In the beach town on Cape Cod to which my wife and I have returned every summer for nearly 30 years, there’s a lot of information to process. High tide comes at a different time every day, shifting patterns of sun and clouds move overhead, and winter storms have once again altered the configuration of the stone jetties along the beach. My kids can swim out farther from shore than last year, and ramble farther afield on their bikes. Each year I relearn the exact pleasing dimensions of the dip and curve of Main Street under its arch of trees, ever the same but also always slightly different, as trees and pavement and houses continue to age. And there’s another year’s worth of weathering on the rust-flecked school playground equipment, unplayed-on and hot to the touch in the afternoon sun, at which I stop over on runs, as I have for all these years, to do chin-ups and pull-ups that remind me that my balky left shoulder is a year older, too.
Part of what makes spending a couple of weeks here in a rented house so restful and refreshing is the change it offers in what counts as important information to process. Postindustrial workers, whose jobs often consist of gathering and analyzing and repackaging information in some way that adds value to it, spend their workdays oriented toward a screen on which seemingly new data constantly appear, demanding to be dealt with. Fresh stats from Marketing, an incoming round of revisions on the draft report that went up into the cloud this morning, e-mails from co-workers and strangers and evil algorithms — it keeps coming and coming, constant low-grade stimulation providing the bare minimum of novel content to get your attention but rarely enough to fully command your fragmented interest. And when a little distraction from this torrent is in order, it’s usually in the form of even more streaming bits, courtesy of YouTube, Funny or Die, and the like.
It feels like a vacation just to remove your mouth from the nozzle of the firehose of incoming data. Checking e-mail just once a day and not carrying your phone around seems like a welcome break all by itself. But that’s only the beginning of recreation; the rest lies in adjusting to the pace and priorities of a place where it’s pleasant to do not much, and there’s not that much to do. Sleep until you wake up naturally, eat, play with the kids, run, go to the beach, eat, nap, back to the beach, eat, play with the kids, clean up . . . the days, as Calvin (the comics kid) once put it, are just packed.
At the end of the day the town dock awaits. On a few nights every August for three decades now I’ve been meeting the same old friend for a late beer or two there. We sit out on the end, with the water moving on either hand and among the mossy pilings below. The boats in the harbor around us ride at their moorings, all turned at the same angle by breeze and tide. The boats and the buoys interspersed among them give rise to a muted night medley of bell tones and rhythmic sloshing punctuated by occasional hollow glunks.
On the town dock there’s information coming in — a lot of it, in fact, especially if you understand boats and weather better than I do — but in an unrushed, majestically gradual, undistracting way that allows me to pay attention to what matters: how wind and water and manmade elements combine to fashion a balance between stillness and motion, a model of eternal sameness and restless change.
Soon I’ll be back home, back at work, back to the screen — but, I like to think, I’ll take a little of that town dock feeling with me. Just as the boardwalks and beaches of Coney Island and Atlantic City once provided slum-dwelling industrial workers with fresh air and recreation, a brief stretch of information underload in a beach town is an antidote to the relentless stimulation by screens that their postindustrial counterparts regard as normal.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’