Nantucket Essays

Useful Boredom

by Robert P. Barsanti

My son didn’t get out of the water today. We arrived at the beach around two o’clock in the afternoon. He kicked off his shoes, dropped his towel, and walked down to a rolling surf. The waves were still building and racing off of a freak storm that rolled up from the south. He couldn’t ride them, he couldn’t swim in them, and he couldn’t do much other than work on his wave kung fu. For three hours.

It has been a tough summer for swimmers. The beaches have been closed twice for fecal bacteria. The sandbars off the shore have formed oddly, so that the tide on most of the south shore beaches has been whipping to either the east or the west. The seals have become as regular a wave visitor as the seaweed. With the seals, somewhere out in the deep water, are the sharks. One fin might be a sunfish, but the next one won’t be. Sunfish aren’t particularly attracted to seals or swimming boys, but sharks are.

So, I pay more attention to the water these days. When I see the seals, I whip him out of the water as fast as I can. A seal is a wild animal, no matter how cute he might look. However, if truth must glower over the top of his book, I miss most of the seals that go swimming by. I see them when they are fifty yards away and twenty yards out, heading west.

Had there been a hint of seals at the beach, my mother would have pulled us out. She was terrified of animals and oceans. And sharks. When we vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, we weren’t able to swim at any of the beaches where the movie “Jaws” had been filmed. Each time she came to an ocean beach, she saw herself standing on the beach looking at a bloody fragment of a float and calling my name at the water. So, swimming with a wild animal would have combined with her usual fear of the great rolling ocean. My mother would have pulled us out, ripped off our suits, and dropped us at a library for the afternoon. Luckily, no seals interrupted our beach vacations of the seventies. Her children were able to battered and scraped by the waves to our hearts content.

My son is growing up in a different world. All sons do, of course. The thirty five years between us spans some of the great changes in American culture. He doesn’t go to school where everyone habitually uses slurs. He has been taught (and evaluated) on curriculums about problem solving, peer counseling, and harassment. The television saves his favorite shows, his movies appear at a click, and any game he wants to play comes over the air and into his hands. I take him to the beach, to his friends houses, and to ice cream downtown. In so many ways, he has grown up as a more fulfilled, thoughtful, considerate person than I was, or am.

He has never been bored. He doesn’t sit at home and turn through the art books looking for “the good pictures.” He doesn’t dig through his father’s books looking for Uncle Wiggly. He doesn’t wander out the front door, get on his bike, and pedal to his grandparents. Now, fathers have made the same complaints about their sons for eons. My parents worried about who I would become if I spent my afternoons watching the “Merry Melodies” at my grand parents while we ate Hoodsies and drank orange soda. When they were sufficiently worried, they sent us to play on a jungle gym over some concrete at the Warren School.

Nonetheless, I was often bored. Boredom settled into my life comfortably. It tripped at my ankles, hung on my arms, and grew sticky. I found ways of ridding myself of my clinging friend. I would go to the Wakefield Public Library for a bit, I might poke through the mysteries at Annie’s Book Swap, and I would find, in the neighborhood, a series of troubling and dangerous places to explore. By the time that adolescence had sprouted, boredom faded in the shadow.

I like to think and could almost believe that my daily race against boredom was valuable. I like to think that all of that play cemented a foundation for my adulthood, even if it meant hanging out with unscrupulous young men and playing hide and seek among old paint cans. As a result of my unsupervised and unruly upbringing, I became independent, tenacious, and overweight (thanks, Hoodsies).

Today, boredom doesn’t stand a chance versus the internet. How can you be bored when you can watch the characters from Team Fortress 2 dancing to Carla Mae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” My son doesn’t need to crawl through the book cases or dig in some closets. He also doesn’t need to open the door. No children live on his street. No one is playing hide and seek down at the corner; no one is putting M-80’s into Barbie Dolls; no one is racing on his bike. His world, by necessity and by electronics, is insular. His interest is guided along the digital rails by game makers and designers. My mother would have loved it; he was safe from dogs, sharks, and seals.

In the water, he isn’t safe. He is effusive and expansive. With his friends, he leads them up and over the waves, or he submerges just under the rolling surge. He gets hammered by one wave, rolls under the next, and pushes himself by the last. He walks to the closest looking sandbar, wanders out to the break, and rides the waves in like a seal.

He doesn’t get tired or bored for hours. And he never reads the book that I tucked into his bag.

Articles by Date from 2012