Thursday, 16 November 2017

Going Outside

YOUNGSTERS PLAYING WITH DOGS AT STILLWATER, NEW YORK, NEAR THE ADIRONDACK FOREST PRESERVE - NARA - 554497

It's the old-man grump of my generation. Our fathers grumped that they had to walk to school, or work for our grandfathers, or fight wars.

We went outside.

When we were young, our parents didn't suggest we go outside, or try to sell us on the benefits of fresh air and sunlight. They barked, "Go outside!"

One did not simply take a turn around the house and back in the front door; several roofless hours were implied. Unless one were bucking for a corporal response.

Thus, we 70s kids spent whole days under Heaven. And if that's not scary enough, we were usually unsupervised. The nearest adult might be fifty yards away. Might be, but probably not; often there were none within shouting distance.

If by chance something went dangerously wrong – and it did – one of us had to run, on our actual feet, through forest and over stream and down lane, to find a grup.

It's easy to get misty about this today, and talk about how it made us fearless and independent and at home in the world. Not that it didn't; I'm truly alarmed at how terrified today's kids are of basically everything. That crap's no good for anybody.

But I also remember that bullies ran our world, and now that I'm old, I know how many of them would ultimately finish badly as well. Because the grown-ups weren't looking out for them, either.

Thus, anyone my age has near-miss stories. Unschooled adventures that diverted the lives of some, and disabled others. And a few of us – if very few – didn't survive.

But let's be honest: the conversion of childhood into a feast of adult-imposed fear isn't down to any of those risks. The real sickness is cellular.

Because looking back, the world beyond the rural districts of my vinyl-upholstered youth was pandemonium. Warring tribes, crumbling institutions, bone-deep animosity. The raging post-war economy had burned out to cold ashes, taking most of the opportunity with it. Repressed minorities rose against old-school bigots. Cities stewed in stinking decay, and their refugees stomped by the thousands into in my neck of the woods, mowing it down like hay.

Yet neither fear nor anger owned our parents. Oh, they were mad, alright. Old people grinched and spit about lifestyles they mostly encountered on TV and in the papers. They fulminated and pontificated… and then got back to life.

Sometimes, as an experiment, I try to imagine an All in the Family reboot, just to see what that might look like now. If it were as unflinching as the original, could Archie Bunker be anything but a rabid dog? Because he wasn't then. Dude actually became kind of a folk hero, even to those who opposed his politics. Sure, he could launch a barely-articulate right-wing rant on cue. But when the chance arose, Archie never actually harmed anyone.

I think we saw our fathers and grandfathers in him.

But it's impossible to imagine Archie as a contemporary conservative, advocating torture. He'd say that was for the Rooskies. And I recall an episode where he followed his convictions into a brotherly chat with a neo-Nazi. When his new chum's identity was revealed, WWII-vet Archie gagged visibly.

By contrast, we've grown up to fear the bigness of the world, and to crave physical and mental control over others – two things Archie Bunker did not. And I think that's really why we imprison our kids. That, and they can't fight back. It's related to the flowering of narrow private schools on our watch, and the fine-combing of public school curricula for dog-whistle pretexts that began in the 80s. We want to prevent our children from experiencing anything but us, and by God we mean to accomplish it.

And now we're living in the kind of world that makes. I have no idea how you come to want such a thing, growing up on the vacant lots of our childhood. They taught me exactly the opposite.

But I'm just one man, and these days I'm feeling like that guy in Planet of the Apes.

Or The Omega Man.

Or Soylent Green.

Wait a minute… those were all TOTALLY THE SAME GUY. Spacey, man. What a trip. That's, like, Weirdsville USA, dude.

Anyway. What was I saying? Oh yeah:

So what's a Zenner to do?

I have no idea. I'm practicing steadily, and waiting for insight. But I know what I'm not going to do.

I'm from the 70s. I'm not going to be uncool.

That's basically what I've got so far.

And maybe we should send the kids outside.

Away from us. Till the streetlights come on.

And hey: for God's sake. If you feel a war dance coming on, will ya stifle yaself heah?

(Photo of a bunch of kids my age cheating death again courtesy of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Archives and Records Administration, and Wikimedia Commons.)
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