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Time Is on Our Side? | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Time Is on Our Side?

"The pace of life feels morally dangerous to me."--Richard Ford, novelist
"Time is on my side" --The Rolling Stones

As the New Year begins, I keep reflecting on Time. It runs through all of our lives--at work, at home, at play--in the ways we structure and conceive of our society and values. I used to think Mick Jagger could do no wrong. But, for better or worse, these days I think Richard Ford gets it right in describing our lives and current condition when it comes to the Big-T--Time.

I know that all too often we can't help it (or ourselves) but in our contemporary technofied life, most of us don't take nearly enough time for our friends and family. Too many Americans even feel guilty for taking time away from their Blackberries, cell phones, text messaging, overtime, frenetic pace and packed schedules. Forget smelling the proverbial roses--we're so busy sprinting from Point A to Point B we don't even spot them in the first place.

So the personal and political question is this: How might we craft a different attitude toward time--one that moves us toward a saner, more humane, more caring country?

In a wonderful book--In Praise of Slowness--journalist Carl Honoré explores the Slow Movement. The Slow Food aspect focuses on regional produce, sustainable agriculture, and taking time to enjoy meals with good company. And while it's something to celebrate (as The Nation did in its first-ever food issue), what truly interests me are other parts of the Slow Movement--the thirty-five-hour work week; educators who advocate for a slower classroom pace and fewer extracurricular commitments; the importance of leisure activities ("the first principle of all action is leisure," Aristotle argued); Tantric sex; and the Slow City movement that addresses everything from reducing traffic to providing family-run businesses with prime real estate to using local, organic produce for school lunches.

But here at home politically, personally, we seem headed in the opposite direction. A single mother working two jobs still finds herself without health insurance or the resources to rise from poverty--much less spend time with her family and friends. Workers lack paid vacation days or paid sick leave to care for themselves or family members. And the right to organize unions that might fight for commonsense time-friendly reforms is increasingly under attack.

The new Congress is expected to pass the Healthy Families Act, a bill requiring all employers with fifteen or more workers to provide one week paid sick leave for full-time employees, and prorated leave for part-time employees. This is an encouraging first step, but can't we do better? Like most other countries in the Western industrialized world?! For starters, affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare would make a real difference in how families--especially women--manage time.

In Praise of Slowness also suggests change through simply "rediscovering the off button." Anyone reading this knows in their gut that multitasking has an adverse impact on both productivity and intellect. (We had plenty of warning on this front--Publilius Syrus, a Roman philosopher from the first century BC, said, "To do two things at once is to do neither.") New York magazine recently reported: "In 2005, a psychiatrist at King's College London did a study in which one group was asked to take an IQ test while doing nothing, and a second group to take an IQ test while distracted by e-mails and ringing telephones. The uninterrupted group did better by an average of ten points.... [But] the e-mailers also did worse, by an average of six points, than a group in a similar study that had been tested while stoned." (Yes, stoned!)

The same article suggests that "obsession with efficiency at work has unfortunately seeped into our attitudes toward leisure, with the multitasking of our downtime as the loony and paradoxical result." So whether we are now working nearly an extra month per year, as economist Juliet Schor argues; or we have five more hours of leisure per week than we did in 1965, as another study indicates--there is general agreement that Americans feel as if they are working more.

As editor of a weekly magazine, "slow" is not a quality I am used to embracing in my daily work! Yet I value what "slow" means when it comes to the role The Nation plays in our media culture--nurturing reflection, trying to make sense of fast-paced events with informed analysis, reason and deliberation. I prize these "slow" media virtues for many reasons--a central one is the challenge they pose to our expanding 36/7 culture, which seems to celebrate speedy War Room-like responses at the expense of intelligent and thoughtful dialogue, debate and engagement.

If we are to produce our best work and also be true to what we claim as our values, this is the year we're going to have to think hard (but take breaks, and perhaps meditate) about innovative and creative approaches to dealing with time. In 2007, my resolution is to make time a political issue--in the classic sense that what is personal is political.

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