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Work's All Leisure Time to UCI Sociologist

April 28, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — Travel brochures may tell you about "the white sands of Waikiki," "the night-life of New Orleans" or "the mystical allure of Thailand," but what you're really after is "the routinization of charisma," says UC Irvine professor of sociology Jerome Kirk. Kirk has made something of a specialty of researching the sociology of leisure, and he looks it. While students bustled all around us in the UCI Commons last Thursday, the ponytailed 56-year-old sat back with an evidently ineffectual coffee, rolling off tales of human lassitude with a relaxed charm.

Like the late Richard Feynman, Tim Leary and other men of science who knew a good time when they saw it, there is a pronounced twinkle in Kirk's eyes. Asked about a tattoo of a mouse on his left arm, he proudly revealed his most recent skin art, a colorful tattoo on his right shoulder of a cartoon agave worm found on bottles of mescal.

Kirk likes to tell a story about some fishermen who don't want to fish where everyone else does, so they take off in the woods and find a shore and a sandbar where they have such a wonderful time that they resolve to come back and stay longer. They do, but realize they forgot to pack lunches, so they find a house up the road and ask the woman there to sell them a couple of sandwiches. They're good ones, so they buy sandwiches from her every time they come back.

They bring friends, who tell other friends, and soon the sandwich lady is also selling bait and tackle, baby-sitting and making a full-time business out of it. Then people start staying overnight so she builds a hotel. "The story goes on and after a while it's like Waikiki Beach," Kirk said, going on to liken the development to a religion which, no matter how inspired in inception, ultimately winds up being taken over by traditions and rules.

"That's what some people call 'the routinization of charisma.' And that's what we consistently find. Anything that's really exciting, really out of the ordinary and not everyday, to be out of the ordinary has to refuse to deal with the details of everyday life.

"Everybody wants to avoid the other tourists. Tourists are embarrassing to have around you, especially if you're an American. But, then again, there's that funny foreign food which might hurt you and certainly looks weird. So the ideal travel would be to explore someplace nobody's ever been before, but have your house with you. That paradox, I think, is what makes leisure time, that we are trying to get away and bring it with us," he said.

The reason we need leisure time, he said, is because deep down we're natural slackers who don't like responsibility.

"I think we have an urge to be disreputable and unreliable. That's as close to a universal human instinct as I can think. Everybody wants to break loose, get away, escape. I think anything that's disreputable or illegal has an appeal, not just to teen-agers, but to everybody. You want to explore other parts of yourself. That's one of our roots, one of our connections to the earth, that little voice in our heads that is urging us to drop the valuable crockery we just bought, or jump off the roof or run away.

"I think leisure and play is our name for the stuff we'll tolerate. Any 'getting away' that is not leisure or play we dignify with the name crime. Drug abuse is one example, as is running away from the wife and child you have to support, or the parents or the job," he said.

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Kirk started in higher education as a math major, but says he took up sociology because he felt "all the interesting questions that needed new mathematics were in this area."

He defines sociology as "the study of life, which could get me confused with a biologist. But when I say, 'How's your life going?' or 'That's life,' I don't mean medically. I mean work and play, love and hate, friends, acquaintances business partners and all that."

Born in Milwaukee, he spent a lot of time moving as an Army brat and going to a variety of colleges before settling at UCI in 1966. It's no great surprise that he lives in the county's most laid-back town, Laguna Beach.

Before coming to California, he'd studied social problems among the civil rights movement in the South. He landed out here just in time to study the burgeoning youth drug culture (Kirk says he was the first to coin the word "trip" to describe the drug experience). Since then he's directed his studies at everyone from Polynesians to skinheads.

His interest in what leisure time means to people, he said, "started with me teasing some of my students for getting their doctorate and going to work when they're supposed to know that play is more important than work. Finally I said it enough that I had to put up or shut up, and wrote a couple of papers and got a grant on leisure."

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