The Leisure Eaters

Author: Eric Zorn

A letter arrives here and I mean to open it and read it right away, but I shuffle it underneath a few bills and set the whole stack over there on the credenza on a stack of video tapes, dutifully recorded, that I’m planning to watch, and right next to the answering machine that’s winking with messages to be returned even as my answering machine at work is filling up. Some woman from Sony in New York wants me to fax her my column from this morning’s paper about the world’s most expensive television set. The U.S. mail will not do, she says. Federal Express will not do. She needs it for a big meeting right after lunch.


But I don’t really know how to work the fax machine at the office – the directions were written by the same crypto-literate pocket-protector techno-geek who wrote the instructions that came with my multi-function watch, the one that’s still, I do not even blush to say, set on standard time and not daylight savings time. And if I did know how to work the fax machine, I wouldn’t have the time to go to the Xerox machine and copy the article so it would fit into the fax machine.


But anyway, this letter. I have finally gotten around to opening it after reprogramming my push-button Walkman that ran low on batteries and walking over to the Pak Mail franchise in order to General Express some fragment or another to a book publisher in New York who has suddenly decided he needs whatever it was he needed from me right now. Inside is a provocative suggestion from my editor at Notre Dame Magazine suggesting that I write an article that will “examine our approach to leisure;…how much do American consumers spend each year on leisure?” and so on.


“It seems to me,” this letter says, now that I have gotten back to reading it, fixed in the dread that it will require at least some kind of response, “that I read more and more about luxury trains and luxury hotels and ski resorts. Is leisure simply another way to keep up with the Joneses?”


Now this, I think to myself, swatting the letter with an envious and approving flick of my hand, is the kind of thing I should be contemplating, not which sporting event I will find on cable this evening and keep on in the background while trying to finish up my column on the Gumby Fan Cub: Who runs it? What do you get for joining? Why is it in Schaumburg, Illinois? The public has a right to know these things and thank God someone is defending that right, even though I am fitting it in among other responsibilities.


So the Joneses have leisure time, eh? They must have retired. Where do they get this leisure time and what do they mean by “leisure”? If leisure time is that time in which we having nothing to do and nothing we should be doing and nothing that is electronically or otherwise demanding some sort of attention, and if the Joneses truly do have leisure time, then I’m sure they must no longer be working. Or they’re deceased.


I seem to have no leisure time. I can barely get to the end of this letter from Notre Dame Magazine without one of the phone lines ringing or my eye being caught by a file folder on my desk that says something I barely recognize, like “Diversity” or “Ems,” the latter being an article on accent reduction therapy that I absolutely promised to another magazine editor last month, woe is him, and the former being I don’t even know what. I set the letter down with pride rising inside me. “Finish reading ND letter.” I write this at the top of a Things-to-Do list and place after it a huge and triumphant checkmark.


The next item on the list is, “Wash dishes.” The right side of the sink is crummy with dishes, not in spite of the fact that we have a dishwasher but because if it. My wife and I have tuned out the little voice in our brains that used to tell us to rinse out the old glass and use it again rather than get a clean one each time we want a new beverage. Now another, louder voice tells us, “Go for it, you have a dishwasher,” every time thirst beckons, so by the end of the day we’ve gone through six, 10, 20 cups, mugs, tumblers and bowls, leaving no room in the dishwasher for large plates and small pans, all of which we must then wash by hand.


And we would have far fewer dishes if it weren’t for the microwave oven, that meretricious harlot of leisure. Before the microwave, when I was hungry, I’d grab the Cheese-Nips and a Pepsi just to keep the wolves from the door until it was time to go out to dinner or order something in. Then Little Litton, she promised ease, convenience, speed, good eatin’. Now our freezer is stuffed with semi-nutritious delights from which to choose, and guilt compels me to ponder the selections whenever the urge to snack taps me on the shoulder. Should I cook a fajita? A couple of fish sticks? A whole Budget Gourmet meal? After several minutes of pained indecision, I make my choice and loll aimlessly around in the kitchen for three minutes or five minutes or whatever while it heats up. What good is it to work for five minutes?


Next on my lists of Things-to-Do: Read up on leisure.


One newspaper clipping says, “Despite all the conveniences of modern living, leisure time has shrunk by 40 percent in the last 15 years to just 16.2 hours a week.” Another says, “Workers in the United States now enjoy more free time than ever…and more free time is likely on the horizon.” A third says, “New technologies require new responsibilities. Somebody has to scrub the pasta machine.” Another: “Trend observers say that the leisure industry will be the industry of the 1990s.” And another: “Executives and managers have 32 percent less leisure time than in 1973…65 percent work at least one weekend per month…trying to find things on desks takes up three hours a week.”


A couple of things strike me in my intent and perversely unleisurely perusal of leisure literature. The first is that everyone comes at this whole leisure question with an ax to grind. The stories that say leisure time is shrinking are actually stories about workaholism, about those personal service companies that run errands and go shopping for busy people, and about the never-ending domestic responsibilities in the modern home. The stories that say leisure time is growing are actually stories about travel opportunities, about America’s love affair with board games, and about the increasing prevalence of the 35-hour work week.


One of these More Leisure stories quotes author Marilyn Wellemeyer’s introduction to On Your Own Time: The Fortune Guide to Executive Leisure. “Today,” she writes, “most of us belong to the leisure class in a universe of unprecedented opportunity. No barriers deny our desires – neither time, nor distance, nor age nor lack of skill, not even money.”


How about that! Marilyn Wellemeyer is a writer, but if she were an academic she might well be a “leisure studies” professor. Our great colleges and universities have gone big-time into leisure studies, also called “leisure science” I kid you not. More than 100 schools now have accredited programs in leisure studies and recreation – the study of how we spend our time when we have it.


In one of the news clippings, Jean Mundy, a leisure studies professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, is quoted as saying: “People are finally realizing that everything in life does not revolve around the work rhythm…It puts things in perspective; it shows a balance to life.”

Glory to you, Dr. Mundy! I agree that there is more to life than work, even though I’m not sure I buy into the notion that this is a recent discovery. But I am troubled by how much of life has come to resemble work.


I put a check mark next to “Read up on leisure” and move on to the next phase of the challenge – I place a call to Florida State University and leave a message at the department for Dr. Mundy because I have a few pointed questions for her.


1. Does watching old videotapes count as work?

The promise of the VCR, as I recall, was efficiency–timeshifting, watch only what you want to watch, be not a slave to the whims and caprices of the network schedulers. But what has actually happened – to me, anyway – is that the VCR has meant a lot more television watching. I tape programs I ordinarily would be unable to watch because of when they are on, then I feel a guilty imperative to make time to view the tape. Last fall, for instance, my wife and I had to be at a party during the Notre Dame-Miami football game. In the uncomplicated older days I would have gone to the party and tried to sneak into the host’s master bedroom from time to time for peeks at the game. As it is, I taped the entire game on my VCR, diligently kept myself from learning the final score, and stayed up, then, until 4 in the morning watching the game after we got home. Jean Mundy may define this as leisure. I don’t.


2. Is the home computer really our friend?

My NEC PowerMate 1 Plus is a wicked siren. It is equipped with a modem that allows me to communicate with the mainframe computer at the newspaper, leaving me just seconds from work at all hours. If an interview needs transcribing, a story needs polishing, a photo assignment needs filing, I have no excuse not to turn on the computer, even if it’s late, even if it’s Sunday night. And all the time that word processing software has saved me in the typing and retyping of draft copies has been lost and absorbed in the ceaseless tinkering with prose that the software encourages. I have referred above to the microwave oven as a “meretricious harlot of leisure,” a phrase that replaced “a black hole of leisure time,” a variant on the earlier “sink-hole of leisure,” which was a revision of the original “my nemesis,” and I can’t guarantee I won’t change the wording again should I go to the dictionary and discover that meretricious means something other than what I think it means. In the days of typewriters and White-Out, I’d have just left it “my nemesis” and no one would be the poorer for it, we can all agree.


A friend who works in high finance carries around some arcane device that keeps him plugged into the foreign currency markets 24 hours a day. His wife complains it is his mistress. My father bought me an elaborate income tax preparation computer program this year and encouraged me to fire the accountant who was charging us $600 a year to do our returns. I accepted gladly! Forty hours at the computer later, lost in a table of MACRS and ½-year properties, 2 percent deductions and Schedule 179 references, I would have gladly paid twice $600 to have the whole thing done with, but I was committed.


3. Doesn’t each new advance in telephone technology backfire on us?

The answering machine, Dr. Mundy, has made it incumbent upon me to return calls that I never would have received in simpler days, because more people are getting through at off-hours and they are leaving messages that are usually more ambiguous than messages taken by secretaries, so I have to call these people back out of curiosity if not simple politeness instead of just being unavailable (as you apparently are, having not yet returned my call).


The modem. The telecopying machine (and its primitive but still nettlesome correlative, the overnight mail service). The cellular phone. All these things have contributed to the notion that we as advanced human beings ought to be always on call, always reachable, always ready to transmit and receive information. I’m no Luddite, understand. I enjoy a good fax as much as the next person. But this hard-wiring of America has definitely cut back seriously on the number of hours I can watch “The Love Connection” and not feel terrible about it. Which brings me to:


4. Information technologies. Is keeping up with Cable TV leisure, or has it become another job? 

It was so much easier to “miss” the news before CNN and Headline News; so much much simpler so say, “Oh, I didn’t hear about that.” Now there is no excuse to be ill-informed about last night’s coup in Slobovia or civil unrest in Costa Boolaboola. The news is always on. Watch “Crossfire.” Check.


5. And another thing, Dr. Mundy…

What “rhythm of life” is it that makes me spend so much time looking for the remote control? And just because something is fun, does that make it leisure? Going out to dinner or to a party isn’t pure leisure – it’s an assignment. Mowing the lawn isn’t really work, by most lights, but it really isn’t leisure, either, right? And isn’t it in fact true that the more we introduce the modern “labor saving devices” into our lives, the faster life itself accelerates in response to the challenge?


Jean Mundy is not calling me back, so I place a call to Joe Bannon, head of the Leisure Studies Department at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has come to my attention via a newspaper article in which he is quoted as saying, “We are experiencing a change in the work-leisure concept.” What he means by this, he says when he returns my call, is that it is no longer considered relevant to quibble about whether we have more or less leisure time than before.


“Leisure in the ’90s and beyond is not more or less, but different,” he says. “In the field, we define leisure as a block of uncommitted time that an individual can make a choice about how to use. ‘Leisure time’ is a redundancy. We have leisure and we have work – work is committed time, leisure is uncommitted time – but what we would like to do but can’t is dichotomize time segments into work and leisure. The Flow Theory states that at any point during a day a person can flow in and out of those different moments and at one point it may be leisure and at another that same activity may be work or compelled time.”


He goes on: “How about the architect who works eight hours a day in his office designing a building, but he’s enjoying himself so much that pretty soon it’s 8 o’clock at night and he’s still doing it? The line is blurred. That’s the flow.”


And the story of my life.


Is exercising leisure or work? Bannon says it can be either, depending on why the exerciser is exercising and how he perceives the activity. This reasoning is just exactly why mopes like me without Ph.D.’s can’t figure out if there’s really more or less leisure time these days.


Bannon has some other observations – the first is that studies show American industry is offering more and more vacation time. “Twenty years ago it was unheard of for anyone without 30 years service to get five weeks vacation – now it’s happening,” he says. “And many organizations give four weeks within 10 years.”


This assumes, of course, that vacations are leisurely, which is sometimes not the case, I point out. I frequently return from vacations exhausted and filled with anxiety about the fresh responsibilities, phone messages and mail that have piled up as I have been racing around all hurly-burly, having fun.


“We can argue either side of the coin,” Bannon says. But that would be wasting time.


He also observes that, because of the emphasis on fitness and healthy eating in the past 15 years or so, middle-aged people are more and more often enjoying the active leisure pursuits of people in their 20s: rafting, skiing, hiking, running in marathons and other well-known leisure activities. “The parks are jammed,” he notes. “We’ve gotten over the ‘spectator-itis’ that afflicted us in the 1960s.”


Many kids, on the other hand, are being seduced by electronic gadgetry such as video games (which I might just refer to as “meretricious high-tech harlots” should I decide to go back to “the microwave oven, my nemesis,” above; I could do it easily, you know) and turning into couch potatoes.


“There are positive and negative ways of using uncommitted time,” Bannon says. “This is something to think about for the future. They’re saying, depending on who you’re talking to, that the ’90s are going to be the decade of the environment – and leisure plays right into that.”


The connection between this and luxury trains and hotels and ski resorts eludes me, though I’m sure it’s right there.


Maybe Professor Mundy could explain, but she hasn’t returned my call. I’ll bet she’s got too much else to do.


And so, come to think of it, do I. Another item for my Things-to-Do list – “Write back to Notre Dame Magazine and tell them thanks, but I’m way too busy to do a story on leisure.”




In his spare time, Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.