Perhaps there’s hope.  A trio of book reviews I recently stumbled across indicate at least some few of the folks immersed in the social cess pool are able to poke their heads far enough above the muck to understand how poisonous are its absurdities. 

The three books have nothing in common, except perhaps their common sense.  One is a book on what a healthy socio-economic system might look like–one that affords its denizens the opportunity to live good, but not necessarily acquisitive, lives.  Another is on how hyper-competitive parents inflict so much damage on their children that they often irretrievably break them instead of preparing them to lead, again, good lives.  And the last is on rediscovering the simple joy of riding a bike just because it’s fun.  As fun is an integral part of any good life, I was wrong, all three books have more than just common sense in common.  They have a common theme, but applied to disparate subjects. 

I’ll not review the books as I haven’t yet read them, but give just a brief snapshot of the reviews, the links for which are embedded in the titles.

In most of human history, the challenge has been simply to survive in the face of scarcity, but that’s not the case in developed economic systems today.  In “How Much is Enough?  Money and the Good Life”, Robert and Edward Skidelsky argue that the challenge of living the good life today is to learn how to live well amid plenty.   We have arrived at this point of overabundance through capitalism making a virtue out of vice, compelling relentless, insatiable acquisitiveness.  But somewhere along the spectrum, as they argue, enough really is enough.  Relentless acquisition, for no other purpose than acquisition, requires the continual denial of the normal human impulse to cease striving for more once the needs that originally drove the acquisitiveness are satiated.   And obviously, nothing of the good life is concerned with abstract nonsense like aggregate domestic product measures.

As I have explained more fully in my review of “The True Measure of a Man”, living well amid plenty requires understanding the basic human impulses driving us–survival and propagation–and of learning to be satisfied that our purpose is fulfilled so long as we have met these impulses so far as we are able.   

These two British academics, father and son, have hit upon a profound conundrum that philosophers and theologians in the developed world wrestle with every day–how to find meaning and purpose in life when survival–the very thing which we have been designed to struggle to achieve–is as easy and secure as it can possibly be.   Meeting the challenge of figuring out what to do once needs are met (with a little cushion), instead of simply continuing along with the acquisitive ways because our feeble, child-like imaginations never allowed for the possibility that the meaning and purpose of life is something other than acquisition, requires the perspective of a fully-formed, psychic adult.   Only two-year olds should wish to have all the blocks just for the purpose of having them.  A book like this may just help folks to grow up and out of their infantile ways.   At minimum, the fact it is being published at all says something about how people are coming around to the idea that the point of life can’t, either philosophically or practically, be insatiable acquisition.

In “Teach your children well”, psychologist Madeline Revine also dishes up some deep philosophical fare, if only coincidental to taking parents to task for the damage they inflict upon their kids by projecting upon them their hyper-competitive nature, from the review:

These are parents who run themselves ragged with work and hyper-parenting, presenting an ‘eviscerated vision of the successful life’ that their children are then programmed to imitate.  They’re parents who are physically hyper-present but somehow psychologically M.I.A.: so caught up in the script that runs through their heads about how to ‘do right’ by their children that they can’t see when the excess of keeping up, bulking up, getting a leg up and generally running scared send the whole enterprise of ostensible care and nurturing right off the rails.

Sounds to me that Revine’s parents should read the Skidelsky book so they might discover on a more profound level when enough is enough.  It is surely not only their parenting skills and priorities that need improving.  Raising children, for a great many of today’s parents, is all about keeping up with everyone else.  But are human beings really herd animals?  Or are we perfectly capable of going our own way, and meeting life on our own terms?  I’d say that the most vapid of all our acquisitive impulses is the impulse to seek status.  There is nothing more hollow than a life that understands itself only as an impression on the minds of others.  Every human life is intrinsically valuable, including those lives that don’t make the Ivy league or climb some respected career ladder.  A parent who behaved like a psychically adult human being would, instead of imploring their kids to greater and greater achievement, instill in them the truth that all flesh and blood humans are pretty much the same, and that all the money, fame or success in the world is no guarantee of happiness, never mind immortality, putting aside their selfish impulses to shape and form their children as an expression of themselves, and allow the kids to be kids, discovering the world at their own pace, free to form their own unique perceptions about it.

In “Just Ride: A radically practical guide to riding your bike”, Grant Peterson, formerly a competitive cyclist and now an owner of a bike shop in Walnut Creek, California, aims to demystify bike riding, taking it away from the grown men in spandex pretending to be professional racers, and giving it back to the people who simply like riding a bike to get around, or do it for the sheer enjoyment to be derived from wind swooshing past the ears on a downhill run on a too-hot July day (that’s me).  Here’s Peterson, quoted from the review:

“‘In its need for special clothing,’ he writes, ‘bicycle riding is less like scuba diving and more like a pick-up basketball game.’  A regular cotton T-shirt and a pair of shorts will ventilate better, he says, and if you’re not trying to shave seconds off a world record, the microscopic aerodynamic advantages of tight synthetic clothing just don’t apply to you.”

I wonder, do these grown men dressed up in their homo-erotic spandex shorts and tops (always emblazoned with logos in a futile effort to look as if they have sponsors) with gloves and special shoes and two water bottles on a bike with a seat almost as skinny as its tires, have any idea how utterly ridiculous they look?  Especially as they leisurely coast down a hill, chatting with each other?   According to the review, Peterson does a splendid job of pointing out the absurdities, while making it okay for regular folks to ride without the pretensions, saying of bikes and riding, “unless you use it to make a living, it is a toy, and it should be fun.”

Is there anything more psychically infantile than adults playing make-believe?  But that’s what you get in spades on every weekend day, and often through the week–a bunch of grown men dressing up to pretend they are something they’re not, i.e., professional road racers, while pretending to do something they aren’t, i.e., road racing on a bicycle.  They’ll reply that their specialized gear is necessary, just because, and to leave them alone, as at least they’re getting exercise.  Peterson points out neither assertion is true, not even the part about getting exercise.  Riding a bike is “lousy all-around exercise”, a point which a buddy of mine, an over-forty casual runner at the time, drove home, by beating Lance Armstrong in the New York Marathon by half an hour. 

Michael Kinsley recently had a column in Bloomberg where he asked what would we be most embarrassed about in twenty years for having believed today.  He should have asked who would be most embarrassed.  Surely these grown men hobby cyclists playing make-believe professional racers in their homo-erotic gear would be strong contenders.