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.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Where Do The Children Play? Pt.1

Last weekend, for a 4th of July celebration, I went to what will probably be my last gathering of this year's Thailand volunteers.  I was hoping my friend J would show, the one fossil with a carbon date somewhat in my range, or Jes and husband Abe, who are now at least in the "I have a kid of my own" range, but, alas, it was not to be. I was surrounded by a gang of early 20 somethings and a volume of liquor which no longer inspires me with anything akin to joy. Don't get me wrong- the company of most of these young people I genuinely enjoy- but the moment I arrived I found myself seeking a secluded place to which I could sneak off. When the beer pong started up 15 minutes after I arrived, I took a walk with Rita (who somehow failed every test of Modern American Youth including Ironic Detachment, Angst, Alcohol Worship, and Affected Boredom), around Renu, a lovely town known for its silk products. We contemplated slipping out and splitting a taxi home. The challenge of Renu is a lack of transport and we found ourselves circling back to the house where I observed and pondered this generation gathered to 'have fun'. I wondered how much their experiences of play as children influenced what they saw as fun now. Most are of an age of my former students and my own kids, young people who saw their parents purchase the first family computer when they were infants or toddlers, perhaps played some archaic simple, "educational" reading or counting games on the clunky beige monitors, who might have seen their mom or dad actually type in DOS commands. There probably wasn't a single one who was not in some kind of organized sport or activity by they time they were 6 or so- t-ball or ballet classes, tumbling or just group play in some kind of purposed "toy room".

When I was in college, I would occasionally go to the 7-11 and play asteroids with my buddy, Ben Winship. The screen was gray and the "ship" was a whitish triangle about the size of my pinkie fingernail. Rudimentary as it was, even that early model had the magic ability to piss me off enough to make me want to try just one more time, dammit. We would have become addicts had not our lack of quarters coincided with our severe lack of natural ability, limiting us to 30 minutes on a good day.

Along with other bad parents, I assume I will be sharing a sort of Superdome-sized stadium in Hell for what happened with my own kids. Over a 15 year period I moved, drifted really, through stages with computers:  Only educational and strictly limited... Okay, a few mindless games just for fun... I will play with them so at least we'll be doing it together...Well they know it is only fantasy violence...God I am tired of always fighting with them over the same thing... and finally, pathetically... I give up.  

 Simultaneously, computers moved out of the lobby of the 7-11 into the study or the family room, then to every room. The games went from a small, white triangle spitting out dots of light that made rock-shapes break into smaller accelerated rock-shapes, to 16 million color 3D cities where one made money dealing drugs and killing other drug lords, and one's avatar had the option of paying for the services of a prostitute and drowning her in the ocean afterward. Corporations made billions and said it was up to the parents to monitor the situation. The government said their hands were tied this being the land of the free (but to cover their moral asses they had them put little labels on them like "M" for mature if the entire point of the game was wholesale slaughter). Nearly every boy I knew dreamed of designing the next generation of graphics, and overnight by golly there truly were many high paying jobs in the field, even professional 'gamers', and in America the money don't lie.  Pops- look how much fun that ludicrously rich 24 year old game designer is having with his entourage while you are in your dead-end teaching job, fighting to keep your health benefits every three years, teaching a skill that by all signs has been defunct since the invention of Sparknotes.

I explained to the volunteers that I couldn't recall any drinking games per se in Colorado in the late 70's. We just called it 'drinking', keeping our ping pong, or more likely pool or poker, separate. Perhaps this explains why, 40 years later, though I did not perform with any prowess at 'flip cup', I kicked ass and took names at darts, despite a Parkinson's worthy tremor in my throwing hand. It seems to me that the joy of a game is in the attempt to control one's body and the physics of the situation, to calibrate and to adjust, to sense and act. Back in the day, the alcohol was a social lubricant, a courage enhancer. More and more it seems consumption itself is the game, and how the hell do you win that?  Soon the only 'play' left will be organized sports and video games. I cannot stand playing video games. After 10 minutes or so of twiddling the controller I develop an irresistible urge to take a meat cleaver and chop off my aching fingers (the second five would certainly be a challenge). It is not just the sinews in my hands, it is something in my cerebellum, swelling painfully, aching to be lanced. It is the same throbbing dullness after spending more than an hour 'surfing the net', which gets me looking for the nearest pointy objects to shove into my eyeballs. Yet I can readily see from my time in Thailand that I am just one cog-click back on the machine of increasingly sedentary, nature-removed lives. What that machine is going to eventually crank out is anyone's guess. I am betting on some kind of twitching thing, all fingers and eyeballs and a nano second attention span.

Poverty has obvious drawbacks. I hardly need to list them here. I think about them every time I stand cursing out in the hot sun waiting on the bus, which may be 10 minutes or an hour or may not show up at all. The rich hurtle by me en route to a timely arrival at their destinations, cocooned in air conditioned cages of steel and glass. When you are poor you are at the mercy of the vagaries of the world and of the rich. You are less comfortable and less safe. One of the reasons the Thais don't get all that shook up by the deaths and injuries suffered is because they are simply more in the spectrum of       'normal'.

But wealth, too, comes with a host of nasty side effects. I see that obesity continues to spiral upwards in the US; anti-depressant use doubled between 1996 and 2005, across all age groups; ADHD is rocketing upwards, and those left undiagnosed are likely to use their peers' adderol as a study aid come exam time. I would not point to the US as a 'healthy' place for children today and not just because of poverty, which remains a real problem in both rural and urban areas, but because of our wealth.

Poor Thai village kids spend a great deal of time in unsupervised, unstructured activity. No one casts an eye over the children as they play at recess or in the morning. There is no such beast called a "monitor", of the halls, of the playground, of the empty classroom. Many volunteers find this laissez faire attitude horrifying. Raised in 'good' middle and upper class suburban families, they see the adults' first role as one of keeping children out of harm's way. This means constant vigilance. If a child is going to encounter any potentially emotional, intellectual, or physical experience it must be vetted first for any potential negative impact. It means if a child is to be allowed to run, it will be on a sandy beach or a manicured lawn. If they fall down the adult must drop everything and rush to comfort. If it turns out there was a rock on the lawn or a piece of glass on the beach, sue someone. We back up our case with the latest psychological and behavioral studies and work through the legal system to force any recalcitrant holdouts. I suspect it is some kind of deep seated DNA protection driven impulse, but once one has money the first thing one does is label youth as 'precious' and treat it as a fragile bauble to be hung up only for admiration. That such a child will forever remain fearful and helpless, as well as narcissistic and demanding, seems almost inevitable. True to form, the teachers who work at the "good" high school in the city, where the "rich" Thais send their kids hate teaching there for two reasons, because the children are spoiled little shits and they run the school.

Back in the village, kids are getting their hands and feet busy. They are poor so they work.
The kids make the lunch for the whole school. Every day.
 But young Thai kids also spend enormous parts of every day playing. No refs, no organizers; at most a haggard net, a dirty ball, sometimes just a low hanging leaf or a work cart.
In my next post I will show you examples of some of the many games I have watched this past year. They come and go in an obsessive, faddish way; a certain game will be all the rage across the whole school for weeks and then disappear overnight, to be replaced by something else.

1 comment:

  1. I once bought a big tub for mixing cement. I filled it with water so I could get an idea of how much it held, since I was just learning about cement. Ming (5 at the time) jumped in and frolicked frenetically. She was ecstatic. BUT, you should have seen the expression on her face when the truck showed up with 5Q of sand. Queen of the hill is much different that king of the hill.

    Yes, it has always impressed me how well the village children play with almost nothing; intently, contently and for extended quiet periods.

    I pointed out a strange bird the other day. Ming got a chair and sat there watching it like it was her favorite cartoon, maybe more attentively.