Or why Billy can't run or jump or kick
by Scott Titterington
This is a reprint from May 2008.
While reading through the stories for this issue, I noticed a common theme of trying to keep our children and ourselves connected with the natural world—whether through environmental education, understanding organic foods or encouraging our kids to play outdoors. I had also just finished reading a book of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. These ideas all came together one morning and the following short story emerged.
“It’s time for soccer practice, Billy, get hooked up,” says his mom from the screen on the wall. Ten-year-old Billy reaches down and clicks on the transceivers at the ends of his “soccer” shoes, then slips on his sensor gloves and directional goggles. He scrolls through the schedule to find his team and presses the remote.
Most of the team is already standing around as the coach talks to them about the game. Billy recognizes most of the players from school, but some of his teammates go to other schools. A couple of them even go to a school building. On the weekends those kids can use the school’s archaic hardwire virtual hookups for the game. It’s usually pretty easy to get around them if you know which ones aren’t wireless.
Parents line the side of the field. He sees his mom talking to another parent. She smiles and waves, with a little scrunching, the way moms do when they know they’re embarrassing their kids. Billy’s higher-end system keeps the motion pretty smooth. He’s been practicing his moves and can make most of them without watching the full-wall screen in his room. He’s learned to “run” and “dodge” by rolling the floor-ball with his foot.
While they’re waiting for the game to begin, Harry walks over and talks to Billy. Harry’s a b&m, bricks and mortar, kid. The ref blows a whistle and the game begins. Billy sees the game from his perspective on the screen in front of him. His practice pays off as he cuts and dodges around three players and gets a shot off. He’d picked out one b&m kid and knew he could beat him. The game ends and Billy gets his mother’s attention.
“What does grass feel like?” he asks.
“Harry says this isn’t like real soccer at all and that I don’t even know what real grass feels like.”
“Oh Honey, he’s just jealous because he doesn’t have a nice system at home like you do.”
“Mom…can I play soccer outside sometimes? Harry says that running and kicking with your legs is totally awesome.”
“Oh Honey, I don’t know. Your asthma might kick up or you might hurt your ankle. Do you really think it’s worth it?”
“But Harry says I think I know everything but that I don’t know anything like what it feels like to really ride a bike with the wind and the smells and stuff.”
“Well Harry doesn’t know what it’s like to race his super-chopper through Africa and up Mount Everest, does he?”
“I guess not, still…”
“Hey, how was school today?”
“Borrrring, as usual. I got in trouble. Sam texted me something mean during math so I switched to my ninja avatar and whipped out my numchucks. I cracked him good on the side of the head. Then he pulled out his plasma blaster and went nuts. It took Ms. Harper fifteen minutes to get everyone quiet again. I had to unplug for an hour and just sit here and watch the lesson on my screen."
Billy pulls off his goggles and gloves, switches off his shoes, and returns to the reality of his room. A quiet beach scene fades onto the wall screen and gentle wave sounds fill the room. He calls for his mom and she appears on the screen.
“Mom, I want to go outside and do something, like Harry does.”
“I don’t know…just check it out.”
“But you have it all right here and you’re much safer this way, and you don’t even have outdoor clothes.”
“But don’t I have to go out sometime.”
“I think by the time you’re that old they’ll have it all figured out so that people with good systems don’t have to go outside at all, ever.”
“I have an idea, Billy. Do you want to go kayaking this weekend on the Poudre?”
“Outside? Mom, you know that river’s been dried up for years.”
“I know, but I bought the new Poudre River module. We can fish and kayak and raft, and everything! It’ll be so much fun and we don’t even have to get wet or cold or tired or hurt….”
“Maybe. I think I’ll see if Sally wants to go ice skating tonight.”