Why I Probably Won’t Play With Your Kid

Note: I wrote this in 2010, when my son was barely six years old.

This may seem heartless or callous to some, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately.

I enjoy hanging out with my son. Whether we’re building things with Legos, folding complex paper airplanes, or just exploring streets deserted by builders caught in a recession, he’s a positive presence in my life. Heck, I even like doing math flashcards with him. Listening to him read? Goes without saying. Sheer delight.

The moment another child is added into the mix, with rare situational exceptions, my interest plummets to zero.

I think this is because in all my 30 years prior to having my own child, I had no interest in children. Perhaps because I was the youngest in my family (that I saw frequently), I didn’t have any experience with children until the birth of our son. I know many men fit that description, but I also see several who possess a seemingly innate ability to jump in with a group of kids and know what to do.

Whatever it is, I don’t seem to have it.

Sometimes it troubles me, but mostly I just let it roll. When my son has a peer over to our house, or we visit one of his friends, I immediately consider it his free time to interact with someone his own age. I am sure I will feel differently in the future, based on what numerous empty-nesters have told me, but for now I just switch into grown-up mode (I didn’t say mature) and cherish the time we adults enjoy covering topics and humor we reserve for just such moments.

Maybe it’s a general social attitude. Superficial social situations do not appeal to me, and I always have preferred small get-togethers over large parties. For the most part, if I can’t hang out with people I really have an interest in and/or care for, I prefer being alone. This intensifies when it comes to children, requiring actual blood relation to get my interest.

Even that doesn’t always help.

I applaud those men who jump in there and become one of the kids. I guess I’m just a stick in the mud.

Do You Read As Much As You Used To?

I haven’t finished reading a book in at least a year, and I blame most of that on the drastic change in my lunch hour.

I never was a fast reader, instead poring over the words at pretty much the same pace one might speak them aloud. I always had a book going, and finished three or four a year by various authors, but not usually the latest bestsellers. Although I read mostly fiction, I occasionally threw in a collection of essays by a reporter or columnist here and there.

My time to read came mostly at the office, where I almost always ate lunch alone. I preferred not to spend money eating out, and relatively few of my co-workers brought food from home. A book was my refuge. For that one hour, while chomping on my sandwich or slurping my soup, I escaped into a world created by another person’s words.

When I wasn’t reading words, I was writing them. Sometimes I wrote blog posts. I spent several months co-writing a screenplay that, three years later, finally is seeing the start of its much-deserved revision process.

Then, in 2014, we moved and I switched positions in my company. I worked in the home office, which features a cheap and high-quality cafeteria. For very little over what I was paying to buy the ingredients, I could buy lunch, pre-tax out of my paycheck.

At first I maintained my solo lunch status and read on my Kindle. I could sit outside when the weather allowed, and did that even on hot days because I was chilled by the office’s thermostat setting. Without actual pages to turn, I enjoyed the breeze.

Then, as I got to know my co-workers within our cubicles’ confines, I started feeling the pull of socialization. Buying lunch and walking past familiar faces to go eat alone was quite different from passing through a room full of strangers.

I enjoyed my social lunches, but my reading time went to almost nothing. I was limited to brief bursts of five to 10 pages at a time at home. When my son’s daily reading time fell during my off hours, I sat and read for a half hour. If I sat still at night to read any longer or later than that, I invariably fell asleep.

Okay, I’ll come completely clean. For years I had been a sucker for the DVR, and then Netflix added compelling original series. Those two things combined with my newfound love of mountain biking to almost completely supplant my reading time. Largely because of mountain biking, my time using Facebook also has increased since our move. You know, Facebook, that entity that I blame for the death of my best personal writing outlet.

Ever since I have been working from home, I use my lunch hours to hang out with my wife or to ride a nearby local trail. As much as I love reading, those two things beat it every time.

I started reading Ysabel by favorite Guy Gavriel Kay, but its plot leaned too much on a supernatural theme that didn’t interest me, and its protagonists were teenagers. After a couple hundred pages I just wasn’t into it, so I stopped. While disappointing, that was not surprising considering Kay’s fantasy origins.

For months now I have been nursing a good and lengthy book called Carrion Comfort, by favorite Dan Simmons. He’s always top-notch at developing characters and weaving a yarn, but the chapters told from the antagonist’s point of view do not interest me. He killed off one of the most compelling characters barely half way into the book (if that far).

Despite those excuses, the decline in my reading is all my fault.

Do you read as much as you did in the past?

So What if It Doesn’t Light Up or Make Sound?

I worry that reading anything longer than a few sentences is becoming a dying art, and our increasing reliance on technology is ushering it to the graveyard. I’m just as guilty as the next person of helping it happen.

Once our son is in bed, my first thought is, “What can we watch?” If my wife turns in early for the evening, it’s, “What can I watch?”

My wife and I watch a few TV shows together, via DVR, but far fewer than we did before we had a child. After all, when your TV watching begins at 8:30 p.m. or so instead of 5:00 or 6:00 o’clock, there’s only so much you can fit in before bed time. Recording shows for viewing on our own schedule is not new to us. Before DVR, we re-used seven VHS tapes, religiously, each labeled for a day of the week, to record our shows. When the image quality got bad enough, we replaced the tapes.

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Beating the Dead Horse Called Customer Service

Customer service truly is a dying art. In some places, it’s dead and being beaten.

My nine-year-old son and I ventured to our city’s historic downtown district on Sunday afternoon. Our goals were simple: enjoy the 80-degree weather in December and find something for him at the Star Wars toy store. For five dollars.

On the drive there he and I grabbed some fast food, because our cupboard had been bare, and buying food downtown was not in our budget. For that I used all but one dollar of the cash I had brought with me. The boy had the cash he needed, and I didn’t intend to buy anything, so I wasn’t concerned.

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What Do You Remember From When You Were Eight?

It’s strange, the things I remember from childhood. My son’s eight years old, and although I don’t remember much from when I was that age, the things I recall are as clear as if they happened yesterday.

I know I was in Mrs. Elslander’s 3rd grade class, but I don’t remember much about her or what we learned. She was probably about 60 or 65 and had salt-and-pepper hair done up in a bouffant.

This is when a middle school or high school kid stopped by our recess one day and taught us a dirty rhyme about King Kong playing ping-pong, and when an unkempt kid our age told us a dirty joke about little Johnny Harder. I still remember that joke, but I won’t be repeating it here.

We also had music class, where we played games like guessing TV show theme songs our teacher had recorded by setting her cassette recorder next to the television. When not doing that, we played games directed by the song “What Are You Wearing? (Today, today)” If you’re wearing shoes, stand up, the man sang, and all of us dutifully stood until he sang a line like, If you’re wearing a belt, sit down. With a substitute teacher we learned diction using the classic, “What do you think, of Bobby Link, who went for a swim, with nothing to drink, but iced tea, hot tea, milk in a jug in a kitchen sink?”

Then there are the lyrics to this classic. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree-e, merry merry king of the bush is he-e, laugh, kookaburra laugh, kookaburra, gay your life must be.” A teacher now wouldn’t dare try to teach that song to the children. (The rock band Men at Work got sued many years later, by the way, for allegedly copying that song’s tune for the catchy flute part in their hit “Down Under.”)

I remember playing with a parachute in gym class. Each of us would grab the edge of the parachute and spread out, then lift it while stepping under it. We would drop to a sitting position and let it float down over us.

A harpsichordist came to the gym and played for us. The sound mesmerized me. From that moment forward I stop and listen to hapsichord whenever I have a chance, completely rapt.

My only time to get beat up (so far) happened at about that age, too. I made fun of a new kid named Patrick (last name withheld) for his precious Minnesota Vikings’ many near misses, and he summarily pinned me and practiced bouncing his fists off my face. I wasn’t normally a bully — the kid just snapped, and in that way he resembled Ralphie wailing on Scott Farkus in “A Christmas Story.” He sat over me flailing blindly, his bleary eyes behind thick glasses. I don’t remember who saved me, but no doubt it was a teacher.

I remember the old car tires, brightly painted and lined up, half sunk into concrete to form a tunnel; the big, stainless steel slide high enough to actually build up speed by the time we reached the bottom; the heavy kid who loved to strand you on the see-saw so that you plummeted and landed with a resonant whump on the wood shavings.

In there somewhere was lots of math, spelling, and language arts. I’m sure some science and history, too, but again, my recollection of the academic side of grammar school is sketchy.

Every time I sipped from the drinking fountain, I laughed when the water pressure went down with the toilet flush from the nearby restrooms. “Yucky, we’re drinking toilet water!” I said, but I don’t recall anyone laughing.

Looking back, I wonder what things my son will remember when he’s 40 years old. If I’m still around, I’ll ask him. Meanwhile, what do you recall?