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.”

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Reconnecting with Our Past

horse

The 1971 World Horsehoe Pitching Championships.

I grew up in a neighborhood where rectangular patches of black clay blotted the green grass of everyone’s backyards. With the center of my six-year-old universe being a suburban neighborhood that sprouted from a meadow in 1952, I thought all yards rang with the sounds of men tossing horseshoes, tossing insults at their partners and tossing back cans of Rheingold and Schaefer beer.

I suspect my Dad had the best horseshoe pits in the neighborhood because most summer evenings the men flocked there. He’d come home after eight hours of designing brochures for a printing-press manufacturer and after a quick dinner — something like pork chops, baked potatoes and Delmonte canned green beans — would change out of his work clothes. A set of horseshoes hung from a rack off a slate gray Sears Craftsman band saw in the garage. He’d grab a pair and would bang them together. The neighborhood men would come outside, sit on their front steps to tie their shoes. Soon they’d be climbing over the waist-high white picket fence that surrounded the yard.

About the time I hit the first grade, my hometown was hosting the World Horseshoe Pitching Championships. With horseshoe fever gripping the community, the town fathers scrambled to construct a large fenced-in horseshoe court in the park across from the high school, while the fathers in my neighborhood scrambled to hone their horseshoe pitching skills. I don’t believe any of them actually competed in the tournament, but the commotion undoubtedly stirred their competitive juices.

I remember watching the backyard hum with activity those summer nights in 1971. Sometimes I’d watch from my Dad’s second-floor art room, which offered a bird’s eye view of both pits. I’d watch the metal shoes float effortlessly in a lazy arc across the soft lawn falling with a dull thump into the clay.

An art room was another feature I thought could be found in all homes. On certain winter nights my Mom might be lounging in an arm chair after work, Baretta flashing colored shadows across the living room floor, while my Dad worked upstairs.  I would hear from his stereo turntable the smaltzy pop of Englebert Humperdinck, or the bleating country songs of Marty Robbins. I’d climb the stairs to watch him, hunched over his drawing board, glasses dangling from the tip of his nose as he worked with pen and ink or pastels. On the table behind the swivel chair would be an array of rubber erasers, razor-sharp exacto knives, colored pencils and his Leroy lettering set.

Over time the men stopped playing horseshoes. Some died, some moved away. Upstairs in the art room, the colored pencils and Leroy lettering set got packed away in cardboard boxes and shipped south when my parents sold their home.

And I learned that most homes do not have art rooms, most back yards do not have horseshoe pits. I would think about that once in a while. And then I got older and didn’t think about it at all.

I was walking the dogs in the park recently when I saw two guys throwing horseshoes in sand pits just beyond the trail, and for a moment the winter’s sun warmed to a June evening. The clang of horseshoes rang in the air, mixed with the popping hiss of freshly cracked Rheingold cans.

The next day, a Tuesday, I was walking across the creaky wide plank floors of the art museum where I work on site two days a week. Walking through the contemporary collage exhibition, my mind began to float back to Leroy lettering sets and exacto knives. I could almost hear the once-familiar strains of gunfighter ballads and trail songs.

When I got home that evening I looked around our house, at the history books and the William Jennings Bryan walking stick in the library. I thought about my wife and I writing in our office, putting together words and editing each other’s copy as we work to grow a home business. I wondered what Penelope makes of all this. Of the things that are unique in our household. I hope she appreciates it, and appreciates those things that are unique in the people she meets.

Growing Pains

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Penelope hurried over to me, eyes brimming with tears, her thumb and index finger wiggling one of her bottom teeth. She told me her tooth was loose and started to cry.

I asked her if she was bleeding or did something that loosened the tooth, but she shook her head. “Does it hurt?” I asked, and again she shook her head.

“My tooth is coming out!” She looked confused. “What if all my tooths come out? I won’t be able to eat my cereal?”

Here’s the part where I kick myself a little, and wish I had said something truly helpful. The wife walks into the room moments later, and when she heard the news, grew excited. “Wow! Look at you? You’re becoming a big girl! How exciting! You’re losing your baby teeth, and new big-girl teeth will grow in their place.”

Hearing this not only eased Penelope’s fears, but she became enthused at the prospect of becoming a big girl and about all the interesting things that would happen to her.

So, what did I say when Penelope told me her fears of losing all her teeth and not being able to eat cereal?

“Well, your Grandma lost all her teeth, and she has no problem eating. You’ll be fine.”

God I hope her mother is home when she gets her first period!

The Caffeinated Kid and Other Parenting Mishaps

As someone who will slice up a bunch of jalapeno peppers and then immediately take out his contact lenses, or rub Ben-Gay on his wife’s back and then go to the bathroom, picking out five really bad parenting moves was no problem. Actually, it was a problem because I thought of 16 and had to cut.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five personal favorites:

Think before you sing. The other day I was driving to the supermarket with Penelope in the back seat. We were listening to a track by G.B. Leighton, an indie musician out of Minnesota, called “The Most Important Night of My Life.” I didn’t think much about it until after we returned home, and Bernadette asked me why Penelope was singing the first line of the chorus: “I’m going down to the liquor store.” (Ironically, if you watch the video link, Leighton warns about this very thing happening. If only I had seen the video sooner.) All I can say is thank God Penelope couldn’t decipher The Clash’s “Death or Glory.”

And, as a corollary I’d like to add that parodies of children’s songs are a really bad idea. Singing “the driver on the bus goes (insert farting sound here)” to the kid is a pre-K parent-teacher conference just waiting to happen.

Think before you practice. This week I started classes at Mix ’em Up Bartending School. (As an aside, I just want to say that the classes are fantastic, the instructors are terrific, and I’m happy to be adding a skill to my repertoire that can’t get outsourced to India.)

When I return home in the afternoon, I take a little time to practice what I’ve learned. Since I’m pouring liquid — really, water — from one type of container into another, Penelope suddenly finds me more interesting than the Kratt Brothers on PBS Kids. Later, Bernadette was giving Penelope a bath when the little one grabbed her plastic play cups and asked, “Mama, would you like an Alabama Slammer?”

Note to self: Practice making Sex on the Beach after 7:30 p.m.

Note to everyone: No matter how I phrase above sentence it always sounds dirty.

Opposites don’t attract. A recent conversation between Bernadette and I went like this:

Bern: Penelope is in this phase where she just won’t listen. You ask her to do something, and she won’t do it. Or she does the opposite.

Me: I know what we can do. We’ll just tell her the opposite of what we want her to do. So, if we want her to clean up her toys we’ll tell her to go watch TV.

Bern: Really? That teaches her to listen to us . . . how?

Umm . . . yea, good point.

Bedtime ain’t crazy time. I have a tendency to rile up Penelope right before bedtime. One example, and believe me there are many, was when I decided to act out one of her favorite books, “Sneaky Sheep” by Chris Monroe, complete with her stuffed sheep, wolf and Golden Retriever. Funny voices and bouncing animals all but guarantee a 7:30 p.m. bedtime isn’t going to happen. Penelope stayed awake several more hours, and was — how shall I put it? — an absolute joy when the sun rose the following morning. I’d like to publicly apologize to my wife, Penelope’s teachers, the woman who runs the playroom at Shop-Rite, several neighbors, my two beagles and a stray cat that wandered onto our property the next day.

The “new” new coffee generation. Recently I was working from home. I like to start each morning off with a cup of coffee or two or seven. On this particular morning I set my steaming mug down on my desk, shuffle back to the bedroom for a sweatshirt, then downstairs to drop a load of laundry into the washing machine, then into the kitchen to make some scrambled eggs. I carry my plate of eggs to my desk, set it down, reach for my coffee, but it’s gone. Since I have a terrible habit of leaving things all around the house, I pick up my plate of eggs and retrace my steps, but no luck and no coffee.

So, I call out to Bern who has a sixth sense for knowing where I’ve mislaid my car keys, wallet or the remote control. But she’s stumped. As I stand in the family room, scratching my head, a whirling dervish of a four year old careens past me, arms flapping in the air, yelling, “I’m flying!! I’m flying!!”

When I got back to my desk, my plate of eggs was missing. It was the beginning of the longest day of my life.

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.

Cussing Around the Kid

I attended my first Major League baseball game when I was 8 years old. The New York Mets played the Houston Astros, and naturally, being the Mets, they lost 7-4.

There’s something about a boy seeing his first live baseball game that leaves an indelible impression. I remember so much from that day: My father and I and the neighborhood kids sitting in the sun-drenched upper deck of Shea Stadium on a Wednesday afternoon; the thrill of watching Ed Kranepool hit a home run into the right-field bullpen and the disappointment that Willie Mays didn’t play; getting home before sundown, grabbing my freshly oiled Rusty Staub mitt and playing three-fly-six in Bobby Westerfield’s backyard.

That first trip to Queens in August of 1972 suckered me into becoming a Mets fan, and I’ve seen a lot of losing ever since. In hindsight, I consider my father’s prodding to support National League baseball in New York a peculiar form of child abuse.

I suffered a great deal as a kid from watching the Mets trade Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver to Mettle. (The Mets actually ran a contest to name the 1979 Mets mascot — a mule — and I entered. Really, I did. Not surprisingly, my suggestion of M. Donald Grant didn’t win.)

These days I don’t watch much baseball. I just don’t have the time anymore to see a bunch of guys scratch and spit for hours on end. If I wanted to do that, I could always look up my freshman-year college roommates.

But one particular Sunday, while waiting to drive to the local pool and gun club, I flipped on the TV and a Mets game. Naturally, being the Mets, they were losing. And, within minutes, the manager made some idiotic decision. Then I did something all guys do when watching sports on television: I started yelling at the set. It’s a DNA/reflex/guy thing. And somewhere in my brief rant I may have called Mets manager Jerry Manuel a few . . . ummm . . . inappropriate names. Nothing too terrible: stupid, pinhead, jackass. There may have been a dipshit thrown in there; I can’t remember. Unfortunately, Penelope the parrot was playing nearby and started immediately repeating those words.

I knew I must do something. Horrible visions floated in my head of Penelope going to preschool Monday morning and calling her teacher a jackass. So, I did what any dumba. . . — quick-thinking Papa and Mets fan would do: I spent the next 20 minutes trying to persuade Penelope she should reserve those names for the “old man in the blue baseball uniform.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if she bought it. But I felt better the other day when I was driving the car, and after getting cut-off, proceeded to call the other driver a pinhead.

“Papa!” I heard from the backseat. “Baseball man?!”

“Yes, Pop Tart, that’s right! The baseball man just cut me off!”

{Gratuitious plug time: I’ll be among the authors signing copies of the local history book “East Amwell” from the Images of America series on Sunday, Sept. 19 at the Unionville Vineyards in East Amwell from 2 to 5 p.m. A portion of the proceeds of books sold there will benefit the East Amwell Historical Society. If you’re looking for something fun to do, please come, buy some wine and buy a book. We’ll also be at the Borders Books in Flemington on Oct 2 from 1 to 3 p.m. Last week, at a local Harvest Fest we signed and sold close to 80 copies. Finally, in my last shameless plug (all for the noble cause of preserving local history) I will be doing an in-studio interview on WDVR FM 89.7 Monday, Oct.  18 at 4 p.m. about this book.}