I moved to Barcelona in late July, 2004. I went on a teacher training course with 29 other Americans and British people to get a TEFL certificate so I would have some qualification to teach English. In September, there was a feast – was it for Sant Jordi? Perhaps. It was big, huge. The entire city locked down and became a party, people crowding in from all over, not just Catalonia and Spain but all over the world. I was out with people I knew, at a bar just south of Las Ramblas, and – I haven’t thought of this in 15 years, I am not sure what makes me think of it now, at 2 a.m. on the last night of January 2021 – I met an English girl. She was blonde, built with curves like a racing yacht, and a perfectly symmetrical face. Green eyes. I remember being fearful that I would not know what to do with her if she ever got me alone, and it was an imminent fear. Palpable.
We were leaning against the bar, talking about how she wanted to be a television presenter, her university course, her fitness regimen to stay slim for the cameras, how she often visited Barcelona, which was where I was going to live for a year, and how she could really use a place to stay regularly, when she was in town. Then Ben walked in, saw me, and came over to say hello. He had been on my teacher training course, and I had lived with him for the month in arranged housing; a quiet guy, kind of odd. Not kind of – in retrospect, he was strange. I have met two people in my life like him – Ben and Carl, the walking cock-blockers.
I haven’t thought of this night in so long.
A minute before, the entire city seemed to smolder with possibility, to be on the cusp of igniting, and not just because of her proximity; I can still see the lights of stages set up in the streets for bands, feel the heat of the fading summer, hear the shouts of the servers and patrons fighting against the music, feel the wood of the bar under my elbow, see the trees lit up against the buildings, smell the fireworks that preceded and trailed the dancing papier-mâché giants and the cinnamon sugar dough from the churro shop in Gracia. There was energy in the air, hope, anything could have happened, Spain could have happened.
When Ben walked in, every spark of life in the city began to be suffocated, strangled. What was summer became autumn; his entry was the dramatic dividing line of the seasons. I must have been the only person in the bar he knew. He walked straight over to us and said hi; I introduced him to this girl, and then he just stood there. I never blamed him for her reaction before, although suddenly, tonight, I do; she became clearly uncomfortable with his presence, excused herself, and then left.
I had lived through The Sun Also Rises, and tonight, at 2 a.m., I only just realized it.
What happened to her? Did she make it in front of a camera? Do I ever see her on the televisions in the gym or the bar, presenting…things? And Ben – is he still leeching energy from everyone within a one-block radius?
These small memories, though – there are probably a billion of them in my head. The concept of memory has been obsessing me recently. But now, at 2 a.m., on 5% battery left on my Mac, I remember Ernest 100 years ago, freezing in his Paris attic apartment, bundled up against the cold, a pencil stub in his hand, his mind racing, Hadley and Bumby at home, just enough St. James rhum left in his body to produce a light tightness in his temples, remembering a Spanish summer.
January, 2021. Where to begin?
With books: life, death, memories. January was a nine-book month, and I wanted to focus my reading on death and life. Death has been stalking me recently – or, rather, it is eyeing up people I know. Rather than try to deny it, I wanted to understand it better, and, by so doing, learn more about how to truly live. My reading, therefore, has been focused a bit on the theme of death and life.
So for Sunny, the notable books from this month:
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I read this in the late 1990s, but the only part I remembered was the author chasing his little brother around the house, pretending to beat the little brother with a belt, for the “benefit” of the neighbors. It turns out that at friend of mine is good friends with Dave Eggers, which inspired me to pick this up again…and wow. This may be one of the best, and best-written, books I have ever read – besides being stylistically exceptional, laugh-out-loud funny, painful, and everything it says in the title, it brought back memories of being young in California in the 1990s that even reading my diaries from the time wouldn’t bring back. It is art, and I may not read it every year, but I think every five years would be appropriate. Also, Jesus, it is hilarious.
- The Examined Life. I can’t remember how this came to rest on my bookshelf. It is a quick read, but every chapter invites meditation; on death, life, mental illness, learning about oneself. That’s it: more than anything, it made me want to learn more about myself, about how my mind works, about what I don’t question in my personality as much as what I do.
- The Lover. Again: one of the best things I have ever read, and there is so much in it, so much. I often wish that I could go to a nursing home, meet someone amazing, and download exactly what goes on in their mind, unfiltered, to learn what, exactly, they remember about life, about their life, to see what is worth doing or avoiding. I just didn’t realize that it would have so much to do with death, and mental illness, and decisions. Short, powerful, painful, and worth an annual read.
- That makes me think…was it Taleb who said that any book worth reading was worth reading again? I want those books in my life: the ones that are worth reading again.
- Peak Performance. This is NOT worth reading again, but it had good reminders of how to approach performance – the simple lessons, often forgotten.
- The Like Switch. Again, not worth reading again, but…well, not worth reading the first time. Dale Carnegie, but from the FBI. Just read this summary.
Sunny and I once talked about how self-help books are worthless compared to…well, almost everything else, but especially the classics, history, philosophy, literature. I am constantly being reminded of that. I need to keep learning it, over and over again.
And January was growth: for Christmas, I received a book on fermentation. A few hours of reading and preparation later, and I had millions of bacteria working for me in the kitchen; an entire corner of jars, bottles, pressurized containers of one sort or another needing regular de-pressurizing. I have made, and consumed, nine liters of kimchi, with a further three liters fermenting violently as I type. I made 23 liters of beer, which came out to 42 bottles, about a third of which I have given away. I made 9 liters of ginger beer using a ginger bug, too, and was suitably impressed, although I want a better, more specific recipe. And for the last month, all of the sourdough coming out of our kitchen has been from a levain started in December, which is going strong (hat tip to Eric Sandy for suggesting that I get into it back in 2016). Inspired by Phillip Kirschen-Clark and the CIA, too, I have made fresh salsa and guacamole, which simply makes me angry: they are so cheap and easy to make, yet it took me until now to think of making them. Never again will we be buying these from a store.
After the beer proved to be so easy, I decided that this year I would make twelve things that I normally buy. So far, the list includes:
- Hot sauce
Speaking of jam and jelly, Daniel’s favorite song of January was “Peanut Butter” by RuPaul, followed closely by “Papi” by Todrick Hall. He will walk around our house shouting “Pean! Pean! Pean!” or “Papi! Papi!” until his choice is played. I can’t wait for him to be in class and to say, out loud, “Must be jelly ’cause jam don’t shake!”
Growth, growth, more growth. The gyms shut on Christmas Eve, and then, on January 4, cabin fever set in and I went for a run. I tracked it using Runtracker, and at the end, Runtracker prompted me to sign up for some sort of January challenge – run 30 miles or something similar. I thought: No. I am running 100 miles in a month. That was before snowstorms and huge winds hit Edinburgh; I think I lost about a week to ice on the sidewalks, black ice, ready to attack passing sneakers and send them to the sky. As of this writing, though, I have 12 miles to go, and five days to get there. I should finish in three, after which…well, I will have run 100 miles in a month.
And in January, I was inundated with letters. I have been trying to write a letter a day, mostly to Alice, but also to other people, and I find that, contrary to what the pundits and the balance sheets of international mail carriers say, letter-writing as an art is alive and well, even with email. Perhaps especially with email. I have a PILE of letters to start, finish, and reply to: James, Elizabeth, David, Tom, Emily, Sarah, Geoffers, the other James, Jackie, Jonathan, Step, the other Jonathan, Lina, Pankaj, Melissa, Robert. Bianca, who sends me notebooks full of letters, one after another, like diaries, like books written just for me, which nobody else will ever read, except that sometimes I read out the especially brilliant bits to Daniel, who somehow knows to laugh at the right moments.
January was also a month when, inspired by this amazing New York Times article, I decided to stop buying things. I am doing it slightly differently than the people profiled; my rules include that I CAN:
– buy consumables (food, paper, etc.);
– replace things that break;
– buy transportation;
– save for big ticket items for future purchasing (next year);
– buy things that are required by an external source – things for work, for example;
– things I will resell for profit;
– subscriptions (supporting Haven Coffee with a subscription; the Economist; the New York Times);
– things that are required for a pre-existing goal or role in my life.
I cannot buy:
– impulse purchases;
– anything else.
A week later, the two watches I use for exercise both broke within two days of each other. They needed replacing. So I bought an Apple Watch SE, with cellular connectivity. It has everything that I want out of a communication device – text, voice calls, timer, reminders, Siri, etc. – and none of the things that distract me terribly: web browsing, social media. If I didn’t need my phone for banking, I would have it off permanently. It is a total game changer. I was a skeptic, but am now a convert. Daniel loves trying to get it to turn on by hitting it.
And now, I think I might know what got me up in the middle of the night and made me remember Spain: Daniel. Tonight, for the first time, he would not let Alice put him to sleep. She got annoyed, and hangry, so I went in to hold him while she ate dinner. I picked him up and lay down in the small single bed next to his cot, the one that Alice had when she was little, and I put him in the crook of my arm, his head on my chest, and let him snuggle. I listened to his breath, and listened to my breath, and he fell asleep on me for the first time as a toddler. I didn’t know what to do. Alice came back, and I felt stupid for freezing up. I picked him up and lay him down in his cot and he stayed asleep.
And I also think of a friend of mine who really wants to have children, assumed it would always happen, but whose amazing boyfriend is adamantly opposed to the idea. She would be an incredible parent – not only genetically, as she is brilliant, caring, ambitious, multicultural, capable, and every other positive attribute I could imagine, but she would do an amazing job being present and there for any child she has. But her boyfriend spent most of his youth caring for a family, and doesn’t want to commit to bringing one or more other beings into the world, caring for them for 18 years or so, then facing the years past 50 with an empty nest and an adult life of responsibility.
My friend – let us call her Brett – explained something interesting to me. Apparently people chase something they call happiness, which is fleeting, when what we really crave is satisfaction, which is NOT the same as happiness. Satisfaction, paradoxically, often involves deep dissatisfaction, but is what makes us look back on a life and think of it as well-lived. A series of happiness moments is empty and dull; a buildup of satisfaction is what makes old people smile in their rocking chairs. We can show that having children makes people LESS happy, but far more satisfied. She is faced with the choice now, then, of joining the boyfriend she loves in a life of happier moments, or pursuing a life of satisfaction. With a biological clock to think of, too, she feels the need to make her decision soon.
The contrast makes me think of Barcelona again: I had a student, Clara, who was in her late 40s. She was always single, and lived life “fully,” smoking, drinking, dancing, partying. The things that gave her boosts on the weekends failed to do the same when she was 40, 45, but instead of changing her approach, she simply did more of them – the weekend grew to include Thursday, and Wednesday, and Tuesday, and when she was my student, she was deeply unhappy AND unsatisfied and committed to not changing.
And my life of domesticity – a wife and kid, work, a cold Scottish city. I could be in Barcelona, chasing aspiring television presenters and Swedish bikini models and drinking at Carlos’ cocktail bar in Barri Gothic, driving through the mountains with Josep to Andorra, taking trains to Castelldefels to eat persimmons picked from trees in the fields, or to Garraf, the secret beach, eating on the terrace of the restaurant at the southern tip at the good table that the waiter always gave me, then plunging into the short, sharp waves before walking up through the town and waiting for a train to stop for us, having little moments. Instead I am changing diapers, picking up puzzle pieces, wiping paint off the walls, reading poorly-written rhyming books to him twelve times, over and over again, before 7 a.m.
(REALLY poorly written rhyming books. It often surprises me how terribly written kids books are, and how celebrated they are in media. Authors and editors seem to have virtually no knowledge of meter, and even the best-sellers make stylistic errors that any reader with a remedial high-school English education would see.)
Choosing satisfaction over happiness seems, to me, to be a strange decision to make, in an age when social media tells us that moments don’t exist unless they are captured or shared. But then there are the moments that are captured and shared that are both: happiness and satisfaction, together.
We can have it all, happiness and satisfaction. It is just that at some point the definition of All changes. Maybe it gets richer, more complete, more whole.
Isn’t it pretty to think so?