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Not Enough Nothing Going On

It’s summertime, and the livin’ should be easy. But is it? I don’t want to turn into Garrison Keillor here, but I’ve been thinking for a while about summers past and how they seemed to start earlier and last longer. Unfortunately, this is one thing we can’t pin on El Nino, since scientists just revealed that recent extreme weather conditions have slowed the Earth’s rotation by an infinitesimal amount, actually making our days longer. But what are we doing with that extra time? Too much and not enough.

For one thing, back in the olden days when school was out for the summer, it was out, no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks. (See original Van Halen video starring David Lee Roth for tips on how to celebrate the occasion.) Now they have summer sessions and staggered semesters and, what with one thing and another, plenty of kids can count on going to school year-round. To which I can only say, “The horror, the horror.”

But even for those kids who are not in school or any school-based derivative, such as computer camp, during the summer, the unstructured hours seem to dwindle down to a precious few well before September.

I can remember spending big chunks of summertime engaged in the following: looking at ants, watching tar melt and seeing if ants could extricate themselves from melting tar. (Usually only the strong ones, who then received names.) I’m not maintaining these are worthwhile activities, I’m not claiming I’m a better person for having engaged in them (though maybe I am), I’m just saying that they didn’t take a Powerbook to schedule.

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These days, kids I know are booked up weeks, sometimes months, in advance. If the circus comes to town, forget about running away with it. Today’s kids have to check their agendas to see if they can even accommodate a brief visit to the big top.

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When I was a child, back in the prehistoric mists of time before Barbie, before Pop Tarts, when Bulgemobiles roamed the Earth and Volkswagens were cheap imports with tiny rearview windows and engines in the back, kids went Out. As in “I’m going out.” When they came back, which they invariably did in order to feed, their parents asked them what they did while they were Out, and they said, “Nothing.” And all was as it should be.

In case you’ve been living a child-free existence for the past 20 years, wake up, I have news for you. There is no more “Out.” There is no more going by your friend’s house to see if anyone’s home and maybe hang out for a while, just messing around, doing nothing. In fact, there is no more “Nothing.”

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Instead there are supervised play dates. Any child in my school who confessed to having a supervised play date would have been the victim of childish mockery, which we all know is way worse than any adult mockery that later life could hold in store, up to and including being ostracized by your golf club for being an acquitted wife murderer. But now scheduling is the norm, not the exception.

There’s very little room among soccer practice, piano lessons, karate class and play dates for boredom to sink in. Which to me is a bad thing. If it weren’t for boredom, those ants would’ve remained unnamed. When you come to think about it, whole ant empires would have gone unimagined. Why, my desire for world domination through humor would’ve been lessened, and I might not even be writing this column.

Sometimes that’s all it takes to change the world. One more scheduled play date, and Sir Isaac Newton may not have been lying in that orchard daydreaming, waiting to get hit in the head by the crucial apple. Then where would we be? Living in a universe without the theory of gravity, that’s where. Things would fall apart, the center would not hold.

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Personally, I’d like to put forward my own theory of necessary gaps, for both children and gap-deprived adults. (This has nothing to do with a similarly named chain store whose commercials urge you to fall into it.) I’m not good at math (I never got sent to math camp), but the formula is something like: For every hour of scheduled time, you get at least two of gap time.

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Gap time is when you get to do stuff you make up yourself, like seeing if you can touch the tip of your nose with your tongue or repeating some of your favorite words over and over so you can see how long it takes before they don’t make sense any more. It’s also good for rolling downhill or spinning around and around in a circle until you make yourself dizzy. (But, given that this is the politically correct ‘90s, try to stay away from torturing ants.)

Gap time can be spent alone or with others, awake or napping. The only thing it can’t be is planned. You just have to take it as it comes, like a sudden sun shower.

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Because, can summer really be summer when it takes a Day Runner to run it? I can’t help hearing this voice buzzing at the back of my brain saying that there’s nothing like having “Nothing” to do. Oddly enough, it sounds a lot like a cicada.


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