02 November 2009

Doing very little...

...slowly. That's one idea people have about retirement. The advice, or description, is another way of saying what we used to say in Silicon Valley, when I worked in California: we said, "the more you have to do, the more you get done." The corollary: the less you have to do, the less you do.

But that's a different world. My advice to people who come here to live, out in the French countryside, is to slow down. Really slow down. My goal is to do one thing a day. Or, I should say, accomplish one thing a day, outside my normal routine. Is cooking lunch an accomplishment? Not under my definition. It's necessary, and recreational. Other routine tasks are less amusing, but they have to be done too.

Getting wood sawed for the winter —
now that's an accomplishment.

Raking up leaves, tilling a garden plot, re-organizing the garage, cutting wood, trimming a hedge — are those accomplishments? Yes, they are. You could conceivably just let them go undone. Bottling that wine you bought en bulk a few days ago, weeding a garden, vacuuming out the car... those are things you really don't have to do today. You do have to cook lunch. Or at least eat something, and I'd rather eat food I've cooked than something prepared in a factory.

"A sense of urgency." That's another ideal of the work life. It's what we looked for when we were interviewing candidates for a vacant position in the software business. Well, that "sense of urgency" is superfluous, even counterproductive, when you live in a place like the outskirts of Saint-Aignan. And it can be frustrating, because it seems like so many things just take longer here. You need patience, not a sense urgency. Where's the fire?

This hedge is a lot of work.
You're probably sick of hearing about it.

"Settling for the slow lane of life." These are phrases I hear on one of my favorite TV shows, a British comedy called As Time Goes By. The 35-year-old publisher tells the 65-year-old writer that he seems to be "settling for the slow lane." Settling? You have to be kidding. Wallowing in. Exalting in. Learning to love. Finding happiness in. All those apply, when it comes to "the slow lane of life" — but "settling"? Who is kidding whom?

Granted, it's a time of life. The problem is that when you come here and operate out of "a sense of urgency," and when you refuse to "settle" for anything less hectic than that life you were used to, you have stopped adapting. You are in a rut. It's hard to get out of a rut. And it is really hard to slow down. For years, your sense of self-worth depended on your doing more and doing it faster. It's hard to let go, to go with the flow.

Taking down the old back gate, which needs replacing, and
putting up a temporary one — just work, or an accomplishment?

I feel like I'm doing plenty. I still find myself thinking: that has to be done tomorrow. Otherwise, when will I do it? The answer is: day after tomorrow, next Friday, or the next time we have a sunny day. It all waits. It's just the everyday stuff that needs to be done... well, every day. The rest will still be there, when you get around to it. You have to be a self-starter, but within reason.

There's a French saying that goes: « Faire et défaire, c'est travailler. » Doing and undoing — in other words, doing the same things over and over and over again. Cleaning the house, getting it dirty, and cleaning it again. Same with laundry, dishes ... everything. That's work. Raking leaves too. I cleaned off the gravel driveway Saturday, and by Sunday evening enough new leaves had fallen to cover it right back up again. Faire et défaire...

Accomplishments in the form of autumn leaves

The other day, before the rains started, I raked up leaves. Again. That's been my life for nearly two months, and there will be plenty more to rake up before winter really comes. After the raking, I spread the leaves on a garden plot that I had tilled up a couple of days earlier. On days like that, I have to take care of the everyday chores ahead of time, just to make the time to accomplish something that is outside the regular routine.

I have leftovers for lunch, for example, because I can't rake and cook at the same time. How did I ever juggle work responsibilities and everyday domestic tasks? I guess I was younger then. I just never slowed down, like many people I know.

Taking the time to admire nature

I remember sitting in miles of stop-and-go traffic with all the other commuters, one person to a vehicle — the driver. One driver would be reading the newspaper, another shaving or putting on makeup, or and still another eating. One day I was driving along at 40 or 50 miles per hour, in heavy traffic, when I noticed that the driver in the next lane over was eating Chinese food out of a cardboard tray. With chopsticks! When you find yourself doing that, you should get a clue: it's time to stop and smell the soy sauce.

Out in the vineyard, they prune the vines and burn the clippings,
every fall and winter, in these home-made contraptions.

Sometimes I wonder why I can't take my own advice, though. It's been 7 years since I had a paying job, and I'm busy all the time. I guess it's my nature. Writing this blog, taking the pictures, processing the pictures — all that has become part of my daily routine, along with walking the dog, cooking lunch, cleaning up the kitchen, putting clothes in the washer and hanging them up to dry. Reading the newspapers.

I still need to learn to slow down. As I've joked, retirement is hard work: you have to keep at it 24 hours a day. When I worked, I had "free" time. Now, every minute counts — especially the last one. Without that minute, nothing much would ever get done.


  1. It's still the same old story...
    Mary & I must have seen each episode 3 times. But, once in a great while, one will be new to us. That's like winning the lottery. Isn't Geoffrey Palmer's face just about the most (not quite sure what adjective goes here) you've ever seen.

    It used to be the same with Inspector Morse, but now we know we've seen them all. But it's been a while; maybe it's time to start over.

    My current obsession is with The Vicar of Dibley; got to see every one.

    Actually, the list goes on. I love British comedy(bad laugh track and all) and British mystery. I guess it's the supurb acting.

  2. Retirement sounds wonderful. It's great that you're so busy !!

    The best thing about it seems to be that you can pick and choose your day for doing something, to an extent, according to the weather. We are completely surrounded by half-finished jobs all year because we didn't get it done when the weather was right or before something more pressing cropped up.

  3. i think i've been in the slow lane for many years now......i don't feel bad about only getting one thing done per day, aside from the "everyday" tasks....

    Bill in NH ...LOL....we have seen all the episodes many times too, but still laugh (that and the fact that there's nothing good on Sat evenings) and we are always shocked when there's a "new" one

    it's another drizzly day here after a dreary weekend....boo....was glad to see your pics of the lovely leaves

  4. I'm glad that your blog is a part of your retirement routine! It's part of mine...

    I love that contraption for burning grape leaves- so practical and has passed the test of time. The vineyard is beautiful this time of year, but soon it will be bare I see. We have an oak leaf hydrangea that has turned all sorts of colors like your vines- I love looking at it.

  5. I can't wait to be retire. Of course, I would love to skip the "age" thing but hopefully, I will make the best of it and I should be so lucky to follow in your foot steps, have a blog, take good pictures, have a garden...
    (I love british actors. THEY are the best. Love "Masterpiece theater"...)

  6. How very well put.

    I'm conscious of having relaxed and slowed down a lot: I still have a full-time job, but I've finally learnt to work to live and not vice versa, even if the living side of it is also less than hectic.

    "The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers"

  7. What great advice, Ken. And quite Zen. I think this post is going to go on my frig for a while.

    Friends introduced us to Foyle's War; what a great series. Time Goes By is on seemingly nonstop. I'll have to give it a try as well.

  8. The current favorite around here right now is Doc Martin. A village of interesting characters, a Doctor who needs to work on his social skills, good writing.

  9. Now this is what I call 'Living the life' Your blog title couldn't be more appropriate!

    btw, have you ever watched the BBC serial 'The Good Life' ... It's so much like what you are doing.


  10. Hello Ken, how nice to meet you and your blog. Living in France must be a very rewarding experience. Your blog is delightful.
    Muchos cariños
    María Cecilia, from Chile, southamerica

  11. I would imagine that you really do have to have "a fire under your butt" when you're retired to be sure that you don't let things slide. But, Ken, you and Walt definitely strike me as guys who don't procrastinate. I'm afraid that I would be constantly putting things off to another day! I don't think that I could be self-employed, for the same reason... I'd worry that I wouldn't be SURE to get at least one chore-type task done everyday.

    Hats off to you!!

    p.s. Did they REALLY expect you to look for people with "a sense of urgency" when you were doing hiring?!?!?!? Like... urgency about changing the world??? or about WHAT exactly?!?

  12. Yes, Judy, exactly that, a sense of urgency. Urgency about getting the work done. I guess teamwork is about that. Not letting the other team members down. Then you get to the stage in your life where you are no longer a member of such a team.

  13. Jean, there are always a thousand unfinished projects. That's why you have to try to finish, or at least work on, one of them every day.

    Martine, yes, the Good Life is one of our favorites. We're not really trying to do the same thing they tried to do, but there are similarities.

    Bill, the Vicar of Dibley is great. That's one we don't have on DVD.

  14. what a great post.

    i'm not retired yet but i love my days that i "do very little."


  15. Hello Janet, I haven't been to Redlands in a long time. Thanks for your nice comment.

  16. i wanted to thank you for blogging your friend's funeral. i'll never forget his father's pink tie or the boyhood friend standing alone at the wake, great stuff, ken, thanks so much.


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?