Ticked off by tick tock talk: We spend our time until there's none left, then say we're working too hard
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 20 May 2003)

Jackie Maxwell, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., comes across in print as time-oppressed, time-haunted. In other words, a typical figure of this era. She recently told a Toronto Star reporter she has trouble "trying to carve out thinking time" in her life. A mother of two, she works 15-hour days, as Robert Crew confirmed by following her through one of them. "The days go by in a whirl," she said.

That's not unusual. Lack of time has become our society's most common complaint. Maxwell's case acquires an ironic quality when we learn that she ended her day watching a play she's directing, Chekhov's Three Sisters, the most languid of masterpieces, about characters with the reverse of her problem. Living in a provincial town where nothing happens, they have too much time. They dream of moving to Moscow and living a vivid, event-filled life, like Jackie Maxwell's.

Not everyone finds Chekhov enthralling. In Old Saybrook, one of the two short plays by Woody Allen that opened last week in New York, a woman says: "I hate Russian plays. Nothing happens, and they charge the same price as a musical." Nevertheless, Chekhov's idle, unproductive characters still hold the stage, magnificently. We understand they are dealing with time's notorious habit of expanding just when you want it to shrink.

Ivan Turgenev touched the core of this issue in Fathers and Sons. Time can fly like a bird or crawl like a worm, he said, but humans are happiest when they don't notice its progress. That's a good definition of happiness, the ability to forget time passing. It may be unattainable for most of us, however. As a civilization, we have collectively decided that our thoughts should never stray far from time's commands.

My computer, probably like yours, shows each passing minute in the corner of the screen. We have developed many electronic time-saving devices, most of which also consume it. E-mail makes communication more convenient but also requires attention. I write many more letters than I wrote in the pre-digital age (not that I'm complaining).

Increasingly, people speak of multi-tasking and time management skills. Mark Ellwood, a Toronto "productivity consultant," has written Cut the Glut of E-mail, a book about fighting the tyranny of electronic mailboxes. (One piece of advice: Do your main work before opening your mail.)

Is it true that we are now exceptionally short of time? That question leads to endless studies, some of them almost insanely detailed. An article in the April issue of American Demographics begins: "The average American spends almost four minutes searching for lost keys, television remote controls, mobile telephones and other elusive household items every time one of the little suckers sprouts legs and walks off."

Perhaps we exaggerate the pressures of time. If we were really short of it, if work and family duties were as overwhelming as many of us claim, then the sports business, the TV business and the movie business would wither; whereas, of course, they flourish as never before. In truth, we all have a great deal of disposable time, parents of small children excepted. We use it as we choose, spending it till there's none left. Then we say we're working too hard.

We do that, perhaps, because being busy means being important. When was the last time somebody admitted to not being busy? Once there was a leisure class that gloried in its free time. Today you often hear senior citizens, even rich ones, claim to be busier than before they officially retired.

No one can articulate an understanding of time, and no one ever could. Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine, in his Confessions, defined the problem: "What is time? If nobody asks me, I know; if I have to explain it to someone, I do not know." You and me both, Augie. It can be baffling. Live long enough and you see time not only change but do somersaults.

In the 1950s, people rarely complained of hour-to-hour stress. But we hurried toward the choice of spouses and the beginning of parenthood, usually by our mid-twenties, and we approached careers with similar urgency. Were we (Stephen Spender's words, from the 1950s) "time-obsessed, time-tormented, as though beaten with rods of restless days"?

We had plenty of minutes and hours, and enough days, but feared we were facing a shortage of years. Today, to risk a huge generalization, the young carefully ration their hours but believe they have many years available and can, if they choose, indefinitely postpone major decisions, whether personal or professional.

That's time in private life. Time in culture has changed just as much. Once, mass culture existed without a past. When a movie or TV show appeared, you either saw it or "missed" it. Only the old and the cultists knew old songs, and few knew old records. The past dwelt, so far as it dwelt anywhere, in books, museums and memories.

But a series of inventions (long-playing records, then video, then the vast increase in TV channels) transformed the meaning of time in entertainment. Now we live in an eternal present where Elvis never stops singing, Lucy still makes fun of Desi's accent, Jack Benny won't stop making jokes about being a cheapskate, and we all keep wandering into Rick's Place in Casablanca. I know a seven-year-old who recently fell in love with the Beatles and asked his mother if she had heard of them. Nothing ever goes away.

In Portland, Ore., this week they are frantically searching for a time capsule buried there a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt, a box containing objects chosen to explain the civilization of 1903 to "remote posterity." Portland wants to break the capsule open to celebrate the anniversary, but (a not uncommon problem with time capsules) no one knows precisely where it was buried.

Those living in 2103 will have no trouble reconstructing the past. They will know all about us because our films and music will still be circulating, no doubt in elaborately enhanced forms. Will our descendants be impressed by the incredible speed of our times? Or will they (as we do when watching Chekhov or 1960s TV) wonder how people ever tolerated a life lived so slowly?

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