14 December 2009

Presents that go beyond themselves

Most of this year's media-recommended (or should I say pushed?) gifts are here today, landfill within two years. And when it comes to stuff for kids, the stuff is more than ever, just stuff.

It's nothing less than mass delusion-spreading that, say, standing on a bathroom-scale-size platform and swinging your arms, eyes glued to a screen, is exercise; and that a family that has enough thumb-boys stays together; and that the exorbitant amount spent on this stuff means it has value. The top-selling toys today, minus the hype, are really just great boredom creators.

This is crazy, since toys and presents, especially for kids, should be fun. And the more fun we have, the less we'll grow up. All great discoveries, innovations and inventions, including all creative works that give us joy and enrich our imaginations, have been made by people who never grew up.
"We all have an eye for detail when we are young and a magical sense of wonder that the business of life seems to hammer out of us."
— Paul Harcourt Davies, Nature Photography Close: Macro Techniques in the Field (a classic that has outlived camera models)
Nature beats Mario for happiness
Davies is both a superb photographer and a great teacher. He was given a camera as a child, and it extended his eyes and encouraged him to see a world outside walls. His blog post of two days ago talks about kids and their feelings of well-being: Getting back to nature—Italian style.
Look up the phrase, "gave me a microscope" and you'll find endless wonders, including these stunners by Lennart Nilsson, whose pictures have changed how we see the world.

What reading does for the soul: Books and scopes
Annie Dillard's personal discoveries about libraries, sleuthing, wrigglers and the incurious grown-up world, make one of the greatest essays of all time. Pure joy. I wasn't going to even quote it, because every word in it is as ringing as the next. But —
Not all great presents cost $s
A library card can open up worlds.
"The Field Book of Ponds and Streams was a shocker from beginning to end. The greatest shock came at the end. When you checked out a book from the Homewood Library, the librarian wrote your number on the book's card and stamped the due date on a sheet glued to the book's last page. When I checked out The Field Book of Ponds and Streams for the second time, I noticed the book's card. It was almost full. There were numbers on both sides. My hearty author and I were not alone in the world, after all."

Colour the imagination!
The smell, and feel and look of pencils, paint, crayons, ink, paper. Even clays. What child doesn't love them, given the chance to use them? And they can lead so far. A pencil can tell a story in many ways.
"I taught myself to read at five. Ironically, the Reading is Fundamental commercials scared the hell out of me. Those spots regarding an epidemic of illiteracy among kids much older than myself made enough of an impression that I started decrypting cereal boxes at breakfast, labels on canned goods, you name it. Fear is one of the great motivators. After a bit, I began to scribble rudimentary stories that were more akin to a series of captions adorning vivid crayon drawings of monsters, burning buildings, and corpse-strewn battlefields. My parents were largely disinterested in the whole affair; they seemed to shrug it off as a phase, so I can only surmise my need to write is deep-rooted and independent of learned behavior."
— Laird Barron (quoted by Jeff VanderMeer in his interview of LB in Clarkesworld)
acclaimed author of, amongst other stories, the collection The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (which would make a great present for a grown-up)
Fungi and shells and pieces of old watches, and boxes for treasure
All kids are collectors of the strange and precious, if they get the chance. Even things you work with can have untold value. When my father gave me a ship's rope, it wasn't to make every other kid jealous when we played jump rope with that rope (though they were). You might find yourself judged pretty amazing if you begin a collection with an offering that you've found and think intriguing, and a cool way to store it. To a child whose imagination hasn't been smothered, the most scrappy thing can have priceless worth (as parents have always complained). So a simple fishing tackle box or toleration for strange little beasts and curious chemicals (as both My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell and Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks illustrate [both stunning presents for parents and other animals, and two of my favourite books]) and a lifting of all that paranoia about kids being out in the unsupervised time and outdoors can make boredom and brattiness a thing that other kids have.

Perhaps that b & b is why Caitlin Moran recently wrote in The Times, These kids have TOO MANY SODDING TOYS. This column by "Alpha Mummy" has spread like spilt milk.

Personally, I think a child needs two dolls - so that they can go on adventures together - a pencil, and a notepad. That's it. Everything else is decadent Western corruption. When I was a child, we made our own amusements: drinking vinegar pretending it was whisky, flooding the garden with a hose, spitting contests. Punching each other really quite hard. Permanently mentally disturbing each other with constant, low-level psychological warfare. We didn't have Hannah Montana wigs, or Pixel Chix, or, or ... Puppies In Our Pockets. We made bows and arrows out of Rosebay Willowherb (that were rubbish), glue out of flour and water (that was wholly ineffective) and papier mache objects that, for some reason, never really dried out, and rotted on the windowsill, emitting horrible, oddly turnip-y odours.

That's why I want to - throw all the kids toys away!
And for adults, a special recommendation
Small Beer Press: 2009 Christmas Franciscan Fundraiser Sale
Fantastic books—and your money not only goes to a great small press (not only in the list they publish but the way this publisher treats their authors and customers), but to a cause and hospital that you've just gotta read about.

So to sum up
I'm not as barebones as Alpha Mummy with my recommendations, but I will say one thing. If you're thinking of presents for any child, the "gifts" of knitting addicts are SODDING.


budak said...

i blame an ancient copy of Durrell's Corfu escapade for my present bestiality.

anna tambour said...

Then all praise to Durrell's family and to Durrell, who passed on the corruption.

Each high tide, an army will now scratch in the mud:
Durrell made Budak crabby

Janine B said...

Hey, wait a minute (I'm a little slow to catch on)! What do you have against knitting addicts???

Other than that, I agree heartily although I have not always lived out my (or perhaps recognized) my values.

anna tambour said...

Janine, you inspired a long, intemperate post as a reply, so you can blame yourself for that. Some of my best friends are k.a.'s

But you have as much in common with knitting addicts as a person enjoying a peach has with the winner of the international hotdog eating contest.

I will take this opportunity to do something I've been meaning to: recommend your spectacularly good
Feral Knitter