Well this is sixteen of fifty two so I think I have deserved to enjoy the treat of navel gazing again.
Forgive me.

 . . . and one more thing – Since Jan 2024 I have started putting my essays on Substack and with audio too! Please follow me there and give it likes and shares. Pretty please all that good stuff.


Last week I wrote about progress and how this one thing has such a vast effect on our self-esteem and fulfilment, how it bucks depression and how that all-pervasive power comes from its key role as the essential imperative of life: move forward or die. I didn’t put it like that of course. Hardly a word of that will you find in last week’s essay. That’s what a week does for you. Perspective, reflection, thinking, not thinking, walking in the woods, enjoying a beer in front of the fire.

I was just thinking maybe that progress thing sounds a bit frantic, so here is a bit of a laid-back antidote. The other side of the fulfilment coin if you will. Now I do believe that progress is what gives us both immediate joy and longer term self esteem. But life doesn’t all run at the same pace. And nor should it. Today I’m up for a bit of texture, contrast, balance, grain.

According to Tim Urban (himself referencing one Dan Gilbert) we have about three months to feel proud of the few biggest achievements in our life. After that every ‘today’ we live through feels pretty much the same as every ‘today’ in which we lived before that big milestone. Urban’s big takeaway is to practise gratitude and other stuff like ‘spending time with people you like, sleeping well and exercising, doing things you’re good at, and doing kind things for others.’

Well, that aligns quite well with my argument last week in favour of making small easier milestones more often. Because if all we are doing is chasing those mega three-monther-s, then maybe life transforms into a pointless carousel of great numbers interspersed by periods of frustration. But conversely, if all we do is binge on lollipop-sized minijoys then aren’t we missing out on that satisfaction and pride, the stuff that comes after one achievement and before we knuckle down or maybe buckle up for the next one?

So today, I’m thinking about how much to enjoy each step of life’s road. And yes I do enjoy the road, the days of reflection, the learning new tricks, and even the frustrations of life.

We are at home again now, in the Polish Beskid hills. We live springs and summers here in the beech and pinewoods, on the edge of the vast Central European Mixed Forest. We are nearly 300 metres higher than the nearest village in the northern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and the locals are talking about wolves who have recently returned to the area. After a hot noisy day of cutting the long spring grass with my shirt off, and another of rainstorms as we took up the dust sheets and rediscovered our family treasures, we are now enjoying a sprinkling of snow. We hug a hello to our neighbours who respectively own the only two other houses up here. Both of them come here for weekends to escape the town, whereas we live in our little house for six months a year and travel the other half. They bring us cakes and beer.

And all of a sudden, sitting in front of the fire with a full glass, progress doesn’t seem so important. What seems more important is enjoying the moment, nature, family, company, good food and the contrast of the seasons. 

The machine I use for trimming the grass is called a kosa spalinowa. In British English that’s a brush cutter, in American English a weed eater and in Polish it translates as a fuming scythe. I have a particular love for this machine. When we bought the house nearly nine years ago we inherited two of them, neither of which worked very well. Since then, we have bought at least three more as each one died, always the cheapest ones – we see ourselves only as dilettante mountain dwellers and perhaps we have never really felt worthy of treating ourselves by paying three or four  times as much on a decent machine. Even starting those temperamental two strokes always seemed more like luck than skill. 

This one overheated and had a terminal seizure three or four years ago. I was surprised when the guy we had working with us, told us we could order a new motor rather than buy a whole new machine.  That was nice. Cheap stuff is usually designed to throw away. The new motor arrived in a cardboard box. He fitted it and it worked. Our cheap kosa spalinowa had a second life.

But next summer the new motor also stopped working and as he was no longer about, I took it to pieces and from YouTube I learned that the gap between the magnet and the coil should be the thickness of a piece of cigarette box card. So I did that and put it all back together again and it started first pull. 

Now at that exact moment, that machine had just become my beloved baby. 

It didn’t work again this spring when I unwrapped the chicken wire I had set in the autumn to discourage the winter mice from chewing the plastic bits.  Well, it started when I put a spoonful of fuel in the cylinder, but then died again when I squeezed the throttle. So I took it all to bits again and discovered that fibres from the first petrol filter had matted solid, deep inside the carburettor behind the third filter. How they got through the second filter is a complete mystery. Anyway, I cleaned it out, put it back together again. Fired it up. mmmm. And so this spring I mowed the grass with a silly smile on my face. 

In contrast, for the first time, having been spoilt by having the use of decent chainsaws in the places we house-sat over the past three winters, I’m giving up on our third cheap chainsaw and have just bought myself a Stihl, but my sweet Chinese cheap kosa spalinowa now in its fourth life ain’t going nowhere. Not ever.

Now I guess last week’s me would describe that as progress, but this week’s me is calling it cool. I’m enjoying my ridiculous love for an inanimate object because of my pride in a successful investment of effort. 

Motors are magical. I always marvel at all these systems, fuel, air, electricity – all springing to noisy useful life about the wonderful engineering of the block. A motor has so many different components, each of which takes their power and timing from an explosion. Then in their different ways each feeds back its necessary contribution to keep the thing going. The carb channels that power to draw in fuel and air, the piston passes those ports in the block to mysteriously squeeze four strokes into two, the crankshaft converts reciprocal motion to rotation, the magneto creates an electrical current and then the  suddenness of its interruption is transformed by the coil into a thousand volt spark. And all these little machines within a machine are so beautifully orchestrated to keep the magic running. 

I know that steam engines are famous for just that romantic image, but for me it’s there in miniature, within these temperamental little motors that only start when they want to. Perhaps it’s because sometimes I waste half an hour doing nothing but pulling the bloody cord over and over again, hoping against logic that this time it will produce a different result

I’m sure that frustration combines with the wonder I hold for the complex engineering to increase my joy and gratitude, when the recalcitrant thing eventually roars its irregular song, and then rewards my faith by fuming and scything the waist-high grass and weeds from the whole orchard. I leave the wildflowers though, this year I have three or four stands of forget-me-not and one of lady’s smock.  I’ll cut those areas after they have seeded.

I have a similar relationship to websites. I love hate building them. The size and position of any element can be scaled in virtual pixels or as a percentage of the width of a screen or of the height of a screen.  Its style and its colour and its position and its size, maybe its font, or an overlay, can be controlled individually or by the default values I set for any one of the two or three nested containers or columns or sections or pages where it sits. Or I can set it as a sitewide default. And I can set a margin or padding, and an offset and a border and a shadow and a scroll effect and a reaction to the cursor. 

Sometimes the multiple choices of how each of these effects is controlled is a product of logic, but more often, the logic only becomes obvious once the design of the page has gone through a few iterations. Now all those places where the offsets and the scales and the scroll effects were set up in a way that seemed like a good idea at the time need to be unravelled and reassessed. Love hate and often a behaviour that seems illogical – but of course it is actually always because of what I did. 

And then it all comes together and the sun comes out and all is as it should be. 

The trick I find, is to decide what level of whatever it is I’m aiming for, to aim for and then to achieve that and move on to fiddle with something else. If you set your own thresholds and targets, then you can hit them and enjoy the result. I admire Jimmy Carr who says that wherever he thinks about his own jokes, the audience is always right. I don’t have his resilience though and I’m better off with a mixture of my own judgement while aiming for the satisfaction of one client at a time.

Progress and enjoy. Find a new challenge and repeat. Some biggish some smaller, and some will have a significant chunk of frustration. Life can’t all be a bowl of cherries, and honestly I wouldn’t want it to be so. 

So, today’s word is texture. And walks in the woods, and an occasional beer.

Nick James      Posted in:



April 2024, Beskidy Mountains, Poland.

Header Image:

Tulips and Snow, photo by the Author