Well, technically, it was a “cold day.” The district has a policy which states that if the wind chill is under -30, then school gets cancelled. And even though it later got sunny and warmed all the way up to 9 degrees, it was too cold at 6:00 am to allow school to go on.
Of course, I still went. See, I don’t watch the local news in the morning. Or at all, really. So I was not informed of the cancellation. But on my way to school, I noticed the streets were eerily empty of traffic, and as I got closer, I saw too many free parking spaces. And then the real tip-off: the teacher’s lot was empty.
Still, it didn’t feel right. I didn’t trust it. I went home and checked the district’s website. Sure enough, it said, “Madison Schools Closed,” which should have meant case closed. And yet, I couldn’t help but doubt. So I turned on the TV and waited for the scrolling “school cancellation” notices to say “Madison Schools.” And then I checked the local news websites.
Later, I even called another teacher.
Can you believe that crap?
I wonder if it’s human nature to distrust good fortune. I can see how it would have been advantageous to our ancestors — like those who were fighting with neighboring tribes — to suspect their good luck. (“Oh look, our enemies are bringing us virgins and livestock. How cool is that?”) So maybe we’ve gradually evolved to be suspicious of gifts.
But throughout the day, the other thing I noticed was that I felt like I should be working on something. It was the third day of a new semester, so I didn’t have anything to grade; my classes were all planned for; I didn’t have to copy any handouts; I didn’t have letters of recommendation to write; and since I’ve taught all of this semester’s classes before, I really didn’t need to plan ahead at all.
I had no obligations.
It was truly a day off.
And yet, all day long, I couldn’t shake this nagging guilt that I was slacking off. I was reminded of an article I read years ago in Harper’s Magazine about idleness. I vaguely remember the author’s argument being about how American society has deified work. We all worship this “Church of Work” and we praise being busy. As members of this strange cult, we sacrifice our relationships and our time. But we also sacrifice our cognition. We sacrifice thinking.
Last semester was one of my busiest in years, despite my being part time. I was putting in way more than 40 hours per week, schooling myself on literary movements in England from Beowulf to early 20th-century Modernism. And it was certainly thought-provoking. But there’s a qualitative difference between thoughts of an idle mind and thoughts of schooled one. Schooling (for teachers and students) requires a focus and some structure — both good things to become familiar with if, for instance, you’re going to write an essay as good as that Harper’s one (which, by the way, I found online: it’s called “Quitting the Paint Factory” and it’s by Mark Slouka). And I don’t think I’d want schooling to be any other way.
But when it’s all-consuming, it kills another type of thinking. I’m not sure exactly how to describe this idle thinking. You can get originality elsewhere; you can get wonder in other places; you can get brief bouts of mental healing from a variety of sources. In fact, everything you get from idle thinking, you can get from other sources. But you never get them in one place. It’s like a nutrient-rich stew for the soul!
Okay, that’s hyperbole, but I still think I’m onto something.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about working hard. I love challenges and believe whole-heartedly in being put to the test occasionally. In fact, I run my classes with this belief in mind, and I get noticeable results from students when I push them. It’s not effort, determination, or working one’s ass off that I oppose. It’s the sheer quantity of work that so many of us are engaged in — so much that a day off leaves us feeling like something is wrong. And so much that the quality of it all is diluted.
On that cold day, as I was walking home, I predicted that I’d sit around playing video games for hours (they are, after all, my guilty pleasure). But I ended up messing with some web design stuff and playing the guitar, both of which I haven’t done much of in recent months. And that’s the difference between leisure and idleness. Idleness is unpredictable and chaotic. It feels like a waste of time, but it really isn’t.
As Mark Slouka puts it,
Leisure is permissible, we understand, because it costs money; idleness is not, because it doesn’t. Leisure is focused; whatever thinking it requires is absorbed by a certain task: sinking that putt, making that cast, watching that flat-screen TV. Idleness is unconstrained, anarchic. Leisure – particularly if it involves some kind of high-priced technology – is as American as a Fourth of July barbecue. Idleness, on the other hand, has a bad attitude. It doesn’t shave; it’s not a member of the team; it doesn’t play well with others. It thinks too much, as my high school coach used to say.
I have no plans to work toward making idleness the dominant state of my life. But I hope not to lose track of its importance. When the next snow day comes, I’m going to try my hardest to do nothing.