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Simple Valley

These once stressed-out and maxxed-out residents say they've figured out how to make life manageable again.

But there's a catch.

By Dara Colwell

AT HIS PREVIOUS JOB, JOSEPH BECKENBACH NEVER SLEPT MUCH. The slight man would wake up restless, his mind racing to the day ahead: the software he had to fix, the long, overscheduled hours, the uncontrollable whirlwind of daily drudgery and technical decisions. By the end of an 80-hour work week, when the engineer lifted his head from the keyboard--sometimes wedged hard against his forehead--he found he'd let it all slip by: friends, laundry, even hygiene. He had become a maxxed-out corporate yes-man and he knew he was burning out. He was exhausted and made drowsy mistakes. He just wanted an escape. Beckenbach wanted out of the corporate environment, the tie-and-suited stress, the Pepto-Bismol playground, the relentless rush; out of the structure that kept him working nonstop, glued to the computer screen, often his only source of light. He'd worked his way into a cubicle, where he saw his life slowing dripping away. He was stuck. His eyes held a subtle, lingering look of frantic despair. Stuck! After years of functioning within the framework, juggling never-ending "to do" lists, he simply walked into the office one day and quit. That night, he slept for 12 hours.

Beckenbach left it all behind and decided to work for himself. He joined the movement known as "downshifting," "cashing out," or "voluntary simplicity," the trend to abandon the corporate fast-track and pursue a simple, less materialistic life. Beckenbach simplified two and half years ago, but his ability to change his life was predicated on a healthy salary. "Voluntary simplicity can't be reached below a certain income," he says, acknowledging the irony: money buys freedom.

Reaching beyond the Mephisto sandal-clad vegan crowd, voluntary simplicity rejects the demands of Dilbert-style corporate culture in favor of the new buzzword: balance. "People are looking for balance the second time around because they blew it the first time," says Linda Artel, a career counselor at Cupertino's Career Action Center, an organization for low-techs entering the high-tech industry. "You've got young Gen-Xers working hard and playing hard--people who really need 48 hours in a day--and then you've got those of us who are getting older. We've been doing this stressful pace for years and it's wearing us out." Artel has compared notes with a local doctor and therapist, who, she says, are witnessing exactly the same thing. "Stress, lots of all-consuming stress."

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The $imple Life: Don't try this voluntary simplicity stuff by yourself. There's help available in four-color, glossy pages.

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Penny Pinching

VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY is not groundbreaking stuff. The less-is-more ethic of the 1960s meant dropping out; in the 1990s and today, in the new millennium, it means dropping down--a salary level or three. But like the motto emblazoned on Eddie Bauer shopping bags, "Never confuse having a career with having a life," voluntary simplicity is the call of the affluent. "You can't talk about people doing minimum wage," Artel acknowledges. "They're just not in the picture."

I'm sitting with Beckenbach and his simplicity study group at TC Tea House, a small Chinese restaurant off Brokaw Road. It's hot--in a muggy, airless, Miami sort of way--but it doesn't deter two restless boys from charging their plastic cars all over the cool, linoleum floor. Nearby, a group of young Asian teenagers sporting stylish black pumps leans forward, engrossed in gossip, as Sean Morrison pulls out her red notebook binder.

Morrison, an energetic stockbroker wearing orange-red lipstick, opens the binder to reveal a chart outlining her monthly expenses. Etched across blue-lined graph paper, the chart is divided along several lines: health insurance, beauty, Pac Bell, credit cards, newspaper subscriptions, housekeeping. Columns along the top detail her income and expenditures; how many hours of "life energy" each purchase equals and how well it aligns with her values. The housekeeping, Morrison estimates, took up 7.17 hours of her life energy, a concept that translates dollar amounts into actual time and energy expended to earn it, but she's not sure she needs someone to clean her house. "When I was working, I had no time--it was worth every penny," she says, furrowing her brow. "I'm still struggling with that, that's why I created my own column 'Can I afford it?'"

As Morrison's companions, Beckenbach and Evelyn Fong, look over her chart, Morrison coyly tries to obscure the last line with her hand. After some prompting, she finally confesses it's "clothing" and her fingers lift momentarily, exposing a sum running in the thousands. Beckenbach and Fong, both resting chin-in-hand in studied contemplation, debate whether Morrison can realistically afford it. Morrison, who says it was an excursion planned for months, swiftly admits to a recent shampoo attack, "mostly Flex," a $38-temptation that overwhelmed her at Longs Drugstore. "I couldn't resist it! It smelled so good!" she giggles heartily. Fong, who slowly picks through her dinner, shifts the purse resting on her left shoulder and makes a subtle smirk. Beckenbach laughs knowingly.

Nine-Step Program

BECKENBACH INVITED ME TO this study group to learn more about how voluntary simplicity works. The group has been meeting for several weeks but Beckenbach's official title for these nights, "Financial Intelligence/Integrity" or "FI" Associate, belies his easy Midwestern charm. FIs are volunteers who have followed the nine-step program presented in one of the simplicity movement's bibles, Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Their role: aid others hoping to kick-start their lives into financial independence.

In preparation for the study session, I bought Choosing Simplicity by Linda Breen Pierce, one of the latest simplicity books touting Meaningful Life to hit the shelves. When Beckenbach sees the book, it piques his interest immediately. "Did you find it at the library?" he asks, noting that he put it on hold at the Berryessa branch. The group seems disappointed when I explain I did the dirty and clicked on Amazon, but the mood quickly changes when I mention being reimbursed by the boss. "Ah, well!" Beckenbach shakes his head, pleased, and I am suddenly absolved.

Unlike the others, who have come together to triumph over the work-and-spend treadmill, I'm not overly conscious of my spending habits--yet. But I'm intrigued. This group, whose salaries range from $70,000 to $140,000 a year (with money being a decidedly American taboo, exact figures were not given), and easily triple mine, is serious about penny-pinching.

Except, maybe, for Sean, who says she still wrestles with the concept of greed. When I speak to her later, she readily admits the term "voluntary" sticks uncomfortably at the back of her mind. "Simplicity is not for everyone--some people need to live more richly," she says, referring to college students and those short on cash. "Voluntary simplicity is a rich-people thing."

Sean Morrison
Tidiness Is Next to Godliness: Sean Morrison decided that one way to help simplify her life was by buying organization bins. So she bought a bundle, and now says she doesn't need an office.

Enough Already

DOWNSHIFTING, the desire for a balanced life and more personal control over it, was fueled by a PBS documentary produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting titled Affluenza. Affluenza, as defined in the film, is "an epidemic of stress, overwork, shopping and debt caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream." That willing-to-work-for-stuff principle, one that has defined American life since the postwar boom, reached a crescendo in the 1980s, an era of skyrocketing debt and consumption.

While the idea of voluntary simplicity was kicked around as early as the 1930s, the term gained a foothold in the 1970s, roughly the same time that "burnout" began to linger across the tip of our cultural tongue. Initially considered a slippery concept, "burnout" was a grass-roots phenomenon firmly grounded in the workplace. It lacked an exact definition until researchers seized on the trend, creating an area of academic study. Now, it is accepted parlance.

When Your Money or Your Life was published in 1992, espousing a new morality regarding money management, the book turned many heads--even Oprah put in her two cents worth. The book lent financial and emotional insight into what the authors called "making a dying," the fragmented, and frantic, approach to life in the working world.

The main tenets of the book were simple: Money equals life energy. That is, money is something we trade for life energy. For example, the money spent on having the right clothes, going out to lunch, and luxuries meant to counter boredom or on-the-job stress is traded for real time. In order to determine how much life energy is being sucked up by stuff, practitioners have to track every cent--sort of a "follow the money" trail--that enters or exits their lives. At the end of the month, the amounts are tabulated on a balance sheet, like Sean's, then evaluated according to how much fulfillment, satisfaction or value they hold. This determines if money spent equals money well spent.

Another important concept is that of "enough." "Enough," as Beckenbach describes it, "is the broad space between too little and too much. There is no excess and no deficit." The authors termed it "the peak of the fulfillment curve," a place where "we have everything we need; there's nothing extra to weigh us down, distract or distress us, nothing we have never used and are slaving to pay off." "Enough" was clearly an antidote to the American Dream: elegant cars, big houses, the latest gadgets and a Big Mac, hold the pickles.

Beyond the fulfillment curve, then, lay clutter--the stuff beyond enough. Clutter is anything in excess that needs to be stored, cleaned, moved around or ends up in the corner of a forgotten, musty desk drawer. Clutter, whether it's a bicycle or a BMW, enters through the "more is better" door and, like an unwelcome guest, stays indefinitely.

Your Money or Your Life hit the streets at a time when the siren call of consumerism seemed nearly impossible to resist. In 1995, the Merck Family Fund conducted a study on American attitudes to consumption called "Yearning for Balance," sparked by a growing concern that the country was on an unsustainable path. The report found that 82 percent of respondents believed most Americans bought far more than they needed, 71 percent said they had more possessions than their parents did at their age, 62 percent reported they wanted to downshift and a mere 49 percent described themselves as happier than those of previous generations. "What we heard," the report read, "is that people seem to yearn for things money cannot buy. More time, less stress, and a sense of balance."

Beanie Babe

WHEN EVELYN FONG, a software designer, read Your Money or Your Life, (which she checked out from the library), she recognized herself immediately as clutter-bound. Not that it was a difficult conclusion to reach--Fong has nearly 25 standard-sized cardboard boxes, piled four or five high and stuffed full of stuff, lining her bedroom floor. Fong admits a penchant for collecting Beanie Babies and Big Meal toys from fast food restaurants. "This is bad, I know," she says, clinging to her white cable-knit sweater. "Declutter--that's the goal. That's where I came to voluntary simplicity from."

Fong, while keen on saving, feels she differs from her simplicity cohorts in one significant way: she never spends what she doesn't have. "A lot of people don't realize they are spending a lot of money and throwing it all away. I know I'm throwing it all away," she says, referring to the Beanie Babies sequestered in her closet. When pressed a little further, Fong also concedes she regards joining simplicity study groups as a "social thing," one that allows her to observe what others are doing with their expenses. Having never left the nest, the 34-year old hasn't had to pay rent and likes to keep tabs on the costs of living.

In the course of conversation, it turns out that Fong seems to collect more than just Beanie Babies--she also collects groups. She splits her time between a couple of role-playing groups--a movie club that rents videos and, of course, the simplicity study group.

Sean Morrison, on the other hand, came to simplicity from a different tack. When her father had his third heart attack, the former Florida resident relocated to San Jose and worked for Charles Schwab, but Morrison finally decided that she wanted more time for herself, as well as for her father. The 47-year-old stockbroker, whose savvy investments paid off, retired early and pays a 10 percent penalty fee for withdrawing her retirement funds prematurely. If a client came to her asking to do the same, she says, she'd tell him he was crazy. She says she lives on $60,000 a year.

Morrison's apartment is in respectable disarray. Her slacks are strewn over the chair, books are piled up on the table, and Morrison herself is lounging cross-legged on the sofa, in a pink cotton nightie She just returned from a science convention in Waikiki where she lived on $60 a day, and has waltzed through several workshops in Harbin Hot springs and Esalen.

As Morrison recounts a shamanism workshop, an alarm clock goes off in the adjoining room. She continues chatting until I point it out, curious why she set the alarm if she isn't actually working. There's a drawn-out pause as Morrison, who "speaks" with her face, searches for the answer, her eyes and mouth twitching into a response. "Well, there's dream time and there's left-brain, linear time," she says, her voice rising like a narrator in a children's book. "I use the clock to pull me from dream time into 1-2-3-4-5- time."

Simple Stan

WHEN I first started searching for simplicity acolytes, I was always referred to Stan King, who facilitates many simplicity circles. King and I had a difficult time connecting, and when we finally arranged a meeting, my car's brakes failed, leaving me stranded in San Francisco. I phoned King from the Caltrain station, explaining the situation. "Well," he said serenely, "when you own things, things own you." That day, I couldn't disagree. We decided to touch base later but before getting off the phone, King encouraged me to take a deep breath and relax. I did--and I felt better.

King, director of product and technical support at Worldcom, a telecommunications company, has a wholesome, John Denver air to him. King's epiphany to scale back came in the form of his Corvette. Harboring a weakness for amassing cars--a Corvette, two Mustangs, a Dodge truck and his current Nissan 200SX--back in the '80s "when greed was good," he found the only time he ever drove the Corvette was when he shifted it out of his garage to access one of the others. "It was a fairly expensive car," he says. "I thought 'Is it worth it? Why am I doing this?" The acquired wisdom at the time, he says, was "once you had a toy, you didn't get rid of it."

King now rides his bike to work everyday--a feat (at least in the Silicon Valley) that drew the attention of the San Jose Mercury News, which covered the "event" as if it were the Wright Brothers taking off from Kitty Hawk. "Voluntary simplicity is a radical idea within Silicon Valley," King says, ready to step on his soapbox. "There's an unfortunate orgy of consumption that is close to being without precedent."

Seriously, Folks

IN THE LATE 1970s, Arnold Mitchell at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), published a report explicitly dealing with the concept of voluntary lifestyle. His definition included several elements: adhering to material simplicity or nonconsumption--such as making a gift, rather than buying one; self-determination--gaining control over one's destiny, whether in personal growth or in independence from an organization; and an awareness of resource depletion, the relationship between the number of people and the limited number of resources on the planet. Mitchell believed that people naturally mature to a state of self-actualization, but, as Cheri Anderson, research director at the SRI Business Intelligence Center, points out, getting there is a double-edged sword.

"That maturation level is difficult to come by without education and awareness--the typical makeup of the Silicon Valley," she says. "By contrast, people who are in the lower economic strata, who are more self-reliant--maybe they have a garden in the back of the house--might not be tapped into the idea of pursuing inner growth."

Those in the Bay Area lacking the choice to simplify--at least with any degree of consciousness--are struggling. Take a look at salaries, for starters. In the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose metropolitan area, according to a survey released by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers earned $46.65 per hour, and civil engineers $35.41, whereas nurses earned $14.20 and library clerks $14.11 per hour. In San Jose, the median salary range is $19.42, the highest in the state--but just add housing costs, which increased 6.2 percent since April of 1999, and gasoline prices, which jumped 22.1 percent in the past two months, and voilà, it's not that easy for many to make ends efficiently meet.

Anderson says voluntary simplicity, in its truest form, is a coherent, robust lifestyle that only three to five percent of the population practice. As it exists in popular culture, she says, it's more a matter of degree. But luckily, our idea of luxury seems to be evolving towards something bordering on simplicity. "For many years, to have status meant being seen with rich, branded goods," she says. "Success now has shifted toward saving time, having the luxury to disappear and unhook from the network, and having a sense of privacy. It's divorced from spending."

Still, Cynthia Brinkmann, manger of counseling services at Career Action Center in Cupertino, witnesses few clients seeking to slow down. "Are there people looking for balance? Yes. Is it done by the masses? No," she says. "We're talking about a minority group that has the opportunity to reevaluate their existence. " That, she adds, is a good thing.

Barney Burke
Runaway Rider: Mountain View planner Barney Burke, who once made front page news with his bicycle commute, is selling his house, quitting his job and moving to Washington state.

Stuffed Up

AS I LEARN MORE about voluntary simplicity, I can't stop comedian George Carlin's sketch about "a little place for my stuff" from running incessantly through my mind. "If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house," he says, dryly. "A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. Sometimes, you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore." And so on.

Carlin's aphorism is fittingly appropriate when I attend my second simplicity study group, this time at Barney Burke's house in Sunnyvale. Burke, a planner for the city of Mountain View, has been hosting the group for over a year but tonight is the last night--he's quitting his job, selling his house and relocating to Washington state to freelance as a writer. Burke has cleaned up most of his stuff--his duplex is on the market--and as he leans back solidly, a cup of tea resting against his patterned shirt, he looks like a man who is satisfied with life.

The simplicity seekers saunter in. Joan Spannagel, an ESL teacher from Los Altos, arrives in black biker shorts, toting her riding helmet. As Spannagel introduces herself, enunciating in a clear diction that slides sharply between her teeth, Fong enters hauling her sweater, slightly surprised by my presence, and makes herself at home. I suddenly remember a scene from Fight Club, the brazenly original movie that trails Jack, a yuppie drone, as he drifts from support group to support group, seeking to overcome his Ikea-inspired alienation. When Jack repeatedly runs into Marla, a bleak reflection of his angst, at these gigs, he quickly regards her as a thorn in his side. "Her lie reflected my lie," he says. I suspect I'm Marla, and Fong is Jack, doing the usual rounds. Only Marla wasn't a journalist writing it all down.

I learn I wasn't supposed to be the only journalist at tonight's session. A television crew from 48 Hours, on the tail of a Wall Street Journal article trailing high-tech types simplifying in the Valley, had cancelled only hours before.

"48 Hours would probably like it if we had all arrived on horseback," Burke jokes.

"Yeah, and Joan and I would fight over the manure," quips Paul Schmitt, an intense, wiry engineer or "failure expert," perched on his chair.

As the evening progresses, the topics range from identity (Are we what we do?) to transcending the corporate perspective. The conversation is exceedingly intelligent and thoughtful. I love what I'm hearing--there's reflection, sharing, and questioning on a level I've rarely heard outside of late-night college sessions. And it's fun.

When considering "Is your identity your job?" Stan King is ready with the response. "I'm a human being," he says.

"That's trite," retorts Michael Keith, a tall construction worker with mischievous eyes.

"It's better than being a Dot Communist," Burke replies.

"Well, my aunt always says we need more human beings and less human doings," Schmitt continues.

Then Stan King says something that drives the entire evening home for me. "Aristotle once said, 'All paid employment absorbs and degrades the mind,'" adding, "Of course, Aristotle was a man of means."

Catch 2000

MORE TIME and less money is voluntary simplicity's cry, but in our consumer-driven society, where time equals money, less money, for some, means less choice.

Take, for example, Jenny Kennedy, a sweet-faced legal secretary, who couldn't muster her usual subservient smile when her boss asked her to type his daughter's homework. Asked to adjust her attitude, Kennedy, who had been reading Your Money or Your Life, decided to exit the rat race and take up art. "I'd been living in a financial safety net for so long, I actually felt groundless," she says, "but I was excited--I felt I had slapped the system in the face."

A year-and-a-half later, after numerous temp jobs, a stint of unemployment and part-time work, Kennedy found that her financial worries had begun to overwhelm everything. "I figured the bare minimum I needed to live on was $945 a month, my prior expenses minus fun," she says. "But I always came up short, and although I was reluctant to admit it, I'd jumped the gun." Down her total $1,000 in savings in no time, unable to afford the $5 downtown sandwich with her 9-to-5 friends and worried about covering health insurance costs, Kennedy re-entered the working world. "I needed money. Now I've decided I don't have to apologize for that."

Of course it's a cliche that money doesn't buy happiness but some money certainly helps. Kennedy, who currently works for a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, still toys with the idea of simplifying her life. This time she's planning "to save $20,000 to fall back on." But $20,000 in today's world is more a vacation than a lifestyle, especially in the Bay Area, where steep and rising costs have become the crushing reality. And unlike three decades ago, today's simplicity is centered on the corporate world. The advice may be good, but it still costs.

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From the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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