How to live quietly in a noisy world

I didn’t want to leave the blog so unfinished. The “okay, I’m good now, see you later page”. I thought that perhaps the first and last thing you see should have a little bit more weight. So, here is a short list of commands I have written for myself. Only myself. When I say ‘you’ I mean ‘me’. Not being prescriptive here, ok?

  1. Don’t shout, and don’t cause drama or commotion. And only say it if it is important.
  2. Assume that everyone is trying their best, even if they don’t always succeed.
  3. Look everyone straight in the eye. Do it with warmth. Don’t wear sunglasses. Two humans looking at each other is a powerful interaction. Don’t mess with that. Wear a hat if the sun is too much.
  4. Don’t ever assume that the minutiae and miniature dramas of your life are of any interest at all to other people. Keep them to yourself unless you’re directly asked about them.
  5. Walk whenever and wherever you can. Especially if the distance is less than a mile. There is really no excuse for not walking that kind of distance. Unless you are riding your bike, of course.
  6. When you walk look ahead or look up. Don’t look down, don’t look at a phone. Don’t shield yourself with music. Be there, and be fully aware of all that is going on. Look for beauty and look for things you haven’t seen before.
  7. When you talk to someone make sure your phone is switched off and in your pocket or at home. When you talk to someone, your only job is to listen, and to talk to that person.
  8. Don’t brag. Especially not with status updates, tweets or Instagram pictures. We’ve all created fake storefronts for our lives, and yet somehow believe that other people’s fake lives are real. Let’s not perpetuate this.
  9. Find ways of limiting the time on the internet. When you are on it, spend time digging deep into one subject rather than flitting from one random topic to another.
  10. Only ever go to events that mean something to you and that make you happy. Life is too short to show up merely to be seen, to impress, to fulfill an obligation.
  11. Don’t chase the latest film, book, band, TV program because it’s new, or just to be able to say “I saw that”. Watch, read and listen to what seems unusually promising.
  12. Every single day remember that the 21st Century was bought with the blood of the 20th Century. That our freedom rests on the graves of tens of millions of mostly young people who died without ever having a choice about it.
  13. Whenever something seems difficult, causing you to worry, remember that most things don’t matter. And will pass very soon, never to be remembered again.
  14. Don’t borrow money unless it is really, really important.
  15. Of your spare time, give a percentage over to helping others. Even if it’s just an hour a week.
  16. Before buying a pet, ask yourself whether there isn’t a way of giving the love and the money to a human instead.
  17. Speak your mind — with kindness and humility, not anger or spite.
  18. Don’t ever assume that your good health or good fortune is the product of your good habits, your virtue or your hard work, when in fact you were just lucky.
  19. For that reason, don’t prescribe those habits or behaviors to anybody else. You might well be wrong.
  20. Don’t strive for success. Success is a potential byproduct of doing something you are good at and/or that you enjoy. If you have found something that makes you happy when you do it you have already succeeded.
  21. Don’t worry about leaving a legacy. 99.9999% of us will be forgotten in just a couple of generations.
  22. Don’t spend too much time trying to please other people. Chances are they won’t notice. Or if they do, they’ll forget about it very soon.
  23. Pick up a crying baby. Life will batter us all soon enough.
  24. Sing every day, even if you don’t think you can sing.
  25. Don’t work for anyone or anything that makes the world a lot worse, even if it costs you money.
  26. Only buy the things that make your life better in some substantive way.
  27. Pay yourself in time. Work less if you can afford it, rather than making more money.
  28. Don’t vacation in other people’s misery.
  29. Don’t worry about what other people think about you. Chances are, they don’t at all. Or if they do they will soon forget you.
  30. Know who has gone before you. Know who your ancestors were, and what they were like. You are a product of and a response to all that has come before.
  31. Do at least one thing every week that isn’t part of your regular routine, physical or mental habits. Read, talk to, walk, experience something, someone, somewhere outside your bubble.
  32. Air is alive. It carries information and emotion. It tells you where you are, who you are with, what is going on around you. Only use air conditioning as a last resort.

Unquantified, for right now

It didn’t feel right to just let this site sit unattended for so many months.

For right now, it has served its purpose.

I kicked my tracking habit, mostly. I still use my FitBit on days when I work, to make sure I walk around six miles a day. That’s really to make sure I get enough sunlight and balance out all that sitting at a desk. While I could just estimate the distances, using the FitBit means I don’t have to count blocks.

I no longer do any of the other tracking and my life hasn’t fallen apart in any way, shape or form. I’ve traveled more this year, done more, gone to more concerts, read more, explored more, lived more.

The other impetus for The Unquantified Self was my annoyance with the idea that somehow devices would save our health, and bring about some gigantic sea change where we all change our habits, diagnose our problems and fix them ourselves. This idea has mostly lost traction. And more, all the overhyped tech is in retreat. Nike’s Fuel Band is quitting. The Apple Watch is no longer sold on its abilities to self-track. There’s increasing awareness that most people don’t stick with tracking and those who do are the worried well, not the sick. And those who track have realized that their data isn’t particularly useful in pinpointing the causes of any problems. The whole ‘movement’ has lost steam – going out with a whimper rather than a bang.

So for right now, I don’t feel like I have a ton to add.

But if I do notice anything particularly annoying, I’ll call it out.

Nowhere to go but everywhere

The not-so-secret belief behind the Unquantified Self is that once we disentangle ourselves from the impulse to contain and control our lives by measuring everything, all the time, we could refocus that energy on living more adventurously.

Which of course is always easier said than done.

I have the crazy good fortune to work freelance, and to make enough money even if I just work seven or eight months a year. I know I need to be more daring with that non-working time. I used to take on every little job, and dissipated much of that time with half-days and quarter-days worked. I also used to worry a lot, and spent that time obsessing over where the next job would come from instead of just letting go. But after three years of living this unmoored life I’ve gotten more confident.

Which is why I set off to go backpacking in the Republic of Georgia in June, by myself, without husband or child. I’ve loved Georgia from afar for 26 years. I also haven’t traveled anywhere by myself for 22 years, apart from a few smaller North American forays. There was of course some tentativeness to this trip, a trip I have been planning in my head for so many years. Could Georgia live up to my exalted expectations?

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The short answer is yes. I won’t go into long detail. This is not a travel blog. A week of small and large revelations, beauty, friendliness, compulsive walking with a cause (over 20 miles a day\). I finally got to use the crummy amounts of Georgian I had still stuck in my head after all those years. I will be back, soon. This was just the beginning.

Later that summer, Scotland and England. Family vacation to a country I once lived in. I went back to Oxford and got my master’s degree [long story]. Stayed in my London apartment [long story].

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Summer has been brilliant. And I haven’t tracked much. Only my sleep. And distance. Those I cannot help.

I know that this unmoored life can’t and won’t continue forever. I’ll go back to work. I’ll get fearful. I’ll worry. Some things will fall apart.

But for right now I am immensely grateful for a brilliant, flawless Spring and Summer, beautiful, footloose, serendipitous.

Gurus vs rock stars

One of the unquestioned assumptions behind the various health and fitness philosophies that are being peddled everywhere is the idea that we all want to live to a ripe old age. And even more than that, we want this to be “quality aging”, i.e. with only the smallest amount of physical and mental decline, bright as buttons, still running half-marathons in our eighties.

Whether or not this is a worthy goal is a question I’ll leave for another day, but the obsessive focus on life extension gave me an idea. Why not get a little competitive with this? Let’s pair a team of health gurus with a team of people who’ve had perhaps a slightly less healthy life but a whole lot more fun, like rock stars. Obviously we’d have to wait a few more decades to see how this entirely unscientific experiment plays out.

But in the meantime, let’s do some retrospective pairing:

Health and fitness gurus

Jack LaLanne (exercise and diet guru) died at 96

Roy Walford (Caloric Restriction guru) died at 79

Barry Groves (low carb guru) died at 77

Robert Atkins (low carb guru) died at 72

George Ohsawa (macrobiotic guru) died at 72

Jerome Irving Rodale (organics and Prevention guru) died at 72

Adelle Davis (supplement and health food guru) diet at 70

Nathan Pritikin (low fat guru) died at 69

James Fixx (fitness guru) died at 52

Rock stars

“Fats” Domino (not really a rock star, but you know what I mean) – 86, still living

Chuck Berry – 87, still living

Little Richard – 81, still living

Willie Nelson, 80, still living

Leonard Cohen, 79 – still living

Bill Wyman, 77 – still living

Jerry Lee Lewis, 77 – still living

Keith Richards – 70, still living

Mick Jagger – 70, still living

Patti Smith – 68, still living

Iggy Pop – 66, still living

Lou Reed  – died at 71

Would you take lifestyle advice from this man?

Or this man?

I know it’s not a fair comparison. But still, let’s ask ourselves the question: should we eat only coconut oil for breakfast every day and spend precious minutes obsessing over whether that bit of canola oil on our toasted seaweed will throw off our omega 3 balance, or should we stay up late, get a little drunk, sing out of tune, say things we shouldn’t say, wear pants that are too tight and lipstick that’s a little too bright?

David Johansen/Buster Pointdexter, ex New York Dolls, still chipper at 64

The ultimate tracking tool

I was talking to my friend Scott the other day. He is what you could call a gadget athlete, very into the idea of tracking, and a master of the latest device, but not actually doing much exercise beyond walking to and from the train. But his latest purchase left me genuinely awestruck.

There, right next to his Nike FuelBand, was the Tikker – a tracker whose sole purpose is to count down to your death. It counts down the years, months, days, hours and seconds that you have left.

Its point is to be a constant reminder that time isn’t fungible, but a good that’s becoming scarcer every day. It reminded me a bit of Darren Almond’s clock installation – the quietly urgent tick tock that can be heard behind all the din.

It is of course mostly a gimmick. Actuarial tables can’t predict when you die nor will a watch. And I am hoping you are already doing some seizing of the day. And really, isn’t almost everything a waste of time, evanescent, gone without a trace? Isn’t that the bitter-sweetness of the human condition?

But it is a brilliant rebuff to so many trackers already out there (and having checked into CES, we ain’t seen nothing yet). It says, to me, that whatever you happen to track, it’s all futile in the end, we’re all just counting down to when our number is up.



Kicking tracking, no picnic

Time for a bit of a personal update. I set out to so confidently last September to get rid of all the numbers, spreadsheets and devices. I mean, how hard could it be to just … be normal?

Not so easy, it turns out. For a while, everything went well. I walked because I wanted to walk and didn’t worry about hitting x steps or y miles. I ate what I merely guessed were reasonable amounts of food. I no longer did complicated regression analysis on my numbers. I stopped reading most health and fitness blogs and feeds and forums – they mostly all just say the same things anyway. I also mostly didn’t step on the scale, just using my clothes to gauge my weight.

This did free up a considerable amount of time and mental real estate. I read more history books (norse, Mesoamerica) and went to see more concerts (early music, experimental/noise) and just generally got more curious about life again.

I started using a teeny little service that asks me once a day to write a short list of all that was good on that day, creating a log of my small and large adventures. It takes less than a minute and there’s no quantification or further analysis.

So far so good, at least until January. I was working a really big freelance gig, for a very large company, helping to create a new program that’s hugely important for them. Crazy hours, lots of redeye flights, living out an admittedly pretty awesome cafeteria (uni, anyone?). Projecting confidence and nonchalance. Transmitting energy and optimism.

No, I didn’t gain weight. But I just had to start tracking and counting steps again. I know it’s crazy and makes no sense. Just that feeling that my life could go out of control made me reach for the comfort of my numbers.

And now the project is over and done, and I’m still tracking. Because after every big project comes a bout of existential angst – will I ever get another gig? Will I be able to feed my family? Why are we here? What should I do with my life?

I love my freelance life, but it is a rollercoaster, and this stupid, pathetic tracking habit seems to be the price I’m paying.

In my defense I will say that I’m spending much less time on it and don’t obsess over the numbers as much. Plus, I’m still doing more adventuring and aimless wandering. And I’ve booked myself for a trip to Georgia, by myself, in June. Which means I’ve dusted off my Georgian phrase books and grammar and been plotting routes. Maybe that’s the next time I’ll un-track? Wish me luck.

Artist: Roman Opalka

On wanting

There’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for the last few months and I can’t for the heck of me figure out the answer. I could use some help, or at least some strong opinions.

I’ve stopped wanting things.

I don’t know whether that’s a good thing – some kind of enlightenment, or a bad thing – a state of mild depression.

I used to want things so badly. Wanting’s been the fuel that powered my engine. It’s done amazing things for me.

When I was a miserable, scared teenager in some god-forsaken village who dropped out of high school I ached for a very different life. I ached to lo live in London or New York City, to have friends, to have a cool apartment – I wanted it so badly. When I was lonely and poor, I wanted to not be lonely and poor anymore.  I wanted to find another human being to whom I could open up to. I wanted to be able to talk to people without feeling deeply scared or ashamed. I wanted to go to a great university. I wanted to study art and have my work in galleries. I wanted to quit working for other people and be in charge of my own life. Work whenever I want for whoever I want. Take time off, and do things I love.

Want, want, want.

Much of it seemed impossible at the time, but I wanted it all so freakin’ badly, I made it happen, every single last bit of it.

And now, I’ve stopped wanting things. And I’m not sure if I like it.

I got a great life. A lovely husband, and a strange marvel of a kid. I try and make the world around me a little better – I volunteer for a couple of causes, and also help out in other informal ways. I’m ridiculously grateful for the big things and the little things. Music, art, nature, walking, talking, food.

And yet.

That existential ache for something you don’t have is such good kryptonite. It makes you jump out of bed in the morning. It gives you energy. It forces you to do things you’re scared of. It gives direction. It makes emotions more extreme.

I miss it.

I don’t know what happened.

Is not wanting anything anymore good (some kind of nirvana)? Or is it bad (some kind of anhedonia)?

redon, grand palais, le noyé