I’m back after a month away from The Subway Test, the longest hiatus I’ve given this blog in a year or more. As I wrote a month ago, I needed time to focus on getting the manuscript of my novel Stranger Bird ready for publication. It’s been a long few weeks, but the manuscript is finally in the hands of my layout editor, Erica, and I’m glad to be back working on other kinds of creative projects.
More than practically any other issue or idea in my life, I’ve struggled with time. I certainly contended over the last four weeks with a sense of time scarcity, even time starvation. Some of that feeling of lack comes from my own prodigious talents at wasting time. I’ve felt often enough that my time slips away from me like water out of a cracked bucket, lost to internet surfing and daydreaming, to chatting with colleagues and wandering about campus like a dilatory schoolboy.
Yet I don’t waste time every day–some days, some weeks even, I can approach my work with a grim and joyless puritanism, with the motto that if it’s fun, I can’t do it. I rarely feel much jealousy for the wealthy and powerful, but one thought that bedevils me with some frequency is the sense that, in spite of the fact that wealthy and powerful people have the same 24 hours a day that I do, those people have accomplished so much more than I in my 47 years on the planet. If I want to start feeling bad about myself, that’s the expressway to Self Loathington. Sometimes while I am on that expressway I can approach my work with a withering focus for a while, before my natural curiosity about whatever I’m not working on at the moment takes over once again.
One of the main characters in my novel Pacifica is a kind of spiritual self-portrait: a middle-aged librarian named Pánfilo (one of those wonderfully antique Mexican names that I love, from the Greek meaning “lover of all”). As I wrote in my first description of him,
Over the course of his forty-nine years of life, Pánfilo Gonzalez had completed seven hundred and twenty two college credits at nine universities, colleges, conservatories, institutes, and graduate optometry schools. Yet for all that, he had never taken a single college degree. He had come close several times—he would have received his Bachelor of Arts in History at Utah State University if he had just finished his physical education requirement and paid off his university parking tickets—but instead he had hired on to the Sterne College library as a janitor with nothing more than a high school diploma from the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria “José Vasconcelos.”
While in real life I have (barely) managed to take college degrees, as I approach Pánfilo’s real age I feel more and more like him.
It is only now that I am halfway or so through my life that I feel some understanding of that phrase “time is money.” As a kid I always regarded it as one of those cartoonish shorthands TV writers would use to establish that a character was a successful businessman. I was not particularly interested in money, and so the phrase only served to make such characters as Mr. Slate from The Flintstones and Mr. Cogswell from The Jetsons unattractive to me. But it has dawned on me slowly over the last few years that if time is money, money is also time. Independently wealthy people may have the same 24 hours per day that I do, but they are much more able to spend their 24 hours doing only what they feel like doing. That so many of them spend their time working phenomenally hard, as though they are driven to it, suggests to me that there is something more to the “time is money” equation that I am not getting, or that perhaps they are not getting.
One of the internet wanderings I’ve made in the last few years that has had the most value for me attempts to quantify just how much money an hour is worth. The page is here at the excellent site clearerthinking.org–answer a few questions about how much you make, how busy you are, and how much you’d charge to do certain kinds of work, and the site will estimate for you just how much you should value your time. I learned a lot about myself after a few minutes at this site: it helped me realize that I’ve been way too willing to take on extra work in my job, and way too reticent about hiring out jobs like housecleaning and yard work. I have a long way to go to adjust my life so that I’m optimizing the number of hours I spend on preferred activities (primarily unpaid work like writing), but the site has really helped me understand just how much an hour is really worth to me.