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River Town Chronicles: A compelling case for boredom

Published: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 5:30 a.m. CST

If I had a nickel for every time I whined to my mother, “I’m bored,” I could buy a seat in the U.S. Congress. Before my three older, larger, stronger brothers shipped off to boarding schools, I was too busy getting pounded on to be bored. When gone, they left me with only the family cat and a parent-regulated half hour of TV a day for distractions.

So, when not in an after-school pickup baseball game in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, or when my mother reneged on another game of canasta, I was forced to concoct worlds only I inhabited.

My favorite ploy included strapping on my Fanner 50 pistol and gun belt, then imagining my bedroom as the Red Dog Saloon or a desert butte where my stories unfolded. Each plot spun out spontaneously, complete with character voices, sound effects (I was terrific at galloping horses and gunshot ricochets) and mountain (couch) climbing. Play usually ended when I beat to the draw the leader of bearded, shotgun-totin’ desperadoes.

Occasionally, my mother walked in on a roundhouse to Snake Sidewinder’s grizzled chin, forcing characters and setting to evaporate quicker than power lost to the Enterprise’s holodeck.

“Dinner’s ready,” she’d say, pretending not to notice my bandana, cowboy hat and holster.

Acting out narratives in fabricated settings eventually turned into a passion for writing fiction; both exercises invented human beings as vivid to me as those drawing breath–and, in some cases, more so.

If I’d been glued to TV, video games, Facebook or iPhone, I’d probably have let my imagination rot. At this year’s Super Bowl party, a friend declared, “Kids today are so lazy they don’t want to make a buck shoveling driveways.” I disagreed, opining it wasn’t laziness that kept them indoors, but the plethora of screens demanding their attention.

A review in The New Yorker, “Only Disconnect,” discusses new writings suggesting the Internet and new technologies threaten to kill boredom and, thus, youthful creativity. However, author Evgeny Morozov concludes that “Angry Birds” and Twitter may not be the Snake Sidewinders of the new millennium. Some online offerings serve to guide the addicted screen watcher to new thoughts and new creations. “The trick is to honor and celebrate both [radical distractions and radical boredom] – and not to settle for their tepid, mediocre versions,” he writes.

According to Morozov, Malcolm McCullough, in “Ambient Commons,” “celebrates technologies that can make us more alert to the world ... from media facades that eschew pictorial images to devices that monitor light pollution–capable of sharpening our focus ... .”

Looking for a late valentine present? Try Morozov’s personal solution to being held captive by his tech devices, and buy your loved ones “a safe with a built-in timer ... for days on end.” Once they get over the trauma of not having access to Netflix or incoming email, maybe they – and you–will have time to experience today’s most valuable commodity: doing nothing.

Or, rather, doing nothing until you dream something up.

• Rick Holinger lives in the Fox Valley where he’s taught high school since 1979. His poetry, fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in numerous literary journals. He founded and facilitates two local writers groups and has a Ph.D. in creative writing from UIC. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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