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Time Poverty State

The Gold Metcalf Lecture given at University of New York at Cortland November 2, 2007

Cathy OíKeefe, M.Ed., CTRS
University of South Alabama,
Dept. of HPELS, Mobile, AL 36688
Phone: (251)-460-7131

Plato once said that it is the job of the teacher to introduce his students to the best possible circle of friends. A great teacher is capable of making the ideas of wise and interesting people, living or dead, come to life so brilliantly and imaginatively that students actually feel they know them. Many people in this room knew Gold Metcalf. They admired his enthusiasm for life and love of nature. Like Plato, they want to keep his ideas alive for you. And through this lecture series, they want to introduce you to others who are equally passionate and full of enthusiasm for life. Had technology been as good sixty years ago as it is today, we could have preserved his lectures and been able to listen to his own unique voice for the magic and inspiration that made his students and colleagues so want to honor him.

I read the statement attributed to Gold on the school website. I saw his picture. I watched the DVD tribute to him. I wished he’d been my uncle, or my teacher. But he can still be my friend – and yours if we can just listen. So, be very still and quiet for just a moment and then I will read his words to you, the next generation of children he so passionately wanted to reach. And Gold said,

“we must bequeath to our children the exuberant joy of being able to breathe fresh air, to drink clean water, to scent trailing arbutus, to hear breezes in the top of a grove of white pines and the magic of the song of a hermit thrush in cathedral towers of red spruce, and to find individuals living in harmony with the land and with each other.”

Thank you, Gold, for adding your voice to that of countless other heroes from Muir to Mather, and from Thoreau to Thomas Berry. Every older professional in this room is part of that chorus, too. We are the background singers who have kept the beat going with classes of our own and causes that defend what we and Gold believe is sacred…time, place, and relationships.

I am a city girl. I was raised in a narrow row house in Baltimore City. I never saw, as a child, the wide open spaces, the expanse of stars, or many of the things that Gold so loved. The first expanse of green grass that I ever saw was at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium when I was lucky enough to get to see the Orioles play on that beautifully mowed, bright green field.

I was formed and informed by the sixties, a child of hope from a generation that wanted world peace, and human rights, and an end to poverty. We protested and claimed that we loved truth and justice more than money, but my generation quickly fell silent, slipping into our private worlds of property, prosperity, and safety. We grew hungry for stuff. We parlayed our parent’s work ethic to a level of success that afforded the opportunity to have more and more if we were willing to work the extra hours to get it. We now purchase goods at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. We cast off perfectly good things simply because we tire of them. We are a throw-away people who mistake titillation for joy and activity for leisure. Some might say that we sold out. Others would claim that we grew tired and cynical, withdrawing into a philosophy of self-interest. There have remained enough of us, however, who are faithful to values that we believe are timeless.

My husband, Dennis, and I have five children, ages 31-21. We are parents and teachers of four boys and a girl. We want to introduce them to the best possible circle of friends whose wisdom can carry them through all the current crises that face your generation. Today I am going to talk to you about one of those crises – time poverty. My hope is that you will have, by the end of my short visit with you, an awakening, however small, that could impact the remainder of your life.

I’m sure you know that from time to time over history there have been people who carried placards or shouted in town squares that the end was near, that time was running out. The message of these individuals has classically been that we must turn our lives around, repent, so to speak, and wake up. Admonitions of doom often accompanied the message as people used whatever means they had to persuade or frighten their fellow citizens into looking at themselves more critically.

We now know from modern physics that time isn’t at all what we think it is. It is one of many dimensions of reality, but it is purely man-made, an invention of convenience that ordered society and helped it manage the ordinary activities of life, especially industrialized work. An understanding of time allowed us to sequence our human history and that of the planet. But time is still a human invention, one that may have seemed helpful at the outset but has taken on a life of its own.

Once electricity was invented, and the lights could stay on day and night, the rhythm of the day produced naturally by sunrise and sunset gave way to an endless day, limited only by our human inability to remain perpetually conscious, that is, our need to sleep. Unfortunately, human evolution hasn’t moved quickly enough to keep pace with the race to pack more into the day, so we are a country and culture that is chronically sleep deprived. We are sleep deprived because we can’t create more time than our clocks and calendars allow. So, to compensate, we simply push the envelope to its breaking point, snatching time from one event or activity of daily living to shore up a gap of need in another area.

I love the way that language subtly but surely invokes the doomsday message – we have “dead” lines; we complain that we are “dead” tired; we ask if we are willing to “drink the Koolaid” for our employer. We extol the virtues of multi-tasking, praising those who can accomplish so much more in a given amount of time. The rest of the country places you all on a pedestal when it declares that something was done in “a New York minute,” while we in the South are perceived as slow, the implication being that we’re dim-witted. The abandonment of nature as our chief time-guide has, ironically, led to the infusion of phrases related to nature to explain an ideal kind of time use: we say, “if only we could stop and smell the roses” or “I just want to have my day in the sun.”

America leads the world, if not in its obsession with time, then at least its need to spend it. What we’ve called progress in reality is a staggering list of real deficits in quality of life indicators. I asked Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live, to share some facts with us. And I’ve included some additional notes from John de Graaf that you might want to read. There is a bibliography included, too, that can help you find some great sources for your personal or school library.

I knew about John de Graaf before I met him. A friend had given me a tape of Affluenza years earlier. Later, when I learned that John had produced Running Out of Time, I bought it to show in my Introduction to Leisure Studies course. I wrote to John to thank him for his dedication to this issue and gave him my views as an educator in the field of recreation. He invited me to be part of a board that he was forming for his organization, Take Back Your Time. Ben Hunnicut, from Iowa, who was featured in Running Out of Time as the recreation educator who made sure his work did not interfere with time for his daughter, was already involved and had written a chapter for the Take Back Your Time book which John edited.

I flew out to Seattle to their conference and met some of the most committed individuals in the country, people from all walks of life, who want to initiate a grass roots change to our culture of time poverty. Picture this – a weekend with top professionals from business, economics, journalism, philosophy, theology, psychology, counseling and other disciplines who have committed themselves and their resources to support the value of leisure. It was like being in a room full of cheerleaders. So often our field is overlooked – there it was the center of attention because everyone in the movement sees leisure as the missing link to the good life and time poverty as the culprit keeping it at bay.

These individuals, and many others who are affiliated with related social movements, are hoping that the imagination of Americans will be sparked by their efforts to awaken our citizens to this key quality of life issue. Last year John released another video called The Motherhood Manifesto which I understand was viewed here at SUNY on Take Back Your Time Day, October 24th. The sad facts illuminated in The Motherhood Manifesto should be the topic of discussion at every women’s group in the country. As I watched it, I realized that the concerns I’d been having about my own adult children and their ability to have a work/life balance that could support family life were well documented.

Frankly, I was really frightened. I began to think about more ways to help them reduce their school loan debts, cover their medical needs, and secure some savings for the future. I thought about remodeling my house to make room for any of them who are unable to secure a home for a period of time. Like my parents who lived through The Great Depression of the early 1930s, I want to hedge my bets and store away some resources in case of an economic or natural crisis. I am optimistic but realistic, and ultimately, as a parent and global citizen, very concerned.

The bottom line is that we are a nation that has overstretched itself in terms of the competing demands of work and family. Personal leisure and play, something that we all need at every stage of life, is seriously threatened on several fronts. Time poverty is being matched with real decline in the availability of discretionary income and credit. In his presentation called What’s the Economy For, John de Graaf notes that Europeans’ level of productivity is 95% of Americans’. Yet they work substantially fewer weeks each year. John writes, “We could say that Europeans traded major portions of their productivity increases for free time instead of money, while Americans – consciously or unconsciously – put all their gains into increasing their per capita gross domestic product.”

John adds that Abraham Maslow noted in the early 70s “that as a society the U.S. had met nearly all its citizens’ physiological and safety needs and was moving to satisfy higher needs as well. Ironically, by such a standard, we have lost ground rather than gained it – we have more citizens living in poverty and a much greater overall sense of insecurity today than we did then, despite more than a 60% increase in GDP per capita.” And, John notes, “For most of the final quarter of the 20th century, Europeans gained relative to Americans in almost every quality of life indicator.” Here are some bullet points from John’s talk:

Some common causes of time poverty according to John de Graaf:

Shopping fever: Americans spend on the average about 7 times more time shopping as we do playing with our kids.

Swollen expectations: Our garages are now as big as starter homes were in 1950, and our houses are three times as big, even though our families are smaller.

Chronic congestion: Our roads, landfills are congested, and our bigger homes are so congested that many of us need extra storage lockers to hold all our stuff.

A Rash of bankruptcies: In each of the five years prior to the change in the bankruptcy laws, more Americans declared bankruptcy than have graduated from college, more in fact than were declared during the Depression.

Credit Card debt: This is a leading cause of students having to drop out of college. 60% of Americans feel their children are very materialistic. Kids are referred to by marketers as “consumers in training.” Marketers “own, brand, and capture” kids.

Resource consumption and industrial diarrhea: we can’t environmentally sustain our highly consumptive life styles. While we have far more than we need, more than a billion people on the planet have far less than they need just to subsist.

The stress of excess: Most Western Europeans work nine full weeks less than Americans each year or one full year for every five that we work. They simply choose to produce less stuff per capita, to value time more than money.

Job Stress: Job stress costs our economy $200 billion every year. Americans suffer from “hurry sickness” brought on by overwork and time pressure. Americans get an hour less sleep per night than they need to function well.

Too little exercise and far too much over-processed foods: Our sedentary lifestyles and high calorie foods combine to produce an increase in obesity in alarming rates in both children and adults.

Less time with family than in the past: Compared with the 1960’s, Americans now spend 40% less time with their children.

Overwork or underemployment: These are two sides of the same coin, but the result for both groups, due to less time or fewer resources, is diminished leisure.

Threats to security: Time poverty leads to a frenetic sense of rushing and short-temperedness. Too little sleep contributes to this combination of fatigue and anger.

Threats to the environment: Time poverty leads to less time for recycling, accessing slow foods, or using non-disposable products.

Less participation as citizens: 33% of non-voters in America report that they simply don’t have the time to vote.

The real question that John asks of the economy is this: is it “possible to have a more just and people friendly economy and compete globally?” All of us who support the cultural critique outlined in Take Back Your Time believe that we must create a shift in thought across cultures in the U.S. toward a better quality of life that is sustainable over the coming decades. What images can be put in front of people’s eyes to present a better way of living, one that allows parents to be more involved in their children’s lives and have time for personal leisure and community involvement? Or, one that encourages everyone to live a life that is slower, more integrated and balanced, more environmentally friendly and respectful of the resources that are needed around the world? What images have always made a connection with the soul?

The National Recreation and Park Association has tried with its new slogan, “It starts in the parks,” to point again to engagement with nature as the benchmark for balance. Like nature, human life requires care and time, and natural environments are a great mirror for a healthy life. By engaging them early and often, we can more clearly see that every person needs a rhythm of life, ample outdoor play, rest, and time for relationships.

I once asked John de Graaf about any sentinel event that moved him toward the commitment he has to quality time. He said that when he was young, his dad took him to the state and national parks and introduced him to nature. He loved it. He saw the depth of beauty there, and it touched his soul. Joe Robinson was similarly moved by the experiences he had as a journalist covering outdoor recreation and leisure. He realized that we must intentionally commit ourselves to make time for play and recreation. Joe is so committed to the value of leisure that he leads a campaign to legally protect Americans’ vacation leave. Here are some comments from Joe to help you further understand his message:

Many thanks to Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live, writer, journalist, and national director of the mandatory paid vacation legislative initiative for the following:


  • We have forgotten how to do what we teach our kids: set boundaries, say no.
  • The hurry-worry of false urgency and the belief that we just can't get whatever we want fast enough place excess pressure on us.
  • Time is a family values issue.
  • Family vacations are important in strengthening family bonds.
  • 75% of Americans want more vacation time.
  • Family vacations are down 28% (Robert Putnam).
  • Time as a nature issue; Richard Louv, author of "Nature Deficit Disorder." commented that the lack of vacation time is a driver of a generation of kids not knowing nature.
  • The average length of an American vacation is now a long weekend.
  • 20 years ago 80% of Yosemite visitors stayed overnight; now it's 20%.
  • Europeans are getting more time off...the Austrian and Finns added a sixth week of vacation by law.
  • The blurred lines between work and home with electronic tethers, compulsive checking of BlackBerries and cell phones.


  • 62% of U.S. Workers report being stressed out (Harris poll).
  • Stress and burnout are five times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady.
  • Health costs: $344 billion in job stress-related costs to business (Middle Tennessee State).
  • People working more than 40 hours are twice as likely to report being seriously stressed.
  • Chronic 12-hour days triple the risk of heart disease and injury.
  • Depression and stress, two big side effects of overwork, are 7 time and 5 times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady.
  • Vacations have been shown to eliminate burnout, but it takes two weeks for that process to occur (Hobfol, Shirom).


  • Companies with the best work-life balance programs report the most satisfied employees and increased profitability.
  • Companies that have adopted the vacation benefits endorsed by TBY have dramatically increased productivity and profits.
  • The hidden role of salaried designations is jacking up the workload. Congress has repeatedly included more and more classifications of workers into the salaried category. Journalists and computer professionals are exempt, meaning they can be worked 7 days a week.
  • Since the 1970s the average dual income family has increased its working hours by 684 hours per year (Bluestone, Rose).
  • ILO reports that 80% of American men and 62% of American women work "excessive" hours, more than 40.
  • The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a minimum leave statute.
  • A U.S. Department of Labor-appointed Committee on Vacations with Pay called for a national minimum paid leave as far back as 70 years ago.
  • Access to vacation leave is declining each year.
  • Overwork's negative effect on productivity is supported by the fact that productivity plummets after 8 hours.
  • The number of salaried women jumped 33% from 1983 to 1998.
  • Downsizing and the use of electronic devices to stretch coverage is creating more work.
  • Production and advancement, career-wise, outpace other work priorities.
  • The basis of the American vacation, the accrual system, has been made obsolete by a volatile job market where few workers are with a single employer long enough to get three weeks vacation.
  • 25% pf Americans receive no paid leave.
  • 43% of Americans did not take a single week off last year (Conference Board Study)
  • Only 14% of Americans will take a vacation of two weeks or more this year (Harris Poll.)
  • The source of productivity in the knowledge economy is a refreshed and energized mind.
  • Vacations have been shown to increase performance on the job.
  • Defensive overworking occurs because of the lack of labor protections for jobs.
  • Breaks improve job performance, from a few second microbreaks, to 15 minutes to vacations.

Something more dramatic happened to John Muir. He, too, had experienced the beauty of nature, but it wasn’t until he lost most of his sight that he decided to devote his life to helping others “see” that beauty, too.

I am not shy about stating my values publicly, I’d like to live a “timeless” life with experiences so engaging, rewarding, enriching, challenging, and centered on love for others that whatever sense of time I have equals a sense of fullness and joy. I developed my own commitment to time because of a completely different set of experiences. I was 25 when I gave birth prematurely to a set of twins. One was expected to die within a few days from underdeveloped lungs. He hung on, day after day, fighting for life through cardiac arrests and three pneumo-thoraxes, or lung blowouts. He lived, but those few weeks facing possible death embedded in my brain an acute and lasting awareness of the gift that time really is.

In 1997 my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I had always felt that ours was a match made in heaven. Dennis had studied to be a Catholic priest, very satisfied with the vocation involved in pastoral work. But he had a huge sense of emptiness and longing for a family. He delayed ordination for five years, struggling with the decision, and finally left the Paulist Fathers in 1972. We met at that time, and he’s been a spouse who has truly appreciated the value of marriage and family life because of what he had to give up to get it.

This past February, 2007, while I was speaking in Maryland at a conference on psychology and religion, I got a call from my son, the twin who almost died at birth. His wife was about to have a baby, and they learned through a routine ultrasound that the baby had a brain aneurysm. I can’t even describe to you the irony of watching this twin son, who struggled to live 31 years ago, hold his own little boy struggling for life, too. That acute sense of time and its preciousness filled my soul again. The first time I held little Sean Patrick, sleeping so peacefully in my arms, completely unaware of the fragility of his own life, I wanted to stop time altogether and create a safe place where nothing could hurt him.

In May, just two months after the birth of my grandson, I learned that my mother had only a few weeks to live. Leukemia had overtaken her body. On several nights while I cared for her, I lay next to her in bed and asked her to imagine with me a future existence where time was no constraint and she would be free to endlessly enjoy the universe and all its glory. When I asked her what she thought her family would say to her at the pending reunion with them, she said, “They’ll want to know what took me so long to get there.” Time is precious. My husband’s mother said to us on the day we were married, “live each day as if it were the only one you have, and you’ll have no regrets.” She was right. Who would ever put on his tombstone, “I wish I’d gone to the office more?”

In July, while we were moving my dad into my niece’s home, my brother-in-law had a heart attack. He had just made dinner for everyone on the moving crew before he was rushed to the hospital. He never awakened after open heart surgery. My sister didn’t get to say goodbye. Instead, she had the very sad job of unplugging the life supports. It was the week of their 40th wedding anniversary. Later that week she found a sundial that he’d bought for their patio. On it was an inscription, “Grow old with me – the best is yet to be.” He was 61.

I returned to school in August to find an e-mail from my sister-in-law in Baltimore. My brother was in the ICU at Hopkins apparently dying from a sudden case of pulmonary fibrosis. Basically, his lungs began to turn to scar tissue, unable to exchange any oxygen in the affected parts. We dropped everything and flew up for the Labor Day weekend. He said, “I’m done. I am suffocating, and I need to go.” I was able to recommend a good in-patient hospice for him where he died five days later on September 11th. He was 62. I helped him to plan his funeral during that last week. I asked what music he’d like to have played at his funeral. He said, “I’d like In the Still of the Night,” but I don’t think the Church will go for it. If any of you know that song, the lyrics point to a stillness, a stopping of time that happens in the night when two people are enjoying intimacy. I hope that the stillness of death will release my brother’s spirit to exactly the kind of timelessness that the song expresses. It was hard for my sister, who had just lost her husband a few weeks before, to go visit our dying brother. They were sitting together in his hospice room, and public television was playing on the TV. A show came on that featured oldies music, and the show started to play In the Still of the Night. My brother and sister sat there, singing and do-whopping together. It was a sacred moment that helped my sister get through a difficult goodbye.

Now my dad is dying in Atlanta. I was reticent about accepting the invitation to give this talk because we could see the decline coming on back in early May before my mom got sick. I was afraid that I couldn’t guarantee being with you here this weekend. But here I am, about to lose my fourth immediate family member and aware that the fifth, my grandson, is a daily living gift. I am hyper aware of the fragility of life as I stand before you. Healthy breathing seems like a miracle to me. This past weekend I was at a retreat where moms or dads could invite a child or a spouse to go along and they could spend the weekend together enjoying the outdoors and listening to talks about relationships. At the wrap-up a tall, thin man approached the stage very slowly. He said that he shouldn’t have been there because ten months ago he was in a plane crash where the pilot and co-pilot died. He survived but was in the hospital with multiple trauma-related injuries for three months. All that kept him going was a desire to be with his family again. He was crying when he said to the audience, “being here with my teenage daughter, Jordan, is the greatest gift I could have. And I am painfully aware that two families don’t have their dads because they died that day.” Then he asked the audience to treasure every moment they have with their families; to emphasize what really counts – time together to enjoy each other and experience life, building wonderful and sacred memories.

In conclusion, I want my children’s children to breathe fresh air. I want to take them to the places that display nature’s beauty. I want to point out the swaying limbs of my favorite trees and show them their bright green leaves in springtime against an azure blue sky. I want to catch turtles in a pond with them and walk barefooted in the cool water of running streams. Like Gold Metcalf, I want them to treasure nature because it is an eternal reminder of the treasure that is life itself and because nature views time as it really is, an endless patient cycle of growth and rest that strengthens and renews itself.

Every morning when I walk, I recite this morning prayer written by the poet, ee cummings:

I thank you god for most this amazing day for the leaping greenly spirit of trees for the blue true dream of sky for everything that is natural, that is infinite, that is yes.

In the audience are a number of former students of Gold Metcalf. They understand his legacy. They have committed his words to their hearts. Now they are the chorus that sings behind you, a new generation of activists who are needed to carry the lyrics of change to your peers and to your children. I can’t help but compare this need to wake up America about the danger of time poverty. It feels like the early days of the Civil Rights movement to me. And we need to hear your footsteps on whatever is your version of the Selma to Montgomery march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge. If leisure is the freedom to become your true self, and we overwork and overspend and tire ourselves out seeking the wrong sources of happiness, then the freedom that we claim as intrinsic to the American way of life is an illusion.

Take Back Your Time is one chorus of voices. Mom’s Rising, the simple living movement, all the environmental groups advocating for sustainable communities and reverence for nature, plus a host of family-centered organizations are behind you, counting on your voices to teach, inspire, cajole, and otherwise wake up your generation to the value of time, leisure, the outdoors, family relationships, community service, and a saner and more meaningful way of life in North America. There is still a generation of folks my age who know that the way we’ve been living is too hurried, too tiring, too focused on things. I believe there are a significant number of Boomers who don’t want their children and grandchildren to lose these values. We are launching you to take that message forward. As the poem in that sentinel ‘60s book, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran beautifully declares to my generation:

Your children and not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts;

for they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls.

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,

not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you;

for life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

and He bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as he loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves also the bow that is stable.

I understand that archery was one of Gold’s many skills. How fitting, then, that his legacy is reflected in this poem. He was the bow, and his passion for the value of the outdoors, and of recreation and leisure as a critical human need, was the energy that moved this department’s former students to do their good work. We now place our hopes in you, the newest arrows who will fly forward into the future with a passion of your own. Part of Gold Metcalf will always remain in that process as, over the coming years, you, too, will become archers of the future. Take Gold and all of us with you as friends and mentors, and thank you for having me.


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