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I sit in my spartan apartment with my feet up, sipping tea from one of my two coffee cups. I have turned off the radio, where the talk is about nothing but plunging housing starts, decimated portfolios and credit-card debt. I open a volume I borrowed at the library written by a Greek philosopher.
When I say my apartment is spartan, I think most would agree. In the living room, I have two chairs, a rolling television stand that I use as a coffee table, a desk that serves as a dinner table, and a small night table borrowed from the bedroom.
In the middle of the hardwood floor is a mat where I do my daily regimen of pushups and crunches, and against the bare wall opposite, there are three open suitcases that store most of my wardrobe. There's a low-maintenance fern in the corner the only adornment in the room.
If I were a contemporary of the Spartans, I would have admired the Cynics, those austere philosophers of ancient times who believed happiness consisted of meeting basic needs and renouncing the accumulation of wealth.
Although I was already leading a modest lifestyle, last summer I became involuntarily dispossessed of much of my stuff after it got damaged by soot from a fire. My building was evacuated for several weeks. I scrapped furniture, electronics, clothing and almost all my books. The authorities also discarded tenants' food, along with kitchen utensils.
I salvaged what I needed and so far have refrained from replacing much stuff. I don't plan to stay in this building for long and don't want the hassle and expense of moving it all when the time comes.
In the several months since reoccupying my apartment, I've realized how much stuff I can do without and how resourceful I can be with what I've got.
In the kitchen, I didn't replace the plastic dish drainer; I simply let the dishes dry on a towel. It works fine. For dinnerware, I bought two coffee cups, two saucers, two dinner plates and two bowls for $1 apiece. They suit my needs fine for now. Plus, there are fewer dishes to do.
Having fewer clothes also means less laundry. With no drapes on the windows, I appreciate the view of the lake and the city lights. I have no sofa to laze on, but I'm quite happy to sit up and read on the Ikea chairs I salvaged. I don't miss the sofa at all.
I haven't yet replaced my television or computer. Instead of typing into a word processor, I write with a ballpoint pen on a pad of paper I bought for $1.29. I listen to the radio and read more. I can honestly say I'm just as well-informed as before, or better. I no longer suffer the side effects of sitting for prolonged periods at a computer I have enough time to do that all day at work.
It's good to get back into reading. I've rediscovered the local library as an almost unlimited source of free entertainment. I go there to use the Internet for free, too. It forces me to get out and get a little exercise as a premium for surfing the Web, which is, after all, a passive activity.
I'm by no means a Luddite I had a stint for several years as a website administrator but I don't miss either land-line telephone or Internet service at home. Bedtime log-ons no longer cut into my sleep, and dinnertime telemarketing calls are unheard of. Instead, I buy prepaid cellphone service through a smaller provider for a reasonable monthly fee.
My frugality doesn't mean I'm cheap. I splurge on restaurants and movies. I'm no Cynic. I have a car, and if it came to giving that up, it would be a nuisance. But it wouldn't be a great hardship. I take public transit to work, and live within walking distance of the subway, pool, library and grocery store. As long as I have a place to hang my hat and a library and a swimming pool nearby, I can be reasonably happy.
This belief goes a long way toward achieving equanimity, especially in times like these. I can't control what happens with the economy, but I can control how I think and behave. Like the Cynics, I believe this psychological self-reliance has something to do with being happy.
My experiment with plain living may have made me saner, perhaps even wiser. Paradoxically, I may come across to some people as quite the opposite, especially if they knew I could afford "better" conditions. I may be seen as missing out on what we think of as the good life houses, sumptuous furnishings, exotic vacations.
People probably thought the Cynics were crazy, too, but they considered it a virtue not to care what people thought. No one has decoded the good life like some genome. It's still just a matter of opinion, as it was when Greek philosophers debated the problem. The Cynics thought they were leading the good life and for my money they probably were.
Ron Ammirante lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Birgit Lang.