Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Recreational hardship?

An article on Salon recently discussed the cultural phenomenon of "radical homemaking" -- namely, a "new" movement of folks embracing self-sufficiency and shunning consumer culture. As the author puts it, this is the idea that

"we don't have to rely on nameless, faceless corporations to feed, clothe, shelter and entertain us. Instead, we can take ourselves out of an economy that requires endless hours of work while others raise our kids and chemists make our food -- all so we can go out and buy stuff that wrecks the planet....Radical Homemakers survive on home-grown food, old-timey skills and a willingness to help the neighbors"

I didn't know my family lived under an official lifestyle label -- and, no, I am never going to identify as a "Radical Homemaker". Anyway, I don't think we truly qualify since I do work outside the home, and do not foresee a time where I would feel comfortable going without health insurance (bartering for colonoscopies? I don't think so!). But most of what I do (home cooking, gardening, canning, cloth diapers, cheese making, etc) falls under this new trend according to Salon. Well, everything old is new again, at least if you are a culture critic. Most of what the article describes are merely activities that defined the 1970's back-to-the-land homestead movement. And in the 1970's, most people said the back-to-the land movement was merely a nostalgic and naive replication of the earlier times of our hardscrabble foremothers.

The article is not celebratory -- the author declares she is a failure at radical homemaking: she hates gardening, doesn't want to cook, and resents living in the borderlands of bourgeois wealth. The actual labor required for old time survival skills seems to shock this member of the newly "poor" educated elite. I put poor in quotes because these are folks just regressing to the mean national income, not dropping below it. Ideas of poverty are relative, and in this specific case it means being unable to shop at Crate and Barrel. The author seems attracted to the principles behind radical homemaking but she admits "the way they propose bringing about change requires too much of the kind of work I frankly don't want to do". Yes, change is hard. This is where I am lucky -- gardening, cooking and homesteading crafts are a pleasure -- my family thrives on it. We are not suffering over grim bowls of porridge. We are gluttonously scooping handfuls of tomatoes into our maws while relaxing in a yard full of heirloom flowers.

More fascinating to me than the article itself is the comments section -- as usual for Salon, the article attracted both vitriolic attacks and passionate defenses. The comment I can't get out of my mind is a sneering dismissal of this homemaking trend as "recreational hardship" for rich people. The implication is that folks like me would rather be eating Smucker's strawberry jam from the local Safeway, but for status and entertainment and cultural cache we choose to can and eat inferior homegrown stuff (footnote: Slate also weighed in on this topic). This attack recalls Marie Antoinette and her boutique dairy where she and her ladies-in-waiting could picturesquely milk well-groomed cows while the mud-covered peasants suffered beyond her gates. I will let that commenter sit in judgement, snarking away at my apparently trendy lifestyle. I feel nothing but empathy for those who don't have access to homegrown strawberry jam, and long after this so-called new trend has faded, I will be living the way I do -- and hopefully I will be able to scoop up all the unused beehives, cheese presses and gardening tools at the garage sales of folks who bought them as stylish lifestyle accessories.

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