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Thomas Carlyle, the conservative Victorian proselytizer for the idea that hard work is man’s highest virtue, would strongly disapprove of my current idle and unproductive life.
I wasn’t always this way. I used to be as busy as Joe Biden’s hands in a roomful of women. As a kid, I shined shoes in bars, delivered both of LA’s newspapers on a bike, and set pins in a bowling alley. As an adult, I installed telephones for Ma Bell, spiked my way up telephone poles for the Army, studied hard enough to get a Ph.D., and taught English full-time in two universities for thirty years.
The son of a down-to-earth oilfield roughneck, I grew up in the blue-collar town of Compton, CA, in an environment that was skeptical of big ideas and contemptuous of unproductive lives. In that world, men worked, that’s what they knew, and almost all in blue-collar jobs. It’s not hard to see why I was never entirely comfortable in my skin as an English professor.
After all, there is nothing more nebulous and unproductive than teaching literature. I could never even be sure if I was having any effect at all on my students, much less a good one. Perhaps one of my students was influenced by something that she read or heard in my class — and then, ten years later, became a novelist whose words were so powerful that they softened the hard hearts of the wicked. Now wouldn’t that be pretty if it were so. Only God knows.
So in my off hours, I immersed myself in the palpable by making things that I could see and touch. I built two workshops (the first one was destroyed by a lightning bolt) and a 1,000-square-foot extension to my house. I made woodwind instruments and lamps. I made display cabinets, tables, side tables, and other pieces of furniture that now fill my house.
“Produce! Produce!” said Carlyle. “Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a product.” And so I did. Even after I retired, I couldn’t shake the idea that I ought to be producing something. So I started designing, scroll-sawing, and hand-painting wooden jigsaw puzzles — hundreds and hundreds of them — and selling them at craft fairs in Eugene, Oregon, and Portland. Below is what I would take with me to sell. Some of these puzzles, the multi-layered ones, took me three days to make.
I was pretty sure I would end up fulfilling what Thomas Carlyle said was his goal in life: “to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.”
But that didn’t happen. Not only am I not going to die of exhaustion, I’ve discovered, in the last few years, that idleness finally suits me. So I take naps, look in on Ricochet, try to increase Marie’s happiness, and of course walk Bob the dog. I’ve finally moved on from the restless busyness that has characterized most of my life. My drills, scroll saws, and belt sanders will have to carry on without me.
There is a season, the preacher says in Ecclesiastes, for every purpose under Heaven. I have finally arrived at my season of quiescence.Published in