Every Sunday afternoon in the days before television, after Sunday school and an endless hour of church — an hour and a half on communion Sundays — and after Sunday dinner with my extended family, listening to the grown-ups talk, I’d head for the Rio Theater on the main street of Wall Lake, Iowa, a dime for admission and another dime for popcorn in my pocket, a cousin or two at my side.
For the next two hours, we’d enter the worlds of Bugs and Daffy, the Three Stooges, cowboys and Indians and pirates and explorers, aliens, giant robots, the chaos of the battlefield, the cavalry charging to the rescue. When “The End” inevitably came, my cousins and I would emerge into the light of common day, to bemuse and annoy our elders with cries of “Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk!” and “Klaatu barada nikto” and “It’s quiet. Too quiet.”
For the rest of the week, when we weren’t playing sandlot baseball or football, we’d be battling the Germans, or fighting the Indians or the cavalry, or exploring the unknown territories of alleys and backyards, our settings and story lines inspired by the Sunday matinees. The movies presented to our imaginations an excitement and danger and chaotic madcap humor that were absent — blessedly absent, as I now know — from our boring everyday lives.
Then came television, with much of the same fantasy and adventure and drama that the movies had. Yet, there was a difference.
With television, the fantasy never ended. Television gave us no time to think about what we had seen, to work it into our ordinary lives, to act it out, because we were still seeing it. In most houses, the television set was turned on from sign-on in the morning to sign-off at night, and in the time formerly spent having imaginary adventures, most of my friends were watching television.
Pauline Kael, longtime New Yorker movie critic of the 1970s and ’80s, accounted for the greater imaginative value of the movies over television by saying that, with television, the magic never stops, while with the movies, from which we return to our everyday lives, the remembered magic becomes a kind of subtext to the ordinary, making the ordinary lively and engaging.
The movies give us time to work the magic into our everyday lives. With television, as Kael remarked, the magic never stops, and thus stops being magic.
Nonstop television is only one of many latter-day encroachments on the quiet contemplation, or, especially with children, the active imaginative play that we need to understand and enrich and integrate our lives. Before the dawn of this too-much-information age, daily newspapers, weekly news magazines like Time and Newsweek, even the daily hour of national and local television news had boundaries, end points, and allowed us time to digest and interpret and discuss the events of the day, to relate what was happening in the world to our knowledge and experience in a way that the constant flow of information from CNN and Fox and MSNBC does not allow us to do. We have too much information, too little time to understand it.
Nonstop sports — the lengthening of seasons and proliferation of games, ESPN’s daily highlights, the 24-hour sports feeds — have diminished the significance of any particular game or any individual play. Two immortal moments in baseball history, Willie Mays’ impossible game-saving catch in the 1954 World Series, or Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off 1960 World Series-winning home run, would hardly be noticed amid today’s dozens of highlights. Again, too much information, too little time to appreciate, to evaluate it.
Downtime, in a word, is what we seem to have less of than we did in the past: time that is unstructured, unsupervised, un-productive (note the negative connotation), when grown-ups daydream and woolgather, and children play without a grown-up running the show. Children use downtime to learn about their world on their own and to find their place in it, as someday they will, on their own, have to do; grown-ups use downtime to relax and recharge and, perhaps most importantly, to evaluate new information and adjust their perspective. Without downtime, grown-ups are merely reacting to the events of the day, and children are merely being stimulated.
I see this lack of downtime most clearly in the lives of children and in the contrast between their scheduled, structured lives and my own free-range childhood.
Back in the day, when my chores and homework were done, the time that I didn’t spend in school or church was my own to schedule and structure, under the distant supervision of stay-at-home moms watching from kitchen windows — if I misbehaved at one end of town, my mother at the other end of town usually knew about it before I got home to face the consequences. We set the rules for our imagined adventures while we were having them, and spent nearly half our umpire-less ballgames arguing about who was safe and who was out (and learning something about conflict resolution in the process).
By comparison, many of today’s children live lives that are tightly scheduled with organized sports and clubs and camps and playdates, all closely supervised by adults. Some parents actually seem to fear unorganized time for their children, time when their lives are not being improved or enriched by organized and supervised activity. Children are so unused to downtime in their lives that they don’t know what to do with it, complain about being bored and require some structured, supervised activity to fill the empty time — video games or smartphones, if nothing else.
I’ve heard enough about the pressures of modern life in the industrialized West to know that this is not an exclusively American phenomenon, but it may be worse here. A student in one of my classes, a young woman who had grown up on a family farm in Germany, wrote about her experiences as an au pair to an affluent American family. At first she admired the family’s beautiful house and abundance of material possessions, but after a few weeks of helping the workaholic parents rush their five children from one activity to another, never having time for even a sit-down family meal, she changed her mind, and valued the intervals of leisure and family time she had experienced at home. Everything in her American family was done on the go and in a rush, she said. The children were all medicated for hyperactivity, while their parents were working 60 hours a week to support an affluent life that no one had time to enjoy, let alone ponder the value of.
This family’s way of life may not be typical, but it is not rare: Americans work harder and longer than any other workers in the industrialized world. Our children are in after-school programs or day care or lessons or practices, with much rushing from one to the other.
By inclination or good luck, my own family was nothing like this. My wife and I were both tenured academics, troubled by neither driving ambition nor financial insecurity. We had up to 15 weeks of summer and winter breaks every year, with plenty of time to adjust and evaluate and regain perspective, as well as sabbaticals every six years or so.
As English teachers, we did a great deal of reading and writing, activities that require much exercise of the imagination and permit frequent pauses for reflection and connection, and which our children imitated, as children will.
Coming from childhood homes where the television set sat in the middle of the living room and was turned on 16/7, we had a dedicated television room separate from the living and dining rooms, and we set a two-hour daily limit on our children’s television time, programs subject to our approval.
Our children had library cards and used them. When they were bored, which was seldom, we encouraged them to find the cure on their own. We had a sit-down family dinner every day, with no books or electronics and, at the insistence of our children, no shoptalk. Our children had supervised, organized activities in their lives, practices and lessons and summer camps, but they also had plenty of unsupervised time, downtime: a balance.
And so, when my students asked how they and their children, if they had them, could improve their writing, I drew on my own family’s practice: Do lots of reading and writing, which are not encouraged by the culture as much as they used to be and so must be encouraged and practiced by parents; set limits on television watching and electronics; no TVs in bedrooms (many faces fell when I advised this); get your children and yourself library cards, and make weekly trips to the library; have sit-down family meals at which you talk to one another, without conflict (my children also enforced what they called the “No Fighting, No Biting” rule at the table).
Read up on free-range parenting and discover enriching and restoring ways to fill unscheduled, nonworking, unproductive time. Take all the vacation time your job allows, which only one quarter of American workers do. On vacation, don’t go on some grueling road trip; discover the museums and parks and playgrounds and historical sites of your own region, and visit them even when you’re not on vacation. Arrange to have an unscheduled, electronics-free weekend once a month, when you and your family do whatever the day brings, anything or nothing.
What I said to my students about their writing I would say to all the hard-driving, overscheduled families in this workaholic country about how they might, without more money or more “stuff,” enrich their lives (and also their writing): Blob out, veg out, daydream, woolgather; talk to your children about the Olden Days without invidious comparisons to the present, and listen to them talk about their lives, which, if you’re quiet and un-judging long enough, they will eventually do. Hang out with your significant other, talking or not talking, doing nothing in particular.
Even if you’re not in the teaching game, with its built-in recharging time, you’ve still got 88 hours a week when you’re not sleeping or working.
So take a break. Lots of breaks. No guilt. You deserve it, and we all need it.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.