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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:


I missed Take Back Your Time Day last month. I was busy working. Time Day, as envisioned by Cornell's Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy, was to be devoted to a national conversation about work and balance in our society, an occasion to think about the toll our work week takes on our health and sanity. "Organizers hope that Take Back Your Time Day will do for Americans' overworked and stressed out lives what Earth Day did for the planet," said a press release at www.timeday.org. The governor of Michigan was on board, calling for statewide observance of Time Day and for discussion of "time poverty."

The Time Day campaign reminds us of the irony that people living in a prosperous technological society tend to feel empty, run down, worn out. "Progress" simply has not brought us the time or contentment we were promised. In fact, we're moving in reverse. Juliet Schor, in one of her cogent books, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (reviewed here), states that although American society's productivity has roughly doubled since World War II, each year the average worker works nine additional hours. What would help considerably, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argued on NPR this summer, would be a European-style four-week summer vacation. True, such a break would risk putting a dent in the economy, but well-rested workers might well be more productive and happy (and the travel industry would thrive). Of course, any law mandating such a paid vacation—bringing about increased time spent with family—would be fiercely contested by pro-business conservatives, those who champion "family values."

The Time Day press release makes a crucial point about the purpose of this reclamation of time, a point that is neglected by both Schor and Reich. Simply giving Americans more time to lounge around only goes so far; we should not strive to become a more TV-watching and beach-reclining society. What we do need is more time spent interacting, volunteering, learning, walking, reading, and reflecting. The ideal shouldn't be leisure, but wholeness. As the press release says, people should have—and then actually use—more time to pursue "good health, active citizenship … their families, nature, and the soul."



Placed in subway cars, confronting bone-tired commuting workers, the advertisements come off as taunts. "Why do we work?" reads one panel, against the backdrop a beach. "Why do we live here more than our living room?" wonders another, picturing a factory. "Why do we cram into metal boxes?" reads one, set in an elevator. And so on down the length of the car. The ads are for: a travel agency? a yoga class? a religious group promoting inner peace and spiritual well-being? Try the Principal Financial Group, which, straight-faced, claims that it doesn't "just seek a paycheck. … We seek progress. … We seek to achieve. … [We are] dedicated to helping you get the most out of work." The ads lay claim to a Dilbert-like skepticism of how out of whack our working routines are, then, in the next breath, affirm the ideals of "progress" and "achieve[ment]" that fuel workaholism in the first place. Then there's Citigroup, whose warm-and-fuzzy homespun billboard aphorisms pull the exact same stunt. Don't be late for home. Hugs are on a 52-week high. The best table in the city is the one with your family around it. The tagline is, "Live Richly." The ads would be self-satirical if they weren't so sincere. Coming from a grandparent or Tuesdays With Morrie, such Thoreauvian pleas for simplicity would make you stop and think. But a bank? "We must be constantly reminded by one of the largest financial institutions in the world not to worry so much about money," Salon said of the billboard campaign. Both Principal and Citigroup seem to prefer dollars over sense. Christians would have the credibility to point this out—and explain what living "richly" truly means—if we weren't generally preoccupied with prosperity and achievement ourselves.


From the New York Times:

SHANGHAI — Built on a swamp, Shanghai sank by roughly eight feet from 1921 to 1965, largely because of the draining of groundwater beneath the city. But officials managed to correct the problem and virtually stop the sinking—for a while. Statistics vary, but the city is again sinking, at roughly a centimeter a year. A study by a local institute said the sinking is worst in the downtown areas with the highest concentration of new buildings. … A planning bureau report says Shanghai now has at least 2,880 buildings of 18 stories or higher, an overwhelming majority of them constructed since the early 1990s. … The debate about curbing development in Shanghai comes as many economists and government officials are expressing concerns that the national real estate market could overheat and threaten China's economy. For now, though, regardless of what happens with the economy or the building law, cranes will still rise in Shanghai: officials say as many as 2,000 buildings of all sizes have been approved or are already under construction. Summary*

SINGAPORE — In the last several years, thousands of Chinese women—no one is quite sure of the precise number—have brought their children for schooling to Singapore, where the first language is English but where the population is dominated by descendants of scrappy immigrants who fled the Chinese mainland generations ago. Officially, the students and their mothers have been welcomed—the vigilant Singaporean government grants them official documents on arrival. But elsewhere, the reception has been chilly, with scarce work for the women and rude remarks about their true intentions. In many ways, the reaction to the newcomers reflects the anxieties that glittering but stagnant Singapore feels as it meets aspiring and fast-growing China. Summary*


For links with an * you can log in with member name and password of "bcread"

• Cue the flurry of articles on the legacy of Pope John Paul II. The pope's recent 25th anniversary and current frailty have journalists in a retrospective, quasi-obituary mode. The first notable piece is Jane Kramer's "Talk of the Town" in the New Yorker. Kramer calls the man born as Karol Wojtyla (and have your hyperbole sensors activated here) "the voice of the fall of Communism and much of the moral courage behind it," "road-show pontiff," "unrepentant populist," and "blindsided by his own life." Kramer suggests the faults of Pope John Paul II will be recorded as inattentiveness to social justice in Latin America, weak leadership of Catholic authorities, and shying away from hot potatoes such as birth control and the ban on female and married priests. But like an armchair quarterback, Kramer omits any suggestion of what exactly he could have done about these issues, or whether the man's global popularity and front-row seat for Communism's fall was enough to balance out the failing marks some historians will inevitably give him. Full story

Earlier in this weblog:The Vatican as 'saint factory' (sixth item)
See also: Philip Jenkins on Anglican Archbishop Peter Jasper Akinola in the Atlantic Monthly

• Among the laments of Pope John Paul II is the decline of the institution of marriage. A recent Business Week cover story furnished some numbers on what it called Unmarried America. Some 86 million American adults are single, including the unmarried parents of one out of every three American children. Among these parents are divorced and widowed spouses, cohabitating partners, single parents, and homosexual couples. Despite these major shifts in family demographics over the last half century, businesses have yet to adjust their benefits, policies, and expectations to match this new reality, Business Week said. The story examines how companies are starting to redefine what kinds of parenting partners are eligible for health and pension plans, and outlines some of the political and social implications of the fade of the conventional family structure. Full story

Pro-marriage campaign is an empty exercise, says BW
The ascent of American singles, from the Christian Science Monitor

• Spam is getting exponentially worse. One of every 50 e-mail messages sent in the year 2000 was spam; one in every six was the year after that; now it's nearly one of every two. The eventual consequence of this onslaught, says David Batstone in Sojourners, is the online equivalent of neighbors starting to lock their doors. "Though the Web first emerged as a Mr. Rogers neighborhood with unlatched doors and open curiosity to strangers, spam has turned the Web into streets of fear and suspicion," Batstone says. "The Web will devolve into millions of micro-networks, each self-contained, serving its own trusted circle. No one—machine or human—will be allowed into that community of trust without knowledge of a secret, individualized password." Full story


-Spam-weary readers respond in letters to Sojourners

-Christopher Caldwell on spam in the Weekly Standard

-Wired on the coming e-mail barricades and the 'balkanization' of online networks

-Why wireless networks are hard to secure, from the Washington Post

• Speaking of technology's assault on public trust, what about those cameras built into cell phones? The New York Times reported last month that cell phone cameras have been banned from some government buildings, movie theaters, and health clubs. "But the more potent threat posed by the phonecams, privacy experts say, may not be in the settings where people are already protective of their privacy but in those where they have never thought to care." The result is the destruction of the privacy that comes with anonymity on the street, a paradox to begin with but nonetheless a comforting ideal. Excerpt of article

Related:Response to article at telecom-digest.org

• Last week, the Hermes asteroid buzzed by Earth at about 15 times the distance from here to the moon. This wasn't anywhere near the close call Hermes gave us in 1942, when it flew by at a mere one and a half times the moon's distance.

What would happen if an asteroid did hit us head on, and could we do anything to prevent it if we saw it coming? The Week magazine briefs us. Full story

Related: More on the threat of asteroids from Planetary.org and SpaceDaily.com

Sonar is killing whales off the Canary Islands, says the Washington Post. After investigating the suicidal beachings of 14 whales, the journal Naturereported last month that the sound of military sonar may be disturbing the whales and causing them to surface too quickly, leading nitrogen bubbles to form in their tissues.

Or the energy of the sonar itself may be making those bubbles. Either way, the report may encourage environmentalists' efforts to prevent the U.S. Navy from using louder, lower frequency sonar. These findings also contradict the common belief that marine mammals do not suffer from "decompression sickness." Full story

• What does George W. Bush have in common with Democratic rival John Kerry, former president William Howard Taft, Time magazine founder Henry Luce, and other elite Yale graduates? While at Yale, he was initiated into a longtime secret student society called "Skull and Bones," as 60 Minutes reported recently. The group of just over a dozen members meets on campus in what one reporter calls a "sepulchral, tomblike, windowless, granite, sandstone bulk" where, reportedly, morbid (but harmless) medieval rituals are performed. The report downplays an important observation by commentator David Brooks, who says that Skull and Bones is probably far more weird and interesting from the outside than from within—where, despite the macabre ambience, the goings-on amount to a lot of talking and tedium. But the piece raises interesting questions about why people—in this case, some of the most famous leaders of government and business—feel such strong attachments to exclusive groups and the strange ceremonies that accompany them. Companion story at CBSNews.com

• Other than kindness to others and similar essentials, what more could a person want on her epitaph than that she traversed the world with insatiable curiosity about new places? Of course, as noble as it is to be well-traveled, it is also a privilege of the rich, as CNBC editor Judith Dobrzynski mentions but underplays in an essay for the New York Times Travel section. Still, Dobrzynski, whose count of countries visited stands at 39, provides a spirited reminder that curiosity, rather than leisure, is the best motive to travel. She writes (most regrettably) of her competition with other globe-trekkers and (most usefully) of how she found some intriguing destinations off tourists' beaten path. Full story*

Related:Tom Wolfe, curious chronicler of the human experience, by Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune


-Roundup of religious reviews from Christianity Today online.

-Syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly on the religious strengths and weaknesses of the trilogy.

Earlier in this weblog:The Matrix and theology

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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