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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Today At My Friend's House ...

I know I've blogged about shopping for toys before, but yesterday I had the experience of being schooled by a child about the wonder of playing with them, so I wanted to write about it.

I've mentioned my friend Stacey and her daughter Taryn before. Well, Taryn has a four-year-old sister named Calista (where they got these names I have no idea) ... Cali for short. I stopped by to see Stacey about a mutual friend, Mike, who had been in a minor car accident but needed some help getting to and from physical therapy for a leg injury. Mike was getting around pretty well, but he just couldn't bend and shift very well to drive a car. As Stacey and I sat sipping coffee ... very bad coffee ... and making plans to help Mike with his transportation woes, Cali emerged from her room with a colorful box. She marched over to her mother and uttered a suggestion with truly childish abandon ... "Let's play Hippo!!"

"Not right now, Cali ... Mommy's talking."

Like only a little kid can, Cali tapped into a her "indignant gene" and emphatically stomped her foot. "I wanna play Hippo now!"

I could see that Stacey was a little embarrassed by her daughter's outburst as she rose from her seat and started scooting Cali back to her bedroom. "Honey," she cooed, "you need to play by yourself for a little bit longer. I'm almost finished talking, and once I get dinner started you and I can play Hippo ... okay?" Cali's response was to wrap her free arm around Stacey's leg, arresting her progress toward the little girl's room. She also stiffened her body to become an instant dead weight. I'd seen this technique used by bored children in banks, department stores, and in line at the grocery. Hell, I can remember using the "limp fish maneuver" as a little kid to frustrate both my parents.

I really didn't want to witness an escalation in hostilities between mother and daughter, so I offered to sit and play with Cali at the dining room table ... Stacey could get her "water boiling" and "stuff chopped" while we discussed helping out our recuperating buddy.

The game that Cali opened and quickly set up was "Hungry Hungry Hippos." The premise is pretty simple and bears a striking resemblance to the name on the box. The game is a little plastic arena, but instead of virile gladiators you have four brightly colored hippopotamus heads. Beside each head is a lever ... pulling it extends the neck and opens the jaws of your "player" which allows them to attempt to gobble up white marbles that have been dropped onto the playing surface. "Eating" the most marbles means you win because YOU have the hungriest hippo!

These smiling "river horses" attached to the game looked very happy ... not dangerous at all like real hippos. Hippos are the third largest land animal on the planet. And they are extremely aggressive. I'd seen an episode or two of National Geographic before ... these puppies are used to fending off crocodiles and lions. And they routinely attacked humans for no apparent reason. And I also distinctly remembered that hippos mark their territory by simultaneously crapping and spinning their tails, flinging their "hip-poo" to cover the largest area possible. Smiling or not, I wasn't sure I wanted to be positioned behind one in a child's game.

But Cali looked so cute and competitive, sitting on her knees in a dining chair with her shoulders all hunched and fingers tensed. This was big stakes to her, so I put my own game face on and prepared to rumble.

"You gotta count to fwee," she explained, "then we go."

"Fwee?" I asked.

"Fwee ... one, two, and fwee."

Nodding my understanding, I counted down slowly and then our two hippos began munching on the rolling little marble morsels. Cali and I were pretty even after just a few seconds, but then I slowed down and let her hippo eat the lion's share. "Come on ... you gotta try!" she encouraged. The little tyke wanted her victory to be an honest one. So for the next 20 minutes, we played like eight rounds of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Cali was a true competitor ... she would set her jaw as she concentrated on getting to the marbles first. Her non-levering hand would smack the table when she grew frustrated. She even tried to tilt the board a couple of times when she thought I wouldn't see so that the marbles would roll closer to her herbivore's gaping maw. And like a true focused gamesperson, she completely ignored me when I tried to "wow" her with the fact that hippos were sort of descended from whales like at Sea World, and that their bodies produced natural sunscreen oils like Mommies put on little kids to keep them from getting scorched outside.

After suffering a series of withering looks for my efforts to make game time educational, we continued to play a ninth round with Stacey announcing that it was the "last one" before Cali had to go clean up her room. I had won two games, Cali six ... but we both had genuinely had a food time.

Cali took game 9 and went off to do her chores as promised. I joined Stacey in the kitchen, declining another cup of her foul java. While my good friend mentioned a number of ways we might assist Mike other than just getting him to his last few physical therapy appointments, I kept going back to my recent stint as a fighting hippo. Now I own a Wii and an XBox, and one shelf in my coat closet has technological versions of Yahtzee and Trivial Pursuit. My desk drawer at work is littered with hand-held poker, blackjack, and slot machine games. And every time I boot up my computer at the office or here at home, there beckons the icons for solitaire, hearts, and "Bejeweled." But do any of these really compare to some of the wonderful toys I explored as I child?, I thought to myself as Stacey stirred more oregano into her marinara sauce.

Other than my parents, grandparents, and my siblings (my oldest brother for the most part),
my first two loves in life were Milton Bradley's iconic "Candy Land" and "Chutes and Ladders." The first belonged to my sister but I loved the little characters ... I always had to be Lord Licorice or I would cry ... and the idea of cool places made of candy. My little brain always thought that Gumdrop Mountain and the other sugary regions of the board were far away tourist destinations that I could visit when I was older, like the North Pole. C 'n' L was just cool, and I never cared about winning ... I just wanted my game piece to slide down as many slides as possible.

Then came "Mr. Potato Head," the dude who sat on my dresser at night and watched over me like a starchy guardian angel. Introduced by Hasbro in 1952, this toy was basically a plastic potato with a variety of limbs, facial features, and accessories that could be plugged into little potato "eyes" to create different looks and moods. Mine had a ball cap ... he never got "uppity" with the little top hat or derby. Mr. Potato Head has been one of the most robust toys ever created. Over the years, he acquired a wife ... Mrs. Potato Head. Then came the children ... sweet daughter Yam and spunky son Spud. He became available in several occupational themes ... police man, firefighter, construction worker, and more. There have even been versions available depicting every major sports franchise and novelty creations like Santa Claus and a Star Wars-inspired "Darth Tater." I have an Iron Man-styled iteration on my desk at work ... it's known as "Tony Starch."

When I was maybe five, I hit a major artistic phase in my life. I went through crayons and markers like crazy. My parents started buying rolls of butcher's paper from a deli in town so I'd always have a surface for my creativity. That Christmas, Santa rewarded me for good deeds I apparently didn't clearly remember doing ... I received both a "Play-Doh Fun Factory" and a Kenner "Spirograph" set. Play-Doh was actually invented in Cincinnati ... yeah Buckeye ingenuity ... in the 1950s as a wallpaper cleaner; it was by accident that the family who created it found a use as an impromptu toy in a nursery school. The "factory" came with a few cans of "dough" and a press with several punched-out nozzles to alter the shape of the extruding clay-like substance. My mother spent that first week after the holiday picking colored dough in varied shapes and sizes out of every nook and cranny in our home ... under the couch cushions, in coffee table drawers, embedded in throw rugs, and even mashed into silverware that I used to give my colorful creations some extra panache. My parents appreciated the toy's appeal ... non-toxic, non-staining, and reusable ... but they both grew tired of acting amazed ... and fake "hungry" ... when I kept presenting them with platters of puffy hamburgers and sauceless spaghetti and meatballs.

But the whole family loved the Spirograph. Not only did they all enjoy making the crazy geometry-inspired shapes by manipulating the templates and plastic "gears," but it was a toy that needed minimal supervision ... there were some pins involved, but apparently that wasn't a concern ... and it could keep me busy and quiet for hours. I had drawings taped everywhere. I was very proud of each masterpiece.

But trouble was brewing on the horizon. Around age 7 my father came home one evening with a gift for the family ... the game "Sorry." The whole family loved racing around the game board, sometimes sliding ahead with their smooth little futuristic game pieces ... like a little hat from the "Jetsons" ... and sometimes sending players back to "start" ... always accompanied by the whiny and sarcastic group chanting of "soooooorrrrryyyyyy!!!!" just like on the TV commercials promoting the popular game.

Someone speaking suddenly caught my attention. "I'm glad this is almost over," Stacey said with a little puff of exaggerated air. I think I actually jumped a little on my bar stool as the sound of my friend's voice brought my mind out of its youthful wanderings.

"What's over?" I asked.

"Having to drive mike around ... weren't you listening?"

Maybe all of the zest and youthful zeal I felt while playing those games and creating fun things with those toys hadn't been beaten out of me with adulthood. Maybe playing with Cali reminded me that life wasn't always about the gas bill or getting to work on time or not letting the milk in the frig go sour. Because right then and there, I so wanted to tell Stacey "soooooorrrrryyyyyy!!!!" just like a feisty seven year old!

POINT OF RANT: Everyone needs to listen to their inner child every once in a while!

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