The speed trap

March 19, 1997|By Richard Reeves

COLLEGE PARK -- There are only two kinds of people these days: those who want to leave for the airport four hours before flight time, and those who think it's a waste of time if they don't leap on board as the jetway starts to pull back.

Given the chance, I would get to the airport the night before and sit in the first seat in front of the check-in desk. For better or worse, I am married to the leaping kind. It is a rare departure day that my wife and I do not get into an argument over when to leave the house. I should also add that I set all the clocks 15 minutes ahead, which makes her crazy; and I do not wear a watch because looking at it all the time makes me crazy.

''Our lives have turned into a grueling race toward a finish line we never reach. . . . No matter how fast we go, no matter how many comforts we forgo in order to quicken our pace, there never seems to be enough time.''

Those words are from an article called ''The Speed Trap'' by Jay Walljasper in the current issue of Utne Reader, the quirky reader's digest of alternative media -- a fascinating trade journal for Birkenstock wearers. The headline across the top of this issue's cover is: ''God and Health: The Latest Findings.''

Mr. Walljasper's piece is great. It says some important things about research on the difference in pace of southern and northern cultures, and is an earnest discussion of why time is an environmental issue. I am going to ignore all that except for one quote from a Harvard economist, Juliet Schor, about the uniting of workers of the world: ''The major cause of the speed-up of life is not technology, but economics. The nature of work has changed now that bosses are demanding longer hours of work.''

Yes! That way the bosses can hire fewer people and pay less benefits. I hate them -- and I am self-employed!

What I really related to was Mr. Walljasper's yearning to be free and mellow, as he described his own life and many others. He is always rushing, always late, always doing two things at once, always cutting back on the things that mean the most to him: family, friends, fun.

''We've witnessed a proliferation of dazzling time-saving innovations,'' he says, listing jet travel, personal computers, Fed Ex, cell phones, microwaves, drive-through restaurants, home-shopping networks and the World Wide Web. ''And yet the pace of life has been cranked up to a level that would have been unimaginable three decades ago.''

I feel twinges in my gut just reading that. What happened to the academic debates over whether we could handle all the leisure time sure to result from electronics and robots, to say nothing of illegal immigrants? In truth, we're saving time so we can do more work. Curses, foiled again!

Wistful optimism

Trying to be optimistic, Mr. Walljasper says, wistfully: ''We can regain the joy, . . . the thrill of a sunset, the amusement of watching a youngster toddle down the sidewalk, the good fortune of bumping into a friend at a bookstore.'' But his only real evidence for that is to mention a few enlightened Italians who issued a ''Slow Food Manifesto'' in 1986 when McDonald's opened at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Since then, 40,000 people in 40 countries have signed up. Good work, men. At least we are not alone. However, the Rome station is one of McDonald's top 10 world-wide grossers.

I would add one piece of American evidence to the desire to break away from the chains of time. My guess is that the Family Leave Act -- allowing employees to take time off to celebrate and mourn life and death -- was about the most popular initiative of President Clinton's first term and a significant factor in his winning of a second.

Utne also runs a marvelous time-line with the piece, ''A Quickie History of the Fast Lane,'' beginning with this from the 1700s: ''Improvement of upholstery technology in France allows stagecoaches to pick up speed; an increase in road deaths is one immediate result.''

In the 1830s, an Englishman describes American eating habits as, ''gobble, gulp and go.'' Which leads to TV dinners in the 1950s and the (average) 37-minute lunch hour of the 1990s.

We must stop this, but I do not have the time to talk about that. I am writing this at 5: 30 a.m. in the Inn at the University of Maryland, and I want to get on the road to make sure I am not late for an 8 a.m. appointment at the Capitol in Washington, nine miles away.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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