Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Toys, and what they tell
These (pictured at left) are the sorts of toys that kids used to treasure. Long before Bratz, Transformers and Wii topped Christmas lists, plain old handmade playthings were the cherished items in a child’s world. I re-read some sections from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s wonderful Little House series of books, and was astounded to be reminded of that little girl’s joy upon receiving a little tin cup, a cake baked with white sugar, and a penny. Her very own penny.
It made me more than nostalgic; it made me ill. Not because she lacked so much, not that at all—but because we take so much for granted, and squander what we’re given. And it’s not just the thanklessness and wastefulness that’s horrible: we also don’t cherish much of anything at all, including each other. The toys were simple back then, and if one were lost (Laura’s rag doll disappeared for months after she was forced to give it away—she mourned ceaselessly until rediscovering it in a frozen puddle) then the kid simply went without, made her own toys, borrowed a sibling’s for a moment. Children didn’t have 25 other things to choose from. Perhaps the well-to-do kids had plenty of toys back in the day, but I’m fairly certain they weren’t electronic robots or dogs and cats that you plugged into a computer to care for.
Our modern grown-up toys aren’t much better. How many grownups with too much spending money stood in line for days, awaiting the release of the newest PlayStation? Or scrambled among other crazed shoppers, trying to secure the latest iPhone? Aren’t foolish amounts of money spent on boats, ATVs, snowmobiles? And those are just expensive toys, for most of us—I don’t know a single person who uses one of those items for income purposes or to assist in the management of a business. Sony is releasing a 120-inch television; hello, did anyone else out there read Fahrenheit 451? Remember the huge TV screens that made up a wall of one’s home? Sound familiar? And how many idiots will join a waiting list to buy one for their home theater systems?
After Christmas passed recently, I had to step away from the entire subject for a few weeks because this year, it went beyond reminding me of how materialistic and commercialized Christmas has become: I became inextricably immersed in the understanding that our entire culture is backwards. I hear this at church, and I know in my head it’s true…but when my heart truly grasps it, I just need to sit down and let the queasiness pass.
We’re seriously screwed up. Most of the time, in most households, our priorities are very misplaced.
And I’m no better. Here I sit, typing this pointless entry in an online journal that I don’t need, which does not support me and does nothing to forward the betterment of humanity. It helps me a little, helps me to organize thoughts, to rid myself of frustrations, but honestly, it’s no different from any of the other useless pursuits, toys or otherwise, that my fellow modern civilized folks are chasing. Being online? All it does is permit me to avoid people while still laboring under the delusion that I’m reaching out. Why are kids so into texting? MySpace? iPods? Those tools allow them to avoid each other, to stay somewhat removed from messy, risky personal involvement with anyone. We grownups are no different.
Back in frontier days, toys were simpler and life was simpler. Most time was spent surviving, so free time for adults was minimal, and toys for adults were likely unheard of, at least until the past century. Very few people made it on their own—teamwork was a must. Life spans were shorter; kids became adults much sooner. No one had time to try to create “time-saving” technology. Families waited for the children to become old enough to help, and then put them to work; no one was agonizing about whether or not they’d find an Elmo like Junior wanted, or whether the DVD they’d picked up for Little Miss had the extra features on it.
Is this progress, really? Yeah, people live longer. Yeah, I saw on PBS where they’re using stem cells to regenerate a dead rat’s heart in some lab in Missouri. Yeah, that’s amazing. But is it progress? Should we be proud of a civilization that has advanced itself enough to support people in need, but chooses instead to upgrade versions once again? Or even worse, agonizes over which scripted reality star is targeted this week? I have a hard time imagining life in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time; I have an even harder time trying to imagine how disappointed she’d be if she saw what we’ve become in such a short time.
Is it only me? Or are some of you concerned, too?