Hot Air: Happy Things?

I just finished a chore that I’ve been putting off for days (no — I lie — weeks).

I’ve finally cleaned out my email inbox.


I’m going to lie down and take a nap now.

Trotzke, The Capitalist

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My guest on Big Talk yesterday was Mike Trotzke, co-founder of Sprout Box, CEO of Cheddar (formerly CheddarGetter), and organizer of The Combine. He’s the quintessential young, ambitious, hi-tech entrepreneur. He’s a driving force behind Bloomington’s planned Tech Park and is attempting to attract new technology venture capital from its nearly exclusive domains on the Coasts to the more tentative Midwest.

Go here for the WFHB feature and here for the long-form, original interview I did with Mike.

(Un)Happy Times

I’m re-reading In a Sunburned Country right now. Loyal Pencillistas may note that I’ve been re-reading a slew of titles of late. I go through phases like that, wherein I just want to read something comfortable and soothing — especially after I’ve been reading in the papers all day long about the collapse of decency, inquiry, and civilization itself.

The author, Bill Bryson, as I’ve noted here before, is perhaps my fave living writer. He’s most known for his travel volumes (A Walk in the Woods, The Lost Continent, Notes from a Small Island, etc.) but he also ventures out into the history of language (The Mother Tongue, Made in America) and even science (The History of Almost Everything). I’ve devoured all those titles and more.

His eye for detail is extraordinary and his use of the language sublime.

In Sunburned, he writes of Australia, positing that it’s as foreign to us as Lesotho or Bhutan. I wouldn’t have thought Australia to be so alien but, as Bryson describes it, the place turns out to be something altogether different from what we Americans think we know. Its flora and fauna alone are unique on this planet since it’s such a physically isolated place. The people are another story, too.

Australia has only very recently become a “modern” nation. It is, after all, mostly horrifying desert and full of biting, stinging, poisonous critters everywhere one turns. Bryson writes that as late as 1959 not even half the population living in Australia’s cities had washing machines. One observer, he writes, noted with pride back then that “most homes have… vacuum cleaners, irons and electric jugs.” Whatever electric jugs are (or were). Bryson marvels that Australians puffed out their chests because a majority of households contained electric jugs.

Some 50-plus years ago, television had only just arrived on the continent (very few homes had one in ’59), newspapers weren’t published on Sundays, and daring restaurants served what were considered the most exotic foreign dishes like beef Stroganoff and spaghetti.

The ‘Fifties were a simpler time, both in Australia and this holy land.

Oddly, he remarks, now that Australians have every Jetsons-esque device crowding every corner of their homes — just like every other “civilized” land — and the country can be considered as cosmopolitan as any other “modern” nation, they seems less happy than their grandmas and daddy-os of half a century ago. “What struck me…,” he writes, “was not how much better off Australians are today, but how much worse they feel.”

And can’t that be said about the residents of every single modern nation? In 1959, my parents lived in a home without air-conditioning. My mother did laundry in a wringer washer. She hung the clothes out to dry in the backyard. The TV received five channels — the three network O&Os, WGN, and Channel 11, the National Educational Television (predecessor of PBS) affiliate. They had a single telephone, in their bedroom. And a computer, in their eyes, was something only space scientists needed.

Yet, somehow they were reasonably happy. They would have described themselves as such. By the time each died, they were fairly miserable even though they had cable, cordless phones all over the house, an icy cold living room in the middle of an August heat wave, a car filled with more powerful computers than those found aboard Apollo 11, electric knives, a variety of vacuum cleaners to suck up every size item of detritus imaginable, and every gewgaw and doodad their kids and grandkids could pile upon them every Christmas.

One Of These Is Higher Tech Than The Other

They had things, but no longer had happiness. Their lives, like everybody else’s, had become devoted to the accumulation of things. “Things,” Emerson wrote, “are in the saddle. And they ride mankind.” And, the truth is, things are never enough. You’ve got a laptop? Hah! The woman next door has a iPad. Oh yeah? The man next door to her has a 5G phone.

The essence of consumerism — of capitalism itself — is a constant dissatisfaction, an unquenchable desire for the next thing. It’s tantamount to being unpatriotic if one considers one’s self happy with the things one has.

We live, today, in the Era of Unhappiness.


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