Kids really do have it better nowadays: As two yoofs in the Eighties, brother Bark and I had relatively few options for unconscionably expensive evening entertainment, most of them being some kind of take on the Mechanical Rat And Child Casino known as “Chuck E. Cheese” or “Showtime”. (Columbus, being a primo test market, had both, naturally.) There was a Malibu Grand Prix in the area as well — and I’ll have more to say about that in a future article — but our age difference prevented us from competing directly.
Thankfully, we can now rectify this for our own children by dropping $250 for an evening of “high-speed” go-kart racing at Full Throttle Karting in Cincinnati, Ohio. How did it go? Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if everything had gone perfectly, would I?
I expected my son, John, to do well, and he did, taking the overall win in his first look at each of Full Throttle’s two courses. I expected Bark’s son, Kevin, to come up to speed quickly, and that happened as well; he started the day about five second a lap off John’s best time and ended up being 0.4 seconds away after just four sessions. In one of the races, Bark and I tried the “dad karts”, which are full-sized karts supposedly performance-equalized to the kid karts. They’re actually quite a bit faster than the kid karts, particularly in a straight line, but even with that advantage I was only able to make one pass on my son in ten laps. He’s a strong defender and not afraid to swivel his head at speed.
So far, so good. But I was concerned by two behaviors I saw our kids display. Bark’s kid obviously preferred playing a video game on his phone to any interaction with his cousin or even the kart races themselves; in the end, Bark took the phone away, at which point the two cousins ran around the building and played Tag just like they would have in 1975 or, for that matter, 1875. (In 1775, they would already both be in a coal mine.)
As for my son, he prefers “real life” to “screen life”, but that doesn’t mean his expectations of the world haven’t been formed by screens. In the final race of the evening, Kevin managed to beat John, who blamed a bad kart for his off-pace performance. In response to this loss, John threw a first-class temper tantrum and refused to speak to anyone for about ten minutes. How much of this is due to modern video games, which carefully lead their players by the nose as they dole out a “success path” of continual dopamine hits? The video games of my childhood, like Galaga, were designed to beat you out of quarters. Today’s games are far more sophisticated; they step you through “quests” and “tutorial missions” and everything else you need to enjoy a steady succession of successes. You’re always given the weapons or tools you need to complete the quest. Nothing is ever simply too hard. No wonder today’s kids don’t have the ability to cope with losing at anything; their online lives are designed to eliminate that particular sorrow. Maybe kids don’t really have it better nowadays.
It also depressed me to see how generally inarticulate and piggish the bulk of last night’s under-16 racers were. The vast majority of them were fat to some degree, thanks to a devil’s cocktail of corn syrup and sedentary hobbies. They communicated in the garbled, incomplete English that has long been the de facto tongue of the service sector but which is also now becoming universal among children of all classes who spend most of their lives with their noses pressed to a screen.
I did see three children who were were anti-pattern: fit, articulate, expensively dressed, well-behaved. They kept to themselves, huddled in animated conversation, and after their race they were trundled off by their two sets of parents to a pair of near-identical German SUVs. They didn’t have phones or tablets on hand. It made me think of how the West Coast tech elite now keeps their kids off the Internet and away from phones. Look at it this way: Two hundred years ago, being fat was a luxury. Now it’s literally free, thanks to welfare and junk food. Today’s upper class is thin and fit because that’s more expensive than being fat. By the same token, access to the Internet and the best digital experiences was once the exclusive province of people who afford $2,500 computers for their kids. Now the Web is prole fodder doled out to the Third World via $49 Chinese smartphones, so the children of the rich are being forcibly returned to a Huck-Finn-style acquaintance with the physical world.
My son didn’t like being beaten by one out of twenty-five kids last night. Even if it was just once, and even if it by was his cousin, “who is like a best friend to me.” So on the drive home, he didn’t turn on his Kindle tablet. He laid out his time sheets, and he studied them. Then he asked me questions. About line theory, about racing techniques, about experiences that I’ve had in competition. About one question per mile, for seventy miles. Then, when he’d run out of questions, he looked out the window, into a darkness of no particular distinction, the same way I did from the back seat of my father’s LeSabre Custom, thirty-six years ago. I suspect he’ll remember the evening as a defeat, but in this pitched battle to ensure his future, once in which time is increasingly short and his imperfect parental paladin is always subject to early retirement from the field due to motorsports mistakes, the long arm of the law, or simple middle-aged medical frailty, I’ll count it as a victory.