The swamped thing

Feb 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

Whenever I ask my friend how he is, he says he’s "swamped." It isn’t just him. A lot of people use the word "swamped." It is no longer sufficient to be fine. You must be swamped, and you must learn to say the word with weary and reluctant pride.

In an era of conspicuous production and suffer-to-earn bravado, it’s become the adjective of the decade.

People are proud to earn and spend money. You earn time off, too, but time spent not earning money is almost like an unconventional sexual desire.

If it’s not actually something to be ashamed of, it’s nothing to be advertised, either. That’s why you hear people boast about how many years it’s been since they last had a holiday or how many extra weeks their companies owe them. By not collecting on the debt — or pretending not to, anyway — they accumulate a kind of moral capital.

I assume people want to convey that they’re working hard. I’m not convinced they really are, and suspect they say they’re swamped because they’re afraid people will think less of them if they aren’t. They describe 12- to 16-hour workdays in corporate sweatshops.

Somehow, though, I can never reach anyone before 10, during lunch or after 4. According to their voice mail, they’re "on the other line or stepped away from (their) desks." According to their assistants and colleagues, they’re "in a meeting."

Every once in a while, I run into people in their so-called meetings. One popular conference room is my gym at about 4:30 on weekday afternoons.

I went to another meeting last week. It took place on the tees and greens of a well-maintained public golf course. The place was packed with people with faces so tight with concentration that you’d have thought they were mowing the fairways instead of playing them.

Earlier that afternoon, my friend had called to see if I could meet him for coffee. I told him I couldn’t.

"Golf," he sighed. "Must be nice."

"Must be nice" is another woe-is-me ’90s lament. Of course, he can play hooky as easily as I can. It just so happens he doesn’t play golf.

Books are one thing people profess to "love" but have had to sacrifice for lack of time. They’re not real good about newspapers, either, though becoming informed is on their to-do lists. But drop a reference to "Mad About You," "ER" or "Friends" and they invariably get it.

Adulthood is a strange reversal of school. As a student, you wanted to project an image of effortlessly doing well. People who worked hard were tagged "grinds." You hid yourself away in library stacks not for quiet, but for secrecy.

Now you have to look busy, even if the urgent message you’re tapping out happens to be an e-mail to your old roommate.

I have exactly two friends who are honest on the topic of their workload. Both are successful. One is a lawyer. In general, lawyers are experts at time management. They’re billing it, after all, and expertly draw it out. They developed Legalese, the peculiar written language of arcane subclauses that can make an intelligent layman weep with frustration, as a sober and worthy means of killing time. The genius lies not just in the time it takes to write the material, but to decipher it.

My lawyer friend works from 9 to 5. And he admits it. He is less skeptical than I am, and believes that some people do work 12- to 16-hour days.

"They’re having fun," he says. "They flirt, they knock around on the Internet. They’re inefficient."

My other friend, a writer, says he has "three good hours a day." I thought it over and concluded that I have about eight bad ones. That, of course, includes e-mail, schmoozing (i.e. "client relations"), lunch and snacks, my baseball league, electronic Solitaire and three cups of coffee over two sports pages.

I regard it as imperative to know what’s going on in the world. I sit in my office between nine and 11 hours each day. It’s not because I work hard. It’s because I’m lazy. Give me two hours to get something done and I’ll do it in two hours. Give me two weeks for the identical task, and I’ll give it to you in two weeks. I’m good about meeting deadlines. My friends admire my discipline.

I do not think people are lying when they say they’re swamped. For some, it’s just how they speak. Others genuinely feel overwhelmed and burdened, even if half the things snuffing out their fun aren’t work-related or even necessary. Last week I heard one bedraggled soul lament her load; it turned out she was trying to get things in order for a week with the baby sitter and two children out on Cape Cod.

Personally, I feel swamped every time I look at bills, taxes and laundry, or when I consider some dreaded social obligation.

"Can’t do it," I tell my wife. "Too much to do." It’s a proud excuse. It’s less a lack of time than a deficit of enthusiasm, but the feeling is identical.

Guilt and fear are rooted in the "swamped" myth. The rule of American meritocracy is that if you work hard, you’ll do well. So if you’re doing well and not working constantly, perhaps you’re not entitled. The fear is that it might not last, and that it might invite less-than-great luck if you display anything less than extravagant doggedness.

The flip side of the work issue is sleep. It’s like an obsolete ritual from an island culture: charming but vaguely distasteful. I tell people I drink red wine with lunch and nap from 1 to 3 every day just to see their expressions of horror.

It’s not actually true. I’d like to say I’m too busy, but if I were truly swamped I’d go out like a light. Stress depletes me.

Still, a siesta is a goal, and I regret my failure to manage it so far. I’m working on it.