Wednesday, February 20, 2008

WTF Wednesday

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. It’s not a new concept, I know. But when I saw what had happened to my favorite toy of all time, the Sit ‘N Spin, I nearly had an aneurism. As a child of the late 70s and early 80s I was part of the last generation to experience a mostly unstructured and unsupervised childhood, before the neurotic extracurricular activity movement forced kids to buy Day-Timers, before the electronic revolution moved playtime indoors, and before safety helmets zapped the danger—and the fun—out of everything. We had freedom. The freedom to organize a neighborhood wide game of wiffle ball, or the freedom, if we felt like it, to sit on our asses and do nothing at all but daydream. It was better than anything that came from a toy store. Except possibly the Sit ‘N Spin.

I loved my Sit ‘N Spin. I loved it to a degree I cannot fully describe to others who don’t already know the feeling. I had the powder blue one, with the swirly rainbow stickers, though the stickers had all but worn off by the time I turned five. And I’m sure I played with my Sit ‘N Spin well beyond the recommended age range, longer than I’d like to admit anyway. But the original Sit ‘N Spin wasn’t just a toy either; it was so much more.

It was a:

Physics Teacher: Sure, I didn’t know it was called centrifugal force at the time, but I knew if I let go my ass would be upside down against the couch.

Dance Instructor: Pop off that center post, stand with your feet spread slightly, and swivel your hips back and forth. That’s how I learned to do The Twist.

Drunken Stupor Simulator: I can’t tell you how many awkward social situations I’ve avoided as an adult because of my uncanny ability to hold my liquor, and I owe it all to the countless hours I logged on my Sit ‘N Spin as a kid.

Horizon Expander: You know how they used to say if you ate Pop Rocks and drank Coke at the same time your head would explode? I don’t know about that, but if you eat Pop Rocks and drink Coke while pushing 100RPMs on a Sit ‘N Spin you will definitely open your mind to new unexplored dimensions. Trust me.

Tough Love Parent: I learned a valuable life lesson when I was eight when I woke up to take a leak in the middle of the night and sprained my ankle on the dizzy pad. My parents said, “See? This is why we told you to clean up your room.” But even then I knew they were from a different generation and didn’t understand what my good ole SNS was really trying to teach me: always keep the path to the pisser free of obstacles. This is wisdom I’ve passed on to my children, and I’d like to one day have it embroidered on a wall hanging.

So this past Christmas, when my two year-old got her first Sit ‘N Spin, I was anxious to assemble it as quickly as possible so she too could begin her personal life journey, courtesy of Playskool. That is, until I opened the box and discovered a flimsy plastic shell masquerading as the toy I’d known and loved. I believe my exact thoughts on the matter were, “The fuck is this?” My two year-old daughter, clearly as perturbed as I was by the lengths to which toy makers will go to shave a few bucks off production costs, reiterated my sentiments, “Fuhhh is zissss, Da-deee?” And since Mommy was in another room, I nodded and said, “You can say that again.” So she did.

The original Sit 'N Spin was made of some kind of industrial strength resin, possibly a Space Age polymer. Whatever its nature, it was damn near indestructible. For example, you could pick it up by its center post, and swing it in a fit of frustration over not being allowed to ride your bike to 7-11 with the other kids, and it would leave an inconveniently noticeable hole in a standard hollow core door. The new one, I'm pretty sure I could crush like a beer can. But the secret to the original Sit 'N Spin’s success was its 100% genuine steel ball bearings. I don't know what the new one uses, but it’s obvious the Playskool engineers were absent the day their places of higher learning taught friction. They should call the new one Sit ‘N—. And of course, the new one also comes equipped with the standard loud-as-shit electronic music assembly, which not only requires AA batteries, but the temperament of a Buddhist monk to keep from hurling the friggin thing through a sliding glass door. Which would only cause it to break anyway—not the door.

They even make a “Simon Says” version of the Sit ‘N Spin now, which urges children to accomplish such imaginative tasks as “spin faster” and “spin slower.” Of course, this is just one more clever method of conditioning kids to obey the disembodied voice of authority, so they’ll more readily accept the street corner Simons, already prominent in the UK. To combat this, I’ve tried to instill a sense of rebellion in my children, not against me or my wife, but against the disembodied voice of authority. In fact, whenever they complain to me that their toys are telling them to do something they don’t want to do, I always say, “Well, what’s the rule?” And, as if reciting multiplication facts learned by rote, they say, “Never obey the disembodied voice of authority.” I don’t know if I’m getting through to them or not, but it’s fun to watch.

But then I sit and watch my two year-old struggle to achieve a half revolution on this crappy imposter toy, and I lament the passing of what once was, and I mourn the fate of my future grandchildren who will no doubt be subjected to even more ridiculousness imported from China. And I worry about our society in general, because much like the Sit ‘N Spin, in many ways we too have lost our bearings (and our balls for that matter), and we’ve traded them in for a cheap plastic replica and false promises of safety, set to an obnoxiously loud tune that attempts to mask the shallowness of it all. But then I remember the world keeps going round and round, like the old Sit ‘N Spin used to, and eventually people will get fed up with the counterfeit bullshit. And then one day, hopefully soon, the masses will pick up their mindless distraction gizmos and hurl them through the glass walls of their socially engineered time-out corners, and demand a little freedom back, and a little quality, and maybe play some wiffle ball too. In the meantime, thank God for swiveling office chairs.

11 comments:

pjd said...

This. Is. Pure. Genius.

Socially engineered timeout corners. Wow, blows my mind. And I love the image of a 2-year-old reciting rules about the disembodied voice of authority.

Leave it to the Brits to invent an efficient means of causing immediate public humiliation. Then again, they also invented Mr. Bean, so they can't be all bad.

Robin S. said...

I totally agree with you and mourn, and I mean mourn, the loss of unstructured play time - just going out and FIGURING OUT WHAT TO DO, for fuck's sake. WhenI grew up, my family was flat-assed broke, but I didn't know that, 'cause all the other families around us were flats-assed broke, too - so the kids just went out and played in the yard- and just found things to do. And if we were bored - frankly- that was tough shit. To be unbored- you had to be creative - climbing trees and pretending you were up in space, exploring drainage ditches and swinging on willow tress branches across them and playing jungle, teasing the crap out of the neighbor kid, and running like hell to get away. Playing in the hose. Whatever. Sorry, I'm going on and on. But honestly.

Sarah said...

Amen!

Sarah said...

Wow! Reading Robin's comment, I got an idea of what the future holds for us in the fiction shelves of our bookstores. What happened to using your imagination? These kids are being trained to not think, to not dream.

My dental assistant said he's in school to be a writer. Even offered to read my manuscript for me and give me his opinion. I soon discoverd he had yet to put pen to paper and write anything. But he was in school to get a degree in writing. Argh!

pjd said...

I got an idea of what the future holds for us in the fiction shelves of our bookstores. What happened to using your imagination? These kids are being trained to not think, to not dream.

My first inclination of this was when I first saw the Barbie-like doll called "Jem" back in... gosh, a long time ago. I think it was mid 1980s.

Jem: Model by day, rock star by night.

My first thought on seeing that was, wow, now they have a doll with a whole story built right in so you don't even have to imagine?

My family is full of elementary school teachers, and I always find it amusing when they tell me of exercises where they ask what the kids' favorite animal or whatever is. The first kid says whatever comes to mind ("a cat!") and then pretty much every other kid says "I like cats too!" The better teachers of course try to spur a little creative thinking here, but it doesn't always work out.

blogless_troll said...

Great points. And I think it's not only that kids are being trained not to think and dream, but also they're being encouraged to view themselves as the star of a blockbuster movie that everybody is watching. Being a celebrity (even in their own mind) is the dream. Blame it on reality TV or culture in general or whatever. I know kids are narcissistic to degree anyway, but from what I've seen, the intensity of it has definitely ramped way up. And most do eventually grow up and get over themselves, but I know way too many adults who never turned that corner.

(said the guy who just started blogging)

Phoenix said...

Truly, though, this mentality had to start years ago. When I was a grad student teaching composition to 18- and 19-year-olds, I thought I'd be the fun, cool teacher and let the kids write essays about what THEY wanted to write about. Inspire them! Make writing fun and relevant! Silly me. Turned out 99% of them froze at the thought of having to pick a topic on their own. So I learned to offer up a couple of topic choices, and damned if 99% of them wrote canned, banal thoughts on the topics handed them.

Ah, but for the 1% who tapped their imaginations and embraced the freedom to write about something they loved ... I have no doubt those are the visionaries doing dark matter research and finding renewable energy sources in the most unlikely places. Or perhaps they're the ones off today still writing about what they love and creating blogs of incredible depth and insight.

ChristineEldin said...

One of the best posts I've read in a long time. Truly.
Agree with everyone here.

I call those toys 'neglectomatics.' And I refuse to buy a Wii for my two sons because i think it's like simulated exercise. It's horrible. We do have a playstation, so I'm not holier than thou, but it's regulated.

I think (sadly) that such a great number of variable have come together to create such a lifestyle. And you are right about those activities. I remember a few years ago I had Thing 1 and Thing 2 at ice-skating lessons. Another mom was talking to me, and when she found out that A) I'm a stay at home mom, and B) I *only* have them signed up for one activity at a time, she actually grew angry!
Can you believe that shit? Like just because I had 'time' to spare, I should cram my children with as much stuff as possible.

I hate Dubai, but one truly nice thing is that we live on a cul de sac, and Things 1 and 2 go outside and meet up with a bunch of other kids, and go biking around. There are a few small trees and right now they're building a tree house together. Thing 1 and Thing 2 don't realize they're living a dream from the past. What a shame.

Great post, Blogfull.

Ello said...

Ha! I laughed out loud because I know exactly what you mean! Blogless, you and I are too similar - I'm getting worried! I loved my spinner - my favorite thing was actually to spin as fast as I could and let go. I would usually go crashing into the sofa or the wall. Yeah I was a weird kid. I got my oldest a sit and spin and I was completely shocked. Maybe memory played me false but I swear my spinner was at least triple the size of the puny thing I pulled out of the box! And you could never really go very fast on it! My kids will never experience the joy of it because it was remodelled for safety and no fun.

I'm totally with Chris - I refuse to get a Wii for my kids also. Talk about a brain dead nation of kids all growing up on simulated activities.

pjd said...

Very interesting and apropos article on npr.org.

blogless_troll said...

Great find, Pete. I remember in elementary school and jr. high we originally had a short recess in the morning and a longer one at lunch. Then they did away with the morning one, and by the time I was through, you got 15-20 minutes to eat but no recess afterwards. My kids don't even know what recess is.