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Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Praise of Slowness

This book is about disconnecting from the fast pace of life that has taken over in modern times and taking control of how you spend your time.  Carl Honore is a journalist by trade and he writes in a journalistic style which I found disconcerting until I'd almost read the whole book.  The problem with a journalistic style is that you write as if you are presenting a group of facts to shed light on a topic that the reader may be unaware of or misinformed about.  The trap that Honore keeps falling into is that he presented each of his subjects as if he were exposing growing trends.  Looking back to 2004 when the book was published, life hasn't changed for most of us and in fact since the financial crisis most of us are more pressed for time than ever.  I thought this book deserved a harsh spanking by Jack Shaffer until I realized that Honore was writing an essay, an ode to a way of life and a way of seeing time that he found ideal.  Once I finally realized what he was doing I started to love this book.

For example, the first part of life that Honore explores is slow food.  He discusses eating fine meals at a European pace, interviewing chefs, foodies and some fine folks from a "slow food movement".  However since this story came out, fast food restaurants are slinging out more meals than ever, at least according to numbers I've read.  I'm sure that most of us would love to sit down and enjoy a fine meal but the pace of life just doesn't allow it all of the time as I will explain as I go more in depth into how I've explored this  set of essays.

One more word of caution for those of you who decide to give this book a peek, the slow lifestyle that Honore espouses in this book is mostly for the wealthy.  I know that there are hordes of people stuck in terrible abandoned manufacturing towns just trying to get by, there are others who are battling warlords and trying to pack out bags of selenium mud just to feed their family.  For those who share my liberal sensibilities the stark contrast of what's really going on in the world and the way Honore uses his style to show fast living as a problem make him look like an out of touch elitist.  I'm not so sure that allowing more people to work a French style workweek is the hot agenda item on most people's table and the fact that this book seems oblivious to that made it seem elitist to me.  It seems as if in every chapter Honore made a point to state that slow living is not just for the rich but it seems like all of his ideas would be far out of reach for the mass of desperate men who would be happy to have a bit of factory work and a couple of hot dogs.

The book is broken down into chapters of slow food, slow driving, slow neighborhoods, slow sex, slow child raising, slow working,slow exercise and slow leisure.  Whew, quite a heaping helping of ideas and ideals and I'm not sure you could do it all without a European style social net or an inherited couple of million dollars.  I've tried to apply many of the ideas into my life with mixed results.

For example I've made a serious effort to avoid restaurant food and take my time eating and paying attention to portion size.  I had a physical last month and a follow up this month, I've lost a bit of weight, not a significant amount but more than a rounding error and my blood pressure is significantly lower.  Maybe Mayor McCheese doesn't have my best interests in mind after all.  I've tried slow driving, that is driving defensively and at the speed limit.  I keep records on my gas mileage and honestly it's worse than ever.  This one is a hard one to guess on, is driving a bit faster and keeping up with the bulk of traffic actually faster and more fuel efficient?  It may be, after this tank I'm going to switch back to my old ways of driving the same speed as everyone else and see how the mileage holds up.  I know there may be a safety advantage to being a bit slower but it's really hard to tell if just blending in with traffic or putting the needle right at the limit is the safer strategy,  plus I'd need to drive for 10,000 years to see which way really made the difference.  For now I'm leaning away from the slow driving.

Slow sex?  Well I'll just keep that to myself except to say that it's different, and sometimes trying something different after you've been married for ten years is good.  I've also been trying the slow child raising and letting the kids have a bit more room, I actually think we're all getting along a bit better so this is another keeper.  I've been trying the slow exercise too, basically this is weightlifting and so forth going at a snails pace.  I haven't noticed a huge change in my fitness level but it does feel good.

The slow neighborhood idea is just out of reach, and probably out of reach for most everyone.  We all want a house with a big yard in a friendly walkable neighborhood.  Of course that is just an impossible dream because big yards just make that store or movie theater a couple of miles further than it would be in a city, and the other aspects of city living are about as opposite to a slow lifestyle as can be imagined.  As part of this section though he discusses a planned community called Kentlands in Maryland which he described as an idyllic break from urban sprawl that residents were loath to leave.  I have to admit after checking out a Google search that at this point home values and quality of life seem to have held up there.  I think our problem may be that cities in the East were built before people could plan for cars and cities in the west were built before people knew that they wanted to spend some time outside of the car.  For now though living in a walkable neighborhood with the advantages of suburban life is a rich man's pleasure, I doubt anyone is willing to bulldoze Nashua and start all over.

So the book had it's highs and lows, it's an passionate plea for a lifestyle that I'd love to implement.  Ultimately though I think that if improving the human condition is the goal, we should be looking elsewhere first.

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Hey I appreciate you leaving your thoughts behind! Be well my friend.