Sunday, June 15, 2008

Itching for Meaning

As much as I enjoy reading, a man has his obligations. I have a family to feed, grass to cut, and a stuffed gorilla to alternately worship or strangle, depending on the cycle of my medication.

So I'm a busy guy.

But there are brief, fleeting, three-hour stretches of each day when I try to hear the Red Sox game over my wife's persistent chatter. A lot of men would find this annoying, but I am a sensitive, understanding guy; I know she's just trying to revive our communication so we don't divorce. Eventually she will realize the way to do this is to talk about sports.

In the meantime, I remain patient. It's already paying off, because lately she's had some interesting things to say (during commercials, at least) about this book called “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv.

The premise of the book that today's children suffer from something called Nature Deficit Disorder.

Now, before you scoff, remember that it was not long ago that such conditions as Attention Deficit Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Way Too Interested in Skateboarding Disorder were a mere twinkle in the eyes of some money-grubbing pharmaceutical executive.

From my perspective, Nature Deficit Disorder is actually much more dangerous. Video games and TV are an obvious culprit, but we tend to overlook the fact that our society urges or forces kids to remain indoors, pretty much from the first day of kindergarten.

Meanwhile, most adults set a poor example. If your idea of spending some quality time outdoors involves a riding lawn mower, you fall into this category.

Louv says there is too much emphasis on youth sports. He advocates “unstructured play,” a phrase that is likely to make any elementary school employee shudder.

Sure, we can put our second graders on a field for an hour or two and watch them struggle to find, pick up, and throw the rare baseball that's batted beyond the pitcher's mound... but is that really experiencing the outdoors?

“Unstructured play” means exploration and flexing the muscles of the imagination. It not only promotes relaxation and creativity, it also fosters self-reliance, breeds confidence, and inspires the use of trendy, meaningless verbs.

For example, I developed a lot of self reliance and creativity when, as a 16-year-old, I had to explain to my parents how I got a poison ivy rash over 95 percent of my body.

I think they pretty much knew what happened, since I had already told them I would be spending the afternoon with my girlfriend. But my 16-year-old self did not observe such obvious points of logic, and felt it necessary to carefully concoct the following story:

“I don't know.”

I always got good grades, but I'm sure they had to wonder about my intelligence there. It takes a special kind of idiot to get poison ivy everywhere except your face and genitals, then not know how it happened.

Do you see how being deprived of nature as a child left me emotionally and intellectually impoverished? I was so desperate for that connection with the outdoors, I couldn't help just going out and rolling around in it the first chance I got.

I suggest you rush out and buy “Last Child in the Woods,” and have your spouse read it. Then, turn your kids loose in the wilderness. That should leave you some alone time, perhaps enough to catch the end of the Red Sox game.

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