Labor Pains

In praise of … nothing.

For those of us who still have jobs in this “globalizing economy” (and my wife goes back and forth on whether I’m actually one of us), September is the month we celebrate labor. And the reason we celebrate labor is not because we like to work. After all, we celebrate Labor Day by taking the day off.

No, what we celebrate about labor is the freedom it gives us to enjoy things besides work—like mowing the lawn, washing the car, painting the house, mulching, raking leaves and being stuck in traffic. In short, we tend to work at jobs we don’t really care for in order to do the things we absolutely can’t stand to do. Any time left over after that is devoted to garage sales.

But for all our well-earned reputation for work in this country, we’ve never seemed to grasp the concept of leisure. Leisure comes from a French word, which should give us a clue to its essential meaning. At its simplest, leisure means the “freedom from time-consuming duties, responsibilities or activities.”

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Yet, everything we do under the broad umbrella of “leisure activities” is fraught with time-consuming duties and responsibilities. We may go to the beach for a week “to relax.” But we also take along some 900-page “beach book” that we vowed to finish by the time we’re packed up and sitting in gridlock again at the end of the week.

A lot of people choose golf as their designated leisure activity. But it’s on a golf course where you often hear more purple expressions of ill will, frustration and disappointment than are typically observed in the harshest of work environments.

Fishing would seem to come closest to the leisure-time ideal. What could be more idle, more akin to bringing the consumption of time to a complete, mind-numbing halt than casting some
slimy invertebrate into a void of texture-less gray and then staring at that void, watching a cork bob for hours on end? Then again, not catching any fish is considered a failure and a complete waste of time.

The ultimate leisure oxymoron, though, may be the annual family vacation. Having finally coerced surrender from multiple people who each wanted to go somewhere else—preferably alone—most families return from this bondage with only a memory stick of digital photos as evidence to remind them never to attempt anything like that again. It was Teddy Roosevelt and his self-inflicted “strenuous life” approach to near-death vacations that got us off track when it comes to leisure. Nero and his fiddling more closely capture the ideal I’m after.

So what’s wrong with doing nothing in the pursuit of leisure? (Now, my wife will argue, “You’re already doing that for work. Why would you want more of it for leisure?” But I’ll leave that discussion for another subject—say, Valentine’s Day gift ideas.)

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Nothing, after all, appears to be at the very heart of existence. Many scientists believe the presence of black holes or antimatter is the glue that holds the cosmos together. Maybe what we need is a new term to capture the essence of what leisure should really be.

Antimatter. How about “antiwork”? That certainly takes the duty, responsibility and time consumption out of it.

Pursuing antiwork as leisure is going to take this nation of frenetic over-achievers some time to adjust to. No more working up a sweat and calling it recreation. No more puttering, do-it-yourselfing, rock climbing, marathoning, eco-touring rain forests, beachcombing, jet skiing, camping, hang gliding, cliff diving, snorkeling, lifelong learning, ice fishing, sailing, stamp
collecting, antiquing, craft shows or bird watching. (OK, maybe bird watching.)

We’ve got to learn how to put nothing into our leisure if we want to get anything out of it. Squeeze every ounce of effort out of anything we do with the goal of approaching an “absolute zero” of caloric activity. True nothing—like watching Seinfeld while hooked up to a respirator.

Let’s really work on it.

Reid Champagne denies once waking up from an afternoon nap to find the last rites being administered to him.

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