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Busy, Inc.: Is being busy a lifestyle choice?

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Women never retire.

That was my holiday epiphany last Christmas, or Thanksgiving, when I noticed that all the men in the house were watching TV, playing Xbox, or napping, while the women were busy cleaning house and making dinner for a gazillion relatives.

Even mom, at the ripe age of 81 (or 82?) doesn't get a respite.  It seems no one told her at age 65 that she could stop doing all that "woman's work" around the house at about the same time dad stopped being an auto executive.

The retirement gap between men and women is likely easing somewhat in "modern" families where men take on more of the traditionally feminine roles of "keeping house."  But still, it's an obvious, and probably overlooked, observation (by men at least) that women don't ever get to "stop" like we do (again, in traditional homes).

Which leads to articles in the NYT and Slate about "busy" people.  Hanna Rosin sums up the NYT piece in Slate:
The “Busy Trap,” after all, is written by a man and one who does not mention having children. And in his view a 23-year-old single man has a daily reality not all that different than a 40-year-old mother of three. “Almost everyone I know is busy,” writes Tim Kreider, “They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.s make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications.”

But after that brief moment of revenge/relief I began to feel pretty uneasy, because what good does it do me that men live this way too? So many lines in that story made me cringe in self recognition: “Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half hour with classes and extracurricular activities.” And then this part, which really hit home: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life can not possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy.” My one quibble with Kreider is his insistence that this kind of busyness is a form of bragging, a one-upsmanship over who worked more hours, familiar from how my investment-banker friends from the '90s used to act.
I've always been annoyed by "busy people."  I've never been one.  Perhaps it's my inherent laziness, or my inner Greek, but I've never understood people who "don't have time."  Putting parenthood aside (and even with parenthood, moms still seem to get the shaft), the busy people began about the time of college, which for me was the early 1980s, and it moved into full swing in law school.

The busy people were your friends and fellow students who always spent far more time than you did studying.  The thing is, it's not like they necessarily got better grades (though some did).  Which begs the question of whether busy-ness, in school at least, is a sign of the over-achiever or the UNDER-achiever (i.e., does the student study more because he's a geek, or because he needs to study more to keep up with the rest of us?)

There was certainly a "cult of study" when I was in law school.  People were insane.  They formed elite study groups at the beginning of the year, because "that's what law students do."  And they studied every night for a gazillion hours and never had time to do anything social because, you know, law school is just insanely hard.  I never understood that.

(It used to drive me nuts when people would find out I was in law school, and then wax about how "hard" it must be.  It was hard, like any good education at any good school.  But it simply wasn't nearly as bad as people made it out to be - which has always made me suspect that med school is its own busy-trap.)

Law school was certainly harder than undergrad (and harder than grad school, for me at least).  And undergrad was harder than high school.  But law school wasn't such a quantum leap harder than undergrad that everyone needed to suddenly stop having a life outside of school.  Yet many law students did.  And they were proud of their lifelessness.  For many, being busy was a form of bragging.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that they made themselves busy so that they could brag.  The bragging could have been an afterthought to the busy-ness - making ego lemonade out of busy lemons, as it were.

While my lack of busy-ness - I'm the last person who would say no to an invite to do something because "I have something else scheduled" (and I'm also the last person to schedule any weekend plans in advance) - is I suspect due in part to my own laziness, I sometimes suspect that the busy-ness of certain friends comes not from any desire to brag, but perhaps from the opposite of my lazy-ness.  While I like to turn my brain, and body, off after a long day of work, they like to turn it on.  Thus the endless tennis lessons, polo lessons, book clubs, etc.

And to some degree I'm jealous of my busy friends. There's a certain way of life in Paris, and I suspect NYC, where people tend to take advantage ("profiter", as we say in French) more of their surroundings.  In Paris, my friends are always going out to the latest show, exhibit, or just for dinner, or a nighttime picnic, with friends.  My New York friends are similar.

But, recently a New York friend complained that, yes, people are always out and about it NYC, but the problem is they're ALWAYS out and about, making it impossible to organize anything with her friends.  In Paris in August, the traditional vacation time, a friend posts a single message on Facebook that they're having a "pique-nique" at 7pm next to the Seine, and the next day somewhere between 7 and 20 friends will eventually show up, no further organizing necessary.  In NYC, she said, you'd have to organize the picnic a good month in advance, or no one would show (same in DC, I fear).  "Can you imagine just posting on Facebook that you're throwing a picnic, and then just expect people to show?" she asked me.

So I'm torn on the whole "busy" thing.  There is a part of me that feels like maybe I'm not "living" enough.  But there's also a part that feels far too many of my friends are living a bit too much, and thus not living much at all.  They've lost any sense of the impromptu, of caprice, in their lives.

I'm reminded of the T.S. Eliot passage:
We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.
There have been oppression and luxury,
There have been poverty and licence,
There has been minor injustice.
Yet we have gone on living,
Living and partly living.
So is "busy" a prerequisite to living? Or an impediment?

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