Thursday, August 18, 2011


It’s been awhile since I’ve worn a wristwatch. The last one I bought was very loose, and the clasp on it eventually broke. I only paid 5 bucks for it, so it wasn’t a real loss. This time I used a gift card I received and bought a man’s watch. I happen to prefer the sensible leather wristbands of men’s watches to the wimpy and delicate bands that usually hold together women’s watches. I’ve lost more watches because the pathetic wisp of leather used as a wristband has worn out. Not likely to happen with this one.

In any event, I found myself staring at the ticking clock today, and realizing that time is appearing to slip away. Autumn term begins in about three weeks, which means I am back to teaching, and not long for a trip to the UK, mostly to see John Foxx on an 8-city tour. August has been a tiring month; Mercury retrograde has thus far eaten two Macbook power supplies and one VCR, has screwed up at least two important mailings, and four programs that I use regularly suddenly decided to stop working or crash in medias res. Perhaps the desire to return to bed and stay there until September is not entirely unwarranted.

But back to time. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but when I find that my ability to produce work is stymied in some way, I get very frustrated. This can result in minor temper flares, major temper flares, complete inertia, or a sudden binge of cleaning everything in the house just to feel like I’m doing something useful. But it begs the question—why can’t one just spend time doing nothing, without feeling like one is wasting time?

We used to joke about my mother growing up. She was contending with five of us, and it seemed like she was forever cooking, cleaning, doing yardwork—my brother once said that if she had nothing else to do, she’d wax the driveway. In high school, I had a friend who came over quite often. She and I were watching television, and my mother was washing the living room walls. She looked at me and said, “Um, why is your mother washing the walls?” I shrugged. “She’s bored, I guess.”

In retrospect, though, I think I get my mother’s behavior. What often happens when we have spare time is that we sit around speculating about the future, and not in a good way. If I’m busy, I’m not sitting around worrying about finances or relationships—I’m focused on doing something, and in the end, I hope I’ve accomplished something. People are surprised at how clean my house is, given how much I work (at my day job, at my teaching job, and at my writing). But I think I have become like my mother—I always have to be doing something, and when I’m not, I feel like I’m wasting precious time.

This attitude may not be unjustified, in one sense. I find myself hearkening back to my Heidegger seminar days, and his notion of “authentic existence”. The bottom line is that you don’t know what will happen in the next minute, if there will be a tomorrow. Life should not be wasted. However, I’m not sure the problem is not wanting to use time wisely. The problem is how we define “waste”.

What is a “waste of time”? If I’m laying on the beach enjoying the sounds of the ocean, is that a waste of time? If I’m out with friends having a drink instead of sitting at home researching, am I wasting time? I guess it depends, and it largely depends on others. If we have a deadline of some sort, we might harm someone else if we “waste” time by not doing our part by the deadline. We may create more mental anguish by procrastinating (though some people work well under pressure). But it’s hard to convince our productive little selves that slowing down is not a waste of time.

I have to wonder where this comes from. It may be a regional phenomenon, and it also may have to do with our Protestant/Puritan work ethic roots. I hear all the time how the unemployed are “lazy” (before you yell at me, yes I know this is a fallacy). Life in the Northeastern U.S. is certainly fast-paced; if you go down South or to the Midwest, you don’t find the level of frenzy that you find on the East Coast. Walking through New York Penn Station, or through Times Square, is like a video game. You’re constantly bobbing and weaving through crowds of people, some moving fast, some moving too slow, some suddenly changing directions without warning. I read an article recently about “sidewalk rage” in New York City—native New Yorkers getting furious with tourists in Times Square who stop and gawk at everything, blocking the sidewalk traffic. I’ve experienced this myself (and I’m not even a New Yorker, though many people view New Jersey as an extension of New York, rightly or wrongly). And it’s a perfect example of what I mentioned above—the frustration of having the momentum and not being able to move forward.

Fast movement does not guarantee swift movement of time. I’ve done an entire morning’s worth of work, only to find that 2 hours have gone by instead of the whole morning. Other times, when you feel leisurely, you find that a whole day has gone by, and you can’t imagine where it went.
I sometimes think surrendering to our motion might be the best thing. If I’m fired up and do all of my Spring cleaning, I don’t think that’s bad. When I crash out the following week and don’t feel like doing much, at least all that is done. There are times to charge ahead with new projects, and times when you should finish old ones. Scheduling is good, but I never schedule too much in a day—I try to allow for the unpredictability factor. If anything is predictable—it’s that the obstacles we face are unpredictable.

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