Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Laughing, Running, Jumping, Playing

In his column this week, RJA talks about how his kids constantly ask if they’re going somewhere. It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed firsthand, both with his kids and my own. And while I agree with his idea of making the family-friendly attractions of Memphis more financially friendly, I think there’s another issue at play here.

At play. Get it? See what I did there? Well, not yet you don’t. Just wait.

If you’re between the ages of 30 and 112, think back on your childhood. More specifically, call to mind your free time, your evenings and weekends, your long summer days and stunted winter afternoons. Where were you? What were you doing? If you’re like me, you were running around with a pack of other kids, roaming neighborhoods, riding bikes, playing complicated variations of tag. If the weather was bad, you were in someone’s basement or rec room, rollerskating on unfinished floors, thinking up exciting new ways to melt G.I. Joe figures, choreographing complex routines to the songs of Purple Rain (What? No? Just me? Liar.).

Now, if you have kids, or know kids, think about what they’re doing after school, or how they’re spending their weekends. Chances are, your seven-year-old isn’t wandering alone through the woods behind your neighborhood. And I’m willing to bet that there’s no ten-kid game of Ghost in the Graveyard going on across multiple yards on your street. If there are two unrelated children in the same area, it’s safe to assume that the situation was planned, approved, and supervised by at least 50% of the involved parents.

It would be easy to blame overprotective parents for this shift - Michael Chabon does as much in his own lament for the lost wilderness of childhood (if I cite it, I'm not plagiarizing it!) - but I think there are multiple factors involved. Our neighborhoods really are less safe than they once were, not just due to crime, but also suburban sprawl, reduced green spaces, and 16-year-olds on cell phones. Plus our kids are taught from preschool to be wary of strangers, which is a good policy when it involves dudes in windowless vans, but not as useful when it comes to their own peers.

And, and … okay, yes, some of it is the parents. I can’t imagine letting my 6-year-old spend an entire afternoon building a tree fort in a construction lot with no one over the age of ten in attendance (although I did) any more than my parents would have let me play on an active train trestle (like they did). I think it’s natural to retroactively panic about the risks we took as children and swear never to let our own kids take those chances, but I’m afraid we’ve reached the generational nadir of acceptable childhood danger.

So I feel sympathetic when the kids start asking what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go, because I know their desire to go out into the world is normal, but their ability to do so on their own has been so greatly limited. Even if you can get them to bike off down the block by themselves, as Chabon wrote (far more artfully), they’re unlikely to see another kid while they’re out there.

The conundrum is that any adult intervention to change this dynamic is just one more way of meddling in their world, when what we all need to do is just step off. It may already be too late, though. The die is cast.

But what with the pendulum swinging and nature abhorring a vacuum and whatnot, we can at least be comforted in knowing that our kids will someday see their own childhoods as dangerously sheltered and will raise their own offspring in the other extreme. We might as well sit back and enjoy the regulated rambunctiousness now, because we’ll be spending our golden years dragging our grandchildren off of train trestles.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Minute Rule

As anyone keeping up with this blog has probably observed, I'm a slow writer. It can take me hours to put 200 words on a page, and so my posts are typically few and far between. As for writing of any greater length, that's almost non-existent. In the last year, I've produced little more than a file full of story ideas and about a page and a half of a novel. Now, it's probably not a total coincidence that my personal writing has slowed down at the same time my actual career as a writer has flourished. I actually spend eight hours a day writing for my job, and can produce pages of highly technical documentation with one solid morning's effort. And I'm very happy with that, of course. I feel very lucky that I make a living doing something I'm both educated and naturally inclined to do. But I've also been wanting to build my confidence and practical skills as a creative writer - a fiction writer, specifically.

So when the other two writers in my house decided to participate in NPR's latest Three Minute Fiction contest, I thought ... well, I thought, "nah." But then I did it anyway. I wouldn't say it's the best thing I've ever written, but it's certainly one of the most concise. The 600-word limit forced me to put the exposition truck in park and just get on with it. The challenge of the contest was to write a story based on a photograph they provided, and so with no further ado, here they both are ...


I nearly knocked over the old man. He was trying to squeeze into the bookstore’s crowded entryway, his overstuffed messenger bag knocking against the racks of free magazines. I thought I could get by, but my own bag caught on the strap of his, and as I moved forward, he lost his footing. He tried to catch himself by grabbing the community bulletin board, and as I cleared the doorway, I heard tearing paper and the pik-pik-pik of thumbtacks hitting the tile.

I threw a breathless apology over my shoulder, but I don’t think he heard. I felt like he was staring at me, maybe even shouting at me, through the store window as I tried to hail a cab. I nervously squawked “Taxi!” several times before a maroon Crown Victoria stopped at my feet.

“Columbus and Randolph. Please.” The driver was a solid woman with hair like a cloud of rusted steel wool; it moved en masse when she nodded and said, “Sure thing, hon.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to refocus. This interview had been arranged at the last minute by a friend of a friend of my father’s, and I assumed favors had been called in. I didn’t even know what the company was, but I’d been given a first name and phone number and told to show up exactly at 1:00.

I rode without speaking while a distant dispatcher’s voice crackled over the cab’s radio, demanding locations and impatiently reminding drivers of pick-ups. I could only see one side of my face in the rear-view mirror, the short hairs around my ears quivering in the full blast of the cab’s heat vents. It looked like I'd left most of my lip gloss on my coffee cup, but re-applying in a moving car seemed dangerous, especially at the speeds she was going. The waves breaking in my stomach reached higher crests at every turn.

I’d been at the bookstore longer than I’d planned. My grandmother sent me a birthday card with a crisp $50 bill inside, and I’d just stopped in to break the bill so I could splurge on a cab ride. I could have easily taken the el and walked from Wabash, but the temperature was unseasonably cold and my only coat was a campus-friendly down parka. Hard to look professional while puffy, I thought. The coffee line was interminable, though. When I finally got my order, I drank it in three hurried gulps and rushed from the store. I didn’t even see that old man until we were practically conjoined.

The driver came to a double-parked stop in front of an 80-story building. I wiped my palms on my skirt as I entered the lobby. An ornate gold clock on the wall read 12:58. A woman with a headset gazed at me from behind an enormous granite bunker of a reception desk.

“Where may I direct you?”

“Oh, I … just … just one minute.” I dug my hand into my briefcase. I’d written the interviewer’s contact information down on my roommate’s copy of the Sun-Times. I’d made sure it was still tucked into the side pocket of my bag as I got up to order coffee. I’d touched it like a talisman as I threw out my empty cup.

And then, I realized, I’d seen it out of the corner of my eye, being waved by an old man calling to me from the other side of the bookstore window.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mama, Don't Take My Kodachrome

Miss M was the Star of the Week in her classroom last week. An honor, to be sure, but also one with a burden: she was supposed to bring in a picture of herself for the Star poster. An actual, physical, three-dimensional picture. As I read that request, it occurred to me that it has been months, if not years, since I have produced a hard-copy photograph of either of my children. All of their memories are locked away in digital form. Which doesn’t bother them at all, of course. They’re happy that the longest they have to wait to see a picture is the time it takes for them to run to the other side of the camera. There are no multi-day waits for processing, no delayed thrill of opening the sticky-sealed envelope to see what 24 treasures are inside. I feel some nostalgia over that, but really, it’s a technological advance I have no qualms about, either. More pictures get taken, more moments are recorded, and for someone with a memory as bad as mine, more of our past remains accessible in the future.

But as I printed a grainy black-and-white picture (we were out of color ink) for Miss M to take to school, I did wish that I spent a little more time and money to make those pictures a part of my everyday surroundings. I have a plethora of talented photographer friends and more amazing photos of my family than I can count, but the only pictures on my desk are Miss M’s pre-school Mother’s Day card, a home-printed photo pulled off a CD (also forced to be grayscale), and my niece’s birth announcement (made on

I don’t care if my kids never drive up to a Fotomat, but I do want them to know the pleasure in pulling out a photo album and flipping through their own personal stories, even those stories that pre-date their existence. I can clearly envision the album in my parents’ house that contains pictures from my dad’s time in Vietnam. The weight of that book across my knees was significant, and the solidity alone lent itself to reverence. I looked through it many times as a child, always quietly and carefully, knowing that many of the details from the year it documented would only be revealed to me through those pictures. It’s hard to imagine that a Flickr stream would have quite the same effect.

So this morning, as I got Mr. Baby into his button-down and special-occasion sweater in preparation for pre-school spring picture day, I made a mental promise to both of us that I’d transform more of our virtual memories into tangible artifacts. And when the box from Shutterfly eventually arrives, I’ll let the kids open it and ooh over what’s inside.