He didn't want to stay in bed. The idea of stretching out, warm and entangled in the vague chill of the morning was repugnant. Sex was one thing, but sex had a purpose. This lounging had none. Things lacking purpose made him uncomfortable. He rose, showered, dressed, picked up his laptop and went to the business lounge downstairs to find something to do for work.
"Most of us were taught that leisure equals sloth, laziness, idleness or shiftlessness," wrote Paula Fontaine in an editorial for IN magazine, which I had read on the plane on my way there. "'Idle hands are the devil’s playthings,' or so the saying goes."
What a fearful thing to think about -- if you believe in devils. But even if you do not, this line of thinking is so deeply rooted in some cultures as to be impossible to remove it from its perch on the moral spectrum.
I rolled over in bed, reached for the phone and called up a coffee and strawberries and stayed there, thinking about this and other things. Shortly after blowing off afternoon tea, I rose, took a long bath, dressed, coiffed and headed out to a café in an alley off the Plaza de Armas, which is where he eventually found me.
"It amazes me," he said as he took a seat. "You can just sit here and sip coffee and smoke and read for hours and hours. If they didn't close, I could come back in three days and you'd still be here."
"Well, I don't know whether I'd be here, darling, but I would love it if coffee shops and restaurants never closed," I responded. "Coffee -- no, drink in general, and food, too -- they all invite conversation and introspection. The sensual pleasure opens the mind to the intellectual pleasure. So much the better when you can share this with someone."
"You could spend your whole life sitting, drinking, eating, smoking and talking," he said it the way people must when they accuse another of a violent, horrifying crime.
"And just what is wrong with that?" I asked laughing, "You think that work makes the man. It's very noble at first glance -- dedication, etc. But you are not your job. Your job and what you achieve there mean -- what, exactly? Oh, a bottom line for someone else. How nice! When you are on your death bed are you going to close your eyes and think, 'I was a great CEO'? 'I had the biggest house and all the newest cars'? At least the latter suggest some enjoyment. Unless they're like your other cars and properties which just sit there like a child's forgotten toys. There is something very wrong with defining yourself by your work and achievements, it drives people to a point where the most important goal is the acquisition of things instead of the enjoyment of things. And for what? You should work -- don't get me wrong. But work so you can enjoy. But don't make achievement a substitute for living."
He said nothing. I imagined him thinking about the e-mails in his inbox and laughed.
"No wonder everyone’s medicated," I said, putting out my cigarette. "Pleasure, delight and enjoyment are cardinal sins."
He sat, fidgeting. I sat, recalling a great passage in Henry Miller’s The Books In My Life that framed what I was saying in a different way: "The Frenchman ‘loves’ his food. We [Americans] take food for nourishment or because we are unable to dispense with the habit. The Frenchman, even if he is a man of the cities, is closer to the soil than the American. He does not tamper with or refine the products of the soil. He relishes homely meals as much as the creations of the gourmet. He likes things fresh, not canned or refrigerated…. How we really loathe all that is sensuous and sensual! I believe most earnestly that what repels Americans more than immorality is the pleasure to be derived from the enjoyment of the five senses."
This has changed in the United States. Foodie culture is testament to that. But I don't see pleasure when I read post upon post about what this chef is doing here and what that chef is eating there. I don't see pleasure in the need to go to that one place that everyone else is talking about. Who cares where everyone is going? When was the last time you took a bite out of something and let the flavors collide in your mouth like a perfect marriage of truth and life?
What is it about some countries and this need to achieve? I lit a cigarette and looked at the people strolling by the café. A woman walked by, pausing before a flower vendor and buying a single rose, seemingly on impulse. A man walked by with a bag from the local chocolatier, La Iberica, and paused at a table to speak with people he recognized, momentarily forgetting the task at hand and taking a seat to order an espresso. The workday had ended, and with it the complications. Freedom reigned as a symphony of sensory pleasures. Ah, but of course -- what could be more antithetical to a place known as the Land of Opportunity than this pointless enjoyment?
"You can't learn leisure," said my grandmother, when I regaled her with my thoughts over high tea the next day. "You're born with it. The appreciation of leisure is wholly human and will persist if you don't stifle it."
I thought about the wonder of our bodies and how we corrupt that with shame and fear and constructs of what is beautiful and what isn't.
"It isn't so much a matter of position or wealth as it is one of culture," my grandmother added. "Even the poorest man in Peru can tell you about his enjoyment. In the United States, it seems the cultivation of leisure has been lost. Consumerism is not enjoyment. Consumerism is just another business transaction."
I didn't grow up being told idle hands were a devil's playthings. No one ever asked anyone else what they did for a living when they met. They tried to ferret out how they both happened to be in the same place at the same time (mutual friend? Cousin of a friend? Daughter of a friend's brother?), spoke of where they had been and what they had seen ("The acoustics at Rafael's are sufficiently horrifying that it doesn't matter how good the food is..."), they spoke about current events, books, the opera, ballet, art, smoked and drank and ate and danced and laughed and no one asked about the job -- because who cares? -- or the kids -- because who cares? This was not a place for work matters and decidedly not a place for kids. Neither were kids any more likely to earn anyone congratulations than someone's work achievements. Work would never enter here ("Come by, we'll discuss that tomorrow.") and kids would eventually earn their entry into the pleasure bubble when they came of age. For now, work was at work and the kids were at home. Doing what? Whatever kids do, darling!
My mother, a woman in possession of a hard-earned career littered with philanthropic success, will sooner tell you about the amazing massage she has scheduled the next day than the haiku she wrote in her planner waiting for a phone call. The dinner cruise last night. Swimming among jellyfish in Palau. The vintage of the wine she's offering. The letters she's exchanging with her ex-boyfriend of thirty-seven years. "Think of the memoirs!" she says, laughing, dipping her feet into the infinity pool that stretches out into the ocean.
My father, a problem-solver and lover of broken things to mend, has a slightly more sinister approach. "Everything in life is fighting an active battle to steal your soul," he says, tinkering with the hand glider, or putting razor blades on the edge of his daughter's kite so it can challenge his. "Sometimes they succeed and you have to go in to take it back." He once fell out of a raft while river rafting. He was pushed along with the raft, unable to come up for air. His friend noticed he was gone and swung his body over the edge to allow him to climb out. He became convinced the river had taken his soul, so he went back, jumped in in the same place he had fallen, and took it back. Your soul is never as close as it is when you're pressed hard up against the edge. The first time I broke the speed limit was on his lap on his hornet-green motorcycle. I was four or five, and I have never been more terrified or more alive since. "Are you alive?!" he asks to this day, his voice booming like the prosecution during a cross-examination. He'll feel for your pulse if your eyes betray your soulless existence.
That's failure. The hum-drum existence. The one that inspires no memoirs. "Are you still awake?" my mother asked after a long introduction at one of the charity galas she helps organize every year. "I don't blame you. You don't see anyone's CV on the New York Times bestseller list for a reason."
I always knew what my parents did for a living. They lived. But I didn't find out what either of them did for work until I was much older, in the United States, and school required me to share with the class about it. It was the most boring thing I have ever said about either one of them.
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