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Reflecting on relationships for a good life

Following up on my reflections on Aristotle, I’ve been thinking: what kinds of relationships can help me build a good life, and how can I help others in turn?

Aristotle distinguishes among relationships for utility, pleasure, or virtue. I have friends whose company and conversation are agreeable. There are a few whom I would go out of my way to help. I’d like there to be more of the last category. Getting to know acquaintances more will probably turn up a few, and I’ll likely bump into more with time and familiarity.

I get along the best with people who are positive, self-efficacious, and temperate. I’m biased towards people who are confident and articulate. This probably means I’m missing out on appreciating otherwise awesome people. I feel a little odd and uncharitable that I don’t feel that kind of appreciation about lots of people – I can wish them well and be nice to them, but there’s something missing there. C’est la vie, I suppose. Something to work on from my end, or perhaps to accept. Anyway, Aristotle says it’s quite rare to have good friends.

It would be interesting to have a lunch or dinner club of maybe six to eight people, meeting once a month or so. What kind of conversation would help us grow? Maybe something like “Here’s what I’ve learned so far about life; here are the things I’m figuring out; I need help with this; I can help with that; let’s make a difference in this; what did you think about that?” Different perspectives on the same things, similar perspectives in different situations… Many things are improved by conversation.

What would I bring to something like that, and to the individual friendships that comprise it? The basics might be location, food, organization. I tend to be cheerful, rational, and research-oriented. I’m getting better at sharing what I think, and at structuring and doing small experiments to learn. It might be interesting to connect with other people who like taking a step back, thinking about stuff, and then stepping back in and doing things.

If I found such people, though, would I share what I’ve been thinking about? I’m biased towards writing online instead, since the asynchronicity lets me think at my own pace. Online, I can reach more people and receive more insights. When I’m in conversation, I tend to listen to what’s going on in people’s lives instead of talking through what I’m trying to figure out. I prefer groups because of variety and lack of obligation (I don’t have to carry as much of the conversation), but I also tend to step back even further into the background – I guide the conversation with questions instead of adding my own tidbits. So there’s probably work to do there too. I wonder what a well-running potluck club would look like…

Hey, wouldn’t you know it… There’s actually a book called The Philosopher’s Table: How to Start Your Philosophy Dinner Club. Requesting it from the library.

Anyway, how would I need to develop in order to bring more to and get more from conversation? It might be interesting to ask about my friends’ lives, and share more from my life (more like “Here are some odd things I’ve been learning; maybe they’ll be useful to you” rather than “me me me me”). I can practise that even without major changes. I can also invite people to things and check with them more often to see if they have plans. Maybe people might even be up for trying a few months of this dinner club thing.

It’s okay to clear the garden and start again

Around this time each year, with the heat of summer sending the lettuce to seed and sending us indoors, I usually fall out of love with gardening. I don’t feel like cooking, so the herbs go unharvested. The lettuce, spinach, and other greens bolt, going bitter and sending up more flowers than I can pinch off.

Having neglected to harvest as much as I could have, I tell myself I’ll just let them go to seed so that I can collect and replant those seeds. But then the garden becomes dry, overgrown, and scraggly, and slugs and other pests decimate the leaves. Only the tomatoes keep me interested throughout the season. If I’m lucky, I remember the rest of the garden in time to plant lettuce and peas for the fall.

This year, I’m trying something different. Seeds are inexpensive and plentiful. Instead of waiting for my lettuce to go to seed, I’ll simply pull them up and start new plants. This keeps the garden feeling more orderly, and gives me more sprouting to enjoy and look forward to. Maybe I’ll even walk to the florist at the corner and buy more seedlings to take advantage of the warmth and sun. Maybe beets or zucchini? I’m clearing a few squares at a time so that I can stagger the planting and keep things manageable. Perhaps the rest of the lettuce and the peas will have fully developed their seeds by the time I get around to pulling them up. I think this will be better than waiting for the whole box to finish. At least I’ll always have something on the go.

Someday, when I’m more of a gardener–perhaps when I have heirloom variants that are hard to find and easy to enjoy–I’ll look into saving seeds again. In the meantime, I’m still working on developing that summer-long habit of gardening, and I enjoy the exciting days of sprouting.

Where else in my life am I letting things go to seed unnecessarily? What else would benefit from pulling things up and starting fresh? Sewing, perhaps. I have a lot of scraps and patterns I haven’t looked at or used. Writing, too – lots of snippets and outlines that I haven’t fleshed out. Sometimes it’s good to clear things out and start again (perhaps with a smaller goal, perhaps with more deliberate attention). That way, the remnants of past decisions don’t weigh down enthusiasm.

How about your garden? How about your life?

Reflections on Aristotle, ends, and leisure

What are the ends I pursue, and how do I pursue them?

I agree with Aristotle in that my ultimate end is happiness. For me, happiness is more along the lines of equanimity or tranquility: being able to appreciate the good parts and being confident that I can weather the tough parts. From stoicism, I understand that things aren’t good or bad in themselves; it’s more about my responses to those things. So for me, a good life is one where I can respond as I want to and as I should.

More specifically, what would that good life look like, and what are the goals I want to strive towards?

One easy goal to plan for is a good financial foundation. It’s easier to act freely when you’re not worried about food or shelter. I also work on keeping frugal, moderate tastes and a detachment from things. “It’s just stuff,” W- and I say as we drop things off for donation or resist buying more things.

I value learning, too. I like feeling concepts click together, learning how to build more complex things. I particularly like it when I can use what I’m learning to save time, especially when I help other people avoid repetitive, mechanical work.

I enjoy learning and working the most when I can create something distinctive that takes advantage of an unusual combination of skills or experiences. For example, I like the social business consulting that I do because it’s uncommon for people to be interested in large organizations, collaboration, workflow, change management, data visualization, programming, and design. I enjoy working on Emacs or on self-tracking because both lend themselves well to idiosyncratic questions and personal curiosities.

I’ve been self-consciously writing about leisure for what feels like too many days now. I’m trying to figure out how I want to spend my time, since that’s a decision I’m going to make repeatedly over decades. My answers will change over the years, too, but if I think about it a little, I might be able to make better decisions.

Most of the time, we think of relaxation and recreation as ways to recharge ourselves so that we can get back to work with more energy. Aristotle prizes the contemplative life, where you use your leisure time not just to amuse yourself, but to improve.

What does that mean to me, though? For example, I could spend some time learning languages, or developing my drawing skills, or picking up a new technology. There’s so much more to learn about all sorts of other subjects. An easy answer to the question “What shall I do with my time?” might be to volunteer, but I would also want to do that with deliberation. What will help me grow, and what’s just a nice-to-have?

Let’s say that I don’t know enough to choose those topics from the beginning. How can I get better at observing myself and learning from how I use my leisure time? What would make a difference when I look back over a long life?

One of the things that has helped me a lot and that I’d like to get very good at is the ability to notice (as the Less Wrong community phrases it) that I am confused, and to explore that confusion. Reading helps me notice the gaps and find words to describe things, and writing helps me start to untangle the knots. If I keep getting better at this, then when I’m much more experienced, I might be able to spot opportunities for growth, catch myself before I make mistakes, and also help friends think through their own lives.

Learning various skills (tech, DIY, cooking) helps improve my self-efficacy. I can make more things myself, and I can imagine more things too. Besides, it’s fun, and occasionally economically useful.

I’m still not as keen on conversation and friendship as I probably should be, at least according to Aristotle. I enjoy conversations with W- most of all. I like the mix of practicality, growth, and whimsical puns. On occasion, I enjoy conversations with other people, especially those I think well of and want to support. Other times, I talk to people for variety and social exercise. I’m comfortable with that because I’m not trying to be popular, entertaining, or entertained. I don’t mind taking my time with the slow collection of interesting people I can learn from and help.

I can use my leisure time to learn how to prefer things that are good for me. For example, I’m working on that exercise habit. I’m sure that once I’ve gotten into the swing of things, I’ll be able to enjoy it – I just have to stick it out until then. I have much to learn about music, art, design, and literature, too.

I think a good life is one where I have the space, awareness, and control to respond to life the way I want to, and that I’ve learned to want what’s good for me. I’d like to be able to say, looking back, that I’ve deliberated on how I wanted to live and that I’ve lived pretty darn close to what I decided. We’ll just have to see how it all works out!

A long, long weekend

How do I want to spend my leisure time? I’ve been thinking about that a bit because we have a long weekend, and I have much more discretionary time during the week than most people do.

W- and I are both homebodies. During normal weekends, we typically spend a day focused on cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, and taking care of other little things around the house. That still leaves some time for walks, gardening, reading, writing, and watching the videos that we borrow from the library. During long weekends, we usually take advantage of the extra time and energy by working on household projects or doing a deeper clean. W- tends to work long hours, so when he’s not busy with work or gym classes, I prefer to spend the time with him instead of hanging out with other friends. Life is short, after all.

I also have some time during the week, when most people are busy working. I’ve been using that time to read, learn, exercise, and explore. From time to time, I hang out with friends. Last Friday, two of my friends were hanging out at a park, so I decided to join them. It was a leisurely afternoon of sunshine, idle conversation, and ice cream. In the evening, we watched a movie which turned out to be free because of projector issues.

I’m not always keen on conversation, so I don’t particularly like scheduling things and I can be reluctant to meet up or chat. If I can guiltlessly change plans – to wander in and out as I want – I feel much better about it.

Then there’s discretionary time when I’m alone, too. I usually spend this reading, coding, writing, or drawing. I’ve been feeling a little scattered lately. It’s hard to latch onto a question and follow it. Focusing on building habits around exercise and gardening seems to be helping, and exploring recipes is fun too. Fortunately, there’s a lot to keep making slow progress on while cultivating curiosity…

This is the year I’m going to build an exercise habit

This year, I am going to become the sort of person who exercises regularly. I’m not particularly concerned about reaching a certain weight, but I’d like to improve my strength and endurance. W- is helping me ease into the learn-to-run program he did at work. I’m also starting from the first rung on the fitness ladder from The Hacker’s Diet. Small activities like these don’t take a lot of time, and the gradual progression will help me build confidence.

I’d also like to turn more exercise activities into ones that W- and I can share. Krav maga isn’t my cup of tea, but I think I’ll like jogging and walking with W-. We can stretch or do some weight-training while watching videos. Biking is fun, too.

What does making fitness part of me mean? I think it means being in tune with how things work, paying attention to the details and the changes. It’s probably like the way daily gardening has changed my experience of the backyard compared to when I dabbled in it. I’m looking forward to trying more things and learning more.

Identity is a big factor when it comes to maintaining good habits. When you make something part of who you are, it’s easier to keep doing it, and it’s harder to neglect it. Here are some of the other identity changes I’ve gone through:

  • I changed from someone who takes transit all the time to someone who bikes whenever she can.
  • I changed from someone who hated writing for school to someone who enjoys writing for this blog.
  • I changed from someone who grew up around household staff (cook, maids) to someone who cooks practically all her meals and takes care of her own chores.

I have the time, space, and support I need, and it’s good for me. I can see the results of good habits and the consequences of poor ones. And I’m going to do it without gym memberships or other things like that. We already have all the tools I need, so I just have to do it. =)

The garden is becoming part of my daily life

I’m in the garden almost every day. Almost 40 hours in total since the beginning of April. It’s my new favourite transition activity before dinner. I plant, water, pick off bugs. I’m beginning to learn what leaves feel like when they haven’t gotten enough water and when they have. The oregano, mint, cilantro, basil, and lettuce are growing much better than they did in previous years. None of the snow peas have made it indoors yet, since I’ve been eating them off the vine. The tomatoes, zucchini, winter melons, and bitter melons haven’t hit their stride yet, but maybe during the hotter months.

I like filling the salad spinner with cut-and-come-again leaves. I should let some of the plants go to seed so that I can collect them for the next batch, but it’s too tempting to snip off the flowers in order to keep the current batch going. I planted a salad mix, so I have no idea what some of these are. I know bok choy, spinach, arugula. Peppery and red-veined? Probably beet greens. I’m relying on frequency here. If there’s a lot of a type of plant, it grows in a somewhat regular formation, and I don’t already conclusively know it’s a weed, it’s probably okay to eat. So far, so good.

I have salad every other day or so. Today I had three small bowls of salad all by myself (W- had the other bowl). I shook up a quick Asian-style dressing in a small mason jar and sprinkled sesame seeds on top. We don’t normally buy those boxes of salad mix, since I feel guilty about not finishing them before they have to go. If it’s still growing, I don’t mind, although I try to harvest leaves before the slugs and leaf-miners get to them.

The salad garden is doing so much better this year compared to last year. Frequent watering and frequent harvesting, that’s probably the ticket. I should make pesto this week. Maybe Wednesday. Basil likes being harvested often, too. =) I’ve been picking flowers off every day, but there are definitely enough leaves here to make a good-sized batch of pesto.

Nom nom nom nom nom…