Essayist Richard Rodriguez discusses what Americans do with their leisure time.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Drive along Highway 29, the main road that curls to the Napa Valley. Look how California has planted itself-so lush now in summer to resemble Tuscany or the South of France. For many decades, whether pool side in the 30's in Depression era Hollywood or now in bull market Napa Valley, Californians have enjoyed a reputation as America's lotus eaters.
In truth, leisure is as complicated here as anywhere else in this country. In our famous Puritan culture a country that traditionally has placed its faith in work more than play, leisure is no simple goal. You need only to visit a gym and look at the strained and serious faces amidst treadmills, totaling calories, to sense how difficult it is for Americans to take leisure leisurely. The myth about the Californian Indians who first roamed through this valley is that they were peaceable people, enchanted by the bountiful earth, the gentle sky. They moved with the seasons, ate from the trees.
Then the Spanish arrived, soldiers and priests. It was the Spaniards who brought seeds for the grapes, literally planted the idea of the Napa Valley. To the extent that the Spaniards also introduced the idea of work on this land, the notion that soil must be tilled, watered, the Spaniards tainted the Indians' idea of leisure, paradise lost. Today you see Mexicans dark as Indians working, laboring on the land, cultivating the vines. The land, however, belongs not to them but to other Americans who cultivate a love for Southern Europe. All across Napa Valley and its sister county, Sonoma, over the ridge, you can see the flags of France and Italy lying alongside the stars and stripes. In small towns like Oakville and Healsburg, the old Masonic call gives way to an Italian restaurant. The corner drugstore is transformed into a bistro.
MFK Fisher, the elegant American essayist who loved France, lived in Sonoma County toward the end of her life. She introduced Americans to Southern European ideas about appetite and thirst. I remember once having been at her house not far from here. Dinner was a plain pleasure-a bowl of olives, an omelet, a bottle of wine. There are few writers today in Napa or Sonoma Counties, fewer bohemians. The land is far too expensive to support eccentricity. Instead, one sees Cinderella Chateau on the hillside owned by businessmen and the suddenly wealthy.
Natives will tell you that there is too much traffic now, especially on weekends, when the tourists come from the city and the suburbs. Natives complain about the Disneyfication of the hotels and the T-shirt shops invading their corner of Tuscany. But the Napa Valley has become a major pilgrimage stop for many Americans. The most interesting thing about Napa today is its marriage of the cult of the Mediterranean with an American work ethos. Indeed, one might call it a Northern European work habit.
I speak of myself, of the American generation to which I belong, of a culture that is everywhere in America, yet everywhere America dismissed as yuppie. We yuppies are awkward in our search for leisure, desperate to make our lives more than toil and trouble, yet too wedded to the world of toil and trouble to find true leisure. It's almost as though Benjamin Franklin works now as a chef in the restaurant. He works very hard, as only Benjamin Franklin can-working every day to improve himself. He thinks about food; he studies food, reads about it. His customers at the restaurant are equally intent. We all study the wine list like a college text.
We consider the tastes of the goat cheese the way we consider a monthly statement from our broker. We are laughable. We are magnificent. We are a contradiction-Americans at leisure.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.