A few months ago, I spent a week living with a family who kindly offered to take me in when my then-residence was overrun by relatives, necessitating appropriation of every available sleeping space. So for a week I inhabited the second family's basement guest room.
Living with anyone is an interesting and educational experience: you quickly get an honest and intimate portrait of who they are as people that is simply not possible any other way. It is rawer, realer, and sometimes drastically different than their social face. In their accustomed habitat, it is impossible for people to hide themselves. Everything from eating habits to leisure time to handling conflict is an open book to those with whom you share living quarters.
This can be a good or a bad thing. The revelations range from the trivial (they eat a lot of sugary cereal) to the shocking (she's been viewing online dating profiles even though she has a boyfriend). Sometimes they can verge on the unbearable (she keeps using my things, leaving the window open in the freezing cold, and bossing me around about everything I do).
Having lived or stayed with many different people, for differing periods of time, over the past several years, I've had plenty of up-front opportunity to avail myself of this education in humanity.
But I digress.
One of the things that surprised me the most about this family I stayed with was the leisure-time habits of their three young boys. Ranging in age from five to eleven, they came home from school every afternoon and promptly flopped down in front of the TV. Flicking it on, they lost themselves in rapt contemplation of kids' programs, movies, or video games until bedtime. Even things like eating or doing homework seemed to be viewed as interruptions to tube time: they'd reluctantly get up, quickly do the task assigned, and released, flop back down in front of the TV. Nearly every waking moment not taken up by absolutely necessary functions was devoted to the television. I don't mean they did nothing else with their leisure time: but their attention almost inevitably gravitated toward the TV at any given opportunity, like some kind of invisible but invincible pull of natural law. Even though the weather was nice, I never saw them play outside.
I suppose the reason I was surprised was that it was so different from how my brothers and I grew up. One of the quirky policies of my family that I am thankful for (amid the many I am not), was the banning of television from our home. Even though it was done for reasons I would not necessarily agree with now, I am deeply grateful that it was because I'm convinced it contributed to our intellectual and physical development.
Deprived of mindless entertainment, we were forced to turn to other occupations. Every waking moment not taken up by school was spent outdoors when the weather was fine. Joining up with our neighbourhood friends, we organized ourselves into teams to play the sport of the moment (football, baseball, basketball, dodgeball, road hockey, 4-square, obstacle courses, hide-and-seek, or one of many others depending on our mood). Our choice aligned itself with whatever big-league play was on at the time or simply our latest fad. Apart from sports, we often constructed imaginary play scenarios and acted them out together, or built legoes and created elaborate storylines for them.
Even bad weather was no hindrance. On rainy days, we'd gather inside to play board games or just to talk. Winter presented us with unique possibilities: snow-fort construction, always striving for the biggest and the strongest. Snowball wars, divided up into teams and with rules about permitted materials (ice not included) and body zones to avoid (head shots didn't count). "Sledding" down the meager mounds we built from the snow shoveled off the driveway. When we couldn't feel our toes and fingers anymore, we'd collect inside to drink hot chocolate and play Monopoly.
Darkness didn't stop us. On those endless summer nights of fireflies and seductive warmth we amused ourselves with a much trickier variant of hide-and-seek called "flashlight tag". The person who was "it" wielded the flashlight, and anyone caught in its beam was out. This necessitated much more inventive hiding and commando-like sneaking through the brush. Strategies included black clothing and face paint for camouflage.
Sometimes, we'd just sit outside and look up at the stars and wonder at the universe.
The nearby creek represented endless discovery. Despite the shallowness in summer, we waded into the deepest part to "swim", carefully avoiding the multitudinous crayfish and their tiny but vicious pinches. We constructed dams out of rocks and congratulated ourselves on the deepness of the pools that resulted. We caught crayfish, utilizing the most accurate method (carefully and slowly sneak a net or container down behind them, then scare them from the front, making them shoot backwards). We netted small fish: once I kept a stickleback for several months, until it slowly nibbled away at a tadpole I added for company. We went fishing, despite the fact that our most impressive catches rarely registered over six inches. We waded across and explored the woods on the other side, using a downed tree as a "fort". Once three of our most adventurous friends constructed a raft and floated down the creek into the pond, nearly capsizing themselves in the process and having to be rescued.
We spent entire days hiking through the forest and swinging from the ponderous hairy vines that hung from the trees in a way that would have credited any tropical forest. We climbed trees: one in our yard was so perfect and climbed so frequently that I could swing up it as smoothly and as quickly as a monkey. One of my favorite spots to read was perched on the low branch of another tree. The giant willow with its two tire swings amused us endlessly until it came crashing down in an ill-fated windstorm.
There were also more solitary pursuits. I was an inveterate collector and our yard represented collector's paradise. We theorized that it must have been a colonial dump due to the number of glass bottles, porcelain pieces, doll parts, and rusted iron implements we dug up. Once I found an African coin complete with a full-masted clipper on one side and a hole through the top (sadly lost long ago). I had a lovely collection of intact glass soft drinks bottles, including Pepsi and the famous Coke bottle. Ours was also an area rich in fossils, and my entire room turned into a display of my prized collection. Finally, fed up with dirt and stray rock bits, my mother made me move the impromptu museum into the basement: a transgression I have only recently forgiven her for since they all disappeared.
Because we were solely responsible for coming up with our own entertainment, we were nearly unlimited in our inventiveness. My two younger brothers and I had to be forcibly pried away from spending every spare moment with our friends and outdoors. When we were (our parents were of the opinion that too much time with them wasn't good for us), we mourned. Nobody had to put us into a summer program, or convince us that physical activity was a good thing. We were lean and strong as whips and happily self-motivated. We got messy and dirty and cut and bruised and gloriously tired out. And we enjoyed it.
When I look back, this part of my childhood seems like paradise: the writer's dream of a long, lazy, free existence owned by a gang of kids who roam at will.
In a typical memory, it is summer. The sun has come up through the tree outside my window with the promise of another blazing-hot, perfect day. We will gather together with Casey, Mike, Dave, and if necessary, our wider circle of friends, and we'll plan what to do for the day. We'll pick teams, and go. All day long, until we are reluctantly called home for supper, we will play. We'll make plans to gather up again after supper. And we'll play again until our curfew cuts us off and we have to troop home, with assurances that we'll do it all again tomorrow.
I never thought I was old enough for this kind of nostalgia. But when I compare our healthy lifestyle with the children who spend most of their time in front of a computer or a TV, I feel very lucky indeed. We were fierce and wild and untameable, but mostly innocent, and we had lots of fun. Thanks to my parents, for one choice well made.