Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where Do The Children Play Pt. 2

What is it about sand? Like looking into a fire, an unexplainable, mesmerizing attraction. This photo was taken last fall in a leftover pile from a big cafeteria tiling project. For days on end it attracted and served kids of all grades, clawing, piling, tunneling, putting in roads, wiping roads out. The play was quiet and focused for the most part. Something about these tiny grains which soothes. Is it because it is so malleable, drawing some inner ant in us to dig our way back to some hive refuge? What could be more dull, really. If I proposed dumping a big pile of sand in an empty city lot instead of building the next hyper-designed, pressure treated playground, probably only cats would back my plan. But there it is. That little bit of dampness underneath, holding just enough to get a little something of a shape going. A nice little track for my broken plastic truck. It has to be the texture and touch. The way it soaks up the sun's warmth, the way it can and can't be held and filters through the fingertips. Look at Jek above, staring at it in his hands. Beholding with his nerves and eyes. For me it is watching them at work there. I can feel myself unclench. Must be seeing kids both safe and engaged. I can stop fretting that a child needs attending. I wonder what the other Thai teachers think of all the staring I do at the kids. They tell funny stories now and then about them, but they certainly don't dote on them except in the very first few years. I am going to ask my fellow teachers in the coming days why they became teachers. I know if it were elementary schools in the US, 9 out of 10 would be female, just as it is here, and the automatic response would be that they love kids and loved school. If you went into the homes of US elementary teachers you would likely find too many cats and a shitload of craft supplies.
The sand pile seems to be gender neutral and beautifully balanced between an individual and group dynamic. Everyone just kinda' doin' stuff. That's a little technical, I know. This is perhaps play in its purest form. When I go back to the States I want to see if Falang children do the squat or if this is the Thai version. Awesome.
     Now this same area is paved in concrete. That is considered progress; the government paid for it, the kids and teachers like it, and it makes me want to cry. This backwards pocket of Thailand is hurtling towards the very thing from which I am running. Hey, at least I have admitted it. I am a selfish chickenshit and I am running. I want to scream some kind of warning- NO! That way lies The Jersey Shore, and The Bachelorette,  and people confusing Lady Gaga and Donald Trump as figures of cultural and political import worth discussing! But the Thai people can't hear me because they are playing Farmville on facebook. It is too easy for someone my age to bitch about computer games and beer pong. I don't blame younger people telling me to go jump in a lake- or in the modern vernacular, to fuck off and die. The labels 'angry' and 'bitter' (and of course 'old' for good measure-apparently the greatest of all insults in Beer Pong America-God forbid one should outlive their Justin Bieber adolescence or grow body hair-eeewwww!) were recently deposited on my doorstep, like a flaming bag of dog turds. Perhaps deservedly so. Perhaps I should go smoke the mary jane doober ganja killer green and just say Eff it! I know the one thing not to do when faced with such a flaming bag- attempt to stomp it out. Definitely a passive/aggressive discussion-ender. Just quietly close door and turn out the lights on the porch. Think about moving to a new town.

Most of us tend to get touchy about our generation's touchstones. I remember my dad telling me how the Beach Boys (and all the records I liked) were shiite and Beethoven was the man. At least that's how I remember it. I remember thinking he hated everything about my generation and this denigrated me somehow. It was probably much less than that. He was wrong about the BB. Some of their songs still sound pretty good 35 years later. Of course, now that I have a few more miles on me,  I get how almost nothing humanly created compares to, say, Ludwig B's late quartets. No matter the number of hearts deeply moved and lives affected, Harry Potter isn't King Lear. Wow, way off track here. Somehow I think I have gotten to a place where I am claiming that sand is the King Lear of playing. I didn't mean to. You know how we old people get confused, especially the angry, bitter ones. What I am trying to get around to saying is that watching Thai children play I am convinced of the necessity of freewheeling, unsupervised play. Of cracking boredom and suffering without an electronic fix, and later in life without self-medication. Of not providing for children and ignoring them more.
Here is Bat leaping to touch a low hanging leaf, out of frame. That was the whole game, and I watched it unfold and persist for over 30 minutes. Girls, boys jumping up to touch a leaf. One kid tried and then two and then 10. One kid finally touched it. Eventually the game petered out (!). Some who leaped stood no more chance of touching the leaf than I have of convincing my dad that homosexuality is not a choice.

I just finished a long piece in the NYT about summer camps in the USA trying to survive the recession. Their most formidable challenge comes not from the hard times however, it comes from the ramped up expectations of American parents who want something to "show" for the thousands of dollars it costs to attend- improved SAT scores, a better backhand, a resume bullet point. And even the old fashioned woodsy ones have to keep adding more "wow" factor activities like climbing walls, big gymnastic facilities, and individually tailored meal plans.

Today, Isan village kids kind of do it backwards. They do "camp", circa 1920 in Maine, 350 days of the year and then for 10 days they get all hyped up for so-called Sports Week. At least in the primary schools, this was the only time I saw anything remotely resembling our sports obsessed nation. The kids had "practice" in volleyball, soccer, tagkaw, racing, and tug of war. Teachers blew whistles and kids put on uniforms. There was marching practice.

Then we met with about 8 other schools for all sorts of refereed round robins, kids were dressed up and paraded, winners were declared, and enormous trophies were handed out. As the kids competed I wandered around, occasionally having a shot of whiskey with the teachers from other primary schools.

 Parades are what Thai people do best, as far as I know. An excellent mix of the hyper-formal wedding/Vegas cocktail lounge attire and the strangely absurd and unexplainable.

Everyone seems to love the week. I remember thinking how bass-ackwards it seemed at the time. Six months later I lean heavily the other way. In Isan, organized (I use the word lightly here) sports exists in proper proportion. A pleasant diversion rather than the end and purpose of life itself, rather than  acting as if sports were the ultimate arena for character building, the preeminent testing ground of courage and excellence, to be trained for manically, reminisced over eternally, worthy of endless analytical parsing and breath. Let's take all the miles driving children to sports practice or games in the USA in a day. Include things like driving 2 hours each way in the dead dark of icy winter in Maine to get to indoor arena soccer so he or she will get that little skill bump necessary to compete on the high school team(You don't do that? What kind of crappy parent are you anyway?). Of course you are a green parent. You buy organic juice for  the drive, don't you? While you are waiting for practice to end you can jaw with the other parents about your high school or college ball days or about the upcoming Celtics/Bruins/Patriots/Red Sox season.
Uh oh. Sounds like my angry bitter old man is loose again...

Sports Week in Isan even included Bocce and a boardgame- which was the one event my schools won- hooray!
Then it was back to kids doin' whatever they felt like doin' with their free time. Working out all the aspects of acceptable play for themselves. Maybe it was something like Tagkaw
Tagkaw is three people to a side and a low net (say, neck high to me). It is played with the same rules more or less as volleyball but with feet and head only. The backwards, overhead bicycle kicks are the most impressive aspect of the game.
Or Bocce with formal rules, which here is called bpentan which is the French version of Bocce. I loved playing this in the fall and you see lots of old timers playing it in the shade in NKP.

Or maybe it is just a free-for-all soccer game out on the dirt patch with the goals. Like pick up pond hockey, this is one of my favorites. Usually ends in a big tangled scrum.

 Recently the heavy favorite has been a jumping game played with hundreds of rubber bands linked together to form a stretchy line. Two kids hold this and the kids execute a turning jump, trying to hook the line down and get over it. They have gone at it every morning for weeks with total laughing seriousness. There is no score, just a trading of positions between jumpers and holders when certain heights are not cleared. The holders sweep the line up, sometimes, at the last second. I will include a video link at the bottom to give you a better idea.

Sometimes a kid gets pretty chewed up in one of these games, in which case they might go over and get the first aid kit and if it is really nasty get a teacher to unfussily bind it.  It took me a long time to refrain from thinking I had to tell them to be careful or hover over them in case any 'problems' came up. There are a few popular sit down games I will show in the next post. In the video they are not really playing the game, just showing how they jump for the camera.

NYS Jumping Game

1 comment:

  1. Sand! Yup, it is the ultimate. I wonder if part of that is because it is often in the yard when the home is being improved. The kids get to see adults mess around with it, too. Nah! Most likely some ancient remembrance of emerging from the primordial sea.

    I am not a sports fan, but I could sit and watch that hacki-sack volley ball game for hours. I don't see the net as "low", however - particularly considering the average height of the players.

    Peter, I think that "anger" will segue to sadness soon enough.

    Might be good - might be bad - I just don't know.