“This is disgusting,” I used to whine when I had to help my dad shift the outhouse to a new location because the hole underneath had filled up.
“Yeah, well, it builds character,” he would grunt in reply.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, character–makes you tough and fearless. Gives you perspective. Makes you appreciate the pleasant things in life instead of taking ‘em for granted. Makes you flourish where other men wilt and cower.”
“But Dad, I’m only six.”
“You’re six already?! Why the hell don’t you have a job, boy?”
I worry that my kids might grow up without much character. I mean, I can tell they’ll have plenty of personality, but that’s entirely different. I suspect that the struggles they have in their lifetimes will mostly be of the internal, existential angst variety, which I suppose builds character in some sense. But unless things take a terrible turn for the worse, they’ll probably never have to rely on outdoor plumbing, much less perform routine maintenance on it.
When my dad was a little kid, he lived in bunkhouses with a bunch of cowboys and went to class in a one-room schoolhouse in a place where the temperature was regularly -40 in the winter. And he had a totally cushy childhood compared to his parents. In turn, my childhood was a beautiful dream compared to my parents’, despite our living in a home-made log cabin with no indoor plumbing.*
I grew up solidly middle class, with what I now consider a net cultural advantage from moving around a lot because my dad was an Army officer. Although the experience of living in different countries and parts of the US was invaluable, some of the places we were stationed were shitholes (to extend the outhouse motif).
I believe that a lot of what builds your character derives not from economic conditions, but from where you live. Although my current financial situation isn’t that much different than it was growing up, I happen to live in what many people would consider–well–paradise.
When we first moved to San Diego, I thought it was a kind of okay place with nice weather and beaches. Since we’ve had kids, though, I realize that it’s essentially one gigantic fantasy theme park for children. As long as we live here, my kids may never have to deal with two of the most character-building features that a place can provide: weather and boredom.
We lived in Moscow, USSR for two years when I was a tween (before there was such a thing). It got down to -50 pretty frequently in the winter, and the furnace in our decrepit building was pretty reliable about shitting the bed whenever it got below -20. I remember sitting in the living room under piles of blankets and boiling water on the stove to fill up the bathtub.
The range of average temperatures in San Diego is 57 degrees in January to 72 degrees in August. Our kids have probably worn socks a couple dozen times in their two years of life, have worn mittens maybe ten times, and may never own rain coats.
When we lived in Oklahoma, I used to while away the hours fishing for crawdads in the muddy creek. Stranded in the suburbs of DC with no entertainment venues within biking distance, I killed time hiking to the bowling alley to eat french fries, or teaching myself how to play Sex Pistols songs on the guitar. In Moscow, my friends and I rode aimlessly on the subway and were intentionally rude to Russians because there wasn’t much for American kids to do in the big, bleak, Soviet city.
My kids are two. They wake up in the morning and I ask them what they want to do, where they want to go, what they want to see.
Lately, there has been a lot of “Walrus!” in response to that question. So I load them up in the car and head to Sea World, where we’ll hang out until lunch time. Other days, they might say something about gorillas, and we’ll cruise over to the best zoo in the country. Maybe they’ll be on a surfing kick and we’ll go check out the surfers and splash around in the waves. One of them might start babbling about “opatus.”
“Octopus?” I’ll ask. Then we’ll jump in the van and go to our local aquarium, located on one of the most beautiful and valuable pieces of coastal real estate in the country.
I’m ambivalent about the privilege they experience just because of the city they live in. On one hand, it’s amazing to have all these activities within reach, and never have to factor weather into our plans. On the other hand, I think that nothing exercises your creativity muscles like overcoming boredom. There is nothing that gives you a sense of the cyclical nature of the world like making it through a winter and really feeling the joy of the spring thaw.
That’s why I need to start erecting artificial barriers to my kids’ comfortable existence. I think the first thing I’m going to do is build an outhouse.
It’s for their own good.
*For a couple weeks during summers. Okay, it was a vacation home. But it was rustic, is what I’m saying.