Ivy League Idler
There’s nothing like a natural disaster to shake people out of idleness. It’s difficult to sit on the sofa in front of the TV if the roof has caved in. It’s difficult to spend hours on Facebook when there’s no power. Hurricane Sandy wasn’t too hard on us here in Cambridge: minimal flooding, no power loss, and, of course, no classes. But in some of the areas that were more severely affected, people had to seriously consider what was essential to their lives and what was frivolous. People in areas where power was lost went into a strange, quasi-hibernation mode.
My dear leisure-loving grandparents in Princeton had no power for a week. After several nervous calls that went straight to voicemail, I finally got a hold of my grandmother. No, they weren’t submerged in feet of saline water after all. They were just camping out in the library because the house was too cold.
Friends, this week the principles of idleness to which I adhere so faithfully have been somewhat shaken. Maybe it was the fact that my roommate sent me the following adage: “Only a busy person can truly enjoy leisure.” It wasn’t a passive-aggressive dig. I’m quite sure she has no clue about this column. Maybe it was the “no idling” sign that caught my eye as I was passing by Leverett yesterday. Whatever the cause, the outcome is that I have been rather less idle this week than I should have liked. And, surprisingly, I have been almost as happy doing many things as I have traditionally been doing nothing.
Often my yearning to do nothing stems more from a fear of work than an actual pleasure in idleness. In an effort to conquer this fear, I have tried to disguise my schoolwork as best I can. For Halloween, my thesis dressed up as a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts (and the Prudential Center for a spot of shopping). It was a great costume. It utterly fooled me into spending the afternoon after the museum visit working on my thesis. And I actually had fun. I actually wanted to be in the library. As a devout “idle-ist” I rarely set foot in Lamont because it fairly reeks of productivity. The harsh lighting, still air, and somewhat tense silence stifle all hope of doing no work. But yesterday the fluorescent bulbs seemed inviting, the absence of noise peaceful, the stillness calming.
I wish every weekend lasted three days. That would really help me in my tireless quest for idleness. I spent the luxuriously long Columbus Day weekend with my grandparents. They are retired, and their quiet Princeton home is a veritable shrine to doing nothing. But it’s a very different flavor of down time from my Harvard-idling. There is no Wifi. There is no alcohol (yes, I went there willingly). There is limited TV-watching. There are, however, lots and lots of back issues of the New Yorker—a lifetime’s worth to be exact, since my grandmother has been a subscriber for almost 60 years. They should give her some kind of medal.
Reading back issues of the New Yorker is arguably as useless as pinning things to boards on Pinterest, and yet I feel less guilty doing the former. Do I feel less guilty about doing nothing at my grandparents’ because I am doing so in a quaint, retro, vaguely ’60s-ish way? Because I bake pecan pie in between naps on the chintz sofa? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because for my grandparents, who worked well into their seventies, this environment of calm is utterly deserved and appropriate. As a visitor to their idle abode, I too am entitled—no obligated—to do nothing. Doing schoolwork would be a disruption. It would be rude.
As the booze- and nostalgia-fuelled train that is senior year pulls away from the platform, I find myself looking longingly at the college landscape racing past the windows. The thought of my destination, that nebulous, uninviting thing called the “real world,” fills me with dread. In the “real world,” there is very little time for the concept that has become a religion for me and many of my peers during our four years here: the belief that leisure time, time spent doing absolutely nothing, is sacrosanct.
This idea is so institutionalized that the very thought of class on Friday fills most students with horror. This summer I worked in a particular industry, which I will neglect to name here, in which not only Fridays but (gasp!) even Saturdays and Sundays were fair game for work. It was with a heavy heart and heavier footsteps that I dragged myself—literally, I was on crutches for most of the summer—to the office many a weekend, knowing how ludicrous it was for me to be there at all. In Harvard land, weekend class work is as alien as arriving on the hour for section.