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Just Piddling

May 14, 2012

Dr. Eric Berne was a psychiatrist best known as the creator of transactional analysis and the author of Games People Play. Berne identified the various ways in which people spend time. One of those is pastimes. As defined by Berne, a pastime is something that serves to make time pass agreeably, a pleasant means of amusement. A pastime differs from an activity in that a person is not emotionally invested in a pastime. For example, knocking a tennis ball around may be a pastime until you begin keeping score or working on your backhand. Then it becomes an activity.

According to Berne, we spend far too much of our lives engaged in activities. We need time for our engine to idle, for body and soul to catch up with each other.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg writes a regular column for Southern Living. In the February 2012 issue Bragg reflected on an obituary he saw in the Birmingham News.


Ellis Ray of Moundville passed away Saturday.
He was a loving husband, father, and grandfather
who loved to fish and piddle. He will be greatly missed.

The obituary prompted Bragg’s Southern Journal column, “The Fine Art of Piddling.” He calls piddling “The act of passing time, without waste or regret.” What Eric Berne called a pastime Rick Bragg identified by its more common Southern name, piddling. Piddling is not to be confused with work. It is not changing the furnace filter or sharpening a lawnmower blade. It is neither spreading mulch nor washing dishes. A person piddling never breaks a sweat.

Neither is piddling to be regarded as goofing off, killing time, or wasting time. It cannot be done kicked back in a recliner. It is a first cousin to puttering. While the Urban Dictionary ( gives other meanings for the word, in its purest form piddling describes an important part of our Southern heritage. Piddling is a cultivated art.

Piddling never involves a clock or a watch.

Piddling may require tools, usually no more than a pocket knife or a screwdriver.

Piddling is not on a To Do list. It is never planned. As Bragg points out, we just meander into piddling.

I tried to think of some of the ways I piddle. These came to mind.

I sharpen the hooks on old fishing lures though I never intend to fish with them again.

I sort bent nails and old screws though I reach for a new one when I have a repair project to complete.

I doodle when I take notes. I usually end up with more doodles than meaningful words. Come to think of it, piddling may be a way of buying time rather than spending time. It keeps my hands busy while my mind is preoccupied with weightier matters.

Last Christmas our son and daughter-in-law enjoyed a lovely red cedar tree in their living room. After the holidays, their beautiful tree was laid to rest on the curb. One day while visiting, I noticed the discarded cedar. As we were pulling out of the driveway, I stopped, hoisted the tree, and threw it in the bed of my pickup truck.

At the time Clare asked, “Just what are your plans for that dead tree?”

“No plans,” I answered. “I just like the smell of cedar.”

I took the red cedar tree home and tossed it on the wood pile. Occasionally, I would cut a few of the dried branches off to use as kindling in my chimenea.  Finally, nothing was left but the trunk.

When I had a little time to spare outside at night, I whittled on the aromatic wood. I singed the small loose shavings away from the trunk. Over time the cedar became smooth to the touch.

Clare wondered, “What are you making?”

“Nothing. I’m just piddling.”

One of these days I’ll probably rub a little linseed oil on the piece of cedar. I already use it as a walking stick when I roam around the backyard at night. It is especially useful in steadying myself in the dark on uneven ground.

Last week I was out under the supermoon. I walked down the railroad tie steps that descend the hill near our waterfall. In the moonlight, lying on the warm path was a small garter snake. Using my cedar stick, I gently flipped the critter up on the bank under a hemlock tree.

Clare, watering the geraniums on the front porch, heard the disturbance and called out, “What are you doing?”

“Just piddling,” I said. “Just piddling.”


Kirk Neely
© May 2012

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