Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

SenecaIt is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

You will hear people saying: ‘When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.’ And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it?… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!

Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.

But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.

So it is inevitable that life will not be just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They will achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.

Peak Shite

I went for a walk downtown the other day. As one does, when there is no work to be done. Across the bridge, past the homeless shelter, past that bakery that I’ve been meaning to try, up to the high-end retail stores. The specialty soap company. The scented candle company. The year-round Christmas store with all the latest “classic” plastic ornaments. Precision kitchen accoutrements. Designer clothes. Etcetera. And it occurred to me, again, that there is a lot of superfluous shite being peddled.

I get it, though. People have done a bit of research. They’ve done some math. And they’ve said,

I want to make some money, and I’m going to make that money by selling utter shite to any fool willing to part with their money (and hence, their time). Whether or not they actually need my shite is of little concern, nor is the amount of packaging that goes around my shite, nor is the social usefulness of it…I just want to sell sufficient shite to enable me to buy some shite of my own.

Ah! Who am I to judge the social utility of scented candles, specialty soap, or plastic Christmas ornaments? In fact, as I look around our apartment, I can honestly say that 90% of what little we have left is not essential. I don’t need coffee, let alone three different methods of brewing it. I don’t need my bike, and I don’t need my camping gear. My camping gear is marginally more useful than scented candles, in that it’ll provide shelter when the system collapses.

But it begs the question, don’t you think? I mean, here we have the G20 leaders pledging to boost world economic growth by 2.1% through 2018, thereby creating demand and more quality jobs.

Growth toward what? Demand for what? More scented candles? Plastic reindeer? One would hope for a greater project, for a noble objective of growth, and for a deliberate, focused use of wealth and resources. Quality of life, better health care, more leisure. But no. Just plastic reindeer, scented candles, and cool t-shirts.

Good work, humanity! You just couldn’t think of a better use of time and resources, could you? Bravo.

We’ll know we’ve reached Peak Shite when the growth rate of plastic reindeer production and sales crests, and subsequently falls below 2.1% per year.

At that point, I’ll start selling spears and shields from my tent.

The Dumbed-Down Smart Phone

As you know, I have a lot of free time these days. I have no “pressing matters” to speak of. No highly-anticipated emails or phone calls of great urgency or consequence.

And yet, like so many people, my phone has become an extension of my hand, and I constantly check my notifications. Why?

According to this article: dopamine.

This smartphone-hand-involuntary-temptation, or SHIT, as it is commonly referred to in the scientific vernacular, is further discussed in a CBC Spark podcast. I think you’ll find both the article and the podcast interesting. Spark is consistently thought-provoking, and worth your time.

To combat my growing notification addiction, I’ve decided to go cold cool turkey. I’ve disabled email and non-SMS text messaging on my phone, I’ve deleted the Twitter app, and I’ve hidden the browser icon. What I now have is a telephone (the number to which is known to my wife, my mother, and a handful of close associates), a map, a calculator, and a calendar.

Today was Day 1.

I feel better already.

Leadership, Revisited

The military equivalent of this would be the Colonel or Brigadier General going out on a foot patrol or a convoy with the troops. Sticking their balls out, as it were, and leading from the front. Functionally not required, yet morally necessary.

Again, here’s Uruguay’s Jose Mujica leading from the front.

The Best Of HDT, And Others

Henry_David_ThoreauToday, immediately after emailing back and forth with a friend about minimalism, I did the only practical thing: I went downtown and bought several books.

I have a particular weakness for books, notebooks, and pens. I didn’t actually intend to buy anything, I just went to the bookstore to peruse…in the same way a raging alcoholic might casually head down to the pub, stick his head under the tap, and pull the lever.

Mitigating my guilt is the fact that I don’t read fiction, therefore I convince myself that I’ll read my books more than once, or at least use them for reference. I’ve tried and failed to use e-books (whose pages you can’t flip back and forth between, whose margins you can’t scribble in, and whose corners you can’t bend) and so I’m sticking to the paper kind. Yes, I know, the environment…but we don’t have children, which means we enjoy a certain carbon neutrality.

[I’ve actually contemplated a carbon-trading scheme, whereby we sell the rights to our foregone children to wealthy, guilt-ridden parents who’ve exceeded their replacement limit. Find this offensive? Feel free to leave a comment.]

Inspired by the interview at Five Books that I mentioned, and somewhat ironically given my preceding b.s. about carbon trading, I picked up Walden And Other Writings. And not just because Thoreau had one of the coolest beards of all time, although that was a part of it.

I’ve just begun reading Life Without Principle, and realized once again that HDT is a non-stop fountain of quote material. I’ve decided to compile a “best-of” collection when I read. Stand by for such posts, in which Category = Quotes, Tag = name of author.

Spare Some Change?

As I was walking along the street today, I passed a middle aged guy standing on the corner.

“Spare some change?”

“Sorry man, can’t help you.”

He didn’t strike me as the type, to be honest, based on appearances.

Not more than three seconds later, another fellow, who did strike me as the type, approached the first guy.

“Spare some change?”

The look on the first guy’s face was priceless.

But it’s actually not very funny when you get right down to it.

The Bench

When my wife and I were recently married, we went through a period where “let’s accumulate as much unnecessary shit as humanly possible” dovetailed nicely with “let’s try to be fit”. And so we started buying all sorts of fitness equipment, because clearly it’s the equipment that makes the difference. Weights, a treadmill, a spinning bike.

We stopped short of buying one of those workout benches with the adjustable back. You know, like the one in your basement that you use as a clothes rack? Yeah, that one. In the grand scheme, it would have been a drop in the bucket, but at the time we felt it would represent a point of financial no return. Unlike the treadmill.

As it turns out, the unpurchased workout bench cost more than we could have imagined. Whenever we had the urge to buy something, we’d say “well, we didn’t buy the bench, so I guess we can afford this”. It became a running joke, to the extent that we were still saying it ten years later.

That was one expensive bench.

The urge to buy stuff never really goes away, and it can take superhuman discipline to overcome, especially when grand plans intersect with irrational exuberance. A case in point: shortly after moving to Victoria, we rented some sea kayaks and went for a really nice paddle. After we’d finished, I predictably started doing the math. Used kayaks: $1000 x 2; paddling accoutrements: $500; rack for car: $500. How many times would we have to rent kayaks to justify that? A mere 50 times!

“Christ, honey, we can’t afford not to buy kayaks.”

Thankfully, Sofia is no fool. “Okay, when you’ve gone kayaking 50 times we’ll talk.”

We’re not getting the kayaks.

But we’ve finally replaced the bench.

Roman Krznaric (and HDT) on The Art of Living

A recent bout of boredom – and no television to offer an easy way out – led me to search online for good books to read. I came across a site called Five Books, which I think I’d seen previously but had never bothered to explore.

Five Books features various experts and authors who “recommend the best books in their subject and explain, in an interview, why they’re important” (the books, that is). Although the interviews appear to be conducted by a walrus, Five Books is arguably a better starting point than the star rating system at Amazon.

So, for example, you’ll have Paul Theroux talking about his favourite travel books, or Mark Thoma on Econometrics, or someone named Tim Parks on Italian Fiction. Which strikes me as improbable, but what the hell do I know about Italian fiction?

I read the Nov 2012 interview with Roman Krznaric, in which he talks about The Art of Living. Among the books he recommends is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, who of course advocated a simple life. Whether you read the recommended books or not, I think you’ll find the interview worthy of your time:

Thoreau was an extraordinarily realistic person. I don’t think he actually thought that everyone should live in the woods. What he was really saying was that wherever we live – even in urban society – we can simplify our lives. And that way, in purely practical terms, we probably don’t have to work as hard to support our lifestyle. And if you don’t have to work as much, you have more free time. Free time, for him, was the ultimate freedom.

Finally…

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Some common sense that all Canadians (and indeed, all of humanity) can use.

Rent vs. Own Redux

Tradespeople have come to the apartment today, to fix an ongoing problem of moisture buildup in the dryer duct. Their solution involves building a bulkhead and installing a new duct. They asked me what I thought of this, to which I answered “you realize we’re renting, right?”

As they rip through drywall and swear profusely, I’m reminded of a time in our last house (The Big Renovation). We were admiring our newly remodelled kitchen as a worker was out on the patio installing outdoor light fixtures. He needed to cut into the wall to install electrical junctions, and was using a sawzall for the task. You know where this story is going. Suddenly, the blade of his reciprocating saw came through the inside of the kitchen wall. He didn’t realize what was happening and, despite our screams, continued to cut in a scene reminiscent of a horror movie. Red Rum!

“Oops” he said. That’s trade-speak for “Here’s Johnny!”

Suffice it to say that my blood pressure spiked.

Which is why today, as drywall gets ripped and mistakes are made, I couldn’t care less.

Come over for a coffee sometime, maybe we’ll toss a few grenades into the living room for fun.