Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Walden Ought to Come With a Warning Label

I’ve been reading Walden this summer. I take it slow, just a few pages each day because it’s like drinking good scotch: a little taken at a time is a delight, a lot all at once leaves me hung over and unsure what I said the night before. Still, even in moderation, I’ve decided that Henry David Thoreau is dangerous and shouldn’t be taken lightly. There ought to be a warning sticker on the front cover of the book saying that it is likely to confuse and make the reader question most everything they’ve ever known or thought.
So it has been with me.
Take yesterday as an example. Thoreau was writing about how much money he had invested in his house and comparing that with what other men invest in theirs. I was reading it but thinking of all the things I consume. Already, by the time I was reading that section, I had made a cup of coffee that morning and realized that I need another bag of beans which cost $13/pound. I then drove to and from summer school, drove my daughters to my parents’ house, went for a $3 espresso macchiato, met my wife and went to a bakery where we spent nearly $20 on a loaf of bread and a couple baked goods, and then drove back to get my children from my parent’s house. I was figuring out the totals on this and regretting all that consumption even as I made dinner, had a drink of Irish whiskey, and then drove all of us to the ice cream shop for cones. I never got around to buying that bag of coffee beans but if I had, that would have brought my total consumption for the day up over $50.
Thoreau had me seeing the nonsense inherent in the day’s activities. He had me questioning everything I had done and everything I tend to do day to day.
This morning I got up, showered, came downstairs. I started to reach for the coffee and filter but stopped because Henry was asking if I really wanted to consume more stuff. I closed the cupboard door. Since then I have driven to and from summer school and been drinking water that I got from the drinking fountain there. I had a bowl of muesli back home and wanted a cup of coffee but couldn’t get Thoreau out of my head enough to make a cup of the stuff.
He’s even got me thinking about how much hot water I used this morning, the razor blade I shaved with and the foam over which the blade passed. I’m thinking about the electricity it takes to keep this laptop going. I’m noticing more than I have before and to tell you the truth, it’s pissing me off something fierce.
There is bliss in consuming things without equating the cost of those things with the amount of my life I have sacrificed in order to have them. This laptop is a phenomenal machine, a great tool, but it also cost nearly $1500 and that’s some serious luxury. It’s worse when I consider how much of my life I had to sacrifice at work in order to make this machine appear in my lap. In many ways, I would rather not be teaching summer school. If I spent $250 on a machine instead of $1500, that becomes more likely.
I calculated yesterday that if I spent ten fewer dollars a day, that would make me $3560 richer and keep me out of summer school if that’s what I would like. Ten dollars saved each day sounds like it would be pretty tough to do. I mean, we don’t live so ostentatiously that it’s obvious where to save. Then again, we did spend almost $50 yesterday and there is the matter of how much this machine cost.
It’s no good to regret what is done. I’m thrilled to have this machine and I write more because I have it. A workmen should invest in his tools. Nor am I overly concerned with what I spent yesterday, though I’m concerned enough to not want to repeat that behavior today.
Walden just has me thinking deeply about the things on which I spend money (and life). Those things should be vital as in they should add to my life in significant enough ways to justify their cost.
Thoreau has got me looking, he’s got my eyes open and connected that to my brain. He has me thinking about long-term consequences and the ways in which small decisions such as going out for coffee have larger effects on happiness and life than I had thought before.
I miss being blissfully ignorant and feeling trapped in the simple fact that I had to teach summer school. Realizing that it’s all a choice, well that just sucks. Damn you, Henry David Thoreau and your cabin in the woods. Although, I can’t blame you too much. If I had a little place like that near a pond, I couldn’t help myself. I would write on and on and on.