Gaining the luxury of time by doing less, Part 2

America prides itself on its work ethic and role as the global epicenter of innovation and high technology. Yet it is at the same time the unhealthiest and least happy of the major developed nations. By contrast, primitive hunter-gatherer tribes that have been studied work the least, have the most leisure, and are much healthier. What’s wrong with this picture?
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

How we got here, or… Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into, Stanley

The age of too much to do in too little time we Americans are living in is not solely the product of something that has only become established recently, though it might well seem like it. Its ultimate roots extend deep into our past. The culture of overbusyness we find ourselves snared by is itself held in place by a worldview bound into place inside us largely by the unseen tendrils of Western religion that have grown up through the cracks of society everywhere. Or at least by religion’s darker side. (What? You thought it was all light and goodness?!)

Recall, for example, one of religion’s timeworn sayings whose job is to instill a collective “work ethic” disparaging downtime. The dictum “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” goes back at least several centuries under different variants and is tightly tied to religious admonitions to stay busy at all times, in fear of some kind of unseen boogeyman.

Those outside the church walls may chuckle at such sayings, but nonetheless still cling strongly to the idea of the work ethic, probably viewing it as so self-evident it does not require debate. Nonetheless, the arguments for it are strongly morally tinged — the emotional baggage that goes along with it, and the guilt experienced if one shirks from it, have largely religious roots.

There are a number of other such strictures in Western religion against enjoying oneself too much without sufficient justification. Fortunately they have not been able to stamp out all unbidden leisure, but they do induce a significant amount of guilt over it for many. And that is perhaps the strongest mark it leaves on us, psychologically. Even when we do relax, we may feel we should somehow be using that time to “make something of ourselves.”

Read moreGaining the luxury of time by doing less, Part 2

Gaining the luxury of time by doing less, Part 1

To disengage from America’s culture of excess so you can begin doing less, first you have to feel good about it. So to start with, Part 1 cuts loose with a rant flogging the nation’s collective psychosis of overwork, overconsumption, and overbusyness to help make it easy to jettison the guilt.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

Where the nation is now: looking into the funhouse mirror

In America today, we are living in an age of extreme excess and imbalance. Most do not see it, of course. We cannot see it, because nearly everyone has “drunk the well water” and regards it as normal. Even those of us who do consider this excess warped or perverse may still feel a certain amount of it to be unavoidable or inevitable: “Go along to get along,” in so many words.

But this excess and imbalance is not simply a matter of the country’s unbridled consumerism. Fueling our excessive purchases and collective philosophy of “living large” — otherwise known as “the American way of life” and famously termed “not negotiable” by President George Bush Sr. — is the other side of the coin of modern excess: working slavishly hard and feeling we need to keep busy all the time. For without these twin talismans of ambition, we could not pay for nor would we feel compelled to indulge in the overbusy, overconsumeristic lifestyle so many of us believe we should have.

Even with them, we still cannot afford some of our unrestrained purchases, and so with the addition of debt-fueled spending we can add “overextended” to the description of our outsize appetites. Below is a representative roundup of the most typical items in the nation’s lifestyle that keep us indebted to what we could call the four “O”s of overwork, overconsumption, overbusyness, and overextendedness.

Read moreGaining the luxury of time by doing less, Part 1

Making a new friend: the old, neglected running track

A locked-up track in the far corner of a public middle school’s grounds, going to waste. A fence-climbing 60-year-old runner who doesn’t realize his age. A long-overdue interval workout waiting to be performed, in need of just such an overlooked venue. Result: An affair between man and 400-meter oval.

It is winter in early February here on the windy Great Plains, and the last several weeks have been fierce, at least for running. Temperatures have turned unseasonably cold for long stretches, sprinkled with only a few warmer days to squeeze in key workouts — those either faster or longer.

To add to the difficulty, because of unfortunate coincidences recently, nearly two months have elapsed since my last track interval workout. Two consecutive respiratory colds of two weeks each, something that had never happened to me before, along with the harsh and unpredictable weather, have meant that for an entire month I have done only easy shorter or mid-distance runs for workouts while dealing with the sniffles, sneezing, congestion, and coughing.

Something that surprises most people is that continuing to run through respiratory sickness actually makes me feel better in most cases and weather things with less trouble. Still, beyond an easy pace and middling distance, it’s best to hold plenty in reserve and not risk overdoing during such periods.

A few times, energy level and lungs permitting, I’ve thrown in some 4 x 100m strides (that is, four very fast repeats of 100 meters each, just shy of a sprint) or 4 x 150m hill repeats here and there to try and keep the fires of speedier pace stoked a bit, but it hasn’t been much. Not enough to maintain the fitness level and more honed “edge” I seek, and that makes the training process as rewarding and enjoyable as it can and should be.

Read moreMaking a new friend: the old, neglected running track

Are you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 2

More from our disgruntled narrator in a salvo directed at some of today’s technologies that now bring as many, if not more, downsides as upsides to their use.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

Email gone rogue

There’s no doubt that email is very functional in today’s world of e-commerce. Like others with businesses to run, I rely on it heavily. Even though many of us now use texting and other forms of direct or private messaging or chat for many communications, email is still the lingua franca — the all-inclusive, lowest common denominator of electronic communications for conducting official business. The rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

But that said, for me the number of unsolicited, unwanted email intrusions from non-work-related companies I’ve made purchases from at some point or other over the years has recently reached epidemic proportions. Several months ago it had gotten to the point where almost every day I was besieged with “news” or “special deals” or solicitations that I never signed up for from these companies. Legal companies, I should add, but nonetheless behaving badly.

Since I work in a deadline-oriented field where prompt responses are expected, by necessity I’ve set up my computer to notify me whenever a new email arrives that I need to know about. These alerts go beyond incoming business email from customers, and also include that from personal friends, billing notices, etc.

(I should note that these alerts only apply to a fraction of the email I receive, much of which consists of other types of email, such as recurring newsletters, notifications of website security scans and successful online backups of computer data, or discussion-forum emails. For these, I’ve set up rules to automatically filter or archive them sight unseen into separate mailboxes for later scanning or reference, should that become necessary.)

Over time, the number of unsolicited emails had become an ongoing burden that I increasingly came to resent, because of the Chinese-water-torture-like drip, drip, drip of unwanted interruptions that, cumulatively, were stealing my time — and therefore life — away from me on the installment plan.

Read moreAre you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 2

Are you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 1

A tale wherein our intrepid protagonist, who in the past has eagerly tried all manner of high technologies, becomes grumpy at the failure of newer entrants in the lineup to live up to expectations. With examples of his sacrilege in returning to lesser methods of doing things, and pontifications regarding the follies of the tool-using species known as homo sapiens.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

I am someone who has always enjoyed new technology. Most of my life, I’ve typically been among the first of my friends and family to try out what’s new on the horizon when it comes to higher-tech offerings. Or at least those that are affordable to people like myself of modest means.

This inclination is actually more than just a technological leaning, and extends to other new things as well: I became a distance runner in the early 1970s, at age 14, when we skinny dudes (and it was in fact mostly guys) running along the side of the road were thought to be odd and sometimes harassed because of it. At age 16, I became a vegetarian when it was considered countercultural and effete (but which I abandoned 18 years later after it began taking a serious toll on my health, despite my best efforts). Following in succession after that were also yoga and meditation.

Later, I became aware of and got involved with the internet in the late 1980s before most people had heard of it. At this time, email and email list forums (plus a few walled-garden forums like America Online, The WELL, ECHO, and CompuServe) were “the only game in town” on the internet for the most part. The Worldwide Web had yet to be invented, which meant no blogs, e-commerce, news sites, or social media. So with the internet still something of a desert in those days except for a few such oases here and there, I was then moved to explore the alternative realm of underground zines and M2Ms (many-to-manys) — the paper-based forerunners of today’s online blogs and message boards, respectively— before moving back to the internet once it began taking off for good in the mid-1990s.

None of this was because of any desire to be “up” on what was in vogue (all of the above pursuits were very much regarded as fringe at the time), but just because I’ve always been one to periodically cast about for interesting or challenging horizons to explore.

For example, I’ve also been keen on the latest research findings in science my whole life — something which most of the American public is anything but interested in, to judge by our students’ abysmal science scores and general avoidance of elective science classes in school compared to those in other countries. (Except, of course, when it comes to the fruits of science in the form of catchy, often frivolous new consumer gadgets, which the United States is the undisputed heavyweight champion of.)

Read moreAre you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 1

Neanderthal America: the grocery store

Every now and then you just feel like letting loose with a real rant. Here’s one on how a typical shopping trip to the grocery store has become a microcosm of everything our country now seems to stand for.

When I first began writing this post, its working title for some time was “Introvert Hell: The Grocery Store.” That’s because I am by nature an introvert and find most grocery stores here in the U.S. to be loud and oppressive places, with their dense press of humanity, blaring public address systems, and omnipresent, rumbling refrigeration compressors creating a constant din wherever one goes inside. (To name a few items as a start.) And since research suggests one-third to one-half of the population are introverts — despite the widespread disregard for us in this country’s implicit promotion of the “extrovert ideal” everywhere — there would be no shortage of potential readers.

But as I took down notes it became apparent there was more to my dislike of grocery shopping than simple introversion. Grocery stores today, like many other things in this country, are a microcosm of the larger society. They reflect much about our guiding value system and collective behavior.

So to enlarge the scope of the post title to cover everything on the agenda here, I thought a better-fitting phrase for the range of things at issue would be the more provocative “Neanderthal America.” Which to me is largely what the U.S. has devolved to in recent decades, as the country has passed its former heights as the leading nation others once looked up to, but now is past its prime, like an aging prizefighter, still full of chest-beating bluster, but lacking discipline, vigor, and not least, intelligence.

Read moreNeanderthal America: the grocery store

The personal impact of industrial decline, here and now

The classic features of the decline and fall of civilizations in historical times have been well documented. So have the economic and other macro-level problems besetting our own society in recent decades that strongly suggest it, too, has now started down its own inexorable path of decline. What have not been so well described, though, are the more intangible but equally real aspects of modern civilization’s decline that we experience in our everyday personal lives.
Since this post is lengthy… If your time is limited, you can jump straight to the concluding side-by-side comparison chart summarizing the numerous ways our personal lives today differ from the USA’s pre-decline years.

A lot has been written in certain corners of the blogosphere about the macro aspects of the long decline of modern Western civilization ahead of us, like that of ancient Rome, currently in the initial stages of washing over our world. There are plenty of predictions about where it will take us, debates among fast-crash advocates vs. slow-crash, the forms it may or may not assume, and so on.

Of course, outside this circle, many if not most probably believe the current ills of our technological civilization are a temporary detour that will be righted once we get back on course — whatever that is thought to be. In conservative religious circles it is believed the proper moral course is all that is needed. In the business community, the right economic policies will be our savior. In the high-tech community, innovation. (Innovation in computers and iPhones continues! What, me worry?) For those of political bent, no matter what political party, it is a better vision and stronger leadership in government that will save the day.

Direct vs. indirect effects. However, while there are numerous statistics about the more or less stagnant economy, joblessness, the increasing number of families with children on food stamps, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor along with the hollowing out of the middle class, little has been written about how breakdown and decline are experienced by those of us seemingly buffered from the worst impacts — what most of us feel at the personal, individual level. And the decline does affect just about all of us, not only those who have been directly hit by one or another personal disaster.

Blind spots and self-blame. Certainly many people these days are affected acutely by job loss or income decline — or perhaps are managing to maintain their income by working longer and harder, only to see prices for essentials continue to rise, and these are serious impacts. I know a few people myself who have gone through or are going through such trials. To me, all of this is a given. But it has also become apparent to me how even the more commonplace, everyday aspects of our lives are affected by the decline going on around us. Yet these characteristic experiences we share tend to be “blind spots” in terms of failing to realize how strongly they point to the larger decline going on around us, or blaming ourselves for our responses, until one wakes up to the larger picture.

Read moreThe personal impact of industrial decline, here and now

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