As a kid growing up in sunny California I had a lot of joyful experiences. The 1960’s, in comparison to now, was a relaxed era. Kids walked to school unescorted, rode our bikes without cumbersome helmets and played outdoors all day long with no one in authority really watching us. We were never doing anything bad but there is something organic about being with your tribe for hours and hours that help a child find his or herself.
Our moms talking to their friends in the kitchen on 50 foot phone cords were far away from ten year old boys and girls running down alleys picking ripen pomegranates and throwing them at each other until our shirts were stained red. Playing with others is critical for child development. And not just playing with siblings. Siblings are great but they are complicated since they come with history. There is something organically good that comes with playing with non-family kids especially kids of the opposite sex in an unstructured way. At least it was in my case.
One day in the third grade my life changed. Red dots appeared on my stomach and a quick trip to the doctor confirmed that I had chicken pox. Because my parents were divorced and I lived with my working mother, I had to stay home by myself from school for a week. My mother would come by for lunch and my father left his work as well to see me at lunch. But for most of the day I was bored out of my ten year old mind. I watched TV unfortunately; the 1960’s only had a handful of channels and none of them good. My father feeling sorry for me brought me a whole bunch of Archie comics. I had not paid attention to comics before that week. But desperate for entertainment I read all of them. In one afternoon I familiarized myself, with Archie, Veronica, Betty and Jughead. Right away I decided I liked Jughead. Then the next day my father brought more comics including Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy. I liked Snoopy. I was obsessed with comics and for the rest of that year and the year that followed I would walk to our local liquor store and thumb through the comics for the latest additions. My obsession got so strong that I pulled the comics out of their bindings and put th drawings up on my bedroom wall. Other kids had The Monkees on their walls, I had Jughead and Archie.
Around this same time, Ronald, one of the boys in the neighborhood heard about my love of comics and he shared with me his own appreciation of comics. He also showed me his most prized collection—a huge stack of Mad Magazines. He pointed out his favorite sections, Spy versus Spy, The Lighter Side, Mad Fold Ins, Sergio Aragones’ Mad Marginals and of course, Alfred E. Neuman in the paradies. That year I went to Ronald’s house all the time, we read together, we laughed, Ronald drew his own comics, I would offer my suggestions. I even tried my own comics but I really did not have a good hand for drawing. I was more conceptual big thinker. I would talk with him about how we should make our own parodies. I have no memory of seeing his mother although I know she was somewhere in the house. We were only ten and too young for romance but we played for hours and hours completely unstructured time.
In that year something happened for me. I learned how to laugh, in a real way that made crazy divorced parents fade deep in the background. I learned how it was okay to be funny. When I reached middle school I joined the yearbook staff and as one of the editors I worked hard to slip in jokes where no one would find them except for a few of us on the ‘inside’. It was my own Mad Marginal. In high school I continued to find the guys that made me laugh and we all cracked each other up. I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends but I did have a lot of boy friends. Years later when I was the first woman writer on The Tonight Show, I thought back on chicken pox, comic books and all that time playing with Ronald. And now I think about that unstructured time where I could start to find myself. At times I feel guilty when I am taking my son from his swim lesson to his Tae Kwon Do classes. I wonder if I give him enough ‘down time’. I had so much as a kid and cherished it. Do I give my son enough? I try, that is for sure. But one of the greatest gifts my son got was last year when he had a year of car pool with two girls. He heard things in those car trips he never heard before, things that were not on his boy radar.
Now his relationship with the girls and other girls is amazing for me to watch. What seeds are being planted? What relationship or choices will he make twenty years from now due in part to the year he learned to relax and hang out and find his place with the girls? He is too young for romance but I have seen a switch turn on, a real appreciation of non-family members of the opposite sex. He is interested in what they have to say and what they think about. He will be the first to shut them down if it is princess talk (he has his limits) but the other stuff, the way they connect. How they tick. This is of interest to him. It reminds me of all those years ago when Ronald made me laugh about silly stuff in that vast unstructured time where we could just goof off.
Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Tracy Cook (nee Abbott) graduated from University of California Santa Barbara with a BA in US History. After graduation, she moved back Los Angeles where she built a career in the entertainment business. The first woman writer on the Tonight Show (with Jay Leno), Tracy was also a writer on Late Show with David Letterman along with variety, award and reality shows. After the birth of her son, Tracy focused on raising him with her husband Charlie Cook. She also took every waking moment to improve his public elementary school by beating parents into an inch of their life until they volunteered on campus.