Yesterday evening Sam and I were on the back porch when we heard a lawnmower from the front of the house. She figured it was her dad, who she’d asked to come by and mow our front yard when he had the chance, as my feet and hands are still healing. We went to the front of the house and sat on the front stoop, talking and being out there, in some sense, with him. It is terribly kind of Don to come by and mow our yard after a long day, and it doesn’t feel right to simply be inside going about our business while he’s mowing.
Sitting on the front steps, occasionally talking, but mostly just sitting and being there, watching Eros, my almost 15-year-old cat, run up the brick steps as fast as he can because of the lawnmower sound, and, again, mostly just being there, I started thinking about time—something I do quite a bit anyway.
In line with claims such as “youth is wasted on the young,” there is the often repeated, and seemingly unassailable idea, that time passes much more slowly when you are young, when a kid, than when you are older; when you are older, time accelerates precipitously. While this seems true to my experience, my hypothesis is that time’s perceived rate of passage is not intrinsic to one’s age, but rather one’s lifestyle or way of life. Perhaps that is more “duh” than “doh!” but I hope that what comes next will serve as a reminder of the obvious if nothing else.
Over the past several years, unlikely coincidental to my having entered my 40s, I’ve thought more and more about how differently one lives as an adult than as a child in our society. I suspect some of this is changed as technology has changed, as ways of entertaining ourselves have changed, but it seems to me that one of the biggest markers of the change from my youth to my adulthood is the prevalence of unstructured time, where there is no particular goal to what one is doing. For me, this unstructured time arose in a variety of ways when I was a child. One occurred when I was old enough to be left home alone, say, either after school, when my parents weren’t home yet, or when I was left home while they went shopping all afternoon. In such cases I had to fend for myself when it came to figuring out what to do. Sure, there was TV, but this was the 80s and it was limited. And while I was not easily bored, given enough hours by myself, I would run out of things “to do.” And when you’re a kid, and your homework is done, and you don’t have a job to think about or other great projects to plan, there ends up being a lot of open time where you’re not doing anything in particular.
Another instance of unstructured time with no particular purpose was when I and my brother and/or my friends would get dressed up in camouflage and various accoutrements and we would wander for hours through the woods and fields that surrounded our houses. We might have some very vague goal of going as far as some previously found location, but there was no plan, there was just wandering around through the woods exploring. Yet another source of unstructured time as a child is all the time I spent having to follow my parents around, going in and out of stores, waiting in the backseat, waiting at the table at the restaurant knowing and dreading that they were going to order not only dessert but several cups of coffee after I’d already been waiting for them to finish their meal!
And to return to my example at the beginning, there is all the time we spent as a family on the front porch, on the back stoop, just sitting, talking, cutting up, watching the afternoon or evening unfold. And there were the walks we would take from our neighborhood through adjacent ones some evenings.
I’m sure there are other examples that can be found if I thought about them, but I take it these are representative. And now as an adult who is married, well-employed, and a homeowner, how much open and unstructured time is there? Not very much. As soon as I get up in the morning I’m already oriented toward accomplishing some task, taking care of the animals, and starting my philosophical research/reading for the day. The first half of the day, nearly 7 days a week, is spent moving from one task to another. And by the evening Sam and I are often so tired that we succumb to the temptations of technological distraction, i.e., Netflix, Facebook, movies, etc.
While watching a screen is not the same thing as working on a research project, it is quite distant from open and unstructured time. Think about how different time feels when you’re watching a movie in comparison to when you are sitting, talking to a friend with nowhere you have to be. It is certainly true that you can become engrossed in the conversation and time can appear to move very quickly or the movie can be awful and time can drag. However, I suspect, I think I know, that the overall experience of time is nevertheless importantly different between them.
And so, as an adult, I find my days filled almost exclusively with either tasks to complete or entertainment in front of one of the many available screens. How radically different this is from my childhood. And it is odd, too, because while I certainly enjoy binge watching old seasons of Star Trek at the end of the day, my favorite parts of the day are when Sam and I are simply sitting and talking, whether it’s about our days, politics, family events, or what have you, or when we are caught off guard by one or more of our pets being adorable or silly, and we just watch them. And as with yesterday evening, I feel the draw of simply being there, of simply sitting on the front stoop, watching the evening unfold, with no other purpose than being there together and being there with everything.