The New York Times
Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in Americaby Tom Lutz
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/p>/b>/i>… See more details below
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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A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America
By Tom Lutz
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2006 Tom Lutz
All rights reserved.
CODY ON THE COUCH
* * *
In which the author confronts his sons 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, landscapes 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.
* * *
That was a different era, of course, and circa 1970 most people I knew considered rebelling against one's parents no more than a sign that one wasn't brain-dead. Times have changed, and Cody's desire to live with me in the year 2001 was no more exceptional than my mad flight from my parents thirty years earlier. So imagine my chagrin when, soon into our new life together, something that looked very much like a generation gap appeared. The first couple of days, when I came up from my basement study for a cup of coffee to see him lying on the couch and watching TV, I didn't think much of it. He had only just got here; tomorrow or the next day was soon enough to start responding to the "Bassist Wanted" ads in the local rags and looking for a job. Eventually, though, I asked him, as he ate his cereal watching TV circa 11:00 a.m., what his plans for the day were, and he said, eyes to the screen, that he was going to finish getting his résumé together. Fine, I thought. Shouldn't take long: "I went to high school" would cover most of it. I'm going to the library, I told him, so my computer is free. I came back six or seven hours later. He was watching cartoons. He seemed slightly surprised by my question about his C.V. "Oh, yeah," he said. "It's almost ready for you to proofread for me."
This went on for days. I would come back from the library or a meeting, and he would be there, like an Edwardian neurasthenic, dourly contemplating the world around him from the comfort of a plush purple sofa. Had my son become a slacker? Was this the person he actually was? Hanging out in the summer or on weekends doing nothing was one thing, and obviously I had seen him do his share of that, but this wasn't the summer; this wasn't the weekend — this ain't no disco! Didn't the kid have any get-up-and-go? Life is short! Let's move it! The first Monday night, I asked if he wanted to come to the local club, where I played in the house band, and meet some musicians, since it was jam night. No, not really, he said, switching channels; maybe next week. The chances he would find simpático musicians in my middle-aged blues scene were fairly slight, since his high school band had been heavy funk-metal-alternative. But it was something to do. You sure? Yeah, he said. Have fun. I'll see you tomorrow.
Of course, I thought as I drove to the bar, of course you'll see me tomorrow, because you'll be right there on the couch. I knew that I shouldn't be getting upset, that it was possible to see such lying about as part of a perfectly valid regenerative process, a kind of temporary moratorium as he adjusted to life after high school. He did, after all, have a lot of adjustments to make: to life in the big city after his adolescence in rural New England, without the community of friends and family he had left behind on the other coast, to a life without clear paths or plans, to life with his father. But at this moment I couldn't focus for very long on what his burdens might be. I couldn't focus because, I realized with a shock, I was too angry.
That was the biggest surprise. Having grown up dodging the sudden furies of my temperamental father, I began my career as a parent determined not to direct my own ready anger at my kids, and I had almost entirely succeeded. I could get fleetingly peeved, of course, in all the classic ways, at chores undone or other daily disappointments, but I never indulged it, never blew up at them, never really boiled over. So I was shocked to learn that the sight of my son lying on the couch day after day made me furious.
It was a visceral, total reaction. The minute I walked in the door or came up from my office downstairs, my face flushed, my heart pumped up, my body flooded with adrenaline. I would turn around, go into the kitchen, and tap my fingers on the tile counter, or go back down to my office, sit down, cool down. My father's anger always seemed to propel him to action, sometimes violent action, but mine confused and stymied me. I couldn't seem to stop it from happening, didn't understand it, and just hoped I was hiding it fairly well.
Why this anger? So what if he was wasting time? One could argue that all of my time before college had been wasted — an argument my own father had in fact made — and by any measure I had, in fact, squandered an enormous amount of time. If anyone was able to understand my son's temporary incapacity, then, it should have been me. I kept telling myself that it was a different world then, more fat on the land, more utopia in the air, more second chances waiting in the wings, but however many times I said it, I couldn't convince myself that this was why I was so angry. When I had imagined Cody taking advantage of a year or two off before college, I always saw him doing something exciting, challenging, and worthwhile. He had recorded two CDs with his high school band, and L.A. was the perfect place to try his kind of music. One of his musical heroes, Flea, lived in our neighborhood; Beck was right around the corner; alternative music clubs like the Silverlake Lounge and Spaceland were down the street. He had shown a bit of a flair for narrative even in grade school and had done some playing around with a video camera, which was one reason he talked of following his older sister into the film world, a world in which his youth was an asset. He had always been an avid outdoorsman, fly-fishing, mountain biking, and camping even deep into the winter. This was California, damn it; opportunities for outdoor adventure were everywhere.
Confining his adventures to the couch was obviously not what I had in mind, but still, why did it make me so crazy? If he was stretched out on the sofa at the age of thirty-five, obviously I'd have a case, but the kid was only eighteen.
I started to write this book at least in part to understand my ire as I watched my son do what I had seen him (and myself) do many times before: he was doing nothing. In my forties, I necessarily had a more acute sense of the shortness of life, but why should he? He was still husbanding the proceeds of his summer job on an organic farm in Massachusetts, not hitting me up for spending money. He was the one at the classically hormonal age, so why were mine firing?
The answer, I began to sense, had to do with my own twisted relation to work, a pathology that I share with many people of both my own and my father's and my son's generations. I came of age during one famous generational rebellion against the work ethic, and Cody came of age during another. When he was an impressionable eleven and fourteen, the two films that helped define the slacker in the 1990s came out — Richard Linklater's Slacker (1991) and Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994). These films took as their informing ethos the idea that work was worthless, depressing, and unredemptive. Cody says that Kevin Smith's films, when he was growing up, seemed to him amateurish, and he can't remember even noticing that the work ethic was up for discussion. He watched Slacker with his older sister and got bored. But he was a fan of Wayne's World (1992), about a slacker who lives with his parents after he has graduated; and he and his sisters wore out a tape of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), a high school slacker film that they could recite in its entirety. Cody thought at the time, he says, that "Ferris was the coolest."
These comedies also capture the anger that slacking provokes. The clerks' girlfriends get angry at them, their customers get angry at them, the other slackers get angry at them, they get angry at each other. Ferris's sister is furious with him, his parents perturbed, his best friend pissed off. The emotional history of slackerdom runs the gamut from the tragic to the farcical, but of all the feelings it evokes — pride, frustration, boredom, anxiety, hilarity — anger, I have come to find, is one of the most common.
* * *
Anger at slackers, for instance, has fueled the assault on the welfare state these past dozen or so years. On one side is the fury at the "welfare queens," who, we've heard and read, are vampiric layabouts sucking the lifeblood out of honest, hardworking taxpayers. John Ashcroft, when he was senator from Missouri in 1995, gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation in which he told several horror stories, including this one about a five-month-old girl named Ariel Hill:
She was born on Christmas Eve 1992 and killed in May of 1993. She lived with her twenty-two-year-old mother and father and four other siblings in a squalid one-bedroom apartment in public housing. The family's principal source of income was welfare. One day, her mother grew tired of her screaming, placed her in a sink, and burned her with hot water. She had not been fed in days. She died weighing less than seven pounds. When investigators examined the apartment they found a scrap of paper with each child's name on it and the dollar amount that they were worth on welfare. A life reduced to the dollar amount of a welfare check.
Now there is a story that could make a person angry — angry, for instance, at an economic system that can produce such tragedies, angered by the lack of education, opportunity, support, and community that might foster such dire deeds. This is not what made Ashcroft angry, however.
What made Ashcroft angry was that this woman, he believed, had babies simply to increase her welfare check, one of the classic myths that demagogues have tapped into over the last half century to foment protest against the welfare system. From George Wallace's attack on "welfare loafers" to Lester Maddox's claim that the Aid to Dependent Children program was "a reward for promiscuity" to Newt Gingrich's claim that the welfare state taught children "not to work, not to acquire property, not to learn to read and write and to wait around for that welfare check," the welfare recipient has been damned as just pure lazy. Entitlement programs, from this irate perspective, are over-entitlement programs. To take just one sample from the many Listservs and blogs that have had welfare cheats as their bugbear:
Twenty or more years of welfare has proven it does not work. What works is work ... hard work. So, get off the pitty pot and get a job, all you welfare loafers. Quit moaning and expecting me and others who do work to support you with our tax dollars. Earn your own damn money the hard way, just like I do. Get a job! I'm mad as hell!
This kind of anger was mobilized in the legislative battles at the state and federal level that brought in a host of "workfare" and "earnfare" programs, what Bill Clinton called the "end of welfare as we know it" in the 1990s.
Excerpted from Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz. Copyright © 2006 Tom Lutz. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
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.
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 and Iowa City.
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