I have been taking my sweet time in reading Anna Karenina, a Christmas gift from my lovely stepdaughter. At the rate I’m going, I would guess I have two more months with this delicious, painful, hilarious book. Meanwhile, as I dither through this enormous work of art, it’s been hanging over my head that I don’t keep up my blog as befits a serious writer, dispensing witty remarks and novel observations at least once per week.
I really don’t yearn for “simpler times” (e.g. Tolstoy’s time), in which the world of ideas moved more slowly and people had time–from our perspective, anyway–to write long letters and long novels, to linger over an idea in a journal for months and even years. Many people of Tolstoy’s day didn’t regard their time as leisurely: they felt as rushed and harried as we do now, since the era of railroads and electricity had sped up life for them at an unprecedented rate. Perhaps in a hundred years my descendants will regard my lifestyle as leisurely, since most of us today don’t yet have Adderall prescriptions or cranial implants or other technological prostheses to speed up our rate of pumping out new ideas and reacting to new ideas we see.
This morning as I read my ten pages on the bus, I was taken by Tolstoy’s words about time: Prince Shcherbatsky is reacting to being told that “time is money,” and he says, “Time, indeed, that depends! Why, there’s time one would give a month of for fifty kopeks, and time you wouldn’t give half an hour of for any amount.”
It occurred to me as I sat with that quote today that I have given away lots of time in my life for fifty kopeks, or for less. When I returned to graduate school in my thirties, I was so excited to be able to take classes at public expense (since I am an employee of the state, my classes cost $5 per course)–I often joked with people that I had spent more money on parking tickets than on tuition when I was in grad school the second time. I feel thankful to the Great State of Washington every time I think of what I learned there.
But I also made a huge blunder by valuing my labor at zero in those days. The courses cost $5, so my degree must only cost about $100, no? Yet, of course there was the massive opportunity cost of my shutting myself up for years to read academic papers on ecology and statistical analysis: there were hikes I didn’t take, other skills I didn’t learn, traveling I didn’t do. I’ve written in a couple of my stories from that period about students who get into ecology because they love spending time outdoors in nature, but that their ecological studies lock them up in a lab for months on end doing gas chromatography or grinding up plant tissue samples.
I’ve come home with a fever tonight–ironically, the fever is what has slowed me down enough to be able to meditate about time in this blog post. And I have realized that as I age, I am becoming less and less willing to give up time to others (that is, to people I don’t love) for any amount. Even if by magic I could, I wouldn’t give up this feverish time tonight–unpleasant as it is–for money. I’m sure I have my price for taking on more work, but I’m realizing that the price is much, much higher than a community college would typically pay. I would just rather have the time.