Comfort Crash Course

Comfort Crash Course, Day 10: Beauty and Time (or, The Pursuit of Pretty Moments)

4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort

This ship is a marvelous place to give in to one’s sense of wonder and fascination.

I think I’ve now come to understand why the Roman goddess of love, Venus, is depicted, in all her ravishing and seductive beauty, emerging from the sea.


A few days ago on my way to work (I’ve manufactured a commute for myself: five times around the ship before I begin, and five times once I’m finished—about the same distance from my house in Vancouver to the office that I rent), I found myself positively transfixed by the way the ship heaves water out of its way as it plows forward.

I stood watching the water roll in great, graceful, deep turquoise arches from beneath the ship’s hull and collapse into effervescent white heaps before relaxing back into its place with the rest of the ocean’s flow. It was beautiful and meditative—twenty minutes slipped by without me noticing.

When I looked up, I saw a red spot on the water not far away. Looking closer, I realized it was a red balloon, almost completely deflated but with just enough air left inside it to keep its round shape. It had a yellow string trailing behind it as it drifted along on the top of a wave. We’d been sailing away from land into the open ocean for nearly 20 hours, which meant that this balloon had come a long way.

I began to wonder about its story.

Was it one of heartbreak—a gleeful child on some distant boardwalk accidentally loosening her grip on that yellow string and watching through tearful eyes as it sailed away from her out toward the horizon?

Or perhaps it was one of charity—a wise old woman smiling as she let go of the string and watched it sail away, knowing with satisfaction that someone like me would eventually see it and wonder about its story. I chose to assume that this was the case and to share a pretty moment with this imagined stranger.

I vowed to dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes each day of this journey to staring at the ocean and allowing my mind to go where it needed to go. And I have, each morning before my commute. I can. Here, I have the time. This is perhaps the reason that I finally feel so content here aboard the ship; so comfortable, despite all the things I am away from.

Before I left on this journey, a Lab|Log reader sent me a beautiful quote from Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lauded the pursuit of a tranquil, pleasurable life: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

It could not be truer. How often I pine, in my busy life, for the time to devote myself purely to the pursuit of pretty moments like staring at the ocean, playing music, or walking in the forest—things that are comforting for the soul insofar as they make me understand the world on a less academic, more emotional level. It’s funny, though, how often I “don’t have the time” for such moments, despite how much of mankind’s effort has gone into making them possible.

In Proust Was a Neuroscientist—a book recommended to me for this journey by a Lab|Log reader—Jonah Lehrer (a former neuroscientist) makes the case that our understanding of the world must come about equally through both the sciences and the arts; that what we feel and experience is as important as what we measure:

Although these artists witnessed the birth of modern science—Whitman and Eliot contemplated Darwin, Proust and Woolf admired Einstein—they never stopped believing in the necessity of art. As scientists were beginning to separate thoughts into their anatomical parts, these artists wanted us to understand consciousness from the inside. Our truth, they said, must begin with us, with what reality feels like.

. . .

It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.

In his book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt writes about how the fifteenth-century discovery of Lucretius’s ancient poem On the Nature of Things set the precedent for the rest of mankind to consider beauty and pleasure as a legitimate and worthy human pursuit:

It was a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging to human life, that pleasure and virtue are not opposites but intertwined, and that matter is made up of very small material particles in eternal motion, randomly colliding and swerving in new directions.

It was the basis for the Renaissance and the rise of fashion and decoration. It guided “Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific and technological explorations, Galileo’s vivid dialogues on astronomy, Francis Bacon’s research projects, and Richard Hooker’s theology.” And it is one of the reasons that Americans are entitled to “the pursuit of happiness.”

Throughout history we have continuously worked to give ourselves more time for these pursuits. Many of the most revolutionary inventions in the pursuit of a more comfortable lifestyle were those that gave us more time—the washing machine, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner, the lawn mower.

Atco mower

Indeed, in the eighteenth century, “comforts” and “conveniences” were interchangeable terms.

Sigfried Giedion’s book Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History gives a fantastic overview of the history of mechanization in the household and elsewhere. He recounts how, in 1869, when patents for washing machines were nearing 2,000, Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, in their book The American Woman’s Home, advocated for every dozen or so families to share one of the devices, stating: “How it would simplify the burdens of the American housekeeper to have washing and ironing day expunged from her calendar!” (Emphasis mine.)

By the 1950s and 1960s, of course, this became a reality for the majority of American households.

Washing machine

And yet we often manage to find ways to fill that time with things that are not in the pursuit of pleasure.

The city often doesn’t help us. Distant suburbs, slogging public transportation systems, and drives to large grocery stores with long lines are just a few of the many daily obstacles robbing city dwellers of precious time.

But we also choose to fill that time. Despite all our ancestors’ efforts to clear time into mankind’s schedule, we manufacture tasks just like I’ve manufactured my shipboard commute. We choose to work more, or commute further in order to afford our comforts (or were they necessities? or luxuries?).

If I were to ask Lucretius how to make our cities more comfortable places to live in, I imagine the improvements he would suggest might be those that would give us extra time for the pursuit of pleasure—of friendship, or imagination, or art, beauty, and pretty moments.

But perhaps he would also suggest that we as citizens make an improvement—to take that time when it’s given to us, and use it.

Photos: (top to bottom): Isaac Bowen via Flickr; Atco motor mower advertisement from The Sphere: Royal Marriage Number (1922) via DominusVobiscum on Flickr; Easy washing machine advertisement from American Home Magazine (1947) via DominusVobiscum on Flickr.

The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.

  • Christine

    After reading this post, I went directly to the Toronto Public Library’s website and put a hold on “Proust was a Neuroscientist.” I can’t wait to read it. I firmly believe that we can intuit profound truths about life through art — that it’s not just lofty supposition — but I’m more and more becoming interested in rounding out my knowledge with science. So I’m looking forward to the connections that Lehrer will make between the two.

    Thanks again, great blog. I’ve been enjoying following you along on your adventure!

    • Christine McLaren

      Cool – thanks so much for reading along. The book is fabulous. After you’ve read it, please come back and let me/us know how it was. I’d be interested to hear your further thoughts.