Friday, October 11, 2013

Saving Time: Momo by Michael Ende

Owl is at journalism school.

J-school is hard.

There are days when Owl rolls out of bed at 8:00, appears at class from 9:00 until noon conducts an interview during lunch hour, sits through lecture until 6:00 pm, conducts another interview, types everything up and submits before midnight. She eats breakfast on the elevator, lunch on the train, and dinner at her desk. 

Actually this is most days.

J-school is challenging

The work is a delightful. It is a privilege to be out on the street collecting stories, and writing them up, but the work rolls on and on. If an assignment is finished, it could be done better, if it is done better, then there are hundreds of extra gold stars to work on collecting for the resume, because journalism, ah, me, my, it doesn’t have many jobs. But does it have a job for Owl?

What if she works very very hard?

One of Owl’s college friends got engaged and it was a solid week before Owl was able to call her in congratulations. Even then, Owl had to cut the call short so she could attend lecture. Afterwards Owl wondered how she could justify the hour spent on the phone call to her professor or her resume. Improved communication skills? Networking? 

Owl’s parents came to visit one weekend and were startled by the transformation.

Let’s go eat things, her mother suggested.

Owl snapped that she didn’t have the time.

What would you like to do? her father asked.

Work, Owl muttered and went on a tirade about how everyone wanted something from her and there weren’t enough hours in a day. 

Then she burst into tears, and wondered why no one understood why working was more important than eating things.

Daily Owl struggles. She asks herself who she wants to be. The person who calls her friends or the person who has a job? Can one ever justify writing off work to call a friend? Can one ever justify writing off friends to work? What is the proper balance? How do you attain it?

Sometimes the struggle boils down to a different question, one Owl has no answer for: who am I becoming?

Today, Owl behaved disgracefully.

She slept in.

She did laundry.

She ate lunch.

And as she ate, she read Momo, a children’s book by Michael Ende.

In Momo, Ende winds the clock back to childhood, back to a world where the protagonist, Momo, lives in a ruined amphitheater and spends her days listening to her friends tell stories.

And then the Men in Gray arrive. They carry suitcases and puff cigars and convince everyone to save time.  What, they ask, is the point of sitting around doing nothing? Why waste time talking with your friends? Spend your time making money, or don’t spend it at all. 

Listen to their siren song:

The first question to consider, pursued the man in gray, “is how much your friends really gain from the fact of your existence. Are you any practical use to them? No. Do you help them to get on in the world, make more money, make something of their lives? No again….You may not realize it Momo, but you harm your friends by simply being here. …Is that what you call love?

And like that, Momo’s world falls apart, replaced by a new reality where people run around wearing suits, making money, talking far too fast, and children play with expensive toys wondering if their parents have stopped loving them because they no longer play with them.

Michael Ende writes fantasy. Glorious fantasy where children are heroes and heroes go on quests to save the world, and in the end all is well in the world.

So Ende, because he can, trots in a magic tortoise with answers written on her shell, and the tortoise's help Momo restores the world back to its proper order. She (spoilers, sorry) destroys the Men in Grey and all is well again. The world is restored to a place where time is an endless fountain to be spent on the people you love best in the world. 

(Ende, very conveniently, doesn’t talk too much about what Momo eats.)

But Owl? 

Owl set down the book, utterly charmed, determined to carve out a new reality for herself, and found eight hours of homework, a stack of internship and job application, and a pile of unanswered emails and phone calls from her friends waiting for her.

What do I do? she wailed to Ende (because talking to writers is this totally normal actvity Owl engages in).
Destroy the men in grey, he said. Destroy the system.

How? she asked.

She's still waiting for an answer.

Or a magic tortoise.


  1. Concerned: where do you find such delightfully uplifting fiction? Feel like all the stuff I read is about the world at its worst and at the end it gets even grayer. There's never any hope at the end.

  2. Journalism is addictive. Finding work balance and heart balance is hard in any field, but especially in one that is addictively ravenous. The maw of the news field devours everything you can give it and demands more. The "joke" is, "Sure, you won the Pulitzer, but what have you done for us lately?" Yeah. Hope you have found some semblance of balance. Wrung out strung out worked-to-death without friends and family means judgement and writing suffers. The maw will always be there. You will not. So make sure you take time for you.


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