Pat was driving, and as we passed the turnoff for a shopping center she invited us to picture a four-burner stove.
“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.
This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.
Pat has her own business, a good one that’s allowing her to retire at fifty-five. She owns three houses, and two cars, but, even without the stuff, she seems like a genuinely happy person. And that alone constitutes success.
I asked which two burners she had cut off, and she said that the first to go had been family. After that, she switched off her health. “How about you?”
I thought for a moment, and said that I’d cut off my friends. “It’s nothing to be proud of, but after meeting Hugh I quit making an effort.”
“And what else?” she asked.
“Health, I guess.”
Hugh’s answer was work.
“Just work,” he said.
From "Laugh, Kookaburra" by David Sedaris, printed in The New Yorker
I normally don’t read Sedaris for mind-bending existential content, but his short story “Laugh, Kookaburra” had me thinking about life and the choices I have made over the years, the “burners” I have turned off or down to low.
Shortly before I remarried, my fiancée would take me over to her parents’ home in the suburbs on Sundays and lock me up in their washitsu—a sparse Japanese-style room with tatami mats—forcing me to write for five or six hours straight. I had a good idea for a book that just needed to be written down, but I was having a devil of a time making any progress on it.
Being locked up in that room for hours on end was torture at first. Whenever I would try to venture out of the room, my girlfriend, who kept guard over me in an adjacent room, would turn me around, shove me back in and say, “Two more hours!”
“Two more? Can’t I have a drink of something or a smoke?”
So back in I would go, and kneel down on the tatami only to stare for minutes on end at the empty white page on my MacBook, the cursor flash-flash-flashing as if to taunt me: “You got nothing. And you used to think you had what it took to be a writer! Hah! You got nothing!"
But it worked. After a few weeks, I started to get into the groove and before I knew it I was writing almost every day, usually in the morning, but sometimes at night until I had finished Rokuban. And when I had finished Rokuban, I then went on to do a major overhaul of A Woman’s Nails and managed to get through it without it being too painful. Then, I went on to the next work, and the next, and the next.
Where just completing a novel had once seemed like an insurmountable task, now I was faced with a new challenge: how to sell the novels I was now finishing.
The improved productivity came partially from turning down one of those four burners: friends. I seldom go out for drinks or dinner anymore. If I do, it’s usually by myself. I used to hate being alone, but nowadays it doesn’t bother me in the least. Sometimes I prefer it as I can get stuff done while I’m eating—reading, catching up on the news, and so on.
Being in Japan allowed me to turn the “Family Burner” down to low for about a decade and a half, but then I got married and had kids and now that burner is on full-blast, stealing gas from the other burners.