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The Map Is Mostly Words, and Simon Sarris Shows The Way
A conversation with one of the all time greatest posters, fathers, builders, writers.
Simon Sarris has a special way of getting you to want to run away to New Hampshire with a girl, build her a house with your bare hands, have babies, and plant a garden of tulips and roses. He’s one of my all-time favorite tweeters, and (I didn’t tell him this but he’ll find out when he reads this) my fiancé is completely obsessed with his wife’s Instagram. Everything about the Sarris family is so scenic that I had to have a conversation with the guy to learn more about him, and what follows is I think one of the best conversations we have on NeoNarrative.
Simon has an excellent Substack where he writes about building his new-old home, learning how to learn, and so much more. Subscribe if you haven’t done so already and check out his Twitter (or X?) for even more great content.
My first question for you is about relationships. I want to know yours and Simplicity’s relationship logic, I want to know how you guys have resolved things like short, mid, and long term goal coordination, parenting, etc. How do you avoid or settle fights, what does it all look like? I feel like you guys might not actually have anything like explicit rules established between yourselves but even if that’s the case I’d like to know what that looks like!
Hello my dear twitter friend Sotonye,
I think relationships having "internal logic" is the right direction of thinking, but does not go nearly far enough. Relationships, marriage especially, should feel like a shared consciousness that verges on a shared madness. You should have not only an internal logic but an internal map, internal customs, internal language. There should be a ritual world that is your own and some day your family's. I believe this interiority to a relationship is something that can only grow over time, it is not the domain of new lovers. When you say it seems like good relationships cannot be reversed engineered, I think the reason is essentially this. Very good relationships cannot be "made," so to speak, rather they are grown.
If we have figured any things out, this kind of thinking informs it. There is an understanding that we are gardening together, and strangely enough I think this togetherness is what is absent in many people's relationships, who consider themselves such individuals that they could never attempt to think or grow as one, they might even see that as a downside. So we figure things out, like short and long term goal coordination, I think like anyone might when simply talking to themselves. There is an amount of faith that any goal of mine or goal of Simi's will be something that the other person takes utterly seriously, and we both work to make them happen. Of course, right now it's very simple, since the primary goal for both of us is simply creating and raising our family. But we both have an immense desire to make things, so we both try to ensure that even two babies do not get in the way of our other projects. In day to day terms this usually just means making sure both of us have uninterrupted blocks of time.
Parenting is an immense topic, and it's something that we talk about (and read about) constantly. Because Simi has read so much more than I have, we somewhat default to her way of parenting. But there's a constant inquisitiveness about whether or not we're doing things as best we can, or if we can improve anything. We try not to take any parenting information for granted, and have no problems reversing opinions if something isn't working for us or the babies.
> How do you avoid or settle fights, what does it all look like?
I am kind of at a loss to give an answer. Possibly I just haven't thought about it hard enough. We disagree on all sorts of things, but it never seems to be an argument. Possibly we are just very fortunate to have enough thoughts aligned, or possibly some other thing unseen, even to myself. I suspect our view of relationships, as a thing where two people subordinate themselves to something greater, must play a part. We are always on the same side. Sometimes I hear people complain about their spouse in public, even if only as a joke, and it's just kind of shocking to both of us. Such a thing would be impossible, an affront to the dignity of both of us. So there is certainly some part of the mindset, of the idea of what a relationship is exactly, that I feel we take with much more gravity than a lot of people. I think this informs a lot of how we get along together.
Next question is about character(s). I think we should all be students of character, a kind of person who’s sensitive and who creates a taxonomy of all the different kinds of people he encounters and makes note of all the different ways that we can be. I feel almost certain that you’re this way. What kind of people do you most like and most dislike, and what kind of people are you and Simi? What kind of person should we all most want to be?
There’s a quote in the movie Tampopo that sticks with me:
"Everyone has their own ladder. Some do their best to climb to the top, while others don't even realize they have a ladder. You came along... and helped me find my ladder."
In a lot of ways people can be split into aimless and not-aimless like this. I think humans are at their best when they are reaching towards something. It doesn't have to be practical or noble necessarily, but something about the reaching itself seems to be required for people to flourish. And with Simi and I specifically, we helped each other find our ladders. We became less aimless together.
A lot of other distinctions of character that I think are important may come across as rude. You should want to be discerning, to care about as much as you can in your life. Some people pride themselves on being disinterested about their own lives. You should take a great interest in your life! There are careful and careless people, and you should never be careless. The people I like the most seem to be the people who take joy in effort. I have no interest in the lazy. I detest the shrug.
Some lines from Hesiod's Works and Days:
To be evil is an easy choice, and there are many ways to do it.
The way of evil is smooth and accessible.
But the immortal gods have put between them and us the sweat that goes with aretē.
The path towards it is long and steep.
It is rough at first, but, as it reaches the top,
it finally becomes easy, hard as it was before.
Hunger is the natural companion of the utterly idle man.
Both gods and men begrudge helping such a man who is idle
This informs my character and my judgement of it. It is a very old sentiment. "evil" is sometimes translated as "badness", and "arete" variously as virtue, excellence, flourishing.
Hunger is the natural companion of the utterly idle man - I think rather than literal hunger what we see is an immense dissatisfaction with life, instead. A metaphorical hunger.
Next Q for you:
You posted an interesting tweet about how rich guys don’t really bend the world to suit their whims much anymore, you don’t see many Medicis very often. The closest contemporary analogue I can think of is George Soros reforming the US criminal justice system, and that tells us we’re in a pretty bad situation creatively. What are some possible explanations for why the uber-wealthy don’t build things without market incentives anymore, and what kind of culture do we have to create to get them to? Is it even culture that makes people want to make beautiful things, or something else? Our current post-industrial economic order selects for a very different set of winners from the winners of the past, and maybe that’s the problem. What do you think?
There are probably too many lines of thinking, that all intersect at one troublesome knot, to give a very good answer. A few threads:
In house building, a lot of builders just copy what other builders nearby are doing. The results for many years were the "McMansion", or now maybe the "Modern Farmhouse". These were not responding to consumer demand so much as just taking the appearances of one project and pasting it onto the next project. After a while, the point of any particular feature gets lost, so their forms got increasingly deranged over time. It's possible that something similar happened with the culture of the ultra wealthy: none of their peers are doing anything except philanthropy (with little care for results) or commissioning a yacht or weird looking mansion, so that's all they think to do. You would think for instance that anyone with 100 million would want to do something like craft their own personal airship by now. Not an airship company, not a venture, but a sky yacht. But they have no interest. Or massive botanical gardens, or something that might last hundreds of years. But the only things they think to build are constrained to the tiny space of return-on-investment projects.
It's also possible that rich people do not attempt to create great works because the public no longer cares for them. Even when they attempt mass philanthropy, after all, there is little public praise. It may be that the "public" is simply too large now - creating some great work only matters if local people care about it, and we are used to thinking of "the public" as everyone, instead of the people nearby. I do suspect the effects of scale have something to do with the cultural reasons.
It's also possible that ultra-local great works are happening all the time, but since I am not in those localities, I simply miss them! Though are any of these up to the quality where they will be remembered in 500 years? I think not.
> Is it even culture that makes people want to make beautiful things, or something else?
This is a question worth pondering for several years. I have tried to think up answers before, at least to the adjacent questions like: Why if everyone can recognize beautiful things do they so often opt for ugly ones? But I have no very compelling answers. I am baffled by the nature of people on a good day.
What’s your personal take on childhood discipline? Have your views changed since becoming a dad? There was a huge debate on Twitter around this topic and the idea that got the most traction could be summed up as: “Inability to find some way to persuade a child through conversation, positive incentives (bribes), or gamification of tasks and chores is a moral failing of the first order, a trait found in the worst groups of people.” I think this line of thinking is attractive because it establishes a parental ideal. But I’m a realist when it comes to the politics of family. I’ve seen families that don’t have a final consequence for misbehavior and instead have a bickering seesaw where the wants of the children become equal to those of their makers. What are your thoughts?
I am a bit hesitant to answer because I have not articulated my own opinions well enough here, and with a topic like this you always run the risk of saying much too little. Any answer can be taken to support or reject too many options for behavior. I certainly think children should be disciplined, though not with physical punishment, except things like restraining them. And admonishing for example a 14 month old at all is probably insane. Very early on you should have positive reinforcement only. But failing to discipline a 3 year old is also insane. Consequences are at some point crucial, but I think there's a wide disagreement of when exactly. And I think children thrive when they have expectations placed on them sooner, so that they have something to master. The problems of modern parenting are usually less about discipline and more about expectations. Many parent's haven't any, and so the children have no guidance on how to act well, so they act terribly. But even this is too simplistic. It's probably a topic that cannot meaningfully be discussed without a few thousand words to make real distinctions.
After reading a bit of de Sade recently I’ve been feeling that he maybe reveals something about all of us, that when nearly anyone is granted a level of sovereignty that makes them immune to moral regulation by peers and family, punitive measures of law, and financial loss in the world of business, they will get into some weird stuff, they’ll become Patrick Bateman. I shrug off the feeling de Sade’s work gives me out of politeness and general friendliness to humanity, I will myself to always think others are good, and it’s not hard to do this, and maybe we all should. But what do you think the truth is? Do you fall into Rousseau’s camp or Hobbes’ and de Sade’s when thinking about human nature? I was reading a small observational study today that tested whether or not most people really do have more interest in violent, dangerous, and moribund information than anything else that answered in the affirmative. Does this put Rousseau on a stretcher?
I generally take a Hobbesian view, that the state of nature is a state of war, but also that we're remarkably well domesticated. In places where there are few laws or oversight there is far less murder and crime than one might expect if one thought that humanity was default-bad.
> a small observational study today that tested whether or not most people really do have more interest in violent, dangerous, and moribund information
Well, I think that for a lot of people the extent of it is "information". People are fascinated by transgressive behavior far more than they ever would act on it.
You’ve written in detail about the importance of early, non-school related skill development on agency, and how modern schooling delays agentic behaviors into later adulthood. The first thought that came to mind about this was that the world you describe is the direct result of the Griggs vs. Duke Power Co. decision by the Supreme Court. Companies became barred from intelligence testing prospective employees, companies started using the slowly-earned college degree as a proxy for ability. Without this interference in the market, we’d probably have colonized our arm of the Milky Way by now, and a bunch of smart kids would’ve helped make it happen. Is the solution to the delayed agency problem just a more free market? And what do you say to people who think this would be unfair?
The length of school is definitely a problem, exacerbated if you need a degree to get certain entry-level jobs, and banning IQ tests probably contributed to that. But I don't think it's quite the central problem.
We have seen a collapse in imagination around what work is, and what people can do with their time. This is a very sinister problem. The sheer amount of work you exclude when you narrowly think of all work as "jobs that could pay a living wage" is just massive. I don't have a very good articulation of this, but here's an attempt:
What if the 16 year old wants to partly make money, partly learn the ropes of some profession? And what if a business could use a little help, but not get meaningfully enough work done to pay that kid [current minimum wage]? Right now both the kids and businesses are out of luck.
Or what if a 60 year old is feeling lonely and wants to be a greeter or lector or something, and they want this more than they need money, but it is definitely not worth minimum wage for 99% of places to have such a job? Right now these old folk and businesses are out of luck.
People think money is the only operative thing that one might get out of a job, for all possible jobs and for all possible people. Similarly a lot of people are against unpaid internships - they see it as always bad. Many of those same people think that paying 50-200k for college to learn conspicuously little while delaying any real work experience for 4+ years is often good. For a lot of learners, an unpaid internship would be far superior to that! School is best thought of as unpaid "work" from ages 6 to 21, but it's busy work, when people might be able to do more meaningful work if we had a bit more creativity.
So at last to answer:
> Is the solution to the delayed agency problem just a more free market?
Kind-of, yes. But I think it requires a level of cultural creativity that we've lost, too. Not just a free market. And that cultural creativity is the more important part. I think on an individual level a lot of people can get around the requirements of school and the like for their own children. But on a society level it's a lot harder, right now.
Next Q: I think we need to have public discourse around differences in human ability. I think you started this discourse with your pieces on agency, which talk about really smart kids. I think these conversations should become more common. The only issue is that questions would inevitably arise about what to do with people who would be seen as less hireable in a post-industrial economy. How would you answer them? This is a really big problem, like an insanely big question. So big it’s almost absurd to ask. But we’re only having fun here, so why not take a crack at it.
I don't have a very good answer for this, but offhand I can give two beliefs:
When we think of technologies and policies for a future, we have to model the person of very average intelligence flourishing in that future or else we have failed immensely. I want a future where the average person, the very average person, has a good time.
This is something that people (mostly liberals and civil service bureaucrats) fail at routinely. A simple example is something like the HSA (the tax-sheltered Health Savings Account). It's too complex for the average person to take advantage of well, and even for the people who can, it is added complexity and therefore stress in their lives, because now they have one more thing to "optimize" about their personal savings/retirement/healthcare. Even if people of average intelligence could use it, the tax benefits are mostly of use to people who trend wealthier.
In general people of slightly above average intelligence who believe that one can reorder the world tend to make a world that is miserable in a lot of careless ways. It takes a sage to reform something without adding complexity. Or else it takes great care and conscious effort and actually soliciting earnest feedback before and after a policy is implemented. Most people making policy have little interest in the object persistence necessary to follow up if a plan isn't working. And they seem to forget that people outside of their tax bracket exist. There's a lot of myopia in the self-selection of some classes.
I think we are not remotely close to a world with zero jobs. There is just so much work to do. Every town could stand to hire 50 full time gardeners for three seasons. We still have homes full of corporate chic Keurig machines and other plastic crap. The world could be ten times more beautiful with ten times the effort, and even within that goal there are probably millions of jobs going undone. We aren't lacking in jobs and won't be for a very long time I think, just resources, and maybe creativity.
I hope I am not butchering these thoughts by typing them too hastily. They deserve another month of thinking, but I know that an interview cannot stand this! You'd have to publish in 2026.
What paths can parents give their kids to tread so that they can see what it’s like to gain a skill? I keep trying to answer the question myself, and my mind keeps telling me that there’s not really anything besides coding since potential childhood hobbies today face an under-discussed Malthusian problem. I think there’s likely no capital allocation mechanism or patronage network for young painters or sculptors or musicians or novelists because there are too many paintings, too many sculptures, too many musicians, too many novels; wealthy individuals of today have enough. Is there anything besides computer stuff that would be worthwhile for kids to learn these days? Or is there some inherent value in learning a skill that goes beyond market value?
These questions deserve a few thousand words, probably. I suppose I disagree re: patronage networks and too many etc. There is not enough meaningful beautiful art, housing, cityscape, everything at every level. Even very rich people live in a poverty of environment compared to Venetian or Roman colonnades that were built back when we had only muscle and firewood. We have simply had to make do with less. Of course for most people, it is not easy or possible to advance these things. But I can't agree that there's nothing to do, only that we haven't been thinking about it for too long.
> Is there anything besides computer stuff that would be worthwhile for kids to learn these days? Or is there some inherent value in learning a skill that goes beyond market value?
Every difficult skill, every attempt at mastery, increases your knowledge and confidence. It increases your chances of succeeding at anything else. Discipline itself is a skill.
What is right for any one kid to learn is probably contextual. An old lady down the road once mentioned that her husband built their house when he was 18. Not every kid can or should do that today, but a lot more than zero ought to try. I hope one of mine tries.
Computer skills are the most obvious path to wealth for a lot of people, for now, but only because they are very visible so we think they are the only path. There are too many niche businesses to say any one thing. There are millionaire teenagers with their own landscaping or food prep businesses. There must be many more we don't know about. For such opportunities there must be a willingness from parents and from children to seek and to try.
I want to follow up on the idea that old people should be given opportunities to stay busy if they want to, this inspires a few thoughts. The 65 and up population is one of the most rapidly expanding cohorts in the western world and we never talk about them outside of policy debates. It’s like they don’t exist. Social technologies have raised cultural bridges that the old have used to reach the young, the aged now have nothing to do with culture. Nearly half of twitter’s user base is between ages 18-29, the 30-49 cohort make up almost another 30%, older people have negligible presence on the platform and most others. What kind of world are we creating where the young never have encounters with frailty and death and history? What kind of national psychology are we building? I keep thinking that It might be harder for people to think that right now is a bad time to have kids if they heard from their grandmothers about how police, hospitals, and groceries were unreachable for them but they birthed a football team anyway. Seems like we’re depriving ourselves of a huge resource.
The second thing I’m wondering is what can we do with the aged? I have no idea what we did before, I’m not sure if we did anything since older folks are now living longer than they did. I don’t want them to just live alone in retirement communities at the outskirts of empire, that’s sad and weird.
Unfortunately I really can't come up with a good reply to this one. The current state, and I assume the past, have so many oddities that it's very hard to reason about. "What drives culture?" is a question I've been thinking about for years, and I feel I'm only just beginning to approach an answer. It may be much longer before I have anything worthwhile to say.
> The second thing I’m wondering is what can we do with the aged?
I think it's probably too difficult to give a concise answer that would apply to a lot of people. There's probably something worthwhile that everyone able-bodied can be doing, but they may be wildly different things. In my town there's a garden club that many retired and elderly people join as volunteers, and they make the town more beautiful by planting flower beds and taking care of the library landscaping, etc. In the adjacent (very small) city, there is a bigger more well-funded library, but it has no such beautiful gardening, because there seems to be no such volunteer corps of elderly interested people. Why such a discrepancy? I think scale is actually a problem there (bigger is worse), but that's another matter.
There is a general problem that you can have two 60- or 70-year-olds of very different health. Some people live longer, but it is a kind of extended morbidity. That must be solved before we can solve how to ensure they flourish. But that problem too is one of specifics and individuals. Is there anything general we can do to make the specifics easier to determine? I'm not sure.
Have been discussing with my girl what questions to end the interview with, and here are the final three questions she helped me come up with:
I think a lot of people are scared to have kids because they think it’s going thrust them into something like 17th century Eastern European peasant poverty. They think having kids will restore the Ottoman Empire and leave them with few options beyond selling themselves and their children to Crimean Tatars. But you have no such fear, I think you actually said on Twitter that you want Simi to give you like ten kids. What’s the truth about the cost of kids? What are tricks you’ve learned to mitigate costs along your parenthood journey?
People think having a kid is expensive because they have been given the idea that having a kid is expensive. If anything, they should have that idea about college.
It's not very expensive to have children. It is time consuming, and harder to travel. But regardless I find it very difficult to relate to these fears. I am glad to make all kinds of sacrifices to have a family. I would gladly make more if it were necessary. I just cannot relate to someone who'd go "oh well it will cost too much I guess I won't try to make having a family work." ???
In general it can be hard to relate at times to other people because our expectations of how to spend money and time are so different. We very very rarely dine out, we cook almost everything from scratch. We have no streaming TV services or anything like that. We would never think of hiring a car to bring us a tiny bit of food, yet I know dozens of people (mostly in cities) that do just that. Things like these, there are more I'm sure, conspire to create enormously different expectations of reality and how to spend or save money. And by extension how to spend one's time. I have no idea how people spend their time, lots of them claim they have no time. I suppose I do not believe them. But maybe coming from this world of millennial luxury, that millennials don't even treat or recognize as luxury, any scaling back looks like poverty.
But that doesn't feel right either, I suspect there's some other unseen force at play. Maybe people's apprehension is more around responsibility, undertaking something serious that they cannot easily skip out on, than money. But that's only a guess in the dark.
If people say its about money I would question them further. The surface reasons that people give for doing or not-doing things are often unconscious, reflexive answers, which turn out to be quite different after some examination.
What all have you built so far this year? Is there anything you’ve only just started to build? (Pictures welcome!!!)
I originally planned to build nothing outside this year, but projects slip in.
In the spring I planted the orchard. November 2022 I was planning one on twitter, and several people offered to sponsor trees, so it's an orchard of Maine Heirloom apples largely made possible by nice people on twitter. I planned on ~5 trees, but ended up buying and planting 14. Without a tractor digging the holes, adding compost, mulching, etc is a bit of work but it wasn't too difficult. Here in New Hampshire they need to be in fence cages for a few years to protect them from deer.
I built a 6x6 foot chicken house to move them out of the barn (the Goose Palace), so I could better use the space. In the morning it sits in the shadow of the larger barn, so I call it the little sister barn. It's partly timber framed (there are some screws and nails), but the major pieces are timbers so it can be lifted up and moved without falling apart.
I have only just started timber framing a wood shed that will be 8x8 feet, with the timbers exposed, and a cedar shingle roof. It will have three climbing roses going up it (these are planted already, though the frame is far from finished!) I would like to carve a design in the front as well, but we'll see when I get to that point. I want everything to look pretty, even the utility buildings. This comes at a cost of time and money but I think it's well worth it. And the largest cost is labor, that's no impediment to making something beautiful.
Digitally I've been working on carefulwords.com a bit, which I released late last year. And grotto.cc, a social network that I am building from scratch. But it is perhaps more a great folly than a project. There is a lot of work for just one person, and any success is unlikely, but I feel I have to try. Partly because I am dissatisfied with the state of social media lately and partly because I want to make a website that is more than simply another corporate-chic layout, something with the breath of life in it. But that could take years, especially to make it artistically worthy, and I only have so many hours. Will I ever accomplish one tenth of it?
I would like to make some furniture, in the fall, if I find the time.
And of course, planning the rose garden.
What sources of inspiration are you drawing from for your rose garden and what are your plans for it? Are there principles for building a beautiful garden the way that there are principles for building a nice home?
I had hoped by now to find an excellent garden that is near to the style that I've envisioned in my head. I would much rather emulate someone else's careful, masterful work than strike it out on my own here. I think this is good advice for most starting artists: Copy the masters, until you are finally dissatisfied. But I haven't found anything that truly matches what I want (and what I can do by myself, in terms of cost and labor). So I'm a bit stuck. I expect this will be a slow project, two years at least to start looking like anything at all. But I have time and a love of effort, so it will grow.
The garden of Tasha Tudor is a big inspiration. Most other gardens are too formal, or too opulent, or require too much maintenance for one person. She had managed something sprawling and beautiful that remained human-sized. Of course, as she said, it took her thirty years. Good things often cannot be made, they must be grown.
My plan is to start with several rose hedges, creating space in the otherwise blank hilly lawn. As these grow I hope to figure out where to enclose more or open up more, eventually creating a couple "rooms" or series of rooms with the lawn, and that will be my garden. From the road it will hopefully look like layers of flowers upon the hill.
I expect to keep the other plants restricted to: Irises, catmint, alliums, peonies, and roses. And then lilacs and hydrangea trees for taller specimens. That's it. No sprawling one-of-everything plant list.
And of course the 2000 tulip and daffodil bulbs I bought from a wholesale bulb supplier. I have no idea how I'm going to manage planting those. I'll figure it out in the fall when they ship!
I think there must be principles, but I confess I have no idea what they are. My best guesses I elucidated here, which I can summarize as: Grow the things you would want to cut and take inside. When in doubt, buy a lot of just one thing. Mow less, because a lot of the feeling of a garden is the sense of space created, or rather the sense of enclosure. I mention sensitivity to context in that post but possibly another principle that remained unsaid: Work slowly in the first years. It may take a while to crystalize the correct plan, and if you have only lived in a place for a few months, you probably cannot properly feel out the land, and what should go where. It is best to sit with your land and see how you use it, before you start sculpting it.
Part of the point of my garden location is that it's quite visible from the road. I don't want to just build something beautiful for myself and my family, but something that can be appreciated by the whole town. Lots of people walk by and comment on our handiwork, or even just our house, which we built in 2018 with zero landscaping budget, so people have watched the slow transformation of the land that we've done ourselves for years now. It's not quite a principle of gardening, but when you make nice things, you should try to share them. It should be for more than just yourself. In my historic town, every pretty house adorns every other, and without this reciprocity, there's no charm. Your garden should adorn your home, your home should adorn the town.
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