At on Piedmont Avenue one afternoon, a man sat looking out of the window. Before him lay an open book, his glasses placed on top. Cars sped back and forth in the street and people hurried past. The sunshine peeked out from behind a cloud and no one but the man seemed to notice. He lifted his eyebrows and spoke a silent word or two. Slowly, after many minutes of peaceful people-watching, he put on his glasses and lifted his book. The book was titled simply Portuguese.
Now, here is a man who understands the necessity of personal relaxation time, I thought. What could be better than sitting peacefully in the sunshine, unhurriedly sipping a hot beverage and learning Portuguese? Or not learning Portuguese, and just sitting instead? Either way, it looked much better than being hunched over a laptop frantically typing or talking brashly on a cellphone—or even worse: through an ear piece.
With technology ingrained in every habit, people rarely seem to sit still any more. It’s almost impossible. We watch TV with our iPhones in hand, tweet while waiting in line at the grocery store, and even check our email during lulls in conversation with friends.
But there is only so much stimulation a human being can take.
Bloomberg reports that workforce productivity slowed down this past quarter. No more can be squeezed from the over-stressed and under-appreciated American worker. We work some of the longest hours in the world and have the fewest days off. The average amount of vacation time in the U.S. is 15 days a year, compared to 28 days in England and 37 in France. The Italians get 42 whole vacation days annually. Meanwhile, Americans are stuck in such a cycle of workaholism that even with our measly amount of vacation time, we still gave up 448 million unused vacation days in 2010.
Sure, it’s easy to pin technology for the over-stimulation. But I think the problem started long before the smartphone and the Internet, although both have compounded the issue.
I blame coffee.
I’m talking about opting for a to-go cappuccino in the morning instead of mulling over a hot breakfast. Sipping stale coffee at our desks instead of snacking on fruit, drinking water or taking a brisk walk when we get tired. In that sleepy spot of the afternoon, around the time when the Spanish are taking a siesta, we’re plastering our nervous systems with caffeine.
When our bodies are asking us to slow down, our brains keep pushing us to go, go, go. And then, to top it all off, we can’t sleep at night. No wonder stress is the number one killer in America and a huge strain on family life.
The trouble really began back in 17th century England with the rise of the controversial coffeehouse. These dens of sociability quickly became places for middle class men to discuss politics, religion and current affairs with augmented vigor, thanks to the mental boost provided by coffee. Women, of course, were not welcome. Meanwhile, the abandoned wives complained that coffee was ruining their marriages by keeping their husbands away from home, encouraging them to chatter insensibly, and impeding their libidos. The Woman’s Petition Against Coffee in 1674 brought these charges to the fore in a witty protest against the coffeehouse:
For here like so many Frogs in a puddle, they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossipping.
Coffee inevitably leapt across the Atlantic with the settlers in the New World, and the battle of the beverages began. For a while, tea was still the daily ritual and deep-seated tradition enjoyed by men and women alike. Tea was still king—until the king taxed it into oblivion and coffee usurped its place.
On Dec. 16, 1773, Americans fed up with British oppression decided that it was time to create a new tradition. They made one last, giant cup of tea in Boston Harbor and bid the brew farewell.
Coffee was perhaps an excellent drink for a new country, full of ideas and pizazz, philosophizing the future of the greatest nation in the world. But centuries later, we still seem to be on that same high, cursed like Sisyphus to roll a heavy weight up our own mountains each day.
Perhaps it is time to relax, at least once in a while, instead of being eternally stimulated.
I say, bring back tea time. Tea, unlike coffee, cannot be consumed quickly. It has to brew. And sometimes, so do we.