The Over-protected Child at Play

malardcopy2I keep returning to an image I had last week of ducks playing in the water just off the first spillway (referred to in the previous blog entry). I wasn’t able to capture them in a photo, but something about their behavior intrigued me, piqued my interest.

I think it was the sheer joy and exuberance, the spontaneity and “lightness” of their movement. One duck jumped off the water and propelled himself into the air about four or five feet, then suddenly dropped into a skid along the surface of the water. He seemed to be showing off, but could just as easily have been practicing landings, not so much as an exercise in discipline or maturity or security, but for the “feel” of the splash, for the unpredictability of where he would land or how far he would skitter.

The duck’s antics reminded me of my attempts as a child (and still sometimes as an adult) to see who could make the biggest splash when cannon-balling into a lake or pool. Or who could dive into the shallowest part of the water without scraping the bottom. Or who could jump the longest or highest over the hedges in our backyard. Or who would climb the tallest tree and swing back and forth with the greatest sway! Indeed, no sooner had one duck danced into his landing than another popped up into the air to follow with his best effort to make a smoother landing or a higher splash. I could almost hear their laughter at the results.

Another duck watched on, apparently bemused by their competition, or not yet confident in his or her own capabilities. Still another, indifferent to their childish games, turned upside down and poked his head beneath the surface to feed off the abundance of plant life below. “Been there, done that, but if you want to play, I understand,” this last duck seemed to say.

The scene becomes even more evocative in light of a recent article by Hannah Rosin on the over-protected child in The Atlantic. Rosin makes a compelling case for the fact that today’s parents actually stunt their children’s growth and development by micro-managing their lives and trying to ensure their absolute health and safety (and, I would add, success in whatever their endeavors might be). She cites one safety expert as saying, “adults have come to the mistaken view that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury… In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”

Rosin argues that rather than grow up too fast, children today are not given an opportunity to grow up at all. They never learn to negotiate danger, to tackle physical or emotional tests of maturity, to try their limits, to develop their imaginations, to work with others to solve problems, to establish reasonable norms on their own, to “become truly independent and self-reliant.” Worse, they never really experience the “thrilling experience” of stepping into the unknown, of over-coming their fears, or taking responsibility for their actions. We provide playgrounds for them that will pass litigation standards. We fence in their yards. We carpool them to their games, tell them never to talk to strangers and are surprised when they can’t think for themselves.

By current standards, like many adults my age, I should have died several times over when I was a child. My parents often didn’t know where I was. I hung from trees, I floated down rivers, I wandered through forests, I skated on ice too thin to hold. I took rides from strangers, I jumped off cliffs, I swam across lakes on my own. I built forts from sticks, made my own bow and arrows, defended myself from local gangs, and sometimes, gloriously, did nothing at all.

I think part of the appeal of a place like Stony Brook, both for adults and children, is that it expands the notion of one’s back yard in what Rosin would call a “healthy” way. If not an element of danger, there’s a sense of mystery and adventure here, of excitement and possibility (especially on night hikes), but it’s a safe and stable environment overseen by experienced guides and well-informed educators. You can wander here. You can play. You can sit for hours and observe the wildlife, listen to the birds or get caught in an afternoon shower. But maybe most importantly, you can still get lost if you take a wrong turn, and be forced to discover your own way.

The ducks seem to know all this intuitively. They revel in their freedom. They learn from their mistakes. They shrug off their fears and teach us to do the same.



And Then the Rains Came

Ducks2They moved me out of my chair and away from my desk
My self-absorbed head cold sniffling
My lack of sleep, my numbed cheek,
My body’s refusal to adjust to the clocks.

Wrentham Court had recessed until 2:00 –
A chance to hit open air,
Their friend’s husband gone,
Killed by a drunk driver,
Snapped back into the ether.

Three joyful bikers determined to bear witness
To one woman’s suffering and a man’s life,
Thumbing their noses at the uncertainty,
The fragility of this clean, well-lighted place.
This mead-hall through which we pass,
Windows upon an undiminished darkness,
Swathed by our shadows of light.

Three gentle passengers wise enough
To laugh and celebrate their good fortune,
Having visited this stop before.

One carries twenty-five pounds of black oil
Home to his backyard birds
Who wrestle squirrels for spring warmth,
Tired of scraps for winter sustenance.

I lock the door behind them
And head out to the path, almost giddy,
My spirits lifted by their warmth and sincerity,
But make it no farther than the first spillway.

There ducks frolic in an archipelago of open water and ice.
Leap and splash and lift into the air
Only to slide back into the frigid water
For the sheer luxuriance of its black silk
And tempting depths.

One, then another, sounds the bottom
For low-growing fruits
Unconcerned with me the passerby,

I turn to the left where a skein of open water
Empties into the horizon
Like a ribbon of velvet pulled by the Milky Way,
Two ducks riding its celestial sweep until take-off.

What further galaxies must they have access to,
Storm clouds gathering into billowing capes of gray,
Bound only by diminishing sheets of white ice,
Swept clean by a brush of spring air
And then pelting rain?

Ah, Spring, I had forgotten what motley clothes you wear!

A Once and Future Life for All?

“Order is what exists before you start arranging things.”
― Marty Rubin

Stony Brook Now and Forever?

What we seek is right there in front of us!

I have been thinking about the possibilities of extending human life indefinitely. It’s not that I’m getting old and suddenly am having intimations of mortality. It’s more a function of several articles/discussions I’ve recently read in which Aubrey de Grey delineates his argument for why we will someday soon be able to choose how long we live, or in which he debates a leading doctor or ethicist about whether such a choice is practical, ethical, or even possible. One of the most recent of these articles is that found in the Irish Examiner online wherein de Grey debates Walter Bortz, a former chairman of the American Medical Association’s Task Force on Aging and past president of the American Geriatrics Society.

The particulars of the debate are complex, but what it amounts to is that de Grey believes in a systematic and sustained effort to develop regenerative medical strategies that will one day allow humans to live as long as they want. His goal is to “cure aging” at the level of cellular and molecular damage. Through his Sens Foundation he seeks not to stop or slow death, but to “repair and reverse it.” Bortz agrees that human life can be extended, by diet and exercise for example, but argues that 100 years of life may well be a reasonable plateau beyond which most would not choose to go. Bortz says that “everything in the universe ages,” and what we call a lifespan might better be thought of as “the effect of an energy flow on matter over time.” Better to savor the fruits while they are most abundant than to worry about how to extend them indefinitely.

Bortz is a pragmatist; Aubrey de Grey is a dreamer. Bortz worries about the unanticipated consequences of meddling in Nature’s cycles; de Grey is confident that humans will face those challenges and address them as need be. Well aware of the dangers of obesity and diabetes, the suffering of Alzheimer’s, the devastation of heart disease and cancer, they both believe strongly in quality of life and the virtue of preventative maintenance. Where they differ, however, is in defining what a life should be.

I love the questions raised by this kind of discussion and find that I am swayed in both directions. I think that de Grey is right in his prediction that humans will find ways to tinker with the machine. Whether by altering genes or rebuilding circuitry or replenishing cells, we will extend life and perhaps redefine what it means to be human along the way. Science seems inevitably wedded to fiction, and evolution need not be confined to the organic.

But Bortz serves as a good conscience, urging us to go slowly and to think about whether it’s really eternity that we desire or the ability to enjoy the present day. Do we ultimately seek to go outside Nature, be removed from its dictates of death and rebirth? The literature is full of such dreams. Or do we instead willingly choose to die down to our roots repeatedly, recognizing that we have many lives to lead, many manifestations of Self, many Universes to explore and in which to be?

Stony Brook, as always, provides some insight into such questions. It will be here tomorrow, and a thousand years from tomorrow, but will never be the same. Always accessible, it will remain a point of reference, a source of sustenance and energy, a flyover, a stopping place, a destination, a stage upon which to fret or to play. But it will change. And so will we. Would we rather have a museum, a time-piece, that remains static? Would we prefer Stony Brook to have remained the industrial site it was in the mid-1800s? To look forever as it does now? Or to evolve into something as yet not dreamed?

What makes Stony Brook – and life as we know it – so compelling is its fluctuations, its uncertainties, its ebb and flows, its unpredictability. Its ability to suffer loss and absorb pain, as well as to rekindle hope and spur the imagination. Of course we should seek new ways to ensure quality of life, but the thought of eternity scares me. Shall we always be able to run the race, never fall short of the goal? Shall we rival our children and grandchildren in energy and strength: our hair never thin, our beauty never fade? Will we choose to have children at all, or will there be room for them on this earth: the wealthy never leaving, the poor left to die?

Given a choice between life everlasting and the vagaries of the present moment, I would choose today. Like Thoreau, I would argue, “In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.” It’s spring! Time to re-read “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” Heaven is here beneath our feet, as Thoreau says. We need look no further.