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Up Close and Personal

See Wikipedia for image details.

See Wikipedia for image details.

Damn you, Michael Apted, for your Seven Up series, the documentary equivalent of the proverbial book that simply can’t be put down until it’s finished. And curse you, Netflix, for being his enabler in this little exercise. I missed a lot of sleep last week.

I was rapt! Seven Up starts in1964 by interviewing 14 or so seven year olds about their lives, their opinions, and their thoughts regarding how they see themselves moving into the future. Then they follow up by re-filming / re-interviewing these same individuals — often asking them exactly the same questions — every seven years until, one presumes, they’re no longer available to be interviewed. The children, quite deliberately for the purposes of the documentary, were drawn from all walks of life: from working-class east-end London, to exclusive public (i.e. private) preparatory schools, to state foster homes, to the Yorkshire dales and the middle-class suburbs of Liverpool.

1964 Britain in black and white, to my untrained eye, doesn’t feel all that different from 1944 (i.e. wartime) Britain, which makes this first instalment (the only one not shot in colour) — and me, who was born only a couple of years later — feel really old. Like it-all-began-in-the-mists-of-history old. Still, the “cast” are like typical seven year olds everywhere. With missing or overlarge front teeth which haven’t quite settled down in their mouths yet, full of nervous energy — though a few are quieter and seem to have a innate sadness about them we can’t help but think will continue to evolve in the many films to come — vying to be heard over each other when interviewed in groups and generally saying whatever comes into their minds with little or no internal filter.

They’re fascinating to listen to and the producers even bring them all together for a day to “rub shoulders” in London where they get to visit the zoo, dance and share refreshments at an indoor party, and burn off some energy at an “adventure playground” (which bears a striking resemblance to a bombed out city lot which has simply yet to have been re-built). As this inaugural film closes, with the children swinging and climbing and playing in the rubble, we are told that we are glimpsing the future of Britain at the turn if the millennium. “Give me a child until he is seven,” the voice over intones, “and I will give you the man.” And in many ways, as the series bears out, this may not be far from the truth.

Indeed, throughout Seven Up we quickly get a clear sense of the foundation the director is trying build with this first offering. We watch, for example, as the three prep school boys inform us what newspapers they enjoy reading and then rhyme off all the remaining private schools it’s anticipated they will be attending prior to moving on to “Oxbridge” for their degrees. The scene then cuts from there to one of the in-care boys looking confusedly into the camera. “What’s university,” he asks, and though such an overt transition feels a little heavy handed, the crux of this experiment is now made manifest: How likely are any of us to ever escape the gravitational reality of the lives into which, quite by chance, we are born?

I first heard about this series last autumn when I caught a short snippet of an interview with Michael Apted about his most recent chapter, 56 Up, on NPR. I was fascinated by the existence of such a “longitudinal study,” as they call it, but I couldn’t help thinking about how the study itself might (must?) actually influence the trajectory of the very lives it was purporting to examine. How must it feel to know that every seven years there was going to be someone in your living room taking stock of how far you’ve come — or not — since the last episode? My mind boggled. The psychological ramifications of being in such a position, in terms of how you ended up living your life, were staggering. An ever-recurring Truman Show, but one where you actually knew people were watching you. Would you be constantly justifying yourself if things didn’t turned out as you had anticipated seven or 14 or 21 years ago? Would you end up working extra hard in your life — harder than you might have otherwise — simply because you felt you had to be successful because “others” were watching? The resultant behaviourally-generated combinations and permutations were endless.

And certainly, as the seven year olds grew further into adulthood, we saw intimations of this reflexive awareness coming through in the interviews. The fact that they knew their lives were being subtly — or maybe not so subtly — influenced by this seven-year cycle. Most couldn’t help but feel it as an intrusion, a time when they had to re-live old pains and issues in a way that the rest of us are lucky enough to be able to sweep it under the rug and forget about if we so desire. One of the participants refers to the whole exercise as a “poison pill” at one point, while another says he feels he actually might have tried harder in his life had he not been on the show because he was always afraid to take risks in case he failed at the things he wanted to try and was thus left with this failure exposed to the viewing public every time he had to go back on camera. Still, nearly all of the original participants have stuck with it for more than 50 years  — and we should be hugely grateful for their sacrifice because this is a show that can help to teach us about understanding the trajectories of our own lives in amazing ways.

Like most “writer types” I’m probably far too introspective for my own good. I’m all about the narrative. And the most important narrative for anybody is, of course, their own life. That’s the story that really matters to us, The Most Amazing Show on Earth! But most of our sense of personal narrative seems based on post-rationalizations of one sort or another. Ultimately, our lives only make sense in retrospect (i.e. looking back over our shoulders), and we often draw causal-type associations — that may or may not actually be valid — to demonstrate that things have obviously unfolded in the only way they possibly ever could have given our circumstances.  What a rich voyeuristic opportunity it is, then, to sit in safety and watch others struggle to uncover these same relationships for themselves every seven years. It certainly appears that we’re all — rich or poor, young or old, black, brown or white — just trying to make sense of this whole “life thing”, from moment to moment, year to year, as we move through it. And to finally, as E.M. Forester has suggested, “Only connect.”

This is true “Realty TV”. Give it a watch. And let me know what you think.

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Rules of Engagement: As in Minor Hockey, So too in Life

IMG_0340 - Version 3 Spoiler Alert: You don’t have to be a hockey fan — or a sports fan of any kind — to “get” this blog. So read on. Really!

With the impending award of Lord Stanley’s Cup sometime in the next several weeks — though not, unfortunately, to the Pittsburgh Penguins who we cheer for here at The Gooseyard, and who, ignominiously, lost their fourth semi-final game in a row to Boston last week — it appears I had better get this blog uploaded before the 2012-13 hockey season — or at least the NHL season — expires for good.

Once, long ago, in the dark recesses of history (i.e. the mid-1970s), I played minor hockey. At that time I lived in a small town in northern Ontario, and, if you were a boy, you played hockey. I played for two years at the “Atom” level. I don’t remember being a particularly adept or inspired player, but the experience remains, nonetheless, one of the cornerstones of my young life.

The town where I lived was so small it generated, by necessity, a fairly “inclusive” and democratic minor hockey program. If you wanted to play hockey, you played. Exceptional skill was essentially irrelevant as there were only enough boys for a single team at any of the age levels. We — my fellow Atoms and I, that is — had no idea that other places in the world had so many players to choose from that they were able to create things like Double “A” or Triple “A” teams to denote different levels of achievement within the same age groups.

We practiced twice a week, and a couple of times of year we would make the trek to somewhere other than our own community — always to a larger town or city — where, if I remember rightly, we usually got trounced. But, ohh, the adventure of traveling to what was always — for us at least — an exotic locale and a strange new rink where we’d play against different teams we had never met before or even knew existed! It seemed everywhere we went kids were playing hockey.

I never played hockey again after my family left Ontario, and really never gave it much thought after that. Though, like most Canadian men, I’ll try to check out Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday if one my favorite “franchises” happens to be playing, or watch the Canadian teams play in the Olympics or the Worlds — especially against the Russians or Americans.

For the past five years, however, watching my son, now 13, play hockey in a province-wide league with a abundance of teams at all skill levels (“A” through “AAA,” and beyond), I find myself thinking, more and more, how the seemingly simple experience of playing hockey ultimately shapes our children’s — hold your noses, I’m about to go all LBJ on you here — hearts and minds. That is, how it builds — in less poetic, less foreign policy-esque terms — what we might traditionally understand as “character.”

When you spend five years sitting in the stands watching young boys grow and develop — and, in some unfortunate cases, come apart at the seams — you can really see the whole tableau unfold as sort of a microcosm for life. They’re all there: the natural sportsmen, the bully-boys, the team-players, the egoists, the “grinders”, the bewildered, the ineffectual, the leaders, the followers.

Watching them at 10-years old, I felt as if I could imagine those same boys, those same characters, playing out their lives 25 years later in a boardroom, or on a construction site, as scientists or teachers, or salesmen or pharmacists. Using the same inherent abilities and strategies and defenses that they had developed long-ago on the ice, but simply applying them in a different milieu.

Strangely, I began to realize, the reverse is also true. As adults, there appear to be any number of “home truths” that we can extrapolate, and potentially apply to our own lives, simply by seeking to understand the rhythms of our children’s minor league sports involvement. Whether you’re a writer or an accountant or a stay at home parent, the same elements always seem to remain consistent.

 

#1. You gotta show up. Sounds simple. You have to put in the time and be committed to what you’re doing in order to create a strong enough foundation upon which to build something. But the key to showing up is to really strive for some sort of intellectual “presentness.”  No sense physically being there if your mind’s elsewhere. As the poker players would say, you gotta be “all in.”

 

#2. Play with heart. If your heart’s not in it, you’re just going through the motions. You may not always win, but at least, if you play with heart, you’ll always open up more opportunities to potentially win than if you’re just putting in the time.

 

#3. Don’t wait for the play to come to you. Every now and then you’re in exactly the right place at the right time. The puck lands magically on your stick and you’re away. But if your entire game consists of constantly waiting for that perfect play to come to you, chances are you’re going to spend most of your game being perpetually disappointed. Your job is actually to “force the plays,” to create opportunities where none previously existed. Can’t make a play? Shoot the puck into the corner and charge in after it! Something’s bound to happen.

 

#4. The biggest celebrations can often erupt for the weakest players. This is a variation of “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.” There’s nothing more heartwarming than seeing the parents and kids on the team cheering madly when someone who seldom, if ever, gets a goal, actually scores. This is especially true when folks know that the player in question has been spending his time actively working towards trying to get a goal rather than simply bemoaning the fact he never seems to get one.

 

#5. If you’re not sweating, you’re not working hard enough. This, I suppose, is self-explanatory. Effort — significant effort — must be exerted in order to achieve goals. You can’t simply think your way through to success: you actually have to begin to act at some point. And the larger the prize, the more you gotta sweat.

 

#6. It’s easy to be omniscient from high in the stands. But guess what — you don’t play hockey in the stands. You play it down on the ice, trying to take it all in through the wired-visor of your helmet, with sweat in your eyes (see Item #5, above!) and players pushing past you in all directions. You’re going to miss plays and make mistakes because you don’t have a bird’s eye view of everything going on around you. What you have to do though — all you’ll ever be able to do — is make the most out of the limited data available to you at any particular time, act upon it, and move on.

 

#7. You gotta earn your ice-time. This one I remind my son about before nearly every game. In agricultural parlance, you reap what you sow. The more often you demonstrate you’re ready to go out there and make it happen, the more ice time you’ll find yourself being awarded to actually make it happen.

 

#8. If we are so worried about violence erupting in the post-game handshake line-up that we have to re-brand this demonstration of sportsmanship as a pre-game ritual instead, we have screwed up minor league sports — and our kids opportunity to live in a truly just and civil society — so irreversibly that we should simply hang our heads in shame and leave the rinks and the sports fields altogether.

 

The last item, as you might be able to discern, I feel somewhat strongly about.

In the association in which my son plays, along with many other associations, there’s been some serious talk recently about moving the post-game handshake to a pre-game time slot instead. That way if a player(s) is overheated about something that happened in the game, he won’t have the opportunity to throw a retaliatory punch during the post-game line-up.

See anything problematic with this approach? I hope so. Quite simply, it does nothing more than reward bad behaviour. Rather than having to address an unacceptable act of violence in the first place, all reverting to a pre-game handshake serves to do is remove a potential psychological trigger mechanism. This approach may prevent a punch from being thrown after the game is over, but nobody has actually learned anything. Really appreciating what it is to play sports — and to “play” at life — involves giving individuals full access to a wide-range of compelling triggers, along with the training, support and confidence to understand how, and why, not to pull them.

Ultimately, I’d suggest, what we need to be doing is focusing on raising better kids — better citizens — rather than abnegating our responsibility on issues like this by simply altering the game’s parameters to accommodate those youngsters who play sports without a proper respect and appreciation for the lesson that should lie at the very heart of such activities in the first place — sportsmanship.