Friday, December 28, 2012

How Do You Hug an E-Friend? (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

How Do You Hug an Electronic Friend?

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids aged eight to eighteen devote 1,600 minutes per week to watching TV, while the amount of time per week that a child spends in meaningful conversation with his parents is 3 ½ minutes.
            When I first read these statistics, I was speechless. It took some time to comprehend that if a child sleeps for eight hours, goes to school for about eight hours, then does “entertainment media” for the rest, his day is over, finished, gone. The frightening question came to mind, that if for half of his waking hours our child is told what to do and think by teachers, and for the remaining half, is told what to do and think by TV “personalities” and video gamesters, then when does the love of our life have time to be him or herself? When does our child have time to be creative or inventive, loving and caring, active and wild—in short: when does our child have time to be a child? And since it is mostly these characteristics that distinguish us from turnips, the question arises, when does our child have time to be truly human?
            Once we grow older, and our work and commute take up ten hours a day, another two hours we spend doing our chores of shopping, feeding, and cleaning—what SamuelBeckett called, “keeping up premises and appearances,”—five we spend staring brain-dead at the tube, and for the remaining eight we try to get some sleep, then when do we have time—or do we ever—to be ourselves? When do we manage to reflect on our lives, to discuss our dreams and worries with our friends, to exchange ideas, a joke or just a recipe? When do we have time to raise our children, love our dear ones, or just lend a helping hand?
            For while it may be true, as so many of us claim, that TV and video games are really “not so bad,” their true subtle insidiousness lies in what they replace, what they rob us of: real life.

Unleashing television on humanity was like crop-dusting our brains with Valium daily. No aspect of life went untouched: families, friendships, politics, religion, how we worked, what we ate, what we thought, were all permanently altered.
            Families that once shared interests and concerns, played some simple card game, or board game together, during which they talked, laughed, expressed their own ideas, now at best share the same TV. At worst they flee separately to their rooms to dissolve in front of their own TV set. Friendships and companionships have been watered down or abandoned. Instead of real flesh-and-blood Eddy next door or the kid down the hall, our pals have become little flashing lights.
            Politicians, who heaven knows were bad enough before, have mutated into TV personalities, whose appearance and joviality far outweigh their minds and hearts.
            Religion has been changing from quiet contemplation and prayer in humble churches into loud and belligerent ranting on the Tube.
            Television turned the natural world on its head. It was not just the misleading advertising based on the proven notion that you can fool most of the people most of the time, but the programs themselves taught us how much better it is to open a package and slam it into the microwave, or go out and buy a ready-made junk-burger, than to actually use our wits and imagination and create a meal on our own. TV made the natural world in which we once spent our lives seem inconsequential and dull.
            It also changed the way we think about our work. It glorifies and idolizes every single-brain-cell occupation from meaty men who kicked, hit, dribbled or drooled, to skinny women with incomprehensible expressions and identically retooled boobs and faces. Thus, if only by sheer exclusion, those doing work of true value to others—the farmer, the craftsman, the fisherman, or the artist who lived a productive, thoughtful life, were relegated to a quaint history.
            TV invented a new reality and, without a trace of irony, called it that. And we ate it with a spoon. We actually believed that a handful of people stuck on an island with a TV crew of fifty, and a thousand pounds of food were real Survivors. Up to that point it could be termed a stupid farce, but even worse was the barbarian premise that instead of pulling together as a group, as members of a society whose aim should be the well being of all, the “winner” would be the last one who “survived.”
            The slew of reality shows that followed were perhaps less vicious but equally unreal and even more embarrassing. People thrown together in resorts or on beaches, where the goal was to destroy an existing relationship, or to form an artificial new one under spotlights with cameras rolling, precluded any genuine human relationship and most emotions except for the occasional outburst of hysteria.
            And believing this to be reality, we began to adopt not only their mode of dress, but their emotional responses, moral values and even their thoughtless speech. When kids spend 1,600 minutes a week watching TV and less than 4 minutes talking to their parents, who can blame them for thinking and sounding less and less like live people and more and more like “reality” characters. Good thing it wasn’t the All-Lassie channel or by now they would be barking.

Most important of all, television told us that our families and friends are dull, and that our true joy and knowledge come from far away and only from the anointed few. Simple thousand-year-old traditions like storytelling, singing, and even gossiping, that had brought people together and allowed them to learn from each other, to entertain each other, to criticize and discuss, to form friendships and societies, fell by the wayside, replaced by the solitary, numbing, antisocial act of watching TV. As Mr. Davis, a college educated, amicable New Hampshire farmer, put so well, “Neighbors used to visit every night and talk. But those days are gone. The Tube killed people.”
            The New York-based Roper Organization’s study showed the frightening results. The single activity that most people look forward to daily is not human contact but watching television. Even during dinner, one half of population watches television instead of conversing with family they haven’t seen all day. And in times of trouble, we rely on TV to cure us; 35 percent of men said they deal with depression not by talking out or trying to think through their problems, but by watching television. Most heartbreaking of all, when a group of 4 to 6 year olds were given the chance to spend time with their fathers, 54 percent chose to watch TV instead.
            Some insist that watching television with others is a social act; compared to watching television by yourself, perhaps. But compared to talking and sharing feelings and ideas, compared to live unrehearsed human companionship, sitting in adjoining chairs watching television is about as socially interactive as squatting in adjoining stalls and dumping into the same sewer. I remember on various occasions having a great time talking and laughing at friends’ houses when someone came up with the idea of catching a favorite show. The conversation died, the sharing died, the faces all turned numb. You might as well have dropped a bomb in the room and blown us to the winds, our emotional distance had become so great.
            Still others insist that television actually gives us a social foundation; something common to talk about. This is true, but frightening. The bad part is not only that talking about Paris Hilton numbs the brain, but when we talk about these inanities, when we spend our time, thoughts and emotions on distant clowns, we are stealing precious attention and care from our loved ones, or our should-be loved ones—our family and our friends. It is probably safe to say that the average TV watcher knows more about the love life of his favorite TV bimbo than he knows about his children’s, and sadly enough, maybe even thinks about it more.
            And while our friends and loved ones suffer, we too often stand by idly, but are crushed with heartbreak when we lose Lady Di.

The sad proof of TV’s effect came from an expatriate friend at dinner not long ago. He is in his thirties, witty, pleasant-looking, impeccable education, speaks excellent Italian, yet he lamented about the loneliness of the Tuscan countryside, or more particularly about the difficulty of finding himself a wife. He had been living there for years, fell in with the social circles, both local and expatriate, was always invited to dinners, always circulating, but had remained alone. He told us about how depressed and tired he used to be, until he bought himself a television set. He now no longer feels so “compelled to look,” for he can “stay home alone and yet not feel lonely.”
            This sums up the insidiousness of television: it acts as every other drug or opiate; it makes us feel less lonely by making us believe that the face made out of flickering dots is somehow our friend. Well, it isn’t. It’s worse than an enemy. If the need really arose, if you really needed someone to make a bowl of soup or wipe a fevered brow, to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on, or someone to lie beside you and hold you in her arms, the enemy may—overcome by human compassion—turn into a friend or even a lover. But the flickering dots will flicker on uncaring, whether you live or die.

Perhaps the greatest damage is that without interaction, discussion, or feedback, only the power of presentation, we grow to distrust our own opinion, subjugate our instincts and convictions and actually fool ourselves into believing the most outrageous, self-serving media ravers.
            This willingness to accept what we are told, to endow with importance the inane and fake, and most crucial, our willingness to become inactive bystander, watchers, does not end when we turn off the beast. It lingers. We accept that we are helpless, so we become helpless. We lose our natural ability to entertain others and ourselves—a feat most seals and monkeys do with ease—and turn to the Tube. When enough of us are convinced that we are too dull for company, the vast entertainment industry is born. And when, through a lack of human contact, enough of us feel too inadequate to deal with each other, to settle problems face to face, then the vast legal industry is born, and when we don’t know how to spend and save, the financial behemoth is born that takes over the world.
            And when enough of us convince ourselves that someone else knows better about how the world should work, what is right or wrong, what is to be done, then we will be ready for another a Hitler to lead us. 
            Yet, we throw our children—at the earliest of ages—to this electronic wolf. What happens then is well described in The Washington Post: “Television is the dominant force conveying attitudes and values for the whole of society. Anyone who has ever watched television with a child knows firsthand how frighteningly influential the small screen can be in suggesting not only what to buy but also how to behave and speak and, indeed, what to think.”
            How TV can affect children’s minds was also reported recently in Business Week. “Researchers found that the branding of food product packaging with characters such as Dora the Explorer drives preschoolers to choose higher-calorie, less healthful foods over more nutritious options. The findings, reported online in Pediatrics, reflect on the food preferences of 4- to 6-year-old boys and girls who found foods tastier when the packaging bore the likenesses of beloved TV and movie characters.”

If I was mean-spirited, I would call that brainwashing.

So what to do?  Turn it off. It’s possible.

When Candace did her master’s program at The School of Visual Arts in New York, we lived in a tiny studio in Chelsea. I wrote part of the day, the rest of the day I was bored. I went and bought a Sony Trinitron. We hid it in a corner so it would not be too intrusive. Then we turned it on. It felt like an invasion. It felt as if a thousand salesmen had marched in through the door. The TV lasted one night. The next day, I sold the thing and began hanging out in art galleries, museums and bars.
            Last year, my long-time writing cohort moved with her boyfriend from Brooklyn to Manhattan and decided to skip cable TV. I asked her a few weeks later how life was without TV. “We look at each other more now. We go out more often to see friends and new places,” she said. “And we really listen to each other.”
            So turn it off.
            After a few days of barely controllable panic, you will not believe how much free time you’ll have, what far-ranging thoughts—some utterly antisocial, but very enjoyable—what interests, what great conversations, what calm, and sense of control you will feel. You will have reclaimed your life. You will be free. Free to lead a vibrant, passionate existence, not one broken into tight half-hour segments, three minute advertising breaks, and weekly time slots but your own life of wonderfully varied days, new weeks, real seasons, and unforeseeable, ever-changing, surprising lengths of time.

* * *

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit

Stay tuned for a new chapter post next week!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Vegetable Garden- part 1 (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Honor Thy Vegetable Garden

          When we landed in Canada we had but our clothes in one small suitcase and a hundred or so dollars my parents had saved by working the winter and spring in Vienna. We lived near Vancouver in a three-room attic with a view of the mountains and a mandarin orange crate hung out the window for a fridge. But we immediately found a treasure in my stepfather’s great uncle, Feribacsi. He had a place nearby that, even in retrospect, seems like paradise to me. His valley had once been full of small farms, and across the road a chicken farm still lingered, where you could take your battered egg car- ton and come back with it full of eggs, some still warm, some still with bits of straw sticking to the shell. Feribacsi lived with his wife, ildiko, in a small, one-bedroom house, perfectly kept and surrounded by vegetables and flowers, but it was the two acres of land behind the house that I really loved. There, beyond an orchard and an overgrown field, were the woods and, in them, an abandoned chicken coop.

          Many years before there must have been a clearing behind the coop, because there were no trees there, only waves of brambles washing over the roof and pouring in through the windows. One spring evening, Feribacsi announced that if we wanted to have our own vegetable garden, the bramble jungle behind the chicken coop was ours.

          We started hacking on a Sunday morning, my stepfather in the lead wielding a machete, my mother behind him tugging brambles with a rake, and me bringing up the rear with an army shovel, whacking away at berry roots that grew all the way to China. We must have looked laughable; three city slickers who had never touched a tool bigger than a toothbrush in their lives. Every evening after work, we picked up our weapons, and attacked. It was May. The northern evenings were long. There was still light in the sky as we walked home to our attic, tired as dogs but in stitches at my attempts at yodeling like Gene Autry. We slept well. We survived two weeks of hacking, sweating, and yodeling to clear that patch of dirt. Then we turned the soil. My God what soil it was. I was only eleven and knew nothing about humus or fertility, but there was something about that thick, black forest loam, the way it crumbled in your hand, the way its fragrance filled the air.

          We laid out the plant beds straight and even, each as wide as the pick handle was long, then we stomped down the paths to keep the weeds from growing, and then, on the tenth of June, three months to the day after we set foot in the New World, we seeded the black soil of our piece of land.

          For a week, we watered the barren soil each night, then walked home. I never said a word, but I had great doubts that anything would ever emerge from that empty dirt. Then one Saturday it happened. It was hot. The sun was high, the sky clear, and by late afternoon the cedar trees around us gave off a sweet fragrance I had never smelled before. I was near the garage helping Feribacsi wash his maroon 1954 Ford, preparing it for the Sunday drive, when a joyous cry from the chicken coop cut the air. We ran. My stepdad and my mom were leaning over the seeded beds, calling “Look, look!” I squatted by the beds and tilted my head sideways and saw, in the barren earth, lit by the sinking sun, standing in rows like miniature solders, delicate green shoots reaching toward the sky.

          It was a good summer. Dennis Mitchell and I made a fort in a hollowed stump, and in the evenings we watered and weeded our garden. By August it was lush with radishes and parsley and celery and onions; on Sundays, we went fishing in that shallow muddy creek, and to the relief of the whole family, I completely and forever lost my urge to yodel.

          Throughout that fall we were back behind the chicken coop, loading up on fresh corn, and green and yellow peppers, some of them so spicy they brought tears to our eyes, and parsnip and carrots and potatoes, or just sitting on the coop’s steps, still warm from the sun. And even on october evenings, when the northern winter reared its frosty head, that garden kept us together not behind the coop but in the attic kitchen. We canned.

          That piece of earth had provided food to last us through the winter. We spent the evenings gutting peppers, shredding cabbage to be pickled, slicing beets to be boiled, peeling little onions and stuffing them in Mason jars. We built shelves in the low part of the attic, where it was coolest, to house the rows of jars full of more colors and flavors than you can name. And through the winter months the garden remained with us. It was there at dinner each time a jar was opened with a pop, each time we crunched a pickle. It was there as clear as a summer’s day with, “Remember that damned shovel,” or “that huge melon” or “that slug.” it was there through the muddy spring on the cleaned-off kitchen table with the colored bags of seeds and carefully penciled plans of the beds, with so much designated for this, so much for that.

          Vegetable gardens held the family together for years, behind the coop, then behind our tiny house, then later behind the big house we built on a hill. But with each place, with each year it grew a little smaller, and with each place, with each year we grew slowly apart. The only meals we shared those last years were on holidays, and there was just a row of parsley left the year my mother died.

          Whether abandonment of the garden was a cause of the rift between us, or a symptom, who can say. But in those gardens there were special moments: a lot of good ones and probably more bad than I remember, but whatever else those gardens gave us, they gave us common ground. My mother had her own job and my stepfather had his, and I had school and sports and friends, and we all had our own problems, needs, dreams and fears, but in that garden we shared and shared alike, loved it and hated it, weeded, worried, and harvested all together. Perhaps that’s not much, but in a world as chaotic as ours, where ties between us loosened long ago, isolating parents, estranging children, and giving us so little common ground to share, then, at least looking back, that garden seems an island remote from senseless struggles, where not only could we shut the world out, but we could shut ourselves in—alone but together.

* * * 

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit

Stay tuned for a new chapter post next week!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor, Live Forever (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Love Thy Neighbor, Live Forever

“Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”
—Woodrow Wilson

You might think that neighborly togetherness and its casual daily exchanges are good for a once-a-year laugh and no more. Well, there is empirical proof that a supportive community goes way beyond being fodder for sitcoms.
For decades I have pondered the immeasurable value of friends. I have talked in various books about those childhood days in Vancouver, surrounded by good pals, and later by our neighbors, the Paoluccis, in Montepulciano, who literally adopted us and brought us up as good Tuscans, leaving out those few but precious nearly lifelong friends just thinking of whom makes me confident and secure. And all along I have tried to describe the importance of small and daily friendships, the sense of sanctuary you feel in a small community, where you are known and appreciated, where you feel sheltered, where you belong.
But all along I could describe only vague feelings of calm and happiness, and a sense of well-being those relationships can bring. You can imagine what a confirmation of these hazy hunches and intuitions it was to find a piece of medical and sociological research which actually quantified the health benefits and long life that a reassuring and nurturing community could provide.
A friend in New York who knew I was working on this book sent me an excerpt from the respected and bestselling writer Malcolm Gladwell and thought it would help. It was a chapter from his intriguing book Outliers. Not only did it help me in writing this, but it also convinced me that I hadn’t lost my mind.
Gladwell cites research done almost 50 years ago by Stewart Wolf, a physician who taught in the medical school at the University of Oklahoma but spent his summer months on a farm in Pennsylvania.
Near Wolf’s farm was the small Italian immigrant town of Roseto where, one day, he stumbled onto something his sociologist and co-researcher John Bruhn later called “magical.”
Roseto, Pennsylvania was named after Roseto, Italy a small medieval hill town in the rugged landscape of the southern region of Puglia, whose inhabitants eked out a living from a marble quarry and the terraced hillsides near the town. In 1882, in search of a better life, twelve of them sailed to America and found jobs in a slate quarry of eastern Pennsylvania. 
Following their success, Rosetans began to emigrate en mass. In 1894 alone, 1,200 of them applied for passports. On a rocky hillside of Pennsylvania, they began to build a town that very much resembled the one they had left behind; in the town square they built a church they named after the one in Puglia, on the narrow streets they built closely-packed, two-story houses with slate roofs, and, their main street they named after Italy’s national hero, Garibaldi.
In the last years of the century, an energetic young priest Don De Nisco gave a vibrant life to the new town. Gladwell writes, “De Nisco set up spiritual societies and organized festivals. He encouraged the townsfolk to clear the land, and plant onions, beans, potatoes, melons and fruit trees in the long backyards behind their houses. He gave out seeds and bulbs. The town came to life.”
When Wolf arrived more than fifty years later, he found a perfect social replica of an Italian town that his co-researcher Bruhn later described. "I remember going to Roseto for the first time, and you'd see three generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other… It was magical."
But the true magic lay in the health of the people of Roseto. The local doctor who had been practicing there for seventeen years told Wolf, “'I rarely find anyone from Roseto under the age of sixty-five with heart disease.”
This was back in the 1950s, long before broad knowledge of cholesterol when, “Heart attacks were an epidemic in the United States.” Wolf was skeptical but smitten. With the help of the local mayor who put not only the town’s council room at Wolf’s disposal but also the help of his four sisters, Wolf began to analyze physicians’ records reconstructing medical histories and family genealogies. He invited the whole town to be tested, blood samples, EKG’s, the works. They found the results astonishing. In Roseto, virtually no one under the age of fifty-five showed any signs of heart disease. For men over sixty-five, the death rate from heart disease was roughly half that of the US average. The death rate from all causes was about a third lower than it should have been. Bruhn recalls, “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn't have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn't have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That's it.”
The question of course was “Why?”
The hunt was on.
The first suspect was diet. They thought that their Mediterranean cuisine brought over from Puglia, high in olive oil, seafood, vegetables and fruit, might have caused them to be healthier than their fellow Americans. But that wasn’t true: the Rosetans no longer cooked with olive oil but used lard instead, their pizzas were heavy and besieged by salami, sausage, ham and even eggs: over 40 percent of their calories came from fat. They also smoked heavily. So much for health habits.

They next tried genetics. They traced down relatives of Rosetans in other parts of America to see if their good health matched. No go: Rosetan good health did not go past the boundaries of the town.
Next, they wondered if it was the Pennsylvanian hills that made the difference. Two nearby, same-sized towns, Bangor and Nazareth, were populated by similarly hardworking European immigrants. They scoured the medical records: for men over 65, the death rates from heart disease were three times that of Roseto.
After years of research, Wolf and Bruhn, stumbled on the answer to what made Rosetans healthy: it was Roseto; their town.
Gladwell eloquently concludes: “They looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2,000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.
“In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.”
So whatever you do, and however you do it, you should make a concentrated effort to forever love thy neighbor, and not because the Bible tells you so, but because it can lead to a longer and much healthier life.

          Perhaps Epicurus, the Athenian philosopher who died in 270 BC, was right when he wrote, “It’s not so much our friend’s help that helps us, as the confident knowledge that he will help us."

* * * 

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. For more about the author, 

please visit

Stay tuned for a new chapter post next week!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sunday, Lovely Sunday (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Sunday, Lovely Sunday

Just how much we have mutated in a mere generation is perhaps best exemplified by what has happened to our Sundays.
Not so long ago, our Sundays were devoted to flesh and blood people; the Sunday family drive, family picnic or dinner, and the Sunday visit with neighbors and friends were as American as apple pie. But that all changed. We have replaced people with material goods to such an extent, that the former US President no longer referred to his compatriots as “friends,” or “fellow Americans,” “Romans,” or “even “countrymen,” but simply, and unapologetically as “consumers.” And consumers we have become; 24/7.
Whereas Sunday was once for restocking our minds with fresh thoughts, insights and good conversations, for restocking our spirit and our imagination, it has lately become a day for restocking our closets. We once took nature walks in the revitalizing beauty of the sunbathed countryside, but we now walk mostly through the fluorescent light of the Mall. Or worse, we let our fingers do the walking on our keyboards to virtual stores where there is no day or night, and certainly no Sunday. 
Most cultures acknowledge the need for a Sunday. Whether it’s called Sabbath or Domenica, or as Emperor Constantine declared it in 321 AD, Dies Solis, the Day of the Sun, it had been a day when “the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and all workshops remain closed.” And it was viewed “not just a holy day of rest…but a Utopian idea about a less pressured, more sociable, purer world.”
For the religious the explanation was, “We rest because God rested on the seventh day… We rest in order to honor the Divine in us, to remind ourselves that there is more to us than just what we do during the week.”
The secular believed: “The Sabbath is to the week what the line break is to poetic language. It is the silence that forces you to return to what came before and find its meaning.”
I’m not advocating the declaration of recluse Sundays or—heaven forbid—a return to the Connecticut Blue Laws of the eighteenth century which, besides forbidding everything, prohibited kissing your baby, playing an instrument or telling a joke. But after a week of hectic yet mostly passive work, which for the bulk of us involves sitting at a computer, can we not feel our body and soul crying out for something completely different?
We used to leave the house and get physical on Sundays: hike, walk, bike, or play scrub baseball or touch football at the park, but now we spend inert internet hours adrift in a virtual world, or veg’ing out in front of the tube—the average adult for four hours, even on Sunday. By passing up physical exertion, not only do we rob ourselves of healthy exercise but also miss refreshing our brain with endorphins, “happy hormones,” which yield a feeling of well-being and even euphoria.
When we do move, it’s with the militant logistics of our workweek, hence, just as stressful; whether it’s Soccer Sunday or Little League Sunday, there is much planning and long hours of commute. And the sports our children play are no longer centered on socializing, sportsmanship, friendship or pure enjoyment, but, rather, one obsession: winning.
The Shopping Sunday is no better. While it might require a bit of movement, the stress of shopping is much like the stress of work, often worse—at work we can calm ourselves with the thought of making money, but shopping just casts us deeper into the anxiety of debt.
So the Sunday break is no break at all. Instead of being, for at least one day, not the consumer we have been trained to be but the person we really want to be; instead of separating ourselves from the demands of daily life; we simply dance the same old dance, sing another tired verse of the same old song.
It might behoove us to reflect on a eighteenth century quote from Elijah of Vilna. “What we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don’t have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less human. We have to remember to stop, because we have to stop to remember.”

Lazin’ on a Sunday Afternoon

As a kid, I used to wake up Sunday mornings when Tommy Flint next door yelled at the short fat dog he was trying to turn into a valiant Lassie. When Tommy leapt over the fence and ordered him to follow, Fat Dog just shook his head, ambled to a post, sniffed, and then had himself a little pee. That's when Tommy went ballistic and shook me from my dreams. Later his dad Ernie would shuffle over in his worn-out slippers, bum a cigarette from my mom, set himself down at the kitchen table, and nibble what was left of breakfast. While he discussed with my dad his garden or his Buick, my mom began cooking one of her epic Sunday meals.
Ours was a modest, working class Vancouver neighborhood with narrow lots, small gardens, two-bedroom houses, and trees to shade the sidewalks. On Sunday mornings the streets were peaceful and empty. Only chubby Eddy Emanoff would creak by on his old bike and, like some bemused Paul Revere, try to rouse the neighborhood to a ballgame at the schoolyard. Not a soul ever showed up before lunch. Eddy knew that, but he liked to creak about on that bike anyway, up the street and down the back lane, only to end up lying on our lawn trying to talk me into trading my Mickey Mantle card for some weird guy named Turk Lown.
After a Hungarian lunch of slow-simmered chicken soup, roast meats with paprika and sour cream sauce, a cucumber salad, and enough buttery, flakey, fresh-baked pastry to feed an army, I was out the door, my baseball glove in hand, running for the field with my mother shouting, “Be careful yourself! What happen if you die?”
Then we played ball. We had no teams, coaches, uniforms, or bases, only an old chipped bat and a few gloves that we shared, and the school yard was no well-manicured diamond but an old soccer field of gravel and dusty weeds. The gravel caused unexpected bounces in the gut and privates but you got used to that—what irked you was the short, right-field fence less than two hundred feet away. And Al Crowder. The bastard hit left-handed. Squinty little eyes, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and bang—a home run. John Hardy would climb the fence when Crowder came to bat, but bloody Crowder never hit right to him, so Hardy would end up talking to Mrs. Thompson working her vegetable garden in her floppy hat.
We picked teams by sticking our feet in a circle and someone reeling off “Engine, engine number nine going down Chicago line,” after which we'd yell and fight over who got to play where. Then we'd settle down and play serious ball, quiet and concentrated, until Eddy Emanoff hit one of his hard grounders to the fence and rounded first base chuckling and puffing, but second base was a bit uphill and Eddy never made it because Jerry Allye would jump him, drag him down, and beat him with his glove while Eddy died laughing. Some of us would wander off during the game and others wander in; sometimes parents stopped by to watch and some even stayed to play, Ernie Flint running the bases in his worn-out slippers.
When the sun got so low it shone in our eyes, we went home. One day the fog rolled in and we snuck off and left Hardy sitting on the fence.
On hot summer Sundays our family went fishing. We would get in our old twenty-horsepower Austin built like a tank and also crawled like one—and we’d putt-putt out to a creek a half-hour from the house, grownups with kids, grownups without kids, kids without grownups, nobody really cared. It was a lousy place to fish. You might hook a few catfish or a carp, but the hayfields were a nice place to lie, or you could kick a ball around down on the bank. The willows gave you shade, and, in a bend, where the water was shallow, the mud on the bottom squished between your toes. Later, we’d build a fire and make a stew from everybody's fish in a big pot and drink lots of homemade wine and just lie around and talk. We seemed to talk a lot on all those Sundays.
But that was years ago.

The Mechanized Sunday

I visited friends in Florida last spring. Paradise. Palm trees, canals, bougainvilleas, gardenias, majestic white egrets standing in the shoals. I looked forward to sleeping in on Sunday morning but jumped awake to a sound like an F15 landing on the roof. It was a leaf blower. On the canal, jet skis screamed and cigarette boats roared. On the street, kids on motorbikes without mufflers leapt over curved ramps, and on the perfect lawns, mowers the size of our Austin, bore large, grumpy men crouched like warriors riding tanks to war. By ten, it was rush hour. Campers and SUVs stacked to the roof with gear driving to the beach, a ten-minute walk away. There was a bottleneck at the entrance to the mall. It hadn't yet opened but the parking lot was jammed. On Sunday, our day of rest.
I headed down to the beach on foot—not easy without sidewalks—using the road or people’s front lawns, dodging cars and the menacing mowers. At the mall, I asked a man in the waiting crowd if there was a special sale. Nope, this was just an ordinary Sunday.
That afternoon I stopped to watch a kids’ ballgame. My God, what a ballpark! A real diamond: a pitcher's mound, AstroTurf infield, raked sand between bases, real bases, dugouts, benches, uniforms, spikes, kids with their own gloves and kid-gloves for batting, and bats. Man, did they have bats, racks of aluminum bats. Enough to melt down and build yourself a 747.
And yet, awash in all that material splendor, everyone was as somber as soldiers going off to war. Anxious parents loudly urged victory, coaches kicked dirt, agitated kids yelled tired slogans, and, growing frustrated, threw their gloves in anger. The worst was when kids in the field came to bat. The coach hectored them to “stay aggressive, give 'em hell, get the hate up, go in for the kill!” because they had those guys “scared now,” they had them “on the run.”
What was this? War? Or just kids playing ball? Couldn't they wait until they grew up to have a bad time? Where was chubby Eddy? Or Ernie Flint in his worn-out slippers?
Maybe I'm raving; maybe the years are coloring my youth. But I don't think so. I remember a lot of bad, but not on Sundays.
You may rightly ask what on earth has a ballgame got to do with our besieged environment or endangered society. Well, it seems to me, everything. Not only was the ball game an environmental disaster, with the enormous quantity of energy consumed and pollution emitted to fabricate all those bats, uniforms, bleachers, and all, but what broke my heart, was that despite the gear, the material goods, there wasn't a kid out there having any fun. Sure they played well, snapped a throw, showed hustle, but where was the joy? The freedom? The laughter? Where was that burst of irrepressible urge that made Dave Dowset chase a fly ball deep and, after making the catch, keep running through the gate and vanish around a corner, leaving us all standing there without a ball, only to return from the fruit stand with a bag of cherries?
We shared those cherries just as we shared the gloves. That's why we came. Not just to hit home runs or beat the other guy—we played as hard as we could, we really tried—but there was more. We came to be together. To be friends.
It didn't matter whose team you played on, or who hit best or who caught best; it didn't matter how old you were, or if you were—God forbid—a girl, and it didn't even matter if you were fat and slow. It would have been unthinkable to play a game without Eddy; the day would have been sad without his laughter.
So we played together, and sat around together, and learned to get along without parents, without coaches, on our own. We learned how to make each other laugh, and what would make us cry, and learned that if something hurt one of us it would somehow hurt us all. And I learned that you can use the same scruffy ball and chipped bat for years and still be happy, that you can have as much fun in old sneakers as in spikes, and that all the new gear my mother would struggle to buy me could never be worth one of her Sunday meals.

* * *

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. For more about the author, please visit

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

The Pursuit of Happiness

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we’d have a pretty good time.”
—Edith Wharton

The most universally admired part of the United States Declaration of Independence, penned by the Founding Fathers and adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, reads:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That noble sentence had but one oversight; while the meaning of “Life” and “Liberty” is pretty “self-evident,” most of us haven’t the faintest clue of what they meant by “Happiness,” or why, even more bafflingly, it has to be pursued, like some mischievous puppy that ran off with your slippers.

For decades we were convinced that happiness was the American Dream in which even a child of two had his own flat screen TV, where nearly every family owned a half-empty McMansion, at least one SUV, and an RV rooted firmly in the driveway; where we could sing in our underwear and make twenty million dollars, or whack a ball over the fence and make forty; or, if we traded our minds in for a pocket calculator, we could put our name on hotels and skyscrapers, and have a TV show teaching apprentice barracudas, and no one would say to our faces that a double comb-over is an indisputable sign of being terminally crazy.

In short, we all seemed to have been part of a silent conspiracy in which we agreed that the Founding Fathers had blown it, and through a slip of the pen wrote “Happiness” when they actually meant “Money.” We felt Joan Rivers spoke for us all when she quipped, “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.”

So we all chased wealth while we largely neglected, or considered secondary, the health of our ideals, the nourishment of our children’s minds and bodies, the honesty and integrity of our institutions of government and religion, the safety of our infrastructures, hospitals and schools, the strength of our social fabric, of our neighborhoods and family, and that much-maligned stepchild—whose air, water and soil are the essence of all life—our environment.

While some of us found these neglects profoundly disturbing, we kept our mental equilibrium by pointing with pride at our standard of living thanks to a robust economy. But now that the economy has been flushed down the toilet, and is on its way to some white sand beach where it will sit next to tar-balls from oil spills, and undereducated bimbos, perhaps the time has come to ask, “What the hell do we do now?”

The world has envied and embraced whatever we North Americans dreamed up from junk food to junk bonds, from i-this and i-that to five dollar coffee in a paper cup. It seems it’s time we dream up, a different kind of dream because mindless mass production and mass consumption seem to be leading us to social, environmental and economic dead ends. Perhaps it’s time to admit to ourselves that despite our giant cars and houses—both of which are twice as big as Grandpa’s when he was young—and despite our pants and U-Store-its bursting at the seams, we are not one iota happier, but much more frantic than dear Grandpa.

Perhaps it’s time to sit down for a good heart-to-heart with the one person who can really make a difference: our self. Perhaps it’s time to ask a few unnerving questions like what really counts in life. What is true success? Is it the heft of our portfolio or the irrepressible laughter of our children? What makes us feel secure, proud, or fulfilled, and when, if ever, do we feel truly independent? Maybe we should re-examine our sacred cows: our jobs and careers; houses and neighborhoods; the way we make our foods and the way we eat them; our system of democracy that admittedly yields the best politicians money can buy; how we spend our free time, what we call entertainment; how we really want to live; and what we’d like to leave behind when we die. The answers might just lead us to a calmer way of life centered on our communities, with our family, real friends, and where “Happiness” will no longer need to be “pursued,” but will be all around us, like the air.

Think about the lines of W. Beran Wolfe, who in the 1930s wrote, “If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator.”

My new shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines happiness as “deep pleasure in, or contentment with, one’s circumstances.”

Through much of history, we humans were a simple lot whose pleasures and fulfillment came from two basic sources: the natural world around us and each other. Both were available at no cost and in limitless supply.

We knew and understood our world: plants and animals, seasons and rains, knew how they could feed us, knew how they could hurt us. Nature’s ever-changing beauty fascinated us; her mysteries in turn terrified and thrilled us.

Meanwhile, people—friends, family, co-workers, neighbors—were by and large the highlights of our lives. Whether on a stroll down a village street or at a Sunday picnic, or an evening in the town square, on a park bench or in a bar; or having a game of cards at the kitchen table; or just sitting and gossiping in front of our caves, on our front porches, we were happy to be together, to exchange lousy jokes and great ideas, to share good times and bad, to enjoy each other’s company.

And our fulfillment, whether material or emotional, came often from ourselves. We took pride in what we made with our hands: grew, hunted, or cobbled together in the home, in the meal we cooked from scratch, in clothing we weaved, sewed or knitted.

But since the seventies or eighties, our attention and our passions seemed to have veered. We diverted our compass course away from relationships, from humanity, from both nature and people, and away, most notably, from the work of our own two hands, toward a perpetually zealous, nearly worshipful accumulation of goods: gear, gadgets and trinkets. Things. And they weren’t things that we thought up, or grew, or cooked, or made, but things that we merely paid for. Bought.

When we weren’t buying or working toward buying, or thinking about buying, we filled what time was left with things that pretended to be real life and real people: television, video games and electronic friends. The real people, the ones you could touch and hug, seemed to vanish from our lives, replaced by the “virtual”—which is the virtual word for fake.

You could at this point shrug your shoulders and say, “So what? That’s progress, things change. The strong survive.” And I’m the first to admit that it’s a daunting task to try and weigh the benefits of this sea change against the damage it has done. But since, as most of us sense in our heart of hearts, we are in a profound state of economic and social disillusion, this might be the perfect time to look at the way we live and compare our modern, virtual existence to the one that, for millennia, we called Life.

The aim is not to find fault but, rather, to first comprehend what has taken place, and then to rediscover and recapture the simple joys we’ve lost; the happiness and fulfillment we once found—without web surfing or pursuit—in our daily lives.

* * *

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. For more about the author, please visit

Monday, November 19, 2012

A REAL LIFE: Interview on "Travel with Rick Steves"

Click here to listen to Ferenc Máté's Interview with Rick Steves about A REAL LIFE (also available here)

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness 

is available wherever books and ebooks are sold. 

Order through W. W. Norton 

or on 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tractor Wild

Planting a vineyard to make your own wine is only for the calm-at-heart. (Some argue that it’s only for the certifiably insane, but we’ll just let such jealous tongues wag on for now.)  At any rate, you need patience because clearing a field of stones and tilling it takes a whole summer, letting the ground settle takes until the spring, planting and watering takes the next three months—as well as the enamel off your teeth and a decade off your life—and harvesting your first high-quality grapes takes three years. But there are some rather pleasant stops along the way.
One is learning how to drive a tractor. Our tractor is tiny so it can fit our narrow rows of vines. It has caterpillar tracks, which makes it strong and stable for hard work like plowing, tilling and hauling, but the problem is that instead of the simple steering wheel and gas pedal of a normal tractor, this little bugger has levers. Lots of levers. Enough to drive someone like me out of the remnants of his mind. Now, I know you have about as much interest in how a crawler tractor works as you have in the digestive system of a Madagascar fruit bat, but I’m going to tell you anyway.
            First off, the tractor is a Fiat, made in Italy, which means years of engineering have made it as complicated and uncomfortable as possible. It is only 24 inches wide not counting the tracks. So your first realization as you get in, is that you might never get out. Second, as you sit there in a position normally reserved for women in the final throes of giving birth, is that between your contorted legs you have more levers than all of the slot machines in Vegas.
            But this is no time for cold sweats. You take a deep breath, wipe away anxious tears and move on confidently to step one: choosing 1 of 8 possible fixed speeds with 1 of 2 levers. Then you choose forward or reverse with, yep, another lever. Now, you give it some gas, not with a pedal, but with—you guessed it—a lever! Does this lever work like a gas pedal on a car? Hell, no! That would be common sense. To speed up, you pull the lever, and to slow down, you push it. To get the damned thing moving, you have to engage the clutch (again, not a pedal, Elmer, a lever). To steer the tractor—hold on to your hat—you step on a foot brake: left foot brake to turn left, right foot brake to turn right, but to make small adjustments you have to manipulate yet another lever. For a hard turn, you engage one of two long levers. And to raise or lower the plough, you tinker with another lever. In case you’ve lost count, you have so far engaged exactly four hundred and ninety-seven levers.
All this might sound easy if you are lying on a sofa reading sipping a glass of Merlot, and admittedly it is a low-intensity challenge if you’re plowing a wheat field in Kansas where the nearest vertical impediment is a 4-inch tall gopher 50 miles away, but it’s a whole other story in our vineyard—a jungle of wood columns and wire.
            Now, I’m no fool. I didn’t begin yanking a maze of levers in the middle of our vineyard. No, sir. First, I practiced in a small field, bare but for a few trees, some shrubs, an old stone wall, a chicken coop, and a fence.
            I turned the key and the engine sputtered. I gave it gas so it wouldn’t stall, pulled the right lever, but in the wrong direction—bam. Stalled. Calmly, I started over and went to pick a gear. Now, the two gear levers of the Fiat are made to get a laugh: aside from a few numbers, one has a drawing of a bunny, the other of a turtle. Well, you know and I know that no male with a drop of testosterone in his body would ever pick the turtle. So I picked the bunny and the number 4—my lucky number—then pulled the accelerator lever while I slipped in the clutch lever, and pushed a brake lever. The engine roared. The tractor surged and did a wheelie—impressive, considering it has no wheels—then it took off like a bat out of hell, right for the chicken coop. Smiling self-contentedly, I calmly yanked—one by one—11 adjoining levers, and after only a little bucking and three donuts I had her serene and docile, running at just a hair over 80 miles an hour straight at the old stone wall.
            This was not the time to pick and choose a lever so I pulled back all the levers as far as they would go. But the Fiat was no horse. Instead of slowing as I’d hoped, it sped up, running in the same general direction but with the added attraction of doing so in slalom, to the profound disappointment of a handful of small shrubs, which had, no doubt, been counting on a somewhat longer life. Inches from the stone wall I remembered the footbrakes. I jammed on the left—my lucky foot—and the beast spun away, free from calamity, but pulling seven Gs so all the blood in my body ran into my right knee. When I regained consciousness, we were mowing down some trees. That was when I remembered that I actually like turtles. But this was no time for musings, for the chicken coop now loomed dead ahead. I pulled a lever I hadn’t tried before, which resulted in lowering the plow, so we no longer merely mowed down trees ahead, but also churned up the ground right behind.
            The chicken coop was a breeze. Made of soft sandstone blocks, I had no problem converting it to a much-needed pile of sand. The chicken wire fence admittedly gave me some trouble. With a bit of swerving, I managed to avoid it until one of the tracks nicked a single link, at which point the fence rose en masse and, in three seconds, wound itself completely around the track.
            Candace stood on the sidelines with her arms crossed, surveying the field. “Finally,” she said, trying desperately to smile. “We can plant some alfalfa.”