Losing time, losing space

Sam Smith, 2001

URBAN sociologist Claude S. Fisher writes that “our species has lived in permanent settlements of any kind for only the last two percent of its history.” As late as the 1850s, just two percent of the world’s population lived in cities of more than 100,000, by 1900 only about ten percent. By the end of the last century, however, about half the world’s humans lived in cities. In America, fewer than a quarter of us occupy a physical environment that is not primarily manufactured – which is to say, a place in which time and space are not mainly defined by other humans rather than by nature.


There is a road in Maine over which I have walked, run, ridden a bike, and driven cars, trucks, and tractors for parts of more than fifty summers as well as during some of the years’ lesser moments. It is not a long road, just a little more than three miles from the end of the point at the mouth of the Harraseeket River to where you turn hard left to go into town, or “up street” as it’s called. Now mostly asphalt, the road occasionally surprises visitors by suddenly turning to dirt for a few hundred yards in the middle of a woods before going back to blacktop. For some, the tar provides reassurance of civilization; the dirt is literally terra incognita.

Although the town has only one percent of the population of Washington DC, it has one-tenth the road frontage. Maine, whose far corners are as distant as Washington and Boston with a slightly larger population than both combined, has more highway mileage than the rest of New England put together. So, as far as the town and the state are concerned, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this road.

Nothing much happens along it, either. There are some homes, some farmland, a small state park, and a place where clammers park their pickups to walk down to the mud flats. In the more than 50 years that I have traveled this road, only a few new houses have been built. A few new signs have gone up, including a hand drawn one advertising ‘cukes’ and a town warning that the road is under radar surveillance, which isn’t true. Maybe once a month you’ll see a cop on the road, less often, say, than the truck from Down East Energy.

It is a beautiful road but then beautiful roads are easy to come by in Maine, so not even that is remarkable. Every once in a while something unusual happens along the road. A house gets moved, cattle get loose, and once I found a stolen car abandoned in the woods.

Mostly, though, the road is just there for whatever those walking, running, riding or driving want to do with it. It’s been there, in some version, for over 300 years and isn’t going anywhere else. It just sits there until somebody decides to use it. Then it becomes their road: a passage, a respite, a view, a space for meditation, an escape, a prod to memory, a reminder of how simple the good can be. A gift of time and space.

The road is shared by tractors, campers who have lost their way, tourists from Massachusetts driving too slowly and natives driving too fast. Joan Benoit trained on the road for the first Women’s Olympic Marathon. When she won the race, all the boats in the harbor blew their horns because everyone knew how hard she had worked to get there.

When I was a boy, and much of the road was still dirt, there was a small hill down which, with freedom’s fury, I would ride my red bike towards the quarter mile straight-away and the woods beyond, a place secure from adults, tasks, scolding and trouble. In the woods there was a shell heap left by Indians and a stone wall built by those who came after. I thought there might be moose and bear in the woods as well, but I never saw them. Later I found the remains of Nathaniel and Mary Aldrich’s homestead with the sinking stones of the foundations and the standing stones of the barnyard. Not far away, hidden in the undergrowth, was their well. Nathaniel and Mary Aldrich traveled the road before the Revolution and used their time and space to go to sea and to have 14 children.

In the woods there are trees with wide spread branches intermingled with cramped companions standing rigidly at attention – a clue that this had once been farmland, that once there had been enough room for a field pine to stretch its arms.

When I was about 16, Hurricane Carol came through and toppled many of the trees in the woods. In the quiet of the storm’s eye my father and I foolishly tried to cut a way to town. The woods hid the wind’s noise and anger and we didn’t notice that the eye had passed until trees started falling around us. We got out just in time and it would be two days before anyone made it up street.

Down the road about a mile and a half was Mr. Banter’s farm, with a kitchen that smelled of chickens and stale milk. It also had the nearest phone. Further still was the house of Jimmy Mann who, when I was 14, taught me how to drive a six-wheel drive Army surplus personnel carrier and how to use the winch in front. His father, Horace Mann, lived on a farm a little further down the point. In fact, Manns had lived in this part of Maine for over 300 years. Several of the newer houses on the point were built by Jimmy Mann but they never seemed all that new because they were built by someone who belonged to both past and place.

The fields had their own time and space. When you were mowing them, your tractor left a fresh green record of the minutes and hours and of what had happened within them. Beyond the fields was the shore where the sea came and went twice a day, rising and falling nine feet, bringing or taking, agitated or bored. Later I would go to sea as a navigator in the Coast Guard. My job was to know where we were and how long it would take to get somewhere else. Time and space were the things most meticulously recorded on charts and in the log.

Beyond the shore was the bay and beyond that the ocean and beyond that the horizon, which made believe it was a stone wall or fence, pretending that time and space had finite boundaries.

Sometimes, along the road, time ran out. A short distance from where you turned left to go to town, my nephew Haze, still in his twenties, died in a car crash. And it was along this road that my mother and I followed the ambulance that had rushed seven miles to where we were futilely trying to shove life back into my father’s body.

As the rescue squad crossed the Little River bridge, I noticed that the nine foot tide was out, leaving a half mile of mud flats all the way to Googins Island. That evening, as we returned from the hospital, widowed and fatherless, the tide was in, replacing the half mile of flats with a half mile of still water nine feet deep. The moon shone on the water and I felt an unexpected peace at being inexorably a part of natural time and space.


IN my normal geography of Washington DC, time and space don’t come as gift. More often than not they belong to someone else, another commodity that we get to use only upon payment, under instruction, after standing in line, waiting bumper to bumper – or upon throwing our papers into a pile, grabbing our jacket, and rushing out the door.

In fact, there are now more people in prison in than there are farmers, which is to say that you are more likely to find Americans kept in a cage than you are to find driving their tractor along a country road. America has moved from frontier to supermax.

My first diurnal sign of temporal and spatial control typically comes with the morning news – “police activity” the local public radio station strangely calls it, a euphemism which could mean a burning tractor-trailer, a multi-car crash, or the diaspora of construction, but certainly means a delay for those who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Capital Beltway hosts many of these incidents. It was completed in 1968. Since then the population of the metropolitan area has doubled. There is nothing remarkable about this; we have come to accept huge traffic jams like we accept storms and drought, except that nature didn’t create the traffic jam. According to a study by planners at Berkeley, San Franciscans are losing about 90,000 hours a day sitting in traffic jams. That’s enough hours to be considered normal.

All around us are rules, exigencies, interruptions and delays caused by ever more of us wanting to do the same thing at the same time. The line at the movie or nightclub. The restaurant with no table until 9:30; the hotel that is booked; the sign on the Massachusetts Pike last summer – the first I had seen – warning that rest rooms at the next service area were limited.

The cause of these delays is a world in which nearly 11,000 people are added every hour, creating a new population the size of Newark NJ each day. If we continue to grow at the same rate as in the past decade, America will double in population by about 2058. As Gaylord Nelson pointed out that means we will have or need twice as much as everything we had at the turn of the century. Twice as many cars, trucks, planes, airports, parking lots, streets, bridges, tunnels, freeways, houses, apartment buildings, grade schools, high schools, colleges, trade schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons.

Twice as much water and food if you can find it. Twice as many chemicals and other pollutants in the air and water, twice as much heat radiation from all the new construction, twice as much crime, twice as many fires, twice as big traffic jams, and twice as many walls with graffiti on them. In Japan, there is already not enough room for pets in some cities, so people rent dogs just for the pleasure of walking them around the block.

Whenever I hear of another school shooting or other youthful violence, the first thing I think about is Dr. Calhoun and his mice. Dr. John Calhoun put four pairs of white mice in a steel cage eight and a half feet on a side. Within two years the mice had increased to 2,200. The adult mice began excluding young mice from their company and the young began biting, attacking, and slashing one another. Finally social and sexual intercourse became impossible without violence. The mice stopped reproducing and eventually all died out.

We’re in a cage, too, except it has shopping malls and freeways and cops with guns and sirens. We have governments and hospitals and schools and we have talk shows and newspapers to help us forget that we’re in a cage.

But spend an evening surfing the channels and count the humans trapped or being destroyed – by crime, for fun, in sport. You can say it’s television’s fault, but, in the end, the producers and the reality cops and the extreme fighters are also in a cage, just like the viewers. Each is trying to control an environment over which they have lost control, whether using a gun, a ball, a camera, their fists or a zapper. And it always ends in another confrontation: another ratings war, another arrest, another illegal deal, another TV pilot, another channel.

If you step back, there is madness in this, but if you think only of those in the cage – what they can hear, see, and understand – then a primal logic emerges, the need to restrain, suppress, or eliminate the proximate usurpers of one’s rightful time and space.

We don’t talk about it much except when somebody suggests we might do it differently and then we say they are “thinking outside the box.” Thinking and living inside the box has become normal.


AS with Dr. Calhoun’s mice, the problem began to reveal itself with the young. After World War II, spurred by a series of reports from Harvard president James Conant, America deliberately dismantled the education system that had brought it that far. Among other things, Conant considered the elimination of the small high school essential for the US to compete with the Soviets. America listened and between 1950 and 1970 the number of school districts in the country declined from 83,700 to 18,000. Schools increased in size, administration became centralized, principals became corporate executives and wardens rather than educators, and teachers became bureaucrats rather than prophets with honor in their own classrooms.

By the late 1990s, a center had been established at Sandia, NM, where the Department of Energy and Lockheed Martin – the latter more commonly a leading purveyor of large scale violence – designed ways to keep students safely within the cage. Here is their description of a well-functioning school:

– All students are required to carry ID cards on campus. This process helps ensure that only authorized people are on school grounds and at school functions.

– Tamper-resistant cameras are positioned to monitor areas known for incidents of fights, drug and alcohol use, smoking, and vandalism.

– A hand-held metal detector, loaned to the school by Sandia, is used to search for weapons in rare but threatening situations.

– Better lighting is being installed at strategic outdoor locations thanks to the Public Service Company of New Mexico.

– Microdots, air scribes, and indelible and invisible paint are used on equipment and other assets to deter theft by providing a unique identification.

– Hair-analysis test kits were provided to the school for parents to use in instances of suspected drug use by their children.

– A portable breathalyzer unit was supplied to the school and is used in instances of suspected alcohol use by students or employees.

It is a model not that different from that used by Santana High School, the scene of a recent shooting. As the Washington Post noted, “There were phones in every classroom. Security guards patrolled the hallways with two-way radios. And a sheriff’s deputy was assigned to visit the campus each day.” Here is the Santana dress code:

“Clothing must be clean and in good repair and garments may not display profane or obscene language or pictures, vulgar gestures, promote or encourage use of any alcohol/tobacco product or any controlled substance. Appropriate footwear must be worn at all times while students are at school or at school sponsored activities. Steel toed footwear and slippers are not acceptable. Students are not permitted to wear or be in possession of any headgear while at school. This includes all hats, hoods, caps, nets, bandanas, scarves, beanies, etc. The school administration may disallow other types of clothing if it is determined that they represent a reference to gang behavior or an attitude/environment that law enforcement, probation, or other school district administrators, deem may jeopardize a safe and orderly environment for students and school staff. Dress Code Specifics: No logos or look alike images representing gangs or racist groups, such as the number 13, clenched fists, swastikas, iron crosses, etc. may be on your clothing or in your possession at any time on the school campus. This includes those sometimes represented on Independent and Metal Mulisha gear. The only “pride” to be displayed at Santana is “Sultan Pride.” Pants will be worn at the waist. All straps or suspenders will be fastened. Belts will not hang more than four (4) inches beyond the buckle. No bare midriffs, halters, backless shirts, strapless or tube top shirts. No items of clothing where undergarments [or] swimwear are exposed. No men’s sleeveless undershirts, stylish bras worn as shirts, and mesh, lace or sheer (without lining) clothing over bare skin. The tops of shirts/blouses for both males and females should adequately cover the chest area and not expose excessive chest/cleavage. The hem of shorts must be below clenched fists when arm is extended at side so that buttock is covered completely. The hem of skirts and slits in skirts must be below open hand when arm is extended at side. Consequences: Students who are not dressed appropriately will be brought to the office and may be sent home to change or be required to wear a borrowed shirt. Headgear will be confiscated and returned to the student at the end of the day on the first offense, to a parent on a second offense, and remain in the assistant principal’s office until the remainder of the term on subsequent offenses.”

Now here is an announcement that appeared in the Santana newsletter at the time of the shooting:

“STUDENT CONFERENCES: Today we will begin conferencing with incoming 12th graders (present 11th graders) and continue throughout the next 3 days. Please come to the Counseling office immediately after receiving your call slip so that we can see you quickly and you may return to class.”

Note the detail the school lavished on what was on the students’ bodies and how little time it had to speak of what was on their minds. And it’s not just high schools that have turned their students into controlled substances. Michele Tolela Myers, the president of Sarah Lawrence, wrote in the NY Times:

“Attend a conference of higher education leaders these days, and you will hear a lot of talk about things like brand value, markets, image and pricing strategy. In the new lingua franca of higher education, students are ‘consumers of our product’ in one conversation or presentation and ‘inputs’ – a part of what we sell – in the next . . . We ‘bid for student talent,’ as the new language would put it, because we know that ‘star value’ in the student body affects the ‘brand value’ of the university’s name: its prestige, its rankings, its desirability, and ultimately its wealth and its ability to provide more ‘value per dollar’ to its ‘customers.’ . . . A business professor told a group of us at one recent conference that to run a successful organization you had better make decisions on the basis of being ‘best in the world,’ and if you couldn’t be best in the world in something, then you outsourced the function or got rid of the unit that didn’t measure up. Have we really come to believe that we can only measure ourselves in relation to others, and that value and goodness are only measured against something outside the self? Do we really want to teach our children that life is all about beating the competition?”

Apparently, yes. Which is why we are giving up education in favor of cram courses. Which is why, as a matter of national policy, we are reducing knowledge, wisdom, and survival to a matter of checking the right box. Standardized tests for standardized humans – without time or space for anything else. . .


There are less obvious thieves of time and space. Such as the government. In the past thirty years the number of laws in our society has exploded, bearing little relationship to population growth, cultural complexity or any other rational factor. Nearly half of all post-Civil War federal criminal laws have been passed since 1970. The number of lawyers have grown with the laws; in Washington there are nearly seven times as many attorneys as three decades ago. This is not the product of necessity. Neither is the explosion the product of ideology. Both liberals and conservatives have overstuffed the law shelves, albeit for different reasons.

Whatever the source, it now takes longer, requires more paper, and stirs up more intimations of liability to do almost anything worthwhile than it once did. While our rhetoric overflows with phrases like “entrepreneurship” and “risk-taking,” the average enterprise of any magnitude is actually characterized by cringing caution with carefully constructed emergency exits leading from every corner of chance. We have been taught that were we to move unprotected into time and space, they might implode into us. Every law office is a testament to our fear and lack of trust.

Then there is the media, purportedly our surrogate priest, parent and teacher but in fact functioning like gangs of burglars breaking and entering our brains and stealing time and space from us in a way not even our parents experienced. What was once extraordinary became merely unusual and finally ubiquitous as we moved from manuscript to microphone to camera and cable. With each step, context, environment and points of reference became ever more distant and external. With each step, we became ever more dependent on things and people we would most likely never see in their unprojected, unfilmed, unrecorded nature. Sitting in a bar, riding an exercycle at the gym, or waiting in the airport, we trade proximate reality for a distant, visible, decibled but ultimately unreachable substitute. . .

Some fifteen years ago, an extraordinary anarchist writer using the pseudonym Hakim Bey described what he called “the closure of the map.” The last bit of earth, he wrote, had been claimed by a nation state in 1899:

“Ours is the first century without terra incognita, without a frontier. Nationality is the highest principle of world governance – not one speck of rock in the South Seas can be left open, not one remote valley, not even the Moon and planets. This is the apotheosis of ‘territorial gangsterism.’ Not one square inch of Earth goes unpoliced or untaxed . . . in theory.

Bey asked:

“Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future? Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom? Logic and emotion unite to condemn such a supposition. Reason demands that one cannot struggle for what one does not know; and the heart revolts at a universe so cruel as to visit such injustices on our generation alone of humankind.”

Bey saw an out in the creation of what he called temporary autonomous zones. The TAZ, which he refused to define explicitly, “is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it . . . The TAZ can ‘occupy’ these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace. Perhaps certain small TAZs have lasted whole lifetimes because they went unnoticed, like hillbilly enclaves – because they never intersected with the spectacle, never appeared outside that real life which is invisible to the agents of simulation.”. . .

One need not accept all of Hakim Bey’s vision to realize that the closing of the map is beyond contention. Further he was brave enough to speak of this claustrophobic specter while the bulk of the nation’s intelligentsia refuses to this day to incorporate the diminishing geography of time and space into their considerations. This is not some nuclear reaction that we can not understand nor some chemical poison that we patiently assume our leaders will warn us against before it is too late. This is the essence of human experience: what we can see, what we can hear, what we can have, where we can go and where we are prohibited.

There is at present no politics of time and space, no reporters assigned to cover them, no time on their broadcasts nor space in their papers. And so we are confined in silence. We accept corporate trespassing on our hours and our acres with stunning passivity. We permit television monitors in public areas to interrupt our thoughts, break our sleep, distract our reading and strain our conversation. We turn much of what is left over to our government, as though admitting we were no longer competent to handle time and space for ourselves.

There are, of course, exceptions. For example, the quarter of us who live in places of undefined range and unincorporated rhythms. More than 90% of physical America itself is still not urban. Part of the political tension in this country stems not so much from our differing ideologies as from our contrasting ecologies. It has been like that ever since the first adolescent left the farm for the city, but now the natural and the mechanical repeatedly overlap, symbolized by the cell towers planted in open space like great flagpoles by our corporate conquerors.


Time and space were once an essential part of our nature. Gertrude Stein wrote that “in America there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.” By the 1950s, however, Alan Ginsberg was already speaking of “an America which no longer exists except in Greyhound bus terminals, except in small dusty towns seen from the window of a speeding car.”

The deeply religious, the utopian, the cybernetic and the fraternal can still escape into frontiers set at odd angles to the geographic. In fact, the freest people left in America may include the computer nerd and the contemplative nun, for each exist in a liberated zone of tolerance for the human soul and imagination.

Others of us pass in and out, shaping our homes, our offices, our associations, and our families into temporary zones of unregulated humanity, finding little oases in the desert of technocratic progress. Or we move furtively into the countryside, like Winston Smith escaping Big Brother, seeking what we have lost.

But most of it we do either alone or in small, polite equivalents of the gangs to which urban adolescents gravitate in their search for something they haven’t lost because they never had it. . .

When we speak of time and space, we treat it as a personal problem. As if we were the only one too busy, too crowded, too behind the program projected on the schedule beaming up from our palm. It is part of the trick that society plays on us; it teaches us to regard its failings as our own.

In the past, there have been times when the politics of time and space came to the fore such as in era of exploration and imperialist expansion, or during moments of land reform and the liberation of slaves and serfs.

We are reminded of such times by the bumper stickers that read: “The Labor Movement . . . The folks who brought you the weekend.” Dennis Kaplan and Sharon Chelton note in the journal Conscious Choice, “Why should work hours be increasing in an era characterized by electronic co-workers with the ability to sort entire phone directories in less time than most of us need to sort the mail? The effects of this technology are hardly illusory when measured in terms of productivity (up over 100 percent since 1948).

Yet, most workers have not gained more free time. If they had, [Juliet] Schor tells us, ‘we could now produce our 1948 standard of living . . . in less than half the time it took in that year.’ We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or every worker in the United States could now be taking every other year off from work-with pay.”

Instead we passively accept the strip-mining of time and our space. We tolerate the grossest corporate graffiti while jailing the young who scrawl it only for love and attention and not market share. We let our children be huckstered in the classroom by Channel One when we could be destroying the magic of advertising by teaching them how it really works. We adapt to an explosion of prohibitions in our legal code, the invasion of our privacy to enforce them, and a government that is determined to scare us into doing precisely what it wants.

Some of the alternatives lie in pursuing such causes as a 30 hour week, an end to commercial intrusion of public space, the protection of places where life can bloom and a reassertion of the right of every American to go about their decent business without being blocked, followed, constrained, squeezed, pushed or having to fill out superfluous forms. But it also requires a sense of rebellion, ridicule and revulsion against much that is presently taken for granted. We need what Ned Plotsky called “draft dodgers of commercial civilization,” and what Norman Mailer described as “psychic outlaws.”

There is much work for such people: a planet to save before it is too late, a democracy being jettisoned for the illusion of order, minds being ossified by ads and agitprop and a media that can’t find anything wrong with it all. Not the least, and far closer to the heart of things than it might appear, is the need to recover the moments and the geography that humans require in order to be human – time that brings us love, dreams, imaginings and memory, and space for us to use them as best we can, the most happy proof that we are still alive.

3 thoughts on “Losing time, losing space

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