Pitter Patter Putter Perfect

Here is last Saturday – overcast, dreary, a windy mix of sleet/rain/snow, particularly discouraging since this is the second consecutive month of such weather and I am desperate for signs of spring. Perfect day to start taxes and there are many other languishing house projects. Instead, I spend the day puttering.

Here is the dictionary definition of putter: “to move or go in a specified manner, with ineffective action or little energy or purpose.”

Alternatively, here is the definition of “putter away.” “to spend or fill in a random or inconsequential or unproductive way”

While these two definitions accurately describe my busy day, they do not capture the full richness of meaning in the various contexts the word is used. For example, I see a clear distinction between puttering and playing. Playing is more purposeful and has a specific agenda, while puttering is more random and fitful. For example, puttering in the garden implies that not much useful work was done, while weeding the garden describes a specific activity with expected results. Then there is “killing time,” a phrase with an explicit recognition you have nonproductive time between scheduled events, while puttering implies a bit of artifice – you are trying to fool mostly yourself, and maybe others, that you are accomplishing something. And finally the concept of “hanging out,” which similarly has no expected work output, but also implies a social activity involving a couch and a TV or maybe a thick Sunday newspaper. In contrast, puttering is a solo activity, although my friend Mary says that she and her husband Bob are known to parallel putter.

Puttering is a purely human pleasure, borne of our position atop the food chain – hopefully without the life or death grind of hunting or foraging for the next meal. Last summer, I watched my two year old nephew walk around the house, picking up a coaster and putting it down on another table, lifting up a ball and dropping it, pulling the dogs tail, and I realized that he perfectly fit the definition of puttering. Once he starts doing a puzzle, or running a car across the floor he will be playing. It is unfair to expect him to do purposeful work at this tender age, but basically he is perfecting a putter that will serve him well throughout his life.

Certainly, some animals are playful, such as otters and crows, but I do not think that animals putter. Our dogs are always eager to go for a walk, particularly in the winter when they can hunt for voles, but when they are on their own indoors they do exactly nothing. Our son, observing the dogs’ lazy life style once observed, “dogs sure have a lot of spare time, don’t they?” A life of spare time is just made for puttering but dogs just don’t have the intellectual capacity to do nothing creatively.

As adults, puttering is generally considered somewhat of a guilty pleasure and an important procrastination technique. You putter in the garden when you should really be weeding, you putter around the house when you should really be working on income taxes. Many years ago, I came home to find my husband mending his underwear, which might be considered useful work if he know how to mend, but his efforts perfectly fit the definition of “unproductive work.” In reality he was desperate to do anything but study for his MBA taxation class. The last ditch mending project had been preceded by the usual menu of puttering, walking around the apartment, idly looking at yesterday’s newspaper, looking at the pile of clean laundry clothes on the floor, but not putting the laundry away since that would be purposeful work, and then noticing the tattered underwear and deciding to walk over to Walgreen’s to get a needle and thread. Once at Walgreen’s there was an opportunity to leaf through the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition or perhaps consider the purchase of a birthday card for his mother. Several hours had passed, nothing had been accomplished and the taxation homework was still an uncomfortable and lurking presence.

Puttering in the workplace is a definite skill. One of my first exposures to a professional working environment was one high school summer when I volunteered in the pathology laboratory at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. I was theoretically there to assist the single laboratory technician, but business was always slow, since the only pathology specimen was the infrequent muscle biopsy. She had developed a whole series of tasks to make herself look busy, like reorganizing the glassware on the shelves. In a misguided effort to be helpful, I took over all her putter projects and destroyed her façade. One day, she flat out told me, “I am not going to do any work today, so you might as well go to a movie or something.” She went around the corner to her desk and pulled out a stack of fashion magazines and started reading them.  The new trend of working from home is the ideal setting for puttering. In fact, working from home is best considered an oxymoron unless you have the discipline to control the putter or you lack the insight to distinguish unproductive from productive work. Some days are better then others.

As I edge closer to retirement age and am relieved of the time suck of work and sandwich generation responsibilities, I realize that I had better start sharpening my puttering skills. The once hectic pace is now showing signs of more flexibility and puttering will no longer be associated with guilt, but will become an established part of the day.  Here our generation has a tremendous advantage over our ancestors – we have the putter perfect internet where an entire morning can vanish into thin air. How I wish that my parents had embraced the computer. My father loved antique cars and Great Lakes shipping and would have enjoyed puttering around the internet looking at car auctions and the history of iron ore ships, but he was just not a technology adopter and instead spent hours watching golf, a sport that he never really liked. However, I do think that internet puttering veers slightly from the classic definition, which implies movement and some sort of physical activity. In contrast, internet puttering is entirely sedentary.

One day I heard the expression, “that horse should be sent to the glue factory,” perhaps describing my declining skills on the paddle tennis court. But it made me curious about glue factories, and I spent the next several hours puttering on the computer learning about Elmer’s glue, which is made from the bits and pieces of old diary cows, which segued to on an internet tour of animal rendering factories that process and repurpose all sorts of dead farm animals, and this segued to research on mad cow disease and finally to the history of dog food. A putter perfect morning.

The missing words in the following poem are all anagrams (i.e. like spot, post, stop, etc) and the number of dashes indicates the number of letters.   Your job is to solve the words using the context of the poem.  Scroll down for the answers.

Robinson —— worked hard on his island, the most solitary of men,

But even he had enough spare time to take a break now and then.

But the —— of his problems was that he had too much time on his hands

And no putter potential midst the crashing surf and shifting sands

Of —— once Friday arrived, he could stop his solitary muttering,

And start hanging out at the beach instead of relentless puttering.







Crusoe, source, course

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