To know Whitney is to know his love for Coronado, an exclusive island just off San Diego's coastline, where he is the unofficial mayor of his beloved town.
In 2020, however, Whitney will officially end his tenure as Coronado's housing representative — a position for which he fought tooth and nail — and return to his full-time role as a real estate agent helping high net-worth individuals buy luxurious spreads.
Why? After years of grappling with his diminishing faith in politics, Whitney's visible dismay in what he calls the "politicization" of COVID-19. It marked the final proof-point against a chosen life in politics.
"I've just lost faith in politics altogether," he said.
Given that he was still tender from his decision, I decided to direct my questions away from politics. I veered to a topic that Whitney was unexpectedly ready to unpack: how COVID-19 has impacted his experience of time.
"I will say this, the benefits of a total slowdown of time has been one of the umbrella takeaways for me during this three-month locked-down," he said in early May 2020.
Whitney has a knack for making big ideas accessible to anyone, so I asked him to say more about the tricky concept of time, and explore how shelter-in-place has restructured what time means to him.
The Benefits of Commuting Less
Under lockdown, it seemed that COVID-19 gave everyone — save the courageous frontline workers — time in exchange for staying inside. Like many, Whitney and his wife stopped dreading their daily, soul-crushing commute.
"My wife and I wasted so much time commuting in and out of San Diego," he said, "and it's scary to think about how much time we spent in our cars, wasting hours in between locations. It was horrible. Since the lockdown, I see how much energy my wife has to give back to me and the kids, and I'm digging it. I don't think she'll be able to go back to anything that looks like a commute."
Whitney also stopped flying frequently to Sacramento. He realized how wasteful and soul-draining was the whole ritual of flying up north, eating out, and staying at hotels to gladhand fellow politicians at the state capitol.
Whitney began to feel rested because the pressure to keep up waned. He noticed a dormant energy resurface from years of living a busy life. I could sense that Whitney was working out something important during our interview, so I just listened to and witnessed his reflection.
"It's the slowdown of capitalism and the constant need to be producing all of the time," he said, "and you know Mother Nature is benefiting from it too."
The Ability To Say No In an Age That Demands Yes
As Whitney dug deeper, he confessed his next observation.
"I suck at saying no, I always say yes to everything, and January [Whitney's wife] reminds me constantly that it's ok to say no," he said. "I feel this invisible pressure to always be available to everyone in my life, but as a result, my 'energy tank' is always empty."
Whitney described an almost involuntary tic to fill up his social calendar. Closer to an impulse than a deliberate act, Whitney felt pulled by an unconscious drive to always plan out the future. Stemming from a misplaced need to help others, Whitney splintered his attention in so many directions at the cost of directing his energy at home.
For Whitney, COVID-19's unexpected teaching was a simple one: with everyone stuck at home, no one bothered him about meeting up. He didn't have to say no because no one reached out. By dramatically reducing his social obligations out of the house, Whitney began to give back to himself and to his family.
"I wonder if COVID killed FOMO," he said, laughing and admiring his observation.
School-Time Holds Societal-Time Together
Whitney was not exempt from the same general shock felt by many parents during the first three months of last spring's lockdown. His three kids' needs had dashed any hopes of reading that pile of books by his bedside. With all three — 5, 8, 12 — stuck at home Whitney relented to his new reality. He adapted to life without school-time.
"You really see how vital schools are for a functioning society," he said. "I mean January wakes up in the middle of the night terrified by this new reality. It's totally crazy. But what's nice is that everyone is suffering the same fate. It's kinda fun to see kids interpreting Zoom meetings."
While navigating that challenging time, Whitney found he had more energy to give back to his kids.
"While I've always been close to my girls, I felt like my son and I got closer during this time", he said.
He paused, then smiled, and returned his gaze to our Zoom call. While clock-time was completely out of whack since shelter-in-place took full effect, Whitney's experience of time had started to feel different.
"I had no idea how easily we adapt to society's notion of time, rather than the elements that matter most to my life," he said. "This slowdown of time has really been interesting to think about how I direct my energies and how I give back to myself rather than always giving out."
Presence Discovered by Cultivating, Creating, Connecting
"COVID Time" — what Whitney's five-year-old son affectionately calls shelter-in-place — was about slowing down the impulse to do more. By instinct, and to Whitney's total shock, he began to direct his attention to fixing up his home, a task he always assumed was a waste of time. He began weeding his garden with his son, cooking with his two daughters, and redesigning his garage with January.
"There's something about the benefit of tending to our home that gives back energy," he said. "I always thought it was a drain of time because I grew up with help, but the benefits of focusing on one thing, and only that thing, is amazing in an age that seems to strip us of our attention with endless streaming, easy access to everything, and limitlessness."
He had more time to think about his own thoughts without being pulled by other forces like work and social obligations. He felt more creative by giving back to himself. He accessed a deeper reservoir of inspiration when he focused on one task at a time. Gardening, reconfiguring his home, and connecting with his kids added up to one new formulation: with less, he did more. Pre-COVID-19, life felt fast because society expects us to do more. Whitney was experiencing a shift in awareness, realizing he lived under a different experience of time under asynchronous time, also known as Tech-Time.
The Unexamined Power of De-optimizing
In Tech-Time, Whitney lived by the understanding that an optimized life is a preferable life. In tech's frictionless world, Whitney can ride his Peloton while responding to an email while ordering an Instacart delivery all in the span of an hour. Because Tech can collapse context, we can live at home and be in so many "places" at once. Our attention is split because it is no longer bound by one context.
In the lockdown, Whitney began to garden with his son. He discovered he loves fixing up his house. He cooked with his girls. He was no longer split between worlds. He was at home.
"Tech builds a world for us to do more," Whitney reflected, "but at the cost of being more. I feel like I lose track of time so easily, falling down the rabbit hole of emails, social media, binge-watching. Lockdown has really forced me to see that I have the option to direct my attention."
Two Modalities of Time for a Better Life
While Whitney tended to his son for a brief intermission, I had to face up to a tricky question: was I unknowingly operating under a notion of time that prioritized optimization over replenishment?
Mentally tip-toeing to a solution, I realized a deeper issue was at play. Our society seems to validate individual freedom through the power of choice. In the vast array of options to satisfy individual preferences, no one is excluded, in theory. While an admittedly simplified equation — more choice equals more freedom — I did realize it was an easy solution to a complex problem. Tech delivers a world where choice is almost limitless. Therefore, if the logic holds, online we experience more of who we are.
But Whitney's revelation proved that the opposite is also true. With less choice, we can access something much deeper. With fewer tools to optimize a hyper-efficient life, he relied on his own self-directed powers. With more constraints, Whitney was more present.
Now, it goes without saying that without tech during the pandemic, how would we have tolerated shelter-in-place? Tech made it possible for Whitney to sustain one life in order to access a deeper one.
So rather than side with one over the other — tech-time vs. analog-time — I'm proposing using two modalities of time that Ursula Franklin described in her book: synchronous time (life lived one activity at a time) and asynchronous time (life lived without being bound by context). With this 21st century framework, we can learn to strengthen the choice that genuinely exercises our individual freedom.
The Great Restructuring
Before Whitney signed off, he thanked me for the conversation. He expressed how much lighter he felt by the end of it, how much he enjoyed our meandering reflection, and left me with this final thought:
"For as long as I can remember I didn't know I had any agency over my attention, or at least I thought I did," he said. "I didn't realize how I adapted and moved fast to a standard of life I didn't really choose, which goes to show how much we really think we have control over lives. What this conversation taught me is that Time is more like money and I was in massive debt. Maybe you can call this time The Great Restructuring!" he paused and smiled to see if I would recognize his pithy one-liner. I did, happily.
We waved to each other, the screen turned black, and I closed my laptop. Instead of packing up my film equipment, which is my usual professional practice, I went over to the kitchen to help my wife prepare our dinner.
To be present is to be aware of where we direct our attention, as Whitney mentioned, and one inadvertent blessing of COVID-19 was that it revealed that "time" is so often left unexamined. There are so many forces vying for our time.
Instead of optimizing time in a hyper-reality of choice, COVID-19 showed us that with fewer options we can be more. If societal time organizes life — not just the minutes and hours of the day — then Whitney, who surprised himself by his own insights, is right. We have more agency than we think. When it comes to examining societal expectations, we have a real choice as to where we direct our attention.