Monday, June 30, 2008

Speeding Up and Slowing Down

One of my favorite television shows is M*A*S*H, partly because I'm a big Alan Alda fan, and partly because I think it's great writing that still outshines a lot of new television shows today. I was reading an article about amphetamine use this morning, and it reminds me a lot of later season M*A*S*H episode. In the show, the hospital is under tremendous pressure as increased fighting keeps inundating the staff with casualties and wounded. Charles, the eminent doctor from Boston, in order to combat his fatigue, pops into the supply cabinet one night, and takes an amphetamine pill. A few days later, he can't stop taking them, because he's so impressed with his performance on the drug and he can't bear to slow down. Only the intervention of the other characters can help him to realize that he is only human and he needs to stop taking the pills.

Though the Korean War is long over, and most of us are not overseas fighting in combat (as always, my greatest respect to those who are), the idea of needing to speed up to fight mounting pressure in daily life still persists. I'm not a morning person, but life demands that I get out of bed and get to work, whether it's studying for the GMAT, applying for a job, going for an interview, or running errands and doing the laundry. I have a very difficult time doing this without two cups of coffee. In my formerly employed life, my secret weapon was an extra-shot grande toffeenut latte from Starbucks, venti if I was having a really bad morning. My super-secret last resort weapon is caffeine tablets.

From Nicholas Rasmussen's piece:

So the amphetamine-assisted, physician-abetted social adjustment of yore is back as a mass phenomenon. But it does not, at first glance, represent as severe a problem proportionally. There are fewer than 10 million medical and nonmedical amphetamine users today, whereas the population has increased from 200 million to 300 million since 1969. Amphetamine use is therefore less than two-thirds as prevalent as it was in 1969. But we might expand our purview beyond simple statistics to ask a broader sociological question: Has the medical demand that amphetamines once filled abated? Apparently not. Counting all the medicines used now for conditions that amphetamine once treated — depression, obesity, and "fatigue," or inadequate working attention — we can estimate that, proportional to population, each year roughly twice as many Americans now take a drug that would, in 1969, have very likely been an amphetamine.

That calculus suggests that if the amphetamine epidemic of the 1960s was symptomatic of a deep-rooted social disease — drug use to meet unwholesome expectations of incessant cheeriness, unnatural productivity, and extreme slimness, and to boost the postwar consumerist ethos that the sociologist David Riesman once called the "fun morality" — then America is now twice as sick. When Allen Ginsberg helped open the counterculture's own anti-amphetamine campaign in 1965 under the slogan "speed kills," he wasn't referring just to the drug that so many Americans relied on to keep up. He was also thinking of the demand that amphetamine satisfies. It might be time to think again about heeding his call.

So are we just rats in the maze, searching for a faster way to the center? Sometimes I sincerely feel we are. Yesterday, I had the luxury of spending the afternoon with Nate, riding our bicycles to Deer Island. We walked out on a jetty and explored the tidal pool, where we walked among hundreds of thousands of periwinkles. I am fascinated by the way in which a periwinkle will emerge from its shell and glide in my palm if I hum to it. We also discovered that by lifting some of the smaller rocks, we found dozens of small blue-green crabs scuttling around the pebbles and barnacles. When we finished at Deer Island, we rode to Revere Beach for ice cream cones. The whole afternoon was quiet and relaxed, and it was easier to breathe without the threat of the job search or graduate school looming over us.

Not every day is so idyllic. More often, there are days that I can almost feel time slipping through my fingers as I rush from interview to interview, and I feel lost at sea. There are days that I think, wouldn't it be great if I had a pill that could keep me going? The idea of an internal combustion engine like an amphetamine is truly tempting. But it's not a solution.

The solution is to give up some of our obsession with the insane pace of life in America. I'm sure someone out there is probably reading this and thinking I wasted yesterday because I spent it relaxing in the harbor instead of writing. I don't think that time was wasted in the least. Americans are too proud of their ridiculous devotion to work, to Blackberries, and so forth. We should take a break once in a while. Go on a vacation. Spend an afternoon at the beach. The hustle and bustle will still be there tomorrow, and you can afford to miss it for one day.

2 responses:

Michael said...

I completely agree that Americans should learn to slow down. Their "devotion to work" is indeed "ridiculous." The only goal of life is to enjoy it. So the opportunity to spend a day enjoying the periwinkles (or, in my version, the waves or wharf) is a success, not a waste of time. We should run around and burn our engines only to the extent necessary in order to have time to enjoy the periwinkles. Unless, of course, one enjoys the burning itself. In that case, burn on.

Kate Hutchinson said...

@Michael: the goal should be, as you say, to enjoy life. Part of the problem is that so many people focus on planning for enjoyment "someday" (as in retirement) and forget to ever stop and actually do it.

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