It’s a late August midnight, I’m on vacation, a hurricane named Katrina is heading to Florida–and I’m online. Like some 40 percent of Americans, I have spent half of my time this vacation in (thrice) daily contact with the office. Heck, I’ve even read the business section of the New York Times on Saturdays and watched Meet the Press on Sundays.
But I did get the hang of climbing out of my superstructured world. I’ve stared at the ocean for hours. I’ve slept late, taken a few cat naps (and then worked into the wee hours). I’ve sharpened my driving skills, and zip around narrow roads with the radio blasting Motown. I learned how to make a wicked martini and cook two new dishes.
As for reading material, I’ve polished off two novels (and the biography of Thomas Paine for political inspiration). I also brought along a copy of one of my favorite “self-help” books. I first read The Importance of Being Lazy two (long) years ago, and I recommend it to all you Type As who don’t know what to do with yourselves on vacation. Read on, enjoy, and get into that hammock before fall descends.
What Are They Reading?KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
[originally posted online on August 12, 2003]
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING LAZY:In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations.By Al Gini.Routledge Books. 182 pp. $22.95 (cloth).
I know how to work hard but not how to play. Take last summer. On my first night of vacation, I went to bed with David Brock’s Blinded By the Right. I woke at 3:00 AM filled with guilt that I was not at The Nation, on the barricades, fighting vigilantly against the right-wing forces destroying our country. Like some 40 percent of Americans, I spent most of my time that vacation in (more than) daily contact with the office by e-mail, cell phone and fax.
Another summer is here. It’s been a long, arduous yet productive year at the magazine. (Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. After all, how many people have work they find meaningful, filled with passion and purpose? But boy, am I tired.)
So, this August, I decided that I needed some justification for playing, dozing, gazing, ambling and goofing off without guilt. And, after some research, I found my guide: The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations, by Loyola College philosophy professor and Chicago radio personality Al Gini.
It’s an engaging, eclectic, idiosyncratic account of the history of vacations and play–and a reasoned justification of why we need leisure in our lives. In fact, Gini goes even farther, drawing on studies of Americans’ vacation habits to show why “doing nothing” is a fundamental human necessity. (Gini relies on the latest academic research as well as interviews, personal anecdotes, the writings of various ancient and contemporary theologians and the well-chosen observations of people like Aristotle, Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen, Juliet Schor and Arlie Hochschild.)
The book’s thesis is both simple and liberating:
Even if we love our jobs and find creativity, success and pleasure in our work, we also crave, desire, and need not to work. No matter what we do to earn a living, we all seek the benefits of leisure, lassitude and inertia…All of us need to play more. All of us need to ‘vacate’ ourselves from our jobs and the wear and tear of the ‘everydayness’ of our lives. All of us need to get absorbed in, focused on, something of interest outside of ourselves. All of us need escape, if only for a while, to retain our perspective on who we are and who we don’t want to be. All of us need to gain some feeling for, some knowledge of, the differences between distraction and insight, merriment and meaning, entertainment and recreation, laziness and leisure, rest and inertia.
We live in a society, Gini observes, in which modern workers talk about sleeping the same way that hungry people talk about food, and where Americans are now working more than ever before. (Perversely, we allow downtime for maintenance and repair of machinery but not for employees.)
As Joe Robinson, a former adventure-travel magazine editor, says, “Americans’ most hazardous work-related illness is vacation deficit disorder or vacation starvation.” (Did you know that there is only one other country in the industrialized world, Mexico, with fewer vacation days than America?)
Robinson–entrepreneur and business owner himself–isn’t against the work ethic per se. What he’s against is the crazed, psychotic overwork ethic. And he’s started a crusade for federally required vacation time. After all, why is it that America is the only industrialized nation without a minimum paid-leave law? If President Bush can head to the ranch for a month, why shouldn’t the Fair Labor Standards Act be amended so that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year gets three weeks’ vacation time annually, at minimum? (For more info or to add your support to Robinson’s crusade, click here.
The movement’s rallying cry has a familiar echo: “Workers and travelers of America, Unite! We have nothing to lose but our stress!” Can’t do much better than that. I’m going to go practice what I preach–take a nap on the porch, lie in the hammock and read a few novels. And, after that, I’m going to try to continue to put leisure time on the political map as an issue that should be near the top of any progressive agenda.