Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Michael Chabon's "Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood"

(via) This essay by Michael Chabon in the most recent edition of The New York Review of Books contains some fascinating rumination on maps and imagination, but also touches on an issue that has increasingly concerned me as a parent.

Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That's because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography. Every adventure story is conceivable only with reference to the particular set of geographical features that in each case sets the course, literally, of the tale. But I think there is another, deeper reason for the reliable presence of maps in the pages, or on the endpapers, of an adventure story, whether that story is imaginatively or factually true. We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.

This is a mistaken notion, in my view. People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.

Chabon's thoughts about childhood as an adventure in its own right, a kind of rehersal of dangers and threats, is fascinating. But once he convinces me that he's onto something, he turns to the subject of his own children (and, by extension, my own), and the fact that we as parents are essentially denying our own kids that same experience.

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children's imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it—nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

There is a small grocery store around the corner, not over two hundred yards from our front door. Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts? Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together after dinner, she on her bike, with me following along at a safe distance behind. What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn't encounter a single other child.

Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?

This is something I've thought about a great deal in recent years, though never before in these terms. It's a difficult question, and one for which I'm not even close to forming an answer yet.

Interesting thoughts. Of course we live in very different times with very different values and standards. I was listening to an article on the Radio the other day where the interviewer was talking to kids in Northern Ireland and asking them about their views on the Protestant/Catholic divide. Some Kids (ages about 10 or 11) where 'spitting venom' about the 'other side' saying that they felt real hatred and that they would do them harm given the opportunity. Why? was it religious or political. No, it was because they supported the wrong football team.

Micael and Chris - No, you can't let your kids out to cycle around the block alone. The fantasy novel has taken the place of the freedom you had.

Chris Warren
Author and Freelance Writer
Randolph's Challenge, Book One-The Pendulum Swings
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