Cardboard Christmas

the cardboard christmas tree

My six-year-old son has made his Christmas list. Actually, he’s made a few of them, because like everything else he claims to value, he loses each of them shortly after he’s made them. He started working on it right after Halloween, thanks to Christmas’ pre-emptive (and nearly uncontested) War On Thanksgiving, and has been counting the days ever since.

Among his requests to Santa/Grandma/his Mom and me: a full-size catapult; a suit of armor; a BB gun (because I made the mistake of telling him about the movie A Christmas Story); a halfpipe in the back yard; and of course, and most contentiously, a drum set. (As much as I want to encourage the boy’s interest in music, the plain fact is that at present, he has an alarming rhythm deficiency, and I’d just as soon develop those skills on a quieter instrument.)

I believe he was on his fifth draft when a catalog called Smart Kids arrived in the mail (must have been a mixup at the post office), and he spent the rest of the day circling nine out of ten items in the calendar, and then listing each of them in his Christmas list in his mangled, vowel-deficient version of English. (They supposedly call it “emergent literacy.”)

Anyway, after he was done, we went through the catalog and he showed me some of his picks: a giant Rube Goldberg machine kit (awesome, thumbs up, forward to grandma); a table-top catapult (much more practical than the full-sized one); a table-top trebuchet (very similar but slightly different from a catapult); and many more.

But then we got to something called a Q-Maze: a bunch of clear plastic cubes that are stackable and come with little metal balls that you somehow roll through the cubes. It looked awfully familiar, BECAUSE WE ALREADY HAVE ONE and the boy has never played with it. My brother gave it to him for Christmas last year. He’s paid it so little mind that even though it sat at the foot of his bed for the last 11 months, he didn’t recognize it in the catalog.

The Q-Maze is by no means unique in this regard — it’s a cool toy, but it joins countless other cool toys, playsets, vehicles, action figures, and sundry plastic objects in his room in being totally ignored, unnoticed, unplayed-with after the initial rush of newness and acquisition wears off, which is seldom more than a couple of days.

For his birthday last year, my parents took him to the toy store and he picked out a very cool toy called Hex Bugs. They are basically little vibrators a little smaller than your thumb with rubber legs that, when turned on, “run” (actually vibrate) straight ahead. They came with a whole bunch of track that you can build any way yoou want, with multiple levels, tunnels, ramps, and ziplines. The boy was completely fascinated with it… for one day.

For his birthday the year before that, we got him a Hot Wheels track with a battery powered motor that kind of worked like a pitching machine: two horizontal spinning wheels shot the little cars out onto the track fast enough that they could complete two loop-the-loops and then jump through a little plastic ring of fire. It was amazing, and he was done with it within a week.

For whatever reason, he’s a lot more interested in playing with found objects: the couch cushions. Bubble wrap. Broken pieces of furniture. Random scrap wood from the basement. The laundry hamper. The bike pump. The clear molded plastic that they use for packaging other objects for retail. Duct tape. CARDBOARD. Oh my sweet weeping Jesus, so much cardboard.

He was obsessed for several months with making masks out of cereal boxes. If you have never tried to explain to a first grader that you will probably not be able to make a functioning Iron Man helmet, with the lit-up eyes and the retractable facemask, I would like to costar in a body-switch movie with you.

The point is, even though he THINKS he likes toys, what he really likes is making his own toys. Forts, weapons, masks, costumes, vehicles, animals, computers that you can fold up into phones, dioramas — he spends all his time either making something out of cardboard, drawing pictures, or drawing pictures on something he has made out of cardboard. Or begging his mother for ten minutes with her iPad. (He is an American, after all.)

That is why, this Christmas, Santa will be leaving a bale of flattened U-Haul boxes, four rolls of duct tape, and a pack of jumbo Sharpies. Everyone wins! He gets the materials he needs to pursue his passion, we save $300 on forgettable plastic crap, and best of all, when he gets bored with his newest toy, nobody has to go to the Salvation Army — we’ll just fold it up and put it in the recycle bin.

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