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The Shipwreck Rose: Earned, Not Given

Thu, 05/09/2024 - 09:35

The crotchetiest, most old-person-y thing a human being can possibly say is this phrase: “Anything worth doing will be hard.” Saying “Anything worth doing will be hard” is the conversational equivalent of waving a cane and mentioning your yard or (even more boring) the cliché about how long it took you to walk to school back in the Paleolithic era. I’m sure there are equivalents in every language on earth for “Anything worth doing will be hard,” because it’s a universal lesson of aging. You can’t get older without noticing this truism, unless you are, pardon my French, stupid. I’m sure “Anything worth doing will be hard” is inscribed in cuneiform on tablets hidden in caves in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey, and that someone somewhere in Aotearo — New Zealand — wears it on their stomach as a tattoo.

I’ve tried to find creative alternative ways to communicate to my teenage children this message, that life will have more joy if they shake off the sloth and fight the urge to lie under the duvet watching people with lip fillers apply makeup or fall off skateboards on TikTok, and go outside and do something, but it is a daily struggle. Maybe they believe me, because I’ve said it frequently and forcefully enough?

Around this house, the house itself reminds me often that anything worth doing will take effort, and this is because — as I have mentioned before in this column — three generations of Rattrays, now, have mulishly resisted the temptation to update anything, and so all the systems are, to put it politely, outdated and require more effort than modern conveniences would. The outdated-ness is a “choice,” as they say, but nevertheless it’s a never-ending hassle.

We — and by “we” I mean either a handyman or my ex-husband — still put up wood-frame storm windows every October, then take them down in May to replace them with the wood-frame screens of summer. The front door is surrounded in winter by what we call “the vestibule,” three removable wood walls and a storm door that are popped up as an entranceway insulation measure, a pause between blizzard and fireside, and then taken down again in spring so that a screen door can be slapped up. The phone on my bedside table is the kind of antique that you actually have to dial. (Yes, it’s a punch-button dial phone from the 1980s, but still.) The stove in the kitchen is a hulking Crown behemoth with six burners, two ovens, and two broilers dating to the Kennedy administration and, yes, it is marginally more of an effort to light the burners with a match, but only when hell freezes over will someone convince me to switch it out for a safe, convenient electric model.

Under the heading of “Anything worth doing at all will take at least a tiny modicum of effort” I categorize most of life’s pleasures: bringing home an actual evergreen tree at Christmas, even though it means I will have to vacuum the living-room rugs; making chocolate pudding from cornstarch and cocoa rather than the Jell-O box; whipping the actual cream; crossing the wet lawn on stocking feet on a Sunday morning to retrieve The Times and flip through the actual paper pages, rather than just, with ultimate indolence, lifting one pointer finger to tap the headlines on my screen.

All of modernity, it becomes apparent, is a slow march toward stillness, a slow sloughing off of efforts and energy-expending, as science and technology do their thing and transform all the processes of living to become more streamlined, more simplified, more comfortable, more effortless. We’re becoming motionless. I’m told we will soon be able to scroll our devices just by rolling and flicking our eyeballs. It’s like we’re living in some dystopian 1970s sci-fi movie.

I wonder, historically speaking, when the peak balance was achieved between soul-crushing pre-industrial laboriousness and postmillennial automation and do-nothing-ness? For human happiness, I mean.

You don’t want to have to use a hand-crank laundry wringer to wash your bed linens, no, true, and, speaking from experience as a sometime field hand, few sane farmers would prefer the hassle of rigging up oxen to drag a plow (and feeding the oxen, and cajoling them), but we have reached a point in human evolution where we can actually, physically, just lie here if we so choose, watching “Shogun” on Hulu and ordering Chipotle on our iPhone without even sitting up. Most of us, myself included, most often choose the route of sloth and somnambulance, the Sandman life.

Is this living? Even being entertained entails less effort in 2024.

I’m not certain of many things — having achieved, as I wrote last week, a natural evolutionary state of moral ambivalence and uncertainty with middle age — but I’m 100 percent certain that it was more fun, fun, fun and it made you feel more alive, alive, alive to leave the house in woolly scarves, walk in the snow to Clinton Academy, and join a group of friends and neighbors for group carol singing some December 100 years ago, as compared with lying on the couch alone watching “Elf” again.

My daughter is in the midst of the dreaded “junior spring” up in New Hampshire at Phillips Exeter Academy. It’s the moment of most-intense academic pressure in the life of an academy student, when they are all required to write a history research paper titled the “333” (for reasons no one can explain to me, other than its being harmoniously akin to “666,” the sign of the Beast). She has been at her desk writing about single-use plastic bottles and the “Crying Indian” television commercial by 7 each morning and still hard at it when I bid her “goodnight” around midnight. Meanwhile, there is calculus, and an ornithology class, and varsity lacrosse. Anything worth doing is difficult, honey. You’re doing a great job.

Last time I visited Nettie at Exeter, in April, I noticed that in the display of girlish teenage knickknacks and ephemera on her built-in, dorm-room desk-shelving unit — among the clutter of perfume bottles (My Way by Versace), smiley-face stress balls, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” tubes and pots of lip balm, notebooks, chargers and plugs, hoop earrings, navy-blue nail polish — was a sticker with her lacrosse team’s motto on it: “Earned, not given.”

That is probably the most valuable lesson she’s learning at Exeter.

Call me a curmudgeon! But the kids, who never knew life “before,” don’t know these things. They have to be taught. They don’t know how much more joy there was in the, you know, analog world. I’m waving my cane.

Actually, as to that point above about the farmers and the oxen: I think maybe there probably was more joy — more pleasure in the world, the turning of the earth, the clatter of the rig, the gee, the haw — to be found with the oxen, in the springtime, rather than a tractor. Isn’t it strange that, barring some techno-pocalypse in which we are all plunged by unforeseen calamity back into digital darkness, we’ll never know?

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