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The Humboldt Answer

The science of vagueness applied to New Year’s resolutions

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I’ve lived in Humboldt County for seven years, and it’s taken me all this time to adopt the standard Lost Coast response to the question, “What do you do?”

Where I come from — and this basically applies to anywhere south of Garberville, north of Orick or east of Willow Creek — everybody has an answer to this question. “I’m an insurance agent,” you might say. “I’m a dentist.” “I’m a janitor.” Any of these responses work just fine. They provide all the necessary information — an occupation, a hint regarding educational background and temperament — to start a conversation or strike up a friendship. From there someone might add a qualifier like “... but I take summers off to lead white water rafting expeditions” or “... and I’m working on my Masters degree in art history,” which is even more helpful. Now you’ve really got something to talk about.

But ask that question around these parts, and you’re likely to get a shrug and embarrassed little smile. “Uh, a little of this, a little of that,” people tend to say. “I do a little part-time work, I help out a friend sometimes, I rent out a room and I’m thinking about starting this thing on the Internet...”

What does that mean, a little of this and a little of that? I never know. So for me, as the asker of that question, what starts as a simple conversation opener quickly becomes something else. Now I’m not just asking out of polite interest. Now I really want to know. These people are not especially wealthy or lucky or privileged — they’ve just figured out a way around the 8-to-5 lifestyle. So exactly what is it that they do all day? How, precisely, are they pulling this off? When the rent comes due, what specific funds do they draw upon to pay it? This all gets a little vague in Humboldt County.

It would be rude to actually ask those questions, and I can usually get a conversation off the ground without the answers. In fact, what someone does to earn their keep is often the least interesting thing about them. I’d much rather hear about their trek across Canada or the rabbit they once taught to play fetch or the weird thing they found at the junkyard last week. That’s the good stuff.

But now, after seven years, I’ve started giving my own version of the Humboldt Answer. A little freelance, give a talk at a conference, maybe apply for a grant, sell a few paintings on eBay when I’m running low on canvases and now we’ve got this bookstore .... Really, I’ve kind of lost track of the whole thing. Occupation? Who knows? (Speaking of occupations, a guy came into the bookstore yesterday and told me that he didn’t work. He was a youngish, good-looking guy, reasonably well dressed and well put together. Trust fund? Early dot-com millionaire? He volunteered the information, so I figured it was OK to press for details. “Wow, how’d you pull that off?” I said. “I went crazy,” he said.)

Which brings me to the garden. And New Year’s resolutions. Most of us talk about New Year’s resolutions the way people outside of Humboldt County talk about occupations. Resolutions are usually a list of specific things that you’re going to start doing and do every day from now on. My list usually includes more yoga, more painting and more gardening.

But this morning I remembered a piece of advice I once heard about New Year’s resolutions. I don’t remember who said it, and I won’t be able to phrase it as elegantly as he or she did, but the advice was this: Figure out everything that you want in your life, and do a little bit of all of it — every day. It occurred to me that this was a very Humboldt County way to live. A little of this, a little of that.

So I stopped wondering when I might find time to spend a day in the garden this week, and instead I picked up the pruning shears and went outside. Over the last few years I’d been whacking away at an overgrown fuchsia that crowded the sidewalk, but cutting it back on one side had only encouraged it to grow more in that direction. I spent a minute thinking about my mistake, and then I cut a few sturdy branches back to the ground, eliminating most of the overgrowth that blocked the sidewalk. In spring, I’ll start training the plant to grow in a new direction. But for the moment, that was it. A few clean cuts. A few minutes outdoors. Not bad.

Don’t ask me what I did today. I’m finding it hard to account for my time lately. But my hands are dirty, so it must have been good.

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