I spent Mother's Day with my wife's family; playing with my young nephews, or at least trying to while they fought off the distraction and delved directly back into their iPad adventures. These days there is little bike-riding in the street or intermingling with the other kids on the block. "Why don't you guys go outside?" I asked them.
"Are you crazy?" my sister-in-law said to me. "They can't go outside by themselves."
Maybe I am crazy. By the time I was in second grade I was riding my bike around Modesto on my own; often making a beeline for my cousin's house about a half-mile away. We would meet up with other kids in the neighborhood and do whatever came to mind; maybe that would involve riding a bit further to the park for a baseball game, or perhaps down to the grocery store to buy candy. There were few rules back then, other than: avoid the busy avenues and be home by sundown. I've read that times are different now, and that the streets are more dangerous for unsupervised children. But I don't know if anything has actually changed, other than our mindset about reality. Today, most activities for kids are insanely mapped out; down to the smallest detail. There's little room for improvisation.
In 2004, after getting bogged down in a post-graduate malaise, I decided to sell my car, most of my worldly possessions, buy a sturdy backpack, and head over to Europe; where I would stay for more than a year. For seven straight years I had gone to college, done what I was supposed to do, entered the job force, followed the rules, and abided by the general guidelines for young twenty-something living. Something was missing, however. I had somehow lost a step or forgotten a part of myself along the way. Now I'm not about to go all Eat, Pray, Love on you here, detailing a melodramatic chronicle about my spiritual discoveries and cultural educations, most of which are nothing new or revolutionary for anyone who grew up outside of American suburbia. What did happen in Eastern Europe that summer, however, was a renaissance of by-the-seat-of-my-pants living. Everyday was up for interpretation, and nothing was scheduled in advance.
Should I stay in Budapest another day, or should I head further east towards Romania? What's that? You're headed back towards Poland? Maybe I'll go with you.
All I had to advise me during that glorious period was an old copy of Let's Go! Eastern Europe and the suggestions of those I met in the various hostels. Decisions were spontaneous, exciting, and unpredictable. One day I was sitting in the breakfast nook of a Czech family residence eating potato dumplings, the next evening I'm in a small home outside of Krakow, drinking Polish beer and watching the local soccer club take on Manchester United in the opening round of the Euro Cup. "Hey, you might want to check out Olomouc," someone might mention, "it's a pretty cool little town with a great guesthouse." Sign me up. I'll buy my ticket at the station tomorrow morning.
Now obviously life can't always be a carefree wanderlust of foundationless living (or can it be?), but there's definitely something to be gained by letting it come to you and learning to love the unknown. I try to remember these experiences when I get overwhelmed by the internet. I watch people obsessively calculate every route on Google Maps, or research every meal on Yelp before committing to a reservation. Yet, the best trips I've ever taken involved getting lost at some point, and the best meals I've ever eaten were the result of little expectation. All of this information is supposed to make life better, but I often find that, for me personally, the more that my life becomes scripted and thought out, the less I enjoy it. The same goes for my drinking.
However, it's possible that my enjoyment of extemporaneous activities stems entirely from my childhood -- a formative era that instilled in me a desire for ad-libbed adventure. It may turn out that this current generation of American kids will enjoy the memories of a safe and insulated upbringing. In the end, most of us are enticed by the memories of childhood and a simpler time, when little responsibility liberated us from the constraints of adulthood. Each era has its own version of what that means.
For me, that means living.