Friday, June 22, 2007

Constitutionally Unsuited to the 21st Century

The last two weeks have been madness here - multiple end of school events, a big synagogue charitable event, deadlines for articles, for submission of homeschooling materials, for preparation for a class I'm teaching, various social and community obligations, lots of short notice changes, appointments and schedulced events, and, of course, lots and lots of work in the gardens and on various books.

I've found myself living a life rather like the one that a lot of my friends do, in which days are scheduled to the hilt, much time is spent running around or getting ready to run around or doing things. This is rather unlike my own life, and that's by intent. Generally speaking, we try hard to keep a comparatively slow pace, but things snuck up on us. And I don't it like it very much. I hate when I'm saying "ok, we're home from 2:30 to 3:15, and then we've got to..."

Perhaps there's something wrong with me, because I know plenty of people who arrange their lives this way and seem contented. Two of my dearest friends maintain two fairly high powered jobs, their kids have a full schedule of activities, they are active volunteers at the synagogue, the school she teaches at and the university he does. Their kids play sports, have music lessons, all sorts of social activities and they seem not only happy, but comfortable. They are actually remarkably good at this life - most of the trouble comes from the fact that neither parents sleeps more than 5 hours a night.

I on the other hand seem to be ill designed for this. I find myself rushing, and worrying about being late, and that's when I start snapping at the kids "Simon, come *ON* - get your shoes, we have to leave *RIGHT NOW!*" I don't feel I write well or think all that clearly when my mind is on something else as well. And it leads me to wonder whether there's something wrong with me personally, whether, in fact, I am simply constitutionally unsuited to the pace of 21st century life, or whether there's something wrong with the expectation that we'll all run around like this.

My kids mostly seem to have inherited this lack of taste for running around. My three year old, Isaiah is a particular homebody, who will happily spend hours picking chard and flowers for the table, and often asks if he can stay home with whoever is not going somewhere. This week pushed all of us - my 20 month old was calling 'Go home, go home' by the end of the day yesterday, in which we dropped of educational materials, brought end of school thank you gifts (which Mommy had stayed up making the night before) to eldest child's school, dropped Mommy off to volunteer at the shul, took the kids out for a picnic with friends, came back, picked me up, rushed home, cleaned the house, baked cookies for playdate, had playdate and sent husband out to make music with his new banjo while I stayed behind to make tofu, do laundry and catch up on email.

Now I really am open to the notion that it might be me. Except that a lot of the people I know, even the ones who do it to themselves quite voluntarily (as opposed to the folks I know who work 2 or 3 jobs just to get by), seem to worry about it. A lot of them talk about looking forward to a slow down period, or needing a rest, or feeling stressed out. And, in fact, it turns out that Americans in general seem to think that they really need to relax pretty badly.

For example, I recently received a magazine in the mail that seemed mostly to be about how people could "pamper" themselves. Advertisements like "You Work Hard. You Deserve to Be Pampered" and "Life is Hard. Embrace Luxury. Pamper Yourself" certainly seemed to emphasize how stressed out we are and how badly we need to be taken care of by someone. Since that person couldn't possibly be ourselves - that is, we couldn't meet our own needs for care - someone else has to do it, preferrably at an expensive spa, cruise or resort. Or, if you can't afford that, several of the ads suggested you could, in fact, come up with an inferior version of self-pampering if you were to purchase perfume, body lotion or the right underwear.

Now the infantilizing description of pampering isn't an accident, I suspect. Because only if we are stressed, exhausted, miserable and regressed to toddlerhood will we really miss the basic point - the 4K that the pampering vacation requires as a prerequisite requires you to work your heinie off during the year getting stressed and miserable. If, as seems likely for most Americans, you put it on your credit card, well, by the time you pay it off, you may have worked an extra 2 or 3 weeks just to justify that one week of "pampering." Even if you get a massage every day, and lie in the pool and the sun, is it really worth that much extra labor?

In _Deep Economy_ Bill McKibben does a careful analysis of a great deal of data on personal happiness trying to answer the question of whether the life we live really does make us happy or not, and the answer he comes up with is a general "no." There's been a steady drop in the number of people who consider themselves happy since the 1950s. The most fascinating figures in McKibben's book is the one that documents that money buys happiness up to a point - that until about the 10K (American equivalent) income ceiling. But, for example, when homeless peopel are housed, even in a slum, their estimates of their own satisfaction are about the same as the average college student's. Which suggests to me not only does money not buy happiness after a certain point, but that our life as a whole isn't good even for very young, comparatively unfettered people.

The message we get - we're all supposed to work really, really hard, all the time, except when we regress into total consumption is a crazy one, but, of course, it is useful to the economy at large. Tired, stressed out people don't have the energy to make dinner - much better to run through the drive through (and don't think I'm judging anyone here - the only reason we *don't* do this is that all the drive throughs are so far away we couldn't possibly justify the trip as faster ;-)). They don't have the energy to make things or do things - easier to watch tv. They don't have the energy even to *think* critically about stuff. In fact, I find that myself after a high stress week - I find that when I'm tired and overwhelmed, it is very hard to care about other people, or the future or much of anything. I just want to be fed and nurtured and entertained and not have to think. Those are the days I want the 20 minute hot showers, the take out meals, mindless television and someone, anyone to "pamper" me.

Now for comparatively lucky and wealthy (by world standards) people like me, you can make trade offs on this one. My family's household income is in the mid 30s most years. It stays pretty stable because if I make more money, we compensate for that by Eric working less. Some of that is necessity - we don't have daycare, and the kids are homeschooled, so someone has to be around. And some of it is desire - we don't want to rush too much. This year is unusual - I've got two book contracts and am working *a lot* more than usual - and I'm not always too thrilled about it. Both books should be done by early next year, and after that, if I ever get to write another, I've sworn we'll never live like this again. And by the standards of your average overscheduled family, we're still pretty low-key.

But what about most people in the world, who need to work long hours in order to stay employed and feed their families? They don't really have a choice. Or what about parents who don't have our advantages in education and who feel like they need their kids to have a lot of experiences for them to be able to compete? What about single parents, or those supporting disabled or elderly family members, people without health insurance? That is, what about most people, who might prefer to work less, but also feel unable to give up security in order to have a little breathing room?

One of the things that helps us is having a Sabbath. One day a week, we rest - and it can be a challenge to let go and stop work. But one day a year stands as a real holiday in our week, an oasis of relaxation, peace and pleasure in which we simply do not do the same work we do every day. On our sabbath we don't consume, we don't clean, the children don't have chores, we try not to drive (except for religious and community things), we don't spend money. We do nap, take walks, spend time with friends, eat good food, read, sing, talk, play. And every week we emerge, restored. It isn't alway easy - but we consider this a great gift.

Whenever I tell this to people, they immediately reply that they couldn't do that. And I do understand - many people can't. But many could - religious Jews, rich or poor, for centuries have insisted - we will not work Saturdays, we will not buy Saturdays, we will act, in our own homes, as though we are free and at peace, even if the world around us mistreats us. There's something powerful in claiming the right to a day of rest and peace, an act of resistance to the notion that there are those who have the right to compel you to do things - to work, to buy, to do. Of course, there are those who simply can't find the power to do this alone. But we don't always have to be alone

The options for those who would take more time away but lack the resources to do so are poor for individuals. But there are alternatives for people acting together. It was the labor movement that managed to get us the 5 day work week, the abolition of child labor, and all other changes. The women's movement and concerted advocacy got women in the job market and access to almost all work. Over the next decade, we're likely to experience a vast national retirement - baby boomers are going to be moving out of the workplace and leaving jobs open. By necessity, there are going to be fewer people working full time and more people out of the job market. This is likely to be stressful in many ways, as productivity makes some falls (fewer people doing more work), and there's more work for fewer bodies. This is also likely to make workers more powerful - and that's a good thing. It is conceivable that workers might be able to get their hours cut, or reduce the sheer numbers of workers in the workforce while raising salaries back to the days of one worker (although who shouldn't be decided, as it once was, by gender) being able to actually support a family. This, of course, requires a degree of economic stability that may not happen - but on the off chance it does, we ought to take advantage.

Alternately, of course, if the more likely economic crisis occurs, we may not have much bargaining power at all - people desperate for work don't. But then, the creation of local economies and local markets will be all that much more urgent, and we'll only be grateful for any work we've done now on those things.

But whether or not we can work less, there are things we can choose to do in order to slow the pace of our lives. One of them is to try and make in our communities the things we now go far afield for. Things like food coops, babysitting coops, community gardens, farmer's markets, local swap groups, small cottage businesses, homeschool groups, afterschool programs, play groups, summer stuff for kids to do.... Because the less we have to run around to meet our needs for support, friendship, good food, and other basics, the more we can relax. Those of us with the luxury of time can offer to share it with those who don't have that luxury - "Can I pick up some stuff for you at the farmer's market?" "Can I give you some basil?" "Could Rose come over and play with Steve and Annie after school one day a week?" "Could we get together once a month and bake together, and freeze extras?

And for all of us, a little work and time on self-sufficiency can reduce our need to work overtime, or maybe allow one family member to work part time or not at all. Reducing our needs, producing more of our own basic wants and needs, these things can be the key to more time, more freedom, less clock punching and more time doing whatever it is that makes you happy.

And perhaps we can change our notion of what constitutes luxury or pampering. There's no doubt that time for yourself and time for pleasure are an enormous factor in our quality of life. But the person who works 55 hours a week and then comes home to dishes and laundry, 51 weeks a year so they can have someone bring them drinks and rub their backs the other week doesn't sound lucky to me - it sounds to me like someone who doesn't get nearly enough pleasure or luxury. Pampering, in the sense of being able to take care of yourself and have a little private joy is something that most of us should work to make an everyday thing - that doesn't mean expensive luxuries or fancy scented crap - that means being able to do what brings you joy on a regular basis, whether that's playing with your kids, or listening to the birds sing, reading on the couch or tinkering in your workshop, praying or singing, dancing with friends or playing pickup basketball. Instead of working long hours just to have those things, we should be seeking ways to meet those needs not once a year, but daily, and as part of a more peaceful life.



Beam said...

Hi Sharon,

Reading this reminded me of how I felt working in Salvador, Brasil. Once the day was over, every night people would congregate in the middle of a community center in the north part of the city. Impromptu dancing and singing, but a lot of just being. Drinking, if you wanted. A happy place.

There's a loneliness ascribed to the striving lifestyle I think real enough, and the pace tends to drive consumption, as I think you've pointed out eloquently many times. Other than religious centers, I'm finding it hard to recollect places where people congregate together regularly, and perhaps finding ways to encourage this might help in enjoying ourselves in far less consumptive ways.

We're moving across country, and choosing to move into town for precisely this reason. And, looking for land within walking distance to plant food. (The house is in an old neighborhood without much yard, and a lot of shade.) Oddly, a friend pointed out this was the old European model, of living in town, walking out to the farms during the day. An accident on our part, but perhaps worth a thought.


Anonymous said...

I think those who can 'pamper" themselves take it out in other ways, ususally on other people.


Anonymous said...

MEA again.

What I was trying to say is that people who have to (or chose to) back a lot into their lives end up becoming unglued if they don't find some outlet.

Objects under stress become destress at inoportune times.

I really don't like the world pamper, but I think a simpler way of life (assuming you aren't dirt poor, and even then people find joy) has built in pleasures.

Deb G said...

I decided, as someone who does not own a car, to make one day a week a non-errand running, buy nothing day. I don't rule out spending time with friends and family, but even that ends up being on another day than my "Stay at home" one. I've become very protective of that day!

Kiashu said...

A very good post, Sharon.

Christina said...

I can really relate - I'm obviously not made for the 21st century pace either. I work 32 hrs/wk and I would like to work even less, if we could afford it (maybe we can in the future - we're striving towards it). Or work from home, in my own pace.

When I'm not working I prefer to stay home - puttering around in my garden (I'm expanding it every year and it gives us a good amount of food at this time of the year), reading and writing, cooking, sitting in the sun listening to the birds etc. I simply could not and would not live the kind of fast-paced lives many of my friends do. But I do like my friends to come over here and enjoy our garden :)

My kids do not have a lot of "activities". They are mostly happy to play with their friends when not in school. And we encourage friendships with kids who live nearby, so they can ride their bikes to visit them. (I HATE driving kids around, it feels like such a waste of time and gas!!)

The only problem is that other kids have a LOT to do in their "free" time, so they are not always available for playing. And sometimes we feel like UFOs for not enrolling our children in all those activities!

Anyway, great post! It's nice to feel I'm not alone in wanting to stay at home and do things in my own pace.

in Sweden

cj said...

Perhaps I'm the exception, but I have a job (network mgr) that I love. I don't want to work a ton of hours and I've managed to get things to a state where I don't have to. I have applied this principle to the house as well so it's minimal time for us to keep things in order. But I get paid to play with computers and technology! And I feel like I've reached a balance between work and home where I actually enjoy both. I am very lucky.

I have been reading on the whole idea of "downshifting" which I like, but your post kinda sounded like all regular work is evil, ha ha! It doesn't have to be.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really enjoy your blog and 90%. :-)

Oldnovice said...

I really loved working full-time at a job I enjoyed combined with the motherhood thing and getting the kids to their activities, but now I enjoy being retired at 60. It's just SO nice to NOT have to bustle around and take the time to smell the roses.

jewishfarmer said...

CJ, I don't think all real work is evil. I have a job. My husband has a job - I think they are "real," although I'm not sure what that means. But I do think that we work more than we have to in many cases. I'm all for loving your work - I love all three of my jobs - parenting, farming, writing (oh, and sometimes I teach too, so I guess four), but I also don't find at the end of the year I'm panting for my chance to go on a cruise. IMHO, that's a sense of imbalance, not balance, no?


Anonymous said...

Amen amen amen! Shabbat makes me feel so glad I'm a Jew :) Even though it is SO hard for me to keep myself from working my garden. I would really like to connect with you by e-mail but didn't see a link to your address on your blog (perhaps purposefully) - If it's okay with you, would you mind dropping me a line at 2silverwings at gmail dot com? I am a big fan of your blog and would like to touch base about being observant and living in a rural area, farming, parenting, etc. I am also in upstate NY.

Christina said...

I like my job too! It's interesting, intellectually stimulating (sometimes) and hopefully useful to society. But at the same time it's draining my energy and at the end of the week I'm exhausted. There are lots of things I would love to do in my home, in my garden, with my family etc. but often I'm too tired to do anything at all! No balance AT ALL.

Anonymous said...

Yes- I often feel I was meant to live in another century -that has passed-except for being glad that women have more options now than they did then.I am not into electronics and noise and fast anything. I too prefer to keep a slower pace, work at home a lot farming, except when I teach, and don't feel the need to keep up a frantic pace-nor the need to pamper myself to decompress either....although I used to farm way too many hours but have cut back what I was doing.

I think some of it is that people don't stop to consider if it makes sense to do some of what they do- they have a belief that this is how we are supposed to live and "everyone" else is doing it.

I am horrified by the constant scheduling of kids-dragging them to continual scheduled activities. Whatever happened to allowing kids to just play and create their own games and activities? And of course it is harder and harder to find kids who are around and not taking constant classes and lessons and camps and such....

I see how it is such a domino effect though- work more hours to make more money so no time to cook from scratch so buy prepared foods and eat-out, need more money, etc- as well as need to have childcare year-round so that costs money, etc.

I wish there could be a way that there was a chance for people to take a breather and consider what they are doing and if it makes sense. I just know that I earn a good deal less than most people I know but I have more time to do things I enjoy and get involved in projects and I don't think I am less content than they are with their higher incomes at all....

Maybe we have to start by changing what we value....

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling a lot of people are never actually going to retire unless their health forces them to.

Unless they work one of the crappy jobs. Usually the more money you make, the better your working conditions are. And you are more able to negotiate a reduced workload or other nice perks a guy stocking shelves could only dream of.

There's more to this than you can go into in a brief reply on a blog, but the boomers are going to continue being the big lump in the python of American History until they drop.

Whatever they believe about themselves, that generation is so consumerist even single-payer health insurance wouldn't make them leave the workforce in great numbers. They'll keep on trying to make more to take more vacations in whatever spot is hip at the moment.

It will take dynamite or death to get them to leave.

RAS said...

I too don't feel overly comfortable in this century. Our society is so sick its not even funny. There are a few things I appreciate of course: women's rights, no mandatory religion, and the fact that I generally don't have to worry about being murdered due to my sexual orientation.

But aside from that, I'd be more comfortable in a village somewhere.

Beam said...

RAS, I found this comment of yours to be interesting;

"But aside from that, I'd be more comfortable in a village somewhere."

What's fascinating is so many of us seeking a respite from busy-ness isolate ourselves by location, buying places in the country. I came very close to doing this recently, but realized finally just how lonely such a country existence could be, without a village providing connection close at hand for my family. If you have to travel to connect with people, this strikes me as exactly what we should be trying to avoid. Otherwise, life readily becomes one of getting in the car for virtually everything.

Lisia said...

Ever since my children reached the age of about seven and began developing social lives of their own and wanting to attend different classes and groups, I have found it hard to keep us from being overly busy. It is a continuous juggle. When deciding whether not to take up yet another exciting opportunity, I remind myself that the cost is less time for quiet reflection, family bike rides, etc.

One problem I have encountered is that some of our friends, who happily live hugely busy lives, struggle to comprehend my motives and have felt rejected when I've chosen quiet time at home in preference to an activity with others, even though I try to decline invitations sensitively and matter-of-factly.

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jewishfarmer said...

Anonymous, perhaps my experience is unusual, but I think the boomers may not have much choice about retiring. Eric and I have 7 boomer parents (ok, FIL is technically a war baby, but only just and the zeitgeist is boomer
;-). FIL just was forced into retirement by a computer person that wanted a younger, cheaper employee. Step-MIL retired two years ago after 28 years of teaching high school science - she just couldn't take it any more. My Mom retired a few years ago when the state of MA laid off all of its senior social workers and then offered to hire them back at crappier wages - she's still working part time as a therapist, but very part time. Step-Mom is considering accepting a buy-out from IBM next time they offer (probably soon), where she's worked since the mid-80s. Step-FIL (only non boomer) is a retired physician. My father is considering retiring for health reasons. Only my Dad's partner is still planning to keep working. All of them (except step-FIL) are in their late 50s or early 60s.

Now none of this is statistically meaningful, but I've noticed a lot of my parents generation aren't in wonderful health, unfortunately, and there's a real discriminatory pressure to get rid of highly paid older folks. So I guess I don't know if they'll be employed as long as that.

I'm not sure RAS's version of the village is such a bad thing, but access to family (biological and chosen), is, of course, the rub. We don't live in a village but on a small country road, and we've had enormous success building community with our neighbors - I tend to think that you can have community anywhere you have people. But if a big chunk of your life is with someone else, that's an issue. Ideally, of course, you'd all stay together. We were able to bring Eric's grandparents here, and I suspect if MIL is widowed at some point (Step-FIL is 12 years older), she'll come live with us. But the whole family is unlikely to relocate in my case until the seas rise so high they can't live by the ocean. Pity.


RAS said...

I was using "village" as a metaphor, but when I think of a village I think of the old kind: a small cluster of people, houses, families, etc surrounded by farms all within walking distance.

Community IS key. It doesn't matter where you live if you have a community there. My parents, both boomers, are both deceased (and good riddance since they were really very awful people) so I don't have to worry about taking care of them. My biggest barrier to relocation, if I decide to do so, is that I do have community and support here and I moved I would be leaving that behind. I can't imagine being able to convince them to come along.

Beam said...


I think you've phrased it nicely, "I was using "village" as a metaphor, but when I think of a village I think of the old kind: a small cluster of people, houses, families, etc surrounded by farms all within walking distance."

If establishing community requires a car, perhaps the architecture needs changing. I particularly admire those who can do without a car, but the look of shock I've encountered just by dropping down to one car from within my family and without has been telling.

What struck me about Sharon's post is the frenetic lifestyle appears literally driven, a function of the automotive age, given the ability to swiftly be in a different location more or less at will. If the car culture is to be dismantled, this method of developing ties and community seems a necessary sacrifice. It's replacement likely means less going on, but more coordination of transport, traveling together to be together.


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