Some holiday rituals are frozen in analog time, and a gathering at our old farm homestead confirmed that, as of now, our clan has not joined the “dī tóu zú” tribe. Apparently the Chinese use that term for those with “perpetually bowed heads.” Their lowered gaze is constantly looking at a smartphone, and they are oblivious of those around them. At our annual gathering, you couldn’t afford to have your head down because you might miss out on the food, singing, card playing, and grab-bag gifts—or you might get run over by a herd of small kids on some type of toy mission.
Maybe the setting keeps the event rooted in the past. Forty or more gathered on a farm that has been in the family since 1856, and at this time of year the Midwest landscape can be stark—especially when a polar vortex has crept down from the Dakotas. With the sun out on a sub-zero day, the frigid beauty includes frost-lined fences and expansive fields perforated with frozen corn stubble. Snow-tinged pine trees add to the holiday effect on my brother’s farm, and across the road—down a narrow, winding lane—my parents’ white house and red barn nestle in among groves that include two epic trees. The tall, scraggly cottonwood and the ancient, mushroom-shaped oak have lost their leaves, but they stand defiant in the winter glare.
The small creek between the two farms has ice forming on the edges, but it still meanders along to the bigger creek in the north pasture. Beavers have constructed a dam this year—the best we’ve seen in some time. Gnawed saplings and worn trails show their process; the still water behind the dam provides a place to store food and hide access to the dens they have in the banks.
If dangerous temperatures had not set in, we would have taken the kids out in the afternoon to see the dam—and to go sledding down the hill in the pasture. Even in winter the farms provide hay lofts, creek beds, and snow drifts enough to make up a type of old-school Pokémon Go setting—plenty of adventures and discoveries without the hassle of having a digital device in hand.
On this cryogenic day, the action was inside. The kids (all under ten years old) were tactile, and that meant using more than just their thumbs. They built forts with cardboard building blocks; they played restaurant with plastic kitchen and food items; and most gratifying for some of the elders, a few of them played with the old red barn. “Hey, where are those little bales of hay?” a four-year-old asked. He wanted to use the wagon to transport hay back to the barn where he had positioned plastic cows and horses. Sometimes a batman figurine or a green army tank wandered into his barnyard, but the youngster is a city kid, so he’s allowed to do some creative farming.
A large, plastic airplane and a detailed model of the Lusitania both ended up flying around the main room, but no one was hurt, and because of the crowded conditions, the kids didn’t throw balls or launch nerf rockets on this particular day. Most of them did stop the chaos long enough to join in as my sister played carols on the piano, and the kids paid attention during gift time when they received stockings filled with everything from silly putty to Pez dispensers.
Of course the digital world did show up. Parents held up smartphones long enough to take photos and videos. At one stage my brother walked around with a large iPad because his son and family were Skyping from Germany. To use Merriam-Webster’s 2016 word of the year, it was surreal—like a movable portrait floating calmly as we sent our chaos to their smaller chaos thousands of miles away. The youngsters thought nothing of this communication miracle. Some of us elders remembered crackling phone lines and postmarked aerogrammes of the past.
Digital tech has its place, but on this day no one used computer games or streaming football to commit phubbing. Why snub others by staring at a screen when the intergenerational tumult around us was so much fun? Farms have traditionally been fertile ground for gatherings of families and friends who hold their heads up and interact face-to-face. And it no doubt takes place in plenty of urban settings too. Even in this brave new cyber world, many folks have resisted “dī tóu zú” membership, and they belong to the “we see you” tribe.
by dan gogerty