Column: R.I.P. Free Time. It Was Fun While It Lasted

  • Shawn Braley illustration

For the Valley News
Saturday, July 21, 2018

Eileen O’Toole’s free time perished late one recent afternoon. After a more than 20-year struggle with shriveling quantities, her free time suffered a long and painful death, withering from hours a day to mere minutes. Eileen’s free time will be missed most by Eileen, but also by her husband, three children, three dogs, two cats, her creativity and her sanity

Eileen’s free time lived as part of her daily life until its last days, when the long battle against electronics, life and family, self-induced responsibilities and outside productivity-sucking processes drove it to beat its head against walls both real and imaginary, depending on the severity of the day.

In her youth, Eileen’s free time was copious. The two spent hours in the local library, allowing her to memorize the locations of her favorite books, and more hours bonding with a friend over music and life. During the summer, Eileen and her free time could be found camping, swimming or playing in the woods. When Eileen was a teenager, her free time was filled with friends and local jobs.

Then college began, and Eileen and her free time moved to Boston. Taking creative advantage of university class scheduling, her free time spent morning hours blissfully snoring while curled up in a dorm bed until an afternoon class beckoned at the edge of Eileen’s sleepy brain. In the evenings, Eileen and her free time went bar hopping along Commonwealth Avenue or hitting a favorite comedy club.

Four years later, Eileen and her free time took an interesting life change. Eileen married her college sweetheart, a Marine, and relocated to rural North Carolina. Two weeks after the wedding, he deployed on an emergency mission. With a degree in communications and advertising, Eileen struggled to find creative work in a military pocket of the Carolinas. Free time now overwhelmed the day, but Eileen did not appreciate it. It became a thorn, and a small seed of free-time destruction was planted. Searching for stimulation, tasks, jobs and responsibilities became the focus.

Over the next five years this small seed evolved during three household moves and as major marriage milestone No. 1 came along: a child, born during a deployment. Major milestone No. 2, a miscarriage, followed during yet another deployment. Meanwhile, massive hurricanes and evacuations blew through, shockingly timed with another deployment, marking milestones five, six and seven. It was during these years that Eileen’s free time and her sleep time forged a strong, enduring friendship.

The next seven years brought a succession of free-time-sucking milestones: move No. 7; child No. 2; the death of a pet; an international move (No. 8); the death of another pet; move No. 9; a deployment, a deployment, a deployment, a deployment, (not typos), another deployment; the death of a third pet; child No. 3; a second international move (No. 10); hurricanes 10, 11 and 12; the fostering of post-hurricane-orphaned animals; and, oh, another deployment. Here, Eileen used her free time volunteering for children’s activities, military support organizations, working, driving, driving and driving some more. Cooking claimed between nine and 14 hours a week.

Nearly every other waking hour was taken by cleaning up after cooking or after three tornadoes (aka children), who commanded her undivided attention. 

Swinging into the last chunk of military time, six more years were spent back in eastern North Carolina. In standard military fashion, Eileen and her free time had to move not just once but twice (Nos. 11 and 12). Her free time managed to cope — grasping glimpses of hope — by managing an elegantly kept wall calendar, a thing of beauty. On this calendar of hope resided all the activities, appointments and, yes, deployments.

Recognizing the hectic pace of such a life, Eileen decided it would be an excellent idea to use her free time to spare her children the mediocrity of a military base education and home-school them. Clearly delusional at this point, Eileen was having hallucinatory episodes of smiling faces, clean kitchens and school done by noon, with all straight A’s to boot.

Then came the one of the most detrimental blows to what was left of Eileen’s free time: the smartphone.

Purchased as a business necessity, it was meant to ensure prompt communications. Unfortunately, as the world succumbed to its addiction to email, so did much of Eileen’s free time. While mail was retrieved once daily, and only six days a week, email now accumulated at a rate of 50 to 75 individual bright blue beacons of untended obligations every hour. The buzzing, dinging, beeping and chiming created an almost seizure-like reaction in Eileen in her free time’s last days.

After countless, repetitive hours in meetings trying to comprehend why vast quantities of precious time are wasted discussing why tasks and processes are not producing logical and expected outcomes, Eileen’s free time would return to the blinking, chirping inbox full of more instant demands.

Facing six hours of meetings each day, her free time curled up in a corner and died — alone, neglected and forgotten in the glare of blue, unread emails.

Eileen O’Toole lives in Hanover and is a part-time student in Dartmouth College’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program.