We set our sights on grand goals–for me, the publication of a new book; my book tour down the Hudson Valley; ultimately, a “grand tour” of the U.S. though the Great Loop. But the great majority of our lives are filled with mundane minutiae. It’s hard not to lose motivation when the victories are so rare while the work is so frequent, unprofitable, and unacknowledged.
Toward achieving happiness we have choices. We can push our dreams and goals out of our minds in order to rid ourselves of the anxiety that comes with trying to attain them. (That strikes me as a pretty sad path). We can set goals and fight through the work that needs to be done, biting our lip and numbing our mind, while telling ourselves that the work will be over soon, and then our goal will be met. But over a timeline it seems like such a path would lead to an aggregate of annoyance for fleeting feelings of success. Or we can take what I think is the enlightened path, where we acknowledge that the minutia, the unacknowledged and unprofitable steps, are part of the whole experience of obtaining the goal, and try to enjoy those steps as part of the chosen experience.
Eleven years ago I read an essay in Farmer’s Almanac about Grace–a word I’d never really thought of before, especially in a secular sense. The author talked about how he used to loathe shoveling snow. As soon as the snow would pile up he’d get mad, then go out and rush through shoveling his driveway, taking the biggest shovelfuls he could lift in order to get back inside as quickly as possible. I remember he said that if you see your neighbor doing that, and you don’t like them, you should let them keep going on that way, because they’ll have a heart attack soon. (If you’re reading this blog I probably like you, which is why I’m trying to convince you not to act that way.) Anyhow one day the author of the essay was outside and suddenly he just had a change of opinion. He realized that picking up the heaviest scoops of snow didn’t get the driveway shoveled faster, because he tired himself out and had to rest. It also made his back hurt. Instead he started taking little scoops, and he stopped sweating, and then he stopped shivering. Then he wasn’t so uncomfortable or cold or achey. He looked around and noticed that it was actually quite beautiful outside as the snow fell. He realized he was getting exercise, which made him feel good about himself. He found himself even making little side paths just for the hell of it. After that, he didn’t look forward to snow falling, but he didn’t resent it either. He just acknowledged that when the snow fell, he had no choice but to go out and shovel it, and that he was equal to the task, so he might as well do it his way, enjoying what he could about it, because what possible benefit was there for him to deplore the idea of doing what he had to do before and while he was doing it? He called that Grace: doing what you have to do without complaining, in a mindful way, and even deriving some joy from what could otherwise be unpleasant. The essay struck me as really very wise, and for the last decade I’ve tried to follow the author’s advice. I think it’s helped me attain an aggregate of happiness that is far beyond what a person feels if they don’t enjoy how they spend the majority of their time.
For example, last Wednesday was a pretty average day. I had a neat dream that made me think at 5:45, and since I drifted awake, I decided to get up and start living. (If you hate the idea of getting out of bed in the morning because you’re afraid you’ll run out of energy and get yelled at over the course of the day, you’re probably not living gracefully). So I got up and started doing my Fives, as I call them: I wash exactly five dishes, put away exactly five articles of clothes from my hamper, practice a melodic progression on the keyboard exactly five times, do five sit ups, five push ups, and read five pages of a book. None of those things are themselves very taxing, and over the course of the day, if I do my fives five times, I’ve done 25 sit ups and push ups, read 25 pages, learned a melodic progression, done my dishes and put away my clothes. I enjoy going from task to task, thinking about how my hands or stomach muscles feel, or what my mind is thinking as I read. I feel like I’m Here, Existing, which seems to me so much better than having my mind somewhere else because I’m daydreaming because I don’t like what I’m doing because I’m working for someone else’s profit just to get money.
After each set of Fives I do a task which is mundane or boring or irksome–the minutiae of everyday life. I was done with my first set of Fives at 6 a.m. and I updated my Excel spreadsheet which has my list of receipts for expenditures for my book business, including the cost of building my boat for my boat tour. I updated the list and it took about 15 minutes and I thought “Why did I think this was going to be so irksome? Because I had to open a drawer and look at receipts and type them into boxes?” I found that so far this year I’ve spent $1,409 to purchase copies of my book, build a model of my boat, and build the plywood deck. I would normally pay 30% of my income to taxes at the end of the year, so keeping track of this amount (which is tax deductible) will save me about $400. Not bad for 15 minutes worth of work. I did my next round of fives.
Now it was 6:45 and although I hadn’t done much, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I’d done a fair amount of “over-and-above” work before most people’s alarms had gone off. Next I set about re-formatting my new book, Siren Song, so that it will have a title page, a blank page, and then the page numbers would start on the first page with text. First I tried to figure out how to reformat the Word document by clicking on the drop boxes in the toolbar. I didn’t want to Google how to do it and have to find different answers and read them and click between the web browser and the document, reading and following the directions on a help page. But then I did, and discovered that you can divide a Word document into sections using the Headings tab, and number them independently. I made a section including two blank pages, then the title page (so that the title page would appear, like in a book, on the right-hand side after the reader flips one blank page, then an empty page on the left, so that the text would begin halfway down the middle of the next right hand page.) Then I had to Google how to delete the numbers from the first section (which was complicated). After completing and saving the formatting of the draft I signed into CreateSpace, the publishing website, and uploaded the file. They have a proof-reviewer after the document is uploaded. In reformatting the book I’d added an extra page after the title, so the text began on the left page after a full blank page after the title page. Etc. I edited and re-uploaded the draft six times, each time taking several minutes for the draft to upload. I began to wonder if I would get the draft finished before I had to set out for the day. With some luck, just after 8 a.m. (1 hour and fifteen minutes later) I got the document uploaded, the cover designed, and the whole package submitted for final review to the publishing outfit. Review takes 24 hours, and when the book is done I can publish it on Amazon and Kindle. (I have to charge $4.99 to make 84 cents per copy; I will be lucky if I sell 100 copies of the book, called Siren Song, about leaving my employment at the New York State Assembly. So this hour, added to maybe 300 other hours, will bring me in maybe $84. That comes out to about 28 cents per hour–though theoretically I could always sell more copies. (If it wasn’t for grace and patience I could never be a writer.)
By now it was a few minutes past 8 a.m. and I had to leave by quarter to nine to meet my friend Sam at Lowes to get some materials for finishing the construction of the deck of the new boat (which I will use for a book tour down the Hudson Valley in August). So I had about 35 minutes, which I used to edit and post a picture I’d taken two days earlier with Tess Collins, who runs McGeary’s and used to own the Lark Tavern, which was the best bar in Albany, and in which several scenes in my book are set. I emailed myself my picture, then realized it was in my “i-cloud”, but then I had to edit the picture and save it so I could post it on Facebook, and then I struggled trying to tag McGeary’s and the old Lark Tavern page (though it was easy to tag Tess)–so the post took 30 minutes–another piece of minutiae. But, as with the other minutiae that morning, it has the potential to be profitable: the post got 6 shares and 160+ likes, many from people who I do not know, through Tess’ page, who now know about the book. If five people buy the book as a result, I’ll earn $24.25, which isn’t bad for a half-hour’s worth of minutiae.
By 9 a.m. I’d driven to Lowes in Glenmont for the next step that no one will see when the boat is finished. I had to buy a piece of 15/32″ plywood, two 2X4s, 25 3-1/2″ bolts, nuts, washers and a 1/4″ drill bit. I didn’t have a way to transport the plywood with my 2001 Ford Taurus, but my friend Sam met me and we loaded it onto his car’s roof rack. By 9:50 we’d driven the materials to New Baltimore. By 10:10 we’d carried all of the materials out of my parent’s workshop, lined up the canoes, and put the parts of the deck together on top. So 4.5 hours after waking up, I could finally begin the physical work for the day. My goal was to build the bow of the deck, which, like the back portion of the deck, had to sit higher than the middle of the deck, in order to allow for the rise of the canoes at their bows and sterns.
We began by building a simple wooden square, which will be bolted to the center deck and extend between the canoes forward to support the foredeck.
The battery in the picture is keeping the square from falling off. The final boat will have a cable running from the bow of each canoe under the deck as a suspension support. For added support we cut two lengthwise beams running from the bow of each canoe back to the deck. These required a little math to make the correct cut at the front of each beam to allow for the “rise” of either canoe (the two canoes are different brands and rise at different angles.)
Next we built cross-wise braces, and then we screwed the plywood on top and cut it at angles in order to match the shape of the aft deck.
Here is a picture from the opposite angle:
The angles need to be cut and sanded into a prettier shape, but by now it was 1 p.m. and we had to take everything apart and store it in the work shed. By this point in the day I’d been up since 5:45 doing minutiae items and the only “progress” anyone besides me would observe was that I’d built a small front deck for my boat.
I drove back to Albany and slept from 2-3 p.m. before getting ready for work. I worked 4-9:45 and earned $168 dollars from the job that pays my actual bills. By the time I got home, my girlfriend was asleep (she works 8:30-5 in an office), so I kissed her goodnight, then worked on this blog post from 10:30 to midnight. I did not complete it but by midnight I was exhausted, and I wanted to get up by 7 a.m. the next morning, because there is always more work to do, so I went to sleep.
In the past, on boat projects like these, I’ve often felt overwhelmed. But in the past on boat projects like these I was working at the Assembly working 60+ hour weeks, whereas now I work about 32 hours per week. I’ve got a lot more flexibility in how I spent my time. But the main improvement is that nowadays I don’t think of my job, or driving to Lowes, or making expense reports, or cleaning, working out, reading or practicing piano as obligations. Rather, I’ve got hobbies and goals that I want to experience, and an experience includes all of the preparation. I often joke that at 32 years old I’m “semi-retired.” But if you go through your life gracefully performing the minutiae of daily life, it doesn’t seem like work, and since I don’t seem to be doing work, I do feel like I’m retired. Ironically I’m probably more productive now than I’ve ever been, but I feel like I’m playing around all day. So the point of this post is that you can really get a lot more pleasure from life if you own what you’re doing and don’t think of it as toil. Your moods become more even, you get more accomplished, time seems to last longer, you become proud of the miscellany you’ve finished, you’re more mindful, you sleep better…all of that adds up to being happier and healthier.