How to Kill a Summer Afternoon, Volume 1:
I am tutoring the little guy on the fine art of wasting a summer day. No video games. No Netflix. Just the beach and the open water, “all surface and twinkle, far shallower than the spirit of man,” as Henry James once purred.
In a world that’s always trying to sell you something or push you to be skinnier or better looking, more productive, more prodigious, we are saluting the restorative powers of idle time on a summer day so perfect that you would like to fold it five ways and tuck it into a picnic basket to be used over again.
We are making the most of no schedules, no practices, no homework – no nothin’, baby. To me, American children are abusively overprogrammed. I think a busy kid is a happy kid, but there’s a fine line. Parents’ neuroses over the future have gradually become our kids’ neuroses, stealing grand chunks of childhood. Witness the poor kid who fled her SAT testing recently and disappeared.
Look, Ferris Bueller needs another day off. It’s one of the small ways we can gift our children.
“You know who you should be reading at your age?” I ask the little guy.
“Vonnegut,” I tell the 12-year-old.
Down to the Santa Monica Pier we go, talking of Vonnegut, the Dodgers, the woody cologne of an old wharf on a warm day.
“We used to call it dirt-bagging,” my buddy Verge said when I told him that we had devoted an entire day to wasting it. “We didn’t even have a towel,” he remembered of a boyhood by the beach. “You’d jump in the water, then lie down in the hot sand to dry off … dirt-bagging.”
I firmly believe that the right cheeseburger can change your life. The kid? He wants a corn dog at that iconic little stand at the base of the pier.
So be it, Ferris. Go get your corn dog.
As he eats, we listen to the street musicians, drop a buck or two in the bucket, then turn to watch the slack-liners on Muscle Beach. A few minutes later, we take out small consumer loans and hit the roller coaster, then (appropriately) the Ferris wheel, which seems to want to javelin riders out over the horizon.
At the end of the pier, a sea lion is performing some sort of lounge act in hopes of getting handouts from the fishermen lining the rail: Take my squid please. Splash.
Off we head to the Third Street Promenade, which the boy doesn’t remember, though I brought him here when he was 4 so he could feed scraps of pizza to pigeons. At the time, pigeons were his favorite wild animals.
“You remember this place?” I ask.
We’re several hours in now, and he’s starting to get the idea – this concept of doing absolutely nothing and doing it well. At a stoplight, I hold a conversation with the recorded voice inside the crosswalk box.
“Sir, do not panic!” I tell it. “Help is on the way. We will have you out of there in no time.”
“Prepare to cross,” the recorded voice says.
“He sounds demoralized,” I tell the kid.
“Hang in there, dude!” I say as I pound the crosswalk box.
Comedy doesn’t get more sophisticated than talking to random light posts. Fathers have always been some of our best comedians. A whole genre – the American sitcom – was built around a father’s ability to do dumb things in amusing ways, at the worst possible time. Then, in an attempt to fix things, make them even worse. The way our nation once had circuses, we now have fathers.
I loved my father. Now there was a guy who could waste a summer day. He worked his tail off, but he was still a master at killing a perfect June afternoon.
His favorite hobby: not catching fish. And he made the most of it with long trips into the Upper Midwest, where he would not catch fish in some of the most glorious, walleye-filled lakes you could imagine.
Sure, once in a while a fish would accidentally snag itself on his hook, which my dad had baited with cigar stubs and bar receipts. Never flustered, he’d just shake it loose and light another stogie.
“Your grandpa is here,” I tell the little guy.
“Yeah, he’s you,” I say.
Yeah, he’s you and me and every other overmortgaged schmo who saw a perfect summer day and pledged to own it.
Tom Thumb. Huck Finn. Ferris Bueller. Walking tributes to the spirit of man.
Prepare to cross.