Practicing the summer doldrums away

Perhaps Laura Ingalls in her little house on the prairie whined to her parents in the summer, "I'm bored."

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WASHINGTON, June 30, 2017 — “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.”

Those words fill me with dejection. I want to point at the bookcases and say,

“We have over a thousand books in this house. History, biography, science, science fiction, horror, politics, philosophy, mystery—isn’t there even one that you want to read?”

We live in woods by a lake. I want to point out the window and ask,


“Why don’t you go take pictures of flowers or lizards? I’ll pay you to weed the garden. You can sit in the garden and watch butterflies, or you can sit there and read your Bible and be a garden gnome.”

The dad in my head is starting to get sarcastic.

We have a trip planned; that covers two weeks out of a 12-week summer. Summer school and camps cover another three weeks. I recall an age when kids knew how to entertain themselves during the summer, but I may recall incorrectly.

Perhaps Laura Ingalls in her little house on the prairie whined to her parents in the summer, “I’m bored.”

The problem isn’t that there’s nothing to do, but that there’s nothing our children want to do. And at this point, I’m not prepared to entertain them or plan a fun-filled summer for them. They’re teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, and it’s time they faced reality.

Our son turns out to be an easy case. “I hate our bathroom.”

“What’s wrong with the bathroom?”

“The paint. The drawer handles.”

“I did those especially for you kids when you were little. You don’t like the fish I painted on the wall?”

Harlan tries to look appreciative of my work, but his expression comes dangerously close to a sneer. “That was great when I was three. I’m 16. My friends all make fun of that bathroom.”

I’m an understanding dad. “That’s fine. You can repaint it.”

I took him to a home-and-garden store to look at paint. I gave him complete authority to choose his colors. I made the project his.

“That bathroom is looking sort of like a surgical suite,” my wife observed. “That’s an awful lot of mint green.”

“Yeah. I’ve read that color is very soothing, and it contrasts well with blood.”

The bathroom is done, and with the mirrors and towel racks back up, the green isn’t overwhelming. And Harlan, suddenly finding his inner interior designer, has launched on a project to paint his room. The spackling, sanding and painting have been going on for over a week, and given the blues and grays he’s chosen for his color scheme, I think I’ll be repainting that bedroom when he moves out of the house, but he’s not bored. Whatever it ends up costing is cheap at twice the price.

Our daughter is a tougher nut to crack. She wants to play on the computer and watch movies. “Okay,” I said, “you can play on the computer all you like, if you earn computer time.”

“Whaaat?”

“Practice your violin for half an hour and you can have 15 minutes on your iPad. Weed the walkway and do the dishes, and you can watch a TV show. Get up by 8:00, be dressed, practice, do the dishes, weed the walkway, and pass on the iPad and TV show, and you can watch a movie.”

She’s not a happy camper, but the biggest bone of contention has been the violin. She thinks that no lessons for the summer means no practice.

She thinks wrong. I decided I should model good behavior on this. I haven’t had a piano lesson in years, but I’m working on a Bach toccata (BWV 911). I play the same bar over and over again, speeding it up, slowing it down, making it staccato, making it legato, backing up to start with the measure before, heading full speed into the next measure after, then do it all again. Finally my daughter calls out plaintively, “aren’t you done yet?”

It might be annoying for her, but I really enjoy it. I’m trying to practice at least an hour a day, working mostly on the Bach, but also on two or three other pieces. I ought to make the time to practice this way every day, but as a college prof, I’ve only found the time during the summer. But for the first time in years, I’ve given myself a goal and want very badly to master that piece, and for the first time in years, I’m practicing the way I ought to.

Practicing an instrument has the same benefits that meditation does. The single-minded focus on making your fingers move just so, over and over again, your mind concentrated on every note and the shape of every phrase, learning the sensation of going from one note to another: This type of practice is much like practicing a martial art, or perfecting the tea ceremony. You can’t let your mind drift or you’ll make a mistake; you must be fully engaged, your mind involved, but also developing muscle memory and an awareness that isn’t strictly conscious.

I’ve told my daughter she can earn her movie time more quickly. All she has to do is practice her violin for 45 minutes every day with me as her accompanist. We’ll practice my way, not just playing a mass of notes, but playing each note exactly, bringing feeling to each phrase, feeling the motion and hearing the harmonies. If it means not pulling weeds from between paving stones all summer, she’s receptive.

I’m hoping for a beautiful summer.

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