Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Darn that Deifacted Nethacite

My party of heroes enters the inner sanctum of the grim and ominous Draklor Laboratory, where the evil Dr. Cid awaits us, laughing maniacally in a glowing red coat. My heroes make short work of Cid with some fancy sword-and-sorcery. But despite his defeat, Cid still has the energy to make a convoluted – if not incomprehensible – speech and a grand departure in a flying chariot.

I sit holding the controller, baffled. For the first time in four months, I’ve turned on my PlayStation2, hoping to pick up the thread of the game “Final Fantasy XII.” It’s your typical role-playing weirdo fantasy thing with neat graphics and an imaginative if confusing story line.

Now I’ve defeated a Big Boss, and I have no idea what to do next. I didn’t understand one word of his speech. Before the battle, some guy with big sideburns popped out of nowhere and carried on a baffling dialogue with the villain.

“Cid!” he shouted. “You know deifacted nethacite brought down the Leviathan!”

Unfortunately, after a four-month hiatus from the game, I have no idea what the Leviathan is, or nethacite, or how it was deifacted – if I ever had. Now Cid was gone.

“Now what do I do?” I wondered aloud.

The little 3-year-old curled up next to me came to my rescue. “Go after the guy in the red coat, Mommy!” he commanded.

I looked down at Benny. “Really?”

“He wants you to follow him,” Benny said confidently.

Um, OK. Apparently my young son managed to pull a relevant thread out of that tangled speech, so off we went to the holy city of Guggenheim or Googleville or whatever.

Yes, I play “Final Fantasy” with my kid. Video games are supposed to be a troublesome issue in children’s lives, an addictive, time-wasting, antisocial pastime that leads to thumb sprains, learning disabilities and bad skin. And here I actually promote this cerebral drug.

Worse than that, FFXII has become a little routine, a 15-minute mother-son bonding session after dinner. It’s a fairly innocuous-looking game, mostly picturing Our Hero running around various scenic landscapes, contending with various monsters that emerge from trees, lakes, stone ruins, glaciers or sand dunes. (This game’s world, called Ivalice, has a very diverse climate.)

Benny likes the running part, although he gets a little restless when we have to shop. “Can we chase monsters now?” he asks.

“Our friends need new clothes – maybe even a new staff,” I said. “Poor Penelo will never stop falling down if we don’t get her some new armor.”

So Penelo got some neat Diamond Armor and Ashe received an Embroidered Tippet -- increased her skill level and was still cute enough to show her friends – and it was time to hit the road again.

We found ourselves in a some haunted castle and all these ghouls kept coming out of the floor. Not just ghouls, really, but ghosts, skeleton soldiers and some creepy, glowing, floating balls. But the ghouls were especially prominent, slithering out of the stone floors.

“Why do those guys come out of the floors?” Benny asked me.

“That’s what happens when nobody mops,” I answered, defeating a ghoul with a flick of the thumb and a lovely fire spell.

Benny stared wide-eyed at our own wooden floor, obviously expecting a skeleton to rise up, because clearly that floor hadn’t seen a Swiffer in some time.

“Mommy?” he asked. “Will the good guys always beat the bad guys?”

“Oh yes,” I said confidently. “No monster can beat Mommy.”

“Because you have the best magic?’

“Nope,” I answered, and pulled a computer printout from behind a sofa cushion,. “I have the best walkthrough.”

Peewee Basketball

Gosh, those basketball recruiters start young these days.

For the fourth day in a row, my gmail inbox contains a note from a fellow parent at Benny’s Dinosaur School. She’s trying to organize a PeeWee basketball team for Saturday mornings.

For the mere sum of $140 ($90 for the class and $50 for a year’s membership), Benny can get bounced on the head by a basketball multiple times in a noisy gym. Which he might enjoy – but for heaven’s sake, he spends 40 hours a week with these kids already. Now he can go to a weekly class, along with the class-wide birthday parties we’re invited to about once a month. I swear, next these Dinosaur School parents will want us all to live in a commune so Benny and his 15 classmates can spend every waking hour together.

The New York Times published an op-ed piece about year ago which discusses how much families turn inward and have little time for outside friends, extended relatives, neighbors, fellow church members and so on. Titled Too Close for Comfort, the article cited a study from the American Sociological Review that found that, from 1985 to 2004, Americans reported a marked decline in the number of people with whom they discussed meaningful matters.

Generally, I think that’s true, perhaps because many mothers are working outside the home, and so parents’ schedules don’t allow for lunches with friends, long phone calls with relatives and little chats over the hedge with the neighbor. I’ve discovered this myself, with this temporary full-time gig at the Business Times. Since working full-time, I have to call my sister during the walk between Benny’s school and the train stop, call my friends on my lunch hour and talk with relatives on the weekends. I meet some girlfriends for dinner and drinks once a month, and we get together with friends as a family every few weeks. Right now, that’s all I’m up for.

But I’d also stipulate that families are getting lots of interaction with others, but it’s all school-based. Children’s school takes up an enormous amount of discretionary time. It’s not just the homework and activities, it’s all the involvement: the volunteering, the fundraising, the driving to and fro. So other sources of social involvement – the church, the neighborhood, the extended family gets squeezed out because all this school stuff seems so nonnegotiable.

I’m practically shivering at the prospect of Benny starting kindergarten in a few years, because I’m under no illusions that I can drop the kid off for half the day, bring him home and go about my business with a light heart. Whatever school he’s in, there’s going to be expected parental involvement and I’ll find myself pounding pies with a mallet at 2 a.m. so they look homemade for a school event, like the poor mother in this book.

Okay, so I’m a grinchy hermit and indifferent to my child’s education and social development and deserve to die alone in a hidden cave. Well, fine, then. And in the years before Benny hits kindergarten, I hope I can develop the maturity to fulfill my schoolmom duties with a happy smile.

But why rush it? Our experience with structured child activities has been discouraging anyway – although God knows Ron has tried. He took Benny to a baby massage class when he was six weeks old. The teacher told Ron he didn’t have the right hormones and to bring me to the next class. Ron never went back. He also took Benny to some sort of Teeny Tots Soccer Team last spring, but Benny just ignored the ball.

Perhaps our little guy is missing out. But Benny spent last Saturday morning riding his tricycle with his daddy in Golden Gate Park, and I’d guess that he’d prefer that to any peewee basketball.