Maybe The Pace Of This American Life Is Wrong?

Sometimes when I drive to a youth soccer game three hours away, I think, “Wait, why are we doing this? Why do we spend so much time and money on a game for kids? Also, in most of the world the local children play barefoot, with a half-deflated ball, on the beach or in the local vacant lot, and they still end up being better players than U.S. teenagers.” Our whole youth soccer club system is a broken mess, yet we…I mean…I, I have spent so much time and money on the system.

This is just one example. A microcosm. Maybe we Americans have it wrong. In soccer. In other things. It seems like we always find a way to spend a lot of money and drive long distances, for everything.

Or what about the pace of daily life? Driving, stressing, too much homework, complicated play-date schedules, expensive kids’ birthday parties. What are we doing? Why are we living this way?

My family is doing better than it was. We got rid of our second car a few years ago and try to bike or carpool most places. Recently we pulled our older daughter out of club soccer and put her in a cheap local kids’ league. We let our other daughter trade organized sports for “pretend time,” skateboarding, and jumping on the trampoline with friends. We’re encouraging our kids to explore in the local fields or small plot of woods near our house rather than play inside.

But we’ve also tried to drop out as a family a few times. We started small and built from there. Three times we’ve pulled our girls out of school in the middle of the year to go somewhere else, to experience something different. The first was a nine-day camping trip in the fall in Yosemite when the tourists were gone from the valley, the bears were out, and the nights were colder. And even though that trip was short, during the time that we were gone, the girls missed two soccer practices, two soccer games, two friends’ birthday parties, and at least twelve hours of overwhelming homework.

In Yosemite, we swam in the Merced River, saw nine different bears (including a mother bear and her two cubs who wandered past our tent in the high country), rock climbed, bouldered, went to the LeConte Museum, hiked, and saw a cougar eating a ground squirrel. But mostly we did nothing. We played card games and read for hours in our tent. We sat and watched birds. We put on snorkel gear and followed fish up through river eddies. The trade for six days of school and nine days of daily life was well worth it.

Then, last year, we went to Tucson for three and a half weeks in the winter. We stayed in a house in the Santa Catalina mountains and hiked, canyoneered, swam in creeks and the local pool, got sun on our skin, climbed a little, explored ruins, and hung out by the fireplace at night. Ruth got stung by a scorpion on her hand but she still loved the trip, and it was wonderful being away from everything we missed at home, more social engagements and school requirements than I can possibly list.

And now, we’ve taken another break from This American Life. We scheduled a trip this winter to Central America, planned it for February and March. I took a leave of absence from my day job to work on my fifth book (my third novel), and we pulled the girls out of school again. We’ve been in Congrejal, Costa Rica, for the past month, 1 kilometer outside of a tiny two-block by three-block town on the Pacific Coast.

We rented a small native house en el campo. There are fires in the ditches at night – burning palm fronds – large spiders and centipedes and black scorpions and beetles in our house, dirt roads, incredible stars with zero light pollution, and yellow beaches two miles long. The food is different, scary sometimes (we chance food poisoning each time we eat out – but that’s not often as we mostly eat rice and beans and local fruit at home). There is no rock climbing but I climb coconut trees on the beach, cut down three or four coconuts, cut them open and drink the milk with my nine-year-old Ruthie or Jennie.

My thirteen-year-old, Rain, is surfing and reading and journaling. Both girls are home-schooling, and we get their work completed each day in three or four hours. We’re reading world history together as a family. Learning the geography of Central America. Studying native plants and animals of our local area.

The nouns are different here. Back at home we see squirrels in the trees. Here we see Howler Monkeys. Estuaries in Western Oregon have carp and frogs. Here they have 16-foot crocodiles.

We have wild horses and coatis in our yard.

We surf each day.

I write 1000 new words on my novel.

We bike around because we have no car.

We stay outside until after dark, live outside everyday, and even though it averages 98-degrees, we’ve adapted now and the days no longer feel too hot.

Jennie pumps her fist in the air and yells, “I love that there are no rules here!” as we bike along a pot-hole filled road, wearing no helmets. There are no stoplights or stop-signs even in the town nearby where people lay on their horns and yell at each other, drive on the wrong side of the road or swerve all over the place in their cars. Motorcycles pass us going 60.

What would we be doing back home right now? I’d be working 60 hours a week. There would be dance practices and soccer practices and games and performances. We would have play dates, drive regularly, be late all of the time. We would have to work to be local. But when the location is small, like it is here, localism is natural, unforced, nothing difficult. We eat the limes and cashew fruit from the trees next to our house. And there are more green plantains than we can fry.

I know that we can’t live in a perpetual state of vacation, but maybe that’s not what this is. I’m working here. The girls are doing schoolwork. Jennie and the girls are making art together. Our lives and the development of our minds has not stopped.

So maybe this is just a richer life? Maybe there is no one named Jones to keep up with. Maybe we – as a family – must stop every year, stop to think and read and write and hang out, as a family, because these years will end soon, and the girls will go to college, and we will have missed our opportunity to take them out of their culture, out of the daily speed of U.S. city life.

In ten years, both girls will be out of the house and this will no longer be possible. They will be leading other lives. They won’t want to be dragged to Central America by their parents. They will have their own chosen obligations. They will lead their own lives of personal interests.

And our chances will be over.

So for now, a slow life, something different, something other than the daily pace of life in the United States. Here, for a moment, we avoid (as Tim Kreider of the New York Times says) The Busy Trap.

And the soccer here? We play every day on the beach, barefoot, with the local boys. We play on the sand, goals scored through two sticks stuck one meter apart. We call the barefoot game “Pelada,” which translates as the crazy naked woman.

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On School Shooters – The Huffington Post Doesn’t Want You To Read This

After the Huffington Post signed me on as a blogger and allowed me to write op-ed pieces on any topic, for two years, ranging from books to sports to reviews to pop culture, something changed in our relationship. It was sudden.
I wrote this piece for Huff Po in late December, 2012.  For some reason, the editors wouldn’t print it. Like every other article I’d written, I submitted the piece on their backstage for signed bloggers, but nothing happened. It didn’t go up on their site. I waited, and it didn’t happen.
A few days went by. Then a week. I contacted the editors, and they didn’t respond.  Then I contacted again, and they let me know that they wouldn’t publish the piece.
I asked why.
No response.
I emailed again.
No response again.
And now they won’t let me write anything at all. I’m off the blogroll.
So I must have touched a nerve. And that made me ask, who’s paying salaries here?
Why is the Huffington Post’s Tech section so popular?
Who is advertising?
Who is vetting content?
What follows is an op-ed article on a piece of the school shooter puzzle. I don’t pretend that this covers everything, but here is a key component from my point of view. And as a current high school teacher and a former troubled teen, I have a strong opinion on the topic.
This is what the Huffington Post doesn’t want its readers to see.
My junior year in high school, I was caught with a loaded, stolen handgun on school property at my school in East Tennessee.  Since the owner of the pistol didn’t want to press charges, I simply forfeited the handgun to the local sheriff’s deputy, then was promptly expelled from the school.  No arrest.  No counseling.  No follow-up.  I was never required to see a psychologist or explain my intentions.  This was 1994, long before the famous shootings at Thurston High School, Columbine, Red Lake, Aurora, Clackamas, and Newtown.
Although I had some loner tendencies, I was also what psychologist call a “failed joiner.”  I tried to fit in at each school I attended.  I tried to be cool, but I usually failed.  I was gun obsessed.  I considered killing myself, but more often I thought about killing others.
I carried a loaded pistol my junior year in high school. I stuffed it in my belt, ready for use.
The next year, I carried a sawed-off shotgun in my backpack.  I liked guns and I had access to them.  But I also carried a sheath-knife.  I was obsessed with weapons of all kind. For a while, I carried a framing hammer.
Thankfully, I never shot or stabbed or bludgeoned anyone.  Although I got in many, many fights, and although I thought about seriously hurting people with the weapons that I carried, I never did. And eventually, with the support of some incredible adults in my life, plus some maturing experiences, I moved past my tendencies toward violence, matured, got back into school, and grew up.  After three high school expulsions, I have now – ironically – become a high school teacher.
As a teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time this past week [December 27, 2012] thinking about the Newtown shooting, school shootings in general, their causes and possible preventions.
It’s scary now to think that I ever had anything in common with school shooters.  I don’t enjoy admitting that.  But I did have a lot in common with them. I was angry, had access to guns, felt ostracized, and didn’t make friends easily. I engaged in violence and wrote about killing people in my notes to peers.
But there is one significant difference between me at 16 and 17 years of age and most high school shooters: I didn’t play violent video games.
As a child, my mother taught me that all video games were “evil.”  That’s the word she used.  And although that word might be a little extreme, I grew up thinking that there was something very, very wrong with pretending on a video screen.  My mother  also called playing video games “wasting your life” and “dumbing yourself down.”  I thought my mother was ridiculous, but her opinions stuck with me anyway.
Thus, when it came to high school, when I was a social failure and very, very angry, I had no practice with on-screen violence.  “Call of Duty” didn’t exist yet, but even if it had, I wouldn’t have played it.  I wouldn’t have practiced putting on body armor and I wouldn’t have shot thousands of people with an AR rifle. I have likewise never practiced “double-tapping” people. I have never walked into a room and killed everyone inside. My students tell me that it’s possible to “pistol whip a prostitute” in Grand Theft Auto, but I haven’t done it.
But Jeff Weise did.  He played thousands of first-person shooter hours before he shot and killed nine people at and near his Red Lake, Minn., school, before killing himself.
And according to neighbors and friends, Clackamas shooter Jacob Tyler Roberts played a lot of video games before he armed himself with a semi-automatic AR-15 and went on a rampage at the Clackamas Town Center in Portland, Oregon last week.
Also, by now, it is common knowledge that Adam Lanza, who murdered 20 children and six women in video-game style, spent many, many hours playing “Call of Duty.”  In essence, Lanza – and all of these shooters – practiced on-screen to prepare for shooting in real-life.
Now I am not anti-video game crusader Jack Thompson.  I’m not suggesting that everyone who plays a video game will act out that video game in reality.  But I am saying that it is very dangerous to allow troubled, angry, teenage boys access to killing practice, even if that access is only virtual killing practice.  The military uses video games to train soldiers to kill, yet we don’t consider “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” training for addicted teenage players? A high school boy who plays that game 30 hours per week isn’t training to kill somebody?
I am not surprised that school shooters love violent video games.  As an angry, troubled teen, I would’ve probably loved to shoot hundreds of people on-screen. That might’ve felt nice.
But now, as a teacher, I worry about my most troubled male students playing games like “Halo 4” and “Assassin’s Creed 3,” bragging about violent actions that they’ve never done in the real world.  A scrawny, angry boy’s who’s failing socially is a scary video game addict.
I was walking behind two teenage boys in the hall at my high school the other day and I heard one talking about slitting someone’s throat.  He said, “I just came up behind him, pulled out my knife so quietly and cut his throat.”
The other boy said, “Yeah, then I killed everyone else in less than, like, 10 seconds. Just slaughtered them.”
I looked at these two boys: Tall and awkward.  Unathletic. I knew that they weren’t tied-in socially, that they both struggled in classes and with peers.  Yet they were capable of incredible and sudden violence on screen.  Together, they could slit throats and shoot everyone.  I asked one of them later, and he said that he played Call of Duty “an average of 40 hours per week, at least.”
Is this what we want angry, adolescent boys to do?  Do we want to give them this practice?  Do we want them to glorify violent actions, to brag about violence in the school’s hallways?  Or even worse, given the perfect equation of frustration + opportunity + practice, do we want them to do as Weise, Roberts, and Lanza did, and act out these fantasies in real life? Do we want them to yell, “I am the shooter” as they enter a crowded mall – as Roberts did? Or dress like video-game shooters – as Lanza and Roberts were – before heading into a murder spree?
Especially with teenage boys, we have to decide what we want them to do, what we want them to love, what we want them to emulate.  Even if they don’t end up shooting people in a school, if they’re practicing car-jackings, knifings, and putting on body-armor as first-person shooters, what are they preparing to do with the rest of their lives? Will these video-game practice sessions make them better husbands or fathers? Will these boys become patient and understanding friends? Better co-workers?
Please support the bill introduced Wednesday by U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, directing the National Academy of Sciences to examine whether violent games and programs lead children to act aggressively.  Please lobby with your local representatives as Rockefeller presses the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to expand their studies.
But I have another idea beyond important political action. Something positive to think about:
Get kids outside. Take them out and let them wander around in the woods. Let them canoe across a lake. Let them backpack  through a mountain range. Give them a map and compass assignment. Give frustrated youth an opportunity to challenge themselves in the natural world.
Have you ever heard of a school shooter who’s hobbies are kayaking, rock climbing, and fly-fishing? If that seems absurd – and it does seem absurd to me – we might be onto something.  I don’t think that those hobbies can create a school shooter. There’s just something abut the natural world that defuses anger.
I know this because the outdoors helped saved my life. An outdoor diversion program for troubled teens started the process when I was sixteen. Camping and hiking and climbing helped me mature further as a nineteen and twenty year old. And now, as the director of a high school outdoor program, one of my student leaders said recently that “the outdoor program saves lives.”
That’s not me. That’s nature. Kids need the outdoors.
Help the young people. Get them outside.