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A Brief Interlude Before Christmas

I was in a bit of a hurry with the last entry, and there were some things I meant to flesh out a bit better than I did. Also, the holiday season has brought new excitement into our lives. So, in an effort to keep up...

Games and Entertainment
My parents took Theron down to the park last Sunday. This was part of our usual Sunday routine, which allows them to spend time with the baby and allows my wife and myself to get things done. It was a nice day (around 75 F, in December, but why worry about Global Warming?) and the park was full of people.

Theron doesn't mind playing with other kids. He's a little juggernaut; he doesn't much care about falling or being knocked over, and he isn't terribly intimidated by kids who are twice his size. That's partly because nobody's ever been deliberately mean to him; most little kids are basically nice, if they notice him at all.

While they were down there, my father -- who is friendly to a fault -- was accosted by a five-year-old who apparently wanted, more than anything else in the world, for someone to pay some attention to him. The boy's father was present, but talking on his cell phone (at least at first), and didn't seem to be a bad guy. He tried to set limits for the child, (e.g. "Don't bother the nice man.") and he wasn't mean or anything. He'd brought the kid out to the park, so he was at least trying. He just didn't seem to know how to actually play with his son.

(I suspect that hanging up the phone would have been a very good start, but I may have that backwards. That is, he may not have trouble playing with his son because he spends all his time on the phone. It may be that he spends his time on the phone because he has no idea how to interact with his son. Either way, it's pretty sad.)

Years ago, while I was in graduate school, I covered my expenses by working the night shift at a drug and alcohol rehab center... in the unit where they housed the teen boys. (Say it with me: "May I never be so desperate for money again.") As a job, it was much like the punishment of Sisyphus, but with additional scorn from the inmates. Most of the kids were there because they'd gotten into legal trouble, and had elected to try rehab in order to avoid actual sentencing. The majority were upper-middle class kids; a few were there because of alcohol, but most had at least some experience with drugs, and almost all of them smoked.

Among the other things they had in common (lack of respect for authority, no understanding of the concept of a social contract, a nearly desperate interest in any glimpse of the teen girls at the facility), the one which I found most striking was this: while they wanted to be constantly entertained, they had almost no ability to entertain themselves. They would occasionally tell each other stories, but those were short and basically just conversational. ("Oh, yeah? I knew a girl like that. She once...") We had "game night" once a week, and they essentially had to be forced to play. They didn't really tell jokes -- not that they didn't have any sense of humor, just that it tended to crude and kind of dumb. The idea of a good joke -- a play on words or a neat connection of ideas -- was basically foreign to them. They could repeat what they'd already heard, but not come up with anything new. They didn't read (dare I say, "Of course"?) unless forced to it. Substance abuse was the closest thing to a hobby that most of them had.

This is how Theron plays in the sink.
(Click for video.)

Theron, by contrast, is quite capable of entertaining himself -- and he gets better at it every day. As I write, he is fiddling with the kitchen sink. (He likes playing with water.) Earlier, he was playing with the (unplugged) telephone. He's starting to get interested in books, though he's still a bit young for actual reading. He loves getting attention from his parents, and he likes television (Muppets, at least), but he doesn't actually need them. He's quite capable of inventing his own games.

Austin, the five year old who joined us for Thanksgiving, was not only capable of entertaining himself; he was also quite willing to invent games to play with Theron -- despite the large difference in their ages. (Three and half years isn't much between adults, but for kids... Think about it: Austin is over three times Theron's age.) At one point Austin crawled into the cardboard playhouse and waited inside. Theron would drop stuffed animals in through the hole in the roof, and then giggle maniacally when "the house" (Austin, actually) spit them back out through the front window. They even had sound effects for the different stuffed animals. It was really fun to watch, and a clear indicator that Austin is a good kid.

Having laid out that contrast... I don't want to make too strong a connection here. I am not suggesting that the kid on the playground will grow up to use drugs because his father can't seem to play with him. Nor am I suggesting that substance abuse is caused by a lack of hobbies, or that people become addicts because they're too stupid to find better things to do. Even a passing acquaintance with Al-anon, AA, or NA will demonstrate that such is not the case.

That said, I do worry a little that... well, let me come at this from a different angle. In the present-day United States of America, it is very easy to be entertained. A substantial piece of our economy is built around entertainment. We broadcast television and radio every hour of every day of every week; books, magazines, and newspapers are readily available; movies and video games are constantly being created (or recycled); and that's not even glancing at the manifold possibilities offered by the Internet. In an environment like this, it's very easy to rely on other people to entertain you. I worry that with so much entertainment so readily available, people will forget how to entertain themselves.

...And maybe 'worry' is too strong a word for it. It's not the end of the world if modern people get most of their entertainment from modern sources. Back when they first invented writing, there were people who worried that if it caught on, everyone would come to rely on it and people would lose their ability to remember things. The scenario I just described strikes me as somewhat similar. Also, if you want to worry about the fate of Mankind, I can think of many better reasons to worry.*

However... I do want Theron to be as self-sufficient as possible. I'd like him to have a solid foundation of survival skills. Many, perhaps most, will be skills for survival in the modern world: how to find for a job; how to change a tire; how to balance a checkbook (or whatever electronic equivalent he grows up with); how to avoid getting diseases. Other will be for those (thankfully rare) times when civilization isn't working quite right: how to fight effectively, and when not to; how to ride a bike**; how to find or create potable water; how to administer first aid; how to live in the woods, at least for a little while.

I feel very strongly that knowing how to entertain yourself is a big part of being a well-rounded human being -- not to mention being quite rewarding in its own right. It may not be a survival skill, precisely, but it is an important part of being self-sufficient. I want Theron to grow up feeling the same way.

The Cosmic Horror That Is Santa Claus
Some of you may have noticed that the holiday season is not my favorite time of year. I've mentioned my reasons for this before*** so I won't repeat them again. Last Christmas, Theron was still basically at the Eat-The-Wrapping-Paper stage. This year, I expect he'll have a lot of fun playing with the boxes. With luck, by next year, he'll appreciate the actual presents.

As a ritual part of the Christmas holiday, as decreed by G-d or Natural Law or something equally mysterious, primal, and essentially perverse, we took Theron to get his picture taken with Santa Claus.

If you are a new parent, I will warn you now: Don't do it!

Kids like the idea of Santa Claus. They enjoy getting Santa letters, they like seeing pictures of Santa, or watching cartoons or animated specials with Santa and his reindeer. Unfortunately, the reality of a large, bearded man in a bright red suit sets off all kinds of primal warning signs in the toddler brain. Children know instinctively that anyone dressed like that is going to do horrible, terrible things to them. Things too awful to be imagined by an adult. Things that would shred your very soul if you even considered them. Bad things. The toys are just a front, to fool the gullible adults. The reindeer are really horrible monsters, the elves are secretly cannibals (or worse), and this big guy on the chair is the leader of their evil cult!

Sure, there are some children who actually like Santa. I don't deny it. But if you look, you'll see that they're usually the older ones. Their primal instincts have been dulled by long-term exposure to advertising and Holiday Specials, orchestrated by the North Pole Propaganda Mill. The little kids... they know better.

Still don't believe me? Fine. Click on the image below. But don't say I didn't warn you. And if you're at work, you might want to turn your volume down first.

Caught in Santa's Claws
(Click for video.)

* I'm still hoping for a plague of zombies, personally. I have equipment to deal with that.

** Yes, this is an important emergency survival skill. Think about it: a good bike will allow you to cover a great deal of ground relatively easily. Even in modern American cities, the roads are not sufficient to evacuate an entire city in a limited time frame using automobiles; Hurricane Rita demonstrated that fairly clearly. Bicycles can bypass traffic jams, and be carried through areas where they can't be ridden. Even an amateur can handle routine maintenance and repair on a bicycle. They don't carry as much stuff as an SUV, but that's easily solved: don't bring so much stuff.

*** In last year's Christmas entry, come to think of it.