Copious Free Time


Our Daily Correspondent


A postcard, ca. 1910.

“Why are narcissists always talking about how busy they are?” my friend wondered as we left the party. At this party, a certain narcissist had been droning on about how much she had to do; how she really shouldn’t be there; that she would be leaving any moment. The implication had been, I suppose, that she was far busier than anyone else—or at least that her docket of tasks was more important. Or that she was more conscientious, maybe. I’m not sure. But it did seem to signify a failure to live in the moment, as it were.

This is a type most of us have encountered at one point or another. Two stand out in my mind—a college professor and the manager of a restaurant where I worked one summer. Both liked to talk, constantly, about how frantically busy they were. But more than this, both of these people were fond of a certain phrase: in my copious free time. As in, “Yes, yet another thing for me to do in my copious free time,” or, “Thanks, Bob! We all know how much I need to fill my copious free time!” or, “I think we all know who’s going to end up doing that—with all my copious free time.”

“Copious free time” has a perfectly respectable lineage: it’s from the Tom Lehrer song “It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier”—specifically the opening monologue thereof:

I recall this sergeant’s informing me and my “room-mates” of this rather deplorable fact that the army didn’t have any official, excuse me, didn’t have no official song and suggested that we work on this in our copious free time. Well, I submitted the following song, which is called “It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier,” which, I think, demonstrates the proper spirit, you’ll agree. However, the fact that it did win the contest, I can ascribe only to blatant favoritism on the part of the judges.

But what hath Lehrer wrought! The phrase is now the province of the pill. When these people say it, the delivery is sarcastic, sometimes weary, occasionally bitter. The implication is always that someone is taking advantage—maybe of their good nature, but usually of their work ethic and insistence on excellence. It’s different from being a martyr, although there are certainly martyrish elements. Because martyrs do things. The copious-free-time types don’t, in fact, seem any busier than anyone else. But they believe they are. And what’s more, they believe that you believe it—at least after they’ve told you.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.