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Toyland Tribulations

31 Oct






Like high fashion, the American toy industry is dominated by trends and exclusivity. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting your kid the hot new toy that your neighbor can’t seem to find.

In fact, there was even a rather mediocre Christmas movie — 1996’s “Jingle All the Way,” which implausibly pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against Sinbad in a rather violent pursuit for the year’s most popular action figure.

Over the past 30 years, I personally have traveled far and wide in hot pursuit of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Gameboys, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Millennium Falcons and Zhu Zhu Hamsters.

Years ago, I remember submitting an application to Toys R’ Us for the privilege of buying a Cabbage Patch Doll. Like kidnappers, they called me a couple of days later and told me to be at the store at 10 a.m. sharp if I wanted to buy the doll. When I got there, they took a small group of us chosen ones to a darkened back room, where they had a pallet full of new Cabbage Patch dolls completely covered by a black sheet of canvas. When it was my turn, I grabbed a doll and was escorted to a cashier. I didn’t even know how much it was going to cost, but things had progressed way too far to ask questions. I felt like I was buying a couple kilos of heroin.

Trends in toys constantly repeat themselves. With our three boys and now a grandson, it seems like we have gone through at least three generations of Star Wars, as well as several of Transformers, and now Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. And just when it seems like it’s over, the Lego version appears and it starts all over again.

We made the mistake of giving away our daughter’s extensive collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls and paraphernalia to a family that had three girls. How did we know our daughter would end up having three girls of her own and never forgive us? We still have a couple generations of Star War toys stashed in plastic bins in our basement. I’m too lazy to dig through them for the grandkids. Besides, they belong to our sons and are my backup plan in case the government ever privatizes Social Security.

The United States Toy Industry Association reports that Americans purchase more than 3 billion toys annually. With the average cost of about $7 per toy, that quickly adds up to more than $21.2 billion in direct toy sales.

According to CNBC’s Christina Berk, however, there is trouble brewing in Toyland this holiday season. Toy sales have been declining over the past decade and the trend is accelerating, according to a Goldman Sachs report Monday. As a result, Goldman downgraded the toy industry’s rating from “neutral” to “cautious.”

According to financial analyst Michael Kelter, the “amount spent on traditional toys in the U.S. per capita is down 30 percent from $85 per person to $60 per person since 1998.”

Part of the reason may be the tremendous growth in digital games played on tablets and smartphones, which are edging out traditional board games and puzzles. When videogame consoles are included, the market share of digital games has increased from 1 percent to 20 percent in the past decade.

Declines are also expected this year in the sales of Hasbro’s flagship boy toys — Transformers and Nerf weapons. Mattel, which relies heavily on perennial girls’ favorites, such as Barbie, also has been hurt by flat sales in recent years, as well as a huge decline in the preschool toy market.

Perhaps it’s the overall economy that’s to blame, or maybe it is kid’s attraction to online games and activities. Advances in electronics have certainly made toys awfully flashy and sophisticated. Some people may think that modern toys have become too complicated and explicit to encourage creative play and they lean toward classic toys that require more imagination.

As a child, I owned a red plastic console that was advertised to track missiles and satellites in space. It had a tiny opaque screen that only showed vague shadows of small plastic cutouts of spacecraft as you turned a crank. I must have spent hours staring at that opaque screen in anticipation of my current job, at which I still spend hours staring at a screen. I would have given anything if that screen would have shown a little detail, color or miracles of miracles, actually said something.

Perhaps modern toys are not imaginative enough to stimulate much creative play. In this regard, I always think of Patricia Lee Gauch’s classic children’s book, “Christina Katerina and the Box,” in which, to her mother’s horror, a young girl comes up with a number of imaginative uses for a large appliance box on their front lawn. I was thinking about this recently as I watched our grandchildren play with sticks in our backyard, which consists primarily of sticks and tics.

Watching them jogged my memory and I remembered one of my early favorite toys — the stake. Although I had a homemade swingset that my father had constructed from pipes, my favorite outdoor toy was a three-foot long, sharpened, solid-steel stake. I think it may have once been part of a of horseshoe game or perhaps belonged to a surveyor.

While a metal stake may seem like a dangerous and inappropriate plaything, the story gets worse. I remember two games we made up using the stake. The first was “Oilwell.” My friends and I hammered the stake into the ground and then attached a rope to it. We threw the rope over a tree branch and then pulled the stake out of the ground. Then we poured water into the hole left by the stake and lowered the stake again back into the hole drilling for oil until the oil (mud) finally came gushing out of the well. We added a bunch of toy trucks, cars and plastic soldiers to the scene to complete the tableau. So basically we played for hours in a large mud hole with a large sharp metal stake suspended over our heads.
Our second game wasn’t much better. Our house had once been a boarding house, so it was configured rather oddly. For example, we had two front doors. My bedroom had its own door to the outside and it lead to a porch with a railing. The steps had been removed so it was sort of like a little balcony.

I always imagined it was the deck of a ship and our backyard was the ocean. We used the porch as our pirate ship until one day Bobby suggested that we turn it into a whaler. Of course, to do this we needed a serviceable harpoon. We took the metal stake with a rope tied to it and fastened the other end of the rope to a column supporting the porch’s roof. We then took turns hurling the stake into the yard at old basketballs and pieces of newspaper (whales).

How we managed to avoid impaling some small child or skewering one of the neighborhood dogs or cats is still a mystery to me. We did managed to loosen the column supporting the porch roof and a few years later when it finally collapsed, my father removed the porch, filled in my door, and put in a window instead.

I will leave the precise interpretation of our “games” to the Freudians out there, but in retrospect perhaps children are better off with less “creative” toys after all. When I was 11, I misplaced the steel stake and started my career making toy soldiers out of molten lead, but that’s another story. And don’t get me started on my chemistry set, its alcohol lamp  and “The Great Bedroom Fire of 1961.”
Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune




The Work Ethic

4 May


                 Last Saturday my wife Diane went with her friend Nancy to lunch at a teahouse in Seymour, about 50 miles away, leaving me unsupervised for most of the day. With nothing special planned, I suddenly found myself at loose ends. As the British novelist Susan Ertz once wrote, “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy…. afternoon.”
Only I knew what I should be doing, I just didn’t want to do it. I could see that a lot of people around town were making home improvements, completing chores or working in their yards. Diane says she’s been selling a lot of gardening books at the bookstore lately. We know many people who take their gardening very seriously and this was the kind of weekend when they would be hard at work.
It’s times like this when my sporadic sense of guilt kicks in and my father’s voice comes to me saying, “You are not  going to watch cartoons all Saturday are you? Don’t tell me you have homework to do, it’s July. Get out here and get to work.” The next thing you’d know I’d be knee-deep [literally]  in one of his weekend projects —  mixing concrete, heating up tar or squeezing into some insect-infested crawlspace, that would terrify even Indiana Jones.
His voice is the internalized critic that is the part of personality that Freud called the Superego. Such introjected parental values serve as a basis for our conscience, which produces guilt when we don’t comply with our beliefs about right and wrong. When these beliefs refer to placing value on hard work and diligence, people call it “the work ethic.” This is the conviction that hard work is morally beneficial and a sign of good character. It is related to what is often referred to as “The Protestant Ethic.” It was the belief held by some early Protestants that hard work and success in life were the mark of being one of the elect who were predestined to go to heaven.
Commenting on today’s workforce, syndicated columnist Dale Dauten recently wrote, “The work ethic is dead.” He claims that, “Younger generations in the workforce have killed it off.” It seems like previous generations always think that their successors have less of a work ethic than they did. I personally never worked as hard as my father and usually give in to my natural tendency toward laziness, but at least I feel kind of guilty about it. In my father’s generation calling someone a “bum,”  “gold brick” or “deadbeat” was just  about the worst insult you could make. I always thought it had to do with how they lived through the Great Depression, when work was so treasured and hard to get. I wonder if the  high and enduring unemployment rates of the current recession will lead to similar effects in the future. One thing is certain; the current generation of workers will undoubtedly criticize the next for being lazier.
To prove that I have at least some work ethic left and to assuage my Saturday guilt, I decided that I should  prioritize my efforts and work on the most pressing household chore. Deciding which chore tops the list, however,  can  be  a significant challenge in our household. Cartoonist Scott Adams, author of “The Dilbert Future,” says that we live in a “crumbling and defective world.” He then proceeds to list all of the things in his home that need to be fixed in some way, including his cat. Adams says he has adopted the “active neglect” method, primarily because he is far “too busy or clueless to fix anything.” Of course, the massive Stawar fix-it list puts Scott Adams’ paltry inventory of misery to shame.
Despite the myriad of possibilities, at this time of the year, spraying the perimeter of the house with insecticide, to keep the ferocious tics and ants at bay, seemed to make the most sense. I assumed that this job was going to be like most of the ones I conduct and involve spending large sums of money on tools and supplies at the hardware store. Just last week our oldest son replaced a towel rack in our  bathroom and it involved buying a $70 drill, drill bits and anchors, all to install a $13 towel rack. I had delegated the towel rack job to him, after I had previously put up  a matching toilet-paper holder. Using wood screws that were way too long, I had creatively managed to bolt a bathroom vanity cabinet drawer shut.
Fortunately this time, down in our basement, I was able to find several bottles of extra strength insecticide to spray around the house. The spray looks to be very toxic, but household chores are always much more attractive when they include some degree of risk. Comedian Rita Rudner says that men’s interest in barbecuing shows that they will even cook, if danger is involved. Even the slightly possibility of losing a limb or becoming asphyxiated, can turn an everyday chore into an adventure.
Contrary to my usual M.O., I actually read all the insecticide instructions and took all precautions as suggested, however, after spraying the poison around the house for a while, I must have inadvertently inhaled some of the fumes,  because I had a sudden coughing attack. I thought to myself, “Just great, Diane will come home and find me in the backyard laying in the grass flat on my back, like a big dead tic, overcome by my own poisonous concoction.” And that’s the only thing people will remember about me — “Oh, wasn’t he that guy who literally exterminated himself?” Fortunately, I was able to revive myself, with only negligible central nervous system damage, as far as I can tell.
With my token attempt to demonstrate some sort of work ethic finished, I spent the next hour scrubbing  off all the insecticide that I had spilled on myself. My final job of the day was to put a pork roast in the oven by 3 p.m. Regrettably my post-chore nap ran a little overtime and the roast was a little late getting in the oven.
But I did wash my hands again to minimize Diazinon contamination of the pork roast and to prevent some unfortunate chemical interaction with the Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue sauce.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune


Backyard Diehard: Another Steeltown Story

1 Feb

We were a typical blue collar family in Steeltown. We lived in a very modest three-bedroom brown-shingled house on the corner of Fourth and Ewing, just down from the Russian Orthodox Church with the gold onion-shaped spire.

My father worked as an electrician at the steel mill, but somehow that was never quite enough for him.  It would have surprised his coworkers and the other volunteer firemen to know that he had played the violin in a band, had a failed career as a watchmaker, played chess, invented various electrical devices, and love to read Scrooge McDuck comic books.  Some people might have thought my father was pretentious in some of his aspirations. For example, he had the notion that our backyard could be transformed into a Garden of Eden of sorts. Despite the pollution and terrible soil quality in Steeltown, he optimistically planted an apple tree, cherry tree, apricot tree, and strawberries. Then sat back waiting to enjoy the bounty.

After producing a single apricot, the apricot tree just gave up the ghost for no discernable reason. It just seemed to have lost the will to survive in our yard. The apple tree, however, grew but always seemed degenerate.  The apples were small, green, extremely hard, and usually contained some type of  horrifying insect. When the apples would fall from the tree,  they always seemed to be covered with flies, almost immediately. The apple tree trunk was stippled with holes that boring insects had created and the whole thing wasjust unwholesome. My mother once made an inedible  apple pie using the demonic fruit from the tree.

The cherry tree faired a little better, but yielded extremely sour cherries.  Whenever he had been drinking, which was quite often, my father would prune the cherry tree. It soon looked like a bonsai tree. In the hot summer our backyard would be full of intoxicated birds that had been eating the fermented sour cherries. Taking my lead from the birds, I once tried to make cherry wine, using sugar, gallon jugs, neutral grain alcohol, and a sour cherry mash. Supposedly the wine was ready when the corks popped out of the jugs. One jug exploded and our basement was covered in a sweet sticky fluid.  It had a very strong alcohol smell.  We were all afraid to drink the wine that survived. My friend Bert Armour, a Steeltown connoisseur of aldut beverages, volunteered to test it for us. His main qualification for  this task was that when the  polka band had played   “Roll out the Barrel” in the high school talent show, Bert was the one selected to roll an empty keg  of beer across the stage. I handed him the wine,   he took a big swig,  and then seemed struck speechless. 

The viscosity of this wine was about the same as the popular oil additive STP,  so for about 10 minutes,  Bert was physically unable to open his mouth. When the wine dissolved enough that he could speak, he said it had a good taste and was rather smooth. He declined to drink any more, fearing it might permanently glue his lips together.

My father  seemed jealous that my mother could grow terrific tomatoes with hardly any effort at all. Once she randomly  threw out some pumpkin seeds   and  the next fall, to his dismay, we had a yard full of large attractive pumpkins.

Like most yards in Steeltown, ours had a large porch swing for the adults and a swing-set for children. Only in our case my father had built the swing-set himself out of heavy-duty pipes. It was a bit dangerous because of the many sharp and protruding bolts. He hand made wooden seats and built a rather creative pipe teeter totter.  He painted the swing set battleship gray and we kids  played on it for years.

The backyard  also held a large brick barbecue pit that my father had built. He salvaged some firebrick from a demolished coke oven, and used them to line the pit. So basically our barbecue pit could withstand temperatures of over 2000 degrees.  The only problem was that he built it next to the ash pit, where we dumped our garbage and burned trash. Thinking it unsanitary, my mother flatly refused to have anything to do with it.

Occasionally when no one was burning trash, my father would grill ribs. We would get the ribs form the butcher’s shop just down the alley.   This entire establishment was contained in a meat cooler.  There was sawdust on the floor and year round the old man, who ran it, wore a flat green hat and a thick green sweater with a mosaic of  blood stains on it. Once when I was sent  to buy ribs,  he held two slabs together and told me that ribs came from eagle wings. I was very young and naive enough that it sounded reasonable to me. Intrigued with this new information I told my brother Norman, who called me an idiot.

My father really loved his small slice of Steeltown.