is a classic marketing technique — sell to your customers based on how they wish to perceive themselves, not how they really are.  Therefore Patagonia doesn’t advertise with photos of overweight parents pushing strollers in the mall.  My thought was elsewhere: If we want to use as little water as is used in places without indoor plumbing (the stated goal of the FHB editor), we need to be prepared for a significant increase in stinkiness.

I’m too familiar with the course of history to think this is somehow an insurmountable problem.  Stinkiness is a viable option.  But woe unto you who is the first on your block to adopt such a measure.  It does not promise to be the most popular decision you ever made.

But that example is maybe too vivid.  Try being a person who keeps the thermostat between 55 and 60 during the winter.   You either turn up the heat when guests come over, or else pass out blankets and don’t expect many repeat visitors.

I could go on.  An interesting book that explores the issue of what it is like to consciously choose not to live the same way as your peers is Not Buying It by Judith Levine.  All she did was go a year without making unnecessary purchases.  Shouldn’t be especially countercultural.  But it is.  The social pressure is powerful.

And I’ll stop there in the mulling-things-over department, and go clean my house now.  With my children.