Perchance to sit

I report a crucial difference between adults and college students.

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended—William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”

Almost Christmas

Sunday night, I leashed the dog and took her upstairs. I had to grade a set of student essays, and the dog, Belle, had to accompany me because of a looming event at our house. My wife would soon host sixty freshmen. It was a holiday mixer for her class and for two others that share the theme of leadership.

How many?” I’d kept asking. “How many students are coming?”

“Sixty, in three classes. Probably only fifty will come.”

“Only fifty?”

So Belle, on the rug, and I in my leather Laz-E-Boy, heard the freshmen arrive downstairs. The noise of conversation rose up the stairwell, though not the roar that attends an equally large gathering of adults. I’ve hid upstairs for some of those, too, and listened to the happy cheer rising until, to be heard, everyone was screaming. From a slight remove: almost scary.

“Richard!” I heard Kathy call up to me. “Do you want to bring Belle down?” She’d forewarned me of this summoning, a showing of the family dog to the students.

So I ambled down with Belle. And what did my wondering eyes behold in our living room but students everywhere. Mostly they were sitting, which was a feat, given the numbers. Our coach held, oh, about twenty kids. Two big overstuffed chairs somehow held about four—each. Three unseated girls, looking forlorn, approached Belle and began to pet.

I tried to walk the dog around, but Kathy was desperately fetching odd chairs and there weren’t many paths. I had to leap back as Kathy, hair flying, shoved a leather ottoman past me from our study. The three lost girls settled instantly upon it like sparrows on a ledge.

’Tis the season of holiday gatherings and aching backs. For those, like me, who’ve worn out their spines, or who are merely middle-aged, the price of standing can seem high. If not right then, then the next morning. And this is what Kathy had expected, two roomfuls of standing students. Socializing, you know, like adults. She had sensibly allocated two rooms for this, our living room and our dining room. They would stand and talk and nibble on snacks for an hour. Only an hour—they knew this. Eighty adults have done as much.

But, alas, they sat.

From the packed living room, Belle and I made our way into the dining room, which seemed to be a transient space. Liminal, a writer might say. Just a few students, and a couple teachers gasping for air. Most of the room is taken up with the long table that I grew up around; Mom drove to North Carolina fifty years ago to buy it. On the table were urns of hot chocolate and coffee, trays of cookies, and vats of gummy bears.

Beyond lay our sunroom—kind of a cross between an enclosed porch and a freezer—that was packed to the rafters with the rest of the students. “I didn’t have it set up!” Kathy hissed. “They just went in there. I thought they’d socialize. They want to sit.”

In point of fact, they did.

Belle has seen some odd human behavior, no doubt, but I swear she did a double take, kind of like someone coming upon a violent Greyhound bus crash, there at the threshold of the sunroom. We couldn’t enter it beyond a pace. Finally I turned and led her back upstairs.

Now I sit too much, like most adults. If my waistline won’t let me forget that, neither will The New York Times, which runs an article every couple of days on how bad sitting is for us. The latest, on Saturday, upped the ante:

But a closer look at the accumulating research on sitting reveals something more intriguing, and disturbing: the health hazards of sitting for long stretches are significant even for people who are quite active when they’re not sitting down. That point was reiterated recently in two studies, published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine and in Diabetologia, a journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

On the treadmill this morning, getting in my thirty minutes of activity before I sit for the rest of the day, I thought about this. But mostly about those students, who are so very active but who have the sense to sit down when they socialize. Or is it fear of each other that makes them sit? The questions only grew. Don’t weary soldiers collapse like this? Does each Age of Man possess, indeed, its wisdom?

“We learned something last night,” I told Kathy when she came down to the basement to say goodbye. “We’ll know next time. But why?”

“I don’t know,” she said above the treadmill’s whir, eager to get on with her day. “They wanted to sit.”

College freshmen. I can almost bring it back. In life somewhere between children, who run everywhere, and adults who when they stand do so as if rooted, they sat.

The older I get, the less I seem to know. So much is unknown, really. And how often do we truly see—and therefore learn—despite our age-barnacled selves? Kathy may be ready to put the past behind her, but not me, not yet, not this time. I’m here to witness, here to tell you. And I can only report what I saw last night with my own eyes.

Those kids, they sat.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, humor, MY LIFE

16 responses to “Perchance to sit

  1. I love that The Writer and His Dog ambled down the stairs for the requisite showing. Poor Kathy. She clearly expected the sort of “working the room” behavior of young professionals, rather than an amoeba-like gaggle that would commandeer the sun porch. As though they were family. Pretty nice, actually.

    I have a (dim) recollection of being a college freshman in 1969. But I was never invited over for hot chocolate and gummy bears, instead spending my nights dancing in smoky apartments crammed with so many other kids that we just stood individually and wiggled. I don’t remember ever seeing a sofa or a chair.

  2. I remember my college freshman year, as well, and the most boring faculty party was the one where we stood, eating cheese and crackers and drinking wine (the drinking age being 18 at the time), pretending. The best parties were not those where we stood or sat but, rather, DANCED.

    Wonderful essay that provoked smiles and nostalgia —

  3. I have not seen these kids party. I hope they do, hope they dance. I know them from class, and now from our forced socialization, supervised by adults. And they sat. Beth and Elizabeth, they sat.

  4. Just be glad the dog (and I like dogs) wasn’t a cat (I adore cats). Cats don’t perform any kind of party-oriented socializing on command. And about half the sitters (the dog folks) would’ve been sneering down their noses at the animal who refused to perform.

    • Undoubtedly true, Victoria. A cat would have had a breakdown. Belle would have loved to par-TAY! Though like the kids in adult clutches, she was subdued and seemed puzzled by the whole affair.

  5. I wonder if sitting is a sign of insecurity, hanging back, taking in the scene, rather than standing and mixing it up. Planting one’s body so the eyes can do the work. Something guarded about it? Or maybe they’re tired! Anyway — wonderfully rendered, Richard!

  6. What a marvelous meditation, Richard. Word perfect. The freshmen sat, IMHO, because they missed their mommas and daddies and dogs and cats and their homes. Yours served as a substitute, a warm, companionable place that wasn’t institutional. You guys should be flattered that they sensed they found a new, though temporary home away from home.

  7. This essay brings you and your family closer to us, Richard. I loved this glimpse, so delicately delivered, which allows your philosophic mind to do its pondering while you describe the details of a single event, each one of them helping to set the scene. Of course, the setting brought many of my own memories of faculty and student events in the president’s house back to me. I could see it all perfectly in my mind’s eye.

    Hope you give us more of these mini-memoirs.

  8. I enjoyed this post, and agree with Paulette. Sitting is safe, and leaves you less “exposed” than standing (especially when everyone else is sitting too). You’re not so much on display in what might be an awkward situation (what isn’t?) for a college freshman.

  9. Richard, a few years ago I went into a Buddhist bookstore in Mountain View, California, where Dot and I were visiting and bought the book, The Art of Just Sitting. Dot rolled her eyes. When we returned the following year, I sought to buy, The Further Art of Just Sitting. That is when Dot revoked my allowance. I see now that she was concerned for my health.

    • Come to think of it, I am on the treadmill because of Kathy, who noticed my sometimes-ambitious outdoor walking routine had collapsed. I regularly document my idiocy, but your book buying experience only proves, yet again, that women do have more sense than men . . .

  10. Hilarious, Richard. I think my cat would love your dog. She is not a normal cat. Nippy loves when the grandkids visit. She chases a ball when thrown and allows my granddaughter to push her around in a wheelbarrow. Of course, this is the same cat whose best friend was a chicken (who sadly passed away). Even when Bawk-Bawk sat (to lay an egg) Nippy would sit beside her and take a peck or two on the nose.