Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Children of empire

Helen's swim team had their team photo shoot Monday morning, which involved 40 or 50 well-fed children standing around nearly naked in the morning chill, jumping up and down and squabbling manfully as their well-dressed parents looked on. The team pool is at the heart of a wealthy housing development, and its infrastructure has a Grecian/ Roman element in its architecture, which may or may not have prompted my sense that we were taking part in some sort of bracing childhood initiation rite, in which the privileged children are ritually mistreated, a la British public school, in order to strengthen the ruling class's hold on power.

Or perhaps I hadn't had enough coffee and was a little irritated that on this, the first day of the first full week of summer, my carefully balanced house-of-cards daycare arrangements were already getting scrambled by team photos and breakfast in lieu of, and two hours earlier than, usual team practice. I mean, come on, people! Some of us have jobs to get to! We don't have time for this!

In any case, it fit in with reflections I've had lately as I rushed around from kid event to kid event, irritated, harrassed, burdened, and more than a little proud. I grew up thinking of American culture as the bubblegum-and-grease dregs of the civilized world. I was very Humbert Humbert in my snobberies, and while I don't still think that my prejudices were fully justified at the time (although it WAS the 80s), I think to dismiss American culture as slick and shallow and brainless is even more incorrect today. These kids, they're professionals in training. Right up until the moment they fall on the floor and refuse to do one single thing more, of course. Or right up until the moment their parents declare bankruptcy. These kids born into the culture of power, or even on the margins of it, they get a lot thrown their way. Toys, training, classes, attention, angst, electronics, and while on some level it all seems to be the same thing--iphone 4 with the deluxe monthly data plan or four solid months of strength training workouts, daily practices and weekly tournaments--you have to admit that the training element is impressive. Even if it is merely bestowed upon the passive vessels of the next generation, it still demands quite a lot of them. It surely says something about our culture's expectations for itself, even if I'm not quite sure what.

Which brings me back to Greco-Roman-British rituals and how every culture has a constellation of daily practices and how, on one level, these practices reveal that culture's soul. The stiff-upper-lipped Brits of the Victorian empire, with their ice water baths and their full cream teas in mush tents all over the globe. Mid-century Germans and their master race stuff, the purification rituals, the cult of strength. Nineteenth-century American Yankees, with their can-do spirit and inventiveness and their tendency to look behind the curtain. The French and their Culture and their million and one cheeses.

What are our daily practices?

TV and frozen dinners, might have been the answer once. Cars, commercials and Big Gulps. McDonald's and Hollywood.

Wrong, wrong and wrong, I'd say from my own provincial experience. Our daily practices are swimming at ninety thirty and ten fifteen, followed by Lego camp (for a little subtle product placement) and then two hours at the batting cage. The daily practice of the people who live around me, and with whom I coordinate for playdates and volunteering, is nonstop activity, most of it physical, most of it structured, most of it involving shockingly expensive polyester uniforms and specially designed haul bags. Most of it requiring professional team photographs at some point, although not usually involving stripping in 50-degree weather.

And what does all this say about our soul?

We have activity, structure and lots of recording for posterity. Not brainless, not at all, although there is relatively little self-reflection or spiritual development, and a sort of bewildering disconnect between training and self motivation. There's a lot of exhortation to "have fun" and also to "kick it" and "be hungry for the win." A lot of talk about skill building; a lot of actual skill building, in fact, although many kids seem to arrive with their arms out, ready to have their skills built for them, if that's what you wish.

It's not exactly bubblegum and grease. But some of the kids, my own included, seem to be biding their time with this training stuff until they can get back to what they really want to do and not be bothered. And that, whatever it is, is where their soul lies. Is it bubblegum, in their bedrooms with the doors half closed and the lights dimmed? Maybe. I can't really see in there. All I can see into is my own confused soul, which longs with a fierce intensity for a summer of long lazy days spent poking through the woods or puttering around the house and then turns around and signs up for eighteen different educational and sporting activities in the suburbs. Maybe that's what we are: confused souls, all of us, wanting one thing and then rushing out and buying another.

What was my point, again? Oh, yes, the ritual mistreatment of treatment to consolidate the ruling class's hold on power. I actually don't think having to stand around in a swimsuit for fifteen minutes, even if it was below 70 degrees, counts as mistreatment, and furthermore, I think that most of the moms and dads at the pool that morning lack what is needed to carry through on ritual mistreatment. And yet nothing says power like a million-dollar house such as most of these folks live in. So I don't know what I think. Are we as a culture losing our hold on power? Probably. Is that really a bad thing? I kind of doubt it.


Anonymous said...

This is absolutely spot on. Brilliant, incisive, and thoughtful--you crystallized a bunch of hectic thoughts in my head. Over here it's baseball, baseball, and baseball, though our town has the added layer of pretending not to be the kind of place where people get really intense about things. Oh, but they do.

Melospiza said...

Aw, thanks. And I have to say that I am starting to resent baseball on a personal level, somehow managing to forget that I was in the room when we signed up.

Alien in CH said...

Genius. And I find, living in a culture that has a completely different attitude toward "training," that I waver between feeling really relaxed and panicking that my kids are going to be way behind when we come back.

Loren said...

I was completely engaged and entertained by this (entertained in the smart sense, of course!) and I don't even have kids. What a great piece of writing! Thanks!

artemisia said...

This is FANTASTIC. We must get together this summer!

artemisia said...

Also - I am so ill equipped to raise children. I am glad people like YOU are raising them instead.