By Conrad Spencer
There may not be a better book to read during the lazy summer months, or to write about on the heels of a three-day weekend, than the definitive work on lying about in America. To think that all this time I've thought I was the only one caught between the enticing myth of free time and that quintessential American guilt over lost productivity.
For as long as I can remember, I've held two conflicting ideals for my life --success, recognition, accomplishment on the one hand and a pseudo-bohemian existence on the other, eschewing the material and spending my time in a utopia of friends, books, music and wine. I've never consciously decided on one over the other, or resolved the differences between the two.
Though I can't say I've reached great pinnacles of accomplishment or recognition, my life has definitely tracked closer to worldly success (or maybe worldly mediocrity) than to the Birkenstocks and acoustic guitars. It seems like it should be possible to find some middle ground, a compromise with a solid job, a good paycheck and copious amounts of free time. That compromise has eluded me.
For whatever reason -- the lengthening of the daylight hours, maybe, or a recent birthday -- I've found my mind circling the concept of time, or more specifically, my time and how I choose to spend it.
I have a child and a spouse; I commute to work; I cook meals; I try to exercise fairly regularly and get a healthy (if unAmerican) seven to eight hours of sleep a night. On weeknights, this schedule generally leaves me free time starting at 9 or 9:30 p.m., with an hour or two left in the day, but I'm too exhausted by then for the time to be of much consequence. Weekends, you'd think, would be better, but I frequently find weekends consumed by errands, grocery shopping, housecleaning, and lawn and auto care.
All I'd really like to do, by the way, is spend a quiet afternoon reading a book. Or doing some non-blog creative writing. Or listen to a CD from start to finish in one sitting. Or play a game of Monopoly (or something less careerist) with my family.
I watch very little TV. I don't want to cut out the exercise because I see it as an investment that will yield more time by way of a longer life and increased energy. I see the same benefits in sleep. Besides, I used to only sleep five or six hours a night but I don't think I got any more done.
My weekends have taught me that Stuff takes up an enormous amount of time. Houses and lawns take up time. Cars take up time. Moving stuff around so you can vacuum takes up time. I've pared my stuff down to what I consider basic, and I'm always re-evaluating. Problems arise, however, when I try to similarly pare down my wife's or my son's Stuff.
Then there's the commute, the 80-mile round-trip drive that sucks about an hour and a half out of my day. This is the hardest fix requiring major change --in resident, or employment, or both. One of these will happen eventually, but isn't in the cards, for several reasons, in the immediate future.
All this to say I'm stumped for any solution short of quitting my job and taking up subsistence farming. Though the insights are profound, the practical applications of Walden are elusive.
It's common to hear people wonder "where does the time go?" or lament the hectic schedules of modern America. It's typically idle chit-chat, as meaningless as a conversation about the weather, but few decisions say so much about us as individuals and as a culture. We can't do anything about the weather, but, even if it doesn't seem like it, I pretty sure we made the choices that scheduled away our free time.