By the second week of lockdown, my 12-year-old son and I had developed a ritual that neither of us enjoyed. Three or four times a day I’d pass through the kitchen of our Queens apartment and spot the kid seated at the Formica table, eyes locked on the screen of his hand-me-down MacBook Pro. I’d circle behind him to discover that he was once again wrapped up in some Fortnite vlog on YouTube, my least favorite form of content. I’d plead with him to find a more productive use for his time; the ticked-off grunt he’d offer in return made clear how little he valued my advice.
One afternoon in early April, I was about to launch into our zillionth round of this futile exchange when I noticed something odd: My son, who normally comes up with any excuse to avoid writing by hand, was taking notes on ruled paper as he studied his laptop. I looked more closely: He had Google Maps pulled up on his browser, and he was poring over a satellite image of Portland, Maine. He showed me how he could zoom in on a well-manicured baseball field with a towering left-field wall. A pin icon near second base identified the stadium as the home of the Portland Sea Dogs, a minor-league team affiliated with the Boston Red Sox.
My son explained that he was researching the venue as part of a grand project of his own design: He was planning a summer road trip that would take our family to 16 minor-league ballparks throughout the Northeast. With the aid of Google Maps, he’d be in charge of plotting our routes, picking our motels, even figuring out which museums and water parks to visit when we weren’t watching baseball. The adventure was how we’d celebrate having survived months of confinement in a community that has been disproportionately ravaged by Covid-19.
I was elated the kid had found a digital pastime that didn’t involve logorrheic YouTubers, and I was touched by his eagerness to craft a joyous experience for his parents and 7-year-old sister. Rather than ruin the happy moment, I decided not to tell him that his efforts were almost certain to be for naught. Even if the minor-league season were to happen by some miracle, my wife and I are far too stressed about money to take a vacation this summer, let alone one that would last three weeks. And so when the boy asked whether I was up for the trip, I mumbled a vague promise to keep tabs on the pandemic and render a final verdict in July. In my heart, I suspected our daily reality at that point will be no less dreary than it is now.
In the days that followed, I’d often catch my son on Google Maps with pen in hand, jotting down increasingly specific bits of information that he considered essential to his plans: the names of bridges that span the Susquehanna River, the phone numbers for motor inns in Greater Pawtucket, the best things to eat while watching the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. (The stadium’s clam chowder has received lavish online praise.) As I watched him get lost in the pleasure of these tasks, I realized that he was under no illusions about the trip’s actual odds of taking place. He was immersing himself in Google Maps not because he expected we’d be attending a Norwich Sea Unicorns game anytime soon, but so he could build himself a sanctuary—a space where he’s in charge of how an uncertain future will unfold.
Ask a cartographer how they fell in love with maps and you’re likely to hear one of two basic stories. Many will recall being shy or bookish kids who delighted in flipping open their parents’ atlases to ponder the shapes and names of far-off lands, an exercise that allowed them to create narratives in their heads about the people who lived there. “I was a pretty anxious child, and I was reluctant to engage with the physical world in front of me,” says Sasha Trubetskoy, a freelance cartographer and data scientist based in Reston, Virginia. “Maps drew me into this other world, this abstract world … I’d open up a map and I could go anywhere, and I’d bring my face up to an inch away from the page and soak in all the details.”
Then there are the cartographers who didn’t have much wanderlust but were instead drawn to maps as tools to transform how they think about their everyday surroundings. The origin tales they tell tend to involve formative encounters with maps that focus on process, like the ones that illustrate how single city blocks have evolved over decades, or how water gets transported from mountain streams to suburban faucets. “My whole life, I’ve lived within 75 miles of Lake Michigan, and I’m happy to be here, to be home,” says Daniel Huffman, a cartographer who teaches at the University of Wisconsin and who recently published a handmade atlas of Great Lakes islands. “What I’m interested in is expanding my understanding of the Midwest. Like, I may know about what’s going on outside my front door, but what about a few doors down? How can maps help me get to know this place more deeply?”
It’s easy to see how my son has a bit in common with Trubetskoy, since a desire for escape is clearly part of why he’s gravitated toward Google Maps. Though he’s not the sort to articulate his feelings—he’s the young master of the indifferent shrug—I know the kid has been struggling with the strictures of the lockdown. Playing and watching team sports were the twin pillars of his preteen existence, and both pursuits were snatched away from him a matter of days. Instead of battling for an all-star berth in his final Little League season or attending Don Mattingly Bobblehead Night at Yankee Stadium, he’s been forced to spend the spring cooped up in a neighborhood where ambulance sirens have wailed nonstop. Of course he’d find comfort in panning around Google Maps, looking at places that might seem safer and more tranquil than virus-stricken Queens.
And the fact that he didn’t pan too far when sketching out his minor-league odyssey has taught me something important about the way his mind operates. Like Huffman, the kid is now intrigued by regional identity, perhaps because he’s been hearing so much about how states are banding together to fight the pandemic. That curiosity became apparent to me as I listened to him reel off facts about some of the towns we’d be passing on our way from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Syracuse, New York. By clicking through Google Maps’ pins and hyperlinks, he’d dug into the histories of these places and was aware that many are crumbling—a conclusion reinforced by one of his favorites musical numbers from The Simpsons, in which upstate New York is lampooned as a boozy hellscape. He wanted to understand why these isolated towns had prospered and declined, a phenomenon connected to the rise of megacities like his own. And Google Maps can reveal the ghosts of the Northeast’s industrial past.
Using satellite view, my son zooms in on riverfronts to see the old factories and textile mills that generated vast fortunes long before his grandparents were born. He’ll then scroll along those waterways or their adjacent railroad tracks to understand how materials were shipped in and out of towns before long-haul trucking was the norm. As he traces those journeys, he might spy the eerie remnants of old glories: dilapidated Victorian estates, abandoned movie palaces, hollowed-out quarries.
My son doesn’t see tragedy in this gothic decay, however, but rather signs of hope. To him, these places on the edges of his personal ecosystem are filled with possibility in ways that Queens can never be, especially now that Covid-19 has restricted his access to much of the borough. He can imagine himself in these towns, living in a regal house with a backyard trampoline and serving as a batboy for the local minor-league team. It’s a fantasy notable for its modesty, involving a theoretical move just a hundred or two miles north. But as I’ve learned to accept, some kids find the most comfort in dreams that are tethered to reality.
Just before the typical child begins to enter those awkward preteen years, the nature of what they invent inside their heads shifts dramatically. “Once they hit nine years old or so, kids will stop hanging out with imaginary friends,” says Stephanie Carlson, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. “What becomes common instead is what we call a paracosm, which is an imaginary world.” The substance of those paracosms varies from child to child, but Carlson notes that they all tend to be painstakingly elaborate: Kids sketch out the details of what places look like, the lineages and motivations of characters, the rules of how nature operates. Sometimes they channel this creativity into frameworks provided by pop culture, which is how you might end up with a kid who fills journals with graphomaniacal accounts of Warhammer 40,000 campaigns. But many concoct fantasies of a more unique bent, and they keep them private so they can retreat there alone if need be.
When I was my son’s age, my chief paracosm was a spin on the anime series Robotech. I was obsessed with the third chapter of the show, in which a motley crew of heroes rides armored motorcycles across a postapocalyptic wasteland, and I adapted its basic themes into a saga all my own. I spent hours wandering around my backyard as I edited the twists and turns of this Robotech-inspired epic I was cooking up in my imagination; I’d mutter to myself as I tried to envision the exact sequence of action in the key battles between the good guys and the evil alien overlords. (I once became so engrossed in this process that I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake, but that’s an anecdote for another day.)
When I first became a father, I assumed any progeny of mine would be similarly interested in constructing tales of fictional mayhem once they reached a certain age; it’s how I thought all preteens whiled away the hours when they weren’t engaged in school, sports, or screens. I was puzzled, then, when my son showed little interest in the types of stories that had meant everything to me. I’d buy him an X-Men comic book and he’d give up on page three; I’d try to read him The Hobbit and his eyes would glaze over before we even got out of the shire; I’d take him to see Black Panther or The Avengers and he’d forget the entire plot by the next morning. He preferred to focus on endeavors that don’t involve narratives, like memorizing the names of the schools in each college-football conference. And though I took pride in having a son who knew that Arkansas State competes in the Sun Belt West Division, I worried that his reluctance to engage with the fantastic would doom him to a very boring life.
I see now that I had a very limited view of what constitutes a useful fantasy. When the pandemic compelled my son to create a richer interior life, he found a way to do so using data instead of characters. The paracosm he created, in which he guides his family from ballpark to ballpark within a 350-mile radius of his home, may seem prosaic, but it’s as lovingly crafted as any story about dragons or mutants. He has produced pages of handwritten directions and memorized countless bits of trivia. (Did you know Rome, New York, was named during a late 18th-century vogue for classical culture?) And that labor, rather than the substance of the fantasy itself, is what makes a paracosm so vital to a preteen’s development.
“What kids are doing with paracosm play is getting a sense of control over things,” Carlson says. “Plausible, implausible—that doesn’t really matter. It’s about imagining a world that they ultimately have some say over.” And at times of extreme stress, that feeling of control, of being able to will a return to normalcy into existence, can save a kid from despair.
If you’re a parent, you’ve almost certainly thought about how your kids will someday look back on this peculiar episode in human history. Some days I think my children will have a bizarre nostalgia for the months or years they spent indoors with the people they love above all others. But being a pessimist by nature, I mostly worry they’ll be warped by the trauma of growing up amid so much sickness and grief.
When I’ve been tempted to surrender to that sort of melancholy in recent weeks, I know how to fend off the darkness: I sit down alongside my son as he presses ever deeper into Google Maps. Now that the minor-league trip is fully planned, he doesn’t venture into the service as much as he did in early-to-mid April; there are only so many reasonable driving routes you can take between Rochester and Binghamton. But when he tires of Fortnite blather, he’ll dive back into his maps and hover over one Northeast hamlet or another, trying to see how much he can infer about life below. It comforts me to see the glimmer of joy in his eyes—and to think that he may recall the pandemic as the time he fell in love with trying to make sense of the world. That’s a pursuit guaranteed to end in some measure of disappointment, but the act of trying is a worthy protest against the inexplicability of life.