Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Trees and Children

For a few hours over the long Thanksgiving weekend I visited the neighborhood where I grew up in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Strangers live in the house I was raised in and I watched from down the street as a new Volvo pulled up. Very slowly, a gray-haired man got out of the passenger side. Every movement seemed painful and his wife came around to assist until he was steady on his feet. Then she went into the back seat and loaded up with pies, evidently their contributions to dinner with their children and, presumably, grandchildren. Well, I thought: same traditions - different family.

The house didn’t look like I remembered it and neither did the rest of the neighborhood. Of thirty houses on the street, only two had familiar names on the mailboxes out front. The field where I played baseball every summer day was covered with houses and trees even taller. The sand pit at the end of my street was forested over, as was the football field. Where I used to throw the long bomb as a young quarterback, there were trees twenty feet high or more. A lot of time had passed since my boyhood.

There were no children on the street at all. I repeat: no children. When the McLaughlin family moved in fifty years ago with six (and two more still to come), the street was crawling with kids. On a Thanksgiving Day forty years ago, a car would have to wait as boys interrupted their tag football game, and reluctantly but respectfully moved to both sides of the road to let it pass. There would be waves all around because every driver knew every kid by his first name. There would have been smaller kids on bicycles just off the pavement. Some would have had training wheels bolted to each side of the back wheel and each of those younger ones would be closely watched by an older sibling hovering close by. I saw no dogs either. Evidently, leash laws were being enforced, though they never were when I lived there. Dogs used to roam freely and each knew by scent, sight and sound who lived in the neighborhood and who didn’t.

Aside from the old couple going into what had been the McLaughlin house at 25 Euclid Road, I saw not a living soul. Little was left of the neighborhood I remembered. Little was left of the American culture of the 1950s and early 60s either. The addresses were the same, but the way of life was fundamentally different.

What used to be the Oblate Novitiate up the street is now the Oblate Infirmary and Patient Residence. There were no young men there studying for the priesthood anymore, just old priests waiting to die and be buried in the old cemetery behind. I drove around the grounds and peeked in the windows at white-haired old men, many in wheelchairs, eating Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria. One of my earliest memories was of the older Novitiate - a multistory brick building - burning to the ground one evening. The next year, the Oblates rebuilt a low, sprawling replacement building on the site because, in the late fifties, enough young men still wanted to be priests. Now, though there are plenty on other continents who want to be priests, few in North America (or Europe) do anymore.

I drove back to Lovell on Friday and it was a beautiful day. I got out the four-wheeler and explored near Shave Hill where I used to hunt nearly thirty years ago. It had been logged over a couple of times, and a half dozen homes had been built in the vicinity. I was looking for a gravel pit that was still active back then, but I had a hard time finding it. It had grown over with birch and poplar fifteen feet high and thick enough that I didn’t see it until I was right on top of it. Again I was reminded how much time had passed, even when I hadn’t been paying attention.

I recalled a day about twenty-five years ago driving through the middle of Lovell with an old man. He pointed to a pine grove across from the golf course and told me he used to gather hay there when he was a boy. I was a young man then and I was amazed at how much things could change in one man’s lifetime. Since then, that pine grove has been logged hard, twice. Now, young trees are growing up again.

Forests rejuvenate in well-understood, predictable ways. You don’t have to tell a tree how to be a tree. Humans, however, are more complicated and not nearly as predictable. It troubles me that new humans were absent in my old neighborhood where they used to be everywhere. New trees are growing where they should, but humans are not.

It’s not a good sign. Something’s wrong.


Anonymous said...


It is amazing when I hear/read about your generation's childhood experiences, because those experiences are very similar to my own (although they were in another country), when I grew up in the 80's. We had black and white TV till the early 80's and color TV was a big novelty (I recollect watching Pres Reagan at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in LA, in color!!) then. In urban India, kids used to play cricket on the streets and playgrounds (they still do), we used to play hide and seek and other games in the neighborhood, jumping across from one house to another, etc. We did not have any 'organized' sports, per se. It was just a bunch of kids, after school, went to the neighborhood playground, did all the scrappy things young boys do, came back home for homework, supper and some TV. What is amazingly similar is the interaction that I see among human beings in old TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and Andy Griffith. Tom, this is no joke, but kids in my part of the world just 20 years back, grew up in such domestic environments. We also used to interact a lot with our cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, their extended families, etc. I just cannot fathom the in-your-face TV and attitudes that I see in people today. I find myself, to a certain extent, an anachronism.

I have seen all that vaporize in just a couple of decades, in India. Parents organize "play dates" (what the *bleep* is that?!) for their kids, kids are hooked to video games (whatever happened to just idling around in the summer), we have big houses and big cars but we lead such hollow lives. I strongly feel that my parents and their parents led much more 'richer' lives. I can relate to your post 100 per cent, because that's exactly how I feel about the neighborhood and country that I grew up in. We seem to be in regression mode when it comes to human relationships. No technology, no self help books, no Dr Phil or Dr Laura can help us regain that warmth that was once there. That change has to be bottom-up.

Excellent post, Tom. We belong to different generations, different cultures, different religions and yet, we've had such similar experiences. I'm learning a lot more about what the US was, once upon a time and I see more similarities with India, than not. I also see today's US and have a sneaky feeling as to where folks in India are headed towards. How about that!


Tom McLaughlin said...

No Sriraj, it can't be recreated top-down. However, conditions can be created to foster it, like increasing the tax deduction for children to levels it used to be in the fifties. Welfare reform that subsidized single-parent families is being phased out and that's good. The old neighborhoods where children played on their own without forming gangs? I guess if there were adults who agreed on a common set of values and were in the neighborhoods in a supervisory capacity watching over the kids, maybe. Can we recreate that? Post WWII European countries paid mothers who had children. My niece lived in Slovenia and they received payments for the two children she and her husband had. That would enable mothers to stay home and be neighborhood adults.

European countries are in desperate straits demographically. Canada is too. Perhaps such programs will soon be proposed and implemented. It takes a family with a mother and a father to raise a child. The village can help so long as it's comprised of families like that with a common set of values. That's what comprises a culture. Government programs make a poor substitute for what once existed on its own. People must do for themselves rather than posture as victim groups looking for government largesse.

Anonymous said...


I don't know who it was (either Newt Gingrich or Pat Buchanan) who spoke/wrote about the effect of high taxes on forcing both parents to work, thus weakening the quality of child-rearing.

I think I have an excellent solution to this -- resort to a completely different form of taxation (either Steve Forbes' Flat Tax or a National Retail Sales Tax, proposed by Neal Boortz and John Linder). What it essentially means, is that an individual gets to keep 100% of their income and the only taxation that'll be done is on whatever good/service they consume. This effectively takes away any power from the govt (including such satans as the Appropriations Committee, notorious in Congress for pork and other such political favors) and empowers the individual to save, invest or spend their money. We have to phase out this concept of the Govt generating IOUs to China and other foreign nations, to take care of Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security. I'm afraid that this will never happen. My suggestion is different from what you've said (i.e. tax breaks or the European model of "paying" parents with more kids). We do not have to depend on Govt for lessening our burdens. WE get to decide what we do with our money and not pork spenders like Sens Ted Stevens, Robert Byrd, etc. If we could convince the American people that it is important for at least one parent/guardian to be at home to raise kids, we could go a long way to improve human relationships at the micro level.

I'm afraid that bra burning feminists have done enough damage to convince individuals that they have to "empower" themselves by stepping out of their homes, and completely ignoring the impact that that has had on generations of children. All talk of freedom, no talk of responsibility. What is happening to this world?!


Tom McLaughlin said...

I think a national sales tax is the best option, with a flat tax second. The national sales tax would tap the presently underground economy. Even drug dealers would pay taxes as they shopped. So would foreigners. The flat tax wouldn't be able to reach the undergrounders any more than the present system would.

That much power would be taken away from congressional committees is a nice feature of either alternative too. The current system is difficult to understand already and endless tweaking for special interests only makes it less understood. There could still be a deduction or refund for children however. That everyone can understand and it doesn't take an accountant to figure it out each year.

The unemployment rate would rise for a while as tax attorneys, accountants and other parasites looked for meaningful employment, but it would soon level out.

Bra-burning feminists of the sixties and seventies are now saggy-breasted Democrat politicians in positions of power in congress and in many states. One of their leaders is seeking the White House in 2008 as well. Scary thought, no?

tomax7 said...

Hi Tom

Same here, visited my old stomping grounds back in Vancouver, BC.

They've torn down my old house and put up a parking lot. Yes, almost like the song.

Where I used to go play "cops-n-robbers" (no one wanted to play indian/cowboys) in the old CP Water Reservor has now become Condo's and a botanical garden.

Lot of the older homes in my area were also torn down to be replaced by these horrible looking "box" homes where Asian folks reside. Sometimes 3 families in the same house.

Oh btw, this is in a richer part of Vancouver also.

The trees are larger and the old 'big patch of grass' football field at my high school I used to play in has been regraded, painted, with track field around it and comes with stands!

The centre part of the school yard used to have beautiful flowers and trees, now torn down and cemented into a "concourse" area between the various buildings.

No one has the time or skills I guess to keep those old rose bushes and trees pruned.

I also don't recognize the names around my neighbourhood, and yes, not sure if "any" kids live there any more.

The 50's are gone, I wonder what the future holds after this generation of boomers pass away.

No more memories like you and I to share.

the "other" tom.

Anonymous said...

Hello "Other Tom",

The kids are far too busy playing video games/watching TV/participating in "play dates".

It's not that the kids are not there, it's just that overanxious parents are scared to let them play in the neighborhood because of irrational fears. Basically, they do not want their kids to be scrappy and get some bruises on their shins and elbows. All this ties in with Tom's post on lack of gonads and lower levels of testosterone. If boys are not allowed to be boys, then how does one expect them to fight against bigger enemies like Islamic goons, once they do grow up?! They've been raised in such an overprotected environment that they are not in a position to recognize danger and act accordingly (skills one picks up while playing with other kids in the neighborhood and playgrounds). One never knows how and when to negotiate, how and when to be on the defense or on the offense, whom to identify as friends and as enemies and how/when to make a stand and stick by it, unlike, say the pansy French.

I'm not saying that the past is golden and free of any scars, but at least, we could be *humans* and not robots. Is that asking for too much?!