Illustration by David Busby
The conversation took place in July, but it opened the window to let in the first blast of fall, and, fittingly, a chill came over me.
"OK," I said to my 10-year-old. "Let's put it in order. If — and it's a big if — if I can find a nearby fencing class and if, if, you want to continue with this comedy improv thing, then we need to put these things in order of what you want to do most during the school year."
So, his list came out like this:
A tie between archery and comedy improv
When I was 10, there wasn't a great difference between the school year and summer in terms of my outside activities. Ninety percent of my time outside of school was unstructured. If I had made a list of my own priorities at 10, it might have looked like this:
Playing records in the basement.
Expanding my Wacky Packages collection.
Showing up at whatever intramural game was going on in the school/church cafeteria.
I may have lived in a city eight times the size of Richmond, but my world was no bigger than the block of row homes I lived on. If my school/church didn't offer it as an activitiy, I didn't do it. My schedule didn't conflict with anyone else's because kids having schedules was crazy talk.
I never had a play date in my life. I played.
I'm not trying to get all "uphill both ways" on my children. Our children lead ridiculously privileged lives precisely because each generation has explicitly decided that that's our goal: to give our children things and experiences we never had. I understand that my children's lives are as different from my childhood as mine was from my parents', both of whom toiled all day in a shoe factory and churned butter for fun.
Well, not really, but I assume that's what my kids hear when I ramble on about my childhood, and it's what their children will hear someday when they talk about their own lives as kids.
"You mean all you did was go somewhere a couple of times a week and shoot a bow and arrow? Couldn't your parents afford a hovercraft design workshop or a Tony-winning Broadway star on retainer for voice coaching?"
It's much simpler when they are little, of course. Your mind is their mind. You want them to sign them up for soccer or pre-swim team at the local Y less than two minutes away? No problem!
When they reach about 7 or 8, something terrifying happens: They develop minds and interests of their own. Suddenly, you are seeking out violin teachers across the river, karate studios with contracts. I never had a contract until I bought my first car. You are taking them to U.Va. on frigid winter Saturday mornings because they would like to take a crime scene investigation class. You are calling all over town looking for archery classes in the pre-Hunger Games era.
Once these various, eclectic interests are in place, you then must coordinate this with your other children's equally bizarre schedules and then with your own, which frankly is the easy part, because if you are like me, you don't have much going on in your own life. It becomes like one of those slide puzzles with the moving squares, the ones you crush under your heel before you ever solve them.
"Hmm. If we can move your drum lesson to Saturday, we could do fencing on Thursday night. Wait, your pack meetings are on Thursdays. Maybe you could make that fencing lesson up another day during the week. But wait. We can't move drums to Saturday because of your volunteer work ..." Once homework is added to the mix, your spirit is pretty much broken.
So, if you see me as the school year approaches, you might call that look in my eye confusion or anxiety or exhaustion, but I just call it September.