Tuesday, July 14

The Cartography of Childhood

In his essay "Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood," Michael Chabon writes about the importance of childhood adventures while growing up. Adventure is being allowed to explore the world to its limits. It means playing in neighbors' yards and vacant lots, riding your bike to visit classmates in their houses across town and knowing what flavor popsicle their mothers serve. These adventures, according to Chabon, provide a child with mental maps of their worlds which they can endlessly revise and refine. "Childhood is a branch of cartography," he says. And childhood is the first and ultimate adventure:
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.
But in the years since Chabon's growing up years, children have been increasingly forbidden to explore even the very street they live in. Many barriers were put up against adventures: Wear a helmet when riding a bike, don't ride to where your parent can't see you. Don't ride that bike or you break all your bones. The world has become too dangerous for adventuring.

In his essay "Coming of age in the years of living dangerously," Bill Briggs also looks back on this time of childhood daredeviltry with nostalgia. Kids growing up in the '50s, '60s and '70s inhaled second hand smoke from their chainsmoking parents, ate wildberries, were allowed to roam the fields and strange streets without fear. Kids were allowed to live. But now that adventuring--and effectively, living--has been outlawed in favor of a safe and monitored environment, a 47-year-old mortgage broker asks: "Who would have thought 30 years ago that it would be necessary to run public service announcements encouraging parents to get their kids outside playing?”

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