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From the author of Crying, a witty, wide-ranging cultural history of our attitudes toward work—and getting out of it
Couch potatoes, goof-offs, freeloaders, good-for-nothings, loafers, and loungers: ever since the Industrial Revolution, when the work ethic as we know it was formed, there has been a chorus of slackers ridiculing and lampooning the pretensions of hardworking respectability. Reviled by many, heroes to others,
these layabouts stretch and yawn while the rest of society worries and sweats. Whenever the world of labor changes in significant ways, the pulpits, politicians, and pedagogues ring with exhortations of the value of work, and the slackers answer with a strenuous call of their own: “To do nothing,” as Oscar Wilde said,
“is the most difficult thing in the world.” From Benjamin Franklin’s “air baths” to Jack Kerouac’s “dharma bums,” Generation-X slackers, and beyond, anti-work-ethic proponents have held a central place in modern culture.
Moving with verve and wit through a series of fascinating case studies that illuminate the changing place of leisure in the American republic, Doing Nothing revises the way we understand slackers and work itself.
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Tom Lutz ’s previous books include Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears; American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History; and
Cosmopolitan Vistas. He lives in Los Angeles.
Excerpted from Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz. Copyright © 2006 by Tom Lutz. Published in May 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
CODY ON THE COUCH
In which the author confronts his son’s laziness—and remembers his own, past and present—with comments on welfare queens, workfare, and preemployment testing—the emotional nature of the work ethic—work in the ancient world—Tocqueville, Thoreau, and Whitman on work in America and the trouble with fathers—slacker movies—academic work and other questionable labors—answers to “What makes good work good?” and “What did Jesus do?”—hippies and other dropouts—and the Way of the Slacker.
“Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.”
—samuel johnson, the idler, april 15, 1758
I began this book shortly after my son, Cody, at the age of eighteen, moved from his mother’s house into mine. His plan was to take a year or two off before beginning college, and he had come to Los Angeles with uncertain plans. His older sister had moved out a couple years earlier and had a fairly glamorous Hollywood job, and he thought maybe he could get a foot in that door or, perhaps, end up in a hot new band and become a big (alternative) rock star. Either way, he was coming west, the young man, and I looked forward to having him in the house full-time. For a decade he had lived with me only during summers and vacations, and although ours was by all measures a very good relationship, neither of us knew whether we would feel the same ratio of success and failure, the same levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with each other, if we lived together all of the time. We were both excited (if a little apprehensive) about this new chapter in our lives. Whatever else, I was glad that I could give him a base from which to chase a dream or two.
He knew I had taken time off before college myself. Finishing high school in 1971 without the vaguest clue as to where my life was headed, I was saved from the Vietnam draft by a high lottery number. I spent most of the next decade wandering here and abroad, doing the period’s allotment of drugs (or maybe a little more), and working, whenever necessary, at whatever presented itself. I spent time as a carpenter, line cook, factory hand, piano tuner, landscaper, gymnastics instructor, day laborer and odd-jobber, lumberjack, kitchen manager and caterer, farmhand, contractor, bartender, and musician. I read Jack Kerouac early in this period and decided I would be a writer, and so all of these jobs were instantly transformed into grist for that mill. Kerouac suggested that literature’s raw material could be one’s own simple, edgy life, and like many other boys in prolonged adolescence who came under his spell, I became convinced that my self-absorption and confusion were worthy of commemoration in fiction.
And so I became a writer. Not really; that is, I wasn’t actually writing anything, and wouldn’t publish my first piece for many years, but in my own often pot-, speed-, or acid-addled mind I had become a writer. While hitchhiking around or riding the freight trains, I jotted down a few desultory (and in retrospect mawkishly sentimental) journal entries, hoping that they would somehow become, without too much work, novels—novels imbued with what I felt would be a delicious, Dean Moriarty-flavored, but updated, countercultural melancholy. And in the meantime, my search for a vocation, such as it was, appeared to have ended happily. I was a writer, and my daily life was effortless research. Every profound revelation I experienced after every joint I smoked—that is if I could remember it—became part of my stock-in-trade. I basked in this new sense of purpose and felt, vaguely, that my place in the larger world was secure.
My escapades never did become novels, but even now, I may as well sheepishly admit, I think of them as representing some kind of achievement. Those years of itinerancy and odd-jobbing gave me something I never could have had if I’d gone straight through college and graduate school and into the life of teaching and writing I’ve been living for the last fifteen years. I’m glad to know how to sweat copper piping, wire a three-way switch, and bale hay, how to feed five hundred people lunch and use an oxyacetylene torch and a chain saw. I feel I know, in fact, what people mean when they talk about “the value of work.” I loved the days spent rounding up cattle and moving them to fresh pasture in the Midwest, and the bizarre nights spent with those adventurous or oblivious people who pick up young freaks hitchhiking down the coast of California, or who befriend strangers they find wandering through the lonesome towns of the Great Plains. I’m grateful for the time I spent playing music in low-rent bar bands, glad that I rode the rails from Tennessee to California, from Denver to Pittsburgh, that I lived in a van on the Costa Brava, rode a motorbike through the hills of Montenegro, and choked on mosquito coils in a Thai beach hut.
And so I was pleased that Cody, instead of just following the crowd into college, was taking a more adventurous path. “Anyone can float along with the tide,” my father used to say. “Even a dead dog can do it.” In a classic case of parenting gone awry, my father said this hoping it would help me resist the peer pressure to drink, smoke cigarettes and pot, have premarital sex, and otherwise imitate Kerouac in the ever-swifter currents of the late 1960s. I adopted it as the moral underpinning for my rejection of everything else he ever said.
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