The saddest characteristic of children is that they become adults. This transformation is unfortunate but doggedly pervasive: few manage to avoid it altogether. Grass-stained shirts become neatly pressed suits, once-colorful breakfast cereal turns monochrome, and the important businesses of exploring and experimenting are overshadowed by clocks and little bits of paper with the portraits of dead people.
We celebrate this transformation with birthdays, bar mitzvahs, coming-of-age celebrations. In the Philippines, an eighteenth-birthday debut is, for girls, a major event. In the US we mark the years with privileges: driving at sixteen, voting at eighteen – and at twenty-one, the right to imbibe alcohol, which ironically is probably the only means some people have to return to a more fantastic time of immaturity and ignorance.
Except children aren’t immature, they’re just more honest than adults: they laugh when they want to laugh, cry when they feel like crying. It’s adults who are mixed up, who hide things: we laugh when we really want to cry.
Neither are kids ignorant. What we take for granted, they’re only just discovering – and discovering with a sense of wonder that their elders have long since misplaced in their alphabetized filing cabinets. Ask me about the Grand Canyon and I will give you this description: “It’s so big and beautiful, and if you fall down to the bottom, you might die.” I stole that line from a five-year old girl, a preschooler. I’ve never heard a better synopsis.
Kids have their responsibilities, just like adults. They’re the ones who make sure new insects get thoroughly examined. They test rain puddles for surface tension and viscosity. Their experiments on centripetal motion are unparalleled, though usually conducted on old rusting playground equipment. The differences between their work and that of adults are these: kids like their jobs, they’re usually really good at them, and, beyond perhaps some name-calling and rock-throwing, they rarely intentionally hurt others to achieve their ends.
I try to emulate kids sometimes. I don’t keep a planner, because I tell myself that if I have to write down my daily schedule and responsibilities in order to remember them, then my life has become too structured, too complicated, and I need to simplify. But then Peace Corps gets on my case about forgetting my third straight monthly call-in, and I meekly apologize and add a reminder on my cell phone.
That’s what being an adult is: placating other adults. (I know this because I’m already twenty-four and, to quote Bill Watterson’s Calvin, a lifetime of experience has left me bitter and cynical.) We’re all nervous, tightly-wound bundles of civility, afraid to say what we think – unless we have enough money to make other people care about what we think; and then what we think is usually something devised to make ourselves more money.
I tiptoe around other adults every day, making sure there’s a thick insulation of polite falsities and forced smiles between us. I think I’ve learned to comport myself rather well, which is very distressing to me. I can feel the kids’ disapproving stares: What is he thinking, I imagine them wondering. We know he sings goofy songs and throws our sandals in trees and acts like a general fool around us. Why the act?
I hate to perform. I hate singing, dancing, acting, even just speaking in front of an audience. I think my center is, finally, beginning to realize this, likely because I’ve told several of my coworkers exactly so in as many words. They don’t understand it. Neither do they understand that I’m acting all the time around them. Maybe that’s why I’m so opposed to public performance: I’m already doing it - no need to double up.
Sometimes, though, we do drop the act. Maybe we suddenly realize that a lonely tree really needs climbing, or that work can wait because we just saw an awesome stickbug crawling into a bush. Imagine the contribution to world cuisine if we actually went through with all the food experiments that go through our heads. These are small steps; when the Swing Long Jump becomes an Olympic event, we will have arrived at last at a happier, more enlightened time.
As for me, I’ll continue singing my goofy songs for the kids, but I’ll maintain my adult act as well. So society dictates, and my mind isn’t free enough to break free of its chains. But if the world were to suddenly end, I hope I would not be caught sitting in an office - how depressing to have one’s last vision be lines in a ledger or cells in a spreadsheet. Let me spend my final moments instead dangling upside-down on bright red monkey bars, feeling the glorious dizzying headrush while my cell phone, wallet, keys, all the reminders of a sterile, cold adulthood fall out of my pockets to be swallowed by the living earth below.