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COMMITTMENTS : Locked in the Clutches of an Unseemly Lust for Leisure

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THE HARTFORD COURANT

It’s a slow afternoon. So slow, in fact, that Jerry, an American male in early midlife, is spending a little time working on his triangles. He draws a real good one.

His neighbor drops by and is impressed.

“Great triangle, Jer.”

This is familiar, right?

We all know lots of people hovering around the age of 40, with no kids or pets or spouses or all-consuming jobs, right? People who wake up every day with the choice of doing just about anything or nothing at all, right?

No? But that’s the way things are on “Seinfeld,” merely the most popular show on television, even though a lot of the people who watch it are time-starved yuppies with dual careers and heavily scheduled kids.

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Call it time porn. Just as sexual pornography titillates us with images from a forbidden world in which casual sex is there for the taking, do modern images, on television shows and in advertising, show us free time, a thing we covet but cannot have?

The characters of “Seinfeld” wallow obscenely in unscheduled time, as did the characters on “Cheers,” probably the mother of all time-porn shows. Some of the others, recently described by one critic as “Peter Pan shows,” are “Mad About You,” “Love and War” and “These Friends of Mine.”

In advertising, time-porn images are most obvious in the languid lassitude of models in clothing catalogues such as J. Crew and Tweeds, which an article in Utne Reader magazine recently described as resembling “an advertisement for chronic fatigue syndrome.”

“You can’t sell a product with sex anymore. Nobody has time to have sex,” jokes Dik Haddad, creative director at the Avon, Conn., advertising agency Mintz & Hoke.

If it isn’t clothes, it’s cars. To watch automobile commercials, one would think cars were mainly used as a way of getting up on top of buttes to drink in the sunset.

Brian Barry, chairman of sociology at Rochester Institute of Technology, cites a commercial of a few years ago in which two CEO types talk about a third CEO type who has chosen to drive to a meeting in his luxury automobile.

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“We see this guy going through these uncluttered roads. What a joy,” Barry says. “In reality, he’s probably stuck behind somebody, steaming.

“The open road is no longer there, but it’s still the vehicle for showcasing the car.”

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There’s an irony in selling cars this way, says Robert Thompson, professor of television at Syracuse University.

“People’s most unfree, unpleasant, structured times of their lives are . . . commuting,” he says. “The automobile for many people is almost a coffin.”

In its early days--even after Henry Ford started mass-producing in 1914--the automobile was, in fact, intended as an adjunct to leisure. It was a plaything and a way for people to travel easily to places of recreation, writes Witold Rybczynski in his 1991 book, “Waiting for the Weekend.”

Only later did it become primarily a means of commuting to work. In the last decade, the car has undergone another, even more time-oppressing, transformation, as the insertion of cellular phones and even in-car fax machines have made it a place of work.

“Baby boomers have this vision of what they’re supposed to be doing,” says advertising man Haddad. “They think: I should be sitting on that porch in my Dockers with my white turtleneck sweater draped over my shoulders, looking out at the ocean. And they’re killing themselves to get there.”

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Haddad says he doesn’t design advertising to appeal to voyeuristic lusts for leisure time.

“I wish I were that clever,” he says. “We don’t usually approach it that way, but that doesn’t mean that everybody else isn’t doing it.”

“I’m convinced that work is increasing,” says University of Iowa leisure studies professor Benjamin Hunnicutt, author of the book “Work Without End,” which, like Harvard economist Juliet Schor’s 1991 book “The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure,” argues that Americans, in recent years, have been logging longer hours on the job.

“What’s more convincing to me is how people talk and think about work and leisure,” Hunnicutt says. “The cultural expectation is that work is the satisfying thing, the way one finds one’s identity.”

At least one survey, Hunnicutt says, showed that while most Americans expect their jobs to define and give meaning to their lives, at least one-third were in jobs that fell short of those expectations.

“There is this disquiet with what work is giving us,” he says.

If the characters on “Seinfeld” and other Peter Pan sitcoms define themselves more through their leisure activities, they may be setting a positive, useful example, not a peephole glimpse at guilty pleasures, Hunnicutt says.

“The attraction is: Maybe there’s another way to do things,” he says. “Maybe it’s offering more of a critical vision. I would put my oar in the water for not characterizing it as pornography but as a wistful hope of something better. There might be something better than working all the time. Maybe it’s a good sex manual instead of pornography.”

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