Notes on Summer 2

by Jeff Oaks

Charles Simic, in an essay in the recent New York Review of Books blog, got me thinking about the summer days of my youth, whose boredom at some point became so profound I started to write a novel to have something to do. It was the early 1980s, I think. I’ve lost the novel, which was unfinished and concerned the journey of some elves away from a ruined kingdom, toward somewhere else. I never knew where they were going. But along the way they had a few adventures which probably were remarkably like characters in the Tolkien books. I just went and wrote a little bit at a time, amassing some sixty pages, which at the beginning of the next fall I showed to my English teacher, Miss Frost, who seemed impressed. Other adults around me were equally so. I didn’t know how to read their encouragement, since I never really understood much about adults. But I do know that I stopped writing it after adults began getting excited about it. Other kids wanted to read it, and I handed it to a couple of friends I trusted. And I hardly even noticed when it disappeared somewhere among them.

I haven’t really written fiction since then. The next spring Miss Frost invited me and a couple of other literary-minded students to hear a poet and a fiction writer in Canandaigua. I thought I was going to hear the fiction writer, but he was a very dull reader who seemed not to have any delight in him or in his work. The poet, Judith Kitchen, was, on the other hand, a fountain of energy, maybe the first adult I’d ever seen who was happy to be one. I was instantly taken by her. When the time came to split into groups, I followed her. After that, poetry was my interest, my focus, my one true love.

Once, at a party, I remember my colleague Dave Bartholomae saying how much he wished his own children could experience the kind of boredom those of us who grew up in rural places, who grew up without the need to go to this kind of camp or that kind of camp, experienced. How important it was, he thought, that he’d become so bored. It was a deep state his children who had every advantage now might never encounter. A whole generation was coming toward us who might never have been bored; how would we teach them or even understand them? That was nearly a whole generation ago now. What are the sources, I wonder, of today’s kids? I don’t mean that as a veiled complaint about technology or video games. It may well be that they’re experiencing their great stretches of boredom in technological ways. Where do they dream? Where do they get to make mistakes no one else sees? Where do they spend the summer?

There were plenty of wild places, abandoned places around where I lived where we could go and lay claim to, populate with our imaginations, practice our speeches and desires and revenges. I moved into a section of Pittsburgh where there had been destruction and abandonment and some magnificent reclamation by the weeds. Between the last rowhouses and the Allegheny River was a four or five block-wide stretch of land that had already been turned into a fantastic place by the neighborhood kids, most of whom had no lawns or countryside to play out their desires in. They had created a kind of labyrinth of bike paths, with ramps and dips made out of dirt. Around the whole area were tall weeds and saplings that hid them from the adult world. Deer occasionally showed up there. The first day I saw it, three black vultures were circling something I never found. I did however feel shadow of them pass over me and shivered. One came so close to me I heard its dark crinoline feathers catching the air. Where else was a city kid going to experience anything like this beauty and surprise and even maybe fear?

When one summer that land was “developed” by a corporation into a long, dull, boxy warehouse, many of us complained, but, said the city, hands were tied. Jobs were promised of course, which is the cliche the powerful uses to silence the poor in a country where the only thing that matters is the economy, where the only data that matters is economic. Jobs will lead to a better happiness. Your kids will thank you. Maybe someone in that warehouse, maybe a night guard, is getting so bored at his desk he’s starting a novel.

Today I tried to be bored in the old way. I walked the dog to Frick Park and we played, then we came home and ate breakfast in front of the television, which was all infomercials and highly-caffeinated cartoon voices. I played a new game on my iPad called Temple Run, in which a man is being chased by apes through a series of increasingly complicated passages. There is no home or safe place he’s going to get to. The object is simply to accrue achievement after achievement, collecting coins that will allow you to activate “powers,” some of which give you invulnerability to the various traps along the way, some of which increase your speed or make you magnetic. It is fun for a while to play it. I can feel my brain having to adjust to it, feel my hands and instincts getting better and better at working the controls. After a while, I fell into one of those lovely summer naps on the couch. But when I woke up around 12:30, I thought, “Why don’t I try to do nothing of consequence today?” Immediately, I felt irritated. I ought to get at least something done, I thought. I felt it like a bee under my shirt. I needed to get to work. I wanted to. Pull a syllabus together, read one of the books I was going to teach in the fall, send out poems, revise poems in the new manuscript, finish the long essay I’ve been working on. Write a blog like this, if nothing else.

In the absence of forests, I get lost in sentences, images, the language I guess. Or that’s an acceptable substitute as more and more wild space gets developed into places where nothing surprising can happen, exactly the opposite of summer used to promise.