Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In Defense of Boredom

"This beats the shit out of FarmVille."

Note: This post contains anecdotes about my personal life, and not many jokes. Both these things are atypical of the I Drop Things experience most loyal readers have come to expect. Sorries plural.

"You have to learn to entertain yourself."

These might be the most-repeated sentence spoken by my parents during my childhood. It's certainly up there with "Your dad's ponytail gets me so hot" and "Nobody can ever know Lauren was adopted." (Sorry, Sis! Ripping the Band-Aid off! You should have known when nobody else was blond!) Children are bored a lot. Part of this is an abundance of energy, but honestly most of it is the lack of freedom. You can't do what you want whenever you want: something I have to occasionally remind myself is AMAZING about adulthood.

Adults do things they don't want to do, but it's all in the service of other things we enjoy. I didn't want to get up early this morning, pick up my girlfriend from the auto shop and take her back home. But I did these things, because I like my girlfriend. I got to make a decision, and spice up that decision with blasting heavy metal in my car and detouring to get McDonald's breakfast. So adult errands feature the following bonuses: 1) you are doing this for a reason, 2) you get to drive, 3) Mickey D's whenever you goddamned want it. Which for me isn't often, but the freedom to make decisions is really the point.

As a child, you don't get to make decisions. Errands were always the worst, and I remember getting furious when my parents would tack on extra stops. "Mom, I have budgeted only enough surly attitude for the grocery store and the post office. The gas station I could manage, but only because you let me pump. But this right here, this hardware store? This is BULLSHIT.  You won't even let me come inside because of the nail-throwing incident! They were shitty darts, Mom. I figured that out pretty quick. It's done." I wasn't quite so eloquent at the time; nor was I allowed to say "shit" in front of my parents. But you get the idea, and if you're over the age of 20 this was your childhood too. There was a lot of time sitting around bored, especially during the summer. My summer days were spent at the marine lab where my dad worked, and the park adjacent to it. It was so boring I'd actually look forward to school starting again. As a 10-year-old, what do you do for six hours a day by yourself? And how much value is there in children entertaining themselves?

"Thank God we don't have to talk
to each other anymore."
I've been thinking about this since last week, when I was waiting at the local bagel shop along with a mother/son combo. The kid was about ten, and he was utterly engrossed with what appeared (from the case) to be his mother's smart phone. He was playing a video game; I don't know which, but apparently it was transfixing. I thought about my boredom-filled childhood, and how awesome it would have been to have easy portable access to cool video games. But then I wondered: what would I have done back then, in this kid's place? From where he sat, he could have turned his head to see out the glass back door. My dog Bella was tied up out there, radiating as much cuteness as possible to attract attention from passers-by. She is an unrepentant whore. Children love Bella once they're big enough to not be intimidated by non-trivial dogs, but this kid never even looked at her. He didn't even glance up when I came in the door. Maybe a child of this age doesn't like dogs. But I watched him the whole time, and he didn't even notice. His mom's order took forever--I came in later and left with my order earlier--and the game was everything. The mom talked to him once, about the game. If that kid had been me nearly 20 years ago, I'd definitely have checked out the dog. And the bagel shop itself was filled with some interesting things! I know this because, while waiting for many bagels over many visits to this shop, I  HAD EXPLORED THEM. I'm always reading the ingredients of hot sauce bottles, handling knickknacks and crap like that. So I, an adult, had explored the possibilities of this room more thoroughly than a bored child. Why? Because he had a smart phone with free video games, and I never have. This phone, while superficially enhancing this child's life, had compromised his natural inclination to explore his surroundings.

Since that incident, I've been keeping an eye out for children playing on cell phones. Turns out, it's everywhere. Grocery stores are the worst; kids trudge like zombies down the aisles in the metal cart's wake, narrowly avoiding collisions with other patrons. Kids are just absorbed with smart phones. This isn't a criticism of the child. I had a Game Boy as a kid, and if that thing had been around all the time (like a phone) it would have been my whole life. It's not even a criticism of the parent, who just wants her kid to shut up and behave for twenty minutes. My parents sent us on "missions" around the store to find items from a list. It probably didn't save any time, but it got two children out of their hair. Smart phones are the easiest way to distract your obnoxious whelps, so that's what you use. I think the latest wave of games should get some blame on their own; the free-to-play model dominating the mobile market doesn't lend itself to exploratory games. When I was a kid, we sat down and played Monkey Island, which at least had clever jokes and forced you to think outside the box. It wasn't the click-this-do-this-get-points compulsion/reward loop that fuels modern gaming.

But I think that's limiting. I don't think our society is improved by this phenomenon--children NOT spending hours each day bored out of their skulls. If I have one complaint about human beings in the Internet Age (as if I've really lived in any other age), it's their reliance on structure. The Internet is fun, but it's structured by nature. There are buttons; you push them and a limited selection of things will happen. Video games are fun, but they're rote pursuits of set rewards: almost the definition of structure. You know what I did when I was bored without a book or TV or game system? I explored my environment for possibilities. I would find the coolest thing in the room and come up with my own games. If I was outside in Kakaako Beach Park with nothing to do and nobody to go cardboard-sledding with (there were steep grassy hills but no snow), I'd come up with elaborate space-opera stories in my head. Every day I'd add a little more to the story, always keeping it between my ears, until I had been working on them for literally years. If I had a single friend available, we'd imagine ourselves heroes in amazing circumstances, conceiving problems to solve and talking each other through the solutions. These stories and characters also lasted years. These were role-playing games without pen, paper or dice. But I can still vividly recall the details. At the post office, I'd demand a number from my dad and run off to find that particular P.O. box among the thousands lining the walls. I'd imagine far-away fantasy lands and draw out their borders with a stick in the sand.
These are really shitty ways to entertain yourself. But I assert they're valuable, along with the boredom that produced them. With my Game Boy, would have made up all those things? Would I still compulsively make up games and counting systems and stories whenever there's a quiet moment? Creativity is inborn to a degree, but it will always be more a skill than a trait. Like all skills, it needs to be practiced. And at its most basic level, creativity is a response to emptiness. When a space is full, we enjoy it. When it's empty, we fill it. Children are particularly adept at filling imaginary spaces, and they're drawn in easily when those spaces are full. I submit the proliferation of mobile screens and computers is a negative thing for our youth, but also for our culture.

A question with more relevance to us twentysomething without kids: do I have enough quiet moments now? When's the last time I was truly bored? Personally, I've avoided getting a smart phone to this day. My flip phone is fine for calls, and I don't want to be "connected" full-time. Everyone I know with a smart phone is constantly distracted by it. At concerts, folks are more focused on recording the show than dancing. On trains, people play Angry Beavers while I people-watch. In line at the store, fellow patrons check their texts as I imagine the cashier's life story. Do I get anything out of it? Tangibly, no. But our brains are products of the work they do; neuroplasticity is well-established. Everything we do alters the wiring in our skulls, ever-so-slightly. Mental skills must be actively cultivated if you ever hope to accomplish anything with them, and childhood is obviously crucial to human development. If a society makes its children 50% less bored, denying them hundreds of boredom events each year, it's almost by definition making them less creative. There's simply no scientific way that smart phone proliferation isn't limiting and channeling the collective human mind. LOLcats are funny, but after a thousand LOLcats it's still just a cat picture with a funny caption. There is creativity, but it's so specific and narrow and prescriptive. What's the next creative step? I know! Condescending Willy Wonka! This is the progress of human civilization? Check out this humorous .gif compared with this one. Both those people felt creative as they submitted those to a website that will keep them locked up in perpetuity, unable to be downloaded or embedded. No, they must be LINKED! To generate traffic for QuickMeme, an aggregator of other people's unpaid "creativity." This is why human civilization is doomed. We're all more interested in eating each other than building things.

Maybe this piece has seemed curmudgeonly. I don't want to dump the Internet and go back to newspapers and novels. I just want us, as a society, to acknowledge the value of boredom. To step away from being Connected and ignore our texts and e-mails for stretches every day. You don't have to immerse yourself in the real world; imagination is fine. Just do something, think of something, CREATE something that didn't exist before. And let it flit away into the air; forget about it after you're done, if you don't like it. Maybe the next one will be better. Maybe, one day, one of them will be truly amazing. The biggest creative breakthroughs I've personally had came as the ultimate results of single, idle ideas. Those ideas didn't make it, but something similar did. Dozens of I Drop Things posts originated while I was out running--ideas I never would have come up in a gym on a treadmill in front of a muted ESPN broadcast. Fuck you, Around the Horn. You are killing human civilization. It was on a run this very day that I was inspired to finally write this post; that I was able to finally put together my thoughts and articulate (helpfully rather than rantingly) why these iPhone brats bother me.

I run on a bike trail along the San Francisco Bay. it's relatively cool, little-trafficked, and the scenery is gorgeous. California poppies grow on one side, orange blooms screaming for attention. On the other is a short incline and then a long tidal shallow. The tide was out at that point, exposing drenched stinking mud for a hundred yards. Two small children, maybe eight years old, squatted at the base of the incline. Wielding plastic shovels and buckets, they dug lamely in the mud, unwilling to play with anything so foul. No adults in sight. Disappointed little faces, because they were clearly looking for critters and not finding them. I thought back instantly to my own childhood, goofing around on the beach and unsure where the cool animals hid. "Turn the rocks over!" I bellowed down to the kids. They looked up at this shirtless sweaty hairy ape and his panting dog. "All the best stuff is under there!"

They reached down and flipped a stone between them. Recoiled a step, shrieking "CRABS" as a dozen little grey-green crustaceans skittered away in all directions. I kept running, since I knew what came next and had lived it all years before. The next time you flip the stone, you're expecting the crabs and you'll try to catch one. It'll escape, but by the third stone you've learned their movements and get your fingers on one. It pinches; you howl again and drop it. But the pain fades in seconds, and the next time you try to grab the claw itself.  It breaks off, along with the whole arm. Next time, a different approach. It probably took me a dozen flips to catch my first crab. The key is scooping from behind and gripping the back of its shell with fingertips, right where the egg clasp folds into the underside of its shell. Absolutely amazing. If I hadn't been bored out of my fucking mind, it never would have happened. "Let's go wallow in the mud and turn rocks over" doesn't appeal when you've got Angry Birds.

Just as responsible cat owners need to confuse the little shits, responsible parents are obliged to bore their children. They'll be a little more obnoxious, but so much more worthwhile.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post. For serious.

    If you're planning on heading back to straight-up ranting + jokes in your next one, however, I suggest you take on this new Snoop Lion character. What happened to the scrappy, young talent of Doggystyle? Is it pure shamelessness or has all the weed eaten his brain? Important questions.