LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
Sit Back, Global Province Letter, 2 August 2017
Run yourself a bath.
Sit Back. When we decided to muse about relaxation, we wrote to a few lads and ladies, asking what they did to relax. Mr. Goedecke thought he could best contribute to our essay by spinning a bit of verse which appears above. Little did he know, too, that he would give us a title for this ramble about the blessed world of laziness.
We live in times where cable news stations and human drones proudly brag about grinding away 24/7. Personal technology (computers, telephones, social networking, and on and on) is advertised as allowing billions of us to do more and do better, but instead has become the enemy of the soul, the vehicle of incivility, and a virtual substitute for reality. Drivel is the outcome. Relaxation, we will posit here, is the antidote for these indiscriminate times, is the way we tune out the consumptive present, in order to get on with the fertile future.
It is extraordinary how busy virtually everybody has gotten, whether we have a job or not. Once upon a time, businessmen returned their phone calls, but today phone messages and memos go unanswered. Crowded schedules have squeezed out the two-martini lunch. A lunch conversation used to range far and wide: now it often fastens on one narrow, trivial topic. This lack of expansiveness has forced us to come up with a new rule of thumb. Never exchange information when dining: always have a conversation. Fasten on the distracting detail that may lead to offbeat thinking and new directions. The bigger lesson is that each of us is better off to find an island in the stream where we can break free of the flotsam and jetsam that has sullied the river of life.
Above All, Don't Work At It. We cannot opine about relaxation without first stating the obvious. If you have to work at it, it ain't relaxation. To wit, we find our fellow men and women throughout the West are so addicted to competition, hard work, achievement, and compulsion that they turn recreation into hard work. There are endless brands of yoga where the practitioners beat themselves up, such a far cry from the central tenets of yoga, which are to liberate the mind, the body, and the spirit. Many years ago, in the Christmas issue of the Economist, a wag put forth the unproven theory that the amount of years people add to their lives through endless visits to the gym is exactly equal to the time spent running on the treadmill and lifting weights. In other words, a chap with a comedic turn of mind might say exercise is a zero sum game, or waste of time. In any event, relaxation is not masochistic. It makes the spirit blossom. It does not put calluses on the soul.
And it does not require fancy trips to the Golden Door, immersion in wraparound home theaters, or flights to the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. Little things relax. Dr. B from Boston watches "a favorite movie on Netflix. Even one I have seen many times." George B prowls around the waters near Chappaquiddick, the surge of his speedboat making him forget everything and anyone. Just one well-wrought drink at the right time does wonders for several professionals, ranging from surgeons to trial lawyers. Tom G of New York City lovingly cites A.E. Housman who claimed "Malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man." Relaxation resides in the simplest things, oft away from the madding crowd, that demand so little of us, giving much more than they take.
A fun, rather inconsequential newsletter called My Little Paris cobbled together some quips (alleged) from Ernest Hemingway that illustrate the minor league stuff we do to eliminate the tedium of daily life:
a. On his morning routine. "The sun rises. My alarm bells tools. I drink a half liter of vodka-infused lemon water."
Whether these lifestyle tips are true or false, they nonetheless deal with what relaxation is all about. To a great degree, it is the use of inconsequence to drive furrowed brows and weighty matters out of our lives, even for a short period of time.
We are further impressed with the advice rendered to us by another reader of our newsletter, Ms. Mary Hawthorne of Salem, Massachusetts, who goes all the wise men one better when telling us how to relax. She says to us, "Just take a breath."
Loss of Lazy Bones. Is it possible that our capacity for relaxation has atrophied? It would seem so. The workday is non-stop, consisting of a frenzied hodgepodge of activities. For entertainment we demand a big bang for big bucks, something loud, and big, and overwhelming. Doing the inconsequential with laughter and gusto does not ring our chimes. In this world, nobody is playing Hoagy Carmichael's Lazy River:
Hatched in 1930, this meandering song provided delightful counterpoint to some very trying times. People escaped calamity by transporting themselves into an idyllic world.
Going Backwards. Steve King of Today in Literature, mandatory reading for anybody today who wants to re-kindle his capacity for genteel leisure, recommends that we dip into Izaak Walton's 1653 The Compleat Angler, thinking that it sets out for us a worthy model of how a Renaissance gentleman relaxed, full of quaint "…advice on fly-fishing," along with lots of delightful poetry. Going backwards he thinks may lead us forwards. Following Walton, we might give up our Johnny-one-note lives, eschew our role as cogs in a whirring 21st century machine.
To look for olden times that can instruct us in the present, lead us into useful leisure and flagrant relaxation, we would suggest looking a bit later, into the eighteenth century. Neil Postman gave us this thought in his Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, a magnificent period which fostered breadth, not just in England, but throughout Europe. Of course, it was this very century in which the American experiment was really started wherein a diverse oligarchy of colonial fathers patched together a new hopeful nation.
First a caution. Postman and his book were roundly condemned by the brilliant Michiko Kakutani, the now deposed or retired book editor of the New York Times, who found it lacking on a host of counts. Rather opinionated herself, she flails away at some of the tangents Postman strays into, but rather glosses over his interesting central thrust, which is that the 18th was a creative cauldron for the whole of world civilization. On balance, we can agree with her that Postman has his flaws, but that he does service by pushing us to look into a most creative century and asks us how we can graft some of it on to a world and country that are intellectually and otherwise ossified. (By the way, the Times is a testy place where relaxation is alien).
We think indeed that periods that can balance relaxation and leisure with the business of life tend to have futures that matter and cultures that flourish.
John Lubbock, First Baron of Avebury We have commented deeply and warmly about John Lubbock in several letters from the Global Province. As we said in 2015, he was an "extraordinary fellow. In one bundle resided a banker, politician and statesman, philanthropist, scientist, and polymath. On the side, of course, he was both essayist and poet. Early on he was a friend of Darwin and took part in evolutionary debates. Some say he wrote the most influential archaeological text book of the nineteenth century."
We like it much that this unbelievably productive man believed so stoutly in time outs, in lying on the grass during a summer's day. Respites, we know, recharge the batteries, such that the great American Tel & Tel, early in the 20th century, studied the work habits of its telephone operators and discovered they became much more productive if given breaks from their chores. We are certain that Lubbock himself got all his best ideas during pauses in the grass, permitting him to be a giant in so many fields."
His beliefs and his life should forever fix the notion in our heads that relaxation mixed with diverse activities is what productive life is all about and, as well, is the source of any nation's vitality. He did so much but had no qualms about advocating ease and rest:
"Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time."—John Lubbock
P.S. We note the passing of Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara, a doctor who taught the Japanese how to live so long. Their citizens do outlive the people of other nations. His lessons are many, but we are impressed that he told people to "have fun" and to stay thin. He himself ate a very Spartan diet and made a point of climbing two stairs a time. He would say "energy comes from feeling good—not from eating well or sleeping a lot."
P.P.S. The balanced life is the key to longevity as seen in the blue zones of the world where many live to be a hundred and more. People eat well, exercise nicely, take long naps, don't bother to wear watches. Some people from the U.S, with a sentence of death from disease hanging over their heads, have gone back to Ikaria: miraculously they don't die.
P.P.P.S. In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Bruce McCall, a Canadian author and cartoonist and satirist, opines "Not So Fast, Canada!" Canada is riding high lately, a studious contrast to the polarized U.S. that has installed an unfunny clown as its president. "Whoa," he says. Canada may not be all it is cracked up to be. He notes that "Canadian comics have ruled American entertainment for years," but that has created something of a humor vacuum in Canada itself. Some of us thought Canada must secretly becoming a bit less when the Royal Bank of Canada closed down the paper edition of its wonderful monthly letter, which might essay about anything: it probably did not cost a great deal, but it may have been too literate for the bank's overseers.
Well, be advised, Mr. McCall, that they (the Canadian jokers) have not gone to the New Yorker, which itself is fast sliding downhill. Its content is more marginal: its lightness of touch is gone. We could really tell it was in trouble when its longtime cartoon editor Bob Mankoff departed for Esquire. Suddenly the cartoons are no longer funny. A magazine that was part of the cocktail that made week ends relaxing suddenly is a dog.
P.P.P.P.S. We are struck by the fact that songsmiths Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter both hailed from Indiana. We are reading a history of the Midwest now, hearkening back to that time when embittered politicians were few, and people of crisp wit, with accessible, economic style, enriched the nation by the output of their light and dexterous hands. At its best, perhaps, the Midwest should be renamed Thurber Country after that delight from Columbus, Ohio—James Thurber. By the way, T.S. Eliot came from Missouri, despite all his British trappings. Diane Johnson, a Moline gal, blithely answers the question, "Is life worth living?" "Depends on the liver," she postulates. More Midwesternese.
P.P.P.P.P.S. We thank many friends, romans, and countrymen who gave us their relaxed thoughts about relaxation. Easy conversations with them made this work into play.
P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) anticipates our current condition where galloping consumption makes a mockery of leisure and relaxation. As it turns out, conspicuous consumption is hard work, even for those in the working classes who don't have enough money to try it.
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