I HAVE A DAYDREAM
By "John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL"
Read his various other ravings here, and at http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html
Last week, I completed... I hope I completed, please, God, let me have completed... what turned out to be a three part article, arguing the seemingly very simple and obvious concept that superhero comic books... you know, the ones with the guys in spandex beating each other up in them for the sake of Good and Right... were a subgenre created and maintained pretty much for an audience of kids. In the course of that argument, I irritated several people, and, if the article continues to be out there and comics fans continue to read it, it will irritate several others.
The reason for this is simple: the vast majority of adults in our society, even adults who still have enough of an inner child surviving within their souls to allow them to read and enjoy superhero comics, still instinctively regard the assertion that something they love is 'childish' as a deep and mortal insult.
This touches on something that I've been aware of, and annoyed by, for quite some time: namely, the fact that our culture, and, for that matter, nearly all cultures, contains a strange psychological dichotomy whereby adults and children rarely associate with each other, and even more strangely, where many of the activities pursued by either group are forbidden, always by tradition, and often by actual law, to each other. And, perhaps even more bizarrely, one of the most flattering compliments you can give a child or teenager is to tell them how 'adult' they are, while, at the same time, as noted above, nearly any adult will bristle with outrage at the merest implication that they, or any aspect of their behavior, or anything they like and enjoy, is 'childish'.
We are, apparently, a culture which despises childhood, so much so that our children themselves despise that status, and long for adulthood themselves, almost from the age they are old enough to really accept that one day they will, actually, really and truly, be grown ups.
That children and adults do not mix socially, regardless of whether the social activity in question is one that any person of any range might enjoy, is simply one of those strange, all pervasive tribal customs that the average person seems to accept without question, without, in fact, any real conscious awareness. Kids are allowed to do certain things, adults are not. Adults are equally allowed to do certain things, kids are not. And even when adults and kids are both allowed to do the same things, they almost never do them at the same time and in the same place.
Our culture segregates children and adults, except in two contexts: family, and education. Only within these two contexts are children and adults allowed to mingle. This would almost make sense, or at least, be somewhat understandable, if it seemed to evolve out of a consistent set of mutually exclusive activities. No less a source than Jehovah Himself, or at least, The Bible, exhorts us to 'put away childish things' when we become adults, and while I have little but contempt, personally, for most of the antiquated, pre-medieval, often psychotic, and always badly translated nonsense attributed to that peculiar, sociopathically jealous pre-Roman deity as detailed in the Bible, many regard these clumsy, clunkily translated divine ravings as, if not infallible religious doctrine (although many do that, too) then, at least, as being full of good, practical advice on how humanity should interact, one with another.
More, the Old and New Testament are in so many ways fundamental keystones to so much of the civic, social, and legal philosophy of Western culture as to be all but impossible to root out. If we did, indeed, do that... if, in fact, adults simply stopped doing all the activities they had enjoyed doing as children, in order to take up with great enthusiasm those activities our culture zealously tries to reserve entirely for grown ups, like smoking, drinking, and screwing other people's spouses... then this would almost make sense. Well, no, it wouldn't make sense, but it would, at least, be understandable, and would have a coherent pattern easily discerned by anyone who cared to look: namely, if kids do it, adults don't, and vice versa. However, as we'll see, it is not that simple.
It would also make sense if the differences in activities could be seen to simply be a matter of relative risk. If socially acceptable juvenile activities were all considerably less hazardous, or at least, risky, than socially acceptable adult behavior, well, that would make sense, too. In point of fact, however, this also isn't entirely true, and probably the most common example of this is skateboarding. Kids on skateboards do not have to avoid the notice or supervision of adults, even adult authority figures like cops, as long as they restrict their activities to appropriate places, and yet, skateboarding has to be one of the most insanely dangerous activities anyone could ever attempt. So it's not simply a question of adults reserving all the really dangerous stuff for themselves to protect children, although there is an element of that in many of the activities that adults pursue, and prohibit to kids.
To another extent, this changeover in leisure activities could also make sense if the differences in recreational uses could be traced to simple differences in metabolism and natural, healthy physical and mental development (adults tend to be stronger and larger than kids, and more emotionally mature, and to have more general knowledge, and have more complex intellects, which could make many social activities, from the athletic to board games, a rather uneven match in terms of both performance and level of interest). Unfortunately, the difference in acceptable activities between adults and children, or, more tellingly, the commonalities between the two different sorts of activities, actually seems to have very little to do with this.
For example, nearly every organized athletic sport that children play and enjoy, adults also, to some extent or another, play and enjoy, and in fact, there are large groups of adults who play some of the most brutal and punishing children's sports in existence, as their profession. And while money always has its own adamant logic to it, there remains a rather inherent foolishness in the whole professional sports concept, in which millions of adults pay extravagant sums to watch other adults run around doing things that the spectators themselves cannot do, but wish they could... even though these things are nothing more than stylized, specialized stuntwork utterly useless for any pragmatic application outside the ritualized arenas in which they have been developed to excel.
Furthermore, professional athletics chews up and spits out a significant proportion of all their active participants (eventually, that percentage reaches unity) at a relatively early age, generally leaving its obsolete one-time stars to hobble on into the last 60 years or so of their lives with permanent, debilitating injuries to various soft tissues of their bodies... and that life span is often significantly truncated by the abuse of various stimulants and chemicals during the athletic career, as well.
In other words, what kids do for pleasure and fun, adults do for money and social status, often reaping only short term benefits for at the expense of long term penalties. Hmmm. There's something in that that we may come back to... or we may not.
However, for now, we're getting ahead of our thesis, which is that, basically, what kids do for fun, adults don't, and what adults do for fun, kids aren't allowed to (and often try to, for that very reason). And that's a pretty strong statement, so let's take a closer look at it.
One of the reasons I first became aware of this social abyss between adults and children is that I'm not a typical adult in many ways. Namely, most of the leisure and hobby activities I pursue are of a sort and a nature that tend to be looked down on by the vast majority of other, more conventional, adults.
And I'm unusual in another regard as well, in that, even among my fellow hobbyists, I tend to have the sort of mind that, upon perceiving something I don't understand, I try to figure it out. One example of this has been my ongoing attempt to analyze exactly why nearly everything I did for pleasure was regarded with such... well... at best, doubtfulness, and at worst, open contempt and disapproval, by the vast majority of other adults... so much so that I never, ever, discuss my hobbies in any detail or by any 'conventional' nomenclature or phraseology at any job or when talking to any strangers, any more... the sudden contempt, and sometimes even, hostility, I receive when I do is such a universal response that I've simply learned to avoid the subject.
Being someone who reads science fiction and fantasy, collects comic books, and plays fantasy roleplaying games, at the age of 39, is not quite as bad as openly admitting one collects kiddie porn, but the primary difference in terms of general social acceptance is, I cannot be arrested for my hobbies. (Yet.) In terms of impressing chicks, making friends, promoting amity in the workplace, or convincing a temporary boss to hire one permanently, though, the results are very nearly the same, at least to the extent that an adult nerd such as myself tends to lead as covert a life in the workplace as the average sexual predator does everywhere.
Most of my fellow geeks simply accept this social ostracism, and learn, as I did, not to discuss their interests with anyone but someone known to be a spiritual sibling, and to even try hard not to talk about such stuff where non-geeks can overhear one in the workplace.
(Lest any non geeks reading this think I am exaggerating, let me tell you that I can recall quite clearly a time when I lost a temporary assignment because, as I later found out, a supervisor overheard me speaking with a fellow geek in the break room about roleplaying games, and decided I was a Satanist. The scariest thing there is not, to me, the notion that someone would leap to the insane conclusion that because I was talking about RPG stuff, I must worship the Devil, but the fact that they would then assume that because I worship the Devil - which I don't, but that's only because I understand the worship services are held very late at night and I need my sleep - they are therefore entitled to remove my livelihood from me. Scariest of all is the fact that doubtless most if not all of my hypothetical audience would immediately leap to the same conclusion... not necessarily 'roleplayer = Satanist', but admit it, right now, your instinctive emotional response is 'Satanist = someone who should be fire if not jailed or just burned at the stake'. Ah, how far we've come... )
I, however, wondered why this was true. Why did nearly every 'normal' adult, or 'mundane', as a delightful girl I once met at the first SF convention I ever attended called them, regard me with derision, if not outright scorn, the minute they discovered my hobbies? The key word seemed to be 'childish', although it's worth noting that in fact, even among kids, the social activities I enjoy most are mostly enjoyed by social outcasts.
Among adults, to be discovered as nothing worse than someone who reads and enjoys science fiction or fantasy is to be immediately dismissed from all further serious consideration by all and sundry, relegated to stereotype status as a 'nerd' or a 'geek'. To compound that sin by being caught reading comic books in the break room is to invite open ridicule, not just scornful whispers behind hands and in cubicles as you walk by. And to let it be generally known that you play fantasy roleplaying games... at YOUR age... you know, those things with the funny shaped dice where your wizard or warrior swings swords at dragons...?
At this point, one passes almost mercifully beyond the pale into the status of near-untouchable, the sort of social pariah that people will work with and generally try to maintain a professional attitude towards, but that new hires will be hastily taken aside and warned about associating with, because "he's one of those Dungeons & Dragons freaks". At this point, you become someone who will always sit alone in the break room or the cafeteria, who will never be included in casual conversation, and will never be approached in a remotely friendly fashion again, unless someone needs something fixed on their computer, or wants the cheat codes for DOOM.
It's, really, a truly astonishing level of dismissal and relatively open contempt for one to suddenly find oneself immersed in, simply because of what one chooses to do with one's spare time, especially given that the people who are heaping such scorn and on you are, themselves, folks who's idea of a really really good time is to go out and hit a little white ball with an assortment of very expensive, oddly shaped, wood and metal sticks, or, alternatively, to drink a lot of beer while watching grown men drive their cars into walls on television.
(I should note that this passage was written before Dale Earnhardt's tragic death at the Daytona 500. I should note that, as it will keep NASCAR fans in the audience from tracking me down and beating me to death with oversized tires, chrome bumpers, and rolled up posters of Jeff Gordon. However, it is not true; Dale Earnhardt died three days ago, as I write this, and I don't care; he was in the business of driving cars at unsafe speeds in the midst of large crowds of other deranged men doing the same thing, got paid a lot of money for such idiocy, and apparently, knew damned well he should have been wearing a specific form of safety harness that he chose not to bother with. I shall save my grief for the next man or woman who dies of starvation or exposure in rags and filth and utter obscurity somewhere on the streets of the greatest, wealthiest nation in the history of humanity, the next person who gets beaten to death or into permanent disability by an angry mob of cops or xenophobes, the next random victim of a random bombing, the next 8 year old child who comes home from school and gets sodomized by their drunken mother's drunken boyfriend, the next woman who gets raped, reports it, and discovers that apparently she was asking for it because of the way she was dressed or where she was or the hour she was there, or... well... the list of people involved in tragedies I will grieve for is unfortunately the next thing to endless, but wealthy men who die in the midst of a completely unnecessary and futile act they made even more dangerous through their own obstinate refusal to use clearly necessary safety devices... they aren't on it.)
And so, truly startled at the vehemence of the bias that I, the adult geek, had encountered, and wondering at exactly the reason for such, I started looking around, and making lists, and trying to figure it out. And, eventually, I came up with something that seems to be a common element in everything that I do for pleasure that most adults despise, a characteristic that nearly all children have and most adults do not, that is a common element in nearly all children's recreational activities that that adults regard as 'childish', and that you will not find in any list of socially acceptable 'adult' activities, or, at the very list, in any list of activities that a majority of adults would be inclined to participate in.
I could tell you what that is, right now, but you'd just snort and reject it out of hand. The one word... well, maybe the two word phrase... that I'm eventually going to use to show exactly what it is that all kids have in significant amounts, that most adults no longer have at all, and that is a common element to everything I enjoy doing on my free time, and that plays only a vestigial role, or no role at all, in every single socially acceptable adult activity I can think of... well, those two words describe a quality that is supposedly highly venerated in our society. Like intelligence, like being a good judge of character, like having a sense of humor, this particular quality is something that everyone would unhesitatingly call a positive characteristic, and more, that nearly everyone would claim with an equal lack of hesitation that they, themselves, possess, and that they, themselves, would be deeply insulted to be told that they lack.
And, like intelligence, and character judgement, and a sense of humor, it's also something that, while nominally valued by our culture, is, in fact, despised by nearly everyone. If you're a politician, you can't go wrong giving a speech in which you imply or actually come out and state that anyone who votes for you is clearly smarter than anyone who doesn't.
Being smart is always a compliment in our culture, being stupid, a gross and often provocative insult. And yet, we live in a culture in which characters like Forrest Gump are national heroes, our current and previous President are both pretty much perceived as amiable buffoons, and a fictional character described by his creator as having an intelligence not measurable by human standards is the scariest villain ever produced by a Hollywood culture that specializes in the creation of pretty scary villains and monsters.
Furthermore, ask any attractive woman you happen to see about tips to attract men; if she's honest, one of the first things she'll say is 'never act too smart, because guys don't like smart women'. Revere intelligence? As a culture, we despise intelligence, we loathe and hate it; it frightens us and makes us feel inadequate.
Similarly, we all think we're good judges of character, and we all think we have good senses of humor, and nearly invariably, when the average person runs into someone who actually DOES possess either of these qualities, they feel threatened, they're made uncomfortable, and they dislike them.
After a brief spate of 'weird' comedy back in the 60s and 70s, America has reverted to a point where all our major comedians now specialize in crude slapstick or hostile, cruel, often racially motivated attack 'humor'... something that has only changed in degree and detail since, oh, the 50s, when guys dressing up like women, flatulence jokes, and 'humor' which extols the stereotypical features of one particular subsection of humanity, was the most popular thing on the then quite new TV tube.
And as for being 'good judges of character'... well, again, if we were good judges of character, it seems unlikely we'd drop a ballot for ANY of the people who currently hold elective office, and certainly Ralph Nader would have gotten more than a lousy 2% of the national vote. Furthermore, I personally doubt that many Americans would want to actually spend much time with someone who truly was a 'good judge of character', because most of us would fail so utterly in the eyes of anyone who could actually discern us through the various facades and charades we hide ourselves behind every day, that we'd never want to have to face that person again once we realized they saw us as we actually are.
Or so it would be generally assumed, although it's to be hoped that anyone wise and perceptive enough to actually be a good judge of character might be enlightened enough to also be less judgmental than in the norm in our society, as well.
Perhaps some of that is slightly exaggerated, but still... in my experience, not much. And that crucial element I'm talking about... that thing that, once more, most kids have, and most adults don't, and that our culture generally believes it reveres and thinks of as a positive thing... well, it's just like the other qualities I've spoken of. And I'll demonstrate that, or try to.
The cultural abyss between the states of childhood and adulthood is not simply one of acceptable leisure activity. For the most part, utter social segregation is expected and subtly enforced between kids and adults, too... and has been, for long before our particularly paranoid culture took up the specific 90s and early 21st Century obsession with 'pedophilia' that is currently deforming so much of our mass media. Nowadays, no adult in their right mind would ever spend any time alone with any child not their own, for any reason, since all it takes is the merest whisper of the accusation of an unnatural sexual attraction to children to ruin someone utterly and forever in a particular community, and, as I have already said (and I'm sure any readers are aware) our culture is currently so obsessed with the idea of pedophilia that it's the first thing the average person would think of if they discovered that a man or woman with no actual family obligations to a kid was spending a few hours a day with that kid in a private home.
However, even before this rather sick and obsessive cultural inclination to assume rampant, sexual abuse between adults and children at the slightest opportunity (and then slaver like dogs after every salacious detail, our TV viewing and newspaper purchasing habits covertly demanding more and more of such subject matter while our speech and public behavior overtly decries such disgusting occurrences and the media that sensationalizes them) adults still simply didn't associate with kids by choice unless they were either (a) parents, hanging around with their own kids, or (b) some sort of child care professional, like a teacher, or a youth counselor, or a coach, or a nanny, or something like that.
If you were grown up, unmarried, and had no kids of your own, and yet you went down to the local park every Saturday to play frisbee or touch football with an informal group of teenage boys... well, people would have thought you were weird. I'm talking, now, about a more innocent age, when that's ALL people would have thought you were, not today, or any time in the last ten years, when some parent or Neighborhood Watch type would call the cops the second or third time you showed up to hang out with the boys. Even prior to the onset of the present day witch hunt atmosphere, any adult who hung around with a kid not his own, who wasn't getting paid for it, would have been thought a little strange.
All of which just goes to prove that in our culture, again, we seem to have embraced, deep down, this concept that adults and children live in very different worlds, and that's the way it's supposed to be, and anyone attempting to live in both, even occasionally, and harmlessly, and for even utterly benign reasons, is someone we might need to take a dubious second look at.
And it's always been like this, not simply in the modern day, when someone could, and inevitably will, make the argument that with all the damn perverts out there, being instantly suspicious of anyone who seems to 'like kids' too much (meaning, at all, if they aren't either his own kids, or kids he is being paid to care about) is a completely rational and valid tool in the necessary protection of our children from evil. We did not always fear that anyone sitting on a park bench enjoying the sight of little kids on the swingset was a vile, disgusting animal who should be killed, and yet, we have always, apparently, regarded any adult who enjoys the company of children as rather weird.
I'm not really analyzing anything yet, just stating, I looked around, and this seemed to be so. Adults can spend time with kids if they're related to them, or if they're getting paid to do it. Other than that, forget about it; an adult who voluntarily spends time with children and seems to enjoy it, for no reason except that obvious enjoyment, has always been considered weird, and these days, would most likely get hauled in, fingerprinted, and checked for a criminal record... and, if released, would be told in no uncertain terms that he'd better stay away from kids from now on, by God, and he might want to get the hell out of the neighborhood, too.
(Just for the record, so the FBI doesn't come around and start surveilling me, I don't like kids much myself and don't voluntarily hang around with even my nephews, much less brats I don't know.)
So, first we seem to have a cultural tendency to discourage socialization between adults and children. Continuing to look at our culture's attitudes towards adults and kids, we... or I, rather... start to notice something else... something I've already touched on at some length... namely, that not only do adults and kids not mingle very much... at all, really, except in family or educational contexts... but as a general rule, they do not seem to enjoy it, or ever get together just to have fun except in a family context. As an overwhelming general rule, if adults are going to hang around with kids, it's almost always to teach the kids something.
Still, there are things that kids do and that adults continue to do, for pleasure, that are socially acceptable for both groups. Which seems to somewhat contradict and disprove the thesis I was tentatively forming, about the mutual exclusion and even alienation of each group to the other. In other words, adults do not always 'set aside childish things'... just some of them.
Let's take a look at some basic lists of socially acceptable activities for adults, and then, for kids, and see where we are:
Going to movies
Listening to music
Driving (perhaps we should call this a sport)
Hobby activities - collecting, building things, carpentry,
Remodeling, reading, more creative hobbies like playing music, singing, painting, drawing, writing
Going to movies
Listening to music
Hobby activities - collecting, building things, carpentry,
Painting, sculpting, designing, drawing
Gaming - board games, roleplaying games
Daydreaming, talking to imaginary friends
Now, obviously, there are 'kids' who drink, smoke, and have sex, but as a general rule (I hope) these are all older kids, in their teens, who have matured faster, or want people to think so, and are therefore deliberately trying to act 'adult' by the definition of their culture. One can even make an argument that, at least from an evolutionary and biological standpoint, if not a cultural or emotional one, any individual whose physical body is capable of reproduction is an 'adult', therefore, if a kid is having sex that could result in reproductive consequences, they are no longer actually a child. So, those activities are not really 'kid' activities. However, what's more interesting is to look at the 'kid' activities that adults NEVER do, or, if they do, they do them in far fewer percentages than kids do, and for those, we look to the bottom part of the list:
Reading - a big hobby for me. Most adults don't read any more for pleasure (or, the number of adults I see reading during the bus ride home are always a small fraction of those on the bus, anyway) and the books that the small fraction of the adult population that do read for pleasure actually enjoy reading are either non-fiction or, well, drivel. Most of it set in real world settings, either current or historical. Those adults who still read and enjoy speculative fiction and intelligently conceived fantasy, like me, are a vanishingly small percentage of an already minority group.
Painting, sculpting, designing, drawing - the percentages here are pretty much reversed from kids to adults. Most kids do one or the other, or several, of these sorts of things. Few adults do, and many of the adults that do get paid for it, in some way or another. Mind you, I'm not necessarily talking about talent, here. Kids who actually have a talent for any of these things tend to continue doing it as an adult, since with a talent usually comes a strong desire/compulsion to put that talent to use. However, kids, even without talent, tend to pursue many of these areas. Adults, in general, don't.
Gaming - adults do play games, but they're pretty boring games compared to what most kids play... word games, generally, or trivia games, often made 'interesting', to adult sensibilities, by being centered around titillating subject matter. Kids also play boring games... there is really nothing more boring than that stupid game with the dice popper in the middle of it, and many other kid's board games are equally stultifying... but it might be noted here that all kid's board games are commercial products designed by adults. The games that kids create themselves, among themselves, tend to be utterly incomprehensible, and utterly boring, to adults. As do roleplaying games (and I myself will admit that the roleplaying experience is an entirely participatory one; unlike many adult activities, which one can get almost equal enjoyment from watching as from interacting with, a roleplaying game is truly boring to an onlooker).
Daydreaming - adults may daydream, although few seem to, and fewer still would admit to it... and that last is key. Daydreaming is something almost shameful for an adults; it's 'useless' and 'a waste of time' and by the time one has reached adulthood, one has usually been scolded many times in one's teens for doing it. Kids, on the other hand, daydream all the time, often extremely elaborately, and they aren't shy about sharing their daydreams with other kids, or any adult who will listen, although most won't.
When adults do have daydreams, they tend to be along rather conventional lines... 'what if I win the Lotto', 'what if that cute person I work with wants to ball me', 'what if I get a raise', etc. Kids, on the other hand, daydream about a land where animals can talk, where they can fly, where magic works, where they have super powers, etc. This works in the reverse, as well... hypothetical things to dread and fear, for adults, are rather prosaic... their marriage breaking up, losing their job, how others will perceive them if they can't buy nice clothes, whether that annoying sound the car is making is really going to turn into a problem, that sort of thing. Kids, on the other hand, worry about vampires hiding in their closets.
As to the imaginary friends thing... well, a lot of younger kids have imaginary friends. Other kids understand it and even approve of it, and adults tolerate it. However, any adult who ever admitted to having an invisible buddy, much less was caught actually talking to him or her, would be not only in danger of losing his wife and his job, he might find himself committed for observation, too.
Most likely people are seeing where I'm going with this by now, but before I actually get there and say the 'I' word, let me go over a bit more of my chain of reasoning.
First... well, maybe I'm being a little bit Byzantine, here. Yes, I've established that many adult activities are things kids don't do, or aren't supposed to, and I've also established that there are some kid activities that adults don't enjoy, or, aren't supposed to, anyway. So, mightn't that be the explanation for why kids and adults don't generally socialize? They're interested in different things, they enjoy doing different things, and therefore, they do different things, given the free choice?
Well, sure. But that doesn't explain why adults and kids rarely... never, other than in a family or educational context... do the same activities that both groups enjoy together, like sports. Adults may like to play softball or basketball, but they don't do it with kids, nor do kids, generally, want adults playing in their own games. Furthermore, a kid who wanted to play with the grown ups would be considered nearly as strange as an adult who wanted to play with the kids.
There's a social taboo there that goes beyond a common interest in sports, or even certain sports. And while there would seem to be pragmatic reasons why adults and kids don't mix in most athletic games, such as the fact that the two different groups tend to play at different levels of skill, speed, and strength, this also doesn't always make a lot of sense. There's no reason why, for example, kids can't play touch football with grown ups. Or tennis. Or golf. And yet, kids almost never do do these things with grown ups, on an organized basis, even with supervision. It's just something that isn't done.
Now, as to why we have this taboo... this cultural barrier that keeps us from forming mixed age golf tournaments, or mixed age tennis matches, or mixed age touch football games, or mixed age softball leagues... honestly, I don't know. It may be that kids and adults, due to the various differences in power and authority and status our culture conveys, simply cannot, routinely, set aside all that stuff and have fun together. In fact, sure, that's probably got a great deal to do with it. Kids and adults, generally, can't speak freely in front of each other due to mutual illusions about the other group's relative innocence or ignorance. An adult who plays a sport against kids is subject to ridicule if he wins, and worse ridicule if he loses. All this may have a great deal to do with why adults and kids generally don't mix on a social level.
Still, none of it explains why certain things that kids do, and enjoy, adults simply, for the most part, won't do, or if they do do it, they won't admit to it, or if they do admit to it, they generally get ridiculed for it by other adults.
Now, let's look again at all the stuff I, personally, do for fun, that I've gotten various negative reactions from the majority of average adults over, said reactions ranging from mild doubtfulness to, on occasion, outright derision, and even to occasional vehement hostility.
I read. Not just bestsellers or techno thrillers or mysteries or other stuff set in the 'real world' (including historical settings, anything from TV, and novelizations of popular movies), but weird stuff, like science fiction and fantasy, that has pictures on the cover of peoples with ray guns or swords, and yet, isn't based on anything validated by previous appearances on TV or in the movies.
I collect and to the small extent that I do, continue to enjoy, comic books.
I write and draw. These things are not, in and of themselves, overwhelmingly frowned upon; however, I tend to write and draw things of a non-realistic, fantastic nature, and that very much is strongly disapproved of by most 'mundanes'. Sketchpads full of drawings of cars, trucks, chicks in bikinis and tight t-shirts, and guns, by themselves, will evince only grudging admiration from the average male, mingled with some suspicion of me simply for being somewhat creative. Sketchpads full of flowers and old barns and butterflies and babies will get me a date on nearly any college campus, if only with some weird skinny chick in granny glasses who wishes it was still the 1960s. Sketchpads full of men and women in chainmail with swords, or in skintight spandex with energy beams coming out of their hands, or big demonic looking humanoids, or strange looking monsters, gets me doubtful or frightened sideways looks and a terse, 'for your own good' lecture from a supervisor about 'keeping that weird crap at home or in your backpack where people can't see it'.
Last and undoubtedly the worst, from an adult point of view... I play fantasy roleplaying games. That phrase in and of itself brings mostly uncomprehending but still rather dubious looks, and a request for clarification, phrased in a tone that indicates that the person asking isn't entirely sure what I mean, but they think they might have an idea, but they're trying not to judge me before they're sure. But when, in response to that request for clarification, I sigh and say "You know, like Dungeons and Dragons", THEN their eyes kind of glaze over, and they excuse themselves as politely as they can, and sometime within the next few hours, I will inevitably overhear them saying to someone else "He plays those Dungeons and Dragons things! Can you believe it! What a geek!", accompanied by the cruelly melodious, ice-cube tinkling of feminine laughter.
(I don't have imaginary friends, just so you know. Although, some of the people I get email from...)
Now, there is a common element to all these activities that, if a kid were to do them, would be... tolerable, and understandable, if not exactly fine... but when an adult does them, is not... tolerable, or understandable, or, especially, fine.
Furthermore, there is also a commonality to all the things that adults are allowed and encouraged to do, as well, at least, as far as what all these activities lack:
Ready for the 'I' word? Here it comes:
Or, since I mentioned a two word phrase: 'active imagination'.
See what I mean? Any place in America, or even the world, if one adult looks at another adult and says "You have no imagination at all," it's a negative statement. It's rarer for an adult to find a context to praise another adult's imagination, but it happens. "Thinking outside the box" is simply a current buzz phrase that means little more than 'imagination', although in its particular usage, it generally means 'useful imagination with an immediately practical application'.
Reading science fiction, or fantasy, or, for that matter, comic books, requires active imagination. Oh, it takes some imagination to read Danielle Steele or the latest Stephen King thriller, too, but honestly, not so much, since most of Danielle Steele's characters and settings can be very easily imagined as well known actors and in terms of sets from nearly any popular TV show. Comic books provide the reader with the pictures as well as the words, I grant you, but they require one to imagine the movement of the pictures, and the sounds, and as Scott McCloud has written about forty pounds of serial graphic literature regarding, this requires a very peculiar form of active imagination that is best learned in childhood, and that fact is one of the major reasons why even comic books intended for adults, such as McCloud's own UNDERSTANDING COMICS, or various other 'adult' superhero comics, do not appeal to any audience other than adults who learned to read and enjoy comics as kids, and who have kept doing it.
If you didn't learn to use that particular application for your imagination in your childhood, and maintain it into adulthood, chances are, you simply will not be able to ever enjoy or appreciate that particular form of graphic serial art/communication we call comic books. And most adults, even those who DO read comics as kids, stop doing so at some point in their teens, and they never re-learn the knack... because by the time they've become 'adults', they no longer have much or any active imagination left.
Writing about and drawing things that do not actually exist in real life requires imagination. As a general rule, you're safe enough writing about it, because anyone finding a computer disk full of text, or a notebook full of closely written pages, isn't going to bother to read them, and find out that you're an adult and you're writing about people in powered armor fighting monsters, or a transdimensional police force, or something equally weird. But draw a bunch of guys with jet belts and ray guns fighting a big monster, and, well, you're really weird. Drawing real life people and artifacts is fine... well, not fine, because artistic talent is, in and of itself, creative, and that's always at least somewhat suspicious... but at least, you're not dangerous. But drawing things that only exist in your imagination? That's crazy, son.
(Unless, of course, you're getting paid for it. As I noted waaaaaay above, money validates anything except kiddie porn and heroin smuggling, in today's society.)
As for fantasy roleplaying games, well, please. Shouldn't you be watching TV or out getting drunk like the rest of us?
Which brings us to that area of commonality that all socially acceptable adult activities have: not only do none of them require anything in the way of active imagination, but many of them help deaden any active imagination you might still have somehow surviving in your soul. Golf, tennis, softball, jogging, whatever... these are all fairly harmless activities, but certainly, they're not intellectual and require little or no actual imagination to successfully engage in and complete.
There are many non-physical activities adults engage in, as well... things like listening to music, watching TV, going to the movies, and drinking alcohol. These are all major adult social activities; in fact, if you look at the personal ads in any newspaper, you'll find a significant percentage of poor, doomed souls out there who list things like 'TV, music, and movies' as their actual hobbies, and who probably have absolutely nothing else in their lives, except substance abuse and sex, that they would call 'fun'. No real hobbies, as in, that thing they are supremely talented at and enjoy doing most, that resounds in their souls and brings music and hope into their lives, but that they are not lucky enough to be able to make money at. Nothing even as ultimately sterile and orderly as building models from kits or collecting stamps, because they don't have even the kind of basic creative impulse without actual imagination that leads people into such activities.
And what do TV, film, and alcohol, in specific, all have in common? Well, according to many studies, they kill the imagination. TV and film, in particular, seem to work specifically on the areas of the brain that are most active in visualization, conceptualization, and learning, numbing and even causing atrophy in these specific regions of higher mental function. Alcohol shuts down inhibition and higher judgement, and one of the first things to go with inebriation is the capacity to imagine long term consequences to one's actions. (Extensive alcohol poisoning can, of course, lead to nightmarish hallucinations, but that's not quite the same thing as active imagination, in which the person doing the imagining is in control of the process.)
It's also worth noting, in passing, that imagination may be the one single faculty that makes solitude bearable, and nearly everything that adults do, they do as part of a group... and most adults tend to regard anyone who pursues any solitary recreational activity as suspect, outcast, and probably subversive... or, alternatively, just pathetic. (If you don't believe me, cast your mind back to the last time you ate dinner alone at a restaurant, or went to a movie alone... or did similar things with your usual companions, and someone in your group noticed someone else alone a little ways away from you, and the comments that then ensued.)
Mankind is naturally gregarious and the fact that we tend to, for the most part, prefer to do things as part of a pack instead of by ourselves doesn't necessarily bear on the imaginative faculty. Nonetheless, I note that a much larger percentage of children than adults can spend hours all by themselves with perfect contentment. Solitary confinement is a horror for most grown ups, and becomes so very quickly. Kids don't like it much either, but they can deal with it for much longer than the average adult, and I suspect that again, the difference there is active imagination.
The general social derision for active imagination begins in adolescence, or slightly earlier. Around the age of 10 to 12, kids first start encountering the initial stirrings of the pervasive notion that childhood will one day end and they need to start getting ready for that, and although no parent or teacher ever explicitly says it, it's made quite clear through context and implication that one of the most treasured faculties and capacities of childhood that they will be expected to set aside in this process of maturation is their active imagination.
Art and music classes vanish from the general curriculum and, in schools that still have them at all, become 'specialized' classes for kids with specific, special talents. Teachers and parents start becoming significantly less patient with clearly unreal fantasizing and daydreaming, exhorting the child to concentrate on more important, 'real' things, and to start contemplating, making decisions about, and actively shaping, their adulthood.
To a very real extent, adolescence, in our culture, is an artificially created age and phase where young people undergo enormous and extreme stress, as in many ways they are expected more and more to conform to adult standards of behavior without having any of the benefits or privileges of real adult status... and one of the most pervasive ways adolescents are expected to 'behave like young ladies and gentlemen' is in giving up their imaginations.
By the early teens, those kids who retain active imagination are already being ostracized from those who really don't; being labeled as 'geeks' and 'nerds' and 'weirdos' and generally being persecuted and hounded and made utterly miserable in a manner that the majority of adults, since time immemorial, chooses to overlook or, if made aware of it, dismiss, as simply being an intrinsic part of the rites and rituals of adolescence and the mass education system.
(It's worth noting that while the gradual rise in violence taking place in schools over the past fifty years has been greeted with general public concern, it was only when the geeks got guns and started shooting their tormentors that society on a widespread basis seemed to suddenly wake up and realize that this was a serious thing. As long as it was just gangs shooting at each other, that was a 'well, what can you do' situation, and as long as it was just the unimaginative jock kids torturing the freaks and weirdos who still had some spark of active imagination left, well, that was just 'kid stuff', but the minute one of those social outcasts got a Tek 9 and started killing the socially integrated, well adjusted little future consumers, well, THAT was a national crisis. It's also worth noting that this 'national crisis' has really done nothing to make the imaginative outcast's lot in the juvenile mob oriented education system any easier; if anything, by adding fear to the usual mixture of hatred and scorn such kids have always been regarded with, it's made their situation even more stressful and hazardous.)
As a culture, we not only don't like imagination... we're scared of it. And this doesn't start in our 20s or our late teens. It begins in early adolescence. Although as a culture we claim to prize imagination, in fact, we don't. We tolerate it in children, disdain it in adolescents and teens, and regard it with suspicion and hostility in adults. In fact, much of the process of becoming an adult in our culture seems to lie in acceptance of 'reality'... our gradual incorporation into our emotional beliefs that certain things are true, and there are no realistic options to these things, such as, well, death, not to mention, taxes. 'Reality' becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, something we all believe in because we've been taught it's inevitable, and that therefore, we are helpless to change. Sanity becomes a matter of majority vote, and those still capable of active imagination live lives on the fringes of society, in constant danger of being labeled as a 'danger to themselves or others' and committed somewhere for observation and evaluation.
This doesn't have to happen, and in fact, doubtless a large contributor to this process' apparent inevitability is our public education system, which seems practically designed by an evil conspiracy to make maturing teens associate 'reading' with 'drudgery', and to force them to stop using their imaginations and concentrate on the 'real world' (no kid ever got an A for daydreaming in class).
Our educational approach is also extremely linear and deductive, with most classes having no place for intuition, creativity, or a non-conventional approach. Kids are taught that facts are facts, and in fact, this is something that teachers are taught in their own college classes to use as an invariable approach towards subtly teaching kids to respect their authority... after all, if teachers were to ever indicate to their students that what's written in a text book is not, in actuality, a physical law of the universe, the kid might learn to question authority, and one of the first authorities the kid is going to question is his teacher... and who needs that?
Math, English, History, Science... all these classes teach kids that there is Only One Right Answer, and no alternative is tolerated... which is all pretty good training for the adult world, and pretty discouraging to anyone with an imagination.
As a general rule, as I've already said, imaginative kids are actively discouraged from showing their imaginations past a certain age. Imagination is never rewarded, not even in art class, assuming a kid is lucky enough to attend a school that still has art classes. The kid who draws soldiers, or beautifully rendered artifacts like cars or guns, gets high grades, while the one who turns in a sketchbook full of elves, or superheroes, or space aliens, gets lectured on how there's no future in drawing this crap and they need to harness their talents more usefully.
Kids learn their lessons well, and by the time most of them are into their early teens, they've learned, for the most part, to be suspicious of and hostile to any other kids who show too much imagination. The kids who play Dungeons & Dragons are generally considered to be social outcasts, as, similarly, are the kids who read science fiction, fantasy, and comic books. This tends to reinforce the concept that imagination is bad, and most kids learn that lesson, if only subliminally.
At some point, one... at least, one with an imagination... has to wonder just how much of this happens because imagination is indeed the most crucial element to the capacity to question authority.
Assuming I've been persuasive in my thesis... and I'm aware that there are many who will not be persuaded, and who will be certain that lots of adults still have an active imagination, and are sure that in fact, THEY still have an active imagination, and that the reason people hate me for doing geek stuff is not because I have an imagination and they don't, but because, well, geeks suck and should be hated... Still, assuming there is any validity to my hypothesis that our culture hates, loathes, and fears active imagination... we then have to look at whether or not this actually means anything. Is it, in fact, a positive or negative thing, overall? Is it even possible to do anything about it? Can adults retain their active imaginations, even if they want to? And, if they can, would it improve the world any, if more adults retained some active imaginative faculty?
Well, first, yes, of course an adult can keep their imagination from being eroded into non-existence by the process we call 'maturation'. I did. Of course, I don't drink, but I watch a LOT of TV (and I watched even more when I was a kid) and I see a lot of movies, and my active imagination is just fine. The secret to keeping an active imagination is, as with any other muscle or human faculty, to keep using and exercising it. Most adults don't; those who do read for pleasure in their childhoods (not all kids do, unfortunately) often stop due to various factors, or if they continue to, they find their tastes 'maturing' from 'all that dumb fantasy' stuff into more 'grown up' material, like mysteries, romances, spy novels, technothrillers, autobiographies, history, etc.
In order to be 'grown up', a book has to be set in the 'real world', and if it's set in the 'real world', then reading it requires less use of one's imagination. (There's also a reason beyond simple laziness why many popular writers employ the device, which Harlan Ellison has often heaped derision on, of describing a character as looking much like a popular movie or television star: readers of popular fiction tend to have less imagination, and therefore, find it considerably more difficult to imagine someone from a detailed description, than they do from 'he looked exactly like Tom Cruise, but with blond, curly hair'.)
It goes without saying that by the time one is an adult, one has pretty much stopped daydreaming about 'stupid kids stuff' like finding a magic wand, or slipping through a portal into a world populated with fantasy characters, or flying like Superman, or even being the Captain of the Enterprise. All of that requires far too much imagination, and is suspiciously 'unreal' and 'impractical'. When most adults daydream, they daydream about sex, or money, or power, generally in some very mundane and familiar setting, if only from TV.
We've already seen that this doesn't have to happen, and in some cases, despite all efforts to the contrary, it doesn't. Now... since we COULD change this... despite conventional wisdom, the ossification of the imaginative faculties is NOT an inevitable consequence of the process of human maturation... should we? Would the world be a better place if a larger percentage of people retained the faculty of active imagination past the age of, say, 13 or 14?
Imagine a world in which more than, say, a bare 2% of adults had an active imagination. Would it be better than the one we have now? Well, in some ways it might not be that different. I suspect literacy would generally be higher and there would be generally higher standards for popular fiction, but would that make much of a difference? There might be much less, or even no, reality TV, and hey, I'd buy that for a dollar.
With more adults having imaginations, science fiction TV shows and movies might not have to so generally stupid (which they are deliberately crafted to be so, to appeal to the proportionally much larger, and generally much less imaginative, potential audiences of TV and the movies) and that would be nice. In a world where more people read more challenging material for fun, fewer might be willing to spend money on idiotic films, so not so many movies like DUMB AND DUMBER might get made. Yet, so far, this is all pop culture stuff. Would it make any difference to our quality of life, if more adults had better active imaginations?
If lack of imagination is partially, at least, shown in the perceived need to accept things as they are, then another way of looking at that is to say that to an adult, change is nearly always bad. It takes imagination to visualize things being different, and if you can't visualize things being really different, then, honestly, you can't change them.
If more adults had active imaginations, they might be able to actually vote for real leaders willing to try to really improve the status quo, instead of simply maintaining it. To an extent, one of the reasons that various third party candidates don't ever do better in the polls is because everyone believes that they can't win, and therefore, they shouldn't be voted for. That's a failure of the imagination... which brings up another problem with unimaginative people... namely, widespread gullibility and apathy.
Both of these result from an incapacity to visualize alternatives to what one is being presented with, and both of these lead to exploitation of the masses by the crafty, influential few... and in some historical cases, have led to tyranny, oppression, and national programs of assembly line organized genocide.
Having an imagination is crucial to the capacity to analyze, to sort truth from fiction, and to question what we are being told. Without it, people are basically sheep; milling herd dwellers who, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, "are so hungry and thirsty for leadership that they'll follow a mirage and drink the sand if there is no real water to be had". Of course, Sorkin made this statement to basically justify the concept of a fictional populist President taking a strong stance against an opponent, while I think it's more a general condemnation of the fact that most people don't have the imagination to want to, or even know they should, think for themselves.
Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine... "we must not allow a mine shaft gap!"... oil spills and reactor meltdowns, fascism in general... all of these things are the result of failure of the imagination. (Okay. "We must not allow a mineshaft gap!" is actually a product of the imagination, as it's a quote from the truly demented movie DR. STRANGELOVE, but that movie itself is entirely about a colossal, global, racial failure of the imagination that leads to nuclear obliteration.) A failure to see alternatives, to visualize other ways that things could be, to question, to analyze, to see the flaws in the status quo and synthesize a hypothesis of something better.
It's probably no coincidence that John Lennon's utopian anthem is named "Imagine"... or that, in general, there is no song more despised by our mainstream culture. I shouldn't bring the song up, actually, because I don't like it myself... I find the lyrics gratingly sappy and unrealistic, and frankly, I don't care to 'imagine no possessions', I'd much rather keep my stuff, thank you. To that extent, sadly, I myself am exactly what our culture says an adult should be. Or, you know, just someone with a little taste in music. You pays your money, you takes your pick.
It seems to me, in fact, at nearly any point when a human being gives up, gives in to despair, allows apathy to overtake them, and refuses to make any further effort because it all seems futile, that, in and of itself, is a failure of the imagination.
Would the world be better if we stopped teaching adults to be suspicious of imagination, if we stopped making a concerted and systematic effort to kill it in our kids as early as possible?
Honestly, could it be worse?
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John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon IL. He is very aware that this goddam article is not about comic books, but Steve Tice egged him on anyway, so go yell at him.