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Slowing the pace in an avalanche of events

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For his audience at Harvard's commencement last month, the Mexican writer-diplomat Carlos Fuentes had a well-turned anecdote. He said he had been traveling in rural Mexico and stopped to ask a campesino how far it was to a particular village.

'' 'If you had left at daybreak,' '' the peasant farm worker replied, '' 'you would be there now.' ''

''This man,'' Fuentes noted, ''had an internal clock'' - set to his own foot-powered culture, and recording time in his own way.

Fuentes raises an intriguing anthropological issue: the ways various cultures view time. It has serious diplomatic and social ramifications as well - which he spared no effort to explain in his highly political speech. But beyond that, in ways he did not trace, the issue goes to the heart of our conception of humanity. What, after all, is time? How shall we address ourselves to it?

Heady stuff, that - and perhaps better suited to the novels of Faulkner and Proust than to the columns of a daily newspaper. In fact, however, we here in the news room have been giving it some thought. Not that we're fascinated by abstract philosophizing. Nor are we transfixed by the limits so relentlessly imposed on human endeavor by the counting of minutes. No, our focus is far more practical: how, in the feature pages of a daily newspaper, to address the central concerns of the 1980s.

Why worry about time? Because, like most other newspapers, we organize our efforts into two camps. One is news: the rapid-fire reporting and assessment of the world's daily events. The other is features: the wealth of human experience displaying itself in such diverse areas as ballet and gardening, book reviewing and fashion, parenthood and high-technology innovations. Traditionally, the distinction between these two camps hinges on time. If a story can't keep, it's news; if it's just as good next week as this, it's a feature.

In the past, that was a good rule of thumb for the conventional doorstep-every-morning newspaper. But as the world has moved into electronic news-gathering, the pace has quickened. News from around the world bubbles to the surface at ever-greater speed. Yet the context around it - the human experiences, peopled by the world's rich mix of individuals and steeped in all that we want to call culture - moves to its own beat. And sometimes it gets lost. Too often, the apparent avalanche of events reduces us to mere onlookers. Too often, as a colleague of mine recently quipped, we find ourselves simply watching the world sail by with the TV anchor man at the helm.

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