The Fine Art of Piddling

The act of passing time, without waste or regret, is a cause well worthy of lifelong study.

The Fine Art of Piddling
"I smiled because Ellis, whom I never met, is my brother, bound to me not by blood but by a shared habit. We are piddlers." Rick Bragg. Photo: Glasshouse Images

The obituary made me smile. Ellis Ray of Moundville passed away Saturday...he was a loving husband, father, and grandfather, who loved to fish and piddle. He will be greatly missed.

I mean no disrespect. Quite the contrary, I smiled because Ellis, whom I never met, is my brother, bound to me not by blood but by a shared habit. We are piddlers.

Or we were. Now I am left here, an earthbound piddler, to piddle alone. What is a piddler? It is hard to explain to begin with, because piddling is neither one thing or another, but something in between. It is not rest, not something that can be done with your feet on an ottoman or as you recline in a Posturepedic. But then neither is it work, something that one toils at, sweats at, something one needs a break from, for lunch, coffee. It is certainly not something for which one should ever be paid, and absolutely not something that one does while watching a clock.

The whole idea of piddling is to kill time, but without any great effort at all, or even really meaning to. If one piddles correctly, time just goes away, without regret on the part of the piddler, or even any particular notice. One does not march off to piddle. One meanders. And even when one heads off to do it, one may not go to piddling right away, because one might have to loafer a little first. But loafering is another story.

A piddler does not fix a leaky washing machine, or a slipping transmission, or a hole in a roof. Such work is necessary, and the more necessary a labor is, the farther from piddling it becomes. A piddler may use tools, but only small, light ones, and only on things that are not needed right then. Changing out a car battery in the dead of winter is not piddling, because it is a necessity. But tinkering with a lawn mower in the middle of February is, especially if the grass is deader than Great-Aunt Minnie's house cat and buried under a foot of snow. Doing a load of laundry is, of course, not piddling. Organizing one's sock drawer by color and fiber is.

Fishing is not piddling. That is why Ellis Ray's survivors made that distinction in his obit. But sharpening hooks and respooling line is, especially if the bass boat is covered in sheet ice. Going to a baseball game is not piddling. Retying the laces on your cleats is, but only if the only way you will ever again go fast down the first-base line is if someone shoots you out of a cannon.

Some people have to retire to piddle. Dr. David Sloan, a venerated college professor who worked across the hall from me, seemed one of the least piddling men I ever knew. But he said he fully intended to spend at least some of his retirement piddling. I am not so disciplined. I rearrange books, sharpen knives–the ones I am certain not to use–and change knobs on dressers and cabinets, but only if the ones I am replacing were perfectly fine. I rearrange pictures on the wall, and re-rearrange them because my wife makes me. I spackle holes left from the first rearranging, but only the holes that are hidden by the paintings and do not really have to be spackled at all. To spackle a hole in plain sight would be necessary and therefore illegal under piddling guidelines.

My wife does not piddle, and this is how I know she is from another solar system. She reads, gardens (successfully), and uses her time wisely. No one, no one born on this planet, is purely piddle free. But when I try to interest her in my own piddling she looks at me with disdain and says she does not have time to waste.

Ellis Ray of Moundville was 68 when he died. I bet he never wasted a second.

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