We don’t kill time here in the US like we used to. Maybe we’re trying too hard, or not using the right technology. There just has to be a way to learn to do nothing slowly. Back in the good old days, men especially knew how to be idle. We’re not sure about women, because few of them had a chance to sit down and write about leisure, but that’s another issue. Men, especially older men of my grandfather’s generation could stare absolute inactivity in the face without flinching.
For example, if you dig back into your past, you may recall – or even have actually witnessed – old men whittling. Now try to think of the last time you even heard of whittling, let alone saw it done. To be fair, it may have disappeared as an act of premeditated idleness simply because all the world’s pocket knives are gradually being collected in trash cans at airports, but whatever the reason, the act of slowly dismembering a piece of wood is not on the agenda often these days. In fact, it is somewhat chilling to contemplate what Jan would think were I to announce, “I’m going out on the porch for few hours with this sharp steel implement and a stick.”
Whittling, like other forms of inactivity, required a commitment to unpopular consequences as well. Idle people in groups had to be comfortable with recycling the same conversations endlessly. True practitioners soon exhausted all available information and while many resorted to on-the-spot fabrication, most simply slumped into passive silence, punctuated by monosyllabic grunts. Some idleness purists even disdained conversation as too hyper, making them historically gifted listeners.
The closest example I can find today to matching that depth of inertia would be garage sitting. These are the people who open their garage doors and sit in a lawn chair watching the street. Many wave at passing motorists, most simply stare. No book, no radio, no (shudder) iPod disturbs their concentrated lack of ambition. And yet they maintain an air of serene composure impossible to duplicate with any amount of self-help literature or professional counsel.
What has always fascinated me about garage sitters was the way our minds soon incorporated them as part of the landscape, rather than inhabitants. When passing you soon began to note when Garage Guy was NOT on station – not when he was. Should the lawn chair be missing or empty during sitting season, concern rose in our minds. His initial appearance each year was the arrival of the Robin of Indolence.
This is one of the hidden powers of idleness, it is easy to accept and become part of our lives. Idle people are not competitive threats after all. Unlike neighbors who raise the standards for industry and accomplishment, idlers reflect well on us even if we are pretty close to being total goof-offs ourselves. In effect, Garage Guy raised the self-esteem for all who passed simply by anchoring the low end of the ambition scale.
Not only that, but each time I passed he was making it look easy. To be easily entertained is one thing. To require no entertainment at all is no mean feat. I have been entombed in delayed aircraft on runways and have watched enforced idleness take its toll. In contrast, a planeful of accomplished garage sitters would barely bat an eye.
Idleness has fallen into disrepute in this age of multi-flailing. We have curiously come to admire our existential version of plate-spinning, convinced that doing more is being more. Yet one glance at Garage Guy shows that far from being less, his stolid lethargy makes him more real. He occupies space – the same space - for hours on end. That’s not just reality – it’s practically geology.
Idle hands are the Devil’s playground, of course. But attached to a true disciple of immobility, they don’t constitute a threat to anything beyond easy reach. Too, if you are not doing anything, you are probably not doing anything wrong. Deep in our modern hearts we long for the courage to be idle. To stand up for sitting down for a long time. To refuse to be connected, engaged, or even interested. To have thoughts so unfretful we could abide with them alone for hours on end. To eschew even the flickering mental attention required by television.
Open the garage door. I hear a lawn chair calling my name.