I saw Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and went right out and bought a used Honda Insight (66 mpg). I know my energy-conserving car makes a negligible dent in global warming. My father would have called my purchase a “votive act,” votive meaning showing or symbolizing a wish or desire.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, he committed to daily meditation and a strict macrobiotic diet. His guru insisted it would cure his cancer, but he didn’t believe them. He just wanted a way to demonstrate and exercise his will to live. These votive acts were his insurance policy against regret. If he was going to die from cancer (as he did thirteen years after the diagnosis), he wouldn’t want to go wondering if he had worked hard enough to prevent it. Foreseeing the probability of failure, he counterbalanced by keeping hope alive through his votive gestures.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


My father’s cancer was not one likely to abate any more than global warming is likely to, and, by his evidentiary standards, most of what could cure him—pills, radiation, acupuncture, unbelievably good luck—was beyond his direct control. Still, for thirteen years, he insisted on maintaining the votive acts that gave him some semblance of direct control. Despite his lusty appetite, he ate only macrobiotic foods—only things that taste bad (“the quality,” he said, “all macrobiotic foods have in common”). Despite his preference for other activities, or because of it, he’d take to his meditation pillow for a half hour each morning and night, at first following his guru’s guidance to visualize healthy cells defeating cancer cells, and later just doing long division in his head. Long division an hour a day—not his first-choice activity, just a way to act out his desire to live, in case he was going to die.

As sacrifices for the future go, my Honda Insight is a luxury. It’s fun; it parks easily. It’s not perky enough to qualify as a midlife-crisis sports car, but I’ve never owned a two-seater before, so to me it feels sporty. Like other Insight owners, I’m becoming a cold-rodder. In contrast to hot-rodders, who lust for greater power, cold-rodders pursue greater energy efficiency. The car’s instruments make it into a game, streaming information about the vital signs. In the online Insighter users’ group, people sign postings with their name and the maximum mileage per gallon they’ve achieved. I delight in the way I can pack my upright bass, two electric basses, a large amp, a stool, and a music stand in the tiny car and still have two cubic inches of free space.

I appreciate the inconveniences, the yoga it takes to get into it, the zero-to-sixty-in-fourteen-seconds sluggishness. The inconveniences remind me that I’m driving, which I now recognize is a good thing to be reminded of, both for safety and for the sake of our climate. Too much vehicular comfort and you take it for granted, drive recklessly and far too often. When enjoying the benefits, remember the costs.

Last week, I wrote about pre-grieving: worrying about a disappointing event that hasn’t yet happened. This week, I want to add that even if the particular event you worry about doesn’t occur, something bad is bound to happen, either the unforeseen or the intolerable to foresee. Global warming, for example—who woulda thunk it, back in 1870, at the beginning of the industrial age, that CO2 would accumulate in our atmosphere at an accelerating rate? And who can stand looking at it now?

So there’s another use for pre-grieving besides getting a running start on particular foreseeable disappointments. When things are going well, remember that these things will pass and that there are disappointments to come. Savor the sweet, avoid the sour, but always keep present in mind the mix of sweet and sour.

It’s a votive act, an insurance policy like my father’s. It’s like saving for a rainy day, like not spending everything you make during boom years, knowing that the bust will follow.

When I’m driving my little hybrid downhill, cruising on gas and gravity, I hit the brakes and a generator attached to them charges a battery. Then, when I’m headed back uphill, and the sluggish little engine can barely keep up, the battery runs a booster electric motor.

Likewise, when the world sends me reliably encouraging signs that I’m on the right track, rather than thinking, “Yes, from now on, I’ll cruise,” I remember that it won’t last. Somehow, that enables me to store some of the motivation, to boost me when the world’s affirmations go AWOL. The confidence we store during good times helps keep us keeping on during bad ones.