Friday, July 17, 2009

Silly Kids Games

“Too many people grow up. That’s the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up.” - Walt Disney.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon.

Wake up! Wake up! The sun’s out! Wake up! Play with me! The sun’s out! Play with me! Most parents have heard these phrases or variations thereof; so many times, it would be impossible to tally them. They are the signal of the midget alarm clocks who welcome you back from dreamland. Despite what clichéd claptrap the gumball soup for the soul people will tell you, these wake up calls wear on the cheeriest of parents. “One more minute,” we tell them from under the covers. “Just five more minutes,” we lie to them for parents will take as much sleepytime as entertained toddlers will allow, which needless to say, is rarely more than the aforementioned five minutes. Such innocent requests they have: your presence and participation in games of imagination, the kind that came so easy when you were four and not thirty-four. Now it’s difficult to imagine reading the newspaper or getting ready for work without at least two cups of coffee, much less telling a story about crab robots with laser beaks.

Where did that childhood highway go to? Why is it so hard for some people (yours truly, included) to get back on that rocking horse and dream little dreams in reality? Maybe some of us are waiting for that advancement which takes the knight defending the castle into the realm of Monopoly, Rummy, baseball and games adults enjoy. Whatever the reason, there’s an obvious correlation to children’s knowledge of Dora the Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants compared to the adventures of a pirate on the high seas, fighting off the cousin of the great, white whale. Most of us do partake in these feats of high drama, pretending to be the giant, orange dragon snapping up the king’s men only to meet our demise with a direct hit from the castle cannon – and it is fun. “Again! Again!” they shout. “This time the dragon has five army bad guys.” The endless variations and enthusiasm can be more exhausting than a giant spreadsheet from the depths of hell but they succeed in taking you away from that desk and deadline – even for an hour – and put you back into a world where everything was possible in the confines of your living room.

But the phone rings and as a supposedly responsible adult, it requires answering. “It’ll be just a minute,” you say (because that’s what everyone tends to say) and saving the kingdom becomes a lesser priority than working out weekend plans. As you’re jabbering away, the adventure continuing without you, you notice the calendar citing bills to pay, a kitchen with dirty dishes and a certain instinct telling you there’s e-mails that need answering. One task glides into the next; time slips by until “Mommy! Daddy! Play with me!” “Just a few minutes”, you say (even though the time will significantly longer). As you notice piles of laundry which need washing, the path to that magical castle where the bad guys have just turned into zombies is as far away as that extra five minutes of slumber which never seems to happen. All these little things add up to what tends to be called responsibility and responsibility isn’t always the trait of a knight needed to save the kingdom.

“Daddy! Mommy! Look! I make a pretty picture.” The work of art isn’t on the Sesame Street coloring book but all over a little girl’s face. Resembling a two-year old William Wallace, red and white streaks cover a tiny smiling face looking for approval. As artistic as it may be, thoughts come into the mind of a grocery store trip and a little girl looking like a human color palate. Bathroom time. Facial artwork has no place in a coffee shop or in the produce aisle – or so we’ve been accustomed to believe. Most parents want to encourage the little artist latent in all our brains, but not when it defaces a Pink Floyd tour poster. They can be so funny, these little ones. But why can’t they understand they are other things needed to be done every day besides coloring dinosaurs? Unless a meteor makes a mortgage extinct, there’s always a different priority. “Look!” I took my pretty dress off!” Unless you want your daughter to star in a local production of “Showgirls”, certain mores and customs need to be taught and explained.

I began to notice my little ones picking up on the importance of being a grown up. “Can I talk to Mommy on the phone?” used to be such an innocuous request but has now turned into a mental debate of a kid holding an uber-expensive device, without which our lives might surely implode. I noticed myself holding my phone to my kids’ ears and pulling it away at the second inclination of a grab. I thought about all the times way back in the seventies how fun it was to dial a phone number and talk to Grandma or Grandpa. Now it seems we encourage children to the cell phone market by the sad means of denying them access to it so young. Maybe those retro rotary dial-ups aren’t so kitschy after all.

As kids get older, they start seeing the big, big world beyond the living room castle. They ask those deep questions which require equally deep thought responses. “How long until I’m 5’10’’, how long till I’m as big as you.” “A long time,” I’d reply, “maybe ten years.” They think further down the path: “When I’m you’re age, I’ll be tall like you – and I’ll never die.” Whoa! Since when did mortality come into this? Ignorance time, move on:

“When I’m your age, I’ll push you on the swing.”
“Will you still rock me to sleep like when I was a baby?”
“Will you still catch me?”
“When I’m your age, I’ll catch you.”
“When I’m your age, will the baby birds still play with me?”

As I thought about the last question, it occurred to me I don’t play enough. The castle is still there with dragons, robots and gorillas transported through time. They’re waiting for another adventure, all they need is a narrator. The kitchen table is still stacked with coloring books, crayons, markers and play-doh, designed to make the next great work of art, all they need is a curator. The bed is still full of pillow, blankets and animal friends, waiting for the next campout under the tent before the monsters attack. Eventually, many of these lifelong friends will come no more. They’ll sit beside the bed or inside a toybox, their stories told and function forgotten. Like in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” they cease their fearless roar.

The line from that classic song which always gets me philosophical is “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” The song, depending on the interpretation, is usually about imagination or hallucinogenics. It was one of the songs my mom played to me (she was a big Peter, Paul and Mary fan) and sang to me as I went to sleep. As I became older, I thought of the dragon differently than most folk scholars have. The dragon, “Puff,” is not about childhood or dope; it’s about being a parent. Bringing these amazing worlds to life takes more than a little boy or girl: making things such as strings and ceiling wax takes more than one individual. It is a game parents play with their children. The tiniest, most insignificant object can be a key to the biggest adventure. A string can be anything: a rope, a bow or a lure to catch a hiding cat. Ceiling wax is sticky, can be rolled out or rolled up into a little ball. To a child, these things can be anything providing someone is there to help the scenario along.

But these stories and adventures do end. Kids hang out at the playground and play Jedi, princess and other things with their little friends. Eventually, Jackie Paper no longer wants to come play with the dragon but sits waiting for their own little rascals to come over and dig for treasure in the sandbox. So it the way of things; the way of growing from little people to big. For many of us, that moment hasn’t happened just yet. There is still the choice of laundry or an adventure. We can choose the computer or the news over another fight for the castle. Reality check: the news doesn’t change as much in a day as children do. Where have you gone, Captain Kangaroo? Our nation turns it’s forgotten childhood to you.

I’ve decided to set sail while I can for the castle. There is nothing the paper people in Washington do that is more important than eagle robots threatening to destroy the city of Townsville, nothing Joe Mauer can’t accomplish which isn’t more phenomenal than a rock supper of brain food. I’ve got my play-doh armed with purple sword robots. There’s a pillow waiting for a response filled with shock and awe. Crayons and markers at the ready, willing to fire smiley-faces. A cat needs to be captured by a blanket, a puzzle to be solved. There’s juice for a sippy-cup that needs pouring, a friend to be rescued and a blanket needing cuddling. I don’t need bills if the Care Bears are in charge. Let’s follow their lead in stride. Let’s care-a lot, love-a lot and be the best parents we can possibly be.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Aaron Fairbairn's Story: How Social Media Memorialized a Soldier

It was one of those rare moments that are only
possible if one experiences them as it happens. During the waning hours of Independence Day, a man named Aaron Fairbairn become the most popular topic on the social media website, Twitter. In a week dominated by coverage of two unstable humanoids, Twitter users took the time to thank Aaron Fairbairn for his service to our country. He was not a pop icon or an Alaskan maverick; he was more than that. He was a man who died serving his country. On the Fourth of July, Aaron was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. His stepfather, David Masters, wrote about Aaron’s death on Twitter. Seeing the post (or “tweet”) “they killed my son, Aaron!” is gut-wrenching. Instead of internalizing his grief and pain, Masters chose to share it with his followers on Twitter, making a simple request: “I'd like to see "Thank you, Aaron," show up on the Trending Topics for giving his life on Independence Day in Afghanistan.” What followed was not only an outpouring of respect and condolences, but proof that ordinary people can change the course of how modern media functions and what it chooses to cover.

There have been many skeptics regarding Twitter’s concept of expressing yourself in 140 characters or less, the majority of which were the “old guard” of traditional news media (see Maureen Dowd). The fallout of the Iranian election all but eradicated these prejudices. The Iranian government clamped down on internet use in an effort to suppress voter outrage. Unfortunately for them, many Iranians had the internet on their cell phones and used them to tell the world what their own government did not want anyone else to see. The mainstream media was forced to look at Twitter posts for information. Although 140 character “tweets” are almost impossible to vet in the traditional journalism sense, the media had little choice. Thousands of Twitter users showed their support for the Iranian people by tinting their profile green, a statement of solidarity that is still being used as of this writing. There is little doubt the mainstream media despised having to not only rely on bloggers, but individuals they could not potentially identify to gain information. Iran had expelled all foreign journalists, leaving the CNN’s and New York Times’ editors little choice but to turn to the technology which is slowly bringing about their demise.

The Twitter home page has a section called “trending topics;” a list of the most used words and phrases that shows what users are most discussing at the current moment. A user can click on any of these topics and receive a time-sensitive list of “tweets” on the selected subject. This function became an invaluable asset in understanding the debacle in Iran. David Masters probably had no idea that his request for his son would be as popular as it would eventually become. Twitter’s “trending topics” are currently unrestricted and unsponsored, meaning literally anything is possible as long as enough people write about it. Topics such as Sarah Palin, Michael Jackson and even the word “goodnight” were flourishing at the time of Masters’ request to honor his son. As in the case of Iran, Twitter users took in upon themselves to say what was really important to them. “Thank you Aaron” was in the middle of the pack when I spotted a “tweet” by “MichelleinCal”, an intelligent, funny woman who is a traditional conservative, something a certain person from Alaska would be well advised to take notes from. After seeing her posts with “ThankyouAaron,” I was immediately saddened for the loss of someone who gave his life to serve their country.

The loss of a soldier’s life become more important to Twitter users than Wimbledon results, Michael Jackson rumors and Sarah Palin sarcasms. It became a mission for many to see Aaron honored in a matter befitting an American hero. I may not remember where I was when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was number one on the charts, but I will always remember seeing “thank you Aaron” becoming the top Twitter topic. If there had been any doubt of the internet’s ability to bring people together for a cause they believe in, the appreciation of the service of Aaron Fairbairn should eliminate this misconception completely. “Thank you Aaron” was a moment those involved will never forget. In an era where there are few true heroes, the Twitterverse chose to honor the life of a young man. Without the filtering and bias of the mainstream media, the world is showing it’s true heart and soul through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Maybe real people don’t want to watch and read hours of coverage on Michael Jackson. Maybe they want to hear stories about real people doing real things, making hard choices that affect all of us. These stories do not gain much ground in the meeting rooms of newspapers and networks, but it has become obvious stories like that of Aaron Fairbairn’s are indeed what the world wants to talk about.

Sadly, there has been negative feedback about Aaron’s story. Initially, several Twitter users attempted to call the story fabricated. Worse yet were attempts to discredit his stepfather, David Masters on the grounds he was using his son’s death to promote himself. It is pathetic that some people have such malice inside them to incite these allegations. Apparently to these asshats, making a name for yourself by hurting other people is the only way they believe they can get noticed. Granted, comments made on Twitter and the internet in general are protected by the First Amendment. Lies, rumors and gossip do get people noticed. They also can result in extreme negative reaction (ask Perez Hilton). Thankfully, Fox News vetted and confirmed Aaron’s story. Subsequently, other news outlets would follow suit. In a slow newsday and a better world, more mainstream media coverage would have been given to Aaron. Despite the positive blurb from Fox News, the media’s focus turned back on a more famous individual, but not a man who in any logical sense could be described as a hero.

One begins to wonder if this is a war. A war declared by the mainstream media versus Web 2.0. The old school media makes a living by reporting and manipulating the news. The supposedly unconnected, attention-grabbing bloggers and Twitterers are not making a living by reporting. They are reporting the news because they are living it. What people feel in real time stands in complete contrast to talking points, ratings graphs or whatever the editor or producer decides should be broadcast. The mainstream media appeals to their demographics and their bottom line. They are beholden to their advertisers and producers. Their supposed embrace of Twitter and Facebook is nothing but a façade designed to keep what little hold on the news they have left. Instead of running stories on Aaron Fairbairn and the half dozen plus other soldiers who died in the last week, the mainstream media kept its focus largely on Michael Jackson. The Jackson story is one the media had basic control of most information. Given his reclusive nature, it was unlikely any average citizen would garner a scoop that would upstage the very biased, controlled coverage. This journalistic debacle would culminate Tuesday, July 7th, with hours upon hours of coverage of Jackson’s memorial service. Many announcers seemed excited to have work, making one wonder if they were actually celebrating a funeral. It seemed July 7th would go down in history as the day the media died.

Aaron Fairbairn was not a celebrity, but he became in death more loved and respected than the uber-famous Jackson, whose memory will always be dogged with rumors and scandal. Aaron’s life and interests might remind you of people you know. His MySpace profile reads: “Hey my name is Aaron Faibairn, I am 20 and in the army. I like to ride dirtbikes, go muddin and all of that kind of stuff. One of my favorite things to do is work on my truck when I break it. I have a yamaha yz 125 I haven't got to ride it much because of work but i plan to go race it sometime.” There are many young men like Aaron, who love hanging with friends, playing with big toys and getting as dirty as they can. I wish I could have met him. Through MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, I kinda did. Making these connections meant more to me than a glossy funeral for a man few knew and even less understood. Given the choice of meeting either of these men, I’d rather go mudding with Aaron. Hopefully he’s rodding around on his Yamaha in the great beyond. Thank you, Aaron.