Alain de Botton Highlights the Fear of Wasting my Life

Saturday afternoon and I’m on the Gunnar. The Gunnar is my commuter bike, a cyclocross frame set up to be a pothole-diving, car-dodging fast city bike. The frame is in high-visibility black with a couple of dark green bits for hubs, headset and skewers. It looks it came out of some factory in military industrial complex. I ride the Gunnar if it is going to be wet or I have to ride a long way. On Saturday the clouds were thick and the forecast said “Seattle in October”.

I am riding to the Seattle Public Library. If I ride my ddn8r fixie down Dexter I have to spin but on the Gunnar I can change gears to something nice and tall and put the hammer down. As usual, I envision car doors opening into my path as I fly down the hill. Maybe it adds to the thrill.

Downtown I am riding up Fifth Avenue. Seattle is hilly and Fifth is no exception. I get to the front at each stoplight. There’s always an open lane on one side or other and I sneak into it. As the light goes green I sprint off, and I can beat most vehicles. A lot of this sprinting is uphill. I am breathing heavily. I park under the Library by the security station, figuring that should be safer, although having seen ‘Bike Thief’ I have my doubts.

I am twenty minutes early in the lecture room. I figure I should read a book. I have a pannier full of Alain de Botton books and one I haven’t finished yet. But since I am sitting waiting for a lecture by Alain himself, I’m feeling self conscious. If I read “The Architecture of Happiness” waiting for a lecture on the Architecture of Happiness while a giant screen in front of us reads “The Architecture of Happiness” I feel like a sucky teachers pet. I decide that valour is the better part of discretion and pull the book out. I needn’t have bothered, I’m still so wired from sprinting through downtown that I can’t focus on the words. I put the book back and try to relax instead. My efforts are interrupted by a stream of people wanting the seats either side of me. “I have friends coming” I say. I hope they arrive.

Five minutes before the scheduled start I see Alain wandering around. He looks the same as he does on video. Youthful face, always the potential for a bright eyed look. He’s also tall, taller than me. I wonder how someone so tall can come across so soft. Maybe he’s gentle on the TV but a rugby-playing brute offscreen..

The lecture is brilliant. He goes through the content of the book, enlivening it and adding emphasis where he feels it is needed. His timing is spot on – he leaves a photo of a Holiday Inn hotel room on the screen for a while before commenting on it. He describes how it made him feel. Worthless. We signal agreement with our laughter.

Most of these events have one magic element. One thing that sticks in your mind and alters how you see the world. When I saw Curtis White talk he listed his goals in writing as to create something beautiful, to misbehave and to win. I recall his words when I think about what music I want to write or what stories I should tell.

With Alain de Botton the magic moment came when he was describing the walls at Versailles. He showed pictures of their elegant, gold-decorated features. The designs were detailed to a tiny level. The artistry was fine. It was clearly expensive. In my house we choose a paint to colour our walls. On Seattle’s Eastside they don’t even choose a colour, they just pick Bellevue Beige. At Versailles they hire artists and craftsmen to create gorgeous masterpieces on their walls.

Alain’s theory is that the French Kings put up such extravagant walls to help them overcome their fears. And what is the greatest fear of a French King? To be poor! So the walls remind them of their wealth, easing their fear. This was magic for me since I have been trying to understand people’s actions in terms of what they are trying to achieve. There may be times when I’ll learn more trying to figure out what they are scared of.

The lecture ends and I line up to get my books signed. I brought four of them, three of which are second hand library copies that cost me a couple of dollars each. I don’t tell this to Mr de Botton. If he examines the covers he’ll think I nicked them from libraries around America and moved to Seattle to avoid prosecution. Alain signs my books and we exchange small talk about Australia. Kent gets a book signed (How Proust can Change Your Life). Kevin didn’t bring any books, although he may have more of de Botton’s books than Kent or me.

We head to the Lighthouse coffee shop in Fremont. Riding up Fremont Avenue on a geared bike is easier than on the ddn8r but that ease means I work out less and feel less achievement when I get to the top. Do I ride everywhere on a fixie just to make it more or a challenge and more of a reward? If so, why don’t I leave the bike home and run everywhere? In heavy boots. To resolve this I am going to choose a transportation method based on what feels right. If the journey fits the Gunnar, I’ll take it and be happy despite lowering my technical difficulties.

At the Lighthouse a lot of conversation is on how people act to help cope with fear. We all wonder what the fears are that drive our actions. I haven’t got far yet. I think there’s a fear of wasting my life that is in heavy conflict with a fear of being bored. The conflict arises when my boredom makes me want to fill my life with small pleasures. These eat away at my time and I don’t achieve anything big. I’ll be pondering this for a while yet.


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