Friday, January 1, 2010

Just the Essentials

Happy New Year! Question: What do you need to get you through the day?

Take a second and look through your bag or pockets and take an inventory of the things you carry with you every day. A quick survey of my handbag revealed the following (in no particular order):
  • Cell phone
  • Cell phone charger
  • Check book
  • Small wallet with travel passes, ID, library card, and bank card
  • Eye glass repair kit
  • USB stick
  • Makeup case
  • Sunglasses
  • House keys
  • Car keys 
  • A bill
  • Some coupons
  • A comb
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Key card for my office

I also carry a small tote which holds my umbrella and a book for my commute, as well as my lunch, if I'm bringing it from home for the day. Looking at all of these things spread across my desk, I wondered if I really needed it all—the New Year presents the perfect opportunity for such reflection. I made two piles. The items in bold in the list above represent the things I believe I absolutely must have on me to see me through the day from the moment I leave the house to my return in the evening. It wasn't too bad, I thought—it seemed that I was carrying mostly essential items. The coupons I probably would never use, and the bill would be thrown away once I paid it. I don't really need my check book all the time since I rarely ever pay for anything with a check—in fact, I could probably get away with tucking an emergency check into my wallet and leaving the book at home. And since I don't drive everyday, I could theoretically leave my car key at home. [Image Right: The contents of my handbag, minus the cell phone which was used to take this picture.]

So what caused this imposed inspection? After reading about the Hadza in National Geographic's December issue, I began to think about what we consider necessary to daily life. Though it tends to wax poetic at points, the article is a fairly good piece of travel writing (delivering an entertaining account of a baboon hunt in the process), the following statement caught my attention:
There are things I envy about the Hadza—mostly, how free they appear to be. Free from possessions. Free of most social duties. Free from religious strictures. Free of many family responsibilities. Free from schedules, jobs, bosses, bills, traffic, taxes, laws, news, and money. Free from worry. Free to burp and fart without apology, to grab food and smoke and run shirtless through the thorns.
A life free of worry, responsibility, taxes, a commute, the need for money ...? Where do I sign up? It sounds appealing, but like the author, I also decided that perhaps the cost for these types of freedoms is a bit high for me:
Their entire life, it appears to me, is one insanely committed camping trip. It's incredibly risky. Medical help is far away. One bad fall from a tree, one bite from a black mamba snake, one lunge from a lion, and you're dead. Women give birth in the bush, squatting. About a fifth of all babies die within their first year, and nearly half of all children do not make it to age 15. They have to cope with extreme heat and frequent thirst and swarming tsetse flies and malaria-­laced mosquitoes.
Hm. Between the lions and the squatting in the bush, I don't know how long I'd survive. And I think the majority of my fellow commuters might agree. The Hadza are one of the world's last remaining hunter-gatherers. They live in the Great Rift Valley, one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. They grow no crops, own no livestock, and build no permanent shelters. They set up camps, and move as needed to be closer to herds and other resources. They eat everything—birds, wildebeest, zebras, buffalo, warthog, bush pig, hyrax, baboon, plus berries, baobab fruit, tubers, and honey. Their possessions are minimal: a cooking pot, a water container, an ax, and perhaps a pipe—which can be wrapped in a small bundle for easy transport. But if they can manage to subsist on so little, why can't we? Why do I feel lost without my cell phone to remind me of the date?

Of course, our lives are remarkably different. The Hadza are adapted for hunting baboons in the middle of the night. I am built to survive commuting. (Who has the tougher job there I wonder?) The need to be connected at all times is the reason I feel at a loss without my cell phone. It's essential because my world, which is not the hunter-gatherer experience, makes it so. Still it made me wonder what else people might consider as essential. In addition to my essentials, a quick office poll added iPod and headphones (because some phones allow you to listen to music), a pen, and a snack (hmm, good idea for those long subway rides). Others mentioned hand cream—for those moisturizing emergencies—and sanitizer. I am a big fan of the latter having had someone sneeze on me on the subway and then pretend nothing had happened. [Image Left: The popularity and presence of cell phones indicates their necessity.]

In transit, cells phones seem to be the most essential item, with 9-out-of-10 people carrying them in hand at all times. I also spotted a portable video game system. Riders also have mp3 players or reading materials—a small percentage of the population read while using mp3 players, and a smaller segment have replaced their reading material with a Kindle. I've spotted guitars, several ceremonial staffs (on different occasions, carried by different people), small dogs in shoulder bags, and who knows what wonders lurk in close duffels, backpacks, and totes. I am not these people—I don't know if they truly consider the items and animals I noted as essential. Nonetheless, the variety gives you pause. [Image Right: A portable game system is a necessity for this traveler.]

If anything, the disparity between our view on necessities and the Hadza's view, encourages you to think about the ways in which our lives and the meaning in our lives are manufactured—we determine what is important, creating a context-specific experience, which arguably gives us culture. It's interesting to note the ways in which these ideas spread and become a part of the mainstream. For example, in the early nineties, cell phones were not a necessity. I wonder to what degree network proliferation helped make them so. I think we're currently witnessing the spread of the next wave of necessities: elements to establish our digital presence. From Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn to online portfolios, it's growing important to represent yourself in the digital world. Those who live "off the grid" are diminishing in numbers rapidly. I currently know of only one holdout, and he isn't holding out on any particular principle, but because he doesn't want to take the time to set up the accounts.

Okay, it's time to put those cards on the table. What essentials do you lug everywhere with you—and will you be carrying them with you this year? Share your list below.

Also, see the faces of the Hadza here in some remarkable photos by Martin Schoeller.


  1. What a great post! I can relate to a lot of these daily essentials for sure - especially the hand sanitizer. I am a mom of two little ones and we frequently use ours and the freebie wipes at the grocery store. We also don't miss a day of taking our probiotics! We love the Vidazorb chewables since they don't need refrigerated making it convenient to carry along with us!

  2. I love that vitamins are a part of your "essentials." It echoes of the old adage that an apple a day ...

    Thanks for commenting. Glad you're enjoying the blog.

  3. That is a pretty interesting post. It's weird what we think we need, what we actually need, and what we carry with us everyday. For example this is what I carried with me to work everyday:

    ID Badge for Work with memory stick attached
    House keys, Office keys, Car keys
    Bus Pass
    Wallet with my ID, bank cards, etc....
    Gym Clothes (Happy New Year)
    Cell Phone/Mp3 Player
    Ear Piece for Phone

    Green Army Satchel containing:
    2 Pens
    Drawing Paper
    Set of Pencils
    Nose/Ear Hair Trimmer (I know, gross but it's there)
    2 contact cases full of saline
    A book
    Container for Lunch
    Box of Plastic Spoons

    Pretty much everything I bring to work is stuff I need. I still bring the book and pencils/paper even when I'm not on the bus though. I always think my car is going to break down, and I'm going to have to take the bus home.

  4. From AttackLobster:
    "It's weird what we think we need, what we actually need, and what we carry with us everyday."

    Yes! This is it exactly—it gets to the ways in which we manufacture the meaning of our world. Your discussion of pencils/paper and books as necessities reflects the way you view the world in that you're prepared to face your "elements" (i.e., car breaking down, having to take the bus), while the Hazda are prepared for their elements (such as hunting baboon).

    BTW, I find the box of plastic spoons more interesting than the hair trimmer. :) In the spirit of disclosure, my tote is now home to a large number of articles that I keep meaning to read on my commute, a clipboard with an article i am supposed to be working on, and an assortment of blank envelopes.

    I'm sure I'm carrying pounds more than I need!

    Good to see you around the site, AttackLobster.