Time and a Place: Good Writing, 8/7/19

7 Aug

A return to my good journalism series, which I’ll open with a quote from a Wallace Stegner short story, “Beyond the Glass Mountain,” in which the narrator returns to his college campus years later:

The light over the whole hill was pure, pale, of an exaggerated clarity, as if all the good days of his youth had been distilled down into this one day, and the whole coltish ascendant time when he was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, had been handed back to him briefly, intact and precious. That was the time when there had been more hours in the day, and every hour precious enough so that it could be fooled away. By the time a man got into the high thirties the hours became more frantic and less precious, more carefully hoarded and more fully used, but less loved and less enjoyed.

I’m reading Stegner’s complete short stories now, so this blog may suffer something of a Wally barrage in the coming weeks. As for the journalism, I’ll start with the Literary Review, where Helen Pearson reviews a book called Where Does It All Go? It discusses contemporary time usage, and the trend over time toward this sense Stegner identifies. Humans are now busier, more stressed, and more prone to multitask, right?

Wrong. Aside from some gender roles that have shifted somewhat (but are still far from equal), it hasn’t changed much since Stegner wrote 50 years ago. What have changed are the habits of the highly educated, professionally successful, and general status seekers, who do work a lot more, and are more likely to get featured in articles about how people use their time. Pearson also accurately diagnoses the ways in which people in these circles sometimes use busyness as a form of status, a way to convey that they are important and their time is therefore valuable (and yours is probably less so). It is something I have always hated, and am not fond to find it creeping into my own language at times. It also raises some serious questions about what exactly this class of people is achieving other than higher levels of stress.

So, going forward: I’m not busy. I’m just doing what I do.

Speaking of those busy urban elites, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic takes a look at the rebirth of many large American cities and finds one group of people conspicuous in its absence: children. Cities have become playgrounds for urban professionals, and market forces and public policy have made it harder and harder for people with families to build a happy life in said cities. This specialization of life–young urban professionals in some areas, young families moving out to the suburbs, immigrants over here and rich homeowners over there–fits in with broader forces within a self-sorting society that is often aided and abetted by public policy. It also creates serious issues for tax bases, school quality, and humans’ sex lives, and feeds into questions about the welfare state and immigration policy.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that long-term solutions to American urban issues are going to need to take a serious look at regional planning, property tax apportionment, and a more fundamental re-orientation toward ideas of what exactly communities are for. (Presumably, we put down roots in them and invest in them because we want them to be vehicles for the futures of ourselves and people around us.) Of course, I also think that more people should abandon the rat race and make lives in small cities, whose merits I have plugged, for obvious reasons, in past writings: if the market is so overheated in certain major cities, it is overdue for a correction, and the best way to achieve that may not be a turn to the suburbs, but to another way of thinking entirely. But to the extent that some of our more significant modern maladies have policy solutions, this is one of the most fertile grounds that we need to explore.

To the extent that there are policy solutions, that is. This is perhaps why Ross Douthat’s latest on the Trump phenomenon resonated with me: policy alone, while necessary and helpful, cannot resolve the things ailing our busy lives or our cities or our politics today. That requires the more fundamental framing I mentioned earlier, a more total pursuit of a sensible framework to support policy goals. Without that backdrop, our arguments miss the forest for the trees. We become the blind chasers, we become “busy,” we concede too much to the forces that can just bear lives along and leave us in places we’re not sure we want to be. There are better ways.

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