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Between the Lines: Who knows where the time goes?

Time flies like an arrow, Groucho Marx said, and fruit flies like a banana.
But seriously, folks: Where does the time go?
We often find ourselves asking that question, and no more frequently than this time of year — as the busy holiday season approaches and our New Year’s resolutions to have more free time fade like frost on a warming November morn.
Fifty years ago, when the futurists of the mid-20th century looked ahead to this age, they foresaw an America of people with delicious amounts of time on their hands.
No longer busy with the life-consuming drudgery of manually performing everyday tasks, these happy citizens would be free to enjoy a rich, leisurely life. They would work shorter hours because everything got done more efficiently. Their avocations, the things they loved to do and people they loved to be with, would become the centerpieces of their lives.
Take a good look around you now, though, and it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve blown it. We took the opportunity for productive leisure and turned it into endless hours of more work.
For what did we make this sacrifice?
Precious little, it seems. The experts who research cultural levels of happiness have conclusively shown that Americans are not happier today than we were in 1959.
“We’ve witnessed a proliferation of dazzling time-saving inventions,” writes journalist Jay Walljasper in a new collection of essays titled “Less Is More,” “jet travel, personal computers, FedEx, cell phones, microwaves, drive-through restaurants, home shopping networks, the World Wide Web — yet the pace of life has been cranked to a level that would have been unimaginable three decades ago.”
Even more than a century ago, Karl Marx was dreaming of the alternative, a better world in which we would have transcended the dehumanizing workplaces that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.
Decrying the age of occupational isolation that has today resulted in acres of office workers hidden in cube farms, Marx dreamed of a society that “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”
But today we have no patience for such foolish dreams.
We’re too busy working to have the time for many leisurely pursuits. We rush from one appointment to another, check our Blackberries on weekends, and log onto email every day of what little vacation time we can finagle.
To think things should be otherwise is about as fashionable these days as being a Marxist.
“Speaking out against speed can get you lumped in with the Flat Earth Society as a hopelessly wrongheaded romantic who refuses to face up to the facts of modern life,” writes Walljasper.
I’ve spent decades buying into the speed-fed Busy Game. My peers and I prided ourselves on being consumed by our work. We started the office day early and worked late. We wore the thousand-yard stare of exhaustion as a badge of honor.
We’ve come to identify ourselves by what we do and how busy it keeps us, whatever we might blame for our overly busy lives — greed, insecurity, ambition, the Protestant work ethic, a way of burying our feelings, or buying into a culture of consumption. We’re transmogrifying from human beings into human doings.
Now, though, I’ve grown tired of hearing my friends’ war stories about how hard they’re working. I’ve begun to ask them what they’ve been doing for fun.
You’d be surprised by how many people have trouble remembering a single fun thing they’ve done lately.
Our kids have turned into little Busy Machines, too, “a procession of 9-year-olds with datebooks under their arms,” as Middlebury College scholar Rebecca Kneale Gould describes it. If they’re not in school, they’re multitasking by simultaneously watching TV, talking on the phone and IM’ing their friends.
Gould’s first book, “At Home in Nature,” chronicled the experiences and philosophies of back-to-the-landers.
Now, in a seminal essay in “Less Is More,” Gould calls for shifting the discussion of time starvation from the private sphere into the public, “taking back time from institutions that try to possess it.”
The “privatization” of time famine, she asserts, leads us to believe “there is something wrong with us.”
But it’s also a public problem, “a phenomenon deeply intertwined with our patterns of consumption, unchecked individualism and ecological neglect.”
Gould says we need to go beyond thinking that the fault lies with us individually — that we’d be fine if we only had a better system of time management — “and dare to insert into our public life an honest and deliberate conversation about time (and) the critical connections between the necessity of unstructured time and ecological health, and community vitality and the life of the spirit.”
We love this place we call Vermont. But in the absence of open stretches of time, she cautions, “Place — which comes into being through memory and relationship — flattens into mere location.”
Perhaps we are at last beginning to see what a toll this competitive, all-work-and-no-play lifestyle has taken.
Emerging as counterweights are the Slow Food movement, the growing number of early retirees, Buy Nothing Day (coming up the Friday after Thanksgiving) and organizations such as Take Back Your Time and Center for the New American Dream.
I recall the relief I felt when I first saw the title of Juliet Schor’s book, “The Overworked American.”
Finally, I thought — someone had named the problem. Someone had the guts to speak the unspeakable thought that maybe 50-hour work weeks, six hours of sleep a night, and weekends full of one commitment after the next aren’t the best way to live, after all.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday. Email him at GregDennisVt [at] yahoo.com

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