Living the moment versus the tyranny of time

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 9/22/99.

Well, my nerves are exploding,
And my body's tense.
I feel like the whole world,
Got me pinned up against the fence.

--Bob Dylan

I could feel the soothing effects of my vacation being stripped away as I drove home from Colorado on Sunday.

Sure, you say driving a thousand miles in a day is an obvious strain. I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get my Peace Corps friend, Josh, to the airport on time. Then I had a 15-hour drive home.

The stress came not from the miles, but my approach.

It started at the Denver airport, where they have free parking for 70 minutes. I tried to time it so I didn't have to pay, but a quick last-minute stop at the bathroom cost me. I paid $4 for the extra two minutes I needed to leave the airport.

When I got rolling on Interstate 76, I set the cruise at 80 miles per hour and headed for Nebraska. Fast. Fast. Fast. I'm telling myself. Gotta make time.

Don't cut me off. I fume at a merging car. Don't make me disengage the cruise control. Stay out of my way. I've got to make time. Got to hurry home. Got to race against the world.

I guess the real culprit was the change of scenery. My Peace Corps friend, who was my village brother for 47 days while training in Madang, and I had stayed for five days in my great uncle and aunt's mountain cabin. Located less than 20 miles west of Boulder, yet requiring a 45-minute drive, the cabin has a trout stream babbling its way through the front yard and a magnificent view of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a range that forms part of the continental divide in the Rocky Mountains.

It was the perfect place to recreate the feeling of living in the Third World. Our primary distraction was the beauty of nature. Our entertainment budget consisted of $15 in fees to national parks and forests for access to hiking trails.

Our joys were the simple ones we valued so much after living for months and months at an isolated high school in the deep jungle of Papua New Guinea. As a bird flew, Josh and I lived within 50 miles of each other while in PNG. But in two years we never managed to visit each other's home, as we were separated by mountains, swamps, crocodiles, and a lack of mechanized transportation.

In less than a year back in America, we've arranged already to meet over a thousand miles from either of our homes.

At the cabin, we could pursue simple pleasures, the kind that usually get lost in our modern world: long walks, sunrises and sunsets, the intricacies of nature, home cooked meals, leisurely breakfasts, afternoon tea, and a late-night dinner.

The weather in Colorado was much nicer than PNG, too. Some days we didn't see a cloud in the sky until the afternoon. The days were warm and the nights were cool, all the better to appreciate the warmth of a wood fire in the pot-bellied stove and a hot cup of coffee in the morning.

I didn't see any rain until I was driving home through Nebraska. Instead of being able to enjoy its power and examine its nuances, I only could wonder how much time it would cost me. I made stops as fast as possible. I ate fast-food hamburgers, a pale imitation of food after a week of slow-cooked, made-from-scratch meals.

I wasn't enjoying the moment, as we both had agreed was so important as we relaxed at our mountain retreat. I was worried about time and speed and rushing home and not wasting time and staying alert and...

You know, it's hard to enjoy the moment in our culture. The focus here is always on tasks and responsibilities and schedules and a million other details. That's why we define ourselves by our jobs. That's why we regulate our so-called free time nearly as tightly as our work-day schedules.

Even Josh and I felt its effects. On our most ambitious hike above the tree line to Blue Lake on Friday, we started talking about work. Three days early, Josh started dreading what faced him this week at his job at an environmental museum near San Francisco.

Driving home, I got smart halfway through Nebraska, when I left the interstate and its mindset of speed. Crossing the state on backroads, at a slightly reduced rate, allowed me to enjoy some scenery, instead of being hypnotized by the passing painted lines and the lines of traffic.

There's not much I could do to avoid work on Monday though. After the deadlines at the Press office, it seemed to me that Dylan had written those lines for me. And the beauty and ease of the mountains seemed a distant memory again.

I thought about life in the mountains quite a bit while working, but only once, when asked my opinion on a publishing decision, did I answer that I thought I would rather be in Colorado.

Return to Minute with Mike Archives