Category Archives: A Simpler Life


“Slow down, you move too fast                                                                                       You’ve got to make the morning last                                                                                   Just kicking down the cobble stones                                                                            Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.”

               The 59th Street Bridge Song

Paul Simon wrote the above lyrics during the nanosecond in history when it was in fact cool to use the word ‘groovy.’  (How is it that much, much older words, like ‘cool,’ or ‘hip’ can remain cool and hip seemingly forever, while a perfectly good word like ‘groovy’ immediately lapses into full blown dorkdom?)

He wrote the song in 1966, when the hippie counterculture was flourishing (1968 saw it begin to sour), when themes of ‘dropping out,’ and going ‘back to the land’ were ascendant among young people.  (Both Bruce Cockburn and Canned Heat were “going to the country.”)  Some of those young people left the city to form rural communes, which almost always disintegrated in a matter of months, as individual goals and disparate personalities clashed with the communal ideal.  Reality can bite down hard on those who believe that the peaceful serenity of the natural world can easily be reflected in the messy functionings of humankind grouped together, even where they share a common purpose.

Carl Honoré, a Canadian living in London, referenced the 59th Street Bridge Song in the opening passage to his 2004 book, In Praise of Slow.  In the text he suggests that, “The Slow movement is on the march,” that is people everywhere were steadily joining the ranks of those practicing slower work, sex, food, medicine, even weightlifting.  In closing the book he asks, “When will the Slow movement turn into a Slow revolution?”

Well, from a point in time almost ten years later, the answer would seem to be ‘not yet,’ and ‘not any time soon either.’  Today, technical innovation continues to drive change in a way that makes the pace of 2004—no YouTube, no iPhone—look almost placid.

Saint Iscariot photo
Saint Iscariot photo

No, slow is not easy to attain these days, and nor, for that matter, was it back in the sixties, not in any successful, final sense at least.  Slow has to be a deliberate choice of course—say, to leave that demanding job and pay the price in both dollars and status—but there is something counterintuitive about going slower that should be recognized by all those looking to step off today’s fast train.  It may be nicely summed up in a quote that Honoré serves up via Edward Abbey, cantankerous American author and environmentalist:

Life is already too short to waste on speed.”

If you want to expand your life, include in it more by way of experience, fulfillment, payoff, it’s not to be done by going faster.  Speed is the mortal enemy of memory, and even on Galiano, I have to remind myself, when I arrive and set about the myriad of tasks always awaiting, that if I try to do too much, stay too busy, I will almost instantly find myself at the departure point.  When that happens, it feels like I just got caught in a revolving door, whirled around a few times, then immediately dumped right back where I began.  Like I never did exit onto the other, island side.

As in all things, the challenge is one of balance, and the key commodity here is what I call engagement.  There is very little to be gained by ‘dropping out’ entirely; it’s an act of defeat, of surrender.  There are many, many fascinating components to stay abreast of in today’s world, and the very best thing about the internet may be that it makes such engagement easier.  You can be a part of a whole plethora of communities, without ever leaving home.

Stay engaged.  Never stop learning.  Keep looking for fun in new knowledge, skills and experiences.  But don’t kid yourself; we are all on a fast train which is hurtling toward oblivion.  If you want to hasten the journey, stay busy.  If you want to remember the trip, expand the experience and consciously enjoy it more often, step off once in a while, kick a few cobble stones, see if you can conjure up a little groovy.


Your Good Side

It’s an apocryphal story that my friends, family members and students have heard too many times, but it was surgical for me in its impact over the years, and so I think it bears repeating.

I was standing in a long lineup for hours, waiting for a booth to open and begin selling tickets to a Bob Dylan concert.  I had somehow been chosen by my friends to go alone to buy tickets for the bunch of us, so was standing as part of a group of strangers who inevitably got talking.

The fellow I talked with the most was tall, with an impressive mustache and bad teeth, engaging in a funny and oddly insightful way.  He was telling me at one point about a co-vivant relationship between a professor friend of his and a younger woman, a relationship which soured with time.  The turn of phrase he used caused me to laugh out loud at the time, and think more about it later:

“They were still at that phase where they were showing one another their good sides.”

Sad but true I thought.  On that first date we are shining in our virtue, our willingness to behave in the most admirable, unselfish ways.  Love blooms, issuing forth all manner of florid songs and poems about the very paragon of beauty and refinement that our lover is.

Fast forward to when we have been living together for a year, when all the foibles and flaws have been fully exposed.  She now knows that you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle and refuse to ever put a new toilet paper roll on the holder; you now know that she is a slob who leaves underwear lying all over the bedroom floor and spends hours every day on the phone with her mother.  It’s an arc of change that indeed seems inevitable.  We are many-sided creatures, and so, inexorably, we reveal all sides, including the dark one, to those who come to know us intimately.

Many years later, I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment, but I’d also suggest we can contend with the slide.  We can resist the tendency to arrive at two separate standards of behavior: one for those who know us best, and one for everyone else.

The latter standard is of course the one we should aspire to, the one where we don our very best cloak of behavior in an attempt to make the best possible first impression.

Kurt Vonnegut Rashawerakh photo
Kurt Vonnegut
Rashawerakh photo

It’s a daunting prospect, but the great American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. set down what are in fact some encouraging words in this regard.  In the introduction to Mother Night, he wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

You see, there is the matter of will in this gloomy revelatory fate, offering what must be the most constructive strategy in the face of it.  We can all go about pretending we’re still on that first date.  In the grand (or not-so-grand) tradition of ‘What would ____ do?’, we can ask, ‘What would I do if we had just met?’

With sufficient effort, I’d suggest that—in stark deference to Abraham Lincoln’s inescapable maxim that we can’t fool all the people all the time—we can in fact fool most of the people most of the time.  If you pretend to be a good person most of the time, happily, most people will think you are.

Here’s another relevant Vonnegut near-aphorism (the guy was brilliant at them), from my personal favorite of his books, Sirens of Titan:

“The purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

So let’s be clear about the nature of the challenge here.  The tough part is to go on pretending to be a good person around those people who know you well, who know all about your lazy, selfish side, who aren’t about to be fooled.

Regardless, there’s no getting around it now.  This is your new charge, having unwisely taken the time to read this digressive post.  You must now go about at all times pretending that you just met the person you’re with.

The Arc of Age

“Oh to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the coloured balloons.
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
You’re leaving there too soon.”

             Neil Young, from Sugar Mountain

There is a time in your life when all opportunities seem available to you, a time when, whether it’s school, travel, love or work, any number of options are still to come.  If any particular relationship, living situation or job doesn’t work out, well, there are always more chances ahead.

And then one day, approximately two and half heartbeats later, you wake up to the reality that this wide open future no longer awaits you.

imagesKids do it to you more than anything else.  You can always change jobs, move to another city, or leave a lover, but a child is forever.  No changing your mind, after the fact.  As Neil Young has written in another song (Already One), once that charming little creature of yours enters into the world, he or she “won’t let [you] forget.”

The arc of a life affair is like a splendid strand of fireworks, trailing sparks as it rockets up into a starry sky, only to “too soon” begin the downward turn, moments away from extinguishment.  To draw upon another pop culture reference, Anthony Hopkins, in the critically-maligned-but-actually-rather-decent Meet Joe Black, stands addressing the crowd assembled for his 65th birthday, knowing Death awaits him at the edge of the party: “Sixty-five years.  Didn’t they go by in a blink?”

I’m not quite there yet, but I’m acutely aware that opportunities are now diminishing for me, not expanding.  My father will turn 91 this year.  We got him out to Galiano over the summer for what may well be his last visit to a place where he spent many warm days noodling around on various “projects”—a septic pipe for his trailer which emptied into two separate, submerged plastic garbage barrels (I kid you not), a wooden tower for a golden-coloured metal weather vane that weighs roughly 400 pounds, and has never once moved.

Dad and three of his brothers went off to war while all still in either their teens or twenties (Dad was 18).  Only two of them came back.  They didn’t cause the war, not in the slightest possible way, but it impacted their lives in a way I can only imagine.  On my mother’s side, my uncle’s entire graduating class walked from the Olds Agricultural College up to Edmonton, enlisting en masse.  Such were the times, and the excitement in the air for young people, eager for experience.

Sugar Mountain is about the transition from childhood to adolescence, marked by things like (for Young’s generation) a furtive first cigarette beneath the stairs, or a secret, world-exploding note from that girl “down the aisle.”  We all leave the magic of childhood “too soon,” but then the other transitions of life seem to pile on pretty rapidly too.  The end of school, perhaps marriage, the death of our parents, children leaving home.  It all comes at you like rolling breakers at the beach, just as irresistible.

Oddly enough, the passage of time does not slow as we age.  In fact it accelerates, causing whole chapters of our lives to blur into a kind of muted cacophony of sounds and pictures, like a tape set to fast forward.  (I’ve commented here on this blog on the blur of the child-rearing years.)  That year’s time, say grade four, which seemed to drag on forever for me as a child now seems to hurtle by in an instant, like an approaching pedestrian whom I don’t recognize until he’s passed me by.  Too late to even smile.

Most of us will live ordinary lives.  We won’t be rich, or famous, extraordinarily powerful, or especially attractive.  But if we’re lucky, and if we make just enough good choices, we will live long and well.  It won’t be a perfect record, not even close, and there will be a fair number of regrets, but if tragedy, disease, natural catastrophes and the sordid affairs of nation states leave you largely untouched, you will live long, and you will find meaning.  It will come with children, and those others whom you love.  If you are so lucky, it will come whether you like it or not.  No need to hurry.


The Happiness Train

file000971156487-1If nothing else, the happiness train is well funded.  By one estimate, those buying tickets spend about a billion dollars a year on self-help books alone, comprising roughly 6% of the overall book market.  And if we look at the book bestseller lists in the weekend newspaper, we’re sure to see at least one book there promising a bulletproof prescription for happiness and fulfillment.  If money can’t buy happiness, the selling of happiness formulas is certainly enriching a lot of people.

Except that happiness does in fact correlate with money, to a certain level at least.   There’s an ongoing debate underway, but it seems clear that there’s a distinct law of diminishing returns at work with increased money and happiness: beyond a certain quantity of money, the payoff in more happiness begins to drop off.  What seems more important in ensuring the happiness dividend is to spend the extra cash on experiences, not stuff, and to give some of it away.

These findings come as part of a whole slew of research that began back in 1999, when a small, select group of academics, led by Martin Seligman (here he is in a TED Talk), met in Akumal, Mexico, and gave birth to what is now called Positive Psychology.   They defined their new field in a “manifesto” as “the scientific study of optimal human functioning;” this as opposed to the traditional psychological study of mental illness.

Some of their recent findings are fascinating.  One of the most interesting to me is that older people are generally happier than younger people, although it isn’t clear why.  It seems to me that this is likely the case because, as we age, we are steadily relieved of “the burden of the future.”  That burden has to do of course with expectations and aspirations around work and personal relationships, and as we reach a certain age we are obliged to choose between accepting life as it is, or continuing to grieve for what isn’t, and won’t be.  If we can choose acceptance, rather than frustration, the payoff in contentment is real.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother happiness research discovery that I find intriguing is that people with children are not generally any happier than those without.  This does not surprise me; any parent knows that having children involves a whole lot of work, expense and sacrifice.  Two parents today with two jobs and two small children endure an abundance of stress.  Even more so perhaps for the single parent.

The payoff with children is not in happiness, not for a long time at least, but in meaning.  If you ask the two no-more-happy parents described above if they regret having children, I suspect the answer will be almost uniformly no, and that’s because the raising of children engages them in an experience that is profound.  It locks them into a course where, if they can succeed at all, they can feel they’ve done something consistent with the most important values they hold; those having to do with love.  In the end, family will come first, and we would do well to remember that when caught up in the blur that is life with a career and small children.

At the risk of sounding rather formulaic myself, I think it’s critical to understand that the happiness train isn’t going anywhere.  As the adage would remind us, happiness is not a destination but a manner of travelling.   Those who have climbed onboard must engage in the present, and refrain from regretting the past, or machinating on the future.  As the great American songwriter James Taylor has espoused, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”  If you’re onboard the happiness train—and we all are—you shouldn’t worry about whether you’ll arrive on time, or what you’ll do when you get there.  It shouldn’t matter which terrain the train is travelling through, island retreat or urban jungle.  Neither should you be concerned with where you are in the journey, whether that be the aspirational beginning, the hardworking middle, or the hopefully more contented end.  (Luck will play a significant part in the circumstances you’ll find yourself in, come the end, but you can’t do much about that either, other than to be prepared.)  Just try to enjoy the ride.


A Simpler Life

There’s a whole lot of information out there about how to lead a simpler life, but most of it is decidedly understated and anecdotal, from individuals who’ve found a simpler way, found reward in that, and then decided to share their experience via a modest blog (like this one) or website.  Few ads are evident on these sites.  Compare this with say, one of the thousands of sites on “How to Invest in…”or that most popular of search targets, “How to Make Money Online!”  These sites are stout, multi-layered destinations with guest bloggers, vast archives, and scads of ads.  Go figure.

That’s the thing about a simpler lifestyle.  There’s no money in it.  It essentially comes about as a result of a less vigorous pursuit of the omnipotent dollar.  And therefore the commercial interests which drive the digital revolution are not so drawn to probing the pecuniary habits of simpler lifestylers.  People seeking a less complicated life are not those sleeping outside Apple stores in fevered anticipation of holding the latest gadget in their hands.

No, you’re pretty much on your own in pursuing a simpler life.  Neither the media, nor corporate power, nor for that matter most of the cultural industries will be there to support you.  But technology will be, at least parts of it will be.  It’s perfectly possible to embrace a simpler way of life and cherry-pick the best of modern technology, the means which enhance but do not encumber our lives, leaving the rest of the tech clamor behind.

There are two basic ways to simplify your life that are immediately accessible to us all: 1) possess less stuff, and 2) disconnect regularly.

images-4The first is to practice anti-consumerism.  Buy something only when you truly need it, i.e. when you will use it regularly, and it either provides a new and valuable service to you, or replaces a valued item which no longer works for you.  Some folks suggest that if you haven’t used something in the last six months, including an article of clothing, you don’t need it.  This seems a tad severe even to me, but if you haven’t used it in the last year, I’d have to agree.  Dispose of it.

Do not possess more than one of the same basic item or tool.  Do not hoard; this is to live in fear.  Do not keep things you don’t need because they possess sentimental value (the way to avoid this is to not keep things you don’t need long enough for them to accrue sentimental value).  Shop in second-hand stores; this is not only less expensive; it prevents the need for a new thing to be manufactured, thus adding to the global accumulation of stuff.  Unless your home is able to expand concomitant with each new acquired item, more stuff equals more stress; it’s that simple.

There are two axioms to bear in mind when contemplating the growing buildup of stuff in your life (and everyone should watch George Carlin’s marvelous routine on us and our stuff; it’s here on Youtube).  One of these adages you’ve already heard, but the second, it seems to me, many of us don’t quite grasp while we’re still above ground:  1) you can’t take it with you, and 2) nobody wants it when you’re gone.  Space, like time, is of ever-augmenting value in today’s world, and very few of us wish to allot precious space to accommodate the material goods of others, even if those others were loved ones.

The second path to a simpler life—disconnecting regularly—is where we can discriminate among the onslaught of new technology coming at us in waves.  The internet?  Absolutely, for the information alone.  A camera?  If it releases your muse, go for it.  A portable computer?  Sure; it’s great to be able to sit on the couch and send an email, but do you really need to take it with you when you leave the house?  For my money, no one needs to be personally connected to the internet at every moment.  In fact, it’s not good for you.

As I’ve gone on about elsewhere in this blog, the stress of accelerated change comes in large part because we fall prey to the craving to connect immediately, not later.  No one needs to be always abreast of the latest news, whether it’s international, national, local, or from your friends.  Very few messages merit an instant reply.  Control the stress in your life by controlling the pace of your communication.  And for those who experience anxiety when they forget their smart phone at home, I have unfortunate news for you.  You’re experiencing an addiction, like any other.  You need to know this, but not instantly.

Unplug.  Get outside.  Go for a walk at least once a day, while the sun’s up.  It’s proven to be good for your mental as well as your physical health.  And don’t take your phone.