Summer's lazy lesson slowly sinks in

In a fast-paced age, "lazy" has become a dreaded adjective. It's a description no child wants to find on a report card and no adult wants to read in a performance review. How embarrassing to be perceived as indolent or slothful, matching a dictionary definition of lazy.

No wonder "busy" ranks as a favorite 21st-century word. It pops up everywhere, from brief "How are you?" conversations to long Christmas letters. Being busy counts as a badge of honor, suggesting that the busy speaker or writer is industrious, hard-working, productive.

Even retirees, who once felt entitled to relax after a lifetime of 9 to 5, now feel compelled to maintain a faster pace. "Never been busier," they say as they hurry off to the next activity. Children, too, are encouraged to avoid unproductive time. Scheduled to the max with sports, music lessons, and play dates, many have little chance to say "I'm bored," or to savor the pleasure of a lazy hour or two.

Only telephones are no longer busy, thanks to call waiting. We're all far too busy to deal with a busy signal.

Busyness has its rewards. But laziness is gaining defenders, too. This Friday, Aug. 15, has been unofficially designated National Relaxation Day in the United States. It's billed as "an excuse for every overworked and underpaid individual to do what they would rather be doing."

Similarly, next Friday, Aug. 22, is National Slacker Day in Britain. The whimsical event is designed to raise awareness of the importance of relaxation.

Taking a more serious approach is Al Gini, who has written a book, "The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure, and Vacations." Mr. Gini, a professor of philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago, warns that without leisure, we are diminished as individuals and as a society.

Here and there, hopeful signs of change are appearing. In Britain, businesses, schools, and hospitals now face the possibility of criminal prosecution if they fail to protect employees from a stressful "work-till-you-drop" culture.

Some American firms also recognize the need for down- time. Speaking at commencement at the Simmons College School of Management in Boston last Friday, Toni Riccardi, chief diversity officer for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, cautioned about the imbalance of work in employees' lives.

Earlier, in a phone interview, she said Americans "have gone wild - not taking vacations, working longer hours." Executives in her company are setting examples by taking vacations themselves. Even CEOs have the right to be lazy.

A few years ago, a series of bumper stickers, usually spotted on cars stuck in rush-hour traffic, expressed a longing for leisure. "I'd rather be sailing" - or fishing or flying, they read. So far, no replacements reflect the unlazy times with the updated message, "I'd rather be working."

August is meant to be a lazy month. Just ask millions of Europeans, who are currently enjoying their annual mass exodus to the beach and beyond.

Laziness can inspire daydreams. Remember the childhood pleasure of lying on your back in the grass, watching clouds drift by? Or the pleasant calm of swaying gently in a hammock - the ultimate symbol of laziness? Today the gym has replaced the hammock as a reigning symbol. We know how to pump iron, but we may be forgetting how to kick back, lie down, and relax, with no busyness allowed.

Perhaps the best August advice in praise of laziness and leisure comes from the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame's beloved "The Wind in the Willows." "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats," Rat says. Or, he could have added, simply messing about in any unbusy activity.

But hurry. Only 18 days remain until September, when calendars fill and obligations multiply, when the lazy season ends and another busy season begins. The message floating in the languid August air is: Quick - slow down.

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