Monday, September 21, 2009

The Greatest Game

Over the weekend, Son finally realized a long-cherished dream of his: to own an Atari video game console. I'm not exactly sure why this was such a coveted item for him, nor am I sure he knows. He simply says, "It's a piece of gaming history." Nice. Something from my childhood is viewed by my son as "history". An antique, if you will.

Although it was fun to watch Son eagerly catalogue and assemble his new toy, I admit I began to experience a small amount of panic. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that I lack the skills to play video games. Technology and I are not exactly on the best of terms. In fact, the other day, I was afraid I'd have to wait for Son to get home from school to set up the Wii for me. And then I'd have to bribe him to go away so I could play without being heckled. It was much like the time I had to wait for him to come home from pre-school to set the VCR for me. (Fortunately, my mother-in-law came through for me on the Wii thing, thus sparing me further mockery.)

Son takes entirely too much delight in his video game prowess. Since the time he picked up his first controller, he has heaped the abuse on us, even stating repeatedly that he doesn't feel safe riding in the car with people who can't even negotiate their way around Wario World. And all these years, my go-to excuse has been, "I may not be able to play these games, but wow. You should have seen me play Pong. I was truly great." It seemed like a safe thing to say at the time. What were the odds that he'd ever find "a piece of gaming history" and actually WANT to play it?)

So, yes. A bit of anxiety over the imminent blowing of my cover. I mean, I really WAS able to play Pong. I really was able to do a lot of things, once upon a time. I had skills. Skills that apparently fade if you don't practice them for a couple of decades. (And while we're on the topic, whomever came up with the phrase "It's just like riding a bike" clearly had never met anyone like me when they came up with that particular bit of nonsense.)

Last night, after a day of evading Son's challenges, I finally agreed to play. And let me just say that when I beat him soundly, I have never in my life experienced more joy in a win. I was giddy with triumph. Sure, I know that in a day or two, he'll be able to take me out easily, but that's certainly not going to stop me from revelling in the moment while it lasts.

The instant I realized he was starting to get the hang of it, I handed over the paddle and announced I was going to let someone else have a turn. I went downstairs and soon my mother-in-law came down and shared the information that my father-in-law was having a marvelous time trouncing Son. Earlier I'd had the opportunity of witnessing HER have a marvelous time defeating Son as well, so, you know. I couldn't miss the final blow.

When I got back upstairs, I found Son scowling with frustration at the screen while my father-in-law was demonstrating, "See? I can even do it with my toes!" Sure enough, he had the paddle on the floor and appeared to be scoring effortlessly using only his toes. I sat and watched for a few minutes until my father-in-law grinned and said gleefully, "You should try this, Stacey, because (Son)...he's just not very good at this at all!" Son's scowl deepened as his grandpa handed over the controller. I moved it a few times and noticed something odd: No matter how I turned the paddle, my little player continued to move independently. "Um...this doesn't seem to be working..." Grandpa rushed to assure me, "Oh it works, just keep moving it."

I was a little slow, but I finally caught on. And sure enough, I was easily able to defeat Son who could not BELIEVE how poorly he was doing. We played game after game, each one ending in the thrill of victory...for me. Son's grandpa kept trying to give him helpful tips, pointing out how I was smoothly moving my player up and down, and tracking the "ball".

After several games, Son demanded to switch controllers, since his was obviously faulty and "jittery". "Oh no," Grandpa said. "The one you have is fine." Then Son demanded to switch to a different game. Grandpa informed him that the winner got to pick the next game, so until Son could beat me, he'd have to play the game of my choice. I chose to continue with Pong. "You know what?" I asked, as I proceeded to win yet another game, "I think you've been spoiled with all your cool graphics and sophisticated controllers. I think when it comes right down to the basics, this is the game where true skill is required. Back in the day you had to really KNOW how to play if you wanted to win."

I showed Son all kinds of ways to play. With one hand. With my elbow. I even showed him how I could just listen to the sound of the game and still hit the ball every time, WITH MY EYES CLOSED. "This isn't fair!" he protested.

"Sure it is. Besides, Son, part of being a good gamer is knowing how to accept defeat graciously."

"Yeah right."

Never have I seen such consternation. It was beautiful. On and on we went, Son losing more bitterly every time. Grandpa eagerly urging Son to keep going. Finally, Son appeared to simply give up. He sat back as my player continued to score points and eventually win, 21 to 0. It was around then that Son held aloft the other end of the controller's plug. "How are you playing without even being plugged in?" He demanded.

"I'm just that good."

"Ok, what's going on here?" he asked, suspiciously. I sat and pondered Grandpa's poker face for a few moments until the light finally dawned for Son. "I've been playing the COMPUTER??" He tried to wrestle the controller from me, between trying to tickle me into an admission.

"I can't believe you did that, Mom!"

"I can't believe it took you so long to figure it out! Playing by SOUND? Really?"

Then Grandpa scored the best shot of the night: "I can't believe you didn't figure it out when I let the dog play. And she won."

So, no, maybe I didn't deserve all those wins. (Okay, I didn't deserve any of them, though I still contend that I beat him soundly when I was actually in control of my player earlier in the evening.) But, oh, that was glorious!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

And a Little Child Shall Lead (And Amuse) Them

For Labor Day weekend, Hubs, Son and I went to Yellowstone. With his parents. And his sister. And his sister's two children. In a motorhome. We became very close in many ways. Granted, it's an extremely nice motorhome, but at the end of the day, no one got up at night without running the risk of stepping on my sister-in-law's face because she drew the short straw and was sleeping on the floor. And yes, technically the fact that we didn't draw straws at all and just told her we did it using a proxy and her proxy lost should probably have caused us to lose a bit of sleep. However, I think the lost sleep can be directly attributed to my neice.

K is three years old. We must be very clear on this point, because if you get it wrong, she'll correct you swiftly and loudly. K is probably one of the most emotionally healthy people I know. Seriously. When something upsets or hurts her- and she's three so this happens frequently- she screams. Loudly. And often at great length. With the loud, long, screaming screams. And then she cries. Also loudly. To the point that I was actually quite impressed that she had that kind of lung power and, as we waited for the storm to cease, I contemplated her chances at one day becoming an opera singer. I think she could do it. (She does an amazing rendition of "Old Macdonald Had A Farm". I especially like it when on that farm he has a Giraffe.) Also, she requires that everyone avert their eyes and avoid looking at her while she's upset.

And here's the beautiful thing about this approach: when she's finished? It's over. Done, dealt with, complete. There are no grudges, no hurt feelings, no alliances and gossip with other family members, no Machiavellian plots to avenge the wrong. For that matter, after a couple of particularly lengthy displays of displeasure, she couldn't even recall for sure why she was upset in the first place. She explained to me, "Sometimes you just need to cry."

I think this is BRILLIANT. And don't think I didn't contemplate doing exactly the same thing the other day when I got exceedingly bad news from the dentist. I still might. You never know. Seriously, why do we teach children not to cry? Or expect them to just stop being upset? She's three. That's what she does. And it works. I don't know about you, but I can't just turn off pain or hurt, and I'm considerably more than 3 years old. Instead I turn off the appearance of pain and hurt. Which accomplishes very little really. The pressure just accumulates until one day it blows up over something very trivial and we're left wondering just when exactly I completely lost my mind. I wonder if people become anxious around a tantrum precisely because THEY were taught that crying is bad. I mean, sure there are times when the tantrum thrower should move or be moved to a discreet location before letting lose. (By this, Son, I mean when Barbara Bush is giving a speech 15 feet away and you start screaming, we're not going to hang around and let you add to her sound bites.)

Anyway. In addition to the wisdom of the art of the tantrum, K kept us amused. Vastly so. For example, one day we were in the car and she was playing with a little plastic box, which she decided for the moment was a camera. "Say cheese, Aunt Stace," she directed before snapping a picture. (At some point she dubbed me "Aunt Stace." I'm not sure if this is because she overheard Hubs calling me "Stace", since he's among the very few allowed to call me "Stace", or if she simply decided the extra syllable was just unreasonably excessive.) After taking my "picture" she gazed at the box with concern. "Oh no, you have your eyes closed."

"I do? Let me see? Hmm. Yes, you're right. Want me to throw that one away?"

"Yes, throw it in the garbage." (Apparently her "camera" produces Polaroid photos rather than digital images.) So I carefully took the imaginary picture from the "camera", crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage. She rolled her eyes in disgust. "No, Aunt Stace, you have to rip it up."

"Oh. Right. Of course. Sorry." I sifted through the garbage sack and fished out the imaginary photo, carefully tore it into pieces, and put the remnants back in the trash. "Ok, now what?"

"Now I'll take your picture again." She lifted up her little box and instructed, "Say 'Norma!'"


"Say 'Norma.'" To her credit she refrained from adding, "Like, duh, woman."


"Yes, say 'Norma.'"

This apparently did the trick since she was satisfied with the next picture. We never did figure out where 'Norma' came from. (Although every subject of every picture taken after that, including the moose and a nice Japanese tourist lady who asked my father-in-law to take a picture of her, was required to say "Norma.") My sister-in-law theorized that perhaps K has a friend named Norma. It doesn't really matter though. K is perfectly fine with random thoughts and seemed a little surprised that we were all so very clueless.

She's also very encouraging. As we drove through the park, she handed me her Little Mermaid game. You know, one of those games with water in them, and you push the buttons and try to get the rings to go over the pegs? Turns out, I'm not very good at this. "I'm sorry, Sweetheart, I don't know if I can do this." She patted my arm consolingly and advised, "Be strong, Aunt Stace."

Bedtime was interesting. And hilarious. As we were trying to get settled in, K was in her little bed shouting strings of random thought. And then out of nowhere, into the silence she demanded, "Are you KIDDING me? Are you REALLY KIDDING ME?"

Hubs and I started giggling as silently as possible. Which became difficult when she announced, "You're gonna be kidnapped...and go to the hospital...and the library. And the County Jail..." At that point, our laughter got her attention. "Stop laughing!" And then she yelled, "YOU BETTER BE QUIET OR YOU'LL WAKE GRANDPA UP!" She had a point. We were laughing so hard I don't know that anyone in the campground slept much that night.

During one drive, K became very annoyed with anyone who had the audacity to speak to me. "I'm talking to Aunt Stace. You don't talk to her. I'm talking to her." Grandma later observed, "I think Aunt Stace is your new favorite friend." K looked at her grandmother with an expression of wonderment mixed with grave concern that Grandma seemed unaware of a very important fact. Little K raised her hands to her sides, palms up as if embracing a large group and explained, "But Grandma, there's lots of friends in this world."

Indeed there are. And how lucky are we that this very wise little girl is one of them?