The two speeds of American lives

We are about to enter the final stage of the baseball season. Don't rush to your nearest sports page for fear of missing the climax. As everybody knows, baseball lingers on - and on - like a soprano with her last-act aria.

Once, when the pennant race was over, the nation made straight for the World Series with a headlong dash. Now we have those intra-league East-West playoffs to decide who will compete in the World Series - if, in fact, there are no first-place ties to be resolved as a preliminary to the preliminaries.

You can watch your sugar maple turn from green to gold to red before the last baseball flies off, white-on-white amid the first snowflakes.

Who says life is speeding up - moving at an ever more frantic pace? Yet this is certainly the popular perception. We quote to ourselves, rather proudly, the lines of Lewis Carroll's Queen, as if they were written just for us: ''Now here,m you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.''

Speaking of running, we invite you to consider for another example how slowed down - how snail's pace - the journey to elective office can become. We have spent half a year already, nominating the contestants who are now just beginning to contest. A Japanese tea ceremony seems like a fast-food concession by comparison with American political ritual.

And speaking of fast food, yes, we do eat at those franchise counters with a time-and-motion efficiency that rivals an astronaut swallowing a protein tablet. But then, on weekends, we haul out our woks and fire up our brick ovens and prepare hand-crafted gourmet meals at the slowest simmer.

It's as if we're speeding up and slowing down simultaneously. We fly so fast we get jet-lag. Then, when we arrive at our destination, we jump into a sweat suit and jog, more or less in circles, in order to unwind.

We are the fastest people in the world, as we know. But we may also be the slowest - something we are far less aware of.

Think of the patience - all that slow-dripping time - we devote to playing Pac-Man or twisting a Rubik's cube.

We watch television an average of 27 hours a week, according to the latest report of those who watch us watching. And if that isn't 27 slowed-down hours, we don't know our lotus-land, we don't know our soap opera.

This country that still thinks of itself as a mad sprinter has become fascinated with the marathon. Bicycling cross-country, sailing the Atlantic, swimming the English channel - such patient feats of endurance appeal to our imagination as seldom before.

For an ultimate symbol, take the triathlon. More than 200 triathlons were staged in the United States last summer, with as many as 1,000 athletes competing. The triathlon in Hawaii consisted of a 2.4-mile swim in the Pacific, a 12-mile bicycle race around Oahu, and finally a 26.2-mile marathon. A winner requires about nine hours and 20 minutes.

For the triathlon - for the minimalist-marathon music of Steve Reich, repeating patterns like the aural equivalent of the design in a Persian carpet - we have time, ''quantity'' time.

It is for people that we have less time - conspicuously less time.

The slow minuet of courtship has been replaced metaphorically by the frantic hustle of the singles bar.

The leisurely conversation that should take place between friends more often occurs between strangers, strapped into juxtaposition on an airplane at 30,000 feet.

In the case of our children, we speak of ''quality'' time - a suspect phrase which all too regularly translates as ''not much.''

''Where does all the time go?'' we ask - very selectively.

Without quite realizing it, we are learning how to lead two-speed lives. But at the moment, we tend to hurry up when we ought to slow down, and vice versa - unless, of course, you happen to like your people in fragments and your baseball with earmuffs.

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