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"Go outside!"

By Lawrence Henry
web posted June 18, 2001

My old friend Chris drove down from Boston last weekend to play some music with me and to visit. We played a band concert together, and then we sat on the deck barbecuing and talking about how things are now, and about how they used to be.

Chris, who grew up in the same part of New Jersey where we live now, remembered that, as a kid, he used to "go outside. I'd play with the kids in the neighborhood. My parents never knew whose yard I was in. It'd get later and later. My mother would come out on the back porch and yell, 'CHR-I-I-I-S!' And you'd hear other mothers yelling, 'T-O-M-M-Y!' and 'J-A-A-A-M-E-S!' And then finally, she'd yell, 'LAST CHANCE!' and I'd come in.

"I remember thinking it was still light. But I'd come in the house and look out the windows, and it was really dark out there."

Chris's account uncannily echoes one I wrote many years ago of my own childhood. We'd all head out to the local schoolyard, shinny up a light pole and turn on one outdoor floodlight, then play our own version of night baseball until we heard those parents's calls: "L-A-A-A-R-R-Y!" "B-I-L-L-E-E-E!"

When we moved into this neighborhood, my boy Bud and I got a little notebook and a pen and walked around so we could make friends. Everybody has a yard. Everybody has some kind of play equipment. There are maybe two dozen kids within two blocks who are near Bud's age.

We've been here a year, and I can count on one hand the times Bud has played with any neighborhood kid. We've made friends through his school, through his karate classes, and through my music studio. We have what are now called "play dates" - astonishing term - with friends who visit, and with friends Bud visits, too. But it all has to be arranged. It's all planned. There's no spontaneity.

More to the point, there seems to be a widespread perception that there's no safety.

Chris remembers that phrase, "Go outside." When I was growing up in Minnesota, that was practically a mother's motto. Winter, summer, school year, vacation - didn't make any difference. Mom's solution to boredom, fussiness, pestering, or exasperation was "Go outside."

In that important respect, my childhood did not differ much from Mark Twain's, as described in "Tom Sawyer."

Tom and Huck played with knives, dead cats, and bits of lath made up into swords. They crawled into caves, carried matches, and fought. I tromped around the countryside with a .22 rifle when I visited friends on farms. I had one pal who drove to baseball practice on a tractor. He was no more than 10. He used to like to crash into the outfield fence to announce his arrival. One of my friends pulled a power lawnmower bigger than he was around town and knocked on doors, volunteering to mow old ladies's yards for two bucks.

This independent, carefree childhood is preserved and lovingly limned in Beverly Cleary's books about Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, and Otis Spofford, set in Portland, Oregon in the 1950s.

And it doesn't exist any more.

What happened? What changed America from the single, continuous culture that it was, straight through from the country's founding to the 1950s? What wiped it out? Why is it so different now? And can we - should we -- do anything about it?

David Gelernter, in "1939: The Lost World of the Fair," says we have lost authority. He cites the speeches of that day, and the actions of three key figures - Fiorello LaGuardia, Franklin Roosevelt, and Robert Moses - in support of the idea. He's right, as far as that idea goes. It was easy confidence in authority that made our neighborhoods so dependable that we sent our children unthinking into them. "Go outside!" we could command, with confidence that "outside" everything was okay.

But there's more. In "The Drinking Life," Pete Hamill recalls returning from his hitch in the service to his formerly vibrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, and finding it deserted. Instead of streets full of people, he found nearly every window lit with the blue glow of a television set. The people left "outside" were up to no good. And nobody was keeping an eye on them.

Television centralized a formerly local culture. Government followed suit. Today, paradoxically, we have more laws, more strictures, and far less freedom than formerly, and we feel far less safe.

This is obviously a big, big subject. Liberals and conservatives alike have addressed it over and over. The "new urbanists," with their designs for city living that recall the old railroad cities of the nineteenth century, have one set of ideas - ideas requiring more government and more taxes to support.

The home-schoolers, the retreaters to farms, the families who coalesce around churches or religious schools, have another set of ideas, and belong to what Grover Norquist has dubbed the "leave us alone" coalition.

There are problems with both camps. The new urbanist fallacy is simple: A physical design, whether for a house, a neighborhood, a town, or a city, cannot either create or destroy a life. My old neighborhood in Minneapolis was, in city planners's terms, about as bad as it could get, with a busy, unprotected railroad on one side and a highway on the other, with houses all alike, resembling the reviled Levittown. Downtown, such as it was, was a distant shopping center. But we still lived the "go outside" life. Today, we live in one of the nicest physical settings possible here in Westfield, New Jersey, with a real, pedestrian-friendly downtown, with a central train station, with wonderful parks -- and neighbors still don't get together.

On the other hand, seceding from the culture at large has limited utility. And giving up on a national culture plays into the hands of the centralizers, who beaver away tirelessly, pulling power into the middle. That won't work, either. Authority is not power. We miss authority. Power is simply the currency that politics issues, compulsively.

Nothing could match the former Soviet Union for raw power. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the country sank into anarchy, criminality, and Third World poverty. By contrast, despite our increasing devotion to centralized power in the United States, we could get along for years without a national government at all. Authority comes from individual rights, conscience, and devotion to religious principle; our Founders enshrined those ideas in our Constitution. Power comes from the barrel of a gun.

Today, we live between two things: An old life that we trusted, despite its faults, and a new life that aims to eliminate faults, but which we do not trust. One set of surveys shows that clearly. Overwhelmingly, people say that public schools are failing. At the same time, they say they like their own teachers. Overwhelmingly, people criticize the health care establishment. At the same time, they like their own doctors.

Why do people believe these contradictory things? Because they're true. Public schools as a system are failing, but individual teachers can still be trusted to do a good job. While the health care establishment cracks at the corners, individual doctors still work hard and serve their patients.

Unfortunately, "in between" is a dangerous place to live, and trading on the capital of the past, if you don't renew that capital, rapidly exhausts your cultural currency. Germany between the World Wars was an exciting and vibrant place to live, until the fear took over.

It's hopeful, however, that, left and right, people miss and want the same thing: that safe neighborhood where "Go outside!" makes sense.

We just don't know how to get there any more.

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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