The gift of a time machine

Programming note: For nearly two years, New South Essays has been published on Friday mornings. Because of my job change, I’m finding that Saturdays are working better. I hope you’ll stick with me as I move to Saturdays. To ensure that you never miss a weekly post, click the email subscription link on the right. Thanks!

I was minding my morning business a few months back, checking the daily media mentions of my employer, when I ran across an article with the ominous lead sentence: “The video game is 40.”

I nearly fainted.

Immediately, two conflicting thoughts flashed to mind: “Has it really been that long?” and “Have video games really only been around for 40 years?”

Carlton plays Space Invaders
Carlton at 4 had no trouble picking up Space Invaders.

Fast forward to Christmas. During our visit to my parents in Lake Wales, Fla., we took the boys to see “Wreck it Ralph,” one video game villain’s quest for heroism that featured a walk down arcade game memory lane with dozens of characters from video games of the past. It was one of those occasions when the boys stared at me in wonder as I laughed out loud at what they thought were inappropriate moments.

On the night we arrived in Florida, not long after opening our gifts from Mom and Dad, we discovered my mother was obsessed about one Christmas gift she ordered on Amazon that didn’t get delivered in time. True to my parents’ form, they had ordered one for each of their three sons, but it had not arrived for any of us. Sitting at her computer, Mom diligently followed the tracking number across the country and each morning over my coffee she updated me on the shipping status of the mystery gift.

Honestly, I had forgotten about it by Wednesday when I returned to work. With the resumption of my routine, Christmas and its gifts were far from my mind when the UPS truck pulled up outside our home. Then I remembered there was one more gift to open.

We made the boys wait until after supper before diving into the plain cardboard box. I could not have predicted the bizarre emotional reaction I felt when the “Atari Flashback 4” emerged. I stared at the box, not with the eyes of a 42 year-old father of three but with the eyes of a 10-year-old on Christmas morning unwrapping a pulse-quickening, hours-wasting, life-changing, dream-making device. It was the Holy Grail. It was my Red Ryder BB gun. It was the most amazing device my brother and I had ever seen.

Desperate to plug it in and get started on the 75 games that came pre-programmed on the slightly smaller console, the boys pleaded and begged for me to set it up. As I examined the contents, I had that strange feeling of deja vu. The console and power pack were smaller. The joysticks were wireless. There were buttons on the front of the console where the little levers used to be. I was both taken back in time and a little confused.

So I did what any parent does in those moments: I sent the boys to bed. I needed time to sort this out. No, I didn’t need help plugging it in and turning it on. I needed to sort out the complex emotions this gift evoked.

Harris plays Atari
Harris didn’t know what to do with the overly simple controller at first.

By the time I got home from work on Thursday, the boys had figured out how to hook up the system. The family was gathered in the living room around the “old TV”. As I made my way from the kitchen, I could hear the rumble of tanks. The appropriately named “Flashback” did just that, taking me back to my youth when my brother, Lee, and I would press the red buttons and strain the vinyl-covered stick as we tried to put English on the bullets coming from our tanks.

Video games have played a part in my life almost since I was old enough to play them. Seeing that Atari’s Pong had turned 40 and then seeing this “Flashback” console made me wonder what will be the retro toys my boys will find memory-provoking 40 years from now.

I can’t imagine where technology is headed. I just hope my boys will have positive memories from their wasted hours playing video games together. For me and my brothers, the memories are what made the wasted hours worth it.

So what’s your earliest memory of video games? What was your favorite? Were you an Atari or an Intelivision person? Did you blow untold fortunes in quarters at the arcade? Share your memories by leaving a comment below.

Just a swingin’

Childhood obesity. Video games. Television. Air quality. Bugs. Weather.

There are lots of circumstances that conspire against children playing outdoors these days, so much so that getting kids outside is one of the biggest challenges of parenting in the New South.

Carlton on the rope swing
Even the little guy can hold his own on the new rope swing.

Long gone are the days when barefoot children hit the screen door after breakfast and wouldn’t return until supper time. Now, you have to pry them off the sofa with a giant spatula, forcibly remove them from in front of a digital screen and lock the doors after them if you want them to spend any time soaking in Vitamin D or getting fresh air.

This spring I unwittingly hit upon a new weapon that has kept my kids outside more than in any previous year: a disc swing.

For eight years we’ve had a small, red disc swing hanging in a dogwood tree. Yes, I know, that’s the not ideal dendrological solution for a rope swing, but the swing is unobtrusive and bears the weight of smaller children just fine.

Harris on the rope swing
Not every ride is death-defying, though Harris may have you believe this.

But now that our oldest is around 100 pounds and there are three of them fighting over one swing, Carla and I decided it was time to either cut the “red swing” down or put up another one.

In reviewing some “before and after” photos of our yard, Carla stumbled across a photo of the back when we first moved in. There, hanging from the big tree in the center of the backyard was a fraying nylon rope, knotted in several places. It brought back memories of Barron, then 2, falling from the rope while my dad pushed him just a week after we moved in. That was the end of that. The rope came down.

But now that our kids are older, the idea once again had merit. So on a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the local home improvement store, we found a rope disc swing kit, bought 50 feet of nylon rope and created the solution to all of our couch potato problems.

The new rope swing hangs about 20 feet beneath a sturdy branch in a large tree I can’t identify in our backyard. The extra length of rope and relatively obstacle free swinging zone – not including the tree itself – makes the new swing a much better ride than the old one.

Perhaps more entertaining than the actual swing itself was watching me try to hang it. At first I attempted the lasso technique. I’m a lousy cowboy, so I reverted to tying the rope to the tailfin of a modified Nerf mini-football. The rope was too heavy and my technique was so poor I finally resorted to tying a string to the tailfin and connecting that to the rope. It worked like a charm, but it took the better part of an hour for me to figure it out.

Naturally, the boys now fight over the new swing, but it does give them an incentive to get outside. They race to see who can be first, and any time the swing is unoccupied, one of our boys is likely to dart outside – with our without shoes – and get some undisturbed swing time in.

We’ve had several backyard occasions this spring in which the disc swing was a huge hit. Harris’ Lego-themed seventh birthday featured an inflatable, a piñata, a sandbox and a Lego table, but it was the rope swing that was the main attraction. Likewise at our recent end-of-the scouting year den meeting.

Barron on the rope swing
This is “Batman Barron’s” preferred way to fly.

What makes this throw-back recreational device such a popular addition to our backyard?

First, it’s simple. It doesn’t require skill or strength or coordination. Kids don’t have to figure out how to use it. They get on, they push off (or they call for Daddy to come push them, more likely) and they go. It requires no batteries, no electricity.

Second, it provides a safe thrill. Sure, if they let go they can get hurt. Barron learned that lesson at age two. But not a lot else in the backyard can give you that giggle-inducing tickle in your stomach.

Third, it helps you attain new heights, literally. Kids love pushing boundaries and competing. Who can jump the farthest, run the fastest, hold their breath the longest? The rope swing gives them one more limit they can push: gravity. Who can swing the highest?

It’s been a great spring weather-wise in Atlanta. Carla and I have enjoyed the view of our backyard from our Adirondack chairs as the kids have laughed and swung and run and played for hours. When the kids are in the yard, it just feels like the way childhood is supposed to be.

What’s your secret to getting your kids to play outside? Perhaps you had a beloved rope swing as a child? Leave us your thoughts in a comment below.