Life is queer.
“Go outside and play!” That’s what we told our children, back in the 20th and 19th and 18th centuries. We always meant well. “Aw, kids these days.” But we adults have never been much better.
Any time I hear parents say, “Go outside and play!” I have to blush: I don’t see myself as setting an example to the fair children across our fair land. No, not when my greatest joy outside of my home is hanging around the inside of coffee shops. At least I can say that in my little cabin I don’t have any TV cable, nor rabbit ears, nor video games, but that’s only because I know my limitations: I know I won’t read history or make art if I dare have those distractions. As it is, I still stay up too late doing nothing.
It was in the 18th century that Benjamin Franklin, highly respected in his community, spread the word to us adult-type persons: We could really save on the price of candles, Franklin urged, if only we got up earlier and went to bed earlier. History tells us we didn’t listen.
In the 19th century folks were saying, and this may have been Franklin’s little ditty, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.” Such a nice little rhyme. One of my favorite Victorians was known in his day for being one of the very few people to ever start an international organization. I’m referring to Sir Robert Baden-Powell, hero of the Boer War and founder of the Boy Scouts. B-P said that by starting his day early he added an hour per day to his life, adding up to— er, something or other… Which sounded so good to me, right up until one day when I reflected… we all have the same number of waking hours! Maybe he was kidding himself, unconsciously, but I’m sure he meant well. Just as we mean well when we say, “Go play outside!”
My favorite 19th century humor writer is a Briton, Jerome K. Jerome, best known for his classic novel Three Men in a Boat. (To say nothing of the dog) In his age, a more innocent, more rural and less crowded time, Jerome wrote of how people like to flock to the gaslights. This makes perfect sense: They didn’t have any neon lights.
In Jerome’s novel three young friends get away from the city; eventually they tie up their boat at a remote slow river, and they set up the tent. Next morning, one virtuous fellow, Jerome, decides to take an outdoorsy refreshing dip in the cold, cold water… "Arrrg!" Of such stout fellows, of such stout ideals, was the Scout movement later to arise. As for the other two, they have more sense: Forgoing any morning dip, they stay in the tent until a civilized hour. Of such fellows are empires built.
In the mid 20th century my dear mother, although she grew up listening to radio plays like Gunsmoke and Dragnet, “dummm dee DUM dum,” always gave me funny looks when I wanted to watch those same shows on our old black-and-white. And she really didn’t “get” Saturday morning cartoons. “Go outside! Run around!” And I would. I would run around smacking my foes just like Batman--but not until Saturday afternoon.
Now at last it’s the 21st century: We have mothers and fathers, at last, who themselves grew up watching television and Saturday morning cartoons, progressive modern parents who surely “get it.” Hurray! Yes, and just as surely they are still saying, “Go outside!” Kids just can’t win—in any century.
This summer, indoors at the cinema, (with young company, I hasten to add) I watched Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The kid is so excited to have a whole summer off so he can set himself up with drinks and snacks and plunk himself down to play video games all day… inside.
Well! Harumph! When I was that wimpy kid’s age—no, even younger-- I walked a mile and a quarter, two kilometers, to get to my elementary school. In the heat of summer I walked to other elementary schools, much further away, as part of a “summer reading program.” How excitedly (before student packs or plastic bags) I carried heavy stacks of books in my arms home to read… inside. I suppose my mother consoled herself that at least I was walking. As for that 21st century wimpy kid, his father ends up wearing a scout-leader’s hat, and putting himself and his kid into “Scouts” for the summer. (The “Wilderness Explorers”) Tres Bien. As they say in France, “The more times change, the more they stay the same”… Ironically—should I groan or laugh?—the other adult leader crams his tent with even more luxuries than Jerome’s two friends would ever dare.
As for me, I must admit, these days, I don’t walk enough. Sometimes, for almost a full second, I regret trading in my bus pass for a car. And if I read of pasty white adults in Calgary and Toronto who book their holidays to coincide with their city film festivals, then my eyes take on a far away speculative look…
Old enough to finally afford to see movies
But too busy to go
~I’ve learned that reading can be approached as carefully as planning refreshments for a spectator-type professional ball game…or a wimpy kid’s video day. This was after I told my buddy Blair I planned to soon re-read the lengthy classic Dalgren, by Samuel Delaney. Blair loved that book! He immediately recommended that I make sandwiches first so that I can start the book early on Saturday morning and not have to stop to make lunch.
~As I had announced in a previous footnote, I booked a hotel room for the reader-writer festival When Words Collide, in mid-August. Our days, with five to seven seminars running at once, never started until a nice civilized hour.
What I found so very charming, in the quiet morning hours, was how so many fellow nerds would take a book to breakfast!