Elbow Room

Yesterday, I had a kid home from school with strep throat. She’d already been to the doctor, so she was kinda sick, but not as sick as she had been, and what she wanted to do more than anything else was hang out on the sofa in her pajamas and watch The Hunger Games. What I wanted to do more than anything else was get back to my regular routine, because it seems like I’ve been receiving phone calls requesting that I pick sick kids up at school a lot this past month. But as my 12-year-old cued up The Hunger Games, which she had somehow not managed to see until now (deliberation or accident, I’ll never tell), it occurred to me that I was being handed on a silver platter the sort of opportunity that mindful parent-types encourage all the time, to wit, to occasionally sit down and consume popular culture with your teen and afterward to “talk about it.”

I’m pretty much a puritan at heart, so the idea of sitting down to watch a movie at 8 in the morning didn’t sit very well with me, but then again, I’m also a sucker for all that parenting talk about ” teachable moments.” Besides, I was feeling kinda cruddy myself. (I’ve also been hyper-aware lately of how swiftly time passes and how much opportunities to “hang out” with my teenager are dwindling.)

I didn’t watch all of it — aside from the fact that I had things I needed to be doing, seeing attractive teenagers cage-fight other attractive teenagers to the death isn’t exactly my idea of a good time — but I saw enough to realize that The Hunger Games can be dissected in some fairly interesting ways (the rest of you, who saw it two years ago, probably already knew that).

Some of The Hunger Games was filmed in Atlanta (as is much of The Walking Dead—I could really get going about the idea that the city where I live is a stand-in for a post-apocalyptic wasteland). Some of The Hunger Games was filmed in Western North Carolina, the verdant, mountainous area of that state where, as I pointed out before my reading in Hendersonville, NC this time last year, “a good portion of Atlanta wishes they lived.” Western NC is where my daughter goes to camp every summer; it is where, I think, she feels most free, and most herself. I’ve camped and hiked there for years — if Atlanta is a stand-in for Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland, then Western NC is our family’s own personal stand-in for Wilderness, with a Capital W. It’s as close to it as we can get.

Atop Big Glassy Mountain, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Hendersonville, NC
Atop Big Glassy Mountain, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Hendersonville, NC

The movie bugged me. But it also, probably in part because of where it was filmed, left me with a oddly expansive feeling for the rest of the day. The feeling was somehow similar to the way I feel post-camping or hiking: like I’d been out there for a little bit. Like I’d pushed myself a little bit physically and come out ok. Like the grime I was covered in and the rocky ground I’d slept on had somehow shifted my perspective and that was not at all a bad thing.

This, I thought, was very strange.

The previous day, I had received this in my email inbox:

APS tips for Walking to School and Bus Stops

Atlanta Public Schools is aware of recently reported abduction attempts near multiple school properties. While they have not taken place on school property, APS continues to work with the Atlanta Police Department to ensure the safety and security of all of our students as they walk to and from schools and bus stops. These incidents provide opportunities for our parents to talk to their children about personal safety, in general, and the importance of looking out for the safety of others.

The following tips for walkers and bus riders can serve as a conversation starter and reminder for all parents and students in the district.

• If you see something suspicious while walking to school or the bus stop, call 911. • Report abduction attempts to the police and school administrators immediately and include as many details as possible. • Develop a buddy system for walking to school and bus stops. Students should never walk alone. • Always walk in groups with at least two or three other students. • When possible, parents should walk their children to school. • Plan the most direct route to school with the fewest street crossings. • Do not speak to strangers for any reason, even if they are asking for directions or information. • Never accept rides from strangers, even if they offer items such as money or gifts. • Stick to the route you picked with your parents. Don’t let friends talk you into shortcuts, and never walk through alleys or across vacant lots. • While walking, do not talk on the phone or wear headphones. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. • Never enter or play near abandoned houses. http://www.atlantapublicschools.

This information was sent to every parent with a child from the ages of 4 to 18 in the Atlanta Public Schools. And while no one would disagree with its main thrust — that parents need to talk about their children about safety — some of its generalizations (are they really espousing that high school students really never walk alone? or that parents walk 15 year olds to school?) gave me pause, particularly in light of watching The Hunger Games less than 24 hours later.

Why is The Hunger Games (or Divergent, or any of the other dystopian, post-apocalyptic stories aimed at teens) so popular? There’s never one reason for anything, of course, but I’d speculate that one reason for the popularity of books like these is the way they scratch a particular itch we all have to experience a certain sort of aloneness, a certain sort of freedom, a certain sort of wilderness. In the dystopian future, a teen has to take care of him or herself. She has to live by her wits. In the dystopian future, parents are gone or ineffectual or well-meaning but misguided: survival depends on your own gut instincts.

Obviously, such impulses toward wilderness and wildness, when spun out to conclusions of cage-fighting and post-cataclysm social breakdown, should only be satisfied vicariously. But what does it mean — to experience wilderness — at this mediated moment in our history? Should that experience even be possible? Should we mourn if it can’t be? And above all, how can it be accomplished if your parents are always right there beside you, dogging your every step?