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In Defense of Sweet Summer Indolence and Time Suspended

June 09, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Next week school ends and summer vacation begins. That stirs the juices inside me, just as it did 50 years ago. It is funny how things that were programmed in us as kids never really die. I still regard Friday and Saturday as "date nights," and if I have nothing planned for those nights--which is fairly often--I have a vague feeling that I have somehow become socially unclean.

The beginning of summer inspires those same kinds of feelings. Robert Paul Smith wrote a wonderful book many years ago that caught this beautifully, called, "Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothin'." Smith's book is about indolence, and that is what most of my boyhood summers were about too.

Indolence wasn't a bad word then for children. We couldn't always get away with it, but it is what we aspired to, especially in the summertime after nine months of drudgery in school. For small children in Ft. Wayne, Ind., in the 1930s, indolence was an art form. We worked at it creatively--and we were good.

There were rules, however. Indolence too obvious carried a certain amount of risk. It was important to be indolent as much as possible out of view of authority figures, meaning parents. And it was vital not to bug them, even peripherally.

About the second time I said, "I don't have anything to do," my parents would have found something for me, and it wouldn't have been pleasant. This same situation prevailed in the homes of my friends.

The specter that hung oh so precariously over our heads was Sweet's Celery Farm. The crop was harvested in the summer, and the owners needed a lot of stoop labor. The pay was atrociously low and the work miserable, so it was hard to find field workers, even in those Depression years. Sweet's was always an alarming and imminent threat through the summer months.

Indiana in July and August is unbearably hot and humid. Energy expended is returned tenfold in sweat and exhaustion. I can remember spread-eagling on a hillside overlooking Sweet's Farm, just out of sight behind the crest of the hill, watching the laborers. It wasn't a pretty sight, but I would do this periodically to remind myself to nurture my indolence judiciously, creatively and carefully.

I must have done it well because I never got sentenced to Sweet's. And the benefits of that exercise have stayed with me throughout my life. I really believe that those summers of schoolboy indolence have made it possible--even mandatory--for me to spend a great deal of highly satisfying time alone. It was true throughout my middle years. It is true now.

Indolence was--and, I suppose, still is--part dreaming, part ability to suspend oneself in a kind of ethereal space, where there is no direct contact with the world around us. There is also no sense of time. It can take place in the middle of putting on shoes and socks or under a tree in a vacant lot or in a near-deserted movie house in the afternoon.

It can happen without social opprobrium only in youth.

Some of the most magnificent memories I can conjure up are of pure indolence. Lazing in the grass in our back yard on a warm summer night, staring for minutes on end at the stars. Swinging endlessly and mindlessly on our front porch glider. Sitting in a shady spot in an empty high school stadium contemplating nothing. Indolence doesn't have to be practiced alone. It was a highly companionable thing to do--as long as one's companion was equally indolent.

I suspect that the time has come and gone for socially acceptable indolence, at least among middle-class kids. They are too highly organized today--and seldom have a Sweet's Celery Farm in their lives as both stick and carrot.

I am perfectly willing to bring it back, but I don't think I could regain that feeling now. Creative indolence requires a sense of time suspended--and a certain amount of healthy contempt for the American work ethic. Both time and work have been programmed into most of us for so many years that they persist in intruding on high-class indolence.

I'm not going to give up trying for it, though. There are still a lot of trees and hillsides out there, beckoning.

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