American Idle

07:11PM Jul 29, 2008
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We don't kill time here in the U.S. like we used to. Maybe we're trying too hard or not using the right technology. There 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 may even have actually witnessed—old men whittling. 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 of the world's pocket knives are gradually being collected in airport trash cans. Whatever the reason, the act of slowly dismembering a piece of wood into priceless treasure is not on the agenda very often these days. In fact, it is somewhat chilling to contemplate what my wife, Jan, would think if I suddenly announced, "I'm going out on the porch for few hours with this sharp steel implement and a stick.”

Whittling, like other forms of inactivity, requires a commitment to unpopular consequences, as well. Idle people in groups had to be comfortable with endlessly recycling the same conversations. The true practitioners of the sport soon exhausted all available information and, while many resorted to on-the-spot dramatic fabrication, most simply slumped into passive silence, punctuated by monosyllabic grunts. Some idleness purists even disdained conversation as too hyper, making them into historically gifted listeners.

The closest example I can find today that matches that depth of inertia is 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. Yet, they maintain an air of serene composure impossible to duplicate with any amount of self-help literature or professional counselor on call.

Idle worship. What fascinates me about garage sitters is the way our minds quickly incorporate them as part of the landscape, rather than inhabitants. When passing, you soon notice when Garage Guy is NOT on station, not when he is. Should the lawn chair be missing or empty during sitting season, concern promptly rises in our minds. His initial appearance each year could signal 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 will raise the self-esteem for all who pass by simply anchoring the low end of the ambition scale.

Not only that, but each time I pass he is making it look easy. To be easily entertained is one thing. To require no entertainment at all is no easy feat. I have been entombed in numerous delayed aircrafts on runways and have watched enforced idleness take its toll on the human population. In contrast, a plane full 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—precisely the same space—for hours on end, day after day. 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.

Give it a try. 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.

John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of "U.S. Farm Report.” Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit or