The Lazy Ideal

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 14.05.2021

Being chronically behind-the-times with hit TV shows, I’m only now (shamefully) catching up on the true crime favorite of 2019, Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes. Unrelatedly to Bundy’s profoundly horrific serial murders, which I don’t mean at all to diminish, I was struck by an offhanded passage from an interviewee. Carol DaRonch, a would-be victim who managed to escape from Bundy, introduced her story by describing her life as an eighteen-year-old in Utah: “Summer of ’74 was just fun. A fun summer. […] I had gotten a car, a ’74 Camaro: maroon with black leather seats and a black top. And I’d just started dating a guy who had a matching Camaro.” A few minutes later, getting closer to the point, she said: “I didn’t really have plans that night, so I decided that I would get in my car and head over for the mall.”

Notwithstanding the fact that everyone in the story is driving a Camaro for some reason, DaRonch’s one-adjective summer and description of a carefree do-nothing evening, accompanied by grainy footage of happy teenagers, made me nostalgic. The 1970s were before my time, but I was nevertheless transported to my own childhood, to that blissful moment when school let out for the summer and there really were planless, taskless, nearly pointless days. (Though no serial killers.)

And yet, I recall these days more from childhood. In the early 2000s, a certain pressure was descending on American teens like me in the form of nagging questions: what is your dream, your worldly ambition, and how are you going to achieve it? In that context, spending the summer as a breeze-shooting lackadaisy would amount to a waste of precious time. You should be doing an internship, volunteering, learning a new skill, founding a jazz band—whatever you think will build your CV or otherwise help you realize your goals.

On one hand, this pressure arguably comes from a good place and seeks a good end: getting to know yourself does require effort and time, and some dream jobs may really be gettable after years of professional and extraprofessional sacrifice. But on the other hand, doing nothing has very little status in our world, no sense of art or humanly value. It is societally synonymous with being lazy; in the USA at least, there is no difference whatsoever. Granted, my version of the 1970s is rosily reductive and probably all out of whack—but my impression is nevertheless that every decade has brought a denser presence, in everyday life, of competition. As an adolescent, you’re against your peers not only in academic tables but for your future fulfillment. If you aren’t developing your personality by spending July learning Swedish or attending aviation camp, will future you ever be as dream-achievingly happy as everyone else? Will you stand out from the zillions of competitors also chasing that coveted fun-but-elite job, the vanishingly rare likes of Hollywood superhero animator, tropical marine biologist, etc.?

At its most extreme, this attitude amounts to the commodification of your hobbies. The USA’s follow-your-dreams culture empowers everyone to quit (or never bother getting) a dull job, which can certainly be important; but it also sets a sky-high standard for happiness. American self-fulfillment equals doing what you love for a living, but if what you love is (naturally) your hobby, then the game becomes converting that hobby into a job. As such, no pastime is really a pastime anymore. If you like reading fantasy novels, then perhaps you’re actually laying the groundwork for a professorship in fifteen years’ time. You should formalize this interest by joining an institutionalized book club, writing reviews for a magazine, launching a CV-worthy blog, etc. Of course, the equation flips the other way as well: Looking for a new hobby? Why not pick something that feeds into your professional ambitions?

I’m certain that this hobby-jacking strain of workaholism, which differs from the classical obsessed-with-my-job version, exists in Luxembourg too, even if I haven’t observed it as widely. But what other pressures encode people here? Job security and financial comfort at state-level standards, perhaps? That brings its own tough questions, undoubtedly. But for me, I know (and admittedly half-enjoy) what I suffer from—and I must suffer badly, if I can watch a gruesome serial killer documentary and think: gosh, what a great and relaxing summer Carol was having before Ted Bundy showed up..

It is with sadness that I must announce that, due to changing professional circumstances, this is my final column for the Lëtzebuerger Land. Thank you for reading!

Jeffrey Palms’s book, I’m Having a Knippchen: An American View of Luxembourgish Culture, published by Black Fountain Press and based on his column in the Land, will be released in July.

Jeffrey Palms
© 2021 d’Lëtzebuerger Land