Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Injuring Eternity

A couple times a year, I find myself home alone for a few days. I could ask myself the following questions: What color should I paint the bedroom? What combination of annuals and perennials should I plant near the porch? In what Spanish immersion program should I enroll? Instead, I ask: What TV crime drama is featuring a marathon this weekend? A "CSI"? A "Law & Order"? Or my personal favorite: "Criminal Minds"? I perch on the couch with an assortment of tacos and empanadas, with a diet Dr. Pepper the size of a bathroom wastebasket, and--during the next twelve hours--I get up twice to pee, and once to check my email. I'm comfy in PJs, and I'm toasty beneath a patchwork quilt. I'm perfectly content, despite unwashed dishes and unbrushed teeth. "I wonder what the world is doing now," I remember from "Walden": an idle thought formed during idle times. But I don't feel the need to peek through the curtains, or turn to CNN. This weekend, my curiosity about the rest of the world is shallow, and fleeting. I'm busy wasting time.

Sounds fun, doesn't it. And it is, as long as privacy (even secrecy) is assured. But I'm conflicted about my rights and responsibilities, and conflict--inevitably--leads to blogging, which--less inevitably--leads to resolution.

In my twenties, I supported myself by working one full-time job and an additional summer job. In my thirties, I continued to earn a living, paying half of the shared bills and fully participating in the rearing of a child. I even enjoyed a stint as sole breadwinner while my husband was in graduate school. Since leaving the workforce at age forty, I've home-schooled a high school student; fostered dozens of puppies; completed several college classes; earned spending money by typing, editing, and bookkeeping; provided excellent care for a couple of the world's cutest toddlers; sewn hundreds of dresses for hundreds of little girls; and maintained a home. "Thanks for earning a living," I tell my husband. "Thanks for doing everything else," he graciously replies.

But for a decade (or maybe a lifetime), I've struggled with feelings of laziness. The problem is this: I'm convinced that idle time must be earned, and I haven't worked hard enough to earn it. I'm not a longshoreman or a coal miner or an Army Ranger. I'm not sore and sweaty at the end of the day. The only decent thing to do is to keep working, so I load the dishwasher, replace a broken zipper on a well-worn pair of jeans, edit a friend's neatly typed personal history. But--rather soon--I'm jonesing for down-time: for the opportunity to read another review of "The Road," to curl up on an unmade bed with an affectionate cat, to compile a mental list of men who've seen me in my underpants. This inability to maintain the momentum of labor makes me uneasy, yet I'm disinclined to change. The resulting cognitive dissonance is driving me mad (or at least pissing me off).

Once, at a Jesuit-run retreat, I was chatting with a monk. Or a priest. Or maybe just some guy. He was older, and charming, and we did the dishes together after dinner. He didn't exactly flirt, but I could tell he liked me. He'd noticed my unease earlier when the retreatants introduced themselves and told what they did for a living. "You think that paid labor is the only worthwhile labor, don't you," he said. Yes, I said. "And yet the paid labor you perform is minimal," he said. Yes, I said. "So you think that the doctors and social workers and school teachers and hairdressers at the dinner table tonight are more important than you, and more interesting," he said. Yes, I said. "Are you going to change what you do, or are you going to change how you feel about what you do?" he asked. Then we had ice cream, and walked back to our dorm together. It was muddy, and he offered his arm.

Self-described Frugal Zealot (and homemaker) Amy Dacyczyn solved the problem of unpaid labor by working exactly the same number of hours her husband worked. I can see how this might be effective for some. But not only does my husband work a lot of hours, I can't tell by looking if he's working or not. Sure...he's gazing at the computer screen, occasionally clicking the mouse. Is he putting the finishing touches on the final report of a lucrative contract? Is he deleting the latest right-wing political rant forwarded by his mom? Or is he gazing at Angelina's breastfeeding photos, with a combination of admiration and lust, but mostly lust? How can I know? And if I can't know, how can I possibly decide how to spend my time: whether to shop around for better health insurance, to sew flannel sleep pants to donate to the women's shelter, or to read a Robert Parker novel in the bathtub? I have no idea how others navigate these treacherous shoals. Maybe this will always be a mystery to those of us with Some College.

The issue of idle time is somewhat clearer for those with nine-to-five jobs (or even the stay-at-home spouses of those with nine-to-five jobs). At the end of a shift, they do the requisite chores, and whatever time is left between that hour and bedtime is theirs. But this, too, has never been clear to me: When, exactly, are the chores done? When does idle-time commence? Granted, I usually err on the side of "too soon" rather than "not soon enough." But...how clean should the house be? How decluttered the closets? How much time given over to charitable causes? How many letters written to loved ones, to soldiers in the field, to congressmen? How much personal grooming? How much political activism? How many hours spent on self-improvement, whether it's a community-ed course, a step-aerobics DVD, or another chapter in a George Eliot novel? When are we officially done?

Because the answer is hidden from me, I'm choosing to knock off now. But because the people I love usually choose to knock off later, I'm forced to do most of my time-wasting in secret. Yes...forced. I've convinced myself that a puritanical, tyrannical, and wholly invented version of my husband is holding a gun to my head and saying, "Be productive, or lose my respect." (The imagined gun seems unnecessary, but mildly erotic.) I can't stand it, and I flee. I do much of my time-wasting in a parked car (sometimes--ironically--in an idling car). At home, I do my time-wasting behind a locked door, or after my husband is asleep. I watch "Pride and Prejudice" again, on cable at 3 a.m., and feel like I'm getting away with something. It's intoxicating...the feeling that I'm not being monitored and judged by grown-ups. (As an aside, I couldn't help but notice recently that Mr. Darcy never says the words, "So, Miss Bennet, what do you do for a living?")

I've now been writing for hours, and I still feel unpleasantly fuzzy on this subject. So, in what my hardworking husband would probably consider a colossal waste of time, I'm going to examine the meaning of "wasting time." To that end, I've divided time-use into five tiers.

Tier 1 includes tasks that are both necessary and productive: earning a living (adequate to meeting all of your needs and some of your wants) and caring for dependents (children, the elderly, the disabled, and pets).

Tier 2 includes tasks that are also necessary and productive, but maybe a tad less urgent: meeting medical and dental needs; performing civic duties such as voting and jury duty; paying bills, taxes, and insurance premiums; and maintaining a home and car. I spend quite a bit of time in this tier, performing what my husband refers to as non-revenue-generating tasks.

Tier 3 includes tasks that are productive, but not necessary. We usually call these hobbies, and they can be physical (like swimming), or creative (like cake decorating), or competitive (like chess), or all three (like ballroom dancing). Generally, these activities are perceived as purposeful and results-driven; only a curmudgeon would suggest that engaging thus is a waste of time.

Tier 4 includes tasks that are neither productive nor necessary, but are fun. This tier includes entertainment (like Disneyland) and socializing (like sharing a banana split with a girlfriend while discussing the most flattering skirt style and Daniel Craig's performance in "Defiance").

Tier 5 is the unpleasant, to-be-avoided tier, and the only one that rises to the occasion of "wasting time." It includes tasks that are not productive, necessary, or fun. There's no reason to visit this tier--ever!--and yet I do (for example, tonight I watched "The Cleveland Show"). This tier includes mindless channel surfing and web surfing. In fact, mindlessness is the hallmark of Tier 5. If you're visiting this tier, you probably have a look of weariness, or contempt. It includes attending a boring party, or embarking on a miserable vacation.

The amount of cross-over boggles the mind. In which tier would I place having sex? Visiting the Lincoln Memorial? Learning PowerPoint? Shopping for the perfect blue jeans? Making key-lime pie? Reading the Century's 100 Best Novels? (And would it make a difference if I were reading the novels for college credit versus my own edification?) What about taking my five-year-old nephew to the aquarium, and then making sugar cookies together, and then discussing the concept of "crying wolf"? The answers: Any tier but the fifth tier.

Ah-ha! I can see now that I failed to differentiate between idle time and wasted time. I was wrong about the "Criminal Minds" marathon: It wasn't wasted time, because I was happy! I was shamelessly, delightfully present! Perhaps the idle time was unearned, but I can fix that. I can take the monk's advice and either get a job (a paying job, or a minimum number of hours per week spent on Tier 1 and Tier 2 activities) or get a different attitude (a healthy and liberating apathy concerning earned-versus-unearned idle time).

Idle time is a pleasure, a gift, a blessing, an opportunity. Those of us who have it--whether a little or a lot--are lucky beyond measure. I'm going to spend more time enjoying it, celebrating it, basking in it...and less time (maybe no time!) second-guessing my right to it.