Monday, June 15, 2009

Time and strife

Today's New York Times magazine contains a very good article on the breathtaking difficulty of building a high-speed rail line in California. It's not just the staggering logistics and cost (especially in a rotten economy) to consider, but also the politics. I don't expect a significant (220 mph or more) bullet train route ever to be built in this country in my lifetime.

But that's not the real subject of this blogpost. It's what the author, Jon Gertner, says about the real reason high-speed rail appeals to our imagination. We do not care so much about speed per se; we care mostly about the time it takes to travel between two points.

When we are young and "productive," we care more about saving time rather than enjoying it.

So long as it takes only 90 minutes from takeoff from O'Hare to landing at Washington Reagan, we'll endure the tender ministrations of Homeland Security at the airport, the snarl and snap of frustrated flight attendants, the elbows of cranky fellow passengers, long minutes waiting in line for takeoff and anxiety over checked baggage. We do not arrive calm and relaxed.

Going by train from Chicago Union Station to Washington Union Station takes 18 hours -- if Amtrak is on time. And a sleeper room can cost twice and even three times an airline ticket.

But many people are willing to pay that premium even if they are not afraid to fly, even if they are not hopeless rail buffs. Why?

To many rail travelers (as well as ship passengers and long-distance automobile drivers) time is something to be accepted and enjoyed, not to be frantically "saved" to enable us to strive, get and spend all the more. Time allows us long hours of calm reflection, perhaps reading, perhaps writing, maybe conversation, even prayer if that is our wont. Time allows us to arrive rested and relaxed.

Time is money, you might say. Well, sure, if money is at the center of your life. I'm not arguing with that. But have you asked yourself why you are so uptight? Have you realized that the illusion of saving time -- and it is an illusion, because it adds nothing to your allotted time on earth -- comes at considerable cost?

Let time stretch. Wallow in it. You will be happier if you don't always have one eye on your watch all the time.

That's what retirement has taught me, and I'm the mellower for it.

Take the time to take your time.


  1. Now that I am working in a group home with the Developmentally Disabled, I am learning what time really means. I have one client who needs to be ready to go by 7:00 AM. First one up in the morning. I made scrambled eggs for both of us today. I gobbled mine down and than watched him take his time and savor every bite. A big smile on his face the entire time. Which one of us enjoyed their time this morning?

    Finished The Sweater Letter and enjoyed it. Started The Flight Of The Gin Fizz last night at break. When I first started dating my wife, her Grandpa Glen and I hit it off big time. I still remember him taking me to the restaurant at the Janesville airport many times and spending the entire morning talking to the pilots there. He so missed flying but was able to relive his flights through others.

  2. I saw on the Extreme Trains programme about the Acela that if a high speed line were built between NYC and LA the journey could be done in 10 hours. Eyewateringly fast!

  3. Have not flown in 10 years, Love the room in my Yucon & on the train. Overlooked was the tight space they cram you into, & the crap they put you through to get aboard. Flying was a joy in the old days!