Before shot (part 1)

Ever stayed up late and watched one of those crappy weight loss infomercials? You know, the ones with the annoyingly chirpy fitness instructors doing excruciating exercises while pretending to enjoy it? The best part, of course, is the segment with testimonials from “satisfied customers”. The camera cuts to side by side photos of a chubby white-skinned bloke before using the product and a buffed tanned male model after.

Well, this post is my own version of the before shot.  And just like in those corny infomercials, the reality isn’t pretty.

What’s different is that I’m hoping to improve not just my physical appearance, but my whole life. And if you want to improve your whole life, you need to figure out what that life actually consists of. In Walden, the most influential book ever written on simple living, Henry David Thoreau lists the “necessaries” of life as food, shelter, clothing and fuel. But that was in nineteenth century America, a very different time and place from twenty-first century Australia.

After some thought, I’ve decided my life can be broken down into nine categories: shelter, community, food, clothing, money, work, technology, health and spirituality. So here’s an embarrassing before shot of myself in each of these areas. (Cue cheesy infomercial music…)

Shelter

I’ve lived in a variety of share houses over the years. At one extreme were the fastidiously clean homes where the occupants rarely spoke to each other. At the other extreme were the First World slums where neo-hippies wallowed in their own filth but got along famously.

In each case, I’ve been the hermit of the house, coming home from work late and retreating to my dingy writer’s hovel to read a book or churn out some angst-ridden journal entry. In general, I’ve adjusted to the existing standard of cleanliness rather than imposing my own standard.

In fact, my whole attitude to housing could be summed up in three words: “that will do”. I’m the sort of person who can put up with anything, so if a door handle breaks or my house mates decide it would be a good idea to host a rock concert in the lounge room, I’ll just shrug my shoulders and adjust to the situation.

On this trip, I’d like to decide what sort of house I’d prefer to live in rather than just putting up with whatever happens. I’d also like to learn some basic handyman skills so I can start fixing things myself. Finally, I’d like to learn how someone like me – a renter on a low, unstable income – can afford to build or buy a home without needing a massive mortgage. Is it even possible?

Community

I’m very active in the public sphere, engaging in media debates about topical issues, going to workshops and seminars and expressing my views to others. But once I return home, I’m curiously apathetic about all this stuff. I don’t tell my house mates or my girlfriend about my day, and I often don’t communicate my opinion or future plans to friends or family. So I’ll start a new job without telling anyone about it. When it comes to the domestic sphere, I’m a bit of a savant.

I do this because I can’t be bothered with social etiquette. I’m interested in discussing ideas, politics and theory, not the mundane aspects of daily existence. Also, I’m a fairly self-centred person, so sometimes I really don’t care what my house mates have done throughout the day. I’m usually stuck in my own world, thinking about some obscure fact I learned or a story I read recently. It’s a character flaw, I know. But it’s a flaw that has been very difficult to remedy. After all, how does one learn to be more connected to others? It’s not like you can take a TAFE course on the subject.

This year I’d like to learn to connect with other people on a daily basis and to communicate my plans in advance. I’d also like to be more “present” in the moment. Finally, I’d like to extend my idea of community beyond the human sphere and make friends with some animals.

Food

I’ve improved a lot with food. Gone are the days when dinner consisted of palm-oil drenched two-minute noodles served with a slab of factory-farmed chicken. I’m now proudly vegetarian, and I’m experimenting with sustainable meats. Recently I re-introduced farmed mussels into my diet as a way of boosting my low B12 levels.

Last year I co-wrote a 3000-word essay about where our food comes from, so I also know a little bit about Australia’s food production system. But I can never remember which vegetable or fruit is grown in which season, probably because I’ve never planted or tended a veggie patch. (We had a decent-sized veggie patch at my previous house, but I spent most of my time indoors working on my monitor tan.)

This year I’d like to learn more about seasonal food and how to grow a small veggie patch at home. I’d also like to curb my addiction to caffeine – I get headaches if I don’t drink tea or coffee – and I’d like to stop drinking alcohol after 5pm as a “reward”.

Clothing

The first thing I think of when I hear the word clothing is a phrase from environmentalist Paul Hawken: “Fashion is the deliberate inculcation of obsolescence.” That pretty much sums up my attitude to clothes. I buy almost everything second hand, and I’m not interested in the latest trends. My signature style is best described as daggy and dishevelled.

But because I buy all my clothes cheap, I don’t take care of them. In the last three years I ruined four pairs of jeans from neglect. The lower edge of each leg became so tattered I had to donate them to the Salvos. It would have taken ten minutes to raise the hems and prevent this happening, but I didn’t do it. I’ve also lost more than three good quality jackets by leaving them on the backs of chairs in public places and then just walking away. I’m quite forgetful about my belongings. And finally, I wear a different cotton T-shirt every day and this results in a large washing load at the end of the week.

This year I’d like to save water and energy by washing my clothes less often, and I’d like to customise or mend any clothing so that it lasts longer.

There are five more areas to deal with – money, work, health, technology and spirituality – and I’ll post about them tonight.

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