Beyond the Occupational Identity

Friday, July 4, 2014

I have nothing to report from my actual life at the moment, decided to look through the archives to see if there was anything partially written but not yet posted that could be finished and put up.

And look, here is something.

I was working on this in the fall as I thought through issues surrounding early retirement and financial independence, about working and not working, and what that all means and where it leads people. Obviously this is something that the early retirement bloggers focus on a lot, and nicoleandmaggie wrote post about how economists define retirement that I thought was interesting. (They also have a good post about the concept of financial independence. UPDATE: And another one about identity and jobs.)

So one of the things I decided to do while thinking about all of this was to re-read part of a book I bought a long time ago, called How to Do Things Right by L. Rust Hills that is a compilation of short works and essays written by the long-time fiction editor at Esquire magazine, who had an interesting and varied career over many decades.

The section I wanted to re-read is called “How to Retire at 41, Or, Life Among the Pursuits.” It was originally published in 1973 as a book called How to Retire at 41: Dropping Out of the Rat Race without Going Down the Drain.

As is often the case when I read an actual book, written before the advent of the internet (or at least before the internet as we know it), by an actual writer, I am struck by how much better it is than so much of what I usually read. Which almost always makes me think I should stop spending so much time on the internet and start reading more actual books.


So I was going to write a nice post about this whole thing, with a point and everything, and hopefully someday I will actually manage to do that, but in the meantime I decided I should just to give you an excerpt from the book. Because it provides some good background and if I ever do get around to writing more, I can just reference this.

The general point, which I’ve been thinking about for a long time, is that one of the challenges of being “financially independent” or “retiring” (sometimes those terms are used interchangeably, sometimes not) is that much of our society is built around work. People typically define themselves by occupation; one of the most common introductory questions in America is “What do you do?” (Which doesn’t mean that it’s not a weird question, it totally is, but nonetheless it is very common.)

Having a job provides a great deal of structure to your life; if you don’t have a job, you need to figure all kinds of things out on your own. And you need to have enough of a conception of yourself that you can give a reasonable answer when you meet new people and they ask you what you do.

About half way through “How to Retire at 41,” the author begins discussing the concept of the “occupational identity” — how you identify yourself with what you do for a living — and considers how one can move beyond that. And I think what he says is worth thinking about.

So here it is:

Beyond the Occupational Identity

Remember that statement of Montaigne’s that we began with, way back when:

If you plan to withdraw into yourself, first prepare yourself a welcome.

We now see it isn’t just a Comprehensive Day Plan you need, or a country place or an old time-consuming boat or an engrossing hobby or whatever (although these help, God knows); what’s needed is some conception of yourself — of, that is, your self — now that you won’t be working. You don’t really realize, until you quit work, just how much of your conception of your self comes from your work — not just from what you do, but how you do it.

Your basic occupational identity — what you did, or “were” — permitted a lot of amplification by the way you did what you were. When you were working, you weren’t (not in your own mind, anyway) just ” an accountant” or “in fabrics” or “one of the salesmen” or “an insurance man” or whatever. You were also the way you did the work: you were the kindly boss, or the efficient second-in-command, or the talented idea-man or the only one in the office who got along with the secretaries, or some such. Whatever you were, you had some sense of yourself doing it, some recognition of the role you’d chosen to play or the role you’d been forced into.

Let’s take fishing, which can be either a work-for-pay occupation or a leisure-retirement pursuit. Say you were a fisherman when you worked, that’s what you did, that’s who you were, a fisherman. Okay, now there’s also the style you used when you were a fisherman. A fisherman-by-trade can be, for instance, kindly like Manuel or whatever his name was (Spencer Tracy) in Captains Courageous; or he can be surly like Ahab in Moby-Dick. There are presumably an infinite number of ways to be a professional fisherman on this kindly-surly scale, and kindly-surly is only one of many polarizations of personality traits, as you know — although, admittedly, perhaps the most important one.

But now, suppose that when you quit work you took up fishing as a retirement pursuit. One assumes here that you weren’t a fisherman-by-trade before, but something else; because you’d never retire from being a fisherman at age forty-one and then take up fishing as a retirement pursuit unless it was just to make fun of me. Say, though, you were (used to be) an insurance salesman, and now at forty-one you can quit work and live off your commissions from the premiums we pay on the policies you sold us years and years ago. You decide to take up fishing as a retirement pursuit. Now the way you fish in retirement is the key thing. You can do it in a kind of elegant, heroic, upper-classy, sportsman-type way — big-game fishing like Hemingway, or elegant dry-fly angling with delicate lightweight rods — that sort of way. Or you can take it up in a kind of messy, kindly, puttery, lower-classish way — in an old rowboat or fishing off the bridge with the neighborhood kids.

You see what I’m saying? I’m saying that once the specific, defining, perhaps confining, at any rate identifying occupation is removed from your life by your retirement from work, then you style or manner, your “you-ness,” becomes the all-important thing, because there isn’t anything much else. The way you do things, the way in fact you do nothing (now that there’s nothing to do) that’s now the only self you have. If when you retire you do some fishing to fill your time, you can sit out there in your rowboat all day long with the pole in your hands, and they’re still not going to say of you, “Oh, he’s a fisherman,” because you aren’t a fisherman. You used to be an insurance man. Now you’re nothing. You’re nothing except the way you do nothing. Everyone thinks of you as nothing — unless you do your nothing in a way that identifies you to people; unless, for instance, you do your fishing (or whatever) in a puttery, kindly sort of way, say, in which case they’ll say, “Oh, he’s (you, that is, are) a kindly soul, just as sweet and gentle as can be.” Or maybe they’ll describe you, identify you, “Oh, he really stirs things up, a kind of troublemaker, but fun to be around.” Personality’s a part of it, of course, but it’s more a matter of individuality, a kind of amplification of personality by consistency of style and manner.

With your occupational identity gone, you have to find another existence for yourself. Remember Thoreau leaning on the fence post, lying on the ice, and so on? Well, now imagine he’s fishing. When he fishes, he fishes as Thoreau, not as a fisherman. He’s not a fisherman, and he knows it. Like him, you have to be able to have the fishing (or whatever the specific nondefining, nonoccupational routine or pursuit you’re up to) removed or replaced, and still be left with enough particularity of how it is done (not what is done) to provide a sufficient sense of self for yourself and others.

Beyond the occupational identity, that’s all there is.

Over the summer, I was browsing cookbooks at Parker & Otis here in Durham, looking for birthday gifts for various family members, and ran across a book of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto called As Always, Julia, which I was unable to pass by without purchasing as a birthday gift for myself. I started reading it over Thanksgiving and just love it. The letters span from 1951 — when Julia Child sent Bernard DeVoto a gift of a kitchen knife (in response to an essay in Harper’s magazine about how terrible American knives were), and received a letter in return from his wife Avis, who worked as his secretary — to  1961 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published.

Reading so much detail about what went in to creating the cookbook made me think about the Julie/Julia Project and what happened when someone actually tried to make all of the recipes. Which has resulted in my own little Julie/Julia project. (Fortunately my project is much less demanding than either Julia Child’s creation of the cookbook, or Julie Powell’s execution of it. Though at the same time not likely to result in world renown as a famous chef or a book-and-movie deal for me. But my time will come. I’m sure.)

So for my project, I have read (or am in the process of reading), in addition to the Julia and Avis letters, both of Julie Powell’s books, and after much fruitless clicking and “Page Not Found” messages, I finally managed to locate the original Julie/Julia Project on the Wayback Machine, so I am reading through all 365 days of that.

One of the notable features of the project, mentioned in both the Julie and Julia book and frequently remarked upon in the blog posts, was that Julie and Eric Powell found themselves drowning in dirty dishes, pretty much all the time. Eric was the designated dishwasher and often wasn’t able to keep up. And the interesting thing is that Avis mentioned this very issue in a letter written to Julia on February 1, 1955. She said:

Also been thinking about something Louisette lighted on during the short time she was here. She wondered if Americans would bother to do cooking that meant getting every pot and pan in the kitchen dirty. Wish I’d had time to go into it with her. Because I am deeply convinced that it just is not necessary to let everything pile up to be washed. I suppose it is a sort of fixation of mine. I certainly had it drummed into me thoroughly by my old ma. And I wish you would write something about it. It is so easy to wash up as you go along — absolutely no soap needed. Everybody who reads your book will have a kitchen where the water is continually hot. All that is needed is plenty hot water coming out of the faucet, and a brush. The nylon ones stand up better, but ordinary Fuller Brush sink brushes do very well. Finish with a pan, take ONE MINUTE to stick it under the hot water faucet and brush it out. Turn it upside down to drain and it will be dry in a few minutes. No soap. I just never use soap on utensils, except the detergent that goes into the dishwasher. And it works on the very greasiest of pans, roasting pans and everything, if you do it at once. If you are dishing up, and hurrying to get things hot to the table, have a sinkful of very hot water and put your bulb baster, meat rack, thermometer, skewers and the like in and let them soak. After dinner, use the brush and the running hot water and they are done. I realize this is very hard to knock into people. My last maid was a dream, and a wonderful cook, but she would let the potato pan and the ricer and the strainers sit around and dry hard every time, and I suppose it never entered her dear little head that she spent half an hour extra in the kitchen every night as a result. Let alone wear and tear on pans. I suppose you noticed the way I snatched things from you last summer and washed them up and I hope I didn’t get on your nerves. I just cannot bear to have things pile up. I’ve only seen one article saying all this, and it was in Gourmet sometime back and written by a man who felt as strongly about it as I do, bless him.

All I could think about when I read that was that if only Eric and Julie had taken that strategy to heart when they started, things might have turned out differently.

I know that I myself am not so good about cleaning everything as I go, but I’m very good about rinsing things off before they get all dried up and hardened. And it really does save a lot of hassle.

Go Avis.

[And a side note on the subject line: I remembered reading about the dishwashing thing but knew I hadn’t marked the page. Last night when I went to see if I could find it, I started with the index, and the index for this book is fantastic! There was actually an entry for the exact thing I was looking for: DeVoto, Avis: on “clean as you go” cooking. Thank you Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and your great indexer for this book! All hope is not lost for the publishing industry.]

In the Name of Ambidextrous Gluttony

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A while ago — a few years ago now — a friend gave me a copy of How to Travel with a Salmon, a book of essays by Umberto Eco. I had read The Name of the Rose many years before and didn’t love it, so I might have been inclined to turn down the offer of this book, but my friend said it was really good, she thought I’d like it, I should take it.

So I took it and I started it and would read it occasionally and some of the essays are very good and some are good but very dated (most were written in the mid- to late-1980s, and many of them deal with various forms of technology, so you can imagine how those read now) and some are parodies of things I don’t get at all so I just skipped those.

Last week I was visiting the friend who had loaned me the book and was thinking I should try to wrap it up and return it to her while I was there, even though I think she probably doesn’t care much whether she gets the book back since she’s reading everything on her iPad these days. But regardless, it seemed like a good idea to finish it, so I was reading it on the bus, and the essay I happened to have been in the middle of the last time I was reading it on the bus (it’s a good bus-reading book, the chapters are all short and self-contained) is called How to Eat Ice Cream.

And as I opened the book and continued with this essay, I realized that it was about consumerism. And that it was brilliant.

Eco tells the story of his childhood in the 1930s in the Italian Piedmont, where street vendors would sell ice cream in two forms: a 2-cent cone or a 4-cent pie. He was allowed to get either the 4-cent pie or the 2-cent cone. However he says that he was fascinated by some of his peers whose parents bought them two two-cent cones.

These privileged children advanced proudly with one cone in their right hand and one in their left; and expertly moving their head from side to side, they licked first one, then the other. This liturgy seemed to me so sumptuously enviable, that many times I asked to be allowed to celebrate it. In vain. My elders were inflexible: a four-cent ice, yes; but two two-cent ones, absolutely no.

At the time, he couldn’t understand their refusal, and as he points out, “neither mathematics nor economics nor dietetics” justified it.

The pathetic, and obviously mendacious justification was that a boy concerned with turning his eyes from one cone to the other was more inclined to stumble over stones, steps, or cracks in the pavement. I dimly sensed that there was another secret justification, cruelly pedagogical, but I was unable to grasp it.

He then goes on to discuss what he has come to realize was the real reason.

Today, citizen and victim of a consumer society, a civilization of excess and waste (which the society of the thirties was not), I realize that those dear and now departed elders were right. Two two-cent cones instead of one at four cents did not signify squandering, economically speaking, but symbolically they surely did. It was for this precise reason, that I yearned for them: because two ice creams suggested excess. And this was precisely why they were denied me: because they looked indecent, an insult to poverty, a display of fictitious privilege, a boast of wealth. Only spoiled children ate two cones at once, those children who in fairy tales were rightly punished, as Pinocchio was when he rejected the skin and the stalk. And parents who encouraged this weakness, appropriate to little parvenues, were bringing up their children in the foolish theatre of “I’d like to but I can’t.” They were preparing them to turn up at tourist-class check-in with a fake Gucci bag bought from a street peddler on the beach at Rimini.

Nowadays the moralist risks seeming at odds with morality, in a world where the consumer civilization now wants even adults to be spoiled, and promises them always something more, from the wristwatch in the box of detergent to the bonus bangle sheathed with the magazine it accompanies, in a plastic envelope. Like the parents of those ambidextrous gluttons I so envied, the consumer civilization pretends to give more, but actually gives, for four cents, what is worth four cents. You will throw away the old transistor radio to purchase the new one, that boasts an alarm clock as well, but some inexplicable defect in the mechanism will guarantee that the radio lasts only a year. The new cheap car will have leather seats, double side mirrors adjustable from inside, and a paneled dashboard, but it will not last nearly so long as the glorious old Fiat 500, which, even when it broke down, could be started again with a kick.

The morality of the old days made Spartans of us all, while today’s morality wants us all to be Sybarites.

How to Eat Ice Cream was written in 1989, and I would argue that we’ve moved from the morality wanting us all to be Sybarites to the morality insisting that there is something wrong with us if we are not. It feels like “ambidextrous gluttony” is no longer the exception but the rule. You will never have to explain why you want something — a new computer, phone, television, car — but you often have to explain why you don’t.

Oh, for the days when the Italian grannies were in charge.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Monday, October 15, 2012

I was talking to my mom last week. She said, “You haven’t written anything on your blog in a while.”

True that.

Here’s something I wrote a long time ago that wasn’t quite right when I first wrote it and I wrote it again, then stuck it in the blog post purgatory holding pen. Came across it recently when I was cleaning things up. Think it’s probably as good as it’s going to get, and despite the anomalous reference to hot weather, I’m posting as is.


Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking and eating, and cooking at home versus eating out, and why people don’t cook and why people eat out. I’ve had many conversations about this with many different people.

One of the things that has come up repeatedly in discussions with women, especially women who were either raised in traditional families (i.e., those with traditional gender roles, father as breadwinner and mother as homemaker) or who actually were the homemaker-half of a traditional family, is what a loaded issue cooking is for many women, especially cooking for other people. On a really fundamental level, it represents for a lot of people subservience and limited options.

I’ve begun to think of it as the “just a housewife” syndrome.

I had one person I was friendly with here in Durham who I talked with about this a few times, she was in her early 60s, her kids were grown and she had been divorced for a number of years. She ate out all the time but still had a refrigerator packed with food. She stopped working and cut back on how much she was eating out and also how many trips she took to Whole Foods (for a long time, every time I went there I’d see her, I think it was sort of a social activity for her — go to Whole Foods to pick up a few things, run into people and chat, like happy hour or something) but even after she had cut back, she was still spending way more money than I do on food, and had so much more than she needed in her fridge.

We had some interesting conversations about cooking at home versus eating out and one of the things she said was that she had spent her whole life taking care of other people, she wanted someone to take care of her. She wanted to go out and have someone else cook and someone else clean up.

I was thinking about that recently, and I’m not sure if I understood what she was saying at the time we talked about it, but I think I’ve come around.

I can see how when you feel like you’ve been giving, giving, giving, you want for once to be on the receiving end, you want to be taken care of. And I can definitely see how sometimes it feels like too much to figure out what to eat and get it all together and cook and serve and clean up … and then have to do it all over again tomorrow. You want someone else to worry about that, you just want it to be done without you always having to do all the work.

I can see that.

But I also think that trying to fill the need to be taken care of by going out to eat doesn’t usually work.

When you go out to eat, you are being taken care of to a certain extent — you tell someone what you want and they bring it to you. They ask how everything is, they ask if you want anything else, they tell you to have a nice night when you leave. But they’re not taking care of you because they want to, because they love you, because they care if you’re happy. They’re doing it because it’s their job, it’s a restaurant and that’s what they do. (Not that there aren’t restaurants, or people who work in restaurants, who do things for love, there are, but mostly restaurants are business. You give them money and they take care of you until you get up from the table.)

If you eat out because there’s a restaurant that makes things you just can’t make as well at home, or because you want a special night out, or because your kitchen is clean and you want to keep it that way a little longer, you’ll likely be satisfied when you’re done eating. The food will have been as good as you remember, you will have had a break from your normal routine, your kitchen will be clean for another day.

If you eat out because you’re looking for love, it’s not as likely to hit the spot.

In high school, I read Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and it made a big impression on me, I really loved it, and read many more Anne Tyler novels, none of which spoke to me quite as directly as that one did. A few years ago, I picked it up again and re-read it, and was reminded of how much I liked it at the time. I could also see why.

The book is basically a character sketch of a mostly dysfunctional family, and sharing meals (or rather not sharing meals — they can never manage to make it all the way through a family dinner without someone storming off) and feeding people is a central theme. And both when I read the book initially and when I re-read it a few years ago, I found the idea of a restaurant where there aren’t menus, you come in and they tell you what you should eat — “You look a little tired. I’ll bring you an oxtail stew” — to be lovely and intriguing. The restaurant owner’s brother, who thought the idea was stupid, gives the best description of it:

Ever since Ezra had inherited the place … he’d been systematically wrecking it. He was fully capable of serving a single entrée all one evening, bringing it to your table himself as soon as you were seated. Other nights he’d offer more choice, four or five selections chalked up on the blackboard. But still you might not get what you asked for. “The Smithfield ham,” you’d say and up would come the okra stew. “With that cough of yours, I know this will suit you better,” Ezra would explain. But even if he’d judged correctly, was that any way to run a restaurant? You order ham, ham is what you get. Otherwise you might as well eat at home.

I love that passage — you might as well eat at home.

There aren’t many homesick restaurants around. If you eat out because you want to be taken care of, you’re probably going to have to keep eating out because the need to be taken care of will be just as strong when you finish as it was when you started.

It’s like people who are lonely or otherwise unhappy with their lives, who shop or eat to make themselves feel better. It doesn’t ever really work — you can never buy enough or eat enough to make yourself feel better, because the reason you feel bad is not because you don’t own enough or have enough to eat. The hole you’re trying to fill is not touched by the things you’re putting in it.

So if eating out isn’t likely to fill the void left by wanting to be cared for, what is?

I feel like learning how to cook for yourself — learning how to cook with love and not resentment — has a much better chance of success. Because you can think about what you’re missing and what you need and what will make yourself feel better. (And also you get to cook things that make sense — it’s a thousand degrees today and has been all week, and I had lunch at a restaurant that had as its “soup of the day” a cream of broccoli with cheddar cheese. What? Clearly these people have been spending too much time in air conditioning, nothing could have been less appealing to me after endless days of sweltering temperatures than cream of broccoli soup with cheddar cheese.)

As M.F.K. Fisher said, “I came to believe that since nobody else dared feed me as I wished to be fed, I must do it myself, and with as much aplomb as I could muster.”

Being able to take care of yourself — to feed yourself as you wish to be fed –is a great skill that will serve you well and make your whole life better. You get to be your own homesick restaurant.

Because, as the book says, if that’s what you want, you might as well eat at home.

Thank You for Smoking

Friday, August 31, 2012

Here is a quote from “Thank You For the Light,” a previously unpublished story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that appears in the August 6 issue of The New Yorker

Smoking meant a lot to her sometimes. She worked very hard and it had some ability to rest and relax her psychologically. She was a widow and she had no close relatives to write to in the evenings, and more than one moving picture a week hurt her eyes, so smoking had come to be an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road.

I’m not sure what I think of the story — I guess for right now, mostly what I think is that I need to read it again — but I found that quote fascinating for what it says about options for leisure-time activities in 1936, when the story was written.

I also thought my smoker friends (who seem to be legion — my smoker friend Ann said I must be attracted to smokers, or they are attracted to me, I’m not sure what we figured out) would like it.

And if you haven’t read it, you should check out Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel Thank You for Smoking, which is referenced in this post’s title, and is very funny.

There’s your English major post for the week.

More on food if I ever find time to shop/cook/eat again.

Barkis is Willing

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The good thing about being self-employed is that I have a lot of flexibility; I can schedule things so that I can do what I want, when I want. The down side is that I always feel like I should be doing something else. When I’m working around the house, I feel like I should be working for pay, and when I’m doing paid work, I think of all the things that need to be done that I’m not doing right now because I’m stuck at my computer. The biggest casualty of this has been reading for pleasure. Unfortunately, there never seems to be any time when I think, “Gosh, I really should be reading a good book right now.”

I try to make up for this on vacations by scheduling trips with extensive, crazily inconvenient travel: I take the bus when I could get a ride; I schedule connections with really long layovers; I make one trip and then schedule a side trip to somewhere else. (Last year I took the train from Washington, DC to Princeton, NJ for lunch.) Because then I get to sit and read and not feel like I should be doing something else.

I recently got back from a trip that involved hours and hours of basically every form of transportation — car, plane, light rail, train, bicycle, ferry, city bus, subway, inter-city bus. I wasn’t sure what I was going to feel like reading (I’m old school, I don’t have an e-reader, I have to decide what I might want to have with me ahead of time) so I took three things that I had on my shelf that I had never read and that seemed like would give me a range of options: A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

On the plane out, I started Gilead, which won a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and which many people had told me they liked. I got about a third of the way through before calling it. It was not hitting the spot. I switched to David Copperfield.

David Copperfield is awesome.

David Copperfield is 900 pages long.

I got through about 500 pages of it on the trip and I’m really going to try to make it to the end in a reasonable time frame. It was written in serial form, designed to be read one chapter each month, so if I can just keep things moving at that pace maybe I’ll be okay.

To that end, I took the bus to Chapel Hill on Friday instead of driving for my lunch meeting.

I’m at the part where (spoiler alert!) Barkis dies and little Em’ly runs off with Steerforth.

I love Barkis.

Barkis is the carrier who drives young Davy to Yarmouth when he is sent away to school by his cruel stepfather. As they ride out of town, his nurse Peggotty intercepts the cart so she can say goodbye to Davy and to give him some cakes to eat on the trip. Davy shares the cakes with Mr. Barkis:

I offered him a cake as a mark of attention, which he ate at one gulp, exactly like an elephant, and which made no more impression on his big face than it would have done on an elephant’s.

Barkis is a man of few words but he’s mightily impressed by the cake.

‘Did she make ’em, now?” said Mr Barkis, always leaning forward, in his slouching way, on the footboard of the cart with an arm on each knee.

‘Peggotty, do you mean, sir?’

‘Ah!’ said Mr Barkis. ‘Her.’

‘Yes. She makes all our pastry, and does all our cooking.’

‘Do she though?’ said Mr Barkis.

He made his mouth as if to whistle, but he didn’t whistle. He sat looking at the horse’s ears, as if he saw something new there; and sat so, for a considerable time.

One cake is enough for Mr Barkis to know a good thing when he sees it. But he wants to make sure he understands the situation properly.

‘No sweethearts, I b’lieve?’

‘Sweetmeats did you say, Mr. Barkis?’ For I thought he wanted something else to eat, and had pointedly alluded to that description of refreshment.

‘Hearts,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘Sweet hearts; no person walks with her!’

‘With Peggotty?’

‘Ah!’ he said. ‘Her.’

‘Oh, no. She never had a sweetheart.’

‘Didn’t she, though!’ said Mr. Barkis.

Again he made up his mouth to whistle, and again he didn’t whistle, but sat looking at the horse’s ears.

And Barkis wants to confirm what he thought he had heard earlier.

‘So she makes,’ said Mr. Barkis, after a long interval of reflection, ‘all the apple parsties, and doos all the cooking, do she?’

I replied that such was the fact.

He then makes his offer:

‘Well. I’ll tell you what,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘P’raps you might be writin’ to her?’

‘I shall certainly write to her,’ I rejoined.

‘Ah!’ he said, slowly turning his eyes towards me. ‘Well! If you was writin’ to her, p’raps you’d recollect to say that Barkis was willin’; would you?’

‘That Barkis is willing,’ I repeated, innocently. ‘Is that all the message?’

‘Ye-es,’ he said, considering. ‘Ye-es. Barkis is willin’.’

‘But you will be at Blunderstone again tomorrow, Mr. Barkis,’ I said, faltering a little at the idea of my being far away from it then, and could give your own message so much better.’

As he repudiated this suggestion, however, with a jerk of his head, and once more confirmed his previous request by saying, with profound gravity, ‘Barkis is willin’. That’s the message,’ I readily undertook its transmission. While I was waiting for the coach in the hotel at Yarmouth that very afternoon, I procured a sheet of paper and an inkstand, and wrote a note to Peggotty, which ran thus: ‘My dear Peggotty. I have come here safe. Barkis is willing. My love to mama. Yours affectionately. P.S. He says he particularly wants you to know – BARKIS IS WILLING.’

Peggotty laughs off the proposal when it is first made, but accepts after Davy’s mother dies and she is left without a station. She and Barkis live happily together for many years, and it turns out that Mr. Barkis has more money than anyone would have imagined, but he refuses to let on to it. He keeps it hidden in a box under the bed, and is always sure to tell everyone how hardscrabble his life is. He becomes more and more attached to the box as he nears the end of his life, but still won’t admit that it contains anything of value:

He was lying with his head and shoulders out of bed, in an uncomfortable attitude, half resting on the box which had cost him so much pain and trouble. I learned, that, when he was past creeping out of bed to open it, and past assuring himself of its safety by means of the divining rod I had seen him use, he had required to have it placed on the chair at the bed-side, where he had ever since embraced it, night and day. His arm lay on it now. Time and the world were slipping from beneath him, but the box was there; and the last words he had uttered were (in an explanatory tone) ‘Old clothes!’

At the time of Barkis’ death, David has finished school and is working in London in the legal profession, and is able to help settle the estate.

I may claim the merit of having originated the suggestion that the will should be looked for in the box. After some search, it was found in the box, at the bottom of a horse’s nose-bag; wherein (besides hay) there was discovered an old gold watch, with chain and seals, which Mr. Barkis had worn on his wedding-day, and which had never been seen before or since; a silver tobacco-stopper, in the form of a leg; an imitation lemon, full of minute cups and saucers, which I have some idea Mr. Barkis must have purchased to present to me when I was a child, and afterwards found himself unable to part with; eighty-seven guineas and a half, in guineas and half-guineas; two hundred and ten pounds, in perfectly clean Bank notes; certain receipts for Bank of England stock; an old horseshoe, a bad shilling, a piece of camphor, and an oyster-shell. From the circumstance of the latter article having been much polished, and displaying prismatic colours on the inside, I conclude that Mr. Barkis had some general ideas about pearls, which never resolved themselves into anything definite.

For years and years, Mr. Barkis had carried this box, on all his journeys, every day. That it might the better escape notice, he had invented a fiction that it belonged to ‘Mr. Blackboy’, and was ‘to be left with Barkis till called for’; a fable he had elaborately written on the lid, in characters now scarcely legible.

He had hoarded, all these years, I found, to good purpose. His property in money amounted to nearly three thousand pounds. Of this he bequeathed the interest of one thousand to Mr. Peggotty for his life; on his decease, the principal to be equally divided between Peggotty, little Emily, and me, or the survivor or survivors of us, share and share alike. All the rest he died possessed of, he bequeathed to Peggotty; whom he left residuary legatee, and sole executrix of that his last will and testament.

I love everything about this.

I love that Barkis proposed to Peggotty after eating one of her cakes. I love that he proposed by sending a cryptic message with an eight-year-old boy who had no idea what he was talking about. I love that he patiently waited for a response, and after receiving none, sent a second message with David, who still had no idea what he was talking about, the next time he drove him. He actually has to coach David in the follow-up trip on how to proceed:

‘Well!’ he resumed at length. ‘Says you, “Peggotty! Barkis is waitin’ for a answer.” Says she, perhaps, “Answer to what?” Says you, “To what I told you.” “What is that?” says she. “Barkis is willin’,” says you.’

This extremely artful suggestion Mr. Barkis accompanied with a nudge of his elbow that gave me quite a stitch in my side. After that, he slouched over his horse in his usual manner; and made no other reference to the subject except, half an hour afterwards, taking a piece of chalk from his pocket, and writing up, inside the tilt of the cart, ‘Clara Peggotty’ – apparently as a private memorandum.

It reminds me of the hint hint nudge nudge wink wink sketch in Monty Python. Ah! Say no more!

I love that Barkis keeps his stash in a horse’s nose bag, complete with hay. I love that he created an elaborate story to explain the box and why he has it with him at all times. I love the list of items he carried around in the box. (It reminded me of another of my favorite lists, from Ali the Persian). I love that he was wealthy but pretended he wasn’t.

I love it.

And it seems to me that the moral of the story is … you never know what a good cake might get you.

And that Charles Dickens was a good writer.

In case we didn’t know that already.

Mindless Eating

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, a friend recommended the book Mindless Eating to me and I happened to run across it at my friendly local used book store (Nice Price Books) and picked up a copy. I finished it a week or two ago and thought it was great!

It’s by a researcher at Cornell University who studies food and eating behavior, and the studies themselves are fascinating (I especially liked the one about North Dakota wine) and also the insight it gives about simple things you can do to adjust your eating patterns seems really useful.

The point that I liked the most was in the end where he talks about working on changing habits.

The basic thrust of the book is that there are a lot of small things in our environment that add up to encourage people to eat more than they want or need to, and by paying attention to those things and flipping them around, you can set up your food environment to push you in the other direction.

His strategy is that you should take some time to figure out where your problem areas are — Do you get hungry in the afternoon and buy snacks from the vending machine? Do you go out with friends and eat and drink too much at happy hour? Do you take too many second helpings at the dinner table? — and then work to change those problem areas by creating new habits.

To do this, you come up with up to three simple habits you will focus on for the next month. (You don’t want to do more than three because you want to keep it simple and not try to make too many changes at once. Doing a little bit at a time will be easier and almost imperceptible, so you’re less likely to run into the difficulties people hit when trying to make a whole bunch of big changes.) Things like, “I will drink a glass of water before I eat,” or “I will plate food in the kitchen and not leave serving bowls on the table,” or “I will park at the far end of the parking lot even if there are spots closer.”

You take out a piece of paper and write down the habit(s) you want to establish with a column for each day of the month, and every day you do the thing you’re supposed to, you put a check mark in the column for that day. Once you’ve reliably established that habit — when it starts to feel like second nature and you don’t have to think about it much anymore — you can move on to a new habit.

I love this idea because it’s simple and manageable and it gives people something really specific to focus on.

A few years ago I was working on a project that resulted in a lot of procrastination, and I started working away from my office in an internet-free location to avoid internet-based procrastination (my usual downfall) so I had to come up with some new procrastination options, and I started playing pool.

One of the more interesting things I discovered while playing pool was that if I focused on what I wanted to happen — like if I wanted to hit the ball really hard, and I thought about hitting the ball really hard — I would invariably make a terrible shot. (Random aside, a guy I was playing with once told me that to hit it hard I should pretend I was hitting my boyfriend upside the head — “Just smack it. Smack it as hard as you can.”) But if I focused on what I needed to do to hit the ball hard — draw my elbow straight back, keep my arm close to my body — more times than not, the shot would be great.

And I think that revelation totally fits with the Mindless Eating approach.

You break down your problem into small, very specific pieces, then focus on one piece at a time. So you’re not thinking about the larger issue at all (hitting the ball hard, losing weight) you’re taking action to address specific problems (keeping your elbow straight, not taking seconds at dinner). Once one problem is fixed, you can move on to the next.

I think this idea can be applied to almost anything — not just health-related things like eating better and exercising more but any problem area in you life, from watching less tv to keeping your house clean to spending more time with friends and family. Pick one thing you do that causes problems and work on changing that one thing. Once that’s changed, pick something else. You probably won’t see immediate results, but you’ll make steady progress and that’s likely to be more sustainable than larger, more drastic changes.

And definitely check out the book if you get the chance — Mindless Eating by Bryan Wansinik, Ph.D. — or for you short-attention span folks, the website.