Minute with Mike - Americans lack time

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/3/99.

Are you destined to die with a shelf full of unread books like me? Maybe reading isn't your thing, but I'll bet there's some unused clutter lurking in a closet in your house.

Over the weekend, while at the state wrestling tournament in Minneapolis, I had the chance to discuss the prevalence of clutter in our lifestyles. Then I went out the next morning and bought a pile of used books, even though I already own an abundance of reading material.

In America, we normally are rich in possessions, but lack time. Our perception of the third world is based largely on our materialistic standards, so we consider them poor. But they are often richer in time. My stint as a Peace Corps volunteer was the only time in my life when I have read more books than I have bought.

Having spent three months back in Minnesota, it has become clear now that my biggest readjustment concerns time. I spent my first two months back relaxing at my leisure, wondering why my friends were so busy. Really the change didn't hit me until I started working again at the newspaper. And it hit hard: phone calls, appointments, researching, writing, and taking photographs. And then comes dreaded deadline day.

You know the demands of a job well enough, so maybe I should explain more about the change that I underwent while in the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea. Time still ticks, but the people's attitude towards it is completely different. They call it PNG time, and it means never rushing and being late is accepted, in fact expected.

My introduction to PNG time occurred during training on the first morning of my 47-day village homestay when my father took me into Madang town, where he sold four bags of dried coconut, called copra, for roughly $70. He wanted some cash around in case he needed anything extra in the next two months.

After some shopping, we went outside where it had started to rain. Some places in PNG get more than 200 inches of rainfall each year. Many other places receive at least 100 inches of rain. Sometimes a cloud front will rush in, deliver a downpour, and vanish leaving everything drenched.

This was a downpour, so heavy that to be exposed for five seconds would soak you. At the time, that didnít seem to be so important to me, and I couldn't believe that papa was just waiting under the hardware store awning. I couldn't speak enough pidgin English to ask a question or even to be impolite, but I was wondering why we were waiting. Surely, there were places we intended to visit, things papa wanted to do, and we weren't going to let the weather stop us. Were we?

It took me 20 minutes to realize we were going to wait for the rain to stop. In the end, we waited 40 minutes or so.

You need patience to live in a village. You need to forget about time. One helpful trick was to remove your watch. Wearing it was like being a three-year-old on a long drive who constantly asks 'How much further is it?' and 'How much longer now?' Counting seconds seems to slow time to an annoying crawl.

After two months in the village, I had adopted to PNG time. I was back in Madang town with a bunch of Peace Corps friends, people raised in Florida, New York, and California. We had been assigned to our schools and were shopping for necessities. We were at the Christian bookstore, about the only kind you'll find in PNG, when it started to pour. We waited for it to stop. After an hour, half of us got impatient and made a run for it, but three of us waited patiently another 30 minutes

As a Peace Corps volunteer, you either adjusted to the slower pace, or you quit and went home. Those of us who stayed faced a bigger readjustment to the bustle here.

For me, the difference in time was never as obvious as my first full Monday at work, my first deadline day. I had a ton of things to finish, and I knew I was behind. I was aware of each passing second, as if part of my brain visualized an hour glass and counted each grain of sand as it dropped. After writing a story, even without looking at the clock, I could tell you the time. I accomplished a lot, but I was frazzled and tired.

This job dominates my life now. Even when I get home, I don't have the energy to do things that I would like to do. My letter writing is behind, and I have seen only a few friends lately. And I need to find the time to organize all the clutter that I possess.

At least I can cross this column off my to-do list. I've been meaning to write it for weeks.

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