In 2010 a family of four sold their charming little condo in the increasingly fashionable neighborhood of University Heights. With the money they bought a stripped out house in East San Diego previously owned by human smugglers. Their goal was a radical change in lifestyle that would allow DIY Makerism, self reliance, alternative technology, permaculture, and urban homesteading into their lives in ways their HOA would have never allowed. The ideas that lead them to take this plunge came from the steampunk movement as it was during a brief shining period when art and philosophy seemed at least as important as brass, and great essays, speeches, and letters were written. These days they don't worry so much about what people call "steampunk." They call what they're doing the Greyshade Estate.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Down but not out

As everyone who read the last post knows, we are going through some extremely tough times. The only thing I would add to the bleak picture Ingred wrote about is that both our children are disabled. In addition to our youngest being in the autistic spectrum and unable to function in anything resembling a normal classroom, both our sons have progressive hearing loss. The cause is genetic, supposedly a recessive gene on one of my wife’s X chromosomes. It didn’t manifest until after age three. Their hearing got steadily worse until about eight years old, now the rate of decline has slowed. They can get by with high-powered digital hearing aides that cost about three thousand dollars an ear. Some day they will probably need cochlear implants.

Always in the background of the already very challenging task of making our past-meets-future sustainability dream real are the hard realities of raising disabled children. The possibility of income loss was also a threat that has always loomed over our heads. These two factors have collided to create our current crisis, but our DIY salvage, repurpose based steampunk philosophy is giving us a fighting chance to get through this mess. On the Greyshade Estate, “steampunk” means rediscovering an old recipe for Hoppin’ John and washing it down with homebrewed hard lemonade, while reading a steampunk novel barrowed from the library. Outside of this junkyard haven it means something else…

From the local steampunk community I know people who have lost or are losing their homes. My heart truly goes out to them. I would be devastated if this happened to us. Interestingly it isn’t happening to us, at least not yet. On the face of it, that seems strange. We seem far worse off with our disabled kids and one half time job between us than any of the people we know who are losing their homes, so how are we avoiding their situation. Strange as it may seem, it comes back to steampunk and the very different ways we look at it.

While we love the art and literature and music of steampunk and think some of the costuming is pretty neat, steampunk for us is primarily about lifestyle. For us that lifestyle centers on the idea that the past and the future may be more alike than different. We live in the decadent twilight of lifestyles based pure consumerism. Since consumerism requires ridiculous amounts of oil, coal and natural gas a shift to production-based lifestyles is inevitable. That’s what all this DIY, Maker stuff is about in the long run. 

If you are only familiar with steampunk as it has gained popularity in the last few years you may be asking what that has to do with brown shit with gears stuck on it, Internet models who’ve figured out how to make Victorian clothing look slutty, or any of the stereotypical images of steampunk out there. Ideas like mine used to be common topics of discussion in the middle of the last decade when steampunk started to become more than just a few still obscure books. Read the linked documents in the introduction to this blog.  I am taking these ideas further than most I would never call them original.

Today most people have come to steampunk through “fandom.” This is particularly true of Southern California where the entertainment industry sets the tone for everything. By definition fandom is about buying entertainment products and related merchandise. Entertainment franchises are consumer products just as much toilet paper or deodorant. Fans take it further by purchasing props, costumes, action figures and convention tickets. They take it still further by taking vacations to travel to conventions several times a year. They pride themselves on how much money they spend, and for all the imagination they have they can’t imagine themselves living any other way. This is who they are. This is their identity.  They are consumers, and they are addicted.

This is the central tragedy behind the commercialization of steampunk and its absorption into mainstream fandom. The aesthetic pioneered by reuse-obsessed artists has become a brass syringe to inject the same old heroin. Did I just compare fan culture consumerism to heroin addiction? Perhaps that is a disservice… to heroin. Heroin you see is condemned. Those who use it are ostracized. It is against the social order. This habit of buying things you don’t need to define yourself and generally “kill the pain,” is the social order. For this reason, far more lives are destroyed by consumer addiction than heroin addiction. Fandom is just one particular manifestation of this problem. I have a relative who takes luxury vacations to Disneyland whenever she feels depressed. Other people spend so much money on cars they end up living in them. Fandom can be particularly bad addiction though. I’ve seen people tell me they could barely pay their property taxes, and then jet off to another convention. I’ve heard people tell me about their credit cards being canceled and then show off their new Victorian outfit. Then… they lose their homes.

I’m not going to lie. That brass syringe is damn tempting. We used to go to Maker Faire. The whole family misses that, and while most steampunk conventions sound like the same old shit I’ve read descriptions of the Steampunk World’s Fair and a few other events that have really intrigued me. Then there is my fondness for Victorian men’s wear (sigh) the fact is we are so broke that I’m sometimes afraid to go to thrift shops for fear of finding tempting brass bits. But travel, and waistcoats and brass do not define me. What I produce defines me not what I consume.

The fact that I can create and build goes beyond steampunk. The fact that you can create and build goes beyond steampunk. What’s that you say? You can’t create and build. What the hell do you think your opposable thumbs are for? This is about your birthright as a human being and whether you choose to exercise it. Steampunk just highlights it. If you define yourself by what you consume then when times are hard you are truly fucked. You will buy shit to feel better just like any other addict. If you define yourself by what you produce you have sense of grounding that will be with you so long as you have a mind and hands. 


  1. So sorry to hear about your hard times. All I can say is that you really do understand the sheer power of steampunk as a lifestyle. Not power to escape or to be entertained but power to survive. Steampunk can be part of the survivalist movement in a way that simple back to land movements cant be. It is not guided by dogma but by practicality and creativity. We can survive on less than most people believe possible.

    Not that its easy, not that it doesn't hurt but people who work constantly for others still live in poverty and misery and are wholly at the mercy of there employer. When I had a full time job I found myself spending most of my money on things I didn't need just to dull the pain of working in a soul killing job. The simple fact is that no employer would hire anyone if they did not get more out of you than they gave.

    One way that I often try to explain my lifestyle is in terms of car repairs. This is a big issue in part of the world where there is not a lot of money to go around and everything is fifty miles from everything else. Without a vehicle it is nearly impossible to survive in any fashion. My only vehicle is 20 years old and has 300K miles on it. It breaks down fairly frequently. I am not a mechanic and have never been formerly trained in the art or lived with anyone who was but I have kept my truck running for years. Because I am not a real mechanic It often takes me days to perform a repair that a shop could have accomplished in hours, and sometimes I have to do it more than once before I get it right. My friends often ask me if it was worth it to fix it myself rather than pay someone else to do it. After all time is money right?

    But when you work for yourself time is not money, time is experience. Every time you fix something yourself you do not only save money, you gain knowledge. You become a better survivor.

    Which is important because as you say, we live in the twilight years of a decadent lifestyle. Night will come and the lights will go out, but only for those who don't know how to make their own.

  2. Well put and very much in line with what I was saying, but I prefer to think of what I am doing as transitioning to the future rather than preparing for a sudden collapse. For example I don't think the idea of a peak and collapse of the oil supply is realistic. The easily accessible oil has already gone through peaks and collapses. Now we are in period where we will get our oil by increasingly difficult and energy consuming ways until the oil that remains will take more energy to extract than it will provide. This will take time and progress in fits and starts. More and more people will see the wisdom of producing locally and adopting frugal self reliance because of this. The problem and the solution are both progressing. While times ahead are going to be rough, there need not be a zombie apocalypse provided those of us who see whats coming share our knowledge, which both of us our doing, and more and more people see the wisdom of it. I work with the public and I truly see a change of awareness happening among ordinary people. Is it happening fast enough? Time will tell.