Exile on Main Street

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Yesterday we spent a few deeply and surprisingly pleasurable hours wandering Main Street in Vancouver. Deeply, because they built the slow and easy sense of relaxation that is impossible to summon by will but arrives finally like a conquering force, transforming all it finds. Surprisingly, because I hate recreational shopping. I hate that it exists, that it is what lots (and lots) of people in the affluent part of the world I live in do for fun (“Hi, my name is Milton and my favourite thing is to consume products or to walk about looking for and subsequently coveting things I want to have sold to me in the future”) and I physically hate wandering about shops without purpose. My body quickly becomes stricken by a torpor that even a growing sense of trapped fury cannot break through.

But yesterday we wandered about a shopping street looking, and sometimes going into, shops, and it was deeply pleasurable. It could be that the tide of relaxation was always due to reach its high water yesterday afternoon and that this blissful onset coincided with our time on Main Street. Whenever I’m lucky enough to have a holiday, it noticeably takes a long time for the tension of lift. It’s sad to reflect that it takes at least four or five days away from the everyday stresses and routines of life at home and at work before relaxation can get a foothold. It means that weekends are never even close to being enough. Occasionally I’ll feel the edge of it coming in on the Sunday of the four day Easter break but that’s quickly eclipsed as work rises darkly behind the horizon. 

So, sure, I was due to start feeling well, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that something about the process of drifting up and down that street didn’t have a lot to do with it.

The businesses on Main Street created a sense of well being. Which is stupid, but I can’t deny it. For now, for today at least, this street and the people who run the businesses here have nailed a certain vibe, a particular but hard-to-pin-down aesthetic that, for a relaxing middle-ager like me, oozes warm pleasantness. They are all, in detail, different from one another. Here is the Regional Assembly of Text selling their own handmade cards and stationary which no one needs but most passers by can’t help but want. Here is Red Cat Records, a straight down the line record store eschewing fancy interiors for racks stuffed to the hilt with vinyl and CDs. Here is a fish and chip shop selling battered salmon from a open front. Next to it a bar with a sign outside reading ‘Today’s soup: whiskey’. And here is a store who’s front declaims ‘Welcome Home Eugene Choo‘ selling… Well I assume they’re selling something.

Between them are new retro interiors, clothes with bold illustrative prints, grocery stores that also sell Haruki Murakami novels, a bike shop packed with new and second hand bikes literally piled on top of one another and a soap dispensary that does nothing specific but still manages to make you want to fill your home with soap and it’s apparently many accoutrements. Cafés and bakeries too. And a mechanics and a Veterans Centre. In the middle of all this at least one residential house that screams “Instagram me!” In such a needily pretentious way that I assume it’s a film set or artwork, put there for that very reason.

I can’t bracket these places as hipster, or even knowingly trendy to use a much more off-trend adjective. They are instead, for the most part, unironic spaces created and curated with care and love by people with various but usually appealingly good taste. The contrasts between them are clear but, apart from a certain retro industrial ‘we just welded and hammered this old place together’ chic, it’s hard to say what it is that binds them together. Maybe it’s just the street they all face. 

Somehow, being around a bunch of seemingly unrelated places that are just done so well brings a certain salve to the soul. 

A couple of weeks ago Google paid a lot of money to buy an app called Jetpac. Jetpac is a clever idea, which is cute enough to sell the app to users, based on interesting technology which was intriguing enough to sell the company. Whilst the end results are weirdly baffling, the idea behind them is a doozy. They have, they claim, analyzed all publicly available geotagged photos from Instagram and have used these to compile machine rendered city guides, in the form of ‘best of’ lists. 

Which locations have the most smiling women? Which bars have the happiest looking people? These must be the best bars in the city! Which spots are most often frequented by men with moustaches? These, my friend, are your hipster hangouts. Which coffee shops get snapped most often? You get the picture.

Cute idea, as I think I may have mentioned. And, hearing about the buy out as we prepared to make the trip to Canada, I downloaded it and looked with interest at the places it told me were the top of Vancouver’s particular pops. As we headed away from Main Street, I scrolled through the various top tens for the benefit of our guide, the exquisitely well-attuned Sarah, and she scoffed at the choices the robots had made. I drew my own conclusions from the fact that none of the wonderful places I’d seen on Main were featuring, but various Tim Hortons were. Either this app and me, or the rest of the human race and me, were just out of step with each other.

Listening to Sarah give her immediate reactions to the places being recommended by the app, it struck me with a certain force that there is no longer anywhere in the world, or at least no city, on which I could offer similarly well-qualified views. We left Manchester 11 years ago now. I have great trouble remembering the names of the places we used to spend our time back then. Even if I could remember them, at least half will have closed. I left Leeds more than twenty years ago. Called upon recently to give reassurance to a colleague who’s daughter is heading there to University this autumn I could only fall back on ‘she’ll have a great time’ and ‘of course it will all have changed since I was there’. In other words, ‘I have nothing of any value to share with you’.

Now my nearest city is Exeter and I go out there maybe three or four times a year. If Jetpac has a list of the best places to have your office Christmas meal then I am slowly compiling some experience which could be brought to bear. For anything else, forget it.

How did this come to pass? I know nowhere. I belong to nowhere that anyone would know or need to know about.

Come to think of it, I live in the middle of nowhere, and I know that nowhere pretty well. I just don’t expect anyone else to be interested in to have taken snaps of it or to be asking robots where the best places to hang out are. Nowhere just isn’t that kind of place.

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Downhilling with the Stoics

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Some good things happened today. Among them, I got to go downhill biking in Whistler for the second time, 6 years after the first. Also, I started to get into the meat of Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. As I did so I had the feeling that, in his description of modern day Stoics and the way they seek joy in life, Burkeman was encapsulating the way I have come to feel about happiness, expectation and contentment.

The two came together as I sat alone at the bottom of the chairlifts in Whistler Village, waiting for the time when I could head over and get kitted out for my afternoon of biking. In the book, Burkeman discusses an approach to unhappiness based around confronting fears and concerns directly and actively considering what might be the worst possible outcomes. This is set against the prevalent doctrine of positive thinking, which advocates planning actively for everything going right for you, with the underlying promise that just wishing for the best will certainly make it happen.

It seems like some cursory rationalisation is all that’s required to pull apart the seams of this approach. Quite often, perhaps most times, the things we want to happen and the things we don’t want to happen, come to pass due to forces completely outside our control. Let’s say, as shorthand, they happen or don’t thanks to luck. If your outlook and the basis for your happiness is predicated on everything going right always then when something doesn’t, what recourse do you have? Pretend it never happened? Pretend you never wanted it to go any other way? Reassess your entire worldview? None of these are satisfactory. More practically if your approach to life is to screw up your eyes and wish for the best, when the worst happens, and it will, how can you hope to meet it and cope?

Negative thinking suggests instead that we contemplate the worst that might happen and that, through doing so, we will come to realise that even this is still survivable and that most undesirable outcomes are actually pretty trivial. 

This morning I read a chapter which dealt partly with social embarrassment. The point made through reasoning and personal exposure is that you may fear embarrassing or awkward situations but your belief that they will somehow cause you harm is actually the only significant problem you face. In practice, if you do the thing you’re afraid of, put yourself in the situation you dread or, as a practicing stoic might, think through in some detail the possible consequences of doing it, you’ll come to realise that nothing really bad is at all likely to happen. Other people don’t care if you behave differently. You aren’t somehow marked out as a pariah. No-one you meet subsequently will have received a news alert warning them to shun or secretly mock you.

I haven’t been downhill biking for years. I know enough to admit to myself that I can’t remember how to do it. W had a guid last time. He thought us three rules, all related to animals. I can remember that I need to adopt a stance like a fat cow, that I either should or should not be a flamingo, and nothing else. For a pursuit where a steering error can send you head first into a tree trunk, a sense of humility is no bad thing, at least in your opening exchanges. 

Since the last time we were here I’ve spent a considerable amount of my spare time pedalling bikes up hills. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing that. Riding downhill is a fun consequence, a by-product. I also love getting on my bike and exploring the countryside, going whichever way pleases or piques me. Downhilling is the opposite of both these. A ski lift takes you up the mountain and you follow a two foot wide trail all the way back down again. All reactions, no decisions and pedalling strictly a novelty.

I knew that I was back to being a total beginner. I didn’t know the code. I knew that despite being a very experienced cyclist I was heading straight for the novice green runs. As I looked at the queues for the lifts I craned to see how the riders ahead of me were loading their bikes onto the carriers. I thought about what would happen if I messed it up. I wondered whether the other bikers would look at me with contempt or pity.

Once I got up there, would I crash and friction burn? How would that look to the hard bitten men and women coming down behind me?

Then, instead of spending the next 30 minutes wondering whether the guy in bike shop would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, or whether it would be obvious from the fact I was wearing running shoes that I was the odd kid out on the lifts, I spent a couple of minutes thinking about what the consequences of those things might be. 

Answer: nothing. 

If you’ve ever worked in a shop, did you remember any but the absolutely wackiest customers? At the end of any day do you remember any of the strangers you clapped eyes on for less than five seconds, even those who looked a little out of place? Of course not. So why should I give a care about whether other complete strangers, strangers most of who will spend most of their lives living on a completely different continent, fleetingly think about me. In fact, to even expect them to notice is grotesque arrogance. If I had a problem on the lift, or got lost on the trails, the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that someone would help me and then forget about it. 

So instead of getting more and more anxious as I waited to begin, I drank my coffee and thought about how much I was hoping to enjoy it. And when I got to the lifts I commenced doing just that. 

I spent three happy hours pounding, by my standards at least, down that mountain, then being lifted back to the top. For the first hour and a half it felt as if I was going to spend the whole time on the beginners runs, because, Good Lord, downhilling is sketchy. One weight shift a half second too late and even on the easiest trails you can expect to be in the undergrowth with at least one or two skinned limbs. 

Ordinarily, this novitiate status would have formed a nagging sense of failure which would have hung around in the background of my day and left me feeling that even though I had felt like I might be enjoying it, I really was failing all along. None of that this time. I simply got up and got down with a smile on my face and increasingly numb tendons in my hammered forearms and wrists. I fell off twice and laughed about it. I barely spoke to a soul and by the end of the session I could have carried on for another three hours, had my hands not been frozen into claws. 

Confidence and positive aggression are important parts of downhilling. One of the lessons I relearned quickly is that letting the bike run at speed is often much safer than running with the brakes applied. But today I was able to prove that contemplating head on what might go wrong can give a major boost to good times.