I was laying in an open field on campus one April afternoon, having briefly escaped from a world of endless deadlines and assignments. I was hiding from the comfort of couches and futons when suddenly, two men with middle-aged voices approached and stepped past me.
“In Santa Cruz, they call that 4:20,” I heard one of them say to the other as they passed, implying that I had participated in a certain smoke-filled pastime earlier that day.
It wasn’t exactly 4:20 p.m. — he was about an hour off. But I didn’t care to open my eyes and give him the time of day. Or even clarify that I wasn’t stoned out of my mind — just tired of school.
But it made me wonder how we, as a society, got to a place in which resting outside is considered out of the ordinary. I want to believe that it isn’t strange for someone to nap in a field simply because it’s a warm, sunny day — or just because they want to take a nap. But maybe that isn’t the case anymore.
Just over 100 years ago, 30 million Americans lived in cities — comprising about 30 percent of the nation’s population. The rest spent their days outside — farming, milking cows, building their own houses, swimming in ponds, playing games, riding wagons into town.
Today, however, the outdoor survival and physical activity that used to define day-to-day human existence is instead restricted to something we do in our free time.
But, seriously, we all need a break. The fluorescent lights and glowing computer screens often leave us longing for a chance at some sunshine, at running through an open door or working with our hands — hands that most of us use for typing on keyboards instead of hammering nails and tugging weeds. Meanwhile, the incessant hum of technology has us looking for an answer, an escape.
Since I came to UC Santa Cruz, I have found my escape in my cousin Mike’s ranch, hidden away in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There, he and I spend our weekends pulling together pieces of sheet rock and plywood to build a wooden cabin, or something that resembles one.
Once we start to break a sweat in the 90 degree heat, or maybe get hungry and need something to eat or drink, there is only one solution.
“There’s calories in beer,” Mike likes to remind me. We try to strike a balance between the work we do on the house, and the damage we do on 24-ounce tall cans of Olde English.
Spending time working with my hands feels like traveling back to a simpler time — one that has somehow been lost during the disconnect of the 21st century. We work in the blazing heat on termite-infested wooden ladders, with chain saws that I swear have lives of their own. We drink otherwise watery, tasteless beer, specially fermented by the sun and with the added flavor of sawdust.
I have to admit, the more hours we spend in this manner, the harder they get — and the less productive, too. Also, measuring isn’t exactly our strong suit. Sometimes, as we peer over our hazing cigarettes and squint through the fumes of smoke, additionally fogged up by our beer-blurred eyesight, Mike looks at me holding the giant rectangle of sheet rock we’re going to slam onto some wall and says, “So, in theory …”
That’s usually about the moment at which I know that whatever we’re about to try probably isn’t going to work.
Instead, we spend the rest of the day trudging through thickets of redwood trees and poison oak. On a warm day, we’ll even treat ourselves to a swim in the pond.
The midterm season, now upon us, provides the need to take a few breaks. The spring season, also upon us, makes it the perfect quarter for this, with the green fields and warm weather. In America, 34 percent of adults are obese, double the percentage from 30 years ago. The number is currently at 17 percent for American children, a whopping 300 percent increase since that same time. Just one more reason to open a new door.
You don’t have to make drunken attempts to build a cabin in the woods, but a little bit of a change can’t hurt. Work with your hands. Run around. Throw a Frisbee.
And, if you get tired, you can always come back inside to the world of futons and couches. But I recommend napping outside.