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Story Last modified at 9:42 p.m. on Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Complicated? That's easy: Leading a simple life involves extreme effort

By Frank Baker

Leading a simple life these days is not easy. To quote an aging mountain climber in Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, "the hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life ... it's so easy to make it complex." An escapist from civilization in the United States, Chouinard is one of the people featured in a documentary film titled "180 degrees South." The film is about a mountain-climbing and surfing adventure at the southern tip of South America that introduces some of the local residents.

Chouinard's observation reminded me of the Bobby McFerrin song, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." I always liked the song, not only because its lyrics and tune were simple, but because it expressed a carefree, relaxed way of viewing the world. But in my estimation, trying to live by those words in today's busy and complex society is, as the California-transplanted Patagonian says, one of the most challenging feats around.

For example, any kind of medical procedure, such as a knee operation, unleashes an avalanche of bills and notices in the mail that would bury a small snowmachine. There is the surgery center fee, surgeon fee, anesthetist fee, surgery equipment and supply fee, physical therapy fee, to name a few, and each of these comes to your mailbox multiple times as insurance companies wrangle to coordinate benefits. I'm surprised there isn't a separate bill for heating and electricity. I suppose that's included in the surgery center fee. All of this paper amounts to a small chunk of some forest somewhere.

Luckily for me, my beloved wife, Becky, digs into this avalanche and miraculously recovers bills and makes sense of them. In fact, she handles all the household finances, which are as mysterious to me as Stephen Hawking's mathematical equations describing the physics of black holes. If the Peace Corps or one of those organizations sent me to a small third-world country to help with their finances and revive their economy, they would be bankrupt in days, probably hours.

I have friends who are engineers and scientists – people who are drawn toward things that are complex. I, on the other hand, gravitate toward the simple. Perhaps I secretly like the complex, but realize I can't handle it, so hang around people who can. I find this dichotomy quite confusing.

I don't know. It just seems that from every direction, the world conspires to make our lives more difficult. Maybe part of my problem is that I've lived long enough to remember when people did lead more simple lives. I've met miners, trappers, homesteaders and other people in Alaska's backcountry who did a pretty good job of keeping things simple.

They disdained new developments, like borough expansion through annexation, or in more recent years, the construction of cell phone towers.

Things really were simpler back in the day. When I was a kid in Seward, my mom used to send me to the grocery store if the list wasn't too long. If bread was on the list, that's all I had to know: bread. There was only one kind on the shelf – white bread-so that's what I got. That's an extreme example, but if cookies were on the list, I usually had a choice of about four or five types-not an aisle full like today.

Today, when I venture into those sprawling box stores that are larger than the aircraft carrier Enterprise, I have my choice of 85 types of screwdriver. For me, a choice of about seven or eight would suffice. I told someone once that I would be happy if there were only about eight choices of car, as long as one was a pickup truck. The look they gave me made me think they believed I was a communist.

I'm not sure if this is a right brain or left brain phenomenon, probably a combination of both hemispheres, but I think people need some complexity in their lives so they can feel engaged, challenged and alive. I completely understand that. But it seems there are those who continuously layer complexity upon complexity through new rules, ordinances, laws, regulations, administrative procedures and even technology. I suspect much of this is driven by pure economics. Adding complexity gives people a livelihood, and face it, there are more of us on the planet every day.

As I try to keep my life simple, which is akin to climbing Everest without oxygen (OK, I exaggerate) I can't help but think about Yvon Chouinard in Patagonia, who at age 70 when the film was made, was still climbing mountains. One of the film's scenes says it all. He's on the beach with friends watching the sun setting into the Pacific Ocean, cracking oysters open, and he says: "I can't think of anywhere I would rather be, in the past or in the future, than right here, right now."

I feel that way about Eagle River every day. Life can become very complicated at times. But living in this valley, with a river that runs through it, helps me keep things in perspective.

Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and member of the Eagle River Rotary Club.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 19, 2011.