Fast-Free Living

What Americans would do if they were serious about stopping to smell the flowers

--> s the American lifestyle slowing down, in a visceral response to national trauma and the onset of war? Judging from commentaries by cultural analysts and newspaper columnists, the answer is yes.

A Boston Globe editorial looked back on a hard year: "But it brought growth, too, and a deeper understanding of just how fragile life is, and how what we often take for granted—the kiss goodbye in the morning, the chat with a friend, the Saturday soccer game—is what matters most." An observation from The Washington Post: "People seem to walk more slowly. They are off their brisk, self-important stride ... Motorists are driving better. They lay off their horns. They don't jump lights." From The Dallas Morning News: "Americans are ... experiencing a sort of 'cocooning of the heart,' cultural experts say. They're using this time to reconnect with their families and friends." From The Oregonian: "Get ready to hunker down ... Something deep inside has shifted."

A new term has entered the language: "layoff lust," the sudden desire to be sent away with a severance package, providing time at last to search for meaning and cultivate the soul. The food columns of The New York Times have for months been devoted to home-cooked comfort food that requires hours of slow, therapeutic preparation. ("The food is not really the thing," one writer explained. "It's the making of it that gets you through a bad time.") The Contemporary Simplicity Movement, a collection of grassroots study groups devoted to new visions of the good life, seems to be experiencing a surge of interest.

So the verdict seems to be decisive. And the verdict, I would argue, is incorrect. A longer view and a soberer assessment come from the historian Stephen Kern, the author of The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918, a study of the technology-induced revolution that forever altered notions of speed, distance, and the pace of social change. "The historical record is clear," Kern has stated. "The world has never opted to slow down."

During a period when Americans are supposed to be experiencing a "cocooning of the heart," one would expect to see, for example, a slump in the use of the Big Three prefixes: "mega," "hyper," and "power." Nothing of the kind has occurred. Articles have continued to cite the mega-farm, the mega-yacht, the mega-filibuster. They have pointed out the hypercapitalism of professional sports and discussed the emergence of the United States as the world's sole hyperpower. They have invoked the virtues of power yoga, power eating, power dating. The opposite of "hyper" is "hypo," and one might think that in a decelerating age its moment had finally arrived; but "hypo" is as scarce as ever. Nor has the idea of the Impotence Lunch taken hold.

If Americans really were beginning to slow down, the Contemporary Simplicity Movement would not be adding another meeting or two a month to our schedules. The antidote to a frenetic work life wouldn't be something called "power leisure." The attendant at Starbucks wouldn't give me a "tall" when I ask for a "small."

The celebration of the New Slowness may not reflect reality, but it surely does reflect some degree of yearning. Is there a role here for public policy? Social engineering, with its micro-management of everyday life, holds no appeal for a free people. Yet there may be a few bold steps we could take to get us on the path to fast-free living.

Backpacks. The task of slowing the country down must begin with efforts aimed at prevention. A tendency toward what the anthropologist David Harvey has called "space-time compression" begins early, as an inspection of any schoolchild's backpack will reveal. These encumbrances typically have a capacity of one and a half cubic feet and hold loads of forty pounds. The contents, unpacked and spread out like a GI's battle kit, represent hyperachievement in microcosm. A simple yet revolutionary reform would be to decree that the capacity of school backpacks be reduced by two thirds.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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