We brought with us the latest New York Review of Books, to which we subscribed upon return to the US, giving into its inexpensive yearly cost and its gift of well-written text discussing other well-written texts that I will probably never read. As a bonus, they advertised my new book on the back cover a few issues ago, which was exciting.
In this issue, Michael Chabon writes a great piece on adventure stories of childhood, the spaces of "wild" suburban Maryland where he grew up, and the loss of such wilderness for his own children--as well as what that might mean in terms of the next generation's ability to engage in imaginative, adult-free play. His argument (crudely) is that the maps you find in the front of adventure novels and stories aren't there to allow you to escape to another world--they are there to remind you of that world you created when you were a kid in the strip of land behind your house, or asphalt behind the local corner store, or patch of green somewhere nearby. My sisters and I built a fort at the edge of the national forest near our family's Breckenridge CO summer getaway spot--it was up an abandoned logging road and involved dead, decaying trees draped over one another to form a square, building-like shape from which we could see little but other trees. But we could play various games involving territorial possession (ah, childhood imperialism), throwing objects on one another's heads, and generally reenacting the violence and competition international relations realists now make their careers in analyzing. We were out of shouting range of our parents for sure, and surrounded by potentially dangerous falling trees, abandoned logs, bugs, biting animals likely carrying dread diseases, dirt, twisted ankle up to broken neck scenarios, amoeba infested streams--the whole bit. It was paradise.
Chabon's point (or one of them) is that we as humans need this space of the non-adult in order to develop an imagination, in order to see ourselves as actors in a larger drama, to enable our next steps into growing up, to posit the truth that adults don't have all the answers and can't save you from yourself nearly as much as they would like to.
I pondered after reading his piece that this loss was evident, but that contemporary children might have other ways of flexing the imagination: video games take you to alternate universes, for example, where you play with your friends, fight for territory, take on alternate identities. The difference is this (at least in my mind): teleology. In the fort-based games we played up in Breckenridge, there was no end, really. No goal. You played game X that you made up until your sister decided she'd had enough of your crappy game and she created her own fort from which a new game emerged. Or she decided to scale Mt. Grabadora (my father's moniker for the hill behind the condo) instead.
While I remember working very hard on fortifications, making little spaces for various activities in the fort, stockpiling potential weapons, seeking out sources of water, and the like (can you see why architectural history appealed to me?) the goal was to build, to play, not to get to the next level or save the princess or finish the game. I suppose that's partly true of some video/on-line games as well, but I see in my college-aged students a remarkable inability to think outside of the teleological box, perhaps spurred by the fact that this kind of open play was not emphasized in their childhood, but instead games of a closed nature: let's do X until Y occurs in a safe, adult-controlled space, so that you don't scrape a knee/break your neck.
My students, for example, rarely understand that research isn't about finding an answer that's out there, but is a creative process of making an answer out of available information, often to the extent of changing the question entirely to make an answer or two possible. It's not a treasure hunt in which a magic Google deity has placed the answers in the webiverse. It's a wooden, bug-infested fort made of abandoned logs that your sister is gradually poaching to make a new, better fort the next clearing over. And the question is not: how can I stop her, but perhaps might be: how can I change the parameters of the game such that no new fort will allow her to prevail? The answer is not out there waiting. It's in you, and it may or may not emerge depending on how creative and imaginative you are. That, I think, is one of the major losses of our safety-obsession.