Busy, Busy, Busy: The Work Ethic in America Extends to Our Spare Time

by Cullen Murphy

IN search of a telephone number and an address recently, I flipped through a new edition of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Associations; when next I looked up, an hour or so had gone by. With its 23,000 densely crafted entries, the Encyclopedia of Associations is an absorbing and indispensable reference work. It is also a monuby (1II11C II ment to America as the world’s leading nation of joiners. We like to think of this country, of course, as one of rugged individualists, and perhaps it is. But it is also a place where people need only the flimsiest hint of a shared interest to clump together like iron filings on a magnet. As Tocqueville and other observers have noted, there seems to be no activity, endeavor, condition, passion, peeve, or state of mind in America which lacks an institutional base to rally the faithful and carry the torch.

My own accomplishments in this respect have been very modest. At a young age I was a member of a fan club built around the Blackhawks comic-book series, my secret identity (I can now reveal) being that of “André.” I have for some years been a member of the American Automobile Association, but the only meetings I attend involve tow trucks. In looking through the encyclopedia, I came to understand that my appreciation of America as a nation of joiners was extremely limited and largely abstract. I realized that I had little idea of the vast number of ways in which Americans, workaday demands behind them, deploy their energies and their time.

I decided to spend a day calling up some of the associations listed in the encyclopedia. My criteria for selection came down mostly to curiosity.

An advocate, I learned, can be found for almost anything, and advocacy is one of three broad categories into which the associations I encountered tend to fall. Joe Ann Ricca, who was until recently the president of the American branch of the Richard III Society, answered the phone at her office in Hackensack. She was quick to come to the defense of the generally vilified British monarch. Ricca contends that Richard’s evil reputation was largely the creation of Tudor propagandists. (Henry VII, Richard’s successor, burned the work of everyone who had anything good to say.) She pointed out that x-ray analyses of various portraits of Richard III show them to have been overpainted in order to magnify the size of the hump on his back. She questioned the implication of Richard in the famous murder, in 1483, of the two princes in the Tower, his young nephews and rivals for the throne, arguing that there are other plausible suspects, and that it is even possible that the princes escaped to the Continent. The Ricardians, 650 strong, publish a journal and sponsor scholarly research. They believe that they may at last have turned the tide.

Seaver Leslie, an artist who lives in Wiscasset, Maine, believes that another tide may have turned. Leslie founded and for nearly two decades has been the director of Americans for Customary Weights and Measures.

As the name suggests, the purpose of the group, which has 1,500 members, is to halt the encroachments in the United States of the metric system. The group’s P.O. box number in Wiscasset is 5280, which is, of course, the number of feet in a mile. Its newsletter, Footprint, appears twice yearly, on the summer and winter solstices. Leslie observed during our conversation that traditional measures—the inch, the foot, the mile, the furlong—are all somehow derived from human proportions or human activity. The furlong, for example, was the distance a ploughman could walk from home and still be within earshot. Can it be coincidence, Leslie asked, that the rungs on ladders the world around, from culture to culture, are all a foot apart? Traditional measures, he said, “touch the poetic soul of every individual in America.” In contrast, when it comes to metric, people can’t even agree on which syllable to stress in the word “kilometer.” Leslie’s free time is spent lobbying for the repeal of Public Law 100-418, the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, which enshrined the metric system as the preferred system of weights and measures for U.S. trade and commerce and required the U.S. government to begin using the metric system in all its operations. He noted that metric has been beaten back three times—in the 1870s, the 1920s, and the 1970s—and is confident it will be beaten back again.

On the other side of this issue is the American National Metric Council, an association based in Bethesda, Maryland, with 150 members, most of them corporate. The council’s president is John Deam, who in his professional life is the director of business operations for a company that designs laser-based measuring instruments. Deam, of course, holds Public Law 100-418 in high regard, and believes that once private industry comes around, the public will follow inexorably. He notes in metric’s defense that it is easy to comprehend the relationship of, say, centimeters to meters, whereas there is no such orderly relationship between feet and miles, or between inches and yards. He wonders what it says about this nation that at a time of an increasingly integrated world economy the United States stands alone among industrialized nations in its reserve toward the metric system. But Deam is heartened by some recent developments. Since last January, for example, the General Services Administration has been accepting new specifications for federal buildings only in metric units. For the record, the American National Metric Council does have an official position on the pronunciation of “kilometer”: accent on the first syllable, not the second—a position, I suspect, that will be as congenial to many Americans as the metric system itself. Asked, by the way, whether he uses a yardstick at home, Deam replied, “I’m afraid I do.”

A second category of associations is for those who might loosely be called contestants. I spoke with Tom Cabot, of Hermann, Missouri, who is the president of the National Organization of Mall Walkers, a group established “to give national recognition to people who walk in malls for exercise.” The organization sells log books so that its 1,000 members, most of whom are women above the age of fifty-five, can record their mileage, and it awards patches and pins to those who achieve certain distances. Cabot, who sells sports medallions and Christmas ornaments for a living, explained that mall walking resembles the German tradition of outdoor “Volks marching.” In 1979 Cabot helped organize the American Volkssport Association, and sought to recruit the people he saw walking in malls. He founded the Mall Walkers because “I couldn’t get them outside.”

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, Bob O’Leary picked up the phone at the American Armwrestling Association. O’Leary, a distributor of nutritional supplements, is the executive chairman of the association, which has 2,000 members and is affiliated with the World Armwrestling Federation, headquartered in Calcutta. (Arm wrestling is India’s second most popular sport, after soccer.) O’Leary explained that there are two styles of ami wrestling, stand-up and seated, and that arm wrestlers are known as “pullers.” Arm-wrestling tournaments are held somewhere in America every week of the year. Any major issues facing the arm-wrestling community? “Drug testing at national events,” O’Leary said. Also, a lot of effort has gone into lobbying for ami wrestling’s inclusion as an Olympic sport—“obviously long overdue.”

Larry Kahn, of the North American Tiddlywinks Association, in Silver Spring, Maryland, explains that most of the 100 dues-paying “winkers” in his group are men, and that most have a background in mathematics or computers. In the United States major tiddlywinks tournaments are held four or five times a year. NATWA has a sister organization, known as ETwA, in England; of

English winkers Kahn observes, “They’re even nerdier than we are.” Like participants in many other sports and games, winkers have developed a distinctive jargon. They may say, for instance, “I can’t pot my nurdled wink, so I’ll piddle you free and you can boondock a red.” Tiddlywinks apparently enjoyed something of an efflorescence in the United States in the late 1960s and the 1970s, after which it entered a period of mild decline. Kahn blames this on the nation’s having experienced a time of cynical economic opportunism and creeping spiritual discontent, which together eroded the bedrock of silliness upon which the edifice of tiddlywinks is erected. Or so I inferred. Actually, what he said when asked about the cause of the decline was simply, “Reagan.”

Finally, there are the collectors. The world headquarters of the International Sand Collectors Society is located in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, and I spoke with its president, William S. Diefenbach, a retired management consultant. Diefenbach explained that the membership was held together, as it were, by “a common bond of sand.” Sand from the beaches of Normandy, sand from Mount St. Helen’s, sand from the Channel Tunnel, sand from the sand traps of famous golf courses. (A golfcourse division of the society is in the planning stages.) The society has 400 members, Diefenbach said; General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Operation Desert Storm, was granted honorary membership (which he accepted). Asked about activities, Diefenbach said, “We recently had a sand swap”—the first such event in the United States. Diefenbach puts out a newsletter, The Sand Paper, which among other things describes “the surpluses and needs of individual members.” The members clearly don’t want for projects to keep them occupied. Some items from the newsletter: “Bert Brim sent a supplement to his catalog of Ocean Beach Sands, bringing the number up to 830.” “Angela Maure is back from holiday in Egypt, and offers you: Desert al Rayum, Hurghada, the Valley of the Kings (Kamak and Hatschepsut), and the small island of Magawish.” “Warren Hatch has made a superb 58 minute VHS tape of 42 sands seen through a scope at 10 and 20x.”

The man who answered the phone at the number listed for the International Carnivorous Plant Society was Leo Song, its business manager and also the manager of the greenhouse at California State University, in Fullerton. He explained that the purpose of the society, which has 700 members, is “to provide information that concerns carnivorous plants, from care and culture to taxonomy, nomenclature, political action, and the dissemination of new hybrid names.” Asked what draws people to collecting carnivorous plants, Song said, “When you think about plants eating bugs, it kind of turns the tables.” Asked about the disturbing reputation of the Venus’s flytrap. Song called it ridiculous. “With the plants we’ve discovered so far,” he said, “you don’t have to worry about your cat getting eaten—even with genetic engineering.” He added, though, that when people ask him if dangerously carnivorous plants do exist, he always tells them, “Well, there are areas out there that haven’t been explored.”

Danny Perez, an electrician in Norwalk, California, would surely agree. Perez, too, is a collector, in a way. He heads the Center for Bigfoot Studies, whose purpose is to obtain a specimen of the large, shy, primatelike creature that is believed by some to inhabit the northern woods. He was inspired to take up the cause, to which he devotes all his spare time, by the movie The Legend of Boggy Creek, a documentary about Bigfoot that he saw at the age of ten. Apparently the Bigfoot community, which consists of several hundred people, is divided on strategy, the division being between the “take-it-alive” camp and the “shoot-tokill” camp. Perez favors the first approach. He conceded, however, that the second would be “a lot safer.”

All told, I got in touch with about twenty-five associations, and at day’s end it was hard to shake the feeling that compared with the lives of the people 1 had been talking to, my own was rudderless. Lifting my sights, I also began to wonder whether there must not exist an umbrella association to which people who run associations can belong—an organization that offers advice on, say, publicity and fundraising, or on holding conventions, and that perhaps lobbies the government for various kinds of tax exemptions. In the Washington, D.C., phone book I found something called the Association of Societies and Associations, but despite repeated attempts was unable to speak with anyone there. Were the lines being tied up by urgent calls from the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association? Professional Psychics United? The U.S. Amateur Tug of War Association? The Marx Brothers Study Unit? The Flying Funeral Directors of America?

What I know is that according to the taped message, “all of our staff are busy.” I don’t doubt it for a second.