“I’ve lost interest in all forms of self-improvement projects,” my friend Dave said to me as he sprinkled the last bit of fish food onto the surface of the koi pond he maintains in his yard.
Self-improvement projects, according to Dave, always turn into labor, and all labor is bondage. “That’s why”, he explained to me as we sat down on the bench next to the koi pond, “my various projects take such a long time, and why the scope of my projects has narrowed in recent years.”
Dave explained that any personal project—that is, any activity that is not directly related to performing the duties associated with his job or meeting the various demands placed on him by his wife—must consist in activities that he can perform in the evenings from his bed. Dave said that by satisfying this constraint, personal projects cannot become labor and, by definition, cannot result in self-improvement. “My circadian rhythm and melatonin conspire to put a relatively hard upper bound on how long I can pursue a given personal project. I can engage in the personal project for usually ten minutes or so, at which point I doze off involuntarily. I simply do the activity until I become tired, and when that time comes I am, conveniently, already undressed and in the bed and can immediately fall asleep.”
This explains why Dave’s personal projects sometimes take much longer than one would expect, given the complexity of the project and Dave’s demonstrated aptitude in the various tasks involved. Knitting scarves for his siblings every Christmas, reading the most recent popular non-fiction, providing his colleagues with feedback on early drafts of manuscripts: These were all things that—when I first met him, presumably during a time in which he, for one reason or another, was less wary of self-improvement—Dave once did in a matter of weeks or even days. Now such projects routinely took Dave more than a year to finish.
I reminded Dave that he had built the very bench we were sitting on. I reminded him that he had borrowed my wife’s station wagon to go and collect the scrap wood from which he would go on to construct the bench, since the car he drove at that time was too small to haul the planks without creating hazardous driving conditions.
I reminded Dave that he had built this koi pond fifteen years before, that he’d dug up a crude hole with a rented backhoe and I’d helped him to refine and sculpt the shape of the hole with mattocks and shovels. I reminded him how I then helped him lay down a plastic liner to create a sealed ecosystem that had thrived all these years.
Were these not worthy projects that improved not only the self, but benefitted others in various ways as well, I asked him. And specifically, by involving and enlisting others in these projects, was he not taking something that, in a certain sense, was not his? Is it not the case that the wellbeing of not only his friends but also the fish were somehow being jeopardized by his refusal to honor the legacy of these projects in our shared lives? “The life expectancy of the fish is not something I fully thought through,” Dave admitted, sighing. He said he wished the fish would simply die peacefully, since he couldn’t justify killing or neglecting the fish, all in the name of not improving himself.
Before we went back inside to have coffee, Dave had to measure the temperature of the water in the koi pond. Every year, he recorded the water temperature each day in a small notebook, starting on Labor Day. When the recorded temperature remained below 55 degrees for seven consecutive days, Dave stopped feeding the fish until spring. For years this felt to me like a dangerous gamble, but Dave had researched the species carefully and assured me that the fishes’ bodies stopped producing certain enzymes related to digestion once water temperatures regularly fall below 55 degrees, and that they could even become sick and die if one were to continue feeding them in these conditions.
As Dave bent over the edge of the pond, holding the thermometer just below the surface of the water, I closed my eyes and pictured Dave finding the fish dead, one by one, floating on the surface of the water. I saw him bury the fish in the nearby forest, pouring freshly-dug soil onto their lifeless orange bodies. I imagined myself coming by one Saturday and helping Dave remember how to operate the backhoe so that he could fill in what had once been his treasured, self-contained pond ecosystem. I saw the dirt piled up where the pond had been, a neat little mound like a tidy unmarked grave. I saw the bench slowly rotting from exposure and Dave finally breaking the bench down with a crow bar, prying the nails loose and burning each piece of the disassembled bench in his winter fires. I saw the fire in the fireplace smolder and the heat in his house concentrate to a finer and finer point in Dave’s bedroom, under his covers, where he would one day fall asleep for the last time, a barely discernible smile playing across his dead lips, as if in wry acknowledgment of the possibility that things had improved at last.