I Didn't Win the Vanity Fair Essay Contest, But Here's What I Sent In
When I was seventeen, my head was in the right place: in the clouds.
In between classes, homework, chores and hanging out with friends, I would take every chance I could to let my mind wander. That downtime was frustratingly brief and invariably rare, but I seized it. I daydreamed furiously until the grating alarm clock of real life pulled me from the floating world.
I still visit that place quite often, but not as much as I’d like to, not as much as I once did. When I do, though, the place feels abandoned, neglected.
You don’t find very many young people with their heads in the clouds these days. Instead, their ears are glued to cell phones, their thumbs to video game controllers and their eyes to computer displays.
What’s on the minds of America’s youth? I’d say too much, yet too little.
In the universe of the mind where daydreams are vast, unexplored space, electronic media is anti-matter. It crackles along as vacuous white noise, consuming stars of possibility. It is ubiquitous, painless and instant.
It’s eating away at the daydream time – and fertile minds – of today’s youth. They have too much empty information and entertainment at their fingertips and spend too little time thinking beyond a barrage of text messages and rapid-fire images.
Virtuosity used to refer to rare mastery of artistic pursuits such as music. Today, it’s just as likely to reference the electronic ether of the Internet and all things “virtual.” Millions of people – youth and older folks alike – are leading half-lives trapped in the aptly named Web. They come here for convenience or entertainment, and end up staying too long, sometimes confusing, changing or sacrificing their identities during their sojourn.
Adolescence is perplexing enough without the ability to change at a whim behind the shield that the Internet offers.
Then there are the video game virtuosi that step off the school bus, walk through their doors and are transported smack-dab into the middle of a virtual city’s mean streets – fast cars, easy drugs, big guns and all. Their great struggle is against digitized gangsters. Their master symphony is “A-B-A-B-Fire” on a game controller.
Today’s youth form the first wholly instant-gratification generation – and it shows. There’s so much to do, but so little to show for it at the end of each day.
Two words define nearly every day of my summers as a child: “go outside.” My parents insisted on getting me out of the house to wander and explore both my surroundings and my fertile mind. There weren’t always other kids to play with, but I always found something to do. Hollowed-out stumps became spaceships. Streams gurgling down drainage ditches were rivers coursing off to lands far away. Rocks and other found objects became treasures of unimaginable worth.
Sometimes I’d just lay on my back in the grass and daydream.
While I was growing up, I did have video games and television to pass some time. I wasted hours watching the same Godzilla movies over and over. My friends joined me for three-minute matches of plinkety-plink battle tanks on my Atari. By and large, though, these things weren’t all consuming. Rectangles shooting tiny squares at other rectangles held only so much appeal. Our cable television had about seventeen channels, five of which were airing Bonanza re-runs at any given time.
If I sat in front of the television for too long and started looking glazy, I’d inevitably hear two words from my mom: “go outside.”
Youth in other parts of the world are heeding this advice – taking time to wander, explore and daydream – and it shows.
In my job as a writer for an international humanitarian organization, I have the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most under-developed places and speak to children and young adults. They’re fascinated to hear about the world I come from and what I’ve seen, and are equally eager too share their own experiences and thoughts with me. They’re never shy about asking questions, however simple.
After coming back from some of these trips, I’ve sometimes spoken at schools or in front of youth groups. Invariably, there’s silence. It’s very rare that anyone asks a question. They usually sit, staring, an unsettling glazy look on their faces.
What’s the difference between American youth and young people in other countries? I’d say it comes down to what’s on their minds. In the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, a village might have one television set powered by a fussy car battery. Children have to find other things to do.
They have time to think, to daydream. They have the magical opportunity to visit the floating world and spend some time there. They come back with ideas – and are eager to return there whenever possible.
I believe that a quiet mind, given time to daydream, will dawdle in wonderful places and discover amazing things. They’ll roam the same hallowed grounds where poets and scientists and musicians and other great men and women drew inspiration.
There’s too much on the mind of America’s youth today. There are too many distractions. They must learn to unplug, quiet their minds and daydream. When they do, they’ll carry fantastic things back for all of us.
As I type this, my eleven month-old son, Asa, is sitting on the floor and holding a plastic toy cell phone to his ear. “Ba-ba,” he tells no one in particular. “BA-BA!” It sounds serious, like a stock deal or a Mafia hit.
In seventeen years or so, if I catch him doing this same thing, this is what I’ll say to him:
“Son, is your head in the clouds? No? Well, put down that phone and get up there!”