These last couple of weeks have been such a blur I really haven’t been able to keep up with this the way I should! Even now, I feel like I’m stealing time from several other things I should be doing just to write down a few notes. Last week I was in Pittsburgh working on an institute. This week was strange, too, beginning an intense writing project yesterday, and taking time off work for the rest of this month (except for Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays) to complete it. Doing some morning masses for Jesuit retreat house; taking Desi to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln next week for orientation next Tuesday. July should slow down a wee bit, if the writing project is done on time, but we have all this music waiting to be recorded if I can just find the right venue for it, the best way to present it to the public. August will be ramping up for fall at the parish, but not before the dreaded journey to Lincoln again to deposit Desi into Cornhusker Central, hoping for an academic and social university experience that will fit with his hopes and desires and "fit him for life," in Ruskin's memorable phrase. (I think it was Ruskin - I learned it in college, and crippled those brain cells shortly afterward.)
It all conjures memories of Desi and the other children, long ago, at loose ends trying to figure out what to do with all the time they suddenly had, school being out and all. I slip back to my own childhood in Arizona, when I was between 7th and 8th grades. Summer in Arizona was hot. Not the wussy hot of Chicago, when it gets up to 90 for a few days, then melts away in a summer shower and stays in the 70s for a week, but the reclaimed-desert hot of Mojave southwest, where the temperatures are in the 100s before school is out, and are still there without respite for the first month school is back in session. Sometimes, the temperature dips below 90 at night. Not always. What in the world did we do back then during the summer, before PS3, HBO, and the internet?
I do remember riding my bike a lot, going to friends’ houses. I had a couple of guys a few streets away with whom I remained friends through seminary high school, and we used to clown around together a lot. Paul and Leonard were the kind of friends that you just hang with; I’m sure we did interesting things, I just can’t remember any of them. Maybe the heat destroyed those brain cells. Another kid named Vincent I had known from my years in public school, we still visited, and I remember that what we had in common was scouts (when I did that, never graduating above “Webelos”) and stamp collecting (which I still do in a casual way.)
When it got to be evening, my brothers and sisters and the dozen or so other kids on the block would start to come out onto the hot cul-de-sac, crepuscular desert dwellers hungry for fun. (You still had to wear flippies, what we called “thongs” back then, because the streets were so hot - imagine if your neighbors wore their thongs out on the street now - woohoo! Ugh, or not, in my case. I would be like Homer Simpson in a Speedo on Copacabana beach — but I digress...) The favorite games were whiffle ball, of course, and kick the can. Honestly, does anyone remember kick the can any more? Like a game of hide-and-seek, where the “base” was a can. Whoever was “it” counted at the can, people scattered and hid, and then it was a matter of pursue and capture. But if someone kicked the can, everyone was free. Ah, the good old days.
There was no such thing as cable, so TV watching was limited. We had no library, no really "local" movie house (even if we’d had money to go to the movies more often), and no indoor malls in which to hang out. Sometimes we’d get so bored we’d fish in the canal, where there was famously nothing to catch but small bottom-dwelling carp, and not a bit of shade along the banks of its dangerously swift current. There was just nothing much to do during the day but visit with someone (and no one that I knew, by the way, had air conditioning in that Phoenix heat, just evaporative cooling, which kept the temperature down except during August and the monsoon) and maybe eat popsicles, lying in wait for the liberating music of the ice cream man.
One got hot and bored. For me, eventually, there came a solution—the Bookmobile! The Bookmobile came to a parking lot near the pool, about half a mile or so away. Its walls were lined with books, and best of all, it was air-conditioned. A bike ride would bring both the opportunity to find something to read (I was partial to baseball books and biographies) and a few minutes in blessed air conditioning. I was happy, of course, when there was finally a full branch of the public library built a few steps from where the bookmobile used to park once or twice a week, but there was magic in that van for a boy’s spirit beside itself with summer ennui.
I wonder whether children have the opportunity to get bored any more, the kind of bored where your imagination has to take over and you have to find a tree to climb, or a hobby, or a friend to ride a bike with or play kick the can. There are so many little distractions, so many more opportunities to occupy oneself with the computer, video games, DVDs, cable television, etc. I regret that I never feel bored any more, that there’s always more to do than time to do it in, and maybe I projected my own longing onto Desi for that place of pregnant liminality that felt like a heavy void but was in fact the womb of creativity and a matrix of community.
Well, soon enough he'll be immersed in college life, navigating currents of duty, rote, self-motivation, unwanted alarm clocks, and opportunity. My own personal bookmobile today is to finish another chapter in a required-reading book about the "heroic leadership" model of the Jesuits. But on my morning runs, audiobooks take me wherever I want to go, with Nellie Bly around the world, or into World War II Paris to pursue a serial killer, or, as now, with Michael Pollan, exploring the anthropological, gustatory, and healthy aspects of Cooked food. Here, on the brink of summer, I wish you nothing more or less pleasant than a little boredom, so that you might walk through its dark curtain into some unexpected wonderland of imagination, friendship, and self-awareness.