Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Constant Vigilance!

[This entry appeared in Ron's newspaper and two others in Kalamazoo and Lansing this month.)

Hey, don’t bother me, can’t you see I’m busy? I’m busy building an invisible fort around my child, brick by brick.

Some parents treat their kids like fancy new cars with factory warranties and plastic covers on the seats. The babies arrive all pink and perfect, but they’re really doomed, you see, doomed to be scraped and scratched and corroded by that nasty world out there. This must be stopped at all costs. Constant vigilance is necessary – constant vigilance!

So the parents break out the disinfected pacifiers and the six-packs of antibacterial wipes and they drive their little cars on smooth, straight roads, bringing them back to cozy garages and wiping away any speck of dust or grime with a cloth diaper. They avoid the bumpy streets, the dark ravines, the rickety bridges, the dusty dirt paths. And they certainly don’t want anyone else driving the car; not unless they’re part of a select group. Why, someone might adjust the rearview mirror or take a turn too fast or drop Cheetos on the floor. You spend weeks vacuuming up the little orange crumbs under the seats and vow never to loan the car to Cheeto-lovers. It’s not worth the hassle.

And then the children get bigger, and the parents realize that sanitizing the toybox and screwing the dresser to the wall with a half-pound, 125mm heavy bolt just isn’t enough. Minds must be sanitized and bolted out of harm’s way, because if you don’t, then little specks of grit might get through and affect the machinery, and then that’s it, the warranty is invalidated, the child is corrupted and the next thing you know, you’re driving a rusty heap with a dented door and windshield wipers that won’t turn off.

Constant vigilance! So you shut the doors and close the windows and install parental controls on the DVD player and firewalls on the computer and buy specially sanitized versions of popular movies so your kid won’t see Private Ryan’s combat or Leonardo’s butt.

You strap your kids into your tidy home-on-wheels and drive them from supervised schools to supervised sports and supervised playgroups and supervised outings. And you can’t share driving with other moms because they’re on different schedules and anyway, Freddie’s mom drives too fast and Flossie’s family van doesn’t have a DVD.

To me, this seems a soulless (and exhausting) way to live, like eating chips on a brand-new sofa, breaking each one over the bowl and picking every tiny crumb off your pants.

When I was 10 or so, somebody gave me an abridged, illustrated copy of “Little Women.” Except I didn’t know it was abridged. I thought it was the whole story. I read it again a few times in the next five years, assuming that this little book about four cloyingly virtuous sisters was all there was.

Then when I was in high school, I saw the complete text in the library. It was a big book. There were whole chapters I never knew. Painful conversations had been cut in half, and difficult scenes deleted altogether. Meg’s fights with her husband and Amy’s victory over nasty gossips had been axed. I started looking up all my childhood books, wondering which ones had been tampered with. I didn’t find any others, but I tell you, I’m still bitter about that book. I felt deceived; like there was a hole in my life I didn’t know was there.

And I wonder, will this generation growing up have many such holes? Will they spend their adulthood saying to themselves, “ “Wow, I didn’t know ‘Psycho’ had a shower scene” and “Nobody told me that cheaters really DO win a lot” as they compare the real world with the prettily pruned reality they grew up in? Like animals exquisitely adapted to a rarified environment like an ocean floor or Arctic tundra, I wonder if such people have difficulty functioning anywhere else.

I predict that 15 years from now, we'll have this crowd of socially inept, painfully unprepared young adults who expect someone to yell "Good job!" every time they rinse a glass or seal an envelope. Who will have trouble with some of the most basic lessons of adulthood: that life isn’t fair and people often suffer without relief and you can’t be special all the time.

I know children need more protection in some ways. You can’t toss your eight-year-old out of the house and tell her to come back when the streetlights come on. Marketers so ruthlessly target children that moms are pulling SpongeBob-covered boxes out of screaming babies’ hands at supermarkets. Sometimes it feels like everything you see, hear and touch in this world is trying to sell you something.

All the more reason to explore those bumpy roads, those steep ravines, away from the smooth roads with the shiny billboards. A car often drives better with a little dust in the tires and wildflowers on the windshield.


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