A Little More on Leisure…

Following on yesterday’s post about rest and leisure

One of my favorite bedside books is The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. Lin gained popularity as an erudite Chinaman back in the 1930’s but, to my knowledge, none of his fine books are in print today.

Lin was a great believer in leisure as a means for refinement and reflection. He states that,

It is clear that only in a society with leisure can the art of conversation be produced, and it is equally clear also that only when there is an art of conversation can there be good well-written essays.

…both the art of conversation and the art of writing good prose…is possible only in a life of leisure.

Is this true? Can you grind away at your job for twelve hours a day and then rush into your office and dash out sensitive haiku or enlightened prose? Lin thinks not:

Businessmen who are busy the whole day and immediately go to bed after supper, snoring like cows, are not likely to contribute anything to culture

But we have quashed most leisure out of our culture. We take our work home each day on our iPhones and computers. Paying the family bills takes two parents working full time. We order dinners, groceries, and dog-walkers on-line. And conversation? How? How to break through the surgically attached headphones or the stare that never swerves away from the phone screen?

It’s fascinating and prescient that Lin connects art, writing, and conversation with leisure. He argues that it takes time laying about to develop these skills. They can’t be crammed into a busy brain. It’s a kind of play, really. Playing with words, or ideas, or paint. Play rarely happens under pressure.

So take a few minutes this weekend to be a bum. A layabout. A lolly-gager. You’ll be better for it.


Go here to read more about Slow philosophy.
See here for a Kindle download of The Importance of Living.

What If You Wasted Your Entire Life?

Leo Tolstoy and the Meaning of Life

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

Like many wealthy young men, Tolstoy spent his days vacillating between the responsibilities of a young noble and the pleasures of the whore house. Finally, he mostly gave up on both and found religion.  Found True Religion is more accurate. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing orthodoxy for his own version of True Faith in Jesus. The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after his awakened faith. It tells the story of a man who, with no real effort or drive, rises to a mid-level bureaucratic position, and in so doing, learns to despise his once beloved wife, largely ignores his once adorable children, and spends his time proving to his colleagues and neighbors that he is a man of great culture and import. He is a Kardashian: pretense with little substance.

While hanging curtains in his new and ostentatious home,  Ilyich falls. Over the next days, he feels an ache in his side and then develops a metallic taste in his mouth. At his wife’s nagging, he agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who all fail to accurately diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he is in a downward spiral toward pain and death. He comes to detest his life and despises those around him. Death was never meant for him. Not now! Doctors, friends, and family are all liars who feign concern but plot their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he thinks, because he reminds them of death, of wasting, and of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, a theme seen throughout all of Tolstoy’s writing.

His last days are excruciating. Not from pain only but from the pestering realization that he has lived his life wrongly. Like a vapor. He has lived a false life elevating artifice and selfishness just as those he now despises. Just an hour before dying he feels release realizing that a good life is an authentic life.  A peasant life.  A life of empathy and compassion. His heart turns and he is washed in love and pity for his family and friends. He sees his death as their release from the burden of his care.

No Answers But Good Questions

But Ilyich is no mere pamphlet.  Tolstoy avoids pedantry and Ilyich’s dying revelations are implied and open to interpretation. Is this part of Tolstoy’s genius? To let each reader meander to their own meanings? Can we live authentically as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and dying? Thirteen years later, Tolstoy will publish Resurrection where the themes of Ilych are expanded. The Death of Ivan Ilyich rests comfortably on the same bookshelf with other great philosophical fiction (and isn’t all Russian lit philosophical?). Tolstoy presents the problem, hints at solutions, but raises as many questions as he answers.

What does it mean for readers of It’s The Good Life? Tolstoy’s protagonist came to see on his deathbed what we already know: the good life includes living intentionally, engaging relationships, and knowing what is truly meaningful. There are still questions: are leisure and fine things wrong? Is there an intrinsic reward in service and hard work? I’ll let you read the book and work these things out for yourself.

Modern readers can struggle with the prose and Tolstoy famously takes time to develop the story. But it is a wonderful and thought-provoking read. Can be profitably read and re-read.

Four stars.

Go here to see the book on Amazon.
Go here to see the book on Goodreads.


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Goals for the Next Year…Updated

My birthday just passed and I forgot that I wrote this post last year. Let’s see how I’m doing…

I had a Happy Birthday call yesterday from my daughter in Japan. She surprised me and asked what my goals were for the next year. Huh? She said that I always taught her that we should be improving in some area of our life and keep goals to track our progress. I was surprised that these things stick. It’s good advice. Goals help us stay on track, keep us engaged in our own life, and remind us of a desired outcome. It’s common advice for anyone wanting to be happy and healthy. The goals don’t have to be big. They don’t have to be grand. But they should be specific and measurable.

Here’s a few of mine off the top of my head:

I want to ride in the Mt. Washington Hill Climb the summer of my sixtieth birthday. It’s considered the most difficult bicycle hill climb in the world and will remind me that sixty doesn’t have to mean decrepit. I’ll need a bike first. And bigger thighs. Not sure if I will make it. It’s still a goal…but not my wife’s goal. In her world “New Hampshire + cold +bike race + time off from work” does not equal “vacation.” And the time is a tough one. 

I want to pass my Certified Health Physicist exam next summer and would like to join Sigma Xi and The Society for the Study of Evolution. Am taking the CHP test next summer. Joined the Society for the Study of Evolution. Yet to pay up with sigma Xi.

Mal and I had our first date-night in about two years last Friday night. We played a little tennis and had a nice time just being together. I think we should definitely ramp up the romance to at least once per year. See? I like to set a low bar. Then I can pat myself of the back for achieving another goal. We’ve had a few more dates but not enough.

I have two papers I’m working of for publication, two longer projects that I want to have roughed out by next summer, and one other side writing projected to complete. LOL. I have no clue what this is.

There’s talk of going to Disney World this year. Have motel and tickets for November. Ugh.

I might need a new car if my New York Rust Bucket finally snaps in half. Purchased a 1990 Saab 900 Turbo. I don’t know if it’s true love or if I’ve just fallen for a cult but I never want to drive another car.

I am planning on running a couple of 5ks this fall and would like to break 25 min for a 5k next spring. I would like to break the famous (at least for Mittons) seven minute mile barrier this fall. Ran another 5K and will do another this Fall. 26:42 is still my best.

There’s a start. Thanks for the reminder,  Rebe!

There are all kinds of sites to learn more about goal setting. I like Brian Tracy quite a bit. Don’t get too bogged down in the planning but focus on the doing. And have some fun.

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Change Your Mind, Change Your Life?

Change Your Mind?

I’ve wondered lately (here and here) about why people live with broken things. What do you have laying around? Broken appliances? A toaster with only one working slot? Clothes that don’t fit? A cabinet drawer that doesn’t slide? Why don’t we take the time to fix these things? What would it take for us to change our mind and quit living with broken stuff? This led me to wonder about broken relationships: is there a correlation between your overflowing junk drawer and the health of your marriage? If you put up with a broken heater in your car are you more prone to put up with something less in your relationships? I’m don’t know. But it’s worth the thought.

The other side of that coin is that we can change our minds about these things. But can we?

I’ve been having a conversation with a so-called intelligent design adherent and author. We’re talking about new research regarding bacteria that grow new flagella over a weekend after having the protein that regulates flagellum construction knocked out.

Facts Don’t Seem To Matter

The research is interesting – I argue that it’s a prime example of a mutation adding something positive to a genome – but I’m fascinated at how both of us present the same information and ‘arrive’ at different conclusions. I emphasize ‘arrive’ because I wonder if either of us is truly looking hard at the evidence? Maybe we are just regurgitating our biases. He would have to argue against his own book to agree with me. I would have to shuffle off my standard evo-devo arguments to agree with him. I don’t like thinking that I do this but how many times have you ever really listened to someone and weighed what they were saying and then changed your minds to agree with them? I’m in that same boat.

In this case, I’ve tried to stop and observe my reasoning. I’ve written down each step in the research finding and asked if this is reasonable. I think it is. In the end, I state that this shows how mutations can add information to the genome and increase fitness. My chatting partner looks at the same list and concludes that this can only be accomplished by a designer. Someone or something had to make this work this way. There is no way that this could happen without an intelligence behind it. When this kind of teleological glove is thrown down there is just no more room for discussion.

I’m not talking about decision making. This is easy. I’m talking about beliefs. I’m talking about the set of rules that you’ve glommed onto or slapped together that dictate your world view and how you live. We tell ourselves that we have examined the evidence and have come to a thoughtful position but that’s very rarely true. Instead, we get our ideas about right and wrong and truth from our genes, from our parents, our school, our culture, from the books we read, and from friends.

What About Beliefs?

The hardest thing I’ve changed my mind about was my Christianity. I was once an engaged Christian but now label myself as deeply agnostic.

And I’m not talking about the ‘I’m not religious, just spiritual’ canard. I live mostly as an atheist but argue hard that neither the theist nor the atheist can truly hammer down their argument to a firm conclusion. Religion seems increasingly untenable to me and, at least for me, the observation that no god exists seems most basic, natural, and fundamental.

There are other things that I almost forbid myself to think about. Abortion is one. My practical and reasonable mind tells me that abortion should be supported, and oftentimes, encouraged. But my doubts about any afterlife creates a loathing in me at the thought of taking life from anyone. I am strongly against capital punishment and feel queasy about abortion as taking away something too precious. I don’t want to be the arbiter of what life we value over another. I recognize my own inconsistency here. I eat meat and have dispatched plenty of research animals. If I’m wrong, and god is a rat, then I am in some serious trouble. I don’t hunt but have no real argument with it other than just killing for fun. So there are areas where I know I’m not consistent.

How about you? What have you changed your mind about?


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Broken Relationships?

This week I wondered why we live with broken things and, then, why we live with things that don’t work the way they are intended to. Those are easy fixes if we’re talking about pencils or cabinet doors or cars. But what about important things? What to do when you begin to think that your faith doesn’t work? What does it even mean to have a relationship that doesn’t work the way it’s intended? I’m not sure but know that many people walk around feeling that something is amiss with their friends, family, or loved ones. Maybe it’s you? Maybe you have expectations that are unrealistic? Maybe you are mean? Maybe you aren’t ready to be in a relationship?

These are weeds that you must traipse through yourself. Others can help but be aware that your good intentioned friend might have nary a clue about what they are talking about. That goes for me, too. You have to figure this one out for yourself.

Here are a few thoughts to help:

Forgive much. And don’t confuse forgiveness with acceptance or forgetting. When we forgive we loose another person’s control over us. But it doesn’t mean that we have to trust that person or like what they have done.

Be careful with your self-talk. We invent much of our reality with the on-going story that we tell ourselves over and over in our minds. If your focus is on the negative then you should expect more negative. If you look for more of the positive your outlook will improve. There is no magic here. A sage said “You find what you are looking for” and it’s rarely more true with relationships.

I’m bad at this. Learn to listen. Learn to close the yapper until the other person is done talking. Learn to not think about how you will respond to them until they are done talking. Then take a minute to think before you talk.

We probably can’t hear it enough. Trying to change another person is almost always a fool’s errand.

Work on yourself. When you are secure and settled you might not need people around you to change and you can start enjoying them for who they are.


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Panic and Decision Making

Panic and Decision Making

We had a nasty life lesson at our home recently. The girls and I went outside to the garage and noticed a female cardinal sitting on a shelf. We’ve been feeding a stray cat and my guess is that the bird saw free vittles on the ground and swooped in for a bite. Something spooked her and she bolted inside the garage. Once there, her instinct to fly up and away worked against her and she was stuck. Every time she fluttered to make an escape, she ended up on the ceiling. We tried to be quiet but it didn’t help: she started flying like a crazed pinball until she went headlong straight into a beam that drops down in the middle of the room. In a sputtering of feathers, she fell to the floor with a broken neck. We rushed to her rescue to no avail. She was alive for seconds and expired in my hands. We buried her and hoped that she had many chicks to carry on her life.

One of the girls asked why she just didn’t fly right out? The door is right there and takes up a whole wall? But the cardinal couldn’t see it. She’s not made to see her way out of a box or a door. Her entire evolutionary past was forged in open fields where up-and-away solves almost every problem. So she panicked. And who of us makes good decisions when we panic? It’s why we think about things beforehand. It’s why businesses run drills. It’s why you talk to your kids about what to do in case of a fire. It’s why we write wills.

So stop. Take a deep breath or three. There might be hell to pay with whatever decision you make but things will get better. Make your decision. Then move on.

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Birthday Wishes. Live life. Cheat Death.

Birthday Wishes

That momentous day has recently passed for me. In honor of the day, here are two of my favorite quotes about adding years to your life. They apply whether you are turning seven, seventeen, or seventy. Enjoy!

Birthday wishes to me.

The first is from Anne Lamont:

“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65 or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written, or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools or oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy, or you were so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen to you.”

Another, much more sobering, from thinker Ray Kurzweil:

The things we can do with life – have relationships, be creative, create knowledge – are what give life meaning. We don’t need death to give time a purpose. We rationalize this great tragedy and convince ourselves that death is a blessing, but it’s a tragedy. It’s a profound loss of knowledge and skill and humanity and relationships.  It’s a loss of the things that give life significance.

Happy Birthday!

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