Last week for some New Jersey public schools it was Winter Break. On Monday, one of my friends in Pennsylvania posted on Facebook that her “togetherness quotient” had expired; on Tuesday, my sister, who was at home in New Jersey with her three small children, texted me to ask who was responsible for the concept of “winter break.” (People with no children and timeshares in Arizona, apparently). On Wednesday, we discussed the equally absurd notion of taking small children “on vacation,” and on Thursday she reported that one of her sons had asked her a question that started with “What if…” and she had interrupted him before he could go any farther. “I just couldn’t take it,” she said. “I even said to him, ‘please stop, I can’t handle that kind of question right now.’ And yes, I’m a terrible person.”
On Friday I started a little survey about things one enjoys or does not enjoy doing with their children (n=2, my sister and me). In terms of kids, I myself will take a good “what if” question over any of the following: board games with dice, board games in which it is possible to be sent back to the beginning, games with tiny pieces such as Mastermind and Battleship, games of strategy that rely on the competence and/or honesty of the other player such as Mastermind and Battleship, most puzzles but especially jigsaws, all card games, and hide and seek, particularly with unnaturally quiet children.
My sister likes a good round or two of Mastermind or Sorry, and has created her own rules for how best to enjoy these games with her kids. On the other hand, her son said something to her the other day in the car like, “If we had really huge feet with giant spikes on them, we could climb up the outside of the house,” and she was so exhausted by it that she could not reply. She told me that she spent a few seconds considering whether a reply was necessary, concluded it was not, and then heard, from the back seat, “I SAID, ‘if we had huge feet with spikes on them…'”
In general, I prefer things that rely on imagination rather than strategy. And this is not to imply that my sister is not an imaginative person, because she is. It’s just that last week she was worn out by the ceaseless parenting task of having to narrate every minute of every waking hour–to answer all the questions, all the time, mundane and outlandish. For people who don’t have children but may have pets, take a moment to imagine if your pet needed you to explain every single thing that was happening to and around it all day, every day (“What’s that sound?” “What are you doing?” “What are you doing now?” “Where are we going?” Where are we going now?” “If I ate myself would I be invisible or twice my normal size?”). You get the idea.
The sad truth is that much of the time parenting FEELS like a giant board game–being strategic, following the rules, trying to stay ahead, competing instead of collaborating, being at the mercy of events you can’t control, and being stuck in a system that is overarchingly linear in a way that ain’t working in your favor.
I recently heard a very interesting story about the invention of the game Monopoly. According to Parker Brothers, it was invented by Charles Darrow in 1935, a down-on-his-luck salesman who had the idea for the game in his basement, created a mock-up of it, complete with the tiny hotels, and presented it to Parker Brothers, who immediately bought it and went on to market “the most played board game of all time.” It turns out that this “lone inventor” story isn’t true.
Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, reports that the idea for what became Monopoly was conceived of in 1904 by a Quaker named Lizzie Magie who supported a theory that the renting of land and real estate produced an unearned increase in land values that profited a few individuals (landlords) rather than the majority of the people (tenants). The supporters of this movement proposed a single federal tax based on land ownership, believing a single tax would discourage speculation and encourage equal opportunity. Lizzie Magie created the original Monopoly (called “The Landlord’s Game”) in order to illustrate this theory.
Quakers then created their own versions of the game to play together in the evenings, using the street names of their own cities, and, in the beginning, ordinary household items such as buttons and thimbles as tokens. The game grew and spread, and by the time Darrow encountered it in 1935, it already had a national following. The “real” Monopoly was actually a collaborative effort developed over a 30-year time period. It started out as an experiment, a way to test a theory, a what if question, and ended up as a board game. Like parenting. Like your life.
The obvious problem, of course, is that you can’t win at these particular games. No strategic reward will ever feel like enough, and no strategic approach will ever satisfy or protect you. I think the only real rewards lie in imagination, and this isn’t a lesson, it’s more of a hopeful observation.
I drive down the same east-west street in the small city where I live at least four times a day–drop the child off at daycare, drive to work, pick the child up from daycare, drive home. It is one long straight line, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes I am so bored that it feels as though my mind has become that road–entirely linear with no possibility of diversion. New construction is an inconvenience, going another way is just a waste of time.
Other than my children, poetry is the best way I know of to access imagination. It invites you into another world, another language, and there is no part of human experience that poetry does not touch. Today’s poem is by Emily Dickinson, and is one of my all-time favorites:
I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–
Of Visitors–the fairest–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–
Dwelling in possibility rather than prose is the willingness to abandon straight lines and the desire to get from the beginning to the end with no poetic diversions. There are more doors and windows here to invite and frighten you with their possibilities, there are trees for rooms, the sky for a roof, and all you have to do is reach out your hands to gather it in.
We’ve all been there, at some point or another. We’ve all experienced it. And we all need to remember to go back, whenever, however we can.