On a recent trip to Nicaragua I bought a really nice hammock. Top of the line, wide, densely woven, comfortable, it hangs from hefty hooks on my front porch and brings murmurs of admiration from my guests. Now that’s a hammock!
In the six weeks since I hung it at the beginning of May, I’ve lain in it a total of five minutes. Now that we’ve passed the longest day of the year and the days are growing steadily shorter, I’m trying to remind myself to find hammock time before fall’s chill winds prompt me to wrap it in plastic and store it in the attic.
Maybe my problem before I bought it wasn’t so much lack of a hammock as the fact that I live a hammock-free life. As I begin to ruminate on this concept, my cell phone rings for the tenth time today.
The cell phone costs me per month what the hammock cost. I’m trying to imagine what life was like before anyone who had the slightest urge to get a hold of me, could. I’ve heard that in China almost everyone has a cell phone, but most people can’t afford voice, and use much cheaper text messaging instead. That might be a better option for most of the calls I get. At least I would feel less compelled to take the call, or guilty about turning the phone off for extended periods.
Most people, myself included, expect that our life circumstances will someday change on their own and give us what we need or want when we need or want them. There will come a time when we’ll have finally arrived at the right place and suddenly peace will descend, like a blessing. The phone will stop its constant ringing. We’ll make like Thoreau and while away an entire day watching the sun and shadows cross the lawn, digging, as he put it, “the bloom of the present moment.”
Based on everything I’ve seen in my own life, and the lives of others, conditions or circumstances aren’t going to make that come about. A simpler, saner life comes from choices we make today. The New Yorker once ran a cartoon of an executive newly arrived in heaven complaining to a fellow executive, “I only wish I’d wasted less time with family and more time making the really big deals.”
In the 1960s the pianist Liberace found himself exhausted by his touring schedule and decided to cut back. So he doubled his prices, thinking that would halve his dates. To his surprise, he found that he remained just as busy, but was now making twice as much money. Two lessons can be surmised from this: 1) the marketplace will never suggest you’re under-pricing your services unless you’re willing to risk an experiment. 2) Others will not be able to give you what you really want and need. You have to figure out what that is and dare to ask for it.
The illusion that everyone from cell phone purveyors to the cable company is peddling consists of our need to know things RIGHT AWAY! What if you were out of the loop when something important happened? What if you were the poor sap who got laughed at the office or playground for not knowing the most up-to-date celebrity or sports trivia?
Usually, I don’t enjoy listening to the car radio, but sometimes when I’m driving long distance I like to imagine I’m talking to Mark Twain. On my latest trip to St. Louis, I drove through Hannibal, which was frantically sandbagging itself against the floods that only the week before had ravaged Iowa.
I imagined trying to explain to Mr. Twain that if his most famous literary creations were alive today, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn might be helping sandbag, but would be wearing orange jumpsuits, as they would be living in the juvenile detention home, medicated for ADHD, and studying for their GEDs. In the long run, they’d be shuttled into the community college system, taking out student loans they could never hope to repay, eventually finding themselves dropping out to cook crank and serve 10 to 20 at the State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, only a stone’s throw from their original homes in Hannibal. Yes, the world has changed, Mr. Twain, and not much for the better.
I’d try to explain to Mr. Twain, the great travel writer, what a drag it is to swim through an ever-deepening sea of infotainment, or return from even a trip of two weeks and find a 20-pound pile of mail to wade through, as well as 50 phone messages to return.
He’d light a cigar, lean back into my hammock, and wink at me. “You know what to do,” he’d convey with that gesture. “Why don’t you just go ahead and do it?
You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.