i’m so bored

Young-children-playing-in-a-yard
Tartu, Estonia, may be one of the last places you can still see scenes like these. At least when the smartphones batteries run out.

MY CHILDREN ARE BORED. They tell me this all the time. They are bored with their toys, with their rooms, with their books. They sit on the couch and fret and they complain to me. “Daddy, I’m so bored.” They’re so bored even the alluring shine of a smartphone screen excites nothing in them. They are more jaded and weary than a Las Vegas lounge singer. Not one of them is a teenager. Yet the world for them has already lost its vibrancy. There is nothing left to do. They’re bored.

“Daddy, I’m bored,” says the middle one, groaning in the kitchen. “What can I do?”

“I don’t know. Read a book.”

“That’s boring.”

“Why not go and play with the neighbors?”

“They’re boring too.”

“Oh well. I’m sure you’ll think of something to do.”

“But I’m bored.”

And so it goes around. I am frustrated with my children, but I am not the only one. Many articles have appeared in recent years discussing the exact same dialogues. Not only are my children bored, it seems. Other children are bored. A whole generation of children is bored. They have been entertained and occupied for their entire lives. With activities, with applications. So when that brutal moment arrives when nothing is being offered for them to do or to watch or to consume, they fall into despair. They are bored. They are like baby chicks crying to be fed from the nest, and we are like anxious and irritable mother and father birds tiring of feeding them worms. It’s time for them to leave the nest, at least mentally, and to think of something to do by themselves. But they won’t leave. They tweet and twitter and flap their wings, convulsing with helplessness.  “Help us, help! Help us! WE’RE SO BORED.”

My own childhood was not the stuff of magic — pretty ordinary as I see it — but I don’t recall being bored whenever a free moment arrived. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to get something done. I always had little projects going on, for as long as I can remember. I was building a castle with blocks. Or setting up a battle with toy soldiers. I recall my grandfather coming over to visit once to help my father assemble a swing set. As they worked, I sat in my sandbox, creating a parking garage for my toy cars. It was multi-leveled, with different routes in and out. Pretty ingenious for a garage made out of sand. Nobody told me to make one either. I just decided to do it myself.

Recently, I went for a walk with my two older daughters near the famous lighthouse in Montauk, New York. If you want to know where Montauk is, I will tell you. You drive two hours east of New York City, through the famous Hamptons — those quaint beach communities where Paul McCartney and Jay-Z own beachfront homes — and then through miles of desolate and sandy pine barrens, until you finally reach the windy point.

We decided to walk around the lighthouse, which went well, although one slipped on the stones and skinned her knee, and the other one spent half of the time taking selfies of herself with the lighthouse in the background. On the way back, we got lost. The area around the lighthouse was fenced off, and so we had to find a path through the woods, which were lush and thick, with vines hanging, creating a canopy that hid the light. It was jungle cave dark there in the woods, and I recognized many plants: the wild raspberry bushes, the suspended honeysuckle flowers. I knew which plants were edible, which ones were poisonous. I knew, because I used to play in the woods when I was a boy. I went into the woods with other children, other children who taught me which berries to eat. Nobody’s parents ever came in the woods, and none of them sent us to the woods.

We just went.

That instinct — to just do something, anything, to satisfy one’s inner curiosity — seems to be lacking in my children and others like them, who expect entertainment to be delivered with the touch of a button. This is not a critique of modern youth, but it does worry me from time to time. Yet, I should be fair. This is not always the case. Sometimes they are quite creative on their own. They dress themselves up, or invent interesting games. “Let’s play Valge Daam,” one declares, and they vanish into the cellar to pretend.  I can hear them act out the various roles and I feel so proud in these moments. By that time, they’ve become so disenchanted with life, they forget they were bored to begin with.

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pony power

ponies
Can you name them all?

WHITE, WHITE NIGHTS. We don’t sleep much these days. The children play in the parks until 10 pm or later, and the evening light on the lush leaves of the park trees is just stunning. Sometimes I forget that I am in Estonia, and feel as if I have been relocated to California, to those grassy hills outside Palo Alto, where the ponies run at the ranches between the tech company headquarters.

But other ponies are on my mind at the parks in Tartu: little plastic ponies. They come in a variety of sizes, some as tiny as my thumb, others a palm-full, and others as big as my hand. All of them have that lovely rubbery feel that Asian manufacturers have perfected, and that articles have warned me might actually be toxic and lead to hyperactivity or even some peculiar diseases. No matter. They come in pastel-beautiful colors and have wonderful names: Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack. The leader of these ponies is an “alicorn,” so called because it has wings like Pegasus and the horn of a unicorn. This one is known as Princess Celestia.

That’s right. I’m an expert.

The reason they are on my mind at the park is because one of them typically gets left behind. All kinds of things get left at the park. It’s not unusual. Socks. Ice creams. Bicycles. But if one of these ponies gets left behind, then Maria will bawl and quake like Mount Vesuvius.

WHERE IS MY PRINCESS CELESTIA?”

That’s when her father leads a reconnaissance mission to recover the toys. They are usually found. Yet they reveal what is most important to my daughters’ generation. My Little Pony. They care about their sisters, and they even care about their country, at least when they have to sing about it. They also care about Shopkins and Littlest Pet Shops. When Estonians say Pet Shops,“Petšopid,” I think it’s so adorable, because it sounds the same way they say ketchup, “ketšupit.”

My Little Pony though is their secret religion. This is the animated world they live in. It’s what they dream about. Princess Celestia. Applejack. It’s what connects them not only to all other Estonian girls. Wherever they are, they share a common faith: My Little Pony.

Four-year-old Maria once drew an image of the iconic ponies at preschool. They were stick figures, differentiated by their colors, one was yellow, another rainbow. When I showed the child’s drawings to my eldest daughter Marta, now 12, she could identify each pony immediately. “That one’s Applejack, that one is Twilight Sparkle. But, hmm, she left out Rarity and Pinkie Pie.”

So maybe I am not the greatest expert. But I am trying. Sometimes they quiz me about my pony knowledge. “Here are four ponies, can you name them?” asked Anna, lining up the toys.

“Hmm, let me see,” I began to examine them. “Is this one Apple Pancake?”

“It’s Applejack, you dummy,” said Anna, aged 8. “Everybody knows that.”

“Of course, of course. I’m so sorry. And is this one called Butter Dash?”

“No!”

“Rainbow Pie?”

“It’s Twilight Sparkle, silly! Oh my God! Didn’t anyone ever teach you anything?”

“Oh, that’s right, I see it now. Twilight Sparkle has little stars on its butt.”

“That’s its Cutie Mark!” A groan. “How could you not know this stuff?”

How could I not know? It’s common knowledge for them. Sometimes I wonder if the little Estonian girls have taken their love for My Little Pony to some other, bizarre trough of fandom though. Sometimes I wonder if there is some deep Eurasian component to this next-level obsession. Maybe the reason the Estonian children respond so well to the toys manufactured in East Asia is because they are Asian themselves. I have noticed this trend among my elder daughter’s peers, who are all infatuated with Pokemon and Japanese anime. It’s true that American youth also like these things. But Estonian youth really, really, really like them. They find the look of the toys pleasing. The shapes, the symbols.

Something else is going on here.

In this way, I have come to see the Estonian children’s cult of My Little Pony as just another of one of those Estonian things, like grilling Armenian šašlõkk all summer long  or getting into really emotional arguments about Eurovision. That it originated elsewhere is no matter. They have adopted them as their own.