An Interview with Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh Oxenreider.  All photos used by permission.

Tsh Oxenreider. All photos used by permission.

Those who might be wondering about the benefits of adopting a more pared-down lifestyle could find a compelling answer in Tsh Oxenreider, who is part of the vanguard that harnessed the internet to promote simple living amongst a global audience. Tsh, who hails from Texas and now lives, for the time being, in Oregon, writes about the ways in which the acts of daily life (work, play, parenting) gain a certain clarity when approached slowly, deliberately, and unencumbered by physical and mental clutter. The Art of Simple, which began as a one-woman operation in 2007, now boasts over 20 regular contributors and a thriving online forum.

Very shortly, Tsh and her family of five will begin a 12-month journey that will take them around the world. They will chronicle their experiences on their travel website, which also discusses their pre-trip planning. The Oxenreiders’ commitment to living simply and intentionally carries over to their philosophy of travel: they will travel slowly so they can gain a fuller experience and appreciation of where they are each day, they will use their resources wisely, and all family members will be full partners in the travel experience (this means, in part, that everyone carries his or her own stuff, even the 4-year-old).

Amidst all the packing and organizing for the first leg of their trip (China!), and even though it was her birthday, Tsh kindly agreed to answer some questions for us.

TOM BIHN CREW: First, happy birthday! I have a couple of “with age comes wisdom” questions for you. One: what advice would you give to your 27-year-old self? What about your 17-year-old self? and two, what is one great untruth, mindset, or perspective that you believed or held that you are proud to have let go of?

TSH OXENREIDER: I tell people that my favorite thing about getting older is realizing how little I actually know. Ten years ago, I just became a mom, and even though I knew I didn’t have parenting figured out, I think I still had this idea that I had some semblance of control over her personality, over who she’d become, over her preferences. I’d tell my 27-year-old self that my job as her parent is to give her both roots and wings—grounding, values, and love, yes; but also the freedom to discover and explore who she really is.

I’d tell my 17-year-old self that life honestly really gets great around age 30. Yes, the teen years and twenties are important, but use that time to discover who you are, meet lots of people, take calculated risks, and try things you’d never dream you’d like. That decade is when you have the most freedom and the least amount of responsibility—wield it wisely, because it goes in a blink.

And I’m terribly proud that I’m pretty aware of how little I know. Back when I started my blog (seven years ago now), I was much more certain of how black and white life worked. I’m happy to let go of that certainty, and to welcome life’s mysteries and questions, and that listening well is one of the best qualities you can develop. It’s by listening that we learn, and everyone has something to teach us. It’s actually funny you should ask all this, because I have an ebook about this very thing—the twenty things I’d tell my twenty-something self (it’s free for anyone who subscribes to our travel blog).

TBC: The Art of Simple reaches tens of thousands of people, but some readers may not recognize that you’ve been blogging/writing online for quite a few years. Can you talk about your blog’s evolution and the community that’s grown out of it? Have there been any big surprises?

TO: We’ve been around for a long time—late 2007, so basically when the Internet was still written with chisel in stone. When we started, there really weren’t many blogs about living simply, but now they’re everywhere (a good thing, in my opinion). So since we were one of the few voices, we originally focused more on the science of simple living—how to pay off debt or how to have a paper-free kitchen, for example. Now, we focus more on the art—the why, the encouragement, the you-can-do-this the hooray-for-living-unconventionally. It’s our strength, and it’s really the heart of everything we write. We exist to encourage people that they can say no to the status quo and live according to their values, they can do things like travel. It just takes planning, intention, and resolve. We also used to be a network of several blogs, covering everything from food to homeschooling to design. Now, we just focus on both simple and unconventional living, with an emphasis on travel on the travel channel (though we still technically own several other blogs dedicated to things like food and parenting).

TBC: Many of the posts on The Art of Simple have to do with relinquishing certain ideas or assumptions in order to do what is more real or true for you as an individual. Yet, many of those assumptions are linked closely with values and subjectivities that have developed over the course of history, whether of a culture, a country, a family. What are your thoughts on the concept of “tradition”, especially when there’s a tension between wanting to uphold some practices or beliefs (traditions) and divesting yourself of others?

TO: I definitely don’t think tradition is a bad thing—I’m a big believer in family history based on from generation to generation, and I realistically understand that we really can’t divorce ourselves from our own culture and worldview, much of which comes from a passed-down history and tradition (even if we’re unaware). One of the reasons I remind people that there’s no one right way to “do” simple living is because we’re all different, and we all come from different cultures and perspectives. For some people, tradition is more important than others, so they place a higher value on living life the way they were taught as a kid—and I’m okay with that. The problem lies, I believe, where we just don’t think about the why behind anything we do. We just tow the line and never question, “Hey—does this actually make sense for for my family, for me?” If it does, great. But don’t just live life on autopilot. Question whether you’re in pursuit of a stable, 9 to 5 job because it’s what you want, or is it just because you think that’s the definition of a responsible adult?

TBC: You’re about to embark on several months of round-the-world travel with your family.  You have written about downsizing, decluttering, and preparing mentally for the shift in day-to-day living that will come with full-time travel. Can you talk about a challenge or set of challenges you and/or your family had to overcome during the process of this experience?

TO: Well, we’ve always been big fans of living simply and not having clutter, so we didn’t have to get rid of a ton of stuff we didn’t want (though there was some of that still!). I think the challenge was more mental—believing that yes, we really can risk trying to live out of backpacks for a year, and yes, it is worth forking over a TON of money for those plane tickets. It’s easy to start second-guessing yourself, even though it’s something you’ve planned for years. There’s also just a lot of nuts and bolts to handle here—we sold our house, put stuff in storage, my husband’s parents are carsitting our minivan, most of school this year is via iPad and Kindle, etc., systems need to be in place to keep the blogs running on the go, etc. None of those things just happen. Lots of moving parts.

TBC: Your website promotes living simply as an art, balanced with practicality, a theme that carries over to your travel site. What items are you bringing with you that will help you maintain the artistry you apply to life? What items have you learned are must-have and quantifiably practical for you when you travel?  

TO: Ooh, I love this question. Well, I wrote about my clothing and my kids’ clothing, and hope soon to write about the “other” stuff we’re packing. I’m a big fan of packing light, because it helps me pack light mentally and emotionally as well—one thing that’ll hopefully help us is our Scrubba washbag, so that we can do laundry on the go and pack fewer clothes. We’re also streamlining the kids’ school and doing a lot of it on the iPad, and though I never thought I’d see the day, the older two both have Kindles so they can stay solid readers. I’m also big into natural beauty and health care products, so things like a GoToob full of coconut oil can be multipurpose, as well as olive oil to clean my face, etc. This sort of light travel allows more room for things like my husband’s water coloring tools, a small DSLR camera, sketchbooks for all five of us, and the like.

TBC: Also related to packing: when people ask “what are you packing?”, they generally mean “what physical items are you taking?” But what intangible things will you bring with you? What skills, knowledge, and attitudes do you think will be most valuable on this journey?

TO: I think one thing our family does well is embrace the idea of “home” being “wherever we are together.” We’ve lived in a lot of places, so while it’s not always easy to say goodbye, we’ve learned the fine art of doing it well. The Internet helps enormously in us being able to move about the cabin, so to speak, so our kids have already experienced and understand the beauty of things like Voxer to keep up with grandparents and friends. So we pack with us a flexible idea of home, making it all the easier to embrace a mobile mentality.

Our kids have also packed with them patience that I hope leaks over to me. They’re so great about waiting in lines, at bus stops, and airport gates—I wish I had as much capacity as them to go with the flow and embrace a “whatever” sort of attitude about schedule. They teach me! And they remind me daily how resilient kids actually are.

A map of the world: the last item remaining in the Oxenreiders' home, which they have sold prior to their round-the-world trip.

A map of the world: the last item remaining in the Oxenreiders’ home, which they have sold prior to their round-the-world trip.

TBC: There’s a thread of religious or theological discourse that runs through your posts on The Art of Simple, and you’ve mentioned that your life follows “a liturgical pattern.” Can you explain this in greater detail, and how being conscious of this works out in practice?

TO: From the beginning of my blog’s existence, one of my favorite compliments is, “Well I’m not a Christian, but I love your blog because I still feel like I can be myself.” The Art of Simple honestly has one of the most gracious, thoughtful community of readers I’ve ever seen online, and I love them so—they give me the freedom to be myself, which includes some of my thoughts on liturgy and the blurred lines between secular and sacred. I think of our year-long trip as a bit of a spiritual pilgrimage, but if I’m honest, I’m pretty sure that’s what all of life is about. I believe in God, and I don’t believe in a distinction between holy and ordinary, which gives me great hope that my daily life matters for good. My laundry folding matters. How I parent my kids matter. How we interact with the world around us matters. And to acknowledge the daily liturgy, the rhythm, of our lives, gives nod to a Creator that spins the globe on an axis of rhythm—seasons, days, patterns in life. Imbibing that truth helps us live simpler, because we’re moving with the natural flow of life, instead of trying to fight it.

TBC: What are your favorite noun, verb, and adjective? How do they relate to one another, and why are they important to you?

TO: Noun: bailiwick. Verb: caterwaul. Adjective: ubiquitous. The most obvious way they relate is that they all sound really great rolling off the tongue, and they’re also unusual but not high-brow. They also describe my kids well: they each have a particular bailiwick (Star Wars, Pokemon, and the like), they’ve been known to caterwaul from time to time, and they’re most certainly ubiquitous—there’s three of them, after all. And though you didn’t ask, my favorite word to use while stubbing my toe? Mutfak (pronounced ‘moot-fauk’). It’s Turkish for ‘kitchen,’ but it makes a great and family-friendly expletive.

Oregon

Tsh Oxenreider writes about simple living and being at home in the world at The Art of Simple and The Art of Simple Travel.  Follow her on Twitter.

Night Flight and the Golden Hour

Mason captures the golden hour with a little help from his Night Flight: “It’s a fantastic camera bag and just the perfect size. I’ve only had it for two days but I think it’s probably one of the top bags you’ve made and already a favorite. Truly awesome.”

TOM BIHN | Night Flight Travel Duffle as a camera bag

itsablur’s Video Review of the Aeronaut 30 vs 45

With a little free time, an Aeronaut 30, an Aeronaut 45, and a camera, itsablur (a regular in our Forums) put together this awesome video comparing the two bags:

Questions? Thoughts? Post them in itsablur’s “A Tale of Two Aeronauts (or my Video Review of the A30, compared to the A45)” thread.

Boolie’s 11-Year Review of the ID

The Tom Bihn ID: An 11-Year Review
This is what an 11-year-old TOM BIHN bag looks like.

Better late than never, Boolie has posted a thorough review of his ID bag. He writes:

“While I’ve been driving to work the past few years, most of my time with the bag has been spent walking or on the train. It’s about a 20 minute walk home from the train station and, living in Portland, I’ve been rained on countless times, from light drizzles to out-and-out downpours. Snowed on a few times. One day I even trudged home in a freezing rain, finally arriving home to find the bag completely encased in a thin sheet of ice. But nothing has ever gotten wet.”

Read the entire review over at Boolie’s blog.

Note: the ID messenger bag isn’t currently available for order because our Seattle factory is totally busy making other bags right now. It might be available for order in the future, but if it’s not, that’ll be because we choose to replace it with one of the new messenger bag/briefcase designs Tom is working on.

A Good Trail and A Good Pack

Box Senryu

When Lisa placed her order with us, she asked that we write a poem on her shipping box, and Hannah (Bag Guru) obliged.

Box senryu courtesy of Hannah | TOM BIHN

Studying the bears of Katmai National Park

Field Journal Notebook and Bears at Katmai | TOM BIHN

Carl spent eight days studying the bears of Katmai, trusty Field Journal Notebook in tow. Should you ever be fortunate enough to do the same, he advises: “If you ever consider going there I highly recommend taking as much time at Brooks as you can, and doing a little homework beforehand on the individual bears. Getting to know the actors in the drama as individuals makes all the difference in the world, and makes you appreciate just how different bears can be from one another.”

Read Carl’s full post in the Forums. See also: Carl’s blog, the King Salmon Chronicle.

Regev Elya’s Synapse 19 Review

“One thing that makes this bag [Synapse 19] stand out is its magnificently brilliant design. It is engineered so slickly and so intelligently that you can pack a hell lot more than other, much-larger backpacks. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it a work of art.”

Regev's Review of the Synapse 19

Read the full review over at Regev’s blog.

A Tale of Two Aeronauts (itsablur’s video review of the A30 vs. A45)

itsablur has posted another awesome video review: this time comparing the Aeronaut 45 and the Aeronaut 30. Watch it below. And if you’ve got questions for itsablur (or requests for future videos — we hope he makes more!) here’s the forum thread for the video.

TPNL’s TB Design Spotlight

On the Forum, member tpnl is well-known for his detailed and insightful posts and creative TB hacks.  Today, he is turning the design spotlight on the Brain Cell.  Read on . . .

Protection and Lightweight Minimalism – The Brain Cell

I quite often wonder, as I am sure many of you do as well, why I like Tom Bihn products so much—there are few companies that can engage people’s passion as much.

The conclusion I came to is that I resonate with what I believe is Tom Bihn’s underlying ethos—to create something the stands the test of time through the use of quality materials and innovative design combined with an intuitive understanding of how people could use his products.

I think one of the best examples of this is the Brain Cell, which is available in both Horizontal and Vertical orientations. First off, the Brain Cell is designed to provide significant amounts of protection for your laptop. However, with the choice of durable material, the multi-layered protection design, and flexible carrying options, it becomes more than just a protective laptop case—it really is a great minimalist Every Day Carry (EDC) for lightweight computing in its own right.

Laptop Protection – the Brain Cell’s primary role as designed

I wish to take some time to fully appreciate how effective the design is in providing superior protection for your laptop. The description on the website identifies the various protection techniques: Corrugated Plastic on the front, back and bottom; the Sling set-up; the thick Memory Foam; the Cross-Linked Closed-Cell foam on the side, etc.—even the Aplix strips that keep your laptop in the bag.  But, what does it all mean?  How does it make the Brain Cell stand out in the crowd of sleeves and cases also designed to hold and protect your laptop?

The answer—the devil is in the details:

Using Corrugated Polypropylene as opposed to a regular sheet of plastic enhances the stiffness of Brain Cell, similar to how a wood plank is made stronger in one direction because of the wood grain. By also making the sides and bottom out of Corrugated Polypropylene, it protects your laptop like a helmet protects your head. It serves to distribute the force from a drop onto a larger surface area and away from your laptop. It turns the Brain Cell into a lightweight version of hard-sided travel luggage.

What really separates the best laptop cases from just good ones is corner drop protection. Most people have experienced that if you drop something on its edge or corner, it will probably dent easily. This is because the impact force is concentrated in a small area or point, magnifying its effect. This is also why it is easy to hammer the pointed end of a nail into wood rather than the flat top. The Brain Cell’s hard Polypropylene helmet extends to its corners and like a frame, deflecting the force away from the corner of your laptop or absorbing it instead of transferring it to your laptop, causing damage.

Selecting Dense, Closed-cell and Cross-linked Polyethylene foam for side protection shows an attention to the details by picking the best choices for foam. How does this protect your laptop? The dense Closed-cell foam acts like bubble wrap packaging protecting fragile items.  It provides increased compression resistance (does not squish as easily) on impact compared to open-cell regular foam (used in most other cases). The bubbles are closed (sealed) so air does not escape easily and there are many of them (dense) to ensure there is protection all the way through. The Cross-linking creates a lattice structure that acts like a net for your laptop by keeping the dense foam together.

The Sling Suspension System design and the thick Memory foam at the bottom provide a double layer of protection for the most likely way your laptop will be dropped—on the bottom. The design is like having a trampoline or bungee cord with a memory foam mattress below it. The main goal here is to make sure the laptop does not slow down too quickly, because if the laptop hits the ground directly, it goes from drop speed to zero in the blink of an eye and absorbs most of the drop energy in the process, causing damage. Memory foam has much slower compression and rebound than regular foam or neoprene and acts like a car shock absorber to slow down any impacts.  Regular foam and neoprene are useless at this despite how they feel.

An interesting feature is that the Sling Suspension System is adjustable. This helps ensure your laptop does not “bang around inside the case” and get damaged. This helps to fit a variety of laptops and still have the protection afforded by the sling. There is even a helpful video on how to do this. Also, the Aplix strips on the opening flaps run the full length of the flap for a secure closure to further prevent accidental opening or movement of the laptop in the case.

Finally, the Annex Clips provide a fifth level of protection after the Sling Suspension, thick Memory Foam, Corrugated Polypropylene and 500d Cordura outer fabric (which also provides a level of abrasion resistance). These clips allow you to suspend your Brain Cell inside many Tom Bihn backpacks, briefcases and travel bags, further reducing the impact speed and potential for damage.

If you have taken the time to read all the above, I would be surprised if you are not impressed with all that goes into this simple looking product. It is unique in the industry and is how I first got introduced to Tom Bihn products. Arguably, the Brain Cell is the most protective soft-sided case, with only rigid hard-sided cases being more protective (but less flexible in use). There other cases with some of the Brain Cell’s features and design, but none with all of them. Being from an IT background, I found myself searching for the best protection for my laptop and found it … and as a bonus, I also found these amazing bags to hold it in. :)

I have actually tested this protection together with other companies’ products (using a piece of drywall to simulate a laptop—do not try with a real laptop!) and the Brain Cell was the most protective of them all, with no damage to the drywall when dropped from 4 feet on all 6 sides and 4 corners. It was very impressive and what cemented my appreciation for the design of this product.

Lightweight Minimalist Carry – the outstanding secondary role

Now, for the person who wants to be a Minimalist (or even just someone who wants a lighter Every Day Carry) but still wants maximum laptop protection, the Brain Cell presents itself as one of the best options with the most flexibility and features:

  • 500d Cordura exterior – This material is extremely abrasion-resistant and durable so the Brain Cell will not be damaged easily when carried on its own and it has a very natural fiber look.
  • Web pockets – Built-in organization options to put a power supply, cables, cellphone, etc.
  • Though the pockets mean the Brain Cell does not technically meet all the Checkpoint Friendly recommendations, the fact that the pockets are webbing / see-through have never caused an issue for me when going through the security check.
  • Multiple carry options:
  • Webbing handles.
  • D-Rings and a shoulder strap—custom-made plastic D-Rings for strength and arguably the most comfortable shoulder strap, the Tom Bihn Absolute Shoulder Strap.
  • Annex Clip loops to attach the Brain Cell securely to a Tom Bihn bag.

To make this the ultimate lightweight minimalist bag without sacrificing things, Tom Bihn has many accessories and options that can be used. Another excellent highlight is the company’s full support of a web forum and blog that allows people to exercise their creativity and post customized options that go beyond the original design and personalize their customers’ bags. To that end, for the Brain Cell, there are a few additional carry options that go beyond the original design and may add more flexibility through the use of the Annex Clip loops and D-Ring attachment points. Thanks to all the forum members that have posted innovative additional design innovations and given me so many ideas, including sewing on webbing strips into the Brain Cell so it will work with the current Tom Bihn Checkpoint Friendly Gatekeeper Clip system (see here for a description of how I did it).

Below are a few pictures to showcase this and help start your own design creation – enjoy!

Minimalist Business - Brain Cell, Smart Alec Lower Modular Pocket, Organizer Pouches, 16” Key Strap for keys Note:  Brain Cell is worn “reversed”—i.e., with the webbing pocket side towards you.

Minimalist Business – Brain Cell, Smart Alec Lower Modular Pocket, Organizer Pouches, 16” Key Strap for keys.
Note: Brain Cell is worn “reversed”—i.e., with the webbing pocket side towards you.

BCPB

Mobile Office – Brain Cell inside Tri-Star/Western Flyer Packing Cube Backpack with Vertical Freudian Slip, Lead’s Pocket, Organizer Pouches.

guardian

Every Day Carry (EDC) – Brain Cell, Smart Alec Lower Modular Pocket, Guardian Light, Water Bottle Holder (non-TB), Lead’s Pocket, with Double Carabiner and Single Gatekeeper Clips to hook it onto the Brain Cell.        Note: Brain Cell is worn “reversed”—i.e., with the webbing pocket side towards you.

PCSB

Vacation / Casual / Coffee Shop – Brain Cell and Packing Cube Shoulder Bag with Double Carabiner and Single Gatekeeper Clips to hook it onto the Brain Cell.

TSA-friendly Personal Carry-On – Brain Cell, Co-Pilot with emergency clothes, Nordic Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, Iberian Large Yarn Stuff Sack, Organizer Pouches, 8” Key Straps and Single Gatekeeper Clips to hook the Co-Pilot onto the Brain Cell. Note: Brain Cell is worn “reversed”—i.e., with the webbing pocket side towards you.

In summary, the Brain Cell is the faithful companion for those who are serious about wanting to protect their laptop and believe in buying once and using for life—the reason IMHO all TB products stand out in a world of disposable, poorly designed products. The surprise is its designed versatility, making it a boon for minimalists or for people looking to lighten their daily carry.

Cheers!

Tpnl