The Myth of Quality Time

_MG_0169About a year ago, I wrote an essay called Living the Hyperopic Life.   It was a dissertation on the ideas of balance, living for now, living on purpose and making sure, when you looked back at the end, you are certain in your heart that it was a life well-lived.  One part dealt with taking time and making it worth something.   Blocks of time, snippets of time, anything you could carve out between the important things and responsibilities you had.   These little bits of time, strung together, would weave the tapestry of your life.  The more meaningful the time spent, the tighter the weave.

If you could paint a picture of this tapestry, it would not be pretty.  It isn’t one of those neatly woven, ornate fabrics you see in stores.  The resemblance is more like a rag but with different kinds of thread and materials all woven together in a tangle of structure.  It has every color you could imagine (if you do it right) and all manner of materials; smooth velvets,  tough, yet solid and comforting denims, whimsical tassels, maybe even a few bits of aluminum foil here and there or splinters of wood stuck in the folds; whatever you fancy in your imagination could represent  whatever it is you did to create it.  This is your life and you add to that tapestry each time you took hold of and lived your life on purpose.

That’s what it should look like.   But take a moment to consider what all these bits and pieces of time mean?  Where are they and by what measure do you define them?

Every so often you’ll hear the phrase Quality Time.   The basic premise of this idea, as I understand it, is that if you do something really splendid with someone you care about, the time spent can be labeled Quality Time and that particular block of time will be worth more time than it actually took.  Bank enough Quality Time and you’ve got a whole lifetime in no time at all.   It seems that Quality Time evolved as people worked longer hours, both parents had to work or someone decided to work a whole lot now, so they could enjoy themselves later.  Quality Time gave permission to spend less time with  those people you really should be spending time with so you had more time to do the things you really wanted to do.   More me time, maybe?    Suddenly, there’s more time to chase the money, work late hours, disregard the children, take a vacation  and leave the kids at home (don’t get me started with that last one.)

I do not presume to know how people work out their lives.   Everyone has their own way of doing things and their own interpretation of what makes good time spent.  Who am I to tell them what to do and never would I presume to do that.   Each of us is different and if it’s really working for you, don’t stop.   Because it’s rare that we find that butter zone of being able to make it all work out right and it’s always good policy to ride that mellow when you find it.

A person has to be honest with themselves, though, in assessing whether it’s working or not.  You have to say it’s fat when it’s fat and don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s muscle.   Without that naked honesty, you won’t see if there’s something wrong or if you’re making excuses by using Quality Time as permission to neglect those people who should be occupying important moments in your life.

All the time you spend with someone has the same length and you can’t compress it like calories are compressed into high fructose corn syrup, sweetening the time you do with the hope of making it better somehow.  Time does not distill.  What matters is what you fill it with and how.  Whether you’re winging off to London to do the Europe thing or sitting at the kitchen bar telling them it’s OK to draw outside the lines if they want, the minutes are 60 seconds long and the days have 1440 minutes.  All day long.  You’re there, present either way, and that’s where the value is.

It seems to me, more often than not, Quality Time is what people use as an excuse not to do the little things.  “Oh, I spent some quality time earlier with Bill watching a movie so I’m going golfing with my buddies now.”  Quality Time is  a myth.  It’s cheating.

I truly believe it’s not Quality Time you want to shoot for, but time.  Just time.  If a particular moment  only lasts 20 minutes doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing or even a great thing. Maybe it lasts an hour and during that hour you only did a few things that didn’t amount to much.  Where was the focus?   On just the two of you?  Sounds to me like that’s all the quality you might need.  The world moves pretty fast these days.   Two minutes or two hours can really be just the same in terms of value as long as the focus has the purity of you wanting to be there and joy in just paying attention to each other.

Have you seen that movie, City of Angels, with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan?  Earlier in the movie Meg Ryan’s character had been frustrated by the fact that she and her doctor-boyfriend didn’t spend any real time together.  In one later scene, he comes into the locker room at the hospital and sits down opposite Ryan on a bench.   He stares meaningfully into her eyes and is silent.   She looks at him suspiciously and then asks “what are you doing?” and he replies, “I’m spending time with you.”   It’s a joke really.  Here he was trying to manufacture Quality Time.  Is the time you spend with people you care about like that?   An exercise out of a book or something you do out of obligation?   Pardon me for saying so, but if that’s the case, you’re doing it wrong.

Did you turn away from the tourist attraction and taste the light breeze that brings the scent of the ocean off Sydney Harbor?  Do you fully appreciate the serendipitous turn you took down a narrow alley that brought you to the tavern with the best bangers and mash you’d ever had (once you figured out what the hell bangers and mash were?)  Did you take a breath and recognize the fantastically special moment you just shared together whatever it may have been?

It’s this nuanced kind of existence that fills in all the little chinks and cracks that may otherwise undermine a good well-lived life.  And if you’ll forgive me the mixed metaphor, it’s this kind of living which creates the many-textured, multi-colored tapestry that is only best when it’s one of the ugliest things we’ve ever seen.  Pausing to hear the humming in the other room of a known or made up tune;  Listening to your son when he says, “I finally got the definition I wanted.”  Even if you ask, “In your life?” and he responds “No, in my arm muscles,” you get it and smile right at him.  He may not show it, but he’s paying attention and will always remember that.

We went to Hawaii this year on a very rare and special family vacation (the best kind.  It would not be the same if we went all the time.)  We tasted tropical delights, saw sunsets that made our hearts ache, swam with dolphins, giant sea turtles and the vast Pacific Ocean seeing tropical fish of any color you could imagine … It was fantastic.   A few months later, I asked my eldest son what the best part of the summer was.  I fully expected that rare kind of family vacation to be the answer.   But to my surprise and delight, he proclaimed it to be the building of a wooden airplane with grandpa.  Time.

The folks who are relying on the Myth of Quality Time as a measure of their parenting, brotherhood,           sisterhood, whatever-hood are missing it.   If we leave out the fun and the completeness of participating to the fullest in the lives of the people we care about, we’re straining and stretching the connections we as humans thrive on.  Those connections become more  gossamer and fragile; more vulnerable to any slight or misunderstanding.

It takes practice to get better at anything.   They say to master something you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it.  So, start with 10,000 minutes (about a week) of practice and maybe get in a really good minute.  Then go for two.  And suddenly, as you spend your lives together you may build such great emotional muscles and such a strong bond that the practice required starts to fall away and you have the well-trained, fine-tuned relationship you know you should.

Talking or being quiet.  Riding in the car to music lessons, celebrating an essay well-written, an song well-played, a joke that went over well with new friends in school.  All of it matters as much as – or perhaps more than – those big trips and expensive gifts.

Finally, consider music.  If you think about it, there is no music without the space between the notes.   Some would say music is the space between the notes.  So, too, is time.  Quality Time is not the big stuff.  It is the silence between the notes, the nuance of the phrasing in the music that is our lives.  Because although the notes themselves are great (trips and adventures), when the music stops, silence is all you have and then you need to be able to fill that silence (or not) with your thoughts and dreams and desires and hopes or whatever comes to mind.

What does your tapestry look like so far and how does the music it makes sound?

After 30 Years, I Finally Understand

There are some things in life that you experience young but only fully understand when the wisdom of age has layered enough of it’s dust upon your heart. Over the past decade, there have been more than just a few times which, for me, bear this consideration out. One such instance has to do with newspapers, AT&T, a money changer and a 12-year-old, toe-headed boy who was just not aware enough because he just wasn’t old enough.

From the time I sold newspapers at the old AT&T building in downtown Wayne, PA until now in my current self-employment and business ownership, I have only been fired once. And it was from that paper selling job (I wouldn’t call it a paper route because I just stood there and sold papers, no route to follow.) Of the 15-20 positions I have held, I have always kept myself to a standard of decency, hard work and integrity that has been a pretty fine way to operate. ( Well, mostly anyway…there was that one time, but that’s, perhaps, another story.) This paper selling job was no different.

I would practice making change with one of those metal change holders you hook to your belt with the cool levers that shot coins out the bottom. I’d pretend someone handed me a five or a one and would whip out the proper change; quickly subtracting thirty-five cents and making up the difference from the stacks of coins in the tubes just large enough to hold quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies. I would practice folding the paper in a tri-fold as quickly as I could and pretend to hand it off as I made change. While standing there when I saw them come out from around the corner, I would see if I could tell what money they were carrying so I could get a head start on making change. And although I sometimes got distracted by counting the cars on the train that occasionally passed across the street and on the other side of the parking lot, I’d be attentive and serious about my job.

And so it went and I loved my job. It was simple, it was indoors in the lobby of the red brick building with the tall tower. A tower so high you could see if from just about everywhere in town. The red brick building that had darker brick squares on the lower floors because of a spate of smoke bombings some years before (I was never really sure why that happened…too young, but I knew the best parts of the story…smoke and bombs.)

And every day there would be a stack of papers waiting for me when I rode up on my bike. I would sell just every one, most days, but sometimes I would have a few left over. That was OK. I had a procedure for that. I’d ask the guard from Pinkerton to pull out his little card with the commission conversion chart on it and I’d take what was mine. Then I’d put the rest in my other pocket, ride down to Rexall Drug and walk to the back of the store. There, I’d put the driver’s money into a white envelope, wrap the envelope up and put it into a mortar and pestle that was on top of the back shelves behind the pharmacist’s counter. The extra papers (if I had any) would go below than on another shelf at the bottom. And out I would go…a few dollars richer and proud to be doing what I was asked to do. Doing it right as rain every single time.

So, I could never understand why every once in a while, the driver would say I shorted him some money. Every once in a while, he’d say there weren’t enough papers left for the money I’d left in that envelope in the mortar and pestle. And I was sure I’d counted right. I began counting twice and it was right. But I kept being told I was short.

Then one day, the paper called my mom and said they no longer needed me. I cried and was sad for a while. I was so proud of my job. And I had always thought they let me go because they didn’t need to sell papers there any more. The Philadelphia Bulletin folded not too many years later so maybe it was because they were trying to cut costs. After all, I was only making them maybe ten or fifteen bucks a day…nothing really. And eventually, it faded into the dark reaches of memory. It became an insignificant time that had very little meaning other than being one of those books on the shelves of your mind.

But then one day a few years ago, it occurred to me what might have happened. I don’t know what made me think of it, nor could I even begin to think of why it mattered. It was just there.

I will never have any proof but I became convinced that the nice man behind the counter (he was probably 25, maybe 30 years old), was taking papers and perhaps others were too. After all, they were sitting there in the back out in the open and the papers the store sold were up front.

What’s to stop someone from just putting one into their stuff to take home. But, then again, anyone could have come along and made the mistake of thinking they were for sale, too. And maybe that’s what happened. Maybe the nice man behind the counter wasn’t being mean and stealing my papers. I will never know for sure and it doesn’t really matter. And maybe it’s not resolved all that much. But I felt better when I thought of those possibilities. Maybe honest mistake, maybe theft, maybe my mind fabricating something that never was. I was relieved to think that my diligence wasn’t for naught and I had done everything right and I had counted properly.

Connecting the dots of a past uncertainty with newly found wisdom of age may not always quite solve a mystery, vindicate a wrong or suddenly bring clarity to something that has always caused confusion. But it can still tie up a loose end, or close the book on a chapter that is long overdue of being finished. Wisdom is a funny thing. Sometimes it can make you smart and sometimes, it can simply perform a little piece of historical magic.