I am not an especially busy person – in fact I like to think of myself as semi-retired – but how busy my life seems on weekday mornings! There are so many things to do in such a short time before rushing out the door! Must life really be so complicated?
Here are the things I need to do between waking up and leaving for work:
Things to Do
- boil kettle
- bring milk inside and put in fridge
- make tea
- on Mondays and Thursdays, do Stoutness Exercises (don’t ask!)
- make breakfast
- get dressed
- turn on the internet
- pack bread and fruit for lunch
- get leaves from garden for salad component of lunch
- eat breakfast
- wash up breakfast things
- make bed
- brush teeth
- If last to leave the house – check that lights and appliances are off and doors are locked
- unlock bike
Here are the things I need to get together for my journey to work:
Things to Take
- lunch components (see above)
- security access card for work
- USB stick with programs for work computer
- house keys
- mobile phone
- shoes (by front door – not to be worn in the house)
- bike pannier
- bike helmet and other safety gear
- wet weather gear if there’s a chance of rain
This seems like a ridiculous lot of stuff to do and to take. Am I really such a shallow, materialistic, object-dependent person that I need all this?
I try to compare it with what I would do if I were a hunter-gatherer. I suppose I would take a spear and another sharp rock for cutting up a kill. But not much else. As regards things to do, it might be a bit more involved. I would have to agree with the other men in which direction we would head in search of prey, and what our tactics would be. Maybe I would take a pouch of edible roots or a slab of dried meat to sustain me on the hunt, but I doubt it. Yes, I think my morning routine is definitely more complex than that of a stone-age man. What is my excuse?
I do think I have an excuse for most of those things, and here is my attempt to say it – an attempt to defend (some of) the complexities of modern urban life.
The food bits are justified by the fact that I seem to function rather poorly on only one meal a day. Perhaps ancient hunter gatherers were accustomed to eating a large meal only once a day, before sleeping (as a lion does), but I lose energy if I don’t have three. So if I have to travel to a place several kilometres away to earn my living, I need to make arrangements for two of my daily meals before I leave.
On the other hand, if I am honest, I must admit that this may be just a matter of comfort. I haven’t tried getting by on just one meal per day. Maybe once I got used to it I could function just as well. I might be hungry for much of the day, but so what?
So I think I should chalk up all the food-related items to my modern, urban, sybaritic lifestyle. It’s possible that I’m wrong, and my effectiveness during the day would be impaired without three meals. But I’m not going to do the experiment to find out.
So, at the expense of admitting my softness, I have dispensed with items 3-5, 7, 10-13 and 15 in the first list and item 1 in the second.
Turning to the other end of the alimentary canal, even Stone Age men and non-human animals have to excrete, so I’m not going to beat myself up over item 1 on list 1.
Clothes and Grooming
Next, grooming! I think I can gain some ground here, because I don’t do ridiculous things like mutilate my body with bones through my nose, rings to stretch my neck, rocks to stretch my earlobes or gashes across my chest to demonstrate my masculinity, nor do I wear ungainly head-dresses made of eagle feathers or moose antlers. In fact, my clothing and grooming style is a paragon of minimalist functionality compared to those of many Stone Age peoples. Even shaving, although a little time-consuming, is practical in that it avoids the need to maintain cleanliness and hygiene of facial hair. Together with having almost no hair on top of my head, that makes staying clean a pretty easy job.
Sure, I wear more clothes than my Paleolithic cousins did, but that gives me the advantage of being able to control my temperature and risk of sun damage better than if my only choice was between wearing a bear skin and going naked.
Does all the bike gear sound like too much paraphernalia? One does feel a bit like one is about to make a moon shot before one goes out the door. But then, consider what is being achieved: I travel the seven kilometres from my house to my office in about twenty minutes, with minimal expenditure of effort and no pollution, while dodging my way through crowds of inexpertly-driven 1-2 tonne metal monsters travelling at unsafe speeds in erratic directions. I’d like to see Ugg do that and survive!
It’s hard to think of a Stone Age equivalent to my Stoutness Exercises. I imagine that hunter-gatherers had to do enough heavy lifting in everyday life – rolling boulders off cliffs onto mammoths and so on – that there was no need to do extra exercises. I’m going to count them as part of grooming. Maybe my being able to do <number deleted> push-ups is as much my vain attempt to assert masculinity as a cave-man’s chest scars.
I’m not even going to try to defend Number 9 ‘turn on the internet’. The internet is a useful tool but in the mornings I mostly just use it for wasting time reading other people’s opinions. Maybe I could classify that under the general heading of Games, but I don’t know if cave men had much time for games.
There’s one area where the internet is useful in the morning though, and that’s to tell me the weather forecast. I used to get that off the radio, but I had to wait around for it, so the internet is a superb time saver. Cave man had neither, so he occasionally got caught out without his wellies, or froze to death or got blown off a cliff by the wind.
Yes, knowing the weather forecast is one of the genuine major improvements of modern life.
In the ‘things to do’ list that just leaves the last two items – turn off lights etc and unlock bike.
Electricity and Fire
If the cave man was in a family group, he probably was rarely the last to leave, as there would always be people staying in the camp to tend babies or do other chores. But it is conceivable that, if they did leave for a few hours, they would extinguish any camp fires, partly to conserve fire wood and partly so as not to leave smoke signalling to hostile tribes the presence of the undefended camp. Turning off electrics is broadly similar to that, so I think I need feel no shame at the comparison.
The last To Do item, and two of the remaining Things to Take, are about security – keys, access cards and locks. Do they have a Stone Age equivalent, I wonder? Did they have possessions that they needed to keep safe, and if so from whom? Once they developed agriculture – crops and herds – they would have wanted to secure them from marauding human and non-human animals, but what about hunter-gatherers? The only things I can imagine them owning are tools like flints, spears and pouches, furs and other rough clothing, and food. Such things would be kept within the family group while sleeping, and where appropriate, taken with them when out hunting and gathering. If there were no nearby tribes, security would not be a concern, but if there were, conflicts over resources would easily arise. Theft and violence could be frequent occurrences. In such circumstances, one imagines they would take precautions, such as maintaining a watch at night and erecting barricades or booby-traps around their camp.
Living in a major city, I am surrounded by other humans, a small number of whom would be quite happy to take my things, and sometimes do. My possession of a few keys and a security card seems a reasonable analog to a system of barricades, booby-traps and watchmen, and I reject your insinuation that I am paranoid. At least I haven’t clubbed any intruders yet.
Is there any stone-age equivalent to the USB stick? My stick holds a bunch of files that I need to work on (encrypted, of course) and papers I need to read, plus a few amusements such as electronic versions of Charles Dickens novels, music and podcasts. In so far as the stick holds thing I need for my work, which I need to earn my daily bread, I suppose it corresponds to paleolithic work tools such as spears and flints.
A USB stick actually makes me less object-dependent than a typical office worker of fifteen years ago, who would have had to take files and papers home if she wanted to work on them. And it’s certainly a lot lighter and easier to fit in a pocket than a spear or a club.
There’s one thing left – my mobile phone. I concede, I have no excuse whatsoever for that.
I can make feeble protestations that it would allow me to call for help if I got into a Difficult Situation, but I’ve never done that so far (perhaps because I take so much other precautionary stuff with me) and I doubt I ever will.
I think a mobile phone might have actually been of more use to a cave man than to me. He could have rung up his wife on the way back from a hunt, and said ‘Hi honey, you won’t believe the enormous bison we’ve killed. Can you stoke up a big fire and sharpen the butchering stones ready for us to arrive in about half an hour?’
So who wins?
To summarise then, I am softer and more paraphernalia-obsessed than my paleolithic ancestor, to the tune of two extra meals per day, a broadband connection and a mobile phone. Beyond those, I have longer lists of things to do and to take than he did, but that’s appropriate given how much more I achieve in the course of a day. I concede that I live a fairly pampered and baroque existence, but perhaps not quite as extravagantly so as it might seem at first.
It appears to be customary for both essayists and journalists to end an article with a pat phrase that sums up their writing in a semi-humorous way, and I have always tried my best to honour that tradition. On this occasion however, I find myself bereft of pat phrases, so I will just have to stop here.