The Human Condition (BLOG)

If Not Now, When?

“We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.” (Seneca)

[NOTE: As I write this, 2022 is just around the proverbial corner, and Ed and I are hoping to get away to some sunnier clime for a respite from all things cold and snowy. Since January is the month for making resolutions, I’m thinking JOY is long overdue. As in: Let’s make more time for joy in our lives. As in: NOW. By the way, I’m happy to report that shortly after this post first ran in January 2020, I took up playing my guitar again. Regularly. Guess I was driven to joy through guilt. Well, whatever gets you there. EnJOY!]

Years ago, watching some movie, a scene occurred which both amused and haunted me. A man tells his analyst, “I’ve always wanted to do such-and-such while I’m alive,” and the analyst says, “Well, yes, that would be the time to do it.”

It’s funny because we all recognize it. It’s haunting because, well, we all recognize it. Procrastination.

That thief of time, as poet and philosopher Edward Young famously noted.

Our favorite form of self-sabotage (author Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby).

Our default mode (Me).

Understandably, we procrastinate over tasks with a high yuck factor or an Einsteinian degree of difficulty, but why do we so often put off doing the things we really want to do, the stuff that makes us happy, the stuff we love, that which puts the J in joy?

Let Me Count the Ways

When my son was in high school, I gave him a tee shirt one Christmas that said:

We all had a good laugh about it, but in the years since, I’ve gotten to wondering what are the reasons I procrastinate? Why do I so often think about pulling out my guitar, limbering up the fingers on a few tunes—and then do nothing? What prevents me from taking up découpage again—an art I both love and have the tools and materials for? Why do I vow to read the user’s manual for my Nikon “this week” so I can discover all the creative, fun stuff my camera can do—and then let “this week” become a month, a year, two years?

Why do I put off my own happiness?  

Okay, I’ll have a go at filling in the Top 10 reasons I procrastinate—well, nine of them anyway. You can’t totally makeover a procrastinator at one go.

Maybe you’ll recognize a few.

1. I get wrapped up in the humdrum of the daily to-dos. Laundry. Groceries. Meal prep and clean-up. Weeding the garden/raking the leaves. Appointments. Workouts. Tidying the worst of the dustballs and flotsam that threaten to bury us alive.

Ed and I share most of this load, but it’s still a load. The monotony of the daily-to-dos—lather, rinse, repeat—leaves me both uninspired and desperate for something that is not emptying the dishwasher. I often think it would be wonderfully rejuvenating to drive out to the Quabbin Reservoir with Ed and aimlessly wile away an afternoon in that amazing wide-open space—living in civilization, you really do forget how BIG the sky is—but that would mean getting off my rusty dusty, digging out my hiking boots, driving an hour there and another hour back, possibly having to stop for gas… I get tired just thinking about it.

Hiking? Maybe once I’ve had a good nap.

2. With only a scant 24 hours in the day—can someone please do something about that?—I feel like a commitment to one more activity will be the blowtorch that ends up vaporizing me. As mentioned up top, I’ve been thinking for months, okay years now, that I should get back to my guitar. I love my guitar—an exquisite old Martin. I love playing guitar. I used to write songs. I love music—I know the lyrics to virtually every song written since 1961, for godsakes. So why don’t I pick up the guitar and work the calluses back into my rusty fingers? Why don’t I visit the music store downtown and see who’s giving fingerpicking lessons. I’ve always wanted to improve my technique. But lessons involve a commitment to practicing. Regularly. Should I give up reading (impossible!), showering (inadvisable)?

3.  Following on the time crunch of Reason #2 is the need for expedience wherever I can find it. I love to cook, I really do. We have enough spices to stock a small specialty store, and a collection of cookbooks that span our travels and culinary likes: Greek, Italian, Sicilian. Curries, minestrone,  tajine stews. I could lose myself in a Moroccan veggie tajine… if only it didn’t take so long. All that slicing and dicing. All that simmering and sautéing and roasting.

I keep thinking, “Next week, I’ll clear some afternoon hours, crank up Phil Spector on the kitchen CD player and make something fabulous.” But every week, that “some afternoon” gets pushed into the next week by an avalanche of must-do stuff where it’s a squeeze to manage a bathroom break, until I’m so overwhelmed by guilt (guilt for not doing something I like doing—teleport me to the nearest shrink couch, please!) that at long last I haul out Taste of America and prepare Shrimp-stuffed Eggplant, a dish that has 11 steps and involves chopping up several thousand vegetables. With each whack of the knife, I remind myself This is what life’s about, making time for the things you love, this is what life’s about, making time for the things you love, this is what…

4. Speaking of food, I put off doing what I love because I’m a prisoner of the old dictum You must eat all your veggies before you get dessert. The “veggies” aren’t really the issue here—I could do without housecleaning (as an inspection of the premises any day will prove), but there are veggies I enjoy—writing fiction and working out at the gym. No, the problem is not the vegetables of life. The problem is I too rarely get to dessert. And my favorite “dessert” is to go places and do things with Ed.

We do spend large quantities of time together, doing the daily stuff of life, but the dessert thing is where I say, “Screw it, I’m not going to query any agents today or work on revisions or research markets for my latest short story. We’ll just jump in the car and drive north to Vermont or east to Boston. Spend the day combing bookstores. Visit the MFA. Relax and not count the hours.” That’s the crème brûlée I too often put off. Until X gets done, or Y is over. As we all know, X and Y never really disappear. They just mutate into new life-sucking forms from one day to the next. Life is short. Eat dessert first. And savor the crème brûlée. That’s where the memories are.

5. Some aspect of the thing I want to do feels uncertain, and this haziness quickly assumes the proportions of Mount Everest in my head. A couple of years ago, I got all fired up to sift through and recycle, donate, or—if all else failed—trash what we no longer needed in the attic, which I estimated to be about 90% of the junk up there. Okay, okay, I hear you: She dreams of cleaning her attic? Man, she needs to get out more. Yes, I do need to get out more, but stay with me here a moment. I like space. Uncluttered space. My experience has been that when the stuff we like or need is buried beneath an avalanche of the broken, the outdated, and the just plain ugly (What was I thinking when I acquired that?), we don’t get to it/use it/enjoy it. Add to that my tendency to hang on to a pair of shoes for 30 years (they’re perfectly good and still look great), and you get why clearing the attic might be something I really want to do.

Anyway, I was steaming along full speed ahead. Filling up boxes of books to donate to Reader to Reader. Loading cartons of clothing, CDs, kitchenware duplicates, and kids’ board games for the Salvy Army. Wrangling cords, computer monitors, and other outdated digital hoo-ha to drop off at Staples. When. Suddenly. I was confronted by five LARGE plastic tubs of American Girl dolls, their clothes, their accessories, their little bio books, their stilts and basketball hoops. I mean, these dolls come with a complete world of their own. They also cost, collectively, about a jillion dollars, so I was hoping to get a few bucks return on my initial investment. Something to sustain me in those twilight years ahead.

BUT there was just one teensy snag: I had never sold anything on e-Bay and hadn’t the foggiest how best to proceed. So I closed the tub lids and went downstairs and wrote a novel.

Last summer, I thought I will tackle this. I can do this. I’m the girl who jumped into her VW with all her worldly possessions and drove cross-country to live in a city she’d never seen. How hard can e-Bay be?

I got as far as reading the “How to get Started” section and making a list of all the things I needed to do: Clean up the five dolls, do my best to fix their hair (my daughter was a hair stylist of the 25th century), separate out which outfits, shoes, accessories go with each doll, steam all the badly wrinkled clothing, take a sample doll-and-clothes package to the post office for shipping estimates, make sure my PayPal account is up to date, check comparable AG doll offers online, decide on prices, then write the copy and post on e-Bay.

I stared at this mindboggling list for several weeks and then resumed researching and querying agents for the novel.

6. Some piece, some part is missing without which I cannot do the thing I want to do, and that means getting in the car, driving to whatever store that has the missing piece/part, then driving back home to install it—if it’s possible to install, if I have the necessary tools.

Sometimes this is simple, if the part is camera batteries which I can buy from Stop & Shop—an easy five-minute walk from my house—but sometimes it’s trickier if the needed thing resides in a store two towns over—the town past the town on the other side of the bridge that spans the Connecticut River, on the road that always crawls and comes to a dead stop from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. On a Friday, you could read all of War and Peace on that journey.

When that occurs, it’s a matter of strategic planning. Can I carve out time to stop and get Part X on the way home from my next hair appointment (every five weeks)? Can I manage to track down the needed thing after my eye appointment (once every two years)? These are the times I can definitely rely on being in the town two towns over. I try to make those trips count.     

At the moment, I have a pile of artwork—prints from galleries in London, Paris, Florence—waiting to be hung, standing at the ready to lend elegance to my humble abode. The problem: The shop where I get my frames (big selection, good prices) is across that damn bridge, on the outskirts of the town two towns over. Last week, I finally managed to get a print from the Tate Britain matted, framed, and hung—I celebrated with a snifter of cognac—but the queue of prints is alarmingly long. Plus, we don’t really have wall space for all of them. Ed has suggested a rotating gallery approach. That sounds good. At least, possible. I’ll get to it soon. Really.

7. Technical glitches that mess with my head (which is most technical glitches). Last Christmas, I took a group photo of our blended family. Got out the Nikon (too many folks for any kind of selfie that didn’t have that fishbowl look). Set it up. Got out the tripod. Set it up. Screwed the camera onto the tripod. Set the automatic timer. Took a series of photos. “I’ll send you all a copy,” I promised everyone. That was a year ago.

Buoyed up by working on this post, I got out the Nikon. Predictably “batteries exhausted” flashed on the viewfinder. Not a problem! I located the recharger, plugged those babies in and reloaded. Not a problem! The photo I wanted to upload to my computer came right up. Feeling capable, powerful, CAN DO, I plugged in the camera. Nothing happened. Nothing uploaded. Undaunted, I googled the situation—maybe after such a long hiatus, I’d forgotten a simple step. I followed the online instructions. Nothing. Beginning to feel a tad daunted, I put everything away and promised myself I would dig out the instruction booklet that came with the camera. Soon. Because I want to print good copies to give everyone this Christmas. And I will. I hope.

8. What I want to do requires making arrangements with others via something I call “Calendar Roulette.”  Say, I want to meet up with a friend or friends for coffee, drinks, a day at the races, a night at the opera (a nod to all you Queen fans out there). We all toss the dates and times we are free into the ring, hoping the stars will align in some joyous constellation. But it gets complicated. A is leaving next week for a month of hiking in the Alps, B can’t make it this week but has an open day three Tuesdays from now, and C is only available when 1) her mother-in-law arrives; 2) the kids are at camp; 3) any month that has a Q in it.

I have a dear friend of many years standing—from the long ago days when our kids were in elementary school together. I really enjoy talking to Elaine, but other than random, brief sightings of each other, we hadn’t sat down together for, well, way too long. Until last January, when swearing undying determination, we bargained times like poker players at a high stakes table and—at last!—located a two-hour slot on a Wednesday for lunch. It was great to see her, talk to her, laugh over old times and catch up on what’s new. But I don’t imagine we’ll manage it again until sometime in 2026 when the moon is full and Sagittarius is in the 7th house. 

9. It will take forever to do the thing I want to do. This brings us back to Reason #2 and my pathetic inability to PICK UP MY GUITAR AND JUST PLAY IT, as the Nike ad says.

Actually, I did pick up my guitar one afternoon about six months ago. Trotted out a few of the old standard tunes. And boy did I suck. My fingers throbbed, making the chords sloppy and my picking, fumbly. In short, I, who have played guitar for, well, let’s just say decades, and two or three times in actual public places with an actual audience—though I admit, they certainly did not come to see me—I was like some hamfisted cartoon character with unarticulated pancake circles for hands.

The crazy thing is that I went through all this at age 12, when I saved up my babysitting money (at 50 cents an hour, it took a while) and bought my first guitar. Then, like now, I fumbled through chords, stumbled through simple songs, and toughened up my tender digits. But it was exciting. I was (slowly) improving! Where is that sense of joyous challenge now?

 More to the point, so what if it takes forever? The most challenging session with a guitar is still way better than doing my ten millionth load of laundry.

10.  You tell me. What keeps you from doing the things you most enjoy in life? From spending more quality time with the people you love? From developing a new skill? Reviving an old one?

As Ben Franklin, that wise and witty Founding Father, observed, “You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”

“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never’,” Martin Luther cautioned.

“A year from now you may wish you had started today,” author/artist Karen Lamb reminds us.

So this year, let’s do it. All those things we dream about. Let’s make a pact to:

Play hooky more often with the people we love.

Follow the pursuits that engage us.

Try something new that intrigues us.

As James Michener joyfully noted: “Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today because if you enjoy it today, you can do it again tomorrow.”

Carpe diem. Let’s eat dessert. 

Celebrating What Is

Comedian Robin Williams’ famous quip “Reality… what a concept!” has played in my head like a tape loop on steroids during these past—count ‘em—22 months of pandemic pandemonium.

I mean, do we even know what reality is anymore? Do we want to know?

Add to the COVID powder keg a toxic sludge of gun-toting fascists (some of them members of Congress!), a slew of anti-voter laws designed to finish off our crumbling democracy, plus the skyrocketing threat of climate change, and it’s easy to understand why reality has gotten such a bum reputation. It’s not an accident that my local supermarket has stacks and stacks of snack food in every aisle. We want so much to MAKE… EVERYTHING… THE… WAY… IT…USED… TO… BE.

To the point where we run the risk of missing the good stuff that’s right in front of us. The actual   hope, the joy, the positive progress. These things do exist. But because our gaze is so often turned backward—to the “good old days”—we’re adding to our stress, undermining our own well-being. And let’s be honest—the good old days were never quite as golden as they appear in the rearview mirror. Ask Ahmaud Arbery. That fabled glass we are always measuring—half empty or half full? There’s no denying COVID has been one tough ride. And it’s not surprising that we mourn who and what has been lost. But the situation is not stagnant. A quick glance back to where things stood a year ago confirms that. So let’s not get trapped in a funk and lose sight of all there is to celebrate simply because…   

It’s Not Quite Big Enough

Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in mid-November, represents the largest investment in decades to rebuild our badly-neglected roads and bridges. It dwarfs the $286.4 billion Bush 2005 bill that was hailed as “whopping”. This new bill undertakes to replace dangerous lead pipes and provide clean drinking water for all Americans. It redesigns our ports and transportation systems with an eye to strengthening crucial supply chains. It provides $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations across the country, making the transition to electric cars on a large scale a reality for the first time. It modernizes our public schools and makes broadband accessible for all Americans.

Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is also the largest investment ever in mass transit and clean energy infrastructure. As a result of its varied and massive projects, the bill will create millions of good-paying union jobs—$45 an hour, the White House estimates, nearly 50 percent above the current average.      

So, why aren’t we celebrating this hard-won monumental achievement? A bill the American Society of Civil Engineers calls a “significant down payment on the $2.5 trillion infrastructure investment gap identified in their 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. A bill they say “will benefit American businesses and families for years to come.”

Because it is not as big as Biden originally proposed? Because we are frustrated that the Build Back Better Act—which goes even further in tackling climate change, expanding healthcare, childcare, and workers’ rights—still hangs in limbo?

One may be forgiven for not remembering—it’s been so long—but this is how Congress works. Democrats propose bills to help Americans live better and Republicans cut the allocated aid in whatever ways they can. Compromise is nothing new. It’s the only way anything gets done. The Affordable Care Act didn’t get the hoped-for public option, but it has gone on to provide healthcare for 31 million Americans.

The Infrastructure and Jobs Act is a good thing. It’s not a reason to despair. And it’s certainly not a reason to sit out future elections. Where would we be today if the 81,284,000 Americans who voted for Biden in 2020 had not shown up? 

Not Everything’s Available

From my Inbox a few weeks ago: Will Supply Chain Issues Ruin Christmas? (The New Yorker, November 2, 2021). In her article, UK writer Anna Russell describes the “hand-wringing” in her corner of the world as eager shoppers are hyperventilating over predicted shortages resulting from the pandemic and Brexit. These twin powder kegs have created a serious dearth of agricultural labor that is “already causing runs on gifts, turkeys, and puddings,” Russell says. After last year’s skyrocketing COVID case numbers cancelled holiday plans for many families, there’s a “palpable sense of making up for lost time.” People are demanding that everything be exactly the way it used to be. What if, she ponders, “there’s no Christmas turkey?”

In the States, we’re less worried about plum puddings and more distressed that the COVID-associated supply chain problems will “ruin [our] life plans” and frightened that these troubles “will never end.” How can we celebrate the holidays if the gadgets and toys parents and kids want aren’t in stock? How can we “make merry” if ordered items arrive late?

Reading this list of American woes in the Material Handling & Logistics News, I was struck by the fact that right across the page was this headline: Holiday Retail Sales Expected to Increase 7%-9%: Deloitte. Apparently, Americans are going to still be able to buy stuff. According to the Deloitte article, a LOT of stuff. About $1.28 – $1.3 trillion worth.  

Anna Russell declared that though “no one wants to be the Grinch” at Christmas, the shortages in specific foods and other goods “has cast a decidedly unfestive pall over preparations.”

Why an “unfestive pall”? Wasn’t that the whole point of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas? That it’s not the tinsel and wrappings and stuff? A quick refresher here: After stealing all their presents in the wee hours of Christmas morning and stripping their trees of tinsel and ornaments, the Grinch is shocked to observe the Whos in Whoville holding hands and singing joyously on Christmas morning. This is a revelation. As Seuss says: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”    

So, if puddings or turkeys are not to be found, can’t we still enjoy the holidays? One year, we had lasagna, and not an ounce of festivity was lost. In fact, it made a tasty change.

Unsplash: Krakenimages

If hot-ticket gift items are sitting offshore in some cargo ship, swamped amid a zillion other cargo ships, does this really ruin our celebrations? If gifts are truly an issue, give Amazon a rest and shop in real stores. Support Main Street. There are books on the shelves of bookstores, clothing on the racks of outfitters, kitchenware stacked up in kitchen supply shops. You can gift experiences with tickets for an upcoming event or certificates for restaurants, massages, a weekend at some cozy inn. No worry about the supply chain. No delayed mail hassles from our pal (not!) Louis DeJoy.

Last year, we had gifts and a decorated tree. What Ed and I didn’t have for Thanksgiving or Christmas was the company of our four adult kids—residing in states from Maine to Louisiana—because there were no vaccines yet. Air travel put one at risk for contracting COVID. Indoor gatherings (especially those lasting days) posed real threats. Now, we are all vaccinated and most of us have even gotten our booster shot! That’s a reason to celebrate.

I’m here to say whatever holiday(s) you observe—Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa—being with loved ones is the only thing you really need to have a joyous celebration.   

It’s Not Fast Enough

Speaking of vaccinations, there’s been a lot of despair about how slowly things are moving. Why aren’t we back to “normal” yet? When can we just put COVID in the rearview mirror and move on? By which we mean: return to the way everything used to be.   

It has felt like a loooong haul. And my heart goes out to people who’ve gotten the vaccine in states where GOP governors have let the virus run rampant, so that some palpable level of risk remains. Vote those dudes OUT!

But, we need to remind ourselves of where we were a year ago. Restaurants: closed. Main Street shops (for the most part): closed. Movie theaters? Ha-ha, not happening. Travel, especially by plane or outside the States: Highly risky or simply not permitted. Holiday family gatherings? Hold the family.

Despite the eagerly-awaited vaccines that emerged late last year, things got off to a very sluggish start. In month one of the vaccine rollout, Trump only managed to get 12 million shots delivered. And no one in that gang of grifters was really busting their arse to oversee rollout or even stock the vaccine.

Unsplash: Steven Cornfield

Then, in December 2020, before he’d even settled into the White House, newly-elected Joe Biden promised his team would get “at least 100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in [his] first 100 days.” This announcement was cautiously greeted with hope but also much skepticism. Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, felt it was an attainable goal, “but I think it’s going to be extremely challenging.”  

Well, Biden beat that goal handily—and doubled it. In late March 2021, he announced his team was upping their game, and pledged to get 200 million shots into arms in his first 100 days. Despite noisy backlash from GOP governors, gun-toting thugs, and QAnon hysteria, on Day 92 of Biden’s presidency, we reached that goal. By the middle of this last month, 446 million vaccine doses had been administered. One-hundred, ninety-four million Americans are now fully vaccinated, and another 53 million have received their first dose. We are traveling again, dining out in restaurants, going to movies, visiting with loved ones. How is this not good?  Champagne corks should be popping across the land.

Okay, because of the anti-vaxxers and a lax attitude about COVID spread in some states, we have to wear masks again. Leave a seat or two between patrons in the movie theatres. Continue to submit to COVID testing for travel. It’s not “like it used to be,” but the global effort to develop, approve, and manufacture a vaccine was Herculean. We’ve never witnessed anything like it. And Seattle recently reported that the daily hospitalization rate for COVID among vaccinated folks is less than half that for people hospitalized with the flu in a typical year. Roughly, one in a million. 

The Times, They Are (Always) A’Changin’

Somewhere in my recent reading, I came across an arresting thought. The gist is this: We always talk about people changing, but it’s the circumstances around us that constantly shift, and we stagger to adapt. The truth of that hit me square between the eyeballs. For anyone born after the dark years of the Great Depression and World War II, this is the first serious full-blown outright global disaster we’ve had. The first time the ground has truly shifted under our feet.

But if we step back for a moment, we can see that things are always changing. The town of my childhood looks nothing like it did. Instead of renting DVDs from Blockbuster, we now stream movies and series from Netflix and Amazon. Online dating apps—once a service many people feared would mark them as a “loser”—has become the place to meet potential romantic partners.

Of course, the Internet is the biggest change of all in the past few decades, radically shifting the way we shop, bank, communicate, work and search for work, among a zillion other things.

Social networking has made connecting to old friends and new easy and fun. It has also become a tool for exploiting people’s fears and prejudices to serve the ends of the uber-rich and the fascist. And that was true pre-Covid.     

Very little is the way it was even ten years ago, let alone at the dawn of this millennium. We’ve just had a seismic amount of change—and a frightening one at that—in a very short time, and that’s hard on people. But not everything we had is gone. In fact, the most important things are still here. People still fall in love. Babies continue to be born. The kids in my neighborhood still run laughing and shrieking in their play. Books continue to be written. Music continues to be made. Gardens bloom. Leaves turn color. A day in my local park, reading and wandering, remains a joy and a renewal. Last month, Ed and I saw an amazing exhibit—Titian: Women, Myth & Power—at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Though three of my favorite local restaurants closed their doors for good this last year, it turns out they were all owned by people past retirement age, and had literally served the community for decades. They likely would have closed soon anyway. The pandemic just hastened the owners’ decision. But more restaurants survived. And a few new ones have opened.    

Darwin understood that the world around us is constantly shifting, changing—sometimes subtly, sometimes rapidly, even violently—but he believed our greatest strength lies in our ability to adapt. It’s what survivors do.  Roll with the punches. Ride the tide.

A humorous example of this popped up on my TV last week. In the hand-off on MSNBC from Rachel Maddow to Lawrence O’Donnell, O’Donnell rolled up his suit jacket cuffs to reveal… paperclip cufflinks! Apparently, his on-air wardrobe features shirts that require cufflinks. He said he’s always forgetting them, but in the past has borrowed frequently from Brian Williams (who does the show after O’Donnell’s). “Since Covid, we’re not in the same building, so I’ve just been making do with paperclips. And they work!”  

I loved it. Okay, it’s not a “big thing.” But it’s the spirit and the humor. Two things we need right now to celebrate this wondrous, crazy, sometimes maddening, more often beautiful thing called life. And stay energized for the fight ahead. Because the real threats we face aren’t about social distancing in restaurants or masks on airplanes. They’re not even about stacked up container ships. In fact, they’re about the stuff we’ve been facing and fighting for decades: the twin threats to democracy and the climate. In a nutshell, the greed and tyranny of the few over the many.

But, hey, we keep swinging. In mid-November, House Democrats added four weeks of paid family and medical leave back into the Build Back Better Act, plus the long-hoped-for right of Medicare to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma on certain drugs, insulin among them. As I write, the bill passed the House this morning.

If we can’t be happy until we get everything we want, then my long experience tells me we will never be happy. I say celebrate what is good and keep pushing for what needs fixing. There’s still plenty worth saving, worth savoring, worth living for.  

Living Up to Your Potential: Who Decides?  

During a recent chat with some friends, one of them recalled a high school teacher who embarrassed him in class by saying “you aren’t living up to your potential.”

Not living up to one’s potential—an arresting and, for me, rather dubious notion. What does it really mean, and who decides what your or my or anyone’s potential might be?

Let’s start with this teacher’s basis for 1) assessing my friend’s potential, and 2) deciding he wasn’t living up to the mark. Was the teacher comparing his classroom performance with his prior academic record? Measuring the gap between his output and his score(s) on academic knowledge tests like the Iowa Assessments, or IQ evaluations like the Stanford-Intelligence Scales?

Are there other factors outside the school setting that might have influenced how this teacher thought about my friend’s potential?

What Do Standardized Tests Really Measure?

The term “IQ” (intelligence quotient) was coined by German psychologist William Stern in the dawn of the 20th century. It was almost immediately adopted by Alfred Binet who, together with Theodore Simon, created the Binet-Simon intelligence scale, the first modern test of its kind. Rather than measuring what a child had learned, the test assessed mental abilities through such items as the child’s reply to an abstract question or their verbal definition of a known object such as money. The child’s IQ would then be calculated as a quotient of their mental age (estimated by the test) divided by their actual age and multiplied by 100, e.g., a six-year-old who performed at the average level for six-year-olds would score 100. If that child performed at the average level of a nine-year-old, their score would be 150.  

In everyday parlance, one’s IQ quickly became a shorthand for classifying people as brilliant, average, or not-so-swift—labels that can color teachers’ attitudes toward a child, especially the low performers, and prove difficult to shake. But Stern and Binet both cautioned against using IQ as a sole means for categorizing intelligence. They felt that intelligence is multi-faceted, individual differences are highly complex, and comparing two people in any qualitative way is a near-impossible task. Perhaps most significantly, Binet, who intended his test as an aid to identify kids who need an extra boost in the classroom, believed that intelligence is not fixed or inborn.       

Despite these disclaimers, the then-new and rapidly growing eugenics movement (Hitler would become a big fan) seized upon IQ testing as a method for identifying the “feeble-minded” who they hoped to eradicate by preventing such people from “breeding.” Indeed, in the closing years of the nineteenth century, Sir Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics, suggested in his book, Hereditary Genius, that these people be sent to celibate monasteries or sisterhoods in the interests of improving the race.

Tests of Knowledge. Whose Knowledge?

On even shakier grounds in defining a child’s potential are knowledge-based tests like the Iowa Assessments or the Stanford Achievement Test. These tests are designed to measure specific skills and track a student’s progress. But what is knowledge really? It can only be what we have been exposed to, not what we are capable of achieving. And the experiences of American children (indeed, children everywhere) are so widely divergent as to make any truly meaningful comparisons, let alone pronouncements on a child’s potential, ludicrous. Though testing companies—responding to criticisms of bias—are quick to assure us their updated tests are more culturally inclusive, can you truly compare the scores of students from an underfunded, overcrowded school that lacks many basic materials with the scores of kids in an affluent suburb where the schools have state-of-the-art science labs, a fine arts wing, and the latest textbooks?

All children have knowledge, i.e., every child has experienced, observed, and taken in a ton of info about the world around them. But the child who shares a one-bedroom flat with three siblings and a single parent doing the Mickey D shift has a very different understanding of how things work than the child whose financially-secure family provides dance lessons, visits to science museums, and trips abroad. Both have knowledge. And they both know that the social order values one kind of knowledge over the other.      

Even if we remove economic inequality from the picture for a moment, the child whose experience is a sprawling family farm in Idaho has a very different view of the world from the child growing up in New York City whose daily life is the subway, skyscrapers, and a rainbow of diverse cultures. Even Binet acknowledged that measures of intelligence were not easily generalizable and could only apply to children with similar backgrounds and experiences.

The Many Shades of Intelligence

The brain is a many-splendored thing. As Yasemin Saplakoglu, writing for livescience.com, says, “The brain tells us what to do, how to act, what to think and what to say… We depend on this organ to live and learn, but much about this organ still remains as mysterious to us as the inside of a black hole.” 

One of those mysteries is what motivates each of us to pursue certain paths and reject others. We now know a lot about the brain’s neurons and synapses, its frontal lobe and the amygdala, but that “thing” that is each of us, what drives it, how it manifests itself in our individual capabilities? Our “test score” on that is about zero. So, how can we measure a child’s potential? Yet, there is something in our collective society that always wants to measure stuff—gender norms, quality of life—quantify it, label it, then tuck it away all neat and tidy. No confusions. No uncertainties.

Yet, human beings are full of mysteries. For example, I can make good connections between seemingly disparate events, I’m fluent in literature and history, facile with words, creative, but I could never have invented the computer. My head just doesn’t work that way. Does this make me less intelligent than someone who dwells in the land of IT? Turn it around. Is a geneticist who understands human genome sequencing but can’t read music more or less intelligent than a composer who writes symphonies but barely passed biology in high school? Or are they simply different? 

The theory of multiple intelligences, proposed by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner in 1983, comes closer to admitting the immense complexity that is each of us, but even it cannot predict or codify how these various types of intelligence—combined with our individual experiences and that undefinable thing that makes you you—stamp us with a potential that can be expressed in numbers, percentages, grades. The thing that made Van Gogh paint in the way he alone painted; the “spark” that inspired Alan Turing to build the Bombe machine that broke the German Enigma code, a major turning point in the Allies’ road to victory in World War II.

The First Rule of Status Quo: Thou Shall Not Buck One’s Social Class

Those “other factors” I mentioned up top that influence our beliefs about a child’s potential? In my experience as both student and educator, none is more likely to bias a teacher’s (school’s or community’s) assessment than the socio-economic status of a child’s family.

Expectations flow from certain well-defined “norms” (a word that, in my opinion, one must always approach with a certain wariness), e.g., a “bright” child from a “comfortable” home, “of course” dreams of a degree from Harvard, Princeton, or MIT, and a future in medicine, law, investment banking, engineering, or IT. They would “naturally” aspire to a large airy home, a yacht, and a vacation house in some trendy beach area (where one can hang out with all the other people who have lived up to their potential).

The affluence a family commands is no small lever in the world. Just look at George W. Bush. Dumb as all get-out, but rich and once the most powerful public figure in America. Did he ever dream of anything other than politics? Was he ever allowed to even have dreams that were driven by something other than his social status, family connections, and dynastic wealth? It’s worth noting that such factors in determining potential are all slanted toward the white, the Christian (or at least the non-Muslim and non-Jew), and men. A woman may choose to seek a high-status position. But if the “little lady” decides to stay home or volunteer her time or make bracelets to sell on Etsy, she’s not deemed a failure. We didn’t expect that much from her anyway. And society rarely asks of the Black man running the gas pumps if he has other aspirations or talents.   

The (Hidden) Tyranny of You Can Be Anything You Want

“You can be anything you want to be.” Sounds like a great thing to tell a child, right? And to be fair, many parents and teachers who say this mean it simply to be an encouragement, an ego boost. But sometimes there are hidden parental agendas. You can be anything (I want you to be). You can be anything (appropriate to our family’s social class). You can be anything (that has prestige/earns big bucks—a neurosurgeon, a corporate CEO—and if you’re not, then you’re a royal f#&k-up).

It can be difficult for a child to see this hidden agenda until the backlash comes. I wanted to be a writer from the start. I penned my first poems at age five, my first short stories at six. But the first time I pitched an article to a magazine at age 19—and yes, I made many mistakes in that initial effort—my mother (without even reading the pitch) said, “Oh, they won’t want that.” It was discouraging, confusing—and angering—for me. Why was she trying to crush my first attempt at giving my dreams flight in the larger world?

Sometimes the efforts to direct a child’s dreams involve more than simply maintaining the family’s social status. Several years after I pitched that first article, college over, I took a job waiting tables while I wrote my first novel. That’s when the hidden agenda really emerged. “You could be anything you want!” [Mom again] “If I’d had your intelligence and your opportunities…” Yadda, yadda, yadda. It emerged through many painful repeats of this scene that what I could have been—what she wanted me to be (because she gave up a career she loved at my father’s insistence)—was the CEO of a prestigious marketing firm. Never mind that I loathe the whole corporate thing. I was born to live out her dreams. I was her “second chance.” Sadly, I think this is more common than many parents would like to admit.

Getting Encouragement Right

Encouragement is great when it’s for goals the person being encouraged has freely chosen. Not being allowed to feel okay about our own choices and dreams is a set-up for frustration, anger, depression, and pain. Parents and teachers need to step back, take the time and effort to discover what floats a child’s boat—and this can change many times as kids grow up and become adults—and provide opportunities/support for those young dreams. This is never wasted. Supporting a child in their search for who they are and what matters to them—providing materials or lessons (if that’s feasible), introducing them to mentors, or just simply learning more about the things that engage them—can have rewards that last a lifetime. For the child, for the parent, for their relationship.    

For the adults in the room who refuse to do that, I can only paraphrase Bob Dylan: Please get out of the way if you can’t lend your hand.

Upward Isn’t the Only Kind of Mobility

For a world that offers a breathtaking array of possibilities in life, from dog surfing instructor (yes, this is a real job in California) to rocket recovery technician, robot tester to alligator wrangler, it seems a bit myopic to assume that the only definition of a well-lived life comes down to a prestige title, a corner office, and a high six- or seven-figure salary. One size has never fit all. Thank god.

I know more than one person who has turned down promotion to a high-level management position at their company—said no thank you to the increased pay, perks, prestige—because they did not want to manage people. They did not want the endless rounds of meetings, the oversight of resources and personnel. They just wanted to continue doing the job they already enjoyed. A well-known children’s author once told me that many editors at publishing houses dread a promotion because it takes them away from the work they became editors for—to read manuscripts, discover new talent, and edit books.

Are these people not living up to their potential, or are they exactly where they should be—honing their skills at a job they love? Of course, turning down a promotion usually means you have to look elsewhere for a job—so “unimaginable” a thing, so damning, is it to reject “the American Dream”, you can find yourself increasingly shut out of all the good projects going, the stuff you do love, as punishment for bucking the status quo.

Coloring Outside the Lines

So, what about you? Who are you? What floats your boat? What if your dreams don’t accord with what others label your potential?

First of all, you are far from alone. John Steinbeck, the great American novelist, attended Stanford but left without a degree to pursue his writing. He picked fruit and worked on the construction of Madison Square Garden while penning his first three novels, all which sank with barely a trace. At 33, he got a taste of success with a short story, “Tortilla Flat”, but it would be another four years before the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, and he would be 50 by the time East of Eden saw print.

Stephen King served as a high school janitor, among a host of other odd jobs, while struggling to get his fiction published. His time wheeling the cleaning cart through the halls, though, inspired him to write the opening girls’ locker room scene in Carrie, which would become his breakout novel. Perhaps nothing is ever truly wasted.

Only one thing seems more audacious than someone determining what another person’s potential is—and that is telling them they’re not living up to that potential. So, follow your passions whether or not they fit the pigeonhole others have pegged for you, whether or not they bring you public recognition and status symbols. We do the things we love for an intrinsic reward that has no neat, quantifiable measure. You will never be happier than being who you truly are.   

TALK TO PEOPLE

During the long seeming decades of living life behind a mask (and, sigh, now we’re back there again, indoors anyway), one of the things I missed most were the little random chats people have in passing. The exchange of smiles. At a time when we most needed the comfort of contact with our fellow human beings, we had to make do with the occasional nod.

Talking to people bridges the gap created by absorption in our personal cares/woes/busy-ness, creates warm fuzzy feelings that foster a desperately-needed civility, reminds us we are part of something larger than ourselves, a community. We need to talk.

What happens when we stop talking was painfully illustrated recently when a California teacher wound up in the hospital with head and face lacerations after an enraged parent attacked him. The reason for the beating? The parent had just discovered the school, following a new state mandate, was making the children wear masks in the classroom.

Whatever happened to “use your words”? Even the most heated discussion would have been better. I guess it’s just fortunate the parent didn’t pull out a gun.

Talking Down Your Fears

In my notes for this post, I jotted down a line I found on the Internet: We text constantly, but we talk less. While there may be myriad reasons for this—e.g., wishing to convey a quick, brief message without becoming ensnared in a long, chatty conversation—a 2020 report in the Harvard Business Review suggests deeper issues may underlie our preference for texting over talking. In a string of experiments, people were given the choice to get in touch with an old friend by either phone call or email. Most chose email, despite the fact that they expected to feel more connected to their friend if they actually spoke to them. So why not pick up the phone? Because they also imagined—and feared—they would feel more awkward. Typing seemed the “safer” route. 

Afraid to talk to our friends??? Worried about letting others glimpse the “real” us? Is this the fallout from a decade-plus of Facebook relationships where we paint a perfect, enviable picture of our life to the world, all the warts (and human need/frailty) removed?

Well, the good news is, as so often happens, our inflated fears are all out of proportion to reality.  When people were randomly assigned to contact an old friend by email or phone, those who made phone calls reported feeling more connected than the e-mailers—as they’d anticipated—but also far less awkward than they had feared beforehand. This finding held up even when people were asked to talk to a stranger to discuss a given issue. “This is consistent,” the research notes, “with other findings suggesting that a person’s voice is really the signal that creates understanding and connection.”    

Cat Litter Chat

Talking to other people, especially in passing, doesn’t have to be brilliant or witty or deep. One of the easiest ways to connect is through the simple commonalities of life.

Recently, on my daily stroll, I passed a house where two women were carrying their shopping from the car. One had a gigantic box I recognized. Cat litter. For those of you not blessed with cats, I will reveal that pre-COVID, cat litter came in 20 lb. bags. Not featherweight, but doable. Since the pandemic, however, it is only available in my local supermarket in THIRTY POUND boxes. While bags have some friendly “give”, boxes are blocky. They have hard corners—ouch! To top it off, this woman—a tad over 5” tall—was carrying this boulder of a box up a steep incline.

In solidarity, I called out, “I can’t believe how heavy they’re making those boxes of cat litter now.”

“Don’t I know it,” the woman called back. “It’s a killer. My arms are numb.”

That was it. They entered their house and I went on my way, but my spirits were lifted. I felt good, a part of my larger neighborhood, my town, humanity. I hope I left them feeling the same.    

The Shortest Distance Between Two People

My first mask-free walk occurred about three weeks after my second dose of Moderna. It was harder than I thought to give up that mask—I hated that I hadn’t talked to anyone on the street in over a year, hated that I couldn’t beam a smile in anyone’s direction, but I also associated the mask with safety, with staying alive. After some inner tussle, I braved the streets barefaced one sunny May morning.

Unsplash: Luis Villafranca

Five or six blocks along, I passed a house where half a dozen people were chatting, sprawled across two sofas, an armchair and a rocker on the lawn. This seating was grouped around a large dining table and separated by end tables of various sizes and woods. A hand-lettered piece of cardboard—TAG SALE—was propped against a garbage can.

I loved it. It was just such a funny, fantastical scene, I couldn’t pass it by unremarked.

Now, humor is always a bit of a risk—it can fall flat, can be met with puzzled looks—but I’ve got a magnet on my fridge that says Laughter is the shortest distance between two people, and I tend to chance it, so I called out, “You’ve done it! You’re all set up for outdoor living.”

They all laughed, and I laughed. We chatted for a few minutes—about how good it felt to see people’s faces again, how great it was that we’d made it to summer. I walked on clouds all the way home.

Peace, Love & Understanding: It’s Just a Few Words Away

As noted up top, we need to talk to people because not talking is the quickest route to misunderstandings, anger, and unhappiness. When you’re feeling slighted or wronged, though, it can be hard to remember. I was reminded of this recently when Ed and I had dinner at a local Mexican bistro. The set-up here was you ordered your food/drinks at the counter/bar, then selected a table and a server would bring your meal.

Unsplash: Nathan Dumlao

As I waited in line, I noticed there was no listing for the beers available at the bar, so I asked the woman who took my order if I could see a list of their brews. She was very short with me: “We don’t have a list.” Okay, could she maybe tell me what was available on tap/in bottles? “I don’t know,” she said and tallied up my dinner order. “If you’ve got anything like Corona or an IPA, I’ll take one.” She shrugged and gave me my food total.

By the time I was seated at our table, my happy spirits at a night out had plummeted into the annoyed zone. “What kind of restaurant counterperson has no idea what beer is available?” I asked Ed. “Why was she so hostile? I wasn’t rude.”

“I heard her tell the man in front of me that the power was out for a couple of hours,” Ed said, “but orders for pick-up kept pouring in online, and there was no way to prepare them. Then everyone showed up, expecting their food.”

Okay. Reset. The woman has just spent two hours in the no-fun zone, sorting out late orders among a crowd of hungry customers. She’s having a Bad Day.

When she brought our order to the table, I commiserated with her about the power outage. Gave her a chance to unload a bit about the frustrating evening. In the end, she brought me a delightfully “hoppy” beer. Sometimes, all people need is someone to ask how it’s going. Someone to listen.  

Unexpected Connections

One of the great joys of talking to people is finding unexpected connections. We pass by “strangers” every day with whom we share much more than we guess. Never has this felt truer than in the darkest days of COVID, when we were all suffering the same fears, frustrations, and the loss of everything that felt “normal.”   

Unsplash: Sigmund

During one of my daily strolls last August, on a street I’ve walked down 11,892 zillion times in the past eighteen months, a boy called out to me: “Do you want to look at the cards I made?” A sandy-haired kid of 8 or 9, he had a display of some two dozen handmade cards on a folding table edging the sidewalk. We exchanged names and I began perusing his stock—a truly impressive and highly original assortment of cards that expressed friendship, humor, love. I asked him how long he’d been making cards and where he got his ideas. Then, I showed him my four or five favorites and told him what I especially liked about each one.

I was honestly sorry I didn’t have any money on me. When I asked if I could come back the next day, the woman who was sitting on the porch steps said he would be going back home to Boston the next morning. She introduced herself as his aunt, and we swapped the sort of basic bio details people offer on meeting. Turned out, she’s a writer, too. We chatted a bit about the state of the publishing industry, the kinds of writing we each do, the markets we’ve published in, and how frustrating querying agents can be.     

Before saying good-bye, I asked the boy if he would be selling his cards in Boston. He said he had sold a few there earlier in the summer. “But some days no one buys anything,” he sighed.    “I hear you,” I said, “I don’t sell everything I write either. But I hope you keep going because your cards are amazing. You have real creative talent.”

I like to think all three of us felt we’d connected through our work as artists of various stripes. I know I did.

More Than A Transaction

Unsplash: Brooke Cagle

Call me weird, but I like to talk to the people I come across in the daily transactions of life: shopkeepers, salespeople, restaurant staff, the guy behind the deli counter, the woman bagging my groceries. Not long-winded discussions on the state of the universe—I understand that people on the job have multiple responsibilities to juggle—but something beyond a curt “I’ll have the Salad Niçoise” or “Please bring the check.”

One of my concerns about the fallout from COVID is the dramatic increase it spurred in what was already an asocial trend: buying everything online, ordering take-out via GrubHub, streaming films at home rather than viewing them on the big screen at the local cinema. Of course, before the vaccine, this was absolutely necessary, but I hope we rally from our sofas and easy chairs, stop ordering everything online, put on our glad rags and go downtown, as Petula Clark advised.      

When the restaurants re-opened in my town in June, one of our first dinners out was at a much-loved Italian restaurant. After the long shutdown, everyone was nodding to and smiling at each other. As the crowd thinned and the pace relaxed, we started chatting with our server, a woman in her early forties, about how wonderful it was to be dining out again and the great need people feel for community. The conversation led her to talk about a related tragedy concerning her daughter. At one point, her eyes filled with tears. She paused, unable to go on. I reached out, put a hand on her arm in consolation. After a moment, she placed her hand atop mine. It was such a basic human connection.  

We are so much more than the outward face we show, the public role we play. Not just a server. Not just a customer. Those simple friendly greetings, those brief exchanges about the day, a humorous remark, a kind word—in those moments, we acknowledge the other person’s humanity and demonstrate our own.

What The World Needs Now

Nothing is more natural than talking to people at an event you’ve both attended. It’s a slam-dunk opportunity to build on the commonalities that brought you there. To strengthen that sense of community. Yet, my observation has been that few people do. When a concert or play or ballgame ends, we tend to rush to the exits, jump in our cars or onto the subway and … flee in silence.

Legendary violinist Joshua Bell is always a BIG draw at Tanglewood, and because he’s such a favorite, the exodus from the lawn afterwards is always s-l-o-w. Everyone lugging their coolers, lawn chairs and tables. Everyone stopping by the restrooms before heading out on the highway.

Never one to waste an opportunity, while Ed was in the loo, I started talking to a woman who was also waiting for her husband. I mentioned how great Joshua Bell is, and that I’d never missed a performance of his since my kids started playing violin. Same here, she said. I told her that when my kids were violin students, all the tween-age female violinists used to crush on Josh, and I’d tease them, saying they didn’t stand a chance because Bell (a very handsome man) was much closer to my age and therefore, I had first dibs.  

The woman laughed and said her daughter had played violin with a group of student musicians following one of Bell’s performances. It became a family joke that Joshua Bell had “opened” for their daughter’s concert. The woman’s husband appeared, wearing a Mets tee shirt, and I mentioned that Ed and I are big baseball fans, he, the Red Sox and me, the Yankees. The couple laughed and asked, “How does that work?” By this point, Ed had joined the conversation, and he related a funny story about a cop in NYC asking us the same question. It was a lovely cap to a wonderful evening.  

Talk to people. It’s not rocket science. It’s not Shakespeare. It’s often not even so much the content of the words as it is the human connection. As the research mentioned earlier noted, it’s our voice—the act of speaking to others—that fosters understanding and creates a bond. The world could really use that now.  

And me? I talk to people because—like most of us—I need them to talk to me.

   

Everything Takes as Long as It Takes

“A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.”

Albert Einstein

[THIS post first ran in May 2018. I’m dropping it in here because I’m off to The Big Apple for a little vacay! And because it has relevance to the continued distress many of us experience: That we’ve “lost” some chunk of our lives during COVID that we can never “get back.” This post is here to remind me, and you, that it’s OK. If we’re still here, we’ve still got time.]

Note jotted to self on the edge of a cryptic crossword: One day you’re 30; the next, you’re 60, and yet 10 minutes can seem like forever.

Time. The thing that waits for no man. The tyrant that keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future. A specter that haunts, often causing us to feel when we’re doing X, we really should be doing Y.

Case in point: Being a writer, I have a zillion connections to other writers out there. Mostly what I hear falls into one of three camps.

1. I’m not writing right now.

2. I’m not writing enough right now.

3. I’m writing 2,000 words a day right now, but the rest of my life is going right down the toilet.

These may read like mere declarative sentences. Trust me, they are not. Each one is packed with enough angst to blow the pin right out of a grenade. What’s missing from these words, but explosively present is: Time.

Let’s take another look at these statements and give voice to the elephant in the room.

1. I’m not writing right now. It worries me that so much time is going by without my writing. How much more of my life will I waste not writing?

2.  I’m not writing enough right now. I write too slowly. Stephen King writes like 200 pages a day. I’ll be 90 when this book is done.

3. I’m writing ten pages a day right now, but the rest of my life is going right down the toilet. I don’t have time to write and have a family. What am I going to do with the kids? The dog? We can’t live on take-out forever. Oh god, I missed the car payment again. And I don’t have friends anymore. No time.

Well, other than the fact that Stephen King writes six pages a day, not 200, the stress about time expressed here is very real. I hear it often from others. I feel it every day myself.  

Tick, tick, tick. Time is fleeting. Tempus Fugit—there it goes!

In the Age Before Time

When I was a kid, in that golden era after the invention of the wheel and before the advent of Facebook, my friends and I used to spend whole afternoons in the garage looking for the little key that tightened our roller skates. If we found it before dinner and got time to actually skate, that was a bonus. We were together, hanging out. What more mattered?

Sometimes we rode our bikes around all day, just seeing what was up at our regular haunts: the school playground, the little park six blocks over, the drugstore, the ravine. We weren’t disappointed by what we found—usually nothing. We were just cycling through our world, enjoying the freedom of independence.

Like most kids, I had a few chores. Setting the dinner table. Cleaning my room. I didn’t enjoy them, but I didn’t dread them. My mom would call, “Time to set the table,” and I’d have to put down the book I was engrossed in, or pack up the game I’d been playing with a friend, and go slap down those knives, forks, and spoons. But I never watched the clock. I never thought, “Oh crap, I’ve just blown ten minutes setting the table.” And I certainly never thought about those tasks when I wasn’t doing them. I just did them and resumed what I’d been doing or started something new.

Just taking things as they come—when does that change?

The Responsibilities

Does time start to feel like the enemy when our responsibilities expand beyond laying out the flatware?

I carried a full load of courses throughout college and worked 30 hours a week, but I don’t recall ever feeling harried by the clock. I didn’t even own a watch. When I was at work at the Student Union Grill, I was at work, chatting with customers as I flipped their burgers and fried their fries. When I was in class, I was in class, talking literature and history, psychology and feminist philosophy, enjoying making connections among the zillions of new ideas bombarding my brain. If I had a paper due, I started in around midnight and worked through the wee hours until I handed it in at class the next day. No biggie. Occasionally, I slept. I didn’t count the hours.       

There’s a cartoon from those days. A friend clipped it for me. “This is exactly you,” she said.

But really, it was all of us. I never heard anyone angst about time. There was a healthy sense of We’re here to explore life. We worked. We played. Wherever we were, we were there.

Out in the “Real World”

Entering the REAL WORLD: Is that when time lays a stranglehold on us?

I remember going for my first big-girl job interview. You know, the one where you suit up and park your personality in neutral. The interviewer began with this zinger: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Five years? I didn’t “see” myself at the end of next week. I knew I was a writer. I knew I wanted to always be writing. But I had no timeline for my dreams.

I also knew the interviewer expected me to detail how I planned to climb some ladder I hadn’t constructed and didn’t care about. So, I gave him some garbled gab about ambitions, probably cobbled together from TV shows and articles I’d read about bright young things “going places.” Then I left. Quickly.

After that, I went out west for a while, where I discovered I need deciduous trees and seasons. Then, I came back east for grad school, which I left two years later after some serious #MeToo harassment from a prof, in a time when women were still being advised to “suck it up.” I wrote my first novel. None of this felt like wasting time.   

 At my second “real world” interview, for an editor’s job, the company focused on my skill set and portfolio—in short, my ability to do the work—and didn’t ask ridiculous questions. (Wherever you see yourself in five years, I can almost guarantee that’s not where you’ll be.) I got that job, and the job came with strict deadlines. I was responsible for planning, sourcing, and writing a monthly publication.  

Surely, I must have felt the pressure then—time as an anvil waiting to drop on my head, like Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon.

Not really. When I was watching Late Night with David Letterman in, say, March, I never worried that I wouldn’t make deadline on the April issue. When the company started sending me on the road to give seminars for our client subscribers, I didn’t panic about finding the extra hours to prepare a presentation. I was psyched about the travel, meeting new people and staying at legendary hotels like The Palmer House in Chicago. Bring it on. Everything was an adventure.

Of course I didn’t have kids yet. Is it family responsibilities that send us into a tailspin, time spiraling out of control like a plane losing fuel fast?

Parenthood: Who Has Time to Think About Time?

I don’t think there are many parents out there who would argue that having kids is the busiest thing you’ll ever do. There’s something going every minute, and that’s on a slow day. Often, it’s a three-ring circus. You’re making dinner and baking cupcakes for the school fundraiser while helping with homework and maybe adding the finishing touches to a Halloween costume. I recall the blissful peace of doing my work (I was a copyeditor for El Sevier at the time) at the kitchen table after the kids had gone to bed.

Actually, kids keep you very much in the present. Their needs are of the immediate kind, rising in one moment, taken care of in the next. I never had time to worry about time. I took care of them, played with them, ferried them to friends and activities. Once they were in school, I went back to school, too, and became a teacher. By the time I had a classroom, the kids were able to do their own laundry and clean their shared bath. We did takeout one night a week. Everything still felt manageable. When I was doing one thing, I wasn’t tortured by the feeling I should be doing something else. That would come later.     

What the Hell is Time Anyway?

It seems like a good moment to pause here and consider the nature of this beast we call Time. A brief Google search informs me that:

“Time is a very curious thing. Ask anyone on the street if they know what time is. They are sure to answer yes. But then, ask them to explain it to you and they will almost certainly be at a loss for words.”   (David Lewis Anderson)

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” (Albert Einstein)

“Time is the measurable unit of movement concerning a before and an after.” (Physica IV, 11, 219, b1)

Now that we’ve got that all cleared up, I’d like to offer a little perspective here.    

The Earth came into being a tad over 4.5 billion years ago. Geologically violent in its infancy, and constantly bombarded by meteorites, it took 2 billion years for things to settle down and the continents we know to materialize. Latecomers to the party, it would take another 2,499,800,000 years for us to show up, and then we took our sweet time—another 145,000 years of it—to invent the wheel.

Things take time. Some things take massive amounts of time. Even on our puny human scale, it takes a long time to become a virtuoso at the violin, write a book, lose 20 pounds. We need to find a way to not only accept that, but to embrace it, enjoy the journey, and stop looking over our shoulder at all the things we haven’t done, aren’t doing, still have to do.

The hour we fuss and worry that we should be doing X while we’re doing Y is an hour we won’t get back again.  

For my birthday last month, my husband gave me a writing retreat. I booked four days at a hotel in the Berkshires, packed my laptop plus my current read, and left home. I set no goals—word count, number of pages. I just wrote. Not only was the time highly productive, it was tremendously relaxing. The real gift, I discovered, was not feeling like there was anything else I should be doing. I was where I was.

An Hour is an Hour

The hour we had as a child is the same hour we have now. It has neither expanded nor shrunk. So the difference in our perception—this perpetual sense of being squeezed—must lie in our expectations.

Maybe it’s not our life stage or chronological age that makes us feel we should be moving through everything at lightning speed, but the age we live in.  

Less than a hundred years ago, the journals kept by farmers recount a day’s events as what happened in the morning, the afternoon, the evening. They had much to do and few “labor-saving” tools to help with the load. But they just plowed or planted or harvested as the seasons dictated and understood that when night came, the workday was over. They had to accept their limitations.  

And there’s no evidence in their accounts that they fretted about what they weren’t getting done. No Oh god, I’m out here hoeing and I should be churning butter. But how am I ever going to get the peaches canned if I churn the butter? They went with the rhythm of the year—a much larger, more forgiving time unit.

I grew up in a more exacting age. We moved through life by the hours. The school day started at 8:30. We went home for lunch at 12:15 and had to be back at our desks by 1:00. Bonanza was on Sunday nights at 9:00, and the library closed promptly at 5:00.  

My children grew up with the nanosecond. Their sense of timecrunch is manifest in the way they watch a movie—while texting, Facebooking, chugging down dinner, and prepping for a work conference call.  

But we are still just people, and an hour is still an hour. If we try to cram three hours of to-do stuff into every hour, then we’ll always fail. If we insist on doing it all perfectly, we’ll go flaming nuts.

Very likely, there isn’t time to do everything. But doing everything is a mad goal anyway. So, forget about covering all those bases. Ignore the benchmarks “everyone else” is measuring themselves against. Stop watching the clock. Everything takes as long as it takes. Perhaps, fretting about time is the only true waste of it.

A passage from a childhood book about life in the 1860s sticks with me. The 11-year-old heroine goes to talk something over with her father. He’s repairing a clock. Scattered over his work table are springs and cogs and levers. “He was absorbed in the task at hand.”

The word on the street is that when you’re dead, you’re dead a long time.

Time is not the enemy. Time is life. It’s all we’ve got.