a little something extra

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sabbath 13

Tripp's post is here. Cristopher's post is here.

With this chapter we enter the next section of Sabbath, entitled "Time." The chapter title is "A Life Well Lived."

This is one of my favorite chapters of the book so far. In it, Muller makes the point that certain elements of life simply cannot be obtained with any currency other than time invested in achieving them. No matter how much money you have, you can't buy wisdom. Only investing time results in wisdom. No matter how much money you have, you can't buy understanding. You have to invest time to gain understanding. Etc. etc.

Some of Muller's reflections in this chapter reminded me of Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam's seminal 2000 book about the degradation of American people's involvement in public life from 1945 to the publication date of his book. I read Bowling Alone a couple of summers ago. It's dense, but I recommend it to you.

This chapter does require us to forgive Muller for not being an economist. Several times, he compares the amount of money individual Americans spent on consumer goods in 1947 (he gives this as $6,500) with the amount they spent in 1999, when Sabbath came out (he gives this as something over $14,000). The point he tries to make is that we spend more money than people did decades ago, and then we lament that we don't have the elements of life that Muller argues can only be purchased with time.

To begin with, I agree with Muller. I think that as a culture, we Westerners and specifically we Americans self-medicate by spending money.

However, Muller's picture is way too simple to support his point entirely. He mentions no factor of price inflation -- the grocery budget of a person in 1947 would not suffice to buy the very same items today, or in 1999.

There are some expenses considered de rigeur now that would not have been present in the 1947 person's budget. A personal computer, for example -- the laptop on which I'm typing this post cost me just over $1,200 almost two years ago, and that would have been nearly 25% of the 1947 person's expenditures for the year.

Muller goes on to argue that we, collectively and culturally, have gone too far in exchanging our time for someone else's money. He presses his readers to rebalance that equation. Again, there are places in this chapter where his class bias shows -- he seems able to imagine only two possibilities: people with too much money and no time, and people with no money and too much time. Immediately, my imagination goes to the working poor, who may hold down two or three jobs simultaneously, and wind up with not enough money and no time. Just worth mentioning.

Muller's exercise for this month is very general. He writes about a couple of families and individuals he knows who consciously set aside time regularly and keep that time unavailable for any part of their working lives. Then he asks his readers the following questions:

When do you set aside time for play? How inviolable is it? Make sure to create a regular period for enjoying your children, spouse, or friends. Play nourishes our delight. When we engage in "purposeless" enjoyment of one another, we harvest some of the sweetest fruits of life.

A few thoughts arose in my mind in response to this exercise. We'll push past those that have to do with family and friends being too far away for the kind of enjoyment I believe Muller intends, and go towards two thoughts I found more interesting.

One, most of my forms of play involve "work" -- that is, they involve effort towards a goal, and mastery of a skill or task. Choral singing is a great example. I love the mere experience of singing with other people who know what they're doing. I don't care about the performance -- as I told my friend Jonathan long ago, I would continue to sing choral music even if nobody ever showed up to listen to a performance. And in fact, during my last year in Minneapolis I was part of an octet that got together once a week to sing, under the explicit agreement that we would not perform. We just wanted to sing together and enjoy the experience. It was great -- different people brought different pieces of music to the table, and we had a fantastic time. When two of us took job opportunities that would move us out of town, the group did decide to perform for a select audience of families and friends, just once before we separated. That turned out to be fun too. But to return to my thought, my other forms of "play" tend to follow that pattern of involving or requiring commitment and effort, learning, and mental and sometimes spiritual growth.

My second thought was about an experiment I've been conducting since I moved to my current city last July. When I was setting up the details of my move, I decided not to subscribe to cable TV for a while. This was partly an economic decision, but I thought it might also be a nice change of pace. When I got here, I discovered that my TV's internal antenna, unaided, got no broadcast signal at all. So for the last eight months, it's been Netflix or nothing.

It's amazing how much more time I have with no TV. I use my Netflix subscription for movies and to catch up on series I never saw, or want to see again. I always have a couple of Netflix DVDs on hand, but now I might watch one episode of Deadwood or Northern Exposure or half a movie in an evening, instead of flipping on the Food Network when I come home at 7:00 and leaving the TV on until I go to bed several hours later. I'm also completely protected from television advertising, which was an unplanned bonus to my experiment.

I read the newspaper more now than I did before I started this experiment. I play more solitaire, I read more books faster. I probably blog more, though I'm not always tempted to turn the computer on when I'm home. And I'm simply not as tired -- not because I'm necessarily getting more sleep, but because I'm escaping the level of overstimulation TV can subtly provide.

I don't intend to turn into one of those affected, snobby people who brag about how they don't watch TV. As I kill my debt off, I may well decide to rechannel some of that money into the treat of a cable subscription. But for now, it's nice to have my evenings feel longer because they're not chopped up into half-hour or hour-long show chunks, and further subdivided into six-minute intervals between commercial breaks.


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