A few decades ago I bought fifteen or twenty small hardback books from the Modern Library. Some had green dust covers, some had red. One of the red ones was the Letters of Seneca. I remember little of the book, but I took from it a line that has stayed with me ever since: “Men don’t know the value of time, they squander it as if it were free.”
But after more than thirty years I began to wonder if that were really the quote. After all I had engraved on my memory two unforgettable lines, neither of which the Internet can find. This one from Shakespeare: “A tooth is more precious than a diamond.”
And this one from Samuel Johnson: “If a man hates at all, he will hate his neighbor.”
Though I’ve never been able to confirm either quote, they are pithy and brilliant such that I could never have thought them up; if I had I’d never attribute them to someone else. But if I could be so wrong about those made-up quotes, I wondered if perhaps I were also wrong about the quote by Seneca.
This time, the Internet didn’t fail me. After clicking on a few search results for “Seneca and time” I hit the mother lode, and the quote was actually not too far from how I had misremembered it: “Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing.” Seneca’s was better, though. Duh.
Rehashing the hashed hash
A few clicks down the wormhole and up popped a whole bunch of other quotes about time from Seneca the Stoic.
Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.
Ouch. A whole lot of people should be feeling ouch about right now.
But like any good philosopher, Seneca had a few more granite blocks to drop on your big toe. Like this one:
It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.
In sum, the problem, as you may surmise, is you.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
Five or six years ago my wife started baking bread, and about three years ago we stopped buying bread pretty much completely. Then a couple of years ago we started roasting our own coffee. Last year? Making our own yogurt, making our own jam. This year? Making our own granola. Last week? Grinding our own wheat into flour.
As one of my friends said, “Keep at it, Seth! Pretty soon you’ll have entered the 19th Century! You might need a bigger apartment for the bags of cotton, the spinning wheel and loom, though. And the Merino sheep may not fit in the living room too well.”
Behind the humor was a criticism, which I’d roughly approximate as “What the fuck are you doing?” As he put it, “It’s awesome that you bake bread, but you know I can buy a loaf at the store for $1.99.”
“I’m cheap,” I said. “My bread costs a few pennies a loaf because we buy the wheat in 50-lb. sacks. And,” I added with my holiest-than-thou, “what you’re buying at the store isn’t bread. It’s a chemical cocktail.”
He laughed. “Of course it’s bread. Flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar, and 47 FDA-approved additives. You may not like the taste, but it’s still bread.”
He was right, you know. The next day I went for a bike ride and thought about it.
No woolen underwear for this cowboy
In fact, I am cheap. But also in fact, I’m not trying to get back to a past I never knew. The next step isn’t raising my own sheep and growing my own cotton so that I can weave my own clothes. There is no next step, because “next step” suggests a plan, a method, a strategy, a goal. I have none of those things, exactly.
But over time I’ve consistently tried, often failing, to choose things that extract the maximum value out of my time, and have eschewed those rote, common-sense choices that have never made any sense, at least to me. And few things have been as value-laden as bicycling. It’s bicycling, in fact, that has kept my needle pointing due north. If you’re willing to forego many of the “must-haves” in life so that you can pedal your bike around the planet, you’re probably going to end up jettisoning more and more must-haves as you age, quickly determining that rather than “must-haves” they are “must-avoids.”
And if you ride enough and read enough and travel enough and look around enough, you eventually start to focus on what you eat, even more so if you’re sober. In my case, if you ride enough and you’re cheap enough, you come around to bread. And mark my words, the rumblings of the biker bread revolution are already here. How do I know? Let me tell you how I know…
Flogging for fun and gluten
Last Thursday I finished the Flog Ride and a new rider came up to me atop La Cuesta. “I love this ride!” he said, which is what people always say after their first flogging, and which is invariably followed by their failure to ever come back.
“Great,” I said. “That makes you weird.”
“Well, cyclist,” he said.
“Good point. How’d you find out about it? Most people in the South Bay make a point of pretending they’ve never heard of it, even people who live within 100 yards of the start there at Malaga Cove Plaza.”
“Your blog,” he said. “You’re kind of into baking, right?”
This was a difficult question. Yes, I was into baking, but like virtually everything else I’ve ever been into [such as: archery, guitar, piano, flute, harmonica, Thai, Chinese, Slovak, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, shaving with a straight razor, Chaucer, self-published journals on Japanese law, birdwatching, nature trails, backpacking, butterfly identification, surfing, swimming, running, ceramics, sumo, podcasting, cyclocross, photography, blogging, poetry, beer making, beer drinking, bike racing, coffee roasting, web site designing, museum consulting, and countless other things of varied scope and longevity] there’s a big difference between being “into” something and being “good” at something.
“I like to bake bread,” I said cautiously, sensing a trap, but it was too late.
“What kind of organic stone-milled flour do you use?”
Just as I had feared! Someone who was an actual baker about to grill me on my fumbling and amateurish techniques. So I went big. “I grind my own.”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to pretend that I always walked around with four aces or a royal flush. “we grind our own flour at home. Buy the wheat in bulk and grind as needed.”
The significance of this wasn’t the posing. That’s a given for any bike group ride, and mandatory for the Flog. The significance was that some biker dude, instead of asking me about watts and power meters and Strava, was asking me about organic stone-milled flour. This is what’s known as a harbinger. The world is changing and it changes with the hipsters first, and this dude wore his hipster cred on his chin, with a beard that would have easily housed a colony of weaver birds.
Bread and bikes
You’ll not be surprised to know that baking bread is easy and cheap. How easy? It’s so easy that I can do it. Watch me surf sometime, or watch me try to change a tire, and you’ll realize how easy baking has to be. The thing about bread that is mystical and magical, though, isn’t simply that you can feed a family on it. What’s mystical is that something so simple can be so filling and substantial.
Over the years, my wife has given out countless loaves of bread to friends and family, and she’s even made it an offering of sorts, as time allows, for #profamateurs who conquer the wind out at Telo. People’s reactions are uniform–they tear into it, and in a very short while, it’s all gone. Every piece, every crumb. Note: This isn’t what happens when you give someone a $1.99 loaf from Von’s.
Making your own bread plays into Seneca’s hands, because it forces you to sacrifice that one commodity you can never replenish, time. Like learning a foreign language, the time expenditure seems vast until you’re staring at the hieroglyphics that you now can read, until you’re pushing into your mouth the fresh slab covered with butter, until you’re listening to the smile in the voice of the person with whom you’re breaking bread, experiencing second-hand their joy at an unspeakable luxury that for you is … your daily bread.
None of these things happens unless you’re willing to turn your back on the must-haves. As simple as baking a good loaf of bread may be, you have to give something up. What will that be? #socmed? Noooooo! The big game(s)? Noooooooo! Dinner out? Noooooooo! In fact, there’s even a great series of Internet lists that sums up all the things you have done today or are going to do tomorrow that will get between you and a fresh loaf of bread, a/k/a Unbelievably Stupid Shit That You Waste Your Time On:
- Not too sure about No. 7, but No. 20? Yessss!
- Pretty sure I’ve never done No. 4, or No. 24. No. 16? GUILTY!
- I especially like No. 1.
As you scroll through these lists, cringing, hopefully, imagine how your life might change with a couple of more hours in the day, hours spend getting your hands doughy. In fact, the craft bread movement, with cyclists in the lead, has been well underway for a while. Team Lizard Collectors member Gregory Cooke, a fantastic baker, was the first person who advised us on flour. French cyclist and baker Marilyne Faye feeds her family on home baked bred. Local hammer Alex Barnes is married to a magnificent baker; they’ve recently installed a commercial oven and are going to begin sharing Lisa’s astonishing bread-artwork with the public.
Bikers off the front, but instead of shooting up EPO, they’re peddling bread crack. Yum.
But what about my tummy???
The big fear for most cyclists isn’t squandering the precious minutes in their life on something worthless, they’re cyclists, for dog’s sake. The true fear of a full-on bread diet is the calorie count; my standard sourdough loaf packs almost 3,000 kcal. As with most phobias, the phobia of bread = fat is a fallacy. Home baked whole grain bread that’s dense and eaten with butter actually helps you keep your waistline in check.
For one, the whole grain and the butter slow down the digestion, so you don’t get the crazy sugar spike + sugar crash that come from eating Twinkies, Wonderbread, or other commercial snacks. In point of fact, for the 5.5 hours I spent flogging myself on the BWR, I had a baggie of raisins and almonds, and two tinfoils with sourdough-and-pb. I ran out of watts, but never came close to running out of energy. I think Surfer powered a chunk of his BWR on Wanky Bread & pb, too.
Aside from the nutrition of home baked loaves where you–not a CEO with a degree in chemistry–get to choose the ingredients, there’s another factor that helps keep uncontrolled eating down, and it’s the simple fact that when you’re the one who has to make the stuff, you’re not quite as cavalier about eating it. After the gluttony of the first few dozen loaves wears off, you realize that every slice you eat is a slice you’re going to have to bake later. And with this comes something long lost from most of our lives: The preciousness of food itself.
It’s this process of synching what you consume with what you create that, like a millstone, grinds down the obstacles standing in between you and the things that can add meaning to the minutes you’re here. And you don’t, emphatically, have to return to 1850 to do it.
It takes energy to ride yer bike. Why not power it with something you make yourself? Please consider subscribing … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!