Tag Archives: simpler life

The Leisure Revolution

Yuval Noah Harari, in his 2014 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, has an interesting take on the ‘agricultural revolution'; you know, where, way back, we learned to plant crops and domesticate animals. He calls it “history’s biggest fraud.” Not in the sense that it didn’t happen. It did, leading to an increase in food supply and, consequent to that, the growth of cities. His contention is that it did not lead to a better life for humankind, neither a healthier diet nor more leisure time.

5121772432_283c4f57ed_zInstead it led to a less stimulating life with the increased likelihood of starvation and disease. The starvation came about as the result of periodic natural disasters, like drought, devastating the crops we came to depend upon, and the disease came about because urban conditions are much better for spreading illness than are rural ones. As to leisure time, Harari asserts that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ambled about a wide, natural territory, often able to harvest a diverse and abundant food supply, and to do so in fewer hours than it took the average farmer to feed his family a few centuries later.

Rutger Bregman, in his 2016 book, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek, makes a similar argument about the industrial revolution. It did not lead to a more leisurely life. Bregman estimates that in 1300 the average English farmer worked about 1500 hours a year in order to make a living, whereas the typical factory worker in Victorian England worked twice that many hours just to survive. The 70-hour workweek was the norm in a city like Manchester in 1850, no weekends, no vacations.

Eventually things improved. By about 1940, in the West, the 40-hour, five-day workweek was fairly standard, a change led, surprisingly enough, by none other than Henry Ford.

And then, things truly began to look up. In 1956 Richard Nixon promised Americans a four-day workweek, and by 1965, prognosticators everywhere were predicting vast increases in leisure time, with workweeks of as little as 14 hours. There was considerable hand-wringing about the coming, perplexing problem of boredom, idle hands given to inflamed immorality and violence.

It all came to a grim, grinding halt in the 1980s. Today the average guy in the U.S. works 8.4 hours per work day, or 42 hours per week. That’s very little changed in the last 50 years.

The digital revolution has brought us an accelerated life, new, not always better forms of community, grotesque economic inequality, and, unlike the industrial revolution, persistent unemployment. (Many people, like weavers, were put out of work by the industrial revolution, but then it went on to deliver a slew of different types of employment, like shop foremen.) And so far, for those people still working, it hasn’t done much for additional leisure time.

The other factor in why many of us are busier these days is what Bregman cites as “the most important development of the last decades.” The feminist revolution. While in some countries at least the workload for individuals has decreased slightly, families these days are living a blur, because these days women are contributing about 40% of the family income, and working full time to do so.

It seems that, with the coming of the digital revolution, we’ve gone and done it to ourselves again. And here’s a disconcerting note; surveys show that many people today would rather earn more than work less—so that they can live the lifestyle they’ve always dreamed of. They’d rather have that bigger house, newer car, more fashionable outfit, and dream vacation than they would more leisure time. We might call this the consumer revolution, and it’s largely a post-WWII phenomenon.

What’s to be done? Well, it’s not in fact that mysterious. Economic answers come with things like a guaranteed annual income and a progressive tax regime that effectively redistributes wealth. And there is very solid evidence as to the validity of these economic remedies, much of it to be found in Bregman’s book.

But just as relevant to the modern leisure deficit is the fact that, as indicated above, we chose these outcomes. Not always consciously, and often incrementally, without realizing the ensuing consequences, but nevertheless we had and still have choice in these matters.

We can choose to live more simply, with less stuff. We can choose to buy a smaller home, drive an older car, purchase clothing at a second-hand store, and grow a garden.

Don’t like your job? Feeling like a wage slave? Have other interests you’d love to pursue?

It’s a choice.

The Cowboy Rides Away

To say that the cowboy is iconic in North American culture is hardly sufficient. Mythic hero is more accurate, but it’s important to remember that the cowboy was real, not supernatural like Hercules or Spiderman. The reality was that, for a brief period, essentially from 1860 to 1900, there were a great number of horses and cattle running free in the American frontier, most of them having been abandoned by retreating Mexicans. With the arrival of the railroad following the Civil War, the ’roundup’ and sale of these cattle became possible, leading to the beef industry that employed a great many ‘cowboys.’ The cattle were herded to railheads of course, but not too quickly, because if you did that the cattle lost weight, and they were sold for slaughter by the pound.

Thus the cowboy’s life was one of outdoors ambling on horseback, as part of a collaborative team of men who camped early for the night, gathered around fires to share a meal, tell stories, and maybe even sing songs. It’s a lifestyle with easily apparent appeal, although here’s what the reclusive American writer Trevanian had to say about the broader charm of the cowboy:

“It is revealing of the American culture that its prototypic hero is the cowboy: an uneducated, boorish, Victorian migrant agricultural worker.” 

The Great Train Robbery The original black hat.
The Great Train Robbery
The original black hat.

When the American film industry moved to California in the early part of the 20th century, there were by then plenty of unemployed cowboys knocking about, men who could ride, rope and sometimes shoot with the best of them—just one more coincidental reason why the western movie became incredibly popular. And it is truly difficult to overestimate the popularity and therefore the influence of the western movie. Arguably the first dramatic movie was a western—The Great Train Robbery in 1903—and the genre was dominant right through until the 70s, when it died with nevertheless accomplished films like The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the western movie was so successful, over such a long period of time (still longer than any other genre), that it created a ‘conventional form’ along with a set of audience expectations that, long after expiration of the genre itself, offers moviemakers who can reinvent the form within a new context (i.e. The Matrix or Drive) an unparalleled opportunity to go boffo at the box office.

The influence of cowboy culture in popular music is scarcely less significant. Cole Porter knocked it right out of the park in 1934 with a sublime rhyme scheme in the cowpoke paean Don’t Fence Me In

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences

And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.

I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences.

The song has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to The Killers. And almost 40 years later, James Taylor waxed nearly as lyrical (rhyming “Boston” with “frostin”) in maybe his best song, Sweet Bay James:

There is a young cowboy; he lives on the range.

His horse and his cattle are his only companions.

He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons…

More than anything else, the cowboy represents freedom, a largely solitary life free of long-term obligations, tight schedules or immediate bosses. Too often in the westerns the cowboy’s love interest represented civilization, settling down and responsibility, and so too often, at the end of the story, the cowboy rode away from the girl, off into the sunset to resume a life of independent rambling (although it’s worth noting that in a couple of the defining westerns, High Noon and Stagecoach, the hero did choose the girl, and they rode off together in a buckboard).

It’s no surprise that the cowboy’s allure arose alongside the maturing of the industrial revolution, when incomes were rising but often as the result of work fettered to a factory system of mechanical drudgery. Are we any more free in the age of the digital revolution, with its increased pace and unrelenting connectivity? Well, not so’s you’d notice.

In the digital age, the cowboy hero seems a complete anachronism, more irrelevant than ever, but I think it’s worth remembering that, although the cowboy almost always resorted to a gun to resolve his conflicts with the bad guys—and the impact of that implicit message upon American society can hardly be overestimated either (see Guns)—he did so reluctantly, in defence of the little guy being oppressed by powerful villains, who were often corporate-types.

Today the cowboy is gone for good from our cultural landscape, and I’m not suggesting he should be brought back. But in our world of ever more powerful corporate interests, we could all use some of his individual pluck. The economic wheels of our day are rolling along just fine; the ecological and moral ones, not so much. Sadly, too much of the cowboy’s good is gone with him.

The Wisdom of the Ordinary

“Sometimes I dream of being a good father and good husband. Sometimes that feels really close, but other times it just seems silly, and that it would ruin my life… If I’m totally honest with myself, I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I was special or had excelled in some way, than to have been in a really nice, caring relationship.”

Jesse, in Before Sunrise, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan

 

16092263739_4d743c338dAs I write this, Richard Linklater’s feature film Boyhood is enjoying a good deal of ‘Oscar buzz.’ The movie, shot over a 12-year period with the same set of actors, has received five separate nominations for an Oscar, and has just won ‘Best Picture’ at the Golden Globe Awards.

I’ve long been a fan of Linklater’s work, ever since first viewing Slacker in 1991. I haven’t yet seen Boyhood. I’m sure it’s a fine movie, but I also wonder if Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy of movies, employing the same set of actors over a nearly 20-year period, isn’t just as worthy an accomplishment.

Linklater is an unusual filmic storyteller in a number of ways, not the least of which is his propensity to focus in upon intellectual concerns in his movies, as opposed to the emotional terrain traversed in more conventional films. The quote above is taken from the first of the movies comprising the Before trilogy. It tells the story of two young people who meet on a train approaching Vienna one evening, and then, in unplanned fashion, get off the train together in Vienna, and spend the entire night ‘walking and talking’ through the streets. Hardly the stuff of your typical American movie.

They debate questions like that quoted above: whether it is better to excel at some particular practice, be it creative or commercial or academic, than it is to be a good father, husband, wife or mother. I don’t want to be unfair to the script—a counter argument to the position quoted above is immediately offered by another character—but I think that the question is often misconstrued. For most of us, it’s not quite an either-or proposition.

Those who truly excel at a practice do so through some rare combination of talent, drive and luck. The talent quotient is ‘god given,’ if you will; the drive portion often does indeed come at the expense of personal relationships, and the luck component; well, there isn’t much any of us can do about ensuring that happens for us. Good luck typically amounts to being in the right place at the right time with the right ‘product.’

It’s a mug’s game for the 95% of us who are not the overachievers to compare ourselves to the 5% who are, even though this is precisely what celebrity culture would have us do on a daily basis. We’re better off looking to the wisdom of older, ordinary people, those who’ve lived, loved and worked in a more quotidian realm. These folks will have come through the bulk of their lives to a point where they’re feeling more or less content, having learned some important lessons along the way, and they will now likely be willing to share some of what they’ve learned. This is exactly what I attempted to do in a personal documentary I made few years back called What Happyns (available for free streaming here).

To measure yourself against the rich, famous or powerful is a surefire way to make yourself feel inadequate, if not miserable. No, better to understand that it’s a regular game you’re playing, alongside regular people. The rewards that come with great riches, fame and power are of course material, but they’re also largely ego-based. To achieve great success in a career is to feel privileged, exceptional. But beyond a certain point in your life you’ll come to realize that those sorts of rewards don’t mean so much.

We should all applaud the achievements of Richard Linklater, if only because his movies make us (me) think, rather than just feel. Tip your hat to the guy, say thanks, and then press on in your ordinary life. It’s all you’ll ever need.

Quiet

Certain owners/managers of noisy restaurants—the type where you must shout to be heard by your tablemate—tell us that their clientele like it that way. Said customers enjoy the buzz, the dynamic feel, the sense that they are at that moment in a ‘happening’ place. That may well be; I don’t doubt that you could find individuals within the cacophony who would agree, but I’m a little skeptical as to the real reason why these restaurant bosses prefer the noisy ambience. I suspect it has more to do with the turnover rate that such noise induces. More turnover and the resultant more money.

The opportunity for quiet, for interlude, whether it be for easy conversation, or just contemplation, is to be sought out. As a young man, I once found myself in the company of my slightly older friend John, ankling it across Bear Creek Park in Grande Prairie, when an intense summer rain shower overtook us. We quickly found shelter under the wide eaves of the nearby swimming pool building, where I sat down against the wall to wait out the worst of the rain, and began to muse about what was going on in general in our situation, and where it was likely to lead.

John didn’t want any part of that. I’d hardly gotten two sentences into my musings before he marched off into the downpour. There was no place for such contemplation in John’s comfort zone.

A few years later John drowned in a couple of inches of salty water on a beach in Mexico, after riding a wave for too long while body surfing, breaking his neck when he hit the sand. We may well have been on our way to the bar that day; John was probably drunk when he hit the beach—he’d become an alcoholic while still in his twenties—but it was absolutely consistent with his joyful approach to life that he would ride that wave to its very limit, and then beyond. During that summer afternoon under the swimming pool eaves he was my best friend, and so too he was for several other of my friends. Such were his social skills, and his big heart.

 

"Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching."       - Satchel Paige
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”
- Satchel Paige

But a moment of tranquil contemplation was more than he could face. Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you,” but for John it wasn’t a matter of looking back. He couldn’t look sideways, at his present circumstances, without seeing demons staring back at him. I was surprised when he marched off into the rain, and I’m not sure even today that I can say I understand what those demons were, but I saw immediately that they were there, and that he was terrified of them, and so he kept moving.

He preferred a noisy atmosphere, to get drunk rather than to stay sober, and yet, in his own odd way, he was absolutely in the moment. It’s just that he didn’t wish to contemplate that moment. He preferred distraction.

The quiet on Galiano can sometimes be nearly absolute, with little more than the periodic echoing chortle of a crow, or the shrill beeping of a tree frog to interrupt. It’s something I’ve come to value now more than ever, and it’s something I consider akin to a regular physical check-up, something I should oblige myself to do. I want to see if there are any demons standing next to me. I might want to do something about them, before they run me to ground.

One recommended approach is Buddhist; I attempt to calmly stare right back at those demons present, to just ‘sit with them’ for a while, no challenge, no confrontation. Eventually they’re not quite so scary; they’re just demons. I may be responsible for them, but they’re not the final word on who I am, or where I can go

These days, incidentally, without much effort, you can find information on the noise level in restaurants in your area, and act accordingly. One Vancouverite carries with him small cards that he leaves behind after eating in any restaurant; they say either that he enjoyed the relaxed environment, or that he won’t be back, because of the din.

Quiet shouldn’t scare anyone. Connecting to another human being should be the goal. We should all stop moving once in a while, seek out stillness, not distraction. Once you’ve pulled up, take a look around. Any demons? Don’t kid yourself; if you look back there will always be regrets as to how you got here, but hopefully you are still okay with here. If not, if there’s a fiend lurking nearby, while you’re still breathing, there is always something you can do.

Facetime

Last month the city of Nelson, BC, said no to drive-thrus. There’s only one in the town anyway, but city councilors voted to prevent any more appearing. Councillor Deb Kozak described it as “a very Nelson” thing to do.

Nelson may be slightly off the mean when it comes to small towns—many a draft dodger settled there back in the Vietnam War era, and pot-growing allowed Nelson to better weather the downturn of the forest industry that occurred back in the 80s—but at the same time, dumping on drive-thrus is something that could only happen in a smaller urban centre.

The move is in support of controlling carbon pollution of course; no more idling cars lined up down the block (Hello, Fort McMurray?!), but what I like about it is that the new by-law obliges people to get out of their cars, to enjoy a little facetime with another human being, instead of leaning out their car window, shouting into a tinny speaker mounted in a plastic sign.

For all the degree of change being generated by the digital revolution, and for all the noise I’ve made about that change in this blog, there are two revolutions of recent decades that have probably had greater effect: the revolution in settlement patterns that we call urbanization, and the revolution in economic scale that we call globalization. Both are probably more evident in smaller cities and towns than anywhere else.

Grain elevators, Milestone, Saskatchewan, about 1928
Grain elevators, Milestone, Saskatchewan,
about 1928

Both of my parents grew up in truly small prairie towns; my mother in Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, present population about 750; my father in Sedgewick, Alberta, present population about 850. Sedgewick’s population has dropped some 4% in recent years, despite a concurrent overall growth rate in Alberta of some 20%. Both these towns were among the hundreds arranged across the Canadian prairies, marked off by rust-coloured grain elevators rising above the horizon, set roughly every seven miles along the rail lines. This distance because half that far was gauged doable by horse and wagon for all the surrounding farmers.

I grew up in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a town which officially became a city while I still lived there. The three blocks of Main Street that I knew were anchored at one end by the Co-op Store, where all the farmers shopped, and at the other by the pool hall, where all the young assholes like me hung out. In between were Lilge Hardware, operated by the Lilge brothers, Wilf and Clem, Joe’s Corner Coffee Shop, and Ludbrooks, which offered “variety” as “the spice of life,” and where we as kids would shop for board games, after saving our allowance money for months at a time.

Grande Prairie is virtually unrecognizable to me now, that is it looks much like every other small and large city across the continent: the same ‘big box’ stores surround it as surround Prince George, and Regina and Billings, Montana, I’m willing to bet. Instead of Lilge Hardware, Joe’s Corner Coffee Shop and Ludbrooks we have Walmart, Starbucks and Costco. This is what globalization looks like, when it arrives in your own backyard.

80% of Canadians live in urban centres now, as opposed to less than 30% at the beginning of the 20th century. And those urban centres now look pretty much the same wherever you go, once the geography is removed. It’s a degree of change that snuck up on us far more stealthily than has the digital revolution, with its dizzying pace, but it’s a no less disruptive transformation.

I couldn’t wait to get out of Grande Prairie when I was a teenager. The big city beckoned with diversity, anonymity, and vigour. Maybe if I was young in Grande Prairie now I wouldn’t feel the same need, given that I could now access anything there that I could in the big city. A good thing? Bad thing?

There’s no saying. Certain opportunities still exist only in the truly big centres of course, cities like Tokyo, New York or London. If you want to make movies it’s still true that you better get yourself to Los Angeles. But they’re not about to ban drive-thrus in Los Angeles. And that’s too bad.

Cars

I drove a car just as soon as I was legally able to.  Couldn’t wait.  A learner’s permit was obtainable in Alberta at age 14 back then, so within days of my 14th birthday I was happily out on the road, behind the wheel of a freedom machine.  I owned my first car, a light blue Volkswagon Fastback, by the time I was 18.

epSos.de photo
epSos.de photo

My own son, who is now 24, has never owned a car, and professes no interest in doing so.  It was my suggestion, not his, that he obtain a driver’s license, since I believed, perhaps naively, that it enhanced his chances for gainful employment.  My son’s cousin, same age, similarly has no interest in driving.  His friend Mendel, a year younger, has never bothered with the driver’s license.

They all own mobile devices of course, and if they ever had to choose between a car and a smart phone it would not be a difficult choice, and the auto industry would not be the beneficiary.

Times change.  And yet, more than ever, Canada is a suburban, car-dependent nation.  Two-thirds of us live in suburban neighbourhoods and three-quarters of us still drive to work, most of the time alone.  Vancouver, where I spend most of my time, now has the worst traffic congestion in all of North America, this year finally overtaking perennial frontrunner Los Angeles.

If ever a technology is in need of a revolution it has to be cars.  As uber venture capitalist (and Netscape co-founder) Marc Andreeson has been pointing out of late, most cars sit idle most of the time, like 90% of the time.  And the actual figure for occupancy on car trips is 1.2 persons per journey.

Car co-ops, and car-sharing companies like Zip Car of Car2Go point the way.  Many people have begun sharing, rather than owning a car.  But if you take the numbers mentioned above and add in the coming phenomenon of the Google robot car, the potential transportation picture becomes truly intriguing.

Driverless cars are now legal on public roads in Nevada, California and Florida.  Since 2011, there have been two collisions involving Google’s robot cars.  In one incident, the car was under human control at the time; in the other the robotic car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.  We might assume that a human was driving the car that rear-ended the robot.

What if no one owned a car?  What if you could simply order up a driverless car ride on your smart phone any time, anywhere?  Your robot car would arrive at your door, it might stop to pick someone else up en route, but it would then drop you off at the entranceway to wherever it is you’re wishing to go to.  You would pay a fee for this service of course, but it would be minor in comparison to what you now pay if you own and regularly drive a car.

And of course the need for cars would nosedive, because these robotic cars would be in use nearly all of the time, say 90% of the time.  Car numbers would plummet, meaning traffic congestion would be a thing of the past.  And it keeps going: garages, driveways, parking lots would begin to disappear.  Our urban landscape, which has essentially been designed to accommodate cars, would begin to transform.  A lot more green space would become available.

And I haven’t even mentioned the reduction in carbon pollution that would ensue with the reduction in cars, carbon pollution being a problem which just may threaten the stability of civilization in the coming years.

Cars have been with us for about 100 years now.  Our relationship with them over that period has at times been tender, at times belligerent, at times top-down, sun-in-your face, wind-in-your-hair fabulous, at times utterly savage.  For those people who love cars, who fuss over them, restore them, take them out for careful drives only on sunny Sunday afternoons; I hope those people keep their cars, as an expensive hobby.  For the rest of us, those of us who use cars simply to get from A to B, for whom cars are just a form of convenient transport, the days when we need to own a car are disappearing.  For my money, the sooner the better.

A Child Skipping

2445244162_f4bbeba0baA child skipping down the sidewalk may be the single most encouraging action you will ever see.  That child is what I would describe as ‘fully engaged,’ here and now, fully in the moment and enjoying it.  What’s more that moment may not be all that extraordinary; there’s no obvious reason for that kid to be so ebullient, no carnival grounds in sight, no ice cream stand straight ahead.  Chances are that life just is what it is for that child for that moment.  But it’s more than enough reason to skip.

If that kid is hand-in-hand with their mother or father, even better.  That kid is now not only fully engaged, he or she is feeling safe, cared for and secure.

Every parent’s responsibility can probably be reduced to simply providing their child with the most carefree childhood they possibly can.  I happen to believe that human beings are natural learners; we enjoy learning and will do so every chance we get, so there’s little need to worry about cramming edification into the childhood years.  Simply provide the opportunity, and kids will learn.

No, parents are charged with just making sure their child is loved and protected, experiencing as little fear and hurt as possible.  If a parent can do just that much, all anxiety about proper parenting should be gone; your child will be just fine.

Oh, and make sure your kid has as much fun as possible.  As the great philosopher of everyday life Kurt Vonnegut Jr. concluded, “We’re here to have fun, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”  Actually Vonnegut said “fart around” not “fun,” but let’s not quibble.  And Kurt was not referring to just kids on that point, by the way.

Perhaps the single coolest action I saw a parent take during the years I was actively parenting my own kids came at several of the long-distance running meets my daughter used to attend while in elementary school.  The parents would of course accompany their children to these after school competitions, then be obliged to stand around awkwardly while their small charges ran the considerable distances involved in these races, often through parkland.  When the very tired tykes would reappear, chugging for the finish line, there was a tradition of the parent heading out to meet their weary son or daughter, then turning to trot alongside them, until the finish line was finally attained.  Not ahead of the child, nor behind—directly beside, step for step, offering support in a very real and yet not quite literal way.

That’s really the way it should be I think, when it comes to education.  Accompany your child to the event, expose them to the opportunity, offer some advice if you’re asked to or so inclined, but mostly just be there to support them as they engage in the process.  It doesn’t even have to be verbal; just let them know you’ll be there if they stumble, or fail, to pick them up and encourage them to go on, and to congratulate them when they win, or just finish.

For many years you will be your child’s best friend, and that’s the way it should be, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  You’ll be more than that too of course, but you’ll be their confidante, their favourite playmate; there to reliably accompany them through life’s daily adventures.  As far as your child is concerned you’re a far better friend than any of the kids their age, far more patient and cooperative, easier to organize, yak with, order about and otherwise demand things from.  Heck, you even pay for everything.

And then one day they dump you.  Overnight you lose your status as best friend, in favour of those other kids their age.  Suddenly you’re no longer cool to hang out with, not really even that interesting anymore, if the truth be told.

It’s a change that’s enough to break your heart, and it’s all part of the glory of living.  Raising a child is easily the most amazing, meaningful, rewarding, and heart-rending challenge you will ever take on.  If you get through it, maybe try skipping a step or two.

Groovy

“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.