Idle Talk

Direct Male: Summer slacking?

Direct MaleIt’s a quirk of human nature that we’re not-so-interested in others’ ease. Tell the story of your ocean cruise with gourmet dining and perfect weather, and you’re met with yawns and resentment. But recount a cruise where the toilets quit working and you were forced to do your business in a 5-gallon bucket, and you’re guaranteed a rapt audience.

So, if you’re a teacher who takes summers off (like me), you walk a razor’s edge. You can’t openly celebrate the joys of not working for three months. Trust me, your friends don’t want to know you were surfing sweet morning swell while they were lint-rolling their work slacks before yet another division meeting.

But you also can’t bemoan the challenges inherent in taking so much time off: The strict budgeting required to go three months without a paycheck or how by the end of 90 days with no fixed schedule, you tend to get a little out of sorts. Because you will receive exactly zero sympathy. It’s like a lottery winner complaining about her sudden windfall. Despite high rates of depression, addiction, and bankruptcy among jackpot winners, we all know that if we won that $100 million, we’d handle it just fine, thank you.

I don’t blame my working friends for their mixed feelings about my annual break from wage earning. In late July, when the Wilmington heat cranks up to Dante levels and my schedule consists of a morning surf sesh and an afternoon nap in the AC, if I run into a friend who did something productive that day, like close a big real estate deal or have a colonoscopy, I too question my idleness.

My feelings are further complicated by the fact that I teach a course in early American literature. As another summer nears, I can’t help but consider what our American literary ancestors might think of my annual season of leisure.

Early in the course, my students and I read accounts from Pilgrim and Puritan settlers. True, there were privileged loafers among the Pilgrims, men who’d ventured to the New World motivated by false reports of easy gold, who eschewed the hard work vital to establish a new settlement. As a result, almost half of the Pilgrims didn’t survive the first winter. Would the survivors have seen my time off as an existential threat?

And what about during the Salem witch hysteria? Would an overworked and resentful neighbor have accused me of putting my free time to wicked ends? Would I have been hanged or crushed by rocks with the other “witches”?

Mid-semester, we read from the autobiography of that early-to-bed, early-to-rise, original self-improvement guru Ben Franklin in which he shares the thirteen positive qualities, including industry, that he systematically strove to perfect in himself.

Franklin not only prized hard work but understood the value of demonstrating one’s industry to others. Rather than outsource delivery of his printing jobs, young Franklin carried his wheelbarrow through the streets himself to virtue signal his industriousness to his Philadelphia neighbors.

Would Franklin view my leisure as a personal weakness? Proof of moral imperfection? As anti-American? All of the above?

Thankfully, as summer nears, we turn our attention to American Romantic writers like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. Now here were guys who could appreciate the value of leisure. Uncle Walt openly celebrated unemployment in ecstatic free verse: “I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

Thoreau famously lived for two years in a simple cabin by a pond doing a whole lot of nothing. In Walden, he espouses notions that to Franklin might have sounded positively un-American: “I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.”

Thoreau’s neighbors dismissed him as a slacker. They didn’t use that word, of course, but we sure do now, and it’s instructive to break it down.

“Slack” means to have looseness, as in a rope or sail. Is it really so bad, when possible, to leave a little slack in your schedule? Must we always be so tight, so strained, so just-on-the-verge-of-breaking?

“Grind” is a hot word these days. Pop on social media for three minutes, and you’re bound to see a post from a friend at the gym or on the job celebrating their willingness to grind their way to success. What could be more antithetical to grinding than slacking?

In my defense, despite my appreciation of leisure, I have no plans to quit work entirely at sixty-five. I know from experience there’s no perfect happiness waiting for you when your working days are done. Instead, take work away, and you’re suddenly left with big chunks of free time during which you come face-to-face with the disquieting thoughts you’d used busyness to ignore for decades.

It seems to me that the answer isn’t to blindly follow either Franklin or Thoreau. Instead, in this overworked age, it’s to learn that there are times for slacking and times to grind.

Summers off or not, perhaps one true mark of wisdom is the ability to tell the one from the other.

Dylan Patterson is a writer and filmmaker who teaches English at Cape Fear Community College.

To view more of illustrator Mark Weber’s work, go to

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Categories: Culture