Life is short -- Mess about a bit

Witold Rybczynski

October 23, 1991|By Witold Rybczynski

THE EVOLUTION, from the simple to the intricate, from casualness to intensity, is visible in almost every contemporary American recreation, whether it's bicycling, roller-skating, cross-country skiing or boating.

Even wind-surfing, which started life as a simple and inexpensive alternative to sailing, has succumbed to what appears to be an inevitable tendency to complicate fun with gear and technical gadgetry.

Play is beginning to look more and more like a kind of work.

"There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats," said Toad in "The Wind in the Willows."

But messing about is exactly what's missing from most mock-professional recreations in which so much attention is paid to improving performance and increasing efficiency.

Indeed it is exactly what seems to be missing from President Bush's headlong leisure-time rush from the horseshoe pit to the golf course to the cigarette boat.

What explains this curious situation? Partly, the promotional efforts of the manufacturers of recreational products, who have, after all, the most to gain from the complication of leisure.

Tennis rackets and skis were once passed down from generation to generation; now they become obsolete after only a few seasons.

It's only by imbuing play with a high degree of seriousness that we can convince ourselves that this kind of expense is justified.

Of course, we are helped by the sales pitch, which capitalizes on our preoccupation with celebrity and our desire to emulate the dress and equipment of professional athletes.

There's a clear message in the endorsements of sports equipment by stars: You too can be a pro.

But there is another reason. Americans have always been fascinated by technology.

Just as the English have been described (by both Thackeray and Adam Smith) as a nation of shopkeepers, Americans, from the beginning, have been a nation of tinkerers.

What else could you call a country that has produced not only such momentous inventions as the cotton gin and the airplane but also a flood of lesser devices: the typewriter, the fountain pen, the zipper and the ice-cream cone?

Just look at the exalted tradition of the individual, untutored inventor.

The popular admiration bestowed upon figures from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs reflects a national fondness for self-improvement. And, of course, a delight in technical achievement, whether it's going to the moon or devising a lighter surfboard.

On the whole this tendency is admirable. And useful.

Ours is a technological society -- indeed, a technological world, and it's a good thing that most people don't feel intimidated by technical change.

Presented with a new or improved machine or gadget, we're usually willing to at least give it a try.

Perhaps that is why outbreaks of Luddism have been rare in the United States: Technology is usually admired, not attacked.

But it is precisely this optimism, this impulse to never leave well enough alone, that is responsible for the loss of simplicity in our recreations.

Fun, which can't be calibrated, has not proved susceptible to technological improvement.

The danger is that too much technology will obscure the spontaneous, childish and impulsive characteristics that are such an important element in play.

To avoid this we will have to learn to rein in our native tendency for tinkering and self-improvement and rediscover the pleasure of uncomplicated recreation.

Life is short; mess about.

Witold Rybczynski is author, most recently, of "Waiting for the Weekend," a reflection on leisure time.

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