My oldest son Edison, who is now sixteen, was invited to stay for a few days with a friend, whose parents live on a vineyard in Napa Valley. We live in Los Angeles. So I checked Amtrak, and found a not-too-circuitous route involving an Amtrak bus, a train, and another bus. It seemed like just the right kind of adventure for a 16 year-old.
My husband was also making noises about needing a little San Francisco fix himself — in addition to feeling wary about the bus/train/bus idea — so he decided he’d drive. And so my boys headed north, and Edison got his ride.
And it got me thinking that my sixteen year-old might be living a very sheltered life. Not compared to some kids, certainly. He walks to his public school. I encourage him to ride his bike, take the bus and even (gasp!) walk in Los Angeles, which he does fairly often. I want him to know the city, I want him to be street savvy, I want him to understand a municipal transportation system, to know how to get around. By the time he leaves for college, I want him to have a decent sense of how to get from point A to point B.
I grew up in San Francisco; a small city, but a city nonetheless. Even before I was a teenager, I’d roam for hours on end, exploring the park, riding my bike out to Baker beach or the Legion of Honor, to the egg roll joints and Russian bakeries on Clement Street. I’d take buses and cable cars to the Wharf to eat crab sandwiches, wander around the Maritime museum and Ghiradelli square, bus downtown to look at the Macy’s windows or listen to musicians in Union Square, bus to the Embarcadero to see old movies at the Gateway with my discount pass. As a teenager, I’d haunt the coffee houses of North Beach , window-shop the hanging ducks and cheap jade in Chinatown , line up for midnight movies on Polk street, bus to smoky jazz clubs, sip beer on the patio of the Savoy-Tivoli on New Year’s Eve. (In a town lit by neon martini glasses, a teenager having a beer was small potatoes.) On warm summer days, a few of us would have a hankering to go to Stinson beach, but apparently we felt that waiting for the Marin County bus would cut into our beach time. So we’d hitchhike. To Stinson. To Mount Tam . Once to Sonoma .
Sometimes my parents were in the dark about my whereabouts, sometimes they were vaguely aware, but didn’t seem bothered. Can you imagine your fourteen-year-old daughter telling you she’s going camping in the Desolation Wilderness for a few days with a group of friends? Bye, honey, have a great time!
These days, an expedition would be made of it. Everyone would be outfitted properly with warm parkas and sub-zero ground covers. At least two watchful parents would chaperone. It would be an amazing, educational, organized Outdoor Adventure. And yet, there I was, at fourteen, with a sleeping bag, a backpack, and some randomly packed food. Someone had a tent. Someone must have brought water. I’m pretty sure someone’s boyfriend showed up with beer. We made a campfire. We fished. In the interest of full disclosure, pot was most certainly passed around.
I know my son has a secret life. He’s supposed to have a secret life, he’s a teenager. But I can’t imagine him telling me that he’s going to sleep over at a friend’s house and instead he buys a plane ticket to another city in order to meet a pen pal (as I unimaginably did when I was sixteen). I can’t conceive of my son getting up to half the mischief I did when I was his age. But my fear is not so much that he’ll secretly take an airplane trip to meet a girl, it’s that I really don’t know if he’s got the derring-do to ever plan such an escapade. Teenagers have been softened with supervision, tamed with the Internet, organized to death. Most kids go to shopping malls for their big adventure, or to Xbox Live. If they should venture out, they all have cell phones, and can be reached at a moment’s notice. Most of them want to be reached. If not by parents, then by a steady string of friends. I know Times Have Changed. But in our zeal to protect the children from the general horrors of the age, we’ve taken away their tools to learn how to navigate the world.
It’s not that I want my boy to seek out thrills and danger. But I hope a sense of adventure ignites in him one of these days, and I hope that as parents, we can be brave enough to let him have a few of his own.