Working At a Life Of Leisure

Original article (9/16/2004) on the Washington Post is here

Working At a Life Of Leisure

For Author-Sculptor, Well-Being Means Doing More With Less Stress


By Brigid Schulte

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page GZ16


Jerome Segal spends a lot of time in a big brown leather chair in the book-stuffed living room of his Takoma Park home thinking about The Good Life. He worries that Americans are overworked, overstressed and pressed for time just trying to make it these days. That we have lost touch with what's important and that "something just doesn't feel right."

He has an answer. To live with "graceful simplicity," which is also the title of his recent book. His ideal is to have meaningful work, to appreciate and take time for important relationships such as family and friends, to leave room for beauty and leisure time and giving. To, as Aristotle said, live to your highest potential. And as Thoreau said, to live a poetic life.

But this day is an ordinary Wednesday. It's raining. Segal got in a tiff with his teenage son Max this morning, was stuck in traffic taking Max to school and deposited him late on his first day. He's thinking of suing AirTran, or US Airways or Expedia, he's not sure which, for not refunding his non-refundable plane tickets after canceling his flight. His television is broken. And the fact that the cable guys have made him wait two days in a row, from 2 to 5 p.m., and left without making sure his favorite old movie channel is working really ticks him off.

He is, he says, "being nibbled to death by ducks."

Proving, perhaps, that it is one thing to write about living with graceful simplicity and to be seen by some as a prophet in the burgeoning simple living movement. And quite another to do it every day.

"One dimension of gracefulness is a lack of tension and frenetic stuff," he says. "In my own life, I don't think I suffer from overwork. But on the issue of whether or not, on a moment-to-moment basis, I live a graceful life . . . I don't think I do. I don't think I do."

Segal, 60, has three jobs and a résumé that for most in Washington's power elite evokes long hours, harried meetings and late nights at the office. He is a resident scholar at the University of Maryland in both the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy and the Center for International Security Studies. He is president of the Jewish Peace Lobby and has been called the Jewish father of the Palestinian state, advocating what is now administration policy for years before the idea caught on; he was once accused of "political fantasy."

He has written four books on philosophy and Middle Eastern politics. He has degrees in philosophy, public administration and economics. He has worked on the Hill and for the executive branch. His TV and radio appearances fill up four pages on his 23-page curriculum vitae.

And this is how he plans to spend his Wednesday:

• Sit in brown leather chair with yellow legal pad two hours, work on new book on the Bible.

• Drive to College Park to a tiny, paper- and book-strewn office at the University of Maryland, check e-mail, download articles from the Israeli press.

• Eat lunch.

• Run by the Peace Lobby office in Silver Spring, check to see which newspapers have agreed to run his new piece on terrorism, deposit $1,194 in donations.

• Go to studio in afternoon to work on sculpture.

By late afternoon, he has made no progress on his book, found that his Internet connection is on the fritz and railed against the cable guys, the airlines and a plumber who sent him a $300 bill. He does, however, eat lunch, make the deposit and briefly visit his art studio.

He had wanted the family to eat dinner together -- a lost tradition, he laments in his books and articles, and a key to bringing grace back into everyday living. Instead, he grabbed a bite with his wife, Naomi Nim, who has just retired from full-time community activism to become a dance therapist. Then he went back to work to finish an article on graceful living that was due that day to Tikkun, a Jewish magazine on politics and culture. Max, 13, blasting "Rage Against the Machine" in his basement bedroom, ate alone.

Was it a day of graceful simplicity? "Well, no," Segal concedes. "I'm certainly not offering myself as, 'I achieved it, here's how I did it.' I'm more of a diagnostician about society." Plus, he says, "there's nothing graceful about being a parent. It has a lot of rough edges."

But who among traditional workers has an art studio? Or can even contemplate going there on a weekday afternoon to sculpt a naked woman's torso?

Time. Money. Work. Segal has spent his life observing and thinking about how each is central to a fulfilling life -- or a disappointed one, like that of his father, a one-time political activist who gave up work he loved for long hours in a New York garment factory to support his family. And how a dose of grace can redeem any part of the equation. Segal writes of spending summers with his aunt and uncle, an artist, who, though starved for cash, made mealtime feel almost sacred and turned chores into adventures.

"I knew early on that something was wrong in the way my father worked overtime," he says. "I knew that one of the lessons of simple living is that the most meaningful experiences can be the most ordinary experiences, like dinner."

The Simple Living Movement exhorts Americans to slow down, save money, buy in bulk, spend less, want less, have less to achieve a more balanced life. Web sites abound, and how-to magazines and books line the self-help aisles in bookstores.

The book "Simplify Your Life" advises to "sell the damn boat." Another book, "Your Money or Your Life," suggests the possibility of downsizing into a mobile home. The latest issue of Simple Living magazine offers articles such as "Brief Time at the Stove -- Long Time at the Table" and "Easy Ways to Streamline Your Life."

Movement leaders plan to celebrate "Take Back Your Time Day" on Oct. 24, which could be the last day of the work year if time-starved Americans had as much vacation time as Europeans.

Segal agrees with the theory of the movement but not with the method. Some of the prescriptions -- selling the car, moving closer to work, buying a less expensive house -- are either not realistic or simply not feasible, he says. What if the new house costs less, but the neighborhood isn't safe? Or the school isn't good?

He argues instead for a "politics of simplicity" -- changing the way government and society work -- to make sure everyone has a shot at the good life "rather than just relying on individual people being heroic."

He has joined the Simplicity Forum, a group lobbying Congress for more paid vacations, holidays and leave from work. His ideas range from the mundane -- eliminating so many toll booths on highways, making taxes and insurance forms easier, and putting a stop to the "endless homework nightmare" -- to the grand, such as work sabbaticals every 10 years, free college and day care, and an economy not aimed at making more and more money but at ensuring people live meaningful lives.

Until that day, here is where Segal has achieved a certain measure of the simple life: He is master of his time. He sets his schedule, picks his projects at work and applies for grants to pay for most of them. And while he's not wealthy by any stretch, some smart investments -- on a whim, when he was 26, he used scholarship money that he had saved to buy a house that's now worth more than 20 times what he paid for it -- have provided him a degree of financial independence.

He doesn't own much -- in accord with the simple-living philosophy of keeping conspicuous consumption in check.

Even the TV he wants fixed so badly is tiny, not much bigger than a lunchbox, and sits on a stereo speaker in the living room.

He hasn't spent too much time this summer on the nibbling ducks -- as evidenced by two boxes filled with unopened bills and paperwork sitting on the living room floor, the payback for two idyllic months in an upstate New York cabin.

"That was more escapism than graceful simplicity," he says.

His red house is small but pleasant. It needs a paint job, he says. Although the ivy-strewn, somewhat shaggy lawn doesn't stand out on his quiet Takoma Park street, it makes clear that the good life does not include much yardwork.

But there is beauty. Terra cotta sculptures sit on the floor against one wall in the living room and recline in a row on top of the bookshelves. And there is time for a good novel at night and sometimes nine or 10 hours of sleep.

As night descends and Wednesday turns to Thursday, the TV has yet to be fixed. And the box of bills still waits. Segal will get up three times in the middle of the night to tell Max to go to bed, the last after 4 a.m. Like the father of most teens, he will be ignored.

Life isn't perfect. Some days are better than others. "Gracefulness is hard," he says.

But that's life.