My partner Bryan surprised me this year with a very thoughtful Hannukah gift: a gray velour Ralph Lauren tracksuit.
This luxurious outfit, however, is not for jogging on the treadmill; in fact, the soft, thick fabric and sagging lines suggest the very opposite of physical activity. Bryan was instead recognizing my favorite weekend ritual: puttering around the house.
To be clear, puttering is not about being lazy, nor is it “dawdling,” which is about delaying something you should do. To putter is to move aimlessly, usually indoors. We zone out much like we’re stoned, but are in motion and vaguely productive. I know quite a bit about this. For as long as I can remember, I have puttered once a week, usually on Saturday. My mind, jelly by week’s end, regains its shape, and I feel rejuvenated—ready to get back to work, ready to be social or ready to dawdle about something really important, like eating a whole grain or calling my mom back.
Here’s a quick seven-step guide to a rewarding putter:
1. Carve out enough time. I block out at least four hours, so I can be loose with the time. I avoid goals or plans unless it’s to create a new iTunes playlist (“Moody” or “’80s TV Theme Songs”) or to craft a limerick for a relative’s birthday card so mine stands out from my brother’s and sister’s. I dress comfortably for the indoors—thick socks. No pajamas. I am not sick, nor a child.
2. No need for a plan. Puttering means wandering rooms of my apartment, sitting down and standing up at will, petting my dog and watching him eat, rubbing my ankles, re-tagging my LinkedIn contacts, looking at friends of friends’ Facebook photos or calling my friend Adam from college at work. When he asks what I am up to, I don’t have to say, “Nothing.” I now can say, “I’m puttering.” Same goes for updates on Twitter.
3. Change your mind mid-stream. One minute I am re-folding my jeans in light-to-dark order when, for no apparent reason, I feel compelled to compare the filmography of Joan Allen and Annette Bening on IMDb.com. Staring out the window is a good bridge from one activity to another for me. It’s like dreaming wide awake. Plus, there are pretty things to see. Like trees and birds. Or if you live near the High Line, a peep show in the Standard Hotel.
4. Accomplish minor tasks that make you feel good. For example, I might clean out one single desk drawer, untangle my headphones’ earpiece, group my books by spine color and label plastic bins with “White T-Shirts” and “Travel-Size Bottles.” If it turns into spring-cleaning, however, I stop immediately. Puttering is not chores. That’s why I hire a housekeeper for alternate Fridays.
5. Nosh versus lunch. When puttering, I don’t eat full meals, but I also don’t eat right out of the pretzel bag or frozen yogurt container. I prepare a nice plate like cheese and crackers, and I slice an orange and use a napkin instead of a paper towel. Coffee’s good at first. Wine is better later. I think about all my food allergies, compare my restrictions to my sister’s celiac disease and imagine how different my life would be if I could eat tomatoes. And then I think of Dan Quayle.
6. Enjoy light entertainment. Real Simple magazine and reruns on cable of The Devil Wears Prada keep me focused enough, but I save full novels and new movies for “Mush Day,” which my mother-in-law’s friend coined as a full day to curl up on the sofa with a big book. Internet quizzes of which celebrity I am most like are good since they have a quick payoff (Michael J. Fox before the Parkinson’s). Or if I am feeling intellectual, I play a game comparing lead stories in USA Today (“Boy Reunited with Dad”) to the New York Times (“Democrats…”).
7. Unexpected upsides. Relaxed, my mind now goes places it hasn’t visited in a long time. I discover a new, useful app for my smart phone (NYC 311), a new neighbor’s window to peer into (he’s cute!), a new favorite color (mauve) or simply notice my toenails are uneven and do something about it. Clip.
Everyone should putter now and then. We would be more pleasant to be around because we are relaxed, but we’ll also have something, albeit modest, to show for it. I was thinking of starting a puttering website, but that’s just too much effort. Instead, I’m hoping Bryan will next get me slippers. n
Mat Zucker is a creative director in advertising who putters around in Chelsea with his partner Bryan and dog, Ezra Pound.
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