Each week on our planet, humans are given 168 hours of life. Let’s generously grant that the average American spends eight hours per day asleep – a cumulative total of 56 hours per week. Let’s also generously grant that at least five days out of the week, the same average American spends eight hours per day working, ideally allocating 40 hours per week to activities that secure an income, though in our current times this number seems too often far smaller or far greater. But if we’re only concerned with averages, out of the 168 hours available for our hearts to pulse and our lungs to breathe, we spend 96 of them either unconscious or obliged to work. Out of the available minutes we have, it is the leftover minority that we are granted to spend actually living our lives.
Now, take one of those minutes to consider what this actually means.
We work in order to fill the rest of our time on this planet, awake, asleep, or otherwise. We work to keep a roof over our heads, to pay for vacations, to buy electronics, to get an education. We work so that we can pay for a car, for a Metrocard, for a gym membership. For those uninsured among us, we work so that we can buy medicine. Work pays for sneakers and jeans and t-shirts, dinners out with friends or with spouses or with ourselves. It pays for movies and music and cable. Work pays for the beds we sleep in, for the percale sheets we wrap ourselves in, and for the pillows on which we rest our tired, overworked heads. In other words, we work to fund the hours we spend not working. These hours are an agglomeration of needs that must be met and desires that we yearn to fulfill, obligations and pleasures woven together across a scant 72 hours.
Being alive certainly entails balancing these two polarities: the things we must do and the things we want to do. The scale is dramatically tilted to the “musts” in our lives, but this may, in fact, open up the possibility that the times we can fill with the “wants” shine brighter in a field of gray obligation. Or, is it the case that the time we have for our wants – the time we have to really live – is being rapidly consumed by our work-lives and the constraints of our still ever-shrinking billfolds?
Brooklyn Industries, a clothing company founded by two self-proclaimed artists in 1998, plasters the following slogan in the store fronts of their retail shops across Manhattan and Brooklyn: “Live. Work. Create.” The first time I recall seeing the slogan was during the New York Gay Pride Parade in 2009, on the corner of Christopher and Hudson. “Living,” had been code amongst my group of friends – at the time mostly gay men and their female friends who resided in Hell’s Kitchen – for all manner of debauchery, generally taking place at night and under the influence of assorted shades of brown liquor. But “living” could also be a compliment, or an accolade. When I got into graduate school a friend might have snapped his fingers and proclaim, “Live!” And so living was something that incorporated a broad spectrum of semi-destructive and constructive behaviors. Seeing our little gayborhood slang incorporated into a corporate slogan was thus amusing on a day that, truth be told, saw much living indeed.
But Brooklyn Industries’ catchy slogan says more than “have good times,” and little of it has to do with the handbags and polo shirts that they sell. The three imperatives – live, work, create – function in tandem. Life does not happen irrespective of work, nor creation, irrespective of one’s life. The way to exist, to fill the one hundred and 68 hours of life bound within a week, is to let the three imperatives mingle with one another rather than impede the advancement of any one area of our lives.
This is idealism at its peak. In reality, many of us find ourselves underemployed, in jobs that do us no real service when it comes to improving our quality of life. Perhaps, for some of us, time at work functions as time to create. These lucky few who feel a sense of personal satisfaction with their jobs, such as the teacher who takes great fulfillment from watching a few students blossom under her instruction, or the farmer who takes pride in the fruits yielded by his land, or the graphic artist who finds her style suited for any number of websites, ad campaigns, or print media. Those people are out there, and they are fortunate.
Then there are the rest of us. We who are employed in purposefully flexible jobs like the service industry or retail, so we can attend to living/creating when the time comes to audition or publish, the time when creating and working can fuse together. Work, for most people in this category, is only what it is: labor. It is work that provides financial gain without the opportunity for that work to concurrently foster any living or creating. It is work that provides shelter and, ideally, enough money to get as far away from that work as possible on our days off. For those of us that fall squarely into this category, the schism between our day jobs and our lives can be vast enough to seem virtually insurmountable. These jobs are the kind that relegate life to the 72 hours per week that it can be lived.
Across the board, though, work itself – enjoyed or not – seems to occupy more and more of our consciousness and, in turn, infringes more and more upon our time to live and/or create. As the Great Recession threatens to return, as the news networks proclaim the ever-present specter of voracious unemployment, as we hear about pennies being pinched and wallets being locked, we collectively cling to our jobs with greater fervor. We devote time to more hours, as restaurant patrons decrease in number and curtail their generosity with gratuities. We take on more responsibilities in offices as the staff around us is scaled back. And all the while, the threat persists that these jobs – whatever they may be – are more and more tenuous as the days go by. The time and will to have a life, and the spaces in which we can meaningfully create, begin to evaporate. The 72 hours of free time begin to erode as we give in to the exhaustion fostered by larger burdens, stress, and fear. It is precisely in such times, though, that the meaning acquired by life, by living, becomes more important and necessary than ever.
Even in these tough-times, in New York City we have the luxury of summers filled with free events – at Lincoln Center, in Central Park, in Prospect Park, along the Hudson River piers and elsewhere. And while events, free or not, do not constitute a life, they do play an important part in providing markers for us to measure our lives by: we had fun at an event, we hated an event, remember that time that it rained all night while Deerhunter played at Pier 54? The ability to do, to have done something, anything, different from labor affords us the opportunity to be alive by creating memories for ourselves. This is how simple the command plastered across so many Brooklyn Industries’ windows can be; creation is as simple as living. The two can and should be one in the same.
But when this scenario is considered in its practice, it becomes a lesson in civics. All of the free events in NYC are put on by corporations, like Time Warner Cable, or by the municipality, in which case organizations work with the city to provide free concerts or performances and the like. So in one sense, those of us strapped for time or cash rely on a company or on the city to which we pay taxes to provide entertainment during our free time. Fine enough, perhaps, but during this time of economic strife, the tenor of political life is squarely positioned against local, state, and federal governments spending money to enrich the lives of their citizens. As the budgets of all three entities are scaled back out of necessity or political pressure, this leaves us to hope that our corporations – what with their histories of beneficence and all – will find it in their hearts to sponsor and subsidize our cash-strapped lives in the age of rampant corporate irresponsibility and greed. Imagine if we needed to rely on BP or Enron or Lehman Brothers to provide the only economically feasible means for recreation in our lives. Just imagine.
All of this is not to say that recreation is the only fount of life, and thus creation, that supplies humanity with meaning. Life happens, too, in the small and quiet moments we share with our families and with ourselves. It happens when you just walk down a street and see a gargoyle that you never noticed before protruding from a building. It happens when a tourist asks you for directions. It happens when you get lost in Brooklyn, or get turned around by the diagonals of the West Village. This kind of living will hopefully always be around and be appreciated. It is the louder moments – the benchmarks, the journeys, the runnings toward and away – that are at risk as the year ticks by.