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Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare Some Time?
Lionel Fisher Every time Forbes magazine publishes its annual list of the world's richest people, I breathlessly check to see if I'm on it. And, darn it, I'm always disappointed! But you know, I really don't care anymore.

"You lie like an Oriental rug!" you're probably saying right now, and a few years ago you'd have been right. After all, wealth is happiness to most of us, points out Harper's magazine editor, Lewis H. Lapham. "Ask an American what money means and nine times in ten he will say that it is synonymous with freedom, that it opens the doors of feeling and experience, that citizens with enough money can play at being gods and do anything they wish," Lapham notes in his provocative 1988 book, Money and Class in America.

Americans dote on the "iconography of wealth," claims Lapham. Ours, he says, is a public obsession with "the beauty and power of money -- who has it, how to groom and cherish it, what to wear in its presence, why it is so beautiful, where it likes to go in the summer."

And yet, Lapham, adds mournfully, "Never in the history of the world have so many people been so rich; never in the history of the world have so many of those same people felt themselves so poor."

It's a morbid subject, I know, for a lovely spring day, but I'm constantly amazed that no one has time anymore. Except me, of course. Well, maybe a few others. I did read about a woman in Baltimore who still has some to spare. And a man in Des Moines, also a teenager in Kansas City. But they're few and far between anymore.

Ask virtually anyone: How are things going, how's work, how's life? The inevitable answer: Busy.

The word is blurted instinctively, as if it were simply the most acceptable response. The measure of our worth, the tally of our success seems to lie in the total expenditure of our time. Busyness has become the red badge of courage and fulfillment, a noble end rather than a necessary means.

I used to say the word a lot myself till I realized what I was doing. "How's it going?" someone would ask. "Busy!" I'd retort.

"Having fun?"

"Nah, too busy."

"Want to get together?"

"Can't, busy!"

Then one day I heard myself. Now when someone calls and asks, "How are you?" I reply, "Older, fatter, uglier." Or "Dumber." Or "Lazier." Anything but the "B" word.

We skitter about like hyperactive gerbils, observes author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, "high not just on caffeine, but on caffeine's luscious byproduct, productivity. Ah, the joy of doing, accomplishing, crossing off." And, ah yes, making money.

Trouble is, when our need for money diminishes, our need to keep busy doesn't. Busyness, however mindless and unnecessary, becomes essential to our sense of relevance and well-being. It's a way, says Rosenthal, of intimating, "My time is filled, my phone doesn't stop ringing and you, therefore, should think well of me."

But a funny thing happened to me on my way to the new millennium. I got old. And blase about money, despite having less of it now than ever. But I've come to a time in my life when I could have more money and less time by working, or more time and less money by not working, and the choice has been an easy one.

Time, I figure, is the most precious possession I now own: luxurious and open-ended, to be spent on the things important only to me. Time devoted to nothing if that is what I choose. Time spent wantonly without the need to count its passing.

It's the only true wealth, I've decided as time runs out on me, for when it's gone the game of life will be over over despite all the fame and fortune and Porsches and brownie points amassed. And the greatest tragedy will be not having used every second of it well.

Lionel Fisher is the author of Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001). Reach him at beachauthor@hotmail.com to share your thoughts on magnificent aloneness.