Today I had my first real conversation with a person who had read my book and wanted to talk about it. My friend Laurie had a mental list of questions she wanted to ask me. One of them was: “How did you find the time to do all that you did?” Others have asked me the same question, but I didn’t give the answer much thought until today. I simply believed that I was doing what I had to do as I churned out translations for my full-time job, numerous term papers in school, a 578-page thesis, and many technical articles in its wake, and as I took on unending responsibilities, including my job, teaching, correcting papers, moonlighting, attending classes and studying, working with my husband on a research grant, and later, caring for my elderly mother and aunt. My husband memorialized my schedule in our 1977 Christmas card:
I gave Laurie a quick response, but then I got to thinking about it and I realized that there are answers at several levels.
To begin with, there were more available hours in my day. I cheated myself on sleep and structured my life so there was very little nonproductive time. My commutes were short: 10 minutes to get to they office and 15 minutes to get to school, and while I was driving, the radio was silent so I could think about my projects. I even thought about them in the bathtub. I spent almost no time on housekeeping or cooking: I had a cleaning lady and I ate fast food or TV dinners at my desk.
But more to the point, life was very different in the 1970s and 1980s. There was no e-mail: people wrote letters—or didn’t, in my case. No Internet: if you wanted to know something, you could look it up in a dictionary, encyclopedia, almanac, or some other resource, but more often than not you simply left your curiosity unrewarded. No word processing: if you made a mistake, you covered it with paper tape if it was serious and delivered a copy rather than the original, or you settled for something less than the perfect mot juste. Dithering and obsessing weren’t an option. No cell phones: you weren’t at the beck and call of every Tom, Dick, or Harry at all times of day and night. And there was no Facebook or texting or tweeting or blogging(!): people didn’t need to report everything that was going on in their lives, and if they did, there probably wouldn’t have been an audience, at least among my cohorts: I was older than the me-generation. Also, I didn’t watch television. Our entertainment, when we took time off, was reading, listening to music on the stereo, having a good conversation, going to a show, eating out, or doing something outdoors. The beauty of it was that these leisure activities weren’t interrupted. Looking back at how my life has changed has been a wake-up call. More than ever, I see that now much of my time gets frittered away on media of different kinds. I know I’m not alone in this.
When I mentioned to Laurie that I also felt I had to do all the things I was doing, she quickly pointed out that I had had the choice not to do them. In some cases, I passionately loved what I was doing, and that gave me extra enegry. In other cases, I was fulfilling obligations, and I think that’s another way in which people have changed. It seems to me that our sense of obligation has eroded in the last 30 years. For my part, I have become a hedonist. While I’m quick to do the things I want to do, it’s almost painful to do the things I’m supposed to do, like pay my bills, drink 8 glasses of water a day, or floss my teeth.
In fact, I believe that at bottom I have always been a hedonist. When I was younger, various forces pulled me in different directions and I did what I thought I had to do in order to survive, financially, emotionally, and in society. It’s possible that that frenzy contributed to my cancer. I was a driven woman, and I ended up getting sick. Getting well again is the subject of my book. Nowadays, I’m much more in touch with my true nature.