Sunday, July 24, 2011

the putter principle

Unlike Richard Bucket, husband of Hyacinth ("it's booKAY!") on the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances, I love to putter in the garden, and so I generated the title of this essay many months ago.

I thought of my putter principle* as an ironic play on The Peter Principle by Dr. Laurence J. Peter. Since 1968, when that book was published, its title has become a catch phrase for anyone wishing to criticize a corporate or governmental bureaucracy where managers have "risen to the level of their incompetence."

Then a few weeks ago, the ever-diligent Google Reader brought me On the Art of Puttering, an editorial from the Sunday New York Times. I was shocked to read there that "No one intends to putter. You simply discover, in a brief moment of self-awareness, that you have been puttering, or, as the English would say, pottering.**" The editor goes on to describe a day of puttering as "a holiday from purpose." This is definitely not my style of puttering, but then the editorial does not purport to apply to anyone outside of New York City. (Perhaps the New York City style of puttering is practiced by those to whom the Peter Principle pertains! But I don't want to get snide.)

Here in our Southern California garden, within three miles of the weather-moderating Pacific Ocean, I intentionally, ritualistically, and purposefully putter almost daily. I walk around all my little strips and larger triangles of garden and do whatever can be done quickly and without getting my clothes or shoes dirty: deadhead a few blossoms, pull a few weeds, stick an errant vine through the fence, pinch back new growth on flowers or herbs, taste-test a tomato, pick up and throw away some litter, etc.

My effectiveness in puttering is made possible by the fact that three years ago I started methodically cleaning up and organizing our garden space. When any area was mostly clear of weeds and other unwelcome or inappropriate plants, a quick putter became sufficient to keep it looking good enough to make me feel satisfied. For example, removing the invasive Sprenger asparagus fern from our front garden was a major project, but now the occasional putter is sufficient to pick out its inch-high attempts to return.

When an individual plant needs major attention (like, pruning), or an area needs to be reorganized, that becomes a project -- defined by a convention speaker I heard several years ago as "an activity with three or more steps." I think this is a pretty good working definition of a project, and I like to contrast it with my definition of puttering, "a sequence of one-step activities." In the context of my gardening style, a project also means getting into gardening attire, including a hat and durable waterproof shoes, and expecting to spend at least an hour or two at a time -- perhaps over a period of days or weeks. My current gardening project is the establishment of a potting bench area in our back patio.

Focusing on the difference between puttering and pursuing a project, I began to think that I'd like to have the inside of our house well enough organized that a quick putter would set it straight. And this brought up the memory of another Peter's principle. I had read Peter Walsh's seminal It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff. That must have been in 2007, when the book was published. At the time, I was a big fan of Mission Organization on HGTV. Kay had gotten me hooked on that show, which provided pleasant fantasies for both of us. Walsh's book was more realistic and somewhat helpful, but too draconian for me. The thing that stuck in my mind, however, was Walsh's idea that if you had a room well organized you could tidy it up in five minutes. "A consummation devoutly to be wished," eh?

As I mentioned in a recent post, I'm involved in a series of on-line workshops on organizing. Aby Garvey's Simplify 101 takes an approach somewhere between Mission Organization and It's All Too Much. If I don't rise to the level of my incompetence, I expect to be puttering indoors as well as outdoors by the beginning of 2012.

Could it be that freedom to putter is achieved at the very peak of competence?
- - - - -
Crisswell Freeman's The Putter Principle: Golf's Greatest Legends Discuss the Ultimate Stroke is something else again. Like most of Freeman's books, which now number over one hundred, it is a compendium of inspiring quotations.

** This usage is not universal in the U.K. Hyacinth asks Richard, "Why don't you go out and have a little putter in the garden, dear?"

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License