Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sticks and Stones ... and Spoons

In high school, I had a good friend whose family owned a beach house. And that made her an even BETTER friend. Add to that the fact that we lived about one hour from the beach, and you have The Best Friend EVER. During spring breaks and long weekends, she would invite five or six of us to join her and, usually, her mom.

We were a relatively tame group, and the most awful things we did at the beach were no more awful than most of the things we did at home. We didn't drink, we let out only the occasional cuss word, we spent our hard-earned money from our part-time jobs on the requisite airbrushed t-shirts at Surf Shak, and we took every opportunity we could to stray from The Mom. Heaven help us, we strayed from that poor woman.

But the highlight of each day at the beach came about 10 p.m. A deck of cards, a handful of spoons, all the chairs in the house pushed tightly around the wooden kitchen table, and the ensuing fever-pitch competition. We played Spoons into the night, into the morning and often stayed awake until The Mom emerged from her bedroom and said, "Good morning! Time to clear the table and eat breakfast!" We looked like we were coming off a three-day drunk ... only without the alcohol. In addition to the sleep deprivation and glazed eyes, there was pulled hair, abrasions to the arms and legs, and a few bruises sustained when teen-age bodies hit the hard tile floor.

"But Amy, what the hay is the relevance of this story?" Well, I will tell you that these memories came flooding back on Thanksgiving night as we sat around the kitchen table and treated ourselves to a few rounds of Spoons. And Spoons, as I will explain, should be on everyone's repertoire of holiday games. Reindeer games, even. Like Monopoly.

This is what Thanksgiving looks like. Until someone breaks out the spoons.

Despite what game manufacturers will have you believe, Spoons does NOT require a purchase of any sort. Don't be wooed by mass marketing. A cardboard box filled with a deck of cards, seven plastic spoons and a pad of paper should not cost $9.99. If you have even a modestly equipped kitchen and a deck of cards, then you have all the regulation components. I repeat, do NOT buy a kit of any sort. Like when Bunco hit its peak several years ago and women all over the place were buying cute polka-dot bags filled with dice and notepads and tied with a clever bow, all in a neat package at the retail price of $14.99. Suckers. (This is the Poverty Party portion of the blog. And it ranks Poverty Party status because I'm telling you how not to spend $9.99 and, rather, how to make your own fun by using only kitchen utensils.)

Back to Spoons. In your modestly equipped kitchen, check your utensil drawer for spoons — table spoons, soup spoons, serving spoons. Heck, use plastic spoons. I don't really care, as long as you have just one shy of the number of players. Six players? Five spoons. Eight players? Seven spoons. And so it goes.

The setup: Deal each player four cards. The objective is to collect four of a kind; suits don't matter. You may have only four cards in your hand at any time. Everyone passes to their left, with the dealer setting the pace and pulling only from the original pile of cards. As the player to your right passes you a card at breakneck speed, you must act quickly, discarding one of your cards to the next player and taking the new one, or discarding the new one and moving on. The first player to collect four of a kind is to pull a spoon, but quietly and mysteriously so as not to tip off the other players. But as other players see or hear a spoon being collected, they must quickly grab a spoon for themselves. Oh, but wait! That means one person isn't going to get a spoon, you might be saying. And that is where the anxiety enters, creating sweaty palms, upset stomachs and streaks of violence you may have never seen before. And the shouting. Oh, you will not BELIEVE the shouting.

Our first few rounds Thursday night: pleasant, anemic, innocuous, cordial ... dare I say, BORING.

But the warfare cranked up a notch when we (or, my friend Caprice) decided that we should PILE the spoons together in the middle of the table — a bold variation on their previous arrangement of being spread so that everyone had a fair chance at grabbing a spoon. But what happens when spoons are piled and the grabbing begins is a distracting and ALARMING clinking sound that brings out the ugly.

During one round, I had the four of a kind. But did I get a spoon? No. A player from across the table ripped it out of my hands, and that led to all KINDS of unrest and profanity. A husband really should be more sportsmanlike when his wife is clearly THE WINNER.

In the rounds that followed, my 10-year-old suffered an impressive wound across her lower back as she slid at top speed from her chair under the table to retrieve the last spoon, which had fallen during a wrestling match over another spoon. (She didn't get it. An adult shoe pushed the spoon in the other direction, and some fingers were crushed in the process.) A teenager took a hit to the nose that made her eyes water. Several hands had deep scratches that required the administration of Neosporin the following morning. Another suffered a punch to the arm that should have led to some sort of disqualification, but we were laughing too hard to determine who was really at fault. With no eye witnesses, she really didn't have a case. A bruise, yes; a case, no.

And that, in a nutshell, is how to play Spoons. Just as you can't eat only one potato chip, you can't play only one round of Spoons. "But Amy, how will we know when the game is over?" Well, you can set your own rules. You can say, perhaps, that when you draw blood, it might be time for everyone to go home. Or, maybe you're more of a broken bone crowd, and that will determine the game's length. Crying is also a common game-ender. But if you can manage to combine crying and throwing the cards across the room? Well, you've scored.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

This Holiday Season, Give the Gift of Poetry

Sometimes the best gifts are those that come from the heart. Or the kitchen. Homemade gifts take little money and a little time. Bake cookies. Make a clay pot. Frame a picture. Write a poem. If you don't have a knack for poetry (few people do, you know), perhaps you could give the recipient the tools to write his or her own poetry.

We've had a Magnetic Poetry kit for more than 13 years. When we occasionally scrape the tiny words off the refrigerator and put them in their tiny case, it's only to hide the distraction that consumes little people, makes their eyes cross, their days fly by.

More than once, we've stood looking at a group of tiny Howard Hughes-look-alikes. They're unkempt, greasy, in need of a good meal and a manicure. They don't know what grade they're in, or what year it is. We have to reintroduce them into society, holding their hands and guiding them to the front steps. "These are TREES. And that right there? That is the SUNSHINE." Then we guide them back into the kitchen and calmly put the Magnetic Poetry in the drawer. They nod quietly, without protest. They know we have to do what's best for them. And it's not always easy.

This cycle of removing Magnetic Poetry is not entirely their fault. Magnetic Poetry is like a legal addictive drug. You stand at the kitchen counter while, say, making spaghetti. You shuffle tiny magnetic tiles around and around for what SEEMS like only a few minutes, then someone walks into the room and asks, "What's burning?" Then you sputter a few expletives and try to undo the damage. While you're doing that, someone has assumed your place at the counter and is scrambling and unscrambling your hard work and before you know it, you're both yelling at each other and screaming, "Where is 'shadow'?! I had 'shadow' RIGHT HERE!"

And the next thing you know, you're standing in a room in the back of a community center wearing a name badge and drinking strong coffee. "Hi, my name is Joe. And I play Magnetic Poetry."

"Hi, Joe," the room says in unison. And they all wave a weak wave before launching into a 60-minute session designed to rescue you from the throes of Magnetic Poetry addiction.

In Magnetic Poetry, which is part game, part hobby, part full-tilt OBSESSION, everything is in small caps, as if the spirit of e.e. cummings descended upon your house and threw all grammatical and editing rules right out the window. But the absence of capital letters lets the creative juices flow more readily and removes nagging questions, like "Shouldn't 'fall' be capitalized?" No, "fall" should never be capitalized, unless it's part of a title or a headline, but that doesn't stop people from violating that word and the other three seasons all the time. So, thank you, makers of Magnetic Poetry, for leveling and simplifying the playing field.

But as I'm looking at my own refrigerator, I see that "TV" merits capital letters. And it doesn't look especially odd, since it's an abbreviation of sorts. But I digress. Every couple of days, I take a moment (or two hours) to examine the side of the refrigerator to see if any additions have been created. Some phrases are combined with others, which can be good, but it's usually distracting and infringes on somebody else's creativity, and we really should be more respectful of other people's work, don't you think? But most often, I find a sweet little phrase, usually near the bottom, where the shorter people work.

Some excerpts from today's refrigerator:

mother needed smooth fluff

fiddle is easy like you

sad language is mostly staring at a TV

my weak friend felt like elaborating

together shine through singing like a dream (This one is my personal favorite.)

stop the symphony music

white winter storm

cool spring water

hot summer sun

frantic fall leaves (With a little rearrangement, we may have a seasonal haiku on our hands. Good work, guys!)

essential apparatus of a diamond

iron sweetly

read the tiny picture without some rocky egg

why ask about our lazy goddess butts (This one is mine. I know; great, right?)

cry to live (Not pointing any fingers, but this, at times, seems to be a mantra around here.)

please avoid their bitter chant (I should cross-stitch this on a sampler and hang it in our home. It would go a long way toward peace negotiations at the dinner table.)

some sordid man is whispering deliriously from behind the gorgeous woman (Now, I don't know about you, but I believe this one has the makings of a made-for-TV drama. Perhaps on Lifetime. Nobody, however, will admit to assembling this poem. But I have my suspicions.)

And then, the more concerning entries:

red lake lust

manipulate one mad drunk

smearing blood

incubate true scream beneath

must heave on an enormous leg

We're not here to incite violence, or to tear appendages. Maybe we've just run out of good words and have only prepositions, linking verbs and conjunctions left in the box. Spare parts, you could say. So, an intervention may be called for. Maybe some counseling. Or maybe just a short hiatus from Magnetic Poetry. You know, for my, I mean their, own good.