Friday, April 30, 2010

Nothin To Do, Nowhere To Go

Over the last several days, I have watched the Milwaukee Bucks host three NBA play-off games. In each of these games, every time that the Atlanta Hawks' Josh Smith so much as touched the basketball, he was immediately hounded with a chorus of boos from upwards of 18,000 people. This is certainly not the first time that a play-off series has been marked by enmity between fans and an opposing player. But what is curious about this circumstance is the particular sin which Smith committed. At no point did he plant an elbow into the chest of an unsuspecting Bucks player, nor did he administer any other kind of cheap shot. He committed no felonies or misdemeanors off the court, and he didn't even do or say anything which could result in a civil suit. What he did do was tell a reporter, when asked about going to Milwaukee for a couple days, that there was "nothing to do there." (Ironically, at about the same time Smith was feeling the fallout of this comment, the Chicago Bulls Joakim Noah was met with a backlash for saying pretty much the exact same thing about Cleveland).

I don't think it is at all surprising that fans have seized upon this quotation and responded negatively, but I do think it is interesting. Certainly, denizens of any geographical area will respond defensively when an outsider exhibits disrespect, perhaps because of a phenomenon I first speculated about several years ago, something I call "Geo-Cultural Anxiety." But I don't think it is just outsiders who are apt to make such a statement. In fact, everywhere I have lived or worked, I have heard it said about my present geographical location that there is "nothing to do here." I grew up in a fairly small town of about 15,000 in Wisconsin, where such an utterance wouldn't be surprising. I went to college outside of the aforementioned Milwaukee, where I often heard the very comment that made Josh Smith a persona non grata. I taught classes in Louisville, Kentucky, where young people would claim that there was nothing to do "unless you are 21."

And I think that whenever anyone makes such a comment, whether they are talking about Milwaukee, Louisville, or Podunk, USA, they are wrong. There is always something to do. None of us have infinite choices about things to do; we are limited by finances, by time, by work, by commitments, by weather. But we don't live in the Middle Ages. Our society fosters social interactions. Even in a small town, you can check the "community calendar" and note a myriad of activities. There are any number of social groups and organizations that one can join. But setting aside the social dimensions, one would think that individuals can find plenty to do without ever having to interact with another human being. With high definition television, video games, and the Internet at our disposal, and the amount of time and money that people invest in such diversions, one would think that we should be able to brag about eliminating boredom the way we can brag about eliminating smallpox.

Yet for all of this, complaints about boredom subsist. Why is this? My theory is that our attempts to solve the problem are actually the cause. Barry Schwarz argues in The Paradox of Choice that there is a point where the number of choices at our disposal start to cause anxiety, and that we would be better off with a more limited palette of choices. Perhaps overwhelmed with so many possible diversions, we become disillusioned about all of them. And furthermore, we constantly expose ourselves to narratives in which we vicariously live through characters who are experiencing the absolute heights and depths of human experience (sometimes in 3-D). It might be harder to take pleasure in going to a neighborhood brat fry on a Saturday when we spent Friday night inhabiting some world constructed by Michael Bay.

But I also think there is another factor. I hate to follow the trite and overused script of laying the blame at the feet of the education system. And in fact, it is such a practice that maybe should be blamed instead. In trying to avoid leaving any children behind, in trying to make sure that our students can compete with students of other nations, and most egregiously, in assuming that the only purpose of an education system is to prepare students for an occupation, you fill the entire day teaching students how to succeed in school and in work. But teaching students how to succeed in their play seems to me to be a vitally important mission in its own right. About 150 years ago, Emily Dickinson lamented that "The soul selects her own society then shuts her door to the divine majority...unmoved an emperor be kneeling at her mat." And every time that anybody says of a place that there is "nothing to do," they are proving her right.


Blogger justin said...

bucks had a great year but when bogut got hurt they fell apart... I finally figured out how to leave comments and to read other blogs... Ive been so flustered and when I least expected it I figured it out by accident ... Its been a great class and Im really glad to have been part of this whole process...

11:19 PM  

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