Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Play-Dating Scene

581-3398.  That was my best friend's phone number when I was ten.  I'd call Mary Beth up, and then I'd walk over to her house and we'd play for the afternoon.  No parents were consulted.

I knew Mary Beth's dog before I knew Mary Beth.  His name was Chummy and he was a Black Lab, more or less.  Like my 145-pound St. Bernard, Susie, and everybody else's dog, Chummy just wandered around the neighborhood, saying hello to whomever he pleased and pooping wherever he wanted.

Fast forward to 2013.  Before we moved to this farm, Josh could walk out the door and usually find a neighborhood friend.  But, as the kids on the block acquired X-Boxes and Play Station, finding someone to play required knocking on doors and either joining in or prying someone away from their game.

If Josh couldn't find anyone to play with, he'd ask me to call a friend's mom.

Can you ask Joe's mom if I can come over?

I can't invite you over to his house, but you can invite him over to our house.

Joe doesn't want to come over.  He's playing on his X-Box.

Well then, I don't know what to tell ya.

I used to invite myself over to Mary Beth's house every day. My dad and I used to stop off at his friends' houses unannounced every week and stay for hours.  I'd play with their kids and he'd hang out with the parents.

My one single regret about moving to the farm is that I have to pursue play-dates for Josh, because it's totally my fault that we no longer live in a neighborhood filled with kids.

Many parents are used to making play dates, but I find it daunting.

First of all, you have to establish a rapport with the other kid's mom.  You have to get her cell-phone number.  That closes the deal.  No number, no deal.

Sometimes, this means loitering around after school lets out.  As the unwitting target picks up her child, you make your move.

Hi, my name is Jess!, I'm Josh's mom.

Oh, hi!  I'm Nancy, Mickey's mom.

Josh was hoping that he and Mickey might get together for a play-date sometime.

(Don't say "sometime."  "Sometime" is weak.)

I wait for the pained expression to wash over her face.  How many kids does she have?  Two?  Four?  If she doesn't have a calendar on her phone, she has absolutely no idea when Mickey could possibly squeeze in a play-date.

If Mickey plays ice hockey--forget it.  Your kid is never getting a play-date.  Between out-of-town games and practices, Mickey needs a play date like feet need warts.

Unlike your only child, who is not into sports, Mickey is doing just fine.

For the first play-date, and maybe all of them, Mickey's mom prefers to have the play-date at her home, rather than let him go to some stranger's home, where he might be tempted to play Call of Duty for four solid hours while eating Halloween candy and drinking Mt. Dew.

And then there's the allergies thing.

One of Josh's friends has a hard time breathing in our house, due to cat allergies.

Most parents want their child to breathe.

You hate to ask, as you load the prized date into your mini-van, Did he pack his epi pen?

When I pick Josh up at the end of the play-date, (can I just call it a date?  would that be weird?), Mickey's mom gives me a full report.

They had fun outside bouncing around on the trampoline for half an hour. Then I gave them a healthy snack and they played Legos for two hours.

Then, inevitably, wait for it...

Always with the same pained confessional expression, she inhales and admits that my child has spent the last hour and (she looks at her watch) ten minutes playing Mine Craft.

I never know what to say at such moments.

To tell her, I'm on a need-to-know basis, seems cold.

To scowl, with imperious contempt, seems inappropriate.

So, I screw up my mouth into what I hope is a reassuring and good-humored smile.  It is a smile that is meant to say, your secret is safe with me! 

But, the fact that I don't appear to be at all concerned, while it may give Mickey's mom some immediate relief of conscience, it does not bode at all well for Josh ever having Mickey over to our house for a play-date.

And of course, you can't invite yourself over to Mickey's house.  He's had you over several times already. So there we are.

But we did get a play-date with Mickey (not his real name) at our house!

And so, to avoid Josh and Mickey becoming sedentary from the moment they entered our house, I dropped them off at the edge of the neighboring field, which had been recently harvested, suggesting they walk the one-quarter mile to our house.

Mickey was thrilled by the prospect of adventure.

I could see them from the road as I drove home.

I patted myself on the back for giving them the illusion of  independence, even though they were always visible to me, and our barn was always visible to them.

But I had let them out on the road to the town park, but not near the parking lot that sometimes featured high school kids in cars shooting up heroin.  

That turned out to be an indigestible detail for Mickey's mom, who could not wait to drive away from my house with her son so she could check his arms for track marks at the very first stop sign.

At such times, I miss our old neighbors, who probably thought that I was the most overweening and conventional mom on the street, because Josh is not allowed to play first-person slaughter games.

Except for Skyrim.  Josh is allowed to play Skyrim, but only with play-dates who can answer the following question correctly:

What is the empire waiting for as it hangs in the balance?

(Correct answer:  The empire is waiting for the coming of the prophesied Dragonborn.)

Why did I buy Skyrim?  Four words:  Really Good Critical Reviews.  I'm a sucker for RGCR.

I know that the things we choose to let our children watch or read or play can ruin their life.  Because when I was in eighth grade, I announced to my Republican, Irish-Catholic, South Braintree, Massachusetts cohorts that I was an atheist.

Of course, I was merely parroting my Atheist-Judeo-Unitarian (and later, Islamic) parents.  I was not really in possession of any kind of spiritual or religious identity of my own--pro, con, or otherwise. But, for a tinderbox, it would do.

Rather than feeding Josh a constant strain of pablum, I choose to warn him that he might want to not mention the title of his bed-time book, GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU, which, I hasten to point out, received Really Good Critical Reviews.

I wasn't planning to buy it.  Even I could see that it was unnecessarily inflammatory.  But, the owner of the comic book store praised my selection of books, and assured me that I really needed to have GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU, and that not only should my ten-year-old read it, but I should certainly read it as well.   

It's brilliant.  The critics adore it.  

So I bought it, putting out of my mind the inevitable loss of play-dates with the Hillcrest Bible set.  

Don't bring this up in recess, I warned Josh.  Or, if you do, maybe don't mention the title.

What can I say?, he asks.

And I want to answer, Very little, if you want to play it safe.

When Josh read Art Spiegleman's MAUS,  I did some advance damage control.  To put the whole German thing into perspective, I reminded him that we lived in a part of the United States where you couldn't swing a cat (at least not in town) without hitting a person of German ancestry.  And, I reminded him that he himself, as well as I, was of German extraction, on my father's side.

I will admit, I'm not always spot-on when assessing developmentally appropriate material for my kid.

When Josh was thirteen months old, if he showed no interest in a particular toy, I'd give it away.  And then, maybe two years later, he would play with that same toy at someone else's house.  And I'd remind him,  That used to be your toy, but you didn't like it.  So I gave it away.

Yes.  So often, it really is better to say nothing.

Flash back to yesteryear.  By the time I was Josh's age, 10, I'd already seen The Godfather at the Drive-In with my parents. In particular, I saw the scene with the horse in the bed.  You know the one.  Don't make me say it.  I haven't slept well in 38 years.

So, to recap, Josh doesn't watch The Godfather.  He doesn't play Call of Duty.  He does play Skyrim.  I am determined not to buy Assassin's Creed.  He goes to church sometimes, but he may insist that he doesn't believe in God.  (I assure you, on that point, he has no idea what he's talking about.)

If we moved a few miles north to Madison, I think we'd get more play-dates. I could even see myself getting a little impatient with those raw-food folks up there, who feed their babies strips of kelp.  But, I would still go out to Blain's Farm & Fleet to buy packs of kelp, so when their little sea urchin came over to our house for a play-date, he'd have something to nibble on while Josh drank his Mt. Dew, ate Halloween candy, and played Assassin's Creed.

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