Re-Inventing the Wheel

Any fool can go to the store and buy frozen waffles and make a perfectly good breakfast. But it takes a special kind of fool to make my recipe. First, you grind the grain and stir it into the batter. While you’re whisking that up, preheat the old-fashioned cast iron waffle pans (being careful not to burn yourself). Finally, cook up one waffle at a time, oiling the waffle irons between waffles, or else you end up with waffle crumbs for breakfast.  By the time everyone had gotten an egg, a piece of bacon and a pile of waffle crumbs this morning, I could have gone to the store, bought waffles, fixed breakfast and done the dishes. But what would be the fun of that?

We recently watched Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away make fire with sticks and coconut coir. His hands were bleeding by the time he got his first flames to ignite. He does a victory dance around the bonfire on the beach of the deserted island and boasts loudly to the stars about his creation. After his rescue, he picks up a lighter and clicks the button a few times with an ironic smile on his face. It’s so much more rewarding to do things the hard way.

We have the technology to make our lives easy—to get from point A to B at mind-boggling speeds, to feed our families with little or no effort, to do our most loathsome chores for us, and to entertain ourselves in all the hours we have left over after not hunting and foraging, sewing our own clothes and hand-washing our dishes. Unfortunately, without a little pain and suffering, we don’t seem to appreciate these fruits easily gathered, and without hard work we can’t enjoy that which should be rewarding. We end up with too much stuff and too much debt, leaving us feeling trapped and depressed. What should make our lives easy makes things more complicated, and, ironically, though harder, the simple life beckons.

Herein lies the dilemma of the Neo-Pioneer. A generation of young people has sprung up who are tired of resting on their laurels or on the accomplishments of others and want to try things the hard way. But where to begin? And once begun, where to stop? Some folks we know have left the citified life and are trying their hand at farming, others move out of the fancy house and into an RV or boat to try the simple life of a nomad, and many have opted to home-school their children, grow their own veggies, treat illnesses with herbs instead of antibiotics, read books instead of watching TV, make bread, build things with their hands, and in other ways learn the art of self-sufficiency.

Unfortunately, while many of us have degrees in Political Science or English or other Humanities, we have no earthly idea how to make something as easy as granola from scratch, let alone how to raise a chicken or fix a broken motor. I speak for myself, but many others as well, when I say that I’m getting an education just trying to teach my children these new old-fashioned skills. We’re learning together, a process that involves a lot of time and energy and varying amounts of pain on the way to that glorious sense of accomplishment.

Sometimes I go too far, finding an extreme while looking for balance. The things I do for my family often end up looking more like punishment. While I admire the purist who lives in a tent or a cabin of hand-hewn logs, eating only what he gathers or grows, or the sailor who lives by wind and stars alone and eats the fish he catches, I am also thankful for things like engines and electronic charts and grocery stores. I love my blender and vacuum sealer, and can’t imagine life before cell phones and computers. The trick, of course, is to find the place in the middle—somewhere between old-fashioned and new-fangled. And each pioneer has to find that place for himself. A glutton for punishment, I will keep trying to do things the hard way, asking the tough questions (Can a goat live on a boat? Should I sprout the grain before I grind it? Can Jay brew his own beer?) and writing about my experiments. For the next few weeks, at least, I’ll be making pancakes instead of waffles.