The Games People Play

Picture of "Operation" game.

Looks Painful! The 1980s edition of the Milton Bradley game “Operation.”

My sister gave Penelope the game “Operation” for Christmas this year. I think I was more excited than my daughter because it’s something I recognize from my childhood. So, yesterday when Penelope pulled her Barbie fairy doll out of the box and asked me to snap on the wings, I said, “Gee Pop Tart, I’m having trouble getting these wings on. Let’s play Operation!”

Instead, she slid across the living room floor and opened a box of make-your-own Friendship Bracelets. “Papa, can you help me with this?” I looked at her, smiled, and said, “Sure, but don’t you want to play Operation first?”

Eventually, the kid caught one of my subtle-as-a-flying-mallet hints, and we opened the game at the dining room table. The whole time we were playing I had this gnawing feeling that the game had changed. I seemed to recall playing cards and money, none of which were in this version. Sure enough, I found this, which may me feel better about my memory. I’m not sure whose idea it was to create a game that involves children poking a naked man with a pair of tweezers, but it’s rather fun if you overlook that.

I realized later that I am a phenomenally bad board game player. It’s almost a talent: Stay Alive? No, I can’t. Clue? Haven’t got one. Skittle Bowl? Umm, let’s just rename it “Try not to take out my cousin’s eye with a wooden ball swinging from a chain.”

I don’t know if I’m the only person who remembers these, but I loved “Landslide” and “Why?” Both games are no longer produced. “Landslide,” a Parker Brothers game from the early 1970s that challenged players to get elected president, gave me a splendid opportunity to impersonate Alton B. Parker and Adlai Stevenson. This game shouldn’t be confused with “Lie, Cheat and Steal.” (Feel free to insert your own joke here.) “Why?” was an Alfred Hitchcock mystery game where “detectives” with names like Sherlock Bones and Charlie Clam roamed a haunted house collecting ghost cards. The biggest mystery to me is how I managed to lose the darn game. Looking back 40 years, it still bugs me!

Electric football game.

Electric football game. Notice the running back in this photo appears to be heading in the proper direction.

Without doubt, my favorite game as a kid was Electric Football. Whenever I played it, “NFL Films” music would rumble through my head. My parents bought it for my brother and I around the time I learned the truth about Santa Claus. (A friend’s Dad spilled hot cocoa on himself, which set off a very unSanta-like fit of cursing, which in turn sent his kids scurrying down the stairs to discover the unfortunate truth. I remember sitting with my friend behind my garage as he relayed these events. When he finished telling me this story, he added….”And if you believe in the Easter Bunny….boy, are you dumb!” Yea, he sort of killed two birds with one stone that day!)

This was the Superbowl V version of Electric Football with the Baltimore Colts and the Dallas Cowboys. The version we played featured plastic players that slid into plastic bases. The bases had prongs underneath that a player was supposed to manipulate to enable the football men to move around the vibrating field the way you wanted. I never quite mastered Electric Football. Running backs would spin around in circles, wide receivers would run out of bounds, offensive linemen would attack their own quarterback. There was a foam football the size of a Bayer aspirin, and a left-footed kicker who could never seem to get the ball over the goalpost.

Playing Electric Football should have prepared me for years of frustration as a Cleveland Browns fan.

I’ve been discovering — or rediscovering — that one of the many cool things about being a parent is the chance to re-live your own childhood memories. As we grow older, there are certain chapters in our lives that we close, forget about and move on. We do this not because we need to forget, but because so many other things crowd our lives. I’m glad to have a Christmas where the magic and memory of being a child again can fill an afternoon.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my little five year old kicked my tail playing “Operation.”

Lost on the Island of Misfit Toys

toys2

There’s something singularly depressing about listening to Gene Autry croon “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from a tinny overhead speaker in a thrift store. A sequined wedding dress hangs limply from a baby-blue plastic coat hanger, and I’m wondering if the petite woman who donated it ever walked down the aisle.

Bern became a loyal customer here ever since she stumbled upon a pair of brand new tweed pants from Soft Surroundings for $8. I’m told that’s a phenomenal deal; in fact, she tells me it’s a phenomenal deal every time we come here. One evening, she even found a photograph of the pants in the Soft Surroundings catalog, and stuck it under my nose to prove the enormity of her coup. Perhaps she thought I doubted her, but I never did. The thing is I’ve done better: I once paid $2.99 sent for a tuxedo jacket. Now granted, wearing it made me look like Cesar Romero from the old Batman TV show, but a bargain’s a bargain.

Before scampering off in search of, say, a Boden dress for $4.87, she suggests I wander about the store in case there’s anything I wish to add to my Christmas list. Walking around, I’m amazed at the unusual selection. Plates shaped like pizza slices (because, you know, it’s so hard to keep a slice of pizza on a round plate). A small plastic case with a gold label that reads “1930 Cadillac.” The Cadillac is missing, but then again, this is a dodgy neighborhood, and it’s possible the car was boosted for the parts. There’s a batless Placido Polanco bobble head poised in a batter’s box with a “Sugar House Casino” logo sitting about where home plate should be. I feel like I’ve just parachuted onto The Island of Misfit Toys.

Some items are rather curious. There’s a beer pitcher that reads “Cannstatter Volk Fest Verein, Philadelphia USA” which I later learn is one of the oldest German/American cultural organizations in Philadelphia whose founders include brewer Christian Schmidt and elfin-magic biscuit-guy Geoffrey Keebler.

But not until I wander to the back of the store do I hit the motherlode: racks of vinyl records that are so bad they’re good. Or, to paraphrase a line from the film “Ghost World,” they’re so bad, they go past good and back to bad again.” I flip past “Organ Omnibus — Accordian Boogie” and “Jimmy Nelson’s Instant Ventriloquism,” and stop at The Fireballs, a 1960s quartet I vaguely recall. This appears to be one of their last albums and with lyrics like “You’ve got your bag, and I’ve got mine/Maybe we can get together sometime and/think it over,” it’s not hard to understand why. Naturally, later that day, I’ll find the song on Youtube, and walk around the house singing “You’ve got your bag, and I’ve got mine” every time my wife asks for my opinion. Not surprisingly, it gets really old really fast.

liberaceI flip through albums until I find “Liberace — Songs My Mother Taught Me” with the pianist in a red tuxedo with a framed photograph of his Mom perched atop the piano. I close my eyes and just imagine young Wladzui Valentino Liberace banging away on “O Solo Mio” with a beaming Mrs. Liberace standing behind his shoulder. I think about how this and several other album covers would look on the family-room wall. Then I see Bern a few aisles over and slide the record in front of “TV Favorites As Played on the Lawrence Welk Show Featuring Jo-Ann Castle” and secretly wish I could hear her 1960s rendition of the Spanish-American War favorite “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

As we’re exiting the store, I spy with my little eye an “Elvis Presley 35th Anniversary” coffee mug. Elvis is pictured in full Vegas jumpsuit and cape, arms spread wide like a Crucifixion victim. I think: Damn, that would look sweet on my desk at the art museum. (I work on site there twice a week.) People will think I’m either an eclectic genius or the white man’s Fred G. Sanford. Either way, I can live with the comparison.

Unfortunately, it’s a package deal wrapped with a “Snuffy Hollow 20th Anniversary Mug” with a logo of a hillbilly clutching a shotgun. The hillbilly looks like he hates rock ‘n roll and is about to blow a hole through The King so I balk.

Still, as I’m exiting the store I consider how the cliche “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” holds a kernel of truth. After all, even the toys on The Island of Misfit Toys found a home.

Having a Merry Lizard Christmas

Just before Christmas, Penelope sprawled herself across the family room floor and wrote out her wish list to Santa Claus. The list was seven pages long which was quite an accomplishment since she only asked for six things. I think that’s about right for someone who’s four years old. My favorite line in her “Dear Santa” letter was : “I’ve been very good this year unless I was bad.” When she finished, we stuffed the letter in a snow-white over sized envelope and shipped it off to the North Pole.

Perhaps the most curious item on her list was a stuffed monitor lizard. She’s grown rather fond these past few months of a book about reptiles, and one page features an illustration of a monitor lizard preparing to feast upon a nest of crocodile eggs. So come Christmas morning, Penelope clambered down the stairs to discover a foot-long stuffed monitor lizard perched precariously atop the manger. (I bet you didn’t know a monitor lizard was present at the birth of the baby Jesus!)

The monitor lizard has quickly become the king of the animal farm that is Penelope’s bed. Last night, when I tip-toed into her bedroom to make sure she was still breathing — sorry, that’s a joke for a few folks — I saw Penelope softly snoring with a bare leg sticking out from under a blanket and a stuffed monitor lizard hugged tightly against her chest. I’m anticipating the soon-to-come day when I open the refrigerator to find the lizard sitting atop the egg bin staring back at me as if I’ve just interrupted a private moment.

I doubt there are many four-year-old girls who sleep with a monitor lizard. Hopefully, she’ll get that out of her system while she’s still a kid.

I think her fascination with animals of all stripes and textures comes from three sources. First are the numerous animal books she has on everything from dogs to dinosaurs. I think our two beagles — Sammi and Rudy — are also partly responsible for her becoming an animal lover. And the feeling is mutual, although I suspect the dogs love Penelope because she has a habit of leaving half-eaten cheese sticks on the coffee table. Lastly, Penelope is addicted to “Wild Kratts” on PBS Kids. The show starts with two brothers (Martin and Chris) who talk about some critter — be it an aardvark or a gecko. Then they morph into cartoon characters to rescue an animal in trouble. She’s probably watched all 20-some-odd episodes multiple times. Yesterday at the park she insisted on calling some little boy she met Chris. (His name was Kenny.)

As I watch all this I wonder if it means anything for her future. Will she become a veterinarian or a zoologist and help animals? Will she want to work at an animal shelter? Or is she just on her way to becoming a crazy cat lady?

Well, I doubt that last one. But I can’t help wondering if the clues about her future are already in place. But, then again, why rush things? In my heart I know it’s best just to enjoy a quiet moment watching a snoring child cradling her stuffed monitor lizard. These moments don’t last forever.

On a Snowy Presidents’ Day….

Penelope woke up before the sun again this morning. As usual, the first words out of her mouth were: “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” She hopped into our room as giddy as a spider monkey with a tennis racket much to the sleepy chagrin of Bernadette and I.

In my daze, I told her that in 10 years she is going to want to sleep until noon, and that’s when I am going to start the family tradition of the “Saturday Morning Let’s Vacuum the Upstairs Hallway Party.” She liked the idea. You all are now my witness to that.

I think Presidents’ Day has confused Penelope a bit. When I told her why I wasn’t going to work at the office today, she grew very excited and I could not understand why. Then I realized she thought I had said “Presents Day.” I then told her that we celebrate today because it’s near Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (That’s the president she knows. Well, she also knows George W. Bush, but thinks his name is “Jackass.”)

Her face lit up like a Christmas tree, and she began clapping and laughing and begging us to take her downstairs. She started babbling a bit, and it took me a few moments to get the gist of her words.

I had to explain to her that Presidents’ Day was different from the last holiday we celebrated. But she understands now that Lincoln did not come to the house last night and leave presents in the library. Although,  when we later clomped down the stairs for breakfast, I saw her cast a hopeful glance through the library doors. Fortunately this little kid bounces back quickly and the promise of a cheese stick and Mickey Mouse revived her spirits.

Maybe today her and I will swing past the local Borders to find a children’s book on Abraham Lincoln. I would imagine such a book exists. Yes? It’s not like I’m seeking “The Adventures of Millard Fillmore.”

Holidaze

January 1, 2010

Pity our poor dog Sammi. She’s a beagle, a breed with a proud lineage that stretches back to Great Britain at a time prior to the Roman conquest. Its first mention in English literature was in 1475, and King Edward III bred beagles specifically to hunt rabbits. Nowadays, beagles sniff out drugs or bombs at airports and help detect traces of flame accelerants at suspected arson sites.

Sammi, sadly, isn’t helping make the world safe from terrorists or solving crimes. She’s busy hiding from a two year old who’s trying to force her to wear a diaper.

Santa brought Penelope several toy diapers, hoping she’d stop taking the real, and oftentimes wet, ones off herself and putting them on her teddy bear. The toy diapers seemed like a good idea, but now Penelope has advanced from stuffed animals to living ones. On her first attempt, she almost managed to swing the diaper around Sammi’s back legs. If it’s possible for a beagle’s face to express surprise, then that’s how I’d describe Sammi’s look. She jumped a few feet forward, but a persistent Penelope pounced on her tail, and implored the puzzled pooch to “nay down.” All those centuries of highly attuned hunting instincts kicked in, and Sammi scampered to the safety of another room.

Sammi wasn’t the only victim of one of Penelope’s Christmas toys this year. Earlier this week after fixing the CD player, Penelope and I were bouncing around to Rilo Kiley. Penelope grabbed a pair of toy maracas. I cradled her in one arm while I shook a tambourine with the other like I was auditioning for Josie and the Pussycats. Unfortunately, I was looking away from the Peanut when she accidentally clocked me upside the head with her maraca. Hello, head-circling stars and tweety birds!

Bernadette arrived home a few minutes later, saw the lump by my eye and asked if she needed to take me to the emergency room. After a few moments of muddled pondering, I decided I’d rather risk the cranial bleed and pull a Bill Holden than suffer the embarrassment of explaining what happened to the ER nurse.

Despite the wounds to my head and Sammi’s dignity, our first Christmas together turned out quite wonderfully. We traveled back to Buffalo to visit Bern’s family. While there I learned a few things, namely: no matter how cold you think Buffalo is in December, it’s even colder; if you give already energetic kids enough Christmas presents and sugar cookies, they can actually be in three rooms at the same time; and a coffee maker works better when you remember to place the coffee pot under it.

Perhaps Penelope’s favorite Christmas presents are the kitchen set, and the assorted “Melissa and Doug” wooden food items (a pizza, stir fry, cookies and vegetables) and utensils. Her manner of playing has progressed in the past few weeks, and I’m fascinated watching her development. She has shifted gears from playing predominantly for physical development of motor skills and dexterity, to emotional development with pretend play.

Up until recently, Penelope’s idea of playing was to fill a container with blocks or puzzle pieces and dump them on the floor. Now, she’s standing in front of her stove, wearing an apron and slicing wooden vegetables and cooking eggs or pizza for me.

I pause and wonder if I’ve got a future Iron Chef living under our roof. Then the daydream ends: I hear a toy mixer running in the bathroom, and I know the mixing bowl is filled with water. Time to scurry off before I’m mopping the bathroom walls.

All She Wants for Christmas . . .


December 2009

On a blustery Saturday afternoon in December, one of Santa’s elves is teaching me a lesson on crowd control. I’m standing at a break in the line at the Macy’s in New York City waiting with my nephew David for the family to catch up to us. And, being a little bored and naturally curious, I start chatting with the 20-something elf as she keeps the line moving and prevents chiselers from slipping in undetected.

She laughs and shows me the proper way to pump your arm and to gently nudge stragglers along. I swing my arms around and jump up and down with the enthusiasm of a hungry beagle catching a whiff of cheese at supper time. The elf says I’m a quick learner and should go talk to Human Resources about a job.

Unfortunately, her boss isn’t impressed, and as he lifts his weary eyes from the clipboard balanced atop his protruding stomach to voice his displeasure, I consider asking him if he’s angling for Santa’s job once he pulls the enormous candy cane out of his behind. But I refrain in deference to my new elfin friend, and the fact that the good folks at Macy’s are kind and have allowed me to wait for my family at this juncture in the line. A few moments later, the family arrives.

This is the first year I’ve ever had a reason to visit Santa at Macy’s. I remember my parents taking me to see the inebriated Santa at Tepper’s Department Store in Plainfield when I was a tyke. Then we’d race out of town before someone threw a brick through the windshield of our Dodge Dart.

Since Penelope is only two years old, Bernadette and I would probably have waited another year before visiting. But our niece and nephew have five children, several of whom are the right age for visiting Santa, so we happily tagged along.

It takes an hour before we meet Santa, but along the way, a conductor ushers us into a train, and we stroll along a winding path decorated with Christmas trees, singing bears and skaters. The presentation is stunning.

We marvel at the decorations until the moment arrives when we meet the big guy. Penelope climbs onto Santa’s lap. He asks her what she wants for Christmas, and in that moment comes the highlight of my holiday: “APPLE JUICE!!!” she cheers. Someday, my daughter is going to ask for a cell phone, or a television for her bedroom, or a car, and I will wistfully recall the day when all she wanted was apple juice.

This incident led to a lengthy conversation between Bern and I about gifts for Penelope. My point in our discussion was simply that Penelope is a typical two year old when it comes to playing. If you give her a toy in a box, she’ll take the toy out of the box and play with the box. If you give her a puzzle, she’ll dump the pieces on the floor and walk into the kitchen to ask for an orange. I understand: She’s two; that’s her job.

So, I suggested rather than empty the shelves at Target, we buy Penelope the things a two year old enjoys playing with: an empty box, a dish rag, a roll of toilet paper, maybe a broken cell phone.

Needless to say, Bern didn’t exactly love the idea. “Twenty years from now our kid is going to be in therapy because you gave her an empty box for Christmas.”

“She will not,” was my less-than-snappy reply. “I wasn’t suggesting a crappy box from the liquor store. I was thinking more about re-wrapping that box that her Little Einstein bath toys came in and giving that to her.”

“She does play with that box every time I take her down to the basement, but no you cannot give our child an empty box for Christmas,” Bern said. “Twenty years from now when she’s in therapy, it’ll be your fault.”

Some discussions you know you’re going to lose even before they begin, and I had no doubt I was losing this one. Besides, I wasn’t serious about the idea. Just wondering. So, it’s off to Toys ‘R’ Us and after being in a toy store just before Christmas, perhaps a quick detour to Super Saver Liquors on the way home.

Oh, and of course, a final stop at ShopRite for that apple juice.