Hal Pepinsky, firstname.lastname@example.org,pepinsky.blogspot.com
May 5, 2010
In Small is Beautiful, written in the early seventies, E.F. Shumacher notes that in the United States, the world’s richest people have the least leisure time of any people on the planet. In 1986 in Oslo, Norwegian criminologist and personal inspiration Nils Christie taught me a lesson in taking time that time and again reminds how crucial taking free moments is in times of crisis.
Jill and I wanted to take our 9-year-old Katy back to Jill’s Warsaw birthplace. Jill was Canadian and didn’t require a visa. Children required no passports. I alone required a Polish visa. I got off the tram stop at the Polish Embassy in Oslo. The gate was locked; I met no human. As a sign instructed, I deposited my application and passport into a box under a sign that told me to come back to collect my documents in a couple of weeks. I had deposited passports at hotel desks in Europe—in Leningrad in 1968 at the moment of the Soviet invasion of Prague for instance--in the past, but never had surrendered my passport to the hands of an anonymous, impersonal, formally cold-war enemy.
When I got back to the criminology institute I was shaken. It is not easy for me, 24 years later, to acknowledge how scared I was of losing my international identity, even as one who had been an intern with a top security clearance in the us state dept. When I got back to the loft at the University of Oslo where the criminology then existed, I went straight to Nils’s office to tell him what had happened. Nils smiled and reassured me that he knew people in the Polish Embassy, since for one thing he regularly traveled there. I left his office and returned shortly, asking him whether he might not call someone he knew at the Polish embassy to find out the status of my application.
Smiling, he gently advised me: just wait Hal…let me know if you don’t get the visa.
Needless to say, I got the passport back with the visa. As luck would have it, Jill, Katy and I were in Warsaw when Chernobyl melted. In Warsaw, Katy was given a priority dose of iodine to defend against radiation poisoning of her young thyroid. Ironically, the Chernobyl cloud swept through Norway as a northeaster before it wafted through Poland.
“Just wait Hal…”
Twenty years ago today, Jill and Katy were just about to join me for the last five weeks of my spring semester sabbatical, where I was the only white person living in Magomeni Makuti, a district in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
My first Swahili teacher, Alwiya Omar, now directs the African languages program at Indiana University. Her dissertation for her IU Ph.D. in linguistics was a comparison of greetings in Tanzania and in the United States. As I prepared in 1989 to go to Dar, I vividly recall Alwiya’s introducing our class to the importance of Swahili greetings. Swahili greetings begin by asking a series of how are things questions, beginning with asking how things are generally, progressing through specifics from asking about family, work…, where the stock answer is either “fine” or “well.” The conversation turns to specifics. If someone has a problem, s/he eventually answers, “Fine, but…”
Alwiya would have us pair off and practice greeting each other. None of us, including me, could sustain the conversation.
I haven’t been back to Tanzania since 1990. When I was in Dar there was no broadcast television (families of means watched videos), let alone internet or mobile phones. The house I lived in had the only phone on the block. I lived for every Saturday when Jill would call me. I still have a stack of long letters I wrote Jill every evening after supper. I had lots of time.
The father of Tanzanian statehood, Mwalimu (the Teacher) Nyerere, was alive and well living quietly in a house outside Dar which the state had provided him. Nyerere had kept Tanzania fiercely non-aligned during the Cold War and independent of the IMF and World Bank. As the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1990, the Tanzanian government was only beginning to buckle to begging and borrowing “investment in infrastructure.” Already, there were many girls in my neighborhood whose families could not afford school uniforms. Granted, there were potholes bigger than cars on the way to the airport. The fact remained that Tanzanians were the most literate, least blatantly unequal, most politically independent, stable nation in Africa (the most serious unrest having been two or student takeovers of classrooms at the university; at one point during the takeover while I was there, the prime minister resigned and my sometime roommate--my hosts’ cousin--principal secretary to the Zanzabari Tanzanian vice president, stayed in Magomeni for three days as acting prime minister).
Under these conditions, when someone in Tanzania showed up at your door or ran into you in the street, time spent catching up was precious. Only in unusual circumstances would you excuse yourself for having to take care of something urgent. Paying attention in the moment meant more than keeping a schedule. Under these circumstances, it bordered on rude to show up for an appointment on time, let alone to check in early. At a post office or other government office, you might be the next in line while an official was locked in what seemed to me to be endless personal conversation. It took me a couple of times interrupting to be rebuked: “Subiri tu!” (just be patient). In Dar, my sense of time was turned upside down. It has never fully turned back.
I have been persuaded, notably by my students, that the key to gaining social security is balancing one’s attention between taking care of business and taking time off for whatever or whoever shows up. I came to recognize that even after I had become tenured and promoted, I was obsessing over the closest deadlines I had not met, up to six months away. How Ironic. On one hand, practically speaking, all I needed to do to draw a paycheck was to show up for class six hours a week and pay serious and respectful attention to students. I had a lot of free time. On the other hand, I kept on aspiring to publish and get cited and formally recognized. “Hi,” “how’re you doing?,” “fine” were second-nature greetings to me. I had business to attend to…
On one hand, I remain part of the problem simply because I remain human. I see no solution, no prescription even for myself, let alone for anyone else, as to how to use time well, truly, and beautifully. But as I have taken more time for myself and my daily relations, in order to balance more evenly with business I need to take care of, I have noticed personal and social benefits. I notice for instance that when things need fixing for me and Jill or my mom, things get fixed faster, better and with more mutual appreciation when I don’t rush people whom I ask to get the work done. I try to restrain my impulse to check on how things are going…to wait a little…to be patient.
Socially, restraint has given me two benefits in particular. For one, when I hold off questioning people who indicate that they have problems, I have become a minimalist, resist the impulse to find out what is going on, try to sit still and shut up and listen. As a result, my impression is that people open up and tell me about themselves more readily. I learn a lot. For another benefit, I more readily get honest feedback from people about myself, the good and the bad. That gives me a chance to do something about the bad and to affirm mutual appreciation. On one hand I have less reason to fear personal criticism, let alone attack; on the other I am continually reassured that I am of value in my relations.
Last week, I returned to Bloomington for a graduate exam. Simeon, thanks for inviting me. I lived in Bloomington 33 years before retirement last year. When I took leave from IU to return to Oslo in 1986, I had already turned down my last offer, aspiring to work nowhere else until retirement, unless perhaps to follow Jill once she got a job out of state.
Last week’s stay in Bloomington triggered this essay. Before I post it to blogspot, I have sent it to students and staff in criminal justice at IU. I unabashedly recruited and thrived on working with undergraduate and graduate students in a department where faculty, including me, allowed each another the time to define ourselves. Many thanks to staff and students in criminal justice at IU who have shared their time with me. Love and peace--hal