The author Ursula LaGuin died in 2018 at age 88 after a long career as a distinguished novelist, poet and essayist. I picked up a book of her essays, No Time to Spare, Thinking About What Matters and very much enjoyed the opening one, “In Your Spare Time”. She reflected on the survey she had received from Harvard about asking how she used her own spare time, with a checklist of 27 items. The first was “golf” and she didn’t put a check mark there. I wouldn’t either. But as she went on to say, this is a strange question to ask people in their eighties. I agree. All our time is spare time.
LeGuin observes that normally we think of spare time as free time left over from a job or working hours. There were other things to check on the Harvard list that she didn’t tick off and I wouldn’t either. Racquet sports? – No. Bridge? – definitely, No. When my husband was alive he always chose to play against me. When he won he was happy and when he lost he was amazed. Shopping? – “if necessary would have been better than -Yes. TV? – we would be lying if we said No – and last but not least, “Creative Activities” – specified further as Paint. Write, Photograph etc.
Like LeGuin, I don’t regard “Write” as a spare time activity. I’ve written all my life as I am doing right now. Most of my writing would be regarded as non-fiction whether paid or otherwise. It includes reports, newsletters, articles, grant proposals, a book. journals, letters, minutes, agendas, websites, blogging (since 1995) and more recently posts and tweets – plus a few poems. Writing is a continuum. It’s not about spare time. It also suggests the Harvard survey writer didn’t have a clue what it might be like to live for eight decades. I find myself thinking that way about a lot of other people too.
It came up when I read about my university’s alumni celebration dinner – to be honest I wasn’t reading at all but watching a video – containing a frame picturing a large collection of golden spoons. Those who graduated fifty years ago were to be recipients, as I was nine years ago. “That’s lovely”, I thought – “but has anybody asked whether that’s what we really need from the university after fifty years?” Were any alternatives considered? A massage certificate? A discount for upgraded reading glasses or hearing-aid batteries? Boots with better treads?
But LeGuin, bless her, has come up with the proper use for the golden spoon. Maybe between our fixation on probiotic yogurt and fibre-filled cereals, we have forgotten about the frequent menu item of our childhoods – the soft boiled egg. In her chapter, “Without Egg”, she even gives instructions on how to cook one for the benefit of recent feminist grads who wouldn’t be caught dead in the kitchen. And to go with it, she spends a bit of time on the egg cup. Apparently American homes no longer have them – and I am tempted to put a picture of one on Facebook in the “Share if you know what this is” category. Of course I still have one – three in fact. I also still have the Corning ware with the blue flowers on it which was a popular shower present for weddings in 1959.
After some discussion as to whether the egg should be placed in the cup with the larger or smaller side up, LeGuin moves on to the search for the proper spoon. Before that, she notes that a knife must be made of steel and the spoon must be untarnishable. “I’ve never seen a gold egg spoon but I’m sure one would do” she says. VOILA! I rushed to buffet drawer filled with odd bits of silver and there sat the spoon unopened in its little plastic gift box. Now it becomes a neessity and like Leguin, I start the day with a boiled egg and an English muffin – and browse another of her essays. My favourite to date is entitled, “Would You Please F*cking Stop! You’ll have to read it yourself to find out what it’s about.