Don Quijote's Windmills Were Prescient
image courtesy of wikiality.com. Colin Beavan looks nothing like he does in this game-show picture taken from his appearance on the Colbert Report. He actually looks more like a melancholic, broody Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love, but I forgot to bring my camera the day we spoke.
The rain today shot down like gun pellets all the way from the subway at West 4th to the Dean & Deluca on University St, a light and airy room with an extraordinarily baroque scalloped and beribboned plaster ceiling. Before I bought my cup of tea, Colin Beavan was not sitting on one of the high stools set against the north-facing wall, but when I came around the corner, there he was, perched upon it like an albatross. He was wearing sneakers (Nike? I don’t remember), jeans, and assorted jackets and hoodies layered one on top of the another, and held in his perpetually moving hands a strand of worry beads, which he fingered one by one, pausing only to shake my hand.
Colin Beavan is known in some circles as the No Impact Man, which is also how he’s listed in my cell phone, making calls from him feel like a superhero’s on the other line. He and his wife Michelle (plus their two-year-old, Isabella, and dog Frankie), have plucked a year out of their lives to live in a “no-impact way,” which involves giving up trash, transportation, and, in the next few weeks, electricity. They live in what is by all accounts—if the New York Times, which recently wrote him up, is anything to be trusted—a chicly furnished prewar apartment on Lower Fifth Avenue.
Think about what is circumscribed within the above list of what many would consider necessities. Dishwasher. Elevator. Dunkin’ Donuts. Espresso. Toothpaste. Toilet paper. None of those are coming anywhere close to the Beavans this year. It is their experiment in the art of gracious living à la mode de 2007.
“We inherit a lot of customs from our previous lives and the generations that come before us,” intones Colin so quietly that I draw my head close to hear. “We have shucked our lives of all these things we’ve inherited. It’s…a complete life redesign.”
Michelle is a senior writer for Business Week. Colin, after eleven years in Liverpool as an engineering PhD student and then as the head of his own public relations firm, moved back his father’s spare room in Stuyvesant Town, having decided on an epic ten-week journey across the southwestern US., to write books. The first, called Fingerprints, was a history book about the origins of the use of fingerprints in crime solving. The second, Jedburgh: D-Day and America’s First Shadow War, bubbled up from Colin’s interest in his grandfather, chief of special operations for the OSS during World War II.
He calls these books an apprenticeship. “I liked writing them, but I wasn’t writing about something that was actually important. Now I am.” In an op-ed for the New York Times that he recently wrote, Colin discusses the tipping point that prompted his drastic experiment. Liberals, he says, believe in collective action, while conservatives believe in individual action. Despite all this, he writes, “for all our liberal ideology, people like me volunteer their time no more than conservatives, and we actually donate 30 percent less to charity. We even give less blood.”
The point isn’t asceticism, Colin delineates. Rather, the family’s goal is to tread lightly on the earth, taking only what’s on offer, making their time alive more visit than pillage. “There’s a Buddhist precept from my school of meditation,” relates Colin, “that exhorts people not to take that which is not freely given. We just want people to look at their lives and see and think about how they’re living them.”
Critics have chastised Colin and co. for their…extreme extremism. How, they ask, can anyone wishing make changes but still live in the real world look to the Beavans as examples? Don’t they undermine the sustainable-living movement’s push towards accessibility by suddenly turning into self-composting feral hippie “reduce, re-use, re-psychos?” Calm down, says Colin. The radicalism is only an experiment; two-year-old Isabella will work a lightbulb someday. (It’ll probably be a CFL though.)
A few days after I interview Colin I read a blog posting by a chef whose work I greatly admire. He and his partner have self-published one of the single best cookbooks we sell,
filled with nothing but the photographs and names of dishes they’ve
come up with, and it’s some of the most platitude-pushing,
fun-thinking, good-looking food I’ve seen in ages, kicking to shit a
lot of the trendiest menus en defilé in New York right now.
Here’s what strikes my eye:
Several days ago I read a post by Seth Godin. The synopsis is that if you have nothing wonderful to offer, wait until you can create something great and then produce, publish, and sell it. Last night we returned from more travels, this time Montana, and I was planning on writing about what we were doing, seeing, etc. Yet, after airport delays and frustrations my voice was more apt to write "back from Montana." Look, that would have been fine, but that is not me. Well, actually at times it can be or has been me, but readers don't always need to experience it with me.
So, back to the blank page. Imagine a tasting menu where you are dining and everything is progressing well and then, for your next course, you get a blank plate. It is empty, just white in front of you. It gives you something to think about, although not necessarily what you were expecting. After some time a waiter clears the dish and the menu continues. Look, that does not happen in real life, I know. What if it did? What if people were willing to edit themselves down to nothing when, at certain times, nothing produces a better result? I understand this is a far fetched concept, though I believe the idea and the process of the examination of self and creativity are woven into the blank page concept.
One more point, even though you are serving up a blank page, that does not mean that it is the only thing you have to offer. In the wings there can be pages of ideas, plans to be refined, dishes to be polished so that soon that blank page will be full, it will morph into something that is as creative and polished as you want it to be.
For some reason, reading this makes me think of Colin Beavan; he and Alex T share an impracticable purism, a fantasy about the rare and beautiful (and elusive). He reminds me of Howard Roark, too, if more outward-looking (this project is ultimately meant for others, not one’s own private glory)
Colin’s quixotic mission is more message than medium, more about subtle, meaningful ends than it is about the extreme means currently scandalizing everyone. It’s less about a lack of Fritos or Swiffer or Tide than about simply a lessening of…things. But mistranslation occurs. Everyone who hears the words “No Impact Man” immediately responds, “Oh! The guy on Fifth Avenue going a year without toilet paper!”
Yes, that man is Colin Beavan, whom Gawker called “the man gently shat on by the NYT.” He is the man who sat across Stephen Colbert as an empty microwave ran for the duration of the interview (Colbert: “It’s like Gilligan’s Island, only completely implausible!”). But he is also a man who has looked his principles in the eyes and decided to side with them absolutely. What did you do today?