LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

For a man who wants the world to slow down, Carl Honore's moment of clarity came in, of all places, an airport. The Canadian journalist was leafing through a newspaper at Rome's Fiumicino airport when he spotted an ad for a collection of condensed, one-minute bedtime stories for kids. At first Honore, a self-described "speedaholic," was delighted at the idea of a more efficient bedtime experience for his 2-year-old son. Then he was horrified. "Have I gone completely insane?" he asked himself, and realized the answer was "Probably." Out of that epiphany came a best-selling book and a whole new career for Honore as an international spokesman for the concept of leisure. "I'm attacking the whole cultural assumption that faster is better and we must cram every waking hour with things to do," says Honore, who now lives in London. In a world of bottom-line bosses and results-oriented parents, he dares speak up in favor of the unabridged fairy tale.

It's a message people seem to want to hear. Since it appeared in April, "In Praise of Slowness" has been translated into 12 languages and sold some 60,000 copies, landing on best-seller lists in four countries; a British production company has bought television rights. Honore celebrates, perhaps a bit prematurely, a worldwide disillusionment with "the cult of speed." As evidence he cites the Slow Food rebellion against McDonald's that began in Italy and has spread its gospel of civilized dining and local products even to the unlikely precincts of New York and Chicago. In a world in which some parents send their offspring to prep courses for preschool, a growing number of schools around the world--about 800--are following the advice of the early 20th-century German educator Rudolf Steiner to encourage children to play and doodle to their hearts' content, putting off learning to read until as late as 7. Devotees of tantric sex attempt to emulate the rock star Sting, who once boasted of slowing down his lovemaking to the point where it lasted for eight hours. (He later confessed to exaggerating, but the goal is still out there.) In his own life, Honore has substituted meditation for tennis and for television; he has taken off his wristwatch, which means he's less worried about getting somewhere on time and can drive there without speeding. These tokens of idleness are offset, regrettably, by the demands of being a best-selling author and guru to leisure-starved American executives, single mothers and college students who e-mail him for advice on slowing down and want it now. "Being a spokesman for slow has taken over my whole life," he says, before dashing off for another interview.

Oddly, though, Honore's book has yet to catch on in the country that arguably needs it most, the one that gave the world the assembly line and the one-minute manager. Chained to cell phones and BlackBerrys, fueled by junk food and forced to work ever longer hours as their employers cut jobs, frazzled American workers suffer from what the Seattle-based independent television producer John de Graaf called "affluenza" in his 2001 book of the same name. It is the collective malaise of a materialistic society that equates the good life with "the goods life." "Technology is playing a factor in making lives busier around the world," says de Graaf, who runs a slowness advocacy group called Take Back Your Time. "It's all the more necessary to find ways to protect people's time off because you're on this electronic leash all the time."

By contrast, Europeans and even the famously efficient Japanese are more receptive. Slow Food held its second biennial gastronomic fair in Turin last month, drawing tens of thousands of visitors, including Prince Charles, who took a couple of hours out of a European tour to savor a pint of award-winning pale English ale. The Slow Cities movement has won the backing of municipal officials in more than 100 towns and cities in Europe, Japan and Brazil with a lengthy manifesto urging policies to reduce noise and traffic, preserve the local esthetic and gastronomic customs and establish more pedestrian zones and green spaces. The Society for the Deceleration of Time held its 14th annual meeting in Austria last month to promote what its organizers call "a more conscious way of living." Mastering relaxation isn't something to attempt on your own, according to society member Christian Lackner. "When everyone is telling you to go faster, as an individual you do it," says Lackner. "You need a movement, a way of building a group of people who want to resist in order to make it easier to say, 'No, I won't'."

Perhaps Americans need to be reassured that the slowness movement is not about fleeing to a cottage in rural Vermont. It's an effort to strike the right balance between work and leisure. A few enlightened companies like the accounting firm Ernst & Young are urging employees not to check their office e-mail and phone messages on weekends. Just as the election campaign reached a fever pitch in late October, leisure-minded Americans in 10 states were holding seminars on the perils of overwork and giving each other 15-minute massages on the second annual Take Back Your Time Day. The date was picked because the nine weeks that remained until the end of the year equal the amount of time the average American works in excess of his counterparts in Western Europe. For that matter, if you believe the message on their T shirts, the average American works longer than the average medieval peasant.

But the premium on long hours and productivity continues to dominate the American workplace. Take Back Your Time has issued a six-point agenda for legislative action that would require employers to provide a minimum of three weeks' annual paid vacation and one week of paid sick leave. But--in contrast to the widespread support these efforts have in European countries--only Sen. Edward Kennedy's office has expressed interest in the proposals. For the foreseeable future Americans are pretty much on their own in the revolt against the cult of speed. Ana Veciana-Suarez vowed to stop eating at her desk earlier this year after a repairman upended her computer keyboard and a shower of crumbs fell out of the plastic rows. The Miami Herald columnist has cut back on the number of speaking engagements she accepts and no longer sifts through readers' mail at her kids' after-school football games. "I don't have to use every minute of my day in a useful way," says the mother of five. "Productivity has its own price, and it's a price that we don't often recognize." At least until we find ourselves trying to shave a few minutes from the length of a bedtime story to our children.

LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE | News