Jamming the Signals

He won’t stop talking about them. “In Animal Jam, my daddy plays on his laptop too and I made another pet who is just like the fox, and there were these phantoms I put in a crate, and. . .” The mere possibility of more screen time before bed reveals this unrecognizable boy who:

  • plays 45 minutes of basketball at the park and even shares his ball with a neighbor
  • finishes his spelling words (15 right, no mistakes!)
  • reads two chapters of his Bunny Private Eye book out loud
  • finishes dinner too fast, including all the broccoli
  • lets mama clip his scraggly fingernails
  • brushes teeth
  • changes clothes
  • does it all without a moment’s hesitation by 7:40 p.m.

“Yes!” he shouts as he jets across the living room. “Twenty minutes!” He plops himself down before the the growling, pinging machine and goes from dervish to droid in half a blink.
 
Seven years, and I finally gave in. Video games now live on the computer and my boy has a hand-held tablet at his disposal. It was only supposed to be weekends. Or maybe it was only supposed to be in exchange for reading. Or maybe on a timer-measured budget. Whatever model-parent solution I meant to try, we ended up here. The boy deliberates vocally about his moves while we’re dressing. Plans strategies in the car. Describes in excrutiating detail what he likes about the characters as we eat waffles. Lists the games he wants next and outlines their endless benefits as I brush his hair.
 
He talks. And talks. And TALKS about video games.
 
We keep the gaming down to little pit stops along the winding adventure of our days. We go ponk a tennis ball around a court or ice skate or visit friends. We slop around a trail or bake cakes or scoot around the block. We blare music and read joke books and draw. Then and only then does is Bug free to travel to pixel world. I hate seeing his turbo-charged engine idling to a stall as he hunches over his latest visual fixation. This kind of play may require cognitive engagement and it sure beats TV and cheetos, but here is what gaming isn’t:
 
Motion. Friends. Planting. Body. Magic.
 
Pulse.
 
Seeking.
 
Song.
 
Yet for all it is not, Bug’s new diversions prey on his attention even in their absence. Especially in their absence. Their sirens call. He talks and talks more until I finally bark,
 
Enough. For every minute you talk about video games, you lose one minute of playing them.”
 
Which is unfair and childish, but oh, how badly I wanted a home free of that electronic static. I wanted no static. All dynamic. All flesh and soil and story. But this is not my home. It is our home, Bug’s and mine. My son will have his loves. Some will baffle me. Others will make my skin itch. In any event, this kid should be free to feel his way and free to talk about the shape his desires take.
 
Still. I don’t take back the threat. Not yet.
 
In bed, we have finished books (one about Hieronymous Bosch, for god’s sake) when Bug turns and says, “One day, I’ll have a house with nothing but video games. Computers and ipads and video games.”
 
“Yeah?” I look at him. “One day, I’m going to have a house with 37-foot ceilings and a giant swing hanging right in the middle. And a three-story treehouse bed you have to climb a winding ladder to get into. Do you know what will be at the end of the bed?”
 
“What?”
 
“Big jars full of paint. So you can paint right on the ceiling above the bed what you want to see when you are dreaming. And my house will have an ice cream factory right inside with all the stuff for any flavor anyone wants to make. And a trampoline floor. And above the trampoline, a trapeze.”
 
“A bunch of trapezes,” he says. “So you can go down, and bounce up again, and swing.” He is arcing his stuffed polar bear through the air. “And go down and up and down and up and. . .”
 
“And a basketball court. And I’ll be able to make it really cold and turn it into a ice rink with flashing lights.”
 
“And 38 dogs,” he adds.
 
“Right. And a pool with a glass bottom so you can go under and see all the people swimming with all the dogs, and it’ll be just like the water-bowl-cam on Puppy Bowl.”
 
“And we’ll have the kitty halftime show.”
 
“And a whole room full of musical instruments. Anything you want to play, anywhere.”
 
“Except when you’re pooping,” he says.
 
“Are you kidding? Especially then. We’ll have a violin right there next to the toilet.”
 
“Not when you’re playing basketball.”
 
“Why not? I’ll put bells on everyone’s ankles so when they’re playing it’ll be like ching-ching-da-ding SWOOSH!”
 
“Is that someone making a basket?” He asks.
 
“Yep, and all the other players will be all jumping and jingling when you score the 3-pointer, it’ll be all jing-ding-a-ding-jing, like jazz.”
 
“What’s jazz?” Bug asks.
 
I explain that jazz is an American musical form rooted in the. . .
 
“No, how does it go?”
 
I attempt to bop-hmm through the opening bars of Charles Mingus’ Prayer for Passive Resistance. “Sorta like that.”
 
From who-knows-where, he asks, “What’s the blues?”
 
I turn and face him.
 
Well I woke up this morning. I reached across the bed. I went to hug my baby but I hugged a cold teddy bear instead.
 
I give his bear a limp squeeze. Bug is looking a little sideways at me. I kick it up.
 
Oh, I got so hungry for a sweet pickle but there’s none left in the jar, my baby got up in the night, ate the last pickle and drove off in my car.
 
Where the hell is this coming from? I belt it out before my mind can catch it.
 
Oh, I know she done left me because I’ve been gettin’ home late, I ain’t helped with the dishes and I left old cheese stuck to my plate. O-o-oh I got the blues. I got the empty bed, no pickle, teddy bear blues.
 
Bug bounces his polar bear and grins. I tell him the blues are usually about someone leaving.
 
“Like what?”
 
“Like. . . ”
 
I woke up this morning.
 
“The blues are always starting when you wake up.”
 
Looked for my panting dog. Ain’t no fuzzy tail a-thumping and the house is cold as a fallen log. I got the blues. I got the dog-gone-to-leprechaun-heaven blues.
 
“No, she didn’t go to leprechaun heaven.” He looks at me then tucks his head and sorta-smiles. Our pooch died on St. Patrick’s day. “That’s right. I forgot. Okay. Sing more.”
 
I reached for my furry lop-eared girl but she’s not there to warm my hands. Ain’t got no one to wake me up or lick bacon grease off the pan.
 
“I could do it,” Bug volunteers.
 
Oh, we got the blues. I wrap both boy and polar bear in a squeeze. The no Fenway in the morning, fallen-log, dog-gone, teddy bear blu-u-ues.
 
“Look,” Bug says. He pulls a tangle of Fenway’s black fur from his polar bear’s coat. “She left this.” He hands it to me and I rub the little remnant of our dopey girl between my fingers. Bug turns and curls around the bear. I tuck the fluff into my back pocket and curl around him.
 
Mama’s feeling good. For the moment, her boy’s absorbed in something. It’s raw and sweet hits the blue notes. And it sure won’t fit on a screen. Not even this one.
 

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10 thoughts on “Jamming the Signals”

  1. This is amazing.
    I need to go back and read it a few more times.
    So much going on in this post.

    Charlie Mingus, oh yeah!

    Also loved Joni’s album ‘Mingus.”
    And I still play computer games I must confess. Not the first person shooters, but games like Civilization, Tropico, and SimCity.

    1. Thanks! It’s funny. I’m not a tech teetotaler. It’s all a matter of proportion. Ideally, screens would just be one of many forms of media in which my son engages. In a proper rotation, video games might appear once every two weeks. Painting, baking, rock climbing, snake handling, archaeology, stargazing, flamenco, and leatherwork can keep him occupied on the days in between.

  2. what a good momma you are; your boy will remember your imagination, and take far more cues from it than from the video games over the span of his whole life. I had a momma just like you, and what lives in my mind is her amazing ability to make something from nothing. I guess you could say we were poor. she was 21, I was 3. I asked for a paint set. she didn’t say we couldn’t afford it. she took me by the hand with a muffin tin, and we filled the cups with bright colored flower petals, leaves and grass from the little woods behind our house. we had no paper – so she cut blank sections from old magazines. we sat at a make-shift picnic table in the sun, and she placed a petal on a slice of paper, then gently put her finger atop mine, and pressed it in a small streak. I will never forget the wonder and delight of making designs with the colors that came from flowers, leaves, and grass. imagination often gives way to tangible creativity, a live entity that courses through our veins and be so big it can save lives…you really are a good momma…

    love,

    karen

      1. Seriously. I love your voice. And I struggle with the same issues with my 9 year old. I hate how zoned out the screens make them but I absolutely love and laud your positive, creative way of jamming the signals. Your mind is impressively imaginative.

      2. One of my colleagues disagrees with my inclusion of “magic” on the list of things video games are not. He argues that within the realm of the game, a player can make magic. His comment is forcing me to look more closely at the wonder, power, and imagination my son is able to express inside the game’s world. We’ll still strive for well-proportioned variety, but maybe I can ease up on the rigidity a bit.

      3. Hm. I’m not sure about the magic. Creativity, imagination maybe. Motor and computer skills, too. But the creativity and imagination you are teaching him outside the computer games (I think) is so much more valuable. So much more mind-expanding. Your colleague can disagree but you don’t necessarily have to alter your way of thinking. Then again, you can always disagree with me too!

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