You might think there could be nothing more simple than doing nothing for no reason; doing something merely for the pleasure of it, without any thought of future profit or gain, without adding any skill or knowledge to your store, without any usefulness at all. Yet even doing nothing has now become something to do. Relaxation, the quintessential doing nothing, is something you have to "practice," and seriously, in a class for which the time slot is logged in your diary. A party is an occasion to "work the room." A weekend at the shore is an opportunity to get to know those well-connected neighbors.

A friend of mine, a magazine editor, told me recently how difficult she found it to leave her job behind. We were sitting in a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, and she was aware that she was constantly noticing the clientele, the décor, seeing if there was any angle that might work for a piece in her magazine. She longed to be able to sit down at a table without her work, to have a conversation with a friend that promised no more than the pleasure of their company. Yet her mind wouldn't let her agenda go.

We each in our own ways have an agenda. We are all lobbyists for our own cause, our own opinions, aspirations, status, or career. While there's nothing wrong with getting ahead, whatever that may mean, it can also be an enormous relief now and then to lay down our own cause and enjoy wherever we find ourselves on its own terms.

You might think that all you need do to have no agenda and do nothing in particular is to allow yourself to sit down one morning in a spontaneous sort of way in the local café without looking at your watch. And, perhaps, to ask for a china cup.

It's true that the cup matters. It not only affects the coffee, it confers stability on your person. It means you are here to stay, at least in the short term. It means you are likely to be around for as much as the next half hour; that you are willing to be part of the quiet bustle and spectacle of the café terrasse. On a terrasse you are an observer and a participant at the same time, and you don't have to do anything for the privilege except to sit there. A café offers one of life's rare opportunities to happily do nothing in the company of others who are also doing nothing more useful than sipping coffee. American civic life could derive only benefit from switching to china, though I don't expect it to happen anytime soon.

Café life, without question, is one of the more enjoyable benefits of civilization. You can sit at your table for half an hour or more and watch the world go by, all for the price of a cup of coffee-or tea, if that is your preference. I know there's an irony in speaking of coffee and doing nothing in the same sentence; but the café isn't really about the coffee or tea at all. It's about the sitting there, hearing snatches of conversation, having your own thoughts, being aware of the other customers around you, watching the passerby, eavesdropping on the waiter's repartee.

Yet we are so good at being busy, we can even turn a cup of coffee into something to do. You may seem to be sitting there innocently sipping, but all the time you may be preoccupied with waiting: not just being there, but waiting for a certain amount of time to pass; waiting for your date, or for the train. Or you're busy sizing up the opposite sex. That may not seem far from doing nothing, but even so, it's not quite the same.

When you sit there and do nothing in particular at all-no waiting, no Palm Pilot, no cell phone, no agenda, nothing that will get you anywhere anytime soon-then a space can open up in your mind. Thoughts can float by without the habitual impulse to jump on their back and ride them for all they are worth. It may even happen that the taste of coffee gives way to the taste of yourself-the delicious relief of being-in-yourself.

It's not what you don't do...
Read more on page 2 >>

_Related Features