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The Truth, Mainly - 08/12/1991

Idle chatter turns to laziness, bootstraps

"It's a damned disgrace," I say to my wife as we sit on the deck reading the newspaper at Paradise Regained, the prettiest building site in the American Rockies.

"It certainly is," she says, not even looking up from the crossword puzzle. "What is it this time?"

"This," I say, pointing to a story about some field biologists watching animals in the wild and finding out they don't work nearly as hard as we've been led to believe.

"Did you know that beavers work only five hours a day?" I say. "And they're the ones held up as role models in grade school. No wonder our moral fibers are disintegrating and students are no good any more."

"Um," she says. "What's a four-letter word meaning 'laughably indignant'?"

"And bees!" I snort. "Bees work even less — 20 percent of the day. That's not even five hours making honey and stuff. The rest of the time they just lolligag around the hive ogling the queen. It's a damned disgrace is what it is."

"Here," she says, handing me a Kleenex and putting down the crossword puzzle. "You just snorted again. And it's a pretty silly snort. For six weeks now you've been sitting here on the deck, reading the paper and drinking coffee and watching hummingbirds. Now you snort because animals don't work any harder. Doesn't that strike even you as a little ironic?"

"Hummingbirds," I say, "spend 80 percent of their day perched motionless on a twig; at night they sleep. Says so right here. Lazy little buggers just sit around waiting for a handout. Just like Judge Whatsisname's sister on welfare he likes to talk about. You know — the guy Bush wants to put on the Supreme Court. The guy who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps."

"She went on welfare so she could take care of their sick aunt while her brother went to law school," she says. "And pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is an instructive metaphor. Try doing it."

"I don't have bootstraps," I say.

"You're learning already," she says. "Lots of people don't have bootstraps. So use your belt. Grab hold of both ends and put the middle under your feet and pull yourself up."

I try but I don't go up. I just get red in the face.

"My back hurts." I say, "and there's not enough oxygen up here."

"You're a boob," she says. "It wouldn't matter how strong your back is or how much oxygen you have. You still can't lift yourself by your own bootstraps or even your own belt. It's a law of nature."

"Oh yeah?" I say. "And what law might that be?" (I talk like that when I'm pretty sure she doesn't know the answer. "Oh yeah?" I often say. "And what debilitating effect of testosterone on the brain might that be, Miss Smartypants?")

"It's the law," she says, "that makes gravity outvote self-righteousness every time."

The Truth, Mainly


"Who's being, self.righteous?" I ask, certain I'm on firm moral ground.

"You are," she says. "And so are all the rest of the people who sit around in the comfort of their prosperity and the certainty of their moral ground and talk about how other people just need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps."

"There you go again," I say. "I thought this was a conversation about field biologists studying animal laziness. It says here that two of them looking through binoculars watched a pride of lions lie in the same spot without moving for 12 hours. It's a damned disgrace."

"The lions?" she says. "Or the academics watching them through binoculars for 12 hours?"

"It's just a matter of time, isn't it," I say, "before you start making fun of academics."

"Why would I make fun of academics?" she says. "Just because they begin their careers with taxpayer subsidies, then progress through government grants to watch lions through binoculars for 12 hours so they can get tenure and sabbaticals and three months off in the summer to talk about how lazy students are because they won't pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. They're no worse than lawyers. Why would I make fun of academics?"

I've been an academic long enough to recognize a rhetorical question when I hear one, so I don't answer. I change the subject.

"Geez," I whine, "just another couple of weeks before classes begin. We've got to go back to Lincoln and all that heat. It's not fair."

This time she snorts. A hummingbird stops in midair and snickers. A beaver splashes derisively in the crystalline stream and a bee buzzes my left ear before settling in the clover blossoms. Somewhere in the Serengeti, a lion yawns and a field biologist puts down his binoculars and rubs his eyes. Judge Whatsisname looks up from his leather-bound law book and thinks briefly of his sister. Then we all take a little nap before lunch.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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