THE PUTTERER'S PRIMER
Fussing can be fun - by Robert Vare
Travel & Leisure - October 1982
In the anxious hours and minutes before I leave the house, I often think about man's propensity to putter. I try to put puttering in perspective, even as I rearrange the entire contents of my medicine cabinet in alphabetical order. "Stop puttering," clamors a voice of Old Testament harshness I have heard thousands of times since the cradle.
It is staggering how many people place puttering in the category of major human transgression. "Now that Max has been laid off, he has nothing to do but putter around the house," Max's wife says in the most mournful tones. This kind of putterphobic talk has driven many of us deep into the closet -- fortunately enough, a popular putterers' pastime.
Puttering in Western Civilization
This art is as old as human achievement itself. Sir Isaac Newton, aimlessly dropping and picking up apples, obviously liked to putter. So did William ("They stumble that run fast") Shakespeare and Archimedes, the man who discovered puttering in the bathtub.
Thoreau, poking around at Walden pond, made generations of putterers get lost in the woods, Proust was the world's first stream-of-consciousness putterer. While waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon were either tragic or comic putterers.
Nero fiddled, but that's not the same thing. We're not talking about decadence here. Genghis Khan, Torquemada, Joe Stalin and most members of the Ma Barker Gang never puttered.
Nowadays millions of people, though loath to admit it, are puttering. Doctors, lawyers and certified public accountants putter on weekends, while freelance writers and photographers, 30-year-old models and Democratic Party fund raisers can do it anytime, day or night.
Baseball managers putter in a major league way. When not flailing at an umpire or a marshmallow salesman, Billy Martin is forever fussing with caps, cleats and lineup cards. Don't kid yourself: putterers can punch.
People who shop at Hammacher Schlemmer are rich putterers. People who shop through the L.L.Bean catalogue are upwardly mobile putterers. Owners of Swiss Army knives are pure-as-the-driven-snow putterers, staying up all night with a piece of soapstone to sharpen 947 blades.
Maitres d'hotel are the supreme on-the-job putterers, taking so long to do anything that they stand in danger of being arrested for loitering in their own restaurants.
An exotic naval campaign notwithstanding, the entire United Kingdom is a testimonial to puttering.
Ronald Reagan is a question mark. While his single-minded-programs strongly suggest a non-putterer, he does eat the ultimate putterer's food--jelly beans by the jar.
How to Spot a Putterer
Putterers often look a little pooped. For one thing, the demands on our energies are unremitting. For another, getting a decent night's sleep would waste too much time-wasting time. Our conversation is circumscribed by two short but complete sentences -- "I'm getting there" and "It's coming".
Putterers usually have in hand one or more objects the rest of humanity is at best indifferent to: hacksaws, Saran wrap, shoe trees, fuse boxes, credit card receipts, silverware separators, leaky faucets, andirons, newspaper clippings, Water Piks, crowbars, calculators, garden hoses and balls of twine.
Puttering and the Social Contract
Just because we are described by one of the silliest words in the English language is no reason to let the self-styled achievers denigrate our usefulness. Nothing is more socially productive than a good putter. Eliminate puttering from most lives and you open the floodgates to all those truly terrible activities only non-putterers now have time for--lying, cheating, hijacking, drug trafficking and erecting grotesquely ugly hotels on top of architectural landmarks. Puttering is one of the few human activities left that doesn't seem to cause immediate pain.
Putterers of the world, stay right where you are and dawdle, daddle, doodle, diddle and dillydally. Stack those papers. Straighten those pictures. Save that string. Start getting ready two hours early to be only one hour late.
Open up the back of the TV set. Check the brightness, the contrast, the chroma level, the audio, the vertical and the horizontal hold. Crawl under the sink, take the drainpipe apart. Why should repairmen have all the fun? If things grow too chaotic, remember the Second Law of Puttodynamics: -mechanical work started by a putterer often has to be completed by a professional.
Puttering is the beginning of all wisdom. When you putter, you tacitly acknowledge the fact that the upcoming activities on your crowded agenda, whatever they are, are not going to be so important either. Puttering is the best known method yet of protecting yourself from the disappointment of your next experience.
So fill that stapler. File that junk mail. Fold those socks. Fix the blinds, fluff the pillows, tuck in the sheets. So what if another person is still in the bed?
Make a list of everything you've just done. Make a list of everything you're about to do.
Do you feel that putt-putt rhythm now?