The dream of the 90s. I sincerely doubt it’s still alive in Portland.
These last few days, I’ve been staying out late. Visiting with friends and family. Downtown shenanigans. Sleeping in until, gasp, 9am. I’ve been actively avoiding anything with a whiff of responsibility, including my paid work and unpaid work (parenting, university). Don’t worry, my kid is in good hands.
To wake up at 8:33am and to spend thirty minutes on my phone, to roll over and manifest some coffee in the French press, and to read a couple of chapters of a book I’ve been delighted by, a book which is adding fuel to this dream of the 90s (Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman), without keeping track of my time, without having a to-do list, is difficult. Physically it is very easy – laziness is very easy. But it is psychologically difficult. But all the things, they keep piling up. Oh no!
This is a very deliberate sort of procrastination. Sure, someone might be unhappy if I don’t check my email for a few days. Sure, I might be a sliver more crunched to turn in my final Canadian history assignment. Sure, I might not finish that Grade 2 curriculum on the timeline I had originally intended.
But also, life. Pure enjoyment with no purpose. Seeing an old friend who lives far away is not a box to be checked. Being able to see where the evening leads with no feeling of urgency.
I write so much about productivity that I feel the point has been missed. Most certainly by me, at times. Maybe I come off like this human who is doing all of the things at all of the times, trying to fashion myself into a machine. That it’s all about getting things done, that getting things done is the ultimate aim. People will comment to me how they assume I’m super busy all of the time.
It’s partially true, and I fall victim to the busyness trap just like everyone else. But the point I don’t do a very good job of getting across is that it’s not about doing the things, checking the boxes, flying through tasks. The point is immersion in the moment. Full focus. If I’m to make the best use of my time working, then I must be fully immersed. And this flow state is delightful. But “to make the best use of my time” is a misleading statement, because it perpetuates the grind-like attitude of productivity. It is not about optimizing every moment. Merely that I enjoy my time immensely if I’m engaged and immersed in what I’m doing. Whether it’s a conversation, a piano practice session, designing a course, bedtime stories with my child. I want to show up and be there without being distracted, without my mind wandering to all of the other undone things.
But you know the biggest thing about this whole productivity game? The reason I’m so driven to be fully focused in whatever activity I’m doing? Yes, sure, enjoyment is a top factor. What is life if not something to be enjoyed? But it’s also a way to opt out of the workaholic life. Seems counterintuitive, sure. You’d think someone writing about productivity works all the time. But I really, really don’t. And the stupid thing is I’m ashamed to admit that. As if I’ll lose macho points, I’ll be thought of as less than, I’ll be thought of as lazy. Because anyone who isn’t working for money for 40 hours a week is lazy, right?
The truth – right here, the truth that I never want to admit – is that I’ve virtually never worked 40 hours a week, save for some rare little pockets. One time I worked at a popcorn and hot dog cart in the summer, and that was from 8-4, Monday to Friday. I would not have tolerated such a demand on my time had it not been for the fact that my coworker and I would spend our days listening to the blues all morning and afternoon, hanging out in the summer sun, enjoying iced coffees and bubble tea and veggie dogs with all the fixins.
The other time I worked 40 hours a week was during a cooking internship to finish my culinary school training. After the internship, I stayed on a few months longer as a catering chef, until I snapped and quit. The hours were too long, the work was too mind-numbing, and I didn’t have a back-up plan. I lived in Toronto and was barely affording rent in the first place. I can hear my mother now, saying, suck it up buttercup. But I didn’t suck it up. I went out and got some piano students instead, earned better money, was my own boss, and only worked 20 hours a week. I was much happier.
Culinary school was a full-time affair. So is university, which I’m doing right now. I’ve had moments with my business (PianoTV) where I’ve pulled 12-hour days multiple days in a row, but it’s rare and always compartmentalized to particularly busy times, such as when a course opens. In that case, it tends to be quite fun – exhilarating, even – especially because I know it will come to an end and the balance of life (whatever that is) will return.
So the truth that I’m admitting to you is that, in my entire adulthood, a span of nearly 18 years, I’ve perhaps spent about 1/10th of that time working full-time.
I remember working as a waitress for less than 20 hours a week, enjoying long hangouts with my friends and spending a ton of time writing words and writing music. My basement suite had crickets, but that was an acceptable trade-off. I was content to earn below the poverty line – for years! – because it meant that I had something much more precious than money: time. And it wasn’t productive time. Back then, I wasn’t building a business. I was just hanging out.
Of course, there is magic in just hanging out. I would never want to exploit the sacredness of “hanging out” by suggesting it has a greater, more productive purpose, thus robbing it of its magic, but it worked that way for me. Other people were doing the Life Stuff: university, mortgages, families, full-time jobs. If I had 20 more hours than my average peer each week, how does that accumulate over the span of 18 years? This unproductive time – time not spent earning, but rather just living – what does that amount to?
I don’t have an answer, only a suspicion that it simply just amounts to a life. The kind of life I want to live. The kind of life people look forward to at retirement. Why is it such a shameful way to live at age 20? Why is having free time considered a squandering of potential?
I also suspect that having time means having time to stop and think. It adds another degree of separation between myself and the machine. The story we all buy into. Whatever the narrative of the moment is. Instead of being in the river all of the time, and subject to all of the river’s whims, there is time to sit on the river’s edge and watch it weave and bend.
But this all sounds rather pretentious. Look at me, I have time to stop and think, and therefore I have all the answers and I am so smrt. But is that really the alternative narrative? Either you’re a hardworking member of society or you’re a lazy know-it-all?
I imagine telling my friends, in confidence, I think the dream of the 90s is actually alive in this city. I imagine them laughing. Listing off the reasons this city sucks. But people in Seattle in 1989 thought it sucked too. And it’s only in the looking back that we think, “huh, must’ve been something special there.” Maybe there is something special here. At the local coffee shop, I just went for a refill of my coffee and the friendly owner refused to let me pay. So I put my cash in the tip jar, and we chatted briefly about Star Wars. This morning I have been doing some leisure reading and writing, enjoying my time off. Friends are chatting beside me. It’s not busy here, but it’s not empty, either. People seem to be in a good mood. The sun is shining and it will get past thirty degrees today. I could leave my laptop and go to the bathroom with no fear. It took me five minutes to get to this place from home. The other night, downtown was weird and bumpin’. I saw punk kids cheerfully shit-talk some cops, who rolled their eyes before heading in for a drink. Characters everywhere. People talking to strangers.
Could you still sleep til eleven here? And work a few hours at a coffee shop? And just enjoy your life? You’d have a better shot here than in a big city. Hustle is mandatory in a big city, unless you are wealthy and/or have highly in-demand skills. Is hustle mandatory here? You can still rent for less than $1k per month if you lower your standards. You can still buy a house for less than $200k if you don’t mind something old and small, and maybe it’s not the best neighborhood, but you’ll probably be okay. The income inequality is not nearly so steep.
And it’s not entirely backwater here, either. It is a city, and there is a mix of small-town and big-city dynamics at play. I’m not sacrificing tolerance by living here. I am not losing rights that I might not have in a small town, and there is diversity.
I’m lucky that I’ve figured out a way to work part-time hours and earn a decent living doing so. I don’t need anything else. And if it came down to it – if the choice was between a high-paying grind, and part-time work with a basement suite, it would be the same choice each time. Fortunately, it is not always a trade-off. There might be another way.
I would not trade this Saturday morning of nothingness for anything. The dream of the 90s, gotta keep it alive.