Of Laptops and Cub Scout Slides

Christmas 2007 just slipped into the past a few minutes ago, and I’m reflecting on what I’ve given today. Specifically, I’m thinking about one of the things I gave to my stepson: a laptop computer.

It’s not a great laptop; it’s about eight years old (300 MHz, 128 Mb RAM, 12 GB HDD, no wireless, bad hinges), but it’s still a laptop. It will run the basics, like a word processor and a web browser when we get a wireless card for him. I got it (and another nearly identical laptop, which I might be was able to repair for my wife) from a co-worker last Friday, so it was a very last minute thing, but with a little tinkering and some research, I was able to make it run. Logan had asked for a laptop for Christmas, and my initial thought was that there was no way we would be able to buy him one. We’re still struggling financially, despite my new job, so a laptop seemed completely out of the question.

Now, though, I wonder if he’s disappointed. When we gave it to him, I explained that it had bad hinges and he needed to be careful with them, and I explained that it was old and slow, and wouldn’t run World of Warcraft like he probably wanted it to, but he would be able to do his homework on it and play basic Pogo.com games and so forth on it. Maybe I was just reading something into his reaction, but he seemed disappointed.

Or maybe I was just seeing through his eyes, and imagining what he was thinking. I remember when I was eight — a few years younger than Logan — and I joined Cub Scouts. My family lived in a trailer, like I do now, and we got my Cub Scout uniform at the thrift store. One thing we couldn’t find at the thrift store was an official brass Cub Scout slide for my neckerchief, though. I desperately wanted the official slide, because I wanted to fit in with all the other kids. I begged and pleaded, and my parents said it cost too much money to get a new one, and that I would have to make do by tying a knot or something. I was devastated.

Little did I know, my Dad had an idea. He loved tinkering in the little metal shed next to our trailer, much like I enjoy tinkering with computers in the spare room at my house now. He found a block of wood about two inches long, drilled a hole lengthwise through the center, “painted” it royal blue with a thick magic marker, and wrapped a leather thong around it several times, gluing the ends in place. When he was finished, he called me out to the shed and presented it to me, a proud smile on his face. He had fashioned a one-of-a kind neckerchief slide for me, from scratch.

I hated it. It wasn’t anything like the shiny brass slides the other kids had, and I hated that I was from a family that was too poor to buy me a new slide, or even a new uniform.

I can only imagine how my Dad must have felt. I don’t remember if I reacted politely, or if I told him outright that I hated it, but I’m sure he knew the truth, and I’m sure it hurt him that I didn’t appreciate the work he put into it, or appreciate the fact that it was made from scratch.

Looking back on it now, I was an idiot. I should have reveled in the uniqueness of my Cub Scout slide. I should have showed it off and told everyone how my Dad had made it for me with his own hands out of wood, leather, and glue. That was part of the spirit of Cub Scouts, after all; we made things, we were taught to be resourceful, and we were taught to honor our parents. My homemade slide was far better than the shiny brass ones (which I later found out were just cheap plated metal anyway.)

I know, a laptop and a Cub Scout slide are two drastically different things. But times now are drastically different from what they were thirty-five years ago, too. Despite the disparity, there are some similarities between what transpired then and now. When I gave Logan the laptop, though, he wasn’t rude; he didn’t say he hated it. And, after watching a movie with me, he booted up the laptop and wrote part of a short story on it, balancing it on a TV tray with one of my shoes propping up the loose screen. Despite the fact that it was still broken enough that it wouldn’t hold its own screen weight, he didn’t appear to hate it.

I still feel like it’s an inadequate present, though. I want to make it a useful tool for him. I have plans to fix the hinges so he won’t have to prop it up with shoes, and I will get a wireless card for it so he can check his e-mail and do research on the Internet. (Update 1/4/07: I received the new hinges for both this laptop and my wife’s laptop yesterday and installed them last night. Now both laptops have nice, stiff screens that support their own weight.) Maybe I should find a way to wrap a leather thong around it and “paint” it with a royal blue Sharpie … no, then he really would hate it.

Maybe someday Logan will look back at this night and remember how he felt about his first laptop. And maybe, just maybe, after he’s gotten older and has a different perspective on things, he will realize that there was more heart that went into fixing that broken laptop than there appeared to be, and maybe that memory will be as special to him as my memory of my Cub Scout slide became when I got older.

Or maybe not. Either way, I hope he’ll let me know in thirty-five years or so.

The author at 8 sporting his custom Cub Scout slide

On Growing Up A Nerd

While heading home from a Superbowl party last night, I became engaged in a heady discussion with my soon-to-be nine year old about the size of our galaxy relative to the rest of the universe. This is the same eight year old who recently brought up the subject of reincarnation out of the blue at a wedding reception. He didn’t know what it was called, but he knew what it involved. I didn’t start either of these conversations, for the record.

It seems he’s headed down Nerd Alley, just like his Dad. He receives the same amount of picking on by kids at school, thinks about things I don’t expect him to, likes playing with Legos more than with other kids, and can’t catch a ball worth beans. His favorite activities involve computers, and he has a frightening capacity for forgiveness and compassion — frightening only because he doesn’t even think of protecting himself from outside hurt. I am loathe to admit it, but protecting oneself mentally, emotionally and physically is more important now than it ever was when I was his age.

When I was a kid, I lived just outside of a small, relatively safe town. I spent more time in my room reading than outside playing, and when I was outside I was on a bike. I didn’t have a lot of friends at that age, mostly because other grade school kids thought it great fun to make fun of my feminine name. My son doesn’t have a lot of friends in our apartment complex, partly because he comes across as “wussy” and feminine. One difference is that he craves friends more than I ever did at that age. I had one good friend in the trailer park I lived in and a couple of friends from Cub Scouts, and that was more than enough for me. This continued, and though I gained more friends, we were all pretty tightly bound into the “Brain” clique. This brought more taunting from more kids, teaching me more and more how good it was NOT to be like them. I continued hanging with the Brains and refusing to learn how to deal with social situations outside my clique.

There are obvious pitfalls to this, and I had to learn to vault them later in life, but I think this was one of the best things I could have done. In addition to keeping my brain exercised, I learned independence from the masses at an early age. This translates to one very important lesson: I didn’t have much of a problem dealing with peer pressure. The dangers of alcohol, drugs and trouble did not present much of a challenge to me because I didn’t need the acceptance of the people who were offering these vices to me.

In a way, I hope my son continues on the nerd path. It will teach him how to say “no” to peer pressure and will increase his self-confidence as long as he doesn’t wallow in the lonliness — that is a real danger for him. With the gang violence and drug problem in the schools now, these skills will be more important to him than they were to me. It is vital that he know when to say “no” and when to let his compassion pour forth. The more he exercises his mind, the better equipped he will be to handle that. I don’t mean that I want to make my son socially inept (as many of us nerds were,) but given the alternatives, I would rather see him grow up to be capable and careful than gullible and people-pleasing.