My to-do list hovers at +- 225 items, and that’s only because I moved a pile of ideas off into a “long range” list when I accepted that they simply weren’t going to happen in the next few months. Some items may age out, too, but most of the stuff on that list will get done at some point. Today, I’m thinking of how much of what I do is simply an attempt to prevent something worse from happening, or to stop something breaking or falling apart. What is “growth,” what is “maintenance,” and what is “not dead yet?”
My electric toothbrush brings this question to mind twice a day with its little two-minute routine. Admittedly, my teeth and gums are in better shape since I started using an electric, mostly because of that timer. (Too much information!) But I wonder: is the investment worth the payoff? Am I spending four minutes a day (plus another for flossing) to prevent something that might not happen anyway? The stakes go up when you consider the link between gum and heart disease, of course; it’s one thing to wonder about vanity and false teeth and a crooked smile and a whole ‘nother to add replacement heart valves. But if my math is right (40 more years @ 5 minutes / day), I’m going to spend 30 work week-equivalents brushing my teeth. How long does it take to recover from (and pay off) a valve job? (OK OK OK, as I review this before clicking “Publish,” I realized I have to figure the amount of time spent in the dentist’s chair; cleaning takes less time with the electric toothbrush, and the reps who call on dentists aren’t leaving free refills for electric toothbrushes yet, are they? Not in my zip code, at least.)
Then again, this logic brings to mind the garlic-and-onions diet: eat a clove of garlic and an onion every day, and from a distance, you’ll look thinner. I can’t save all five minutes a day; I need some minimum oral hygiene in order to move easily in society. 1.5 minutes, maybe? On one hand, I could save 21 work weeks; on the other, I’m investing 21 work weeks in heart disease prevention.
(I do this sort of thinking at my day job, but I did it before I got the job and I’ve kept the job because I do this effortlessly, all the time. I read books about people at MIT (The Idea Factory) and identify with the thought processes, even if I was personally stymied by thermo.)
We need to paint the wood trim at the north end of the house. I’ve been telling myself that the trouble was the last person who painted it did a bad job, but that was before I bought the house and I’ve been here 11 years now. The excuse is wearing thin. Sooner or later, we’ll get the ladders and scrapers and brushes out and repaint, probably dark red so the next time it flakes away, it won’t look so bad in the process. Maybe blue, same logic, but blue paint wears out faster than red. Purple, for the best of both? (That’s the artist thinking…) (but it’s the north side and gets no direct sun so maybe blue won’t be that bad after all…) (We have no homeowner association covenants in this neighborhood.) All the while, I’m wondering: How much MORE life do you get out of painted wood than “naked,” and will the difference show up in the useful life of this house?
And so I wear my sunscreen and pay attention to the oil changes in the truck and mow the grass often enough that a push mower will work and I don’t need to borrow my neighbor’s goats (who prefer everything else to grass, btw). I balance checkbooks and find my $20 mistake before it snowballs into $100 of overdraft charges. This is good.
During the 2007 summer drought when the closest boat ramp was closed due to low water and the dogs and I had a private 1000+ acre lake, I got in the habit of “saving” the cold shower water in a bucket to flush the toilet. Even with a low-flush toilet that only needs 1.5 gallons, I still sometimes need two showers’ worth of cold-to-warm water before I have enough. I am billed in units of 1000 gallons, so saving (1.5 gallons / flush)(+- 45 showers)/(2 showers per flush) = 30 gallons of water per month makes absolutely no difference to my water bill. It might make a difference to the life of my septic tank, but that’s an ugly calculation I’m not touching today. And yet it feels like it matters.
I can make light of the specific examples, but I’ve just realized it’s taken me six paragraphs to recognize the really big question on my mind is, “is the cost and recovery period of the knee-repair surgery I’m contemplating balanced by the extra useful, pain-free life I might get from that knee after surgery, compared to the on-going disintegration of an unstable joint in an aging body?” Some friends decline an invitation because their own surgical recovery is taking longer, with more debilitation, than they had anticipated. I am reminded of my grossly inaccurate expections about recovery from last year’s arthroscopy, and that surgery of any form has its own consequences. (I’m not sure that “flossing” has its own negative consequences but according to this logic, it must; increased waste? But does a lifetime of flossing generate more or less waste than a heart valve replacement?)
I’ve been reading the popular economists–Ariely, Levitt and Dubner, Gladwell. Everything has a cost. Everything has a not-cost, too, in terms of what you can’t do because you’re doing something else. Maybe if I spent the time that it will take to paint the trim on the north side of the house writing blog posts, I’d make enough money to afford a newer house that didn’t need repainting?
Most disconcerting: Not 30 minutes after publishing this post yesterday, my surgeon called. I really want to hear, “It’s not that bad; ice, rest, take it easy, it’ll be ok.” Instead, I’m hearing, “sounds like there may be cartilage damage. If the pain doesn’t resolve, we’ll have to put it all back together and that’s big surgery short of replacement, and no, it won’t be quite the same after as it was before you injured it the first time.”