Did you have a purpose-driven childhood? I didn’t.
A good portion of my pre-adolescence was spent doing nothing -- that is, nothing of particular benefit to my future college or job prospects. I drew maps of imaginary cities, hammered nails into blocks of wood, or went around to the back fence and pulled out honeysuckle pistils, hoping for a fat bead of nectar.
I also rode my bike a lot: up to "the world's oldest continually operating airport", where I could watch small planes take off and land. Or over to the post office, where the change machine sometimes malfunctioned and would give you back six quarters for each quarter you put in.
My sisters had their own ways of squandering time, though I’d be hard pressed to say what those were. They did their thing and I mine, though we’d team up when the back yard iced up in winter, enabling us to shoe-skate. Not infrequently, we squabbled and teased and whined about being bored. An undertone of monotony could be detected even when we were having fun. It was like TV hum or air conditioner noise: just part of the way things were.
We did some of the other kind of stuff, structured stuff, too. We had music lessons, played sports, learned how to swim. And of course there was school. I notice, though, that I've filed my memories of such organized, purposeful, parent-selected experiences under a separate category: I think of them as activities that occurred during childhood, but not so much as “my childhood."
What I think of as “my childhood” took place during the other kinds of time, the unstructured intervals. Since such time wasn’t claimed by others, the ownership defaulted to me.
Ian Frazier, in his 1998 essay “A Lovely Kind of Lower Purpose,” writes about what he calls marginal activities, that is, ones that aren’t yoked to a program or plan. For a boy growing up in semirural Ohio, that meant time in the woods: constructing forts, picking berries, shooting frogs with slingshots. Time-tested fooling around, as he terms it.
“Especially as the world gets more jammed up, we need margins,” he writes. “A book without margins is impossible to read. And marginal behavior can be the most important kind. Every purpose-filled activity we pursue in the woods began as just fooling around. The first person to ride his bicycle down a mountain trail was doing a decidedly marginal thing. The margin is where you can try out odd ideas that you might be afraid to admit to with people looking on.”
Frazier connects the disappearance of margins to exoburbization and sprawl, and he’s probably right -- though maybe it's not the infrastructure itself that's at fault. Children bring a certain purposelessness to whatever they encounter; they tend to view things as a matrix of possibilities, rather than in terms of their designated functions. So anything from a mailbox to the sidewalk to the crawl space under a porch can be appropriated for their needs, which are the needs of the imagination.
The trouble, I think, stems more from the urge to optimize everything: goods, services, childhoods. The exoburb makes this easy to do: practically any capability we want our kids to acquire is on offer within reasonable driving distance. We can select from drop-down menus of possible friends, skills and pursuits.
More often than not, a kid in the exoburbs knows how to skate because at some point his or her parents said: “Would you like to learn skating? We can sign you up for Saturday mornings."
But kids in another kind of environment take up skating because, well, there’s a pond that freezes over in winter, and the other kids are doing it, and what the frack else is there to do?
This isn’t a tirade against plans, structure or skating lessons, although it may sound like one. It’s just that structured time has a way of devouring the other kind; the impetus to optimize and maximize can make us see absence of structure the way a developer sees open land.
Kids, thankfully, will push back, demanding the right to keep some of their life off-the-clock, uncalibrated, not mapped to this or that desired outcome. True, often what they want instead is quality time with YouTube. But not always.
One of the things I'm pretty sure our kids will miss about the old house, the one we've just moved from, is the marginal space nearby -- a common area that is part of the nine-house community, but hasn’t had anything built on it. It consists of knee-high weeds, a ditch that rain sometimes turns into the tiniest of creeks, and an adjacent tree grove.
After school, if the kids and their neighborhood friends weren’t at home, or playing around the cul-de-sac, it usually meant they were there, in that use-free space.
I’d putter around in our front yard, meanwhile, pretending to do something purposeful -- rake leaves, plant grass. Every now and then one of the kids would show up asking for string or duct tape or a cardboard box.
I never had a clear idea of what they needed it for, or what they were doing with those stretches of unaccounted-for time. Whatever it was, though, it was theirs.