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November 2003 Issue

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The Pleasure of Attention

By Deborah Simpson, Jamestown Community College
Email: DebSimpson@mail.sunyjcc.edu

During one weekend last summer, my husband and I flew on an unplanned trip to California. In the midst of various family obligations, we managed two visits to California beaches. Those brief visits to Newport and Laguna turned out to be our summer vacation. And like so many experiences of composition instructors, this one resulted in an essay. Topic: the pleasure of distraction versus the pleasure of attention.

Despite the serene photo in the tourist guide to Orange County, Newport Beach on a Sunday afternoon was jammed with traffic and tourists. A sea of humanity nearly obscured the actual ocean. The Pacific waves, eyed by restless surfers, seemed a mere backdrop for umbrellas, beach clutter, and sun-braised bodies. Styrofoam containers and plastic water bottles littered the hot sand. Odors of fried fish and pizza mingled with those of tropical sun-blocks. Parents, their calves bruised by super-sized pails of salt water lugged back to castles-in-progress, shouted admonitions to screeching toddlers. At the end of the fishing pier loud salsa blasted what might have been an ocean roar. 

Early Monday morning at Laguna was devoid of such pageantry. Since the day campers had not yet arrived, I could hear the water approaching shore, sliding up the volcanic rock face, spitting over the uneven edges, and curling back into opalescent backs of waves. Shells, clumps of tangled algae, and bladderwort lay undisturbed on cool, silken sand. I watched a snowy egret, yellow feet firm on slippery rock, anticipating, but not receiving, food from the few local residents sitting on the jetty. Thin but surprisingly stiff-bladed sea grass made ankle bracelets as I walked. I stopped to look carefully at split round rock, a thin line of green down its center. Sensations, more like evocations than memories, began to accumulate in slowed time: gritty beach snacks, freckled and peeled shoulders, the numbing late-spring Atlantic, Sea and Ski, the sun’s mid-day glint and evening sheen.

What does this all have to do with the Learning Assistance Center? Unlike the sign along the California coastal highway that advertises “Seven-Day weekend housing,” seven-day weekend thinking will not lead to academic success. Academic thinking is different from weekend thinking. Consider, for example, the difference between the pleasure of distraction, Newport Beach, and the pleasure of attention, Laguna Beach. Think about reading. Read a best seller for the pleasure of distraction; read a textbook for the pleasure of attention. Or watch That Seventies Show for the pleasure of distraction; listen to an instructor explaining how to solve quadratic equations for the pleasure of attention. Although we’ll find ourselves fantasizing about beach vacations here in New York winters, it is the pleasure of attention that will lead to success in college: close listening, engaged observation, concentration, time on task, and reflection.



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