February 1, 2012

Kite string theory ties everything that's wrong with the world into one neat, impossible-to-open package. I discovered this theory many years ago while flying a kite, or actually, while repeatedly throwing a kite up into the air so that my then 12-year-old nephew, David, could try to fly it, and then watching as the kite plummeted and smashed back into the ground.

When I was a kid, my Uncle Larry was a wholesale candy and toy salesman. He would often bring home merchandise that his customers, mostly mom and pop grocers and drug- stores, had returned because of defects. He had a couple of his own kids but I spent so much time at his house that I guess he thought I was one of his, too. We had boxes full of toy cars with missing wheels, airplanes with broken propellers, baseball cards with stale bubblegum.

During kite season Uncle Larry would bring home broken and torn Hi-Flier kites. Hi-Fliers were the classic diamond-shaped kites, like the ones that Charlie Brown always managed to get stuck in his kite-eating tree. But to me they were the most wonderful and amazing objects, because I knew how to make them fly. I would take the various broken kites Uncle Larry brought home and piece them together into working models, and then go to the field behind our house and fly them for hours.

When I got sick of flying one, if it was still soaring at the end of its ball of string, I'd hand it off to some other kid, while I played baseball or tag. If the kid was a lousy kite flyer and wound up smashing up my kite, it didn't really matter. I'd just go to Uncle Larry's, piece together another one, and come back for more aeronautic adventures.

Even if your Uncle wasn't a toy salesman it was easy to obtain a Hi-Flier kite. The cheapest models only cost a dime, and even if a kid was broke he could usually round up five pop bottles and return them for the 2c-a-piece deposit - enough for a brand new kite. But the best thing about Hi-Fliers was how simple they were. Even eight-year-olds could figure out how to put one together by themselves and, if there was enough wind, they would always fly. Other than Mom worrying we'd electrocute ourselves by getting one stuck in some power lines, or trying to be like Ben Franklin during a lightning storm, they were good, safe fun.

Then something terrible happened to Hi-Fliers. They improved them. At first the improvements seemed to be great. Instead of making the kites out of paper, they began making them out of plastic, which was much less likely to tear. But they also cost a quarter and so a lot of kids couldn't afford them. It didn't much matter to me, since I was piecing together broken parts anyway, but I noticed kids with paper kites became jealous of those of us who had the snazzy new plastic models. Suddenly the kites became worth stealing, and when I set one down while I went to the bathroom that's exactly what happened to mine.

At the same time they came out with improved kite string made of nylon. (In reality, it was fishing line on a spool.) It was lighter weight than the old cotton string and didn't break as easily, but it too cost more and was much more likely to slip its knots, so that your kite might be out 1,000 feet and suddenly the string would slip off and the kite would go catapulting irretrievably into the upper branches of a tree or the fenced yard of a mean dog.

I never outgrew kites but everything about them has changed. The simple kites that I flew as a kid has vanished from the market, replaced by stunt kites, vulture kites, and octopus kites. There are also kites so powerful that, if you weren't careful, could wind up flying you right into the rooftops with them. Even the string is no longer the same. Many of the kites require dual line or quad line string. Instead of 10 cents, the kites now cost $10, $50, $100!

I could now go on a rant about how everything that was simple and good when I was a kid has become complicated and crappy. But something happened last month that changed my perspective: we went to our local elementary to watch a neighbor's kid and his classmates read their poems on Poetry Night. They had each made up haikus and limericks, which were cute and funny, but then some of the 12-year-olds read serious poems about how things had been so much better in the old days, when they were kids.

One particularly poignant poem was about how great VHS videotapes used to be. The kid fondly remembered being able to just push his favorite movie into the slot, and then being able to watch it, from beginning to end, without having to figure out all the remote controls and menus and format options and everything else that has become part of our home viewing routines.

So kite string theory is the belief that every generation becomes nostalgic for the way things were when they were younger. The music was better, the food was tastier, the girls were prettier, the toys were more fun, everything was cheaper and nicer and simpler and now it's just gone ballistic. We all want back what we can't have - our youth - but this time with the wisdom to really appreciate it.

But we're never going to get any younger than we are today, so we had better try our best to appreciate what we've got. I once almost bought an original Hi-Flier on eBay ... it was only $10! But then I got to thinking, I could make a kite out of a couple of twigs, some string and newspapers and the whole thing would cost a couple of pennies. I think it's time to go fly a kite.