not only unnecessary but also of little or no immediate importance
- Puttering, in case you didn’t know, is our North American word for what the English call pottering. In my dictionary, both words mean occupying oneself in ineffectual or trifling ways, or dabbling. For instance, my wife says I spend too much time dabbling in the garden. If our weeds could talk, they would confirm that I act ineffectually.
- I first encountered puttering just after the war when I was a resident in the late F. W. Wigglesworth’s pathology lab in what was then the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Montreal. Wig ran a tight ship. As the director, he took charge of tissue pathology and supervised Eleanor Mackenzie (now Harpur), who ran biochemistry, Frances Prissick, who supervised bacteriology, and Ron Denton, who took time from his clinical practice to oversee the hematology services
- It was the ebullient Eleanor who christened Wig “the putterer” because of his obsession with the minutiae of lab operations. “The Putterer's Club is now in session,” she whispered to the rest of us when Wig entered the lab.
- We were all members. When Wig was on a roll, pursuing some bit of trivia, we had to drop whatever we were doing and pitch in. It might be a sudden need to reorganize the files, to search for a pickled specimen that he had a sudden urge to review, or to launch a scavenger hunt in the storage room for an ancient piece of equipment. Most often they were "problems" that did not need to be solved or, at best, could have been delegated to a secretary or hospital orderly.
- However, when Wig discovered such a problem, work came to a standstill: we all downed tools to putter along with him. While doing this we’d often stare off into space, dreaming of other things. I was slower than I should have been in recognizing that in this lay the hidden treasure of puttering.
- Since those long-ago days I have come to know and respect a great many other putterers, and to cherish the tranquillity and wisdom that often come to the world’s truly dedicated fusspots.
- Successful puttering has few rules. It is most important that the primary activity be not only unnecessary but also of little or no immediate importance. For instance, Brian Mulroney is not puttering when he meets Canada’s premiers to discuss constitutional reform, but he is if he wanders into those famous closets at 24 Sussex and begins counting Mila’s shoes.
- Somehow I can’t imagine him doing this, and that is a great pity: as any putterer knows, great and noble thoughts often come to those who engage in tedious, repetitive tasks. Who knows what earth-shaking ideas came to Winston Churchill while he was “pottering” about in England, laying bricks, or smearing paint on a canvass.
- This illustrates the second essential of puttering. It must be the sort of mindless activity that frees the brain from concern over the consequences of your actions, making it possible to range freely through the endless vistas of untrammelled imagination.
- I, for instance, have often found it easy to arrive at simple, plausible and entirely practical solutions to the problems of free trade, national unity, abortion, terrorism and violence in the streets while mowing the lawn, painting a wall, or sanding a board.
- Puttering seems to loosen the synapses that bind us to our biases and preoccupations. It frees us from the bonds of conventional wisdom and releases the mind to soar to the new and grand thoughts that are so desperately needed if we are to save this poor old world.
- Wig was on the right track, I now realize. More of us should be following his lead.
— Douglas Waugh, MD, “Puttering around,” in his Vista column, Journal of the Canadian Medical Association 145:7 (October 1, 1991) : 849
Douglas Oliver William Waugh (1918-97), pathologist, medical educator; boat builder and sailor; writer. Memorial at Pathology News (Department of Pathology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario), (May 1997) : 7