Thursday, October 3, 2013

Carson beats Nana in all games. Headline by Carson.


I wish it were a metaphor, the opening sentence of an angst-ridden novel that would deliver royalty checks directly to a palazzo on the Amalfi Coast.

But it's not. "Stay Alive," a board game designed by Gordon Barlow and Marvin Glass, is a toy I'd never heard of until yesterday: twenty marbles on a grid of holes. Plastic sliders control whether or not there is a sudden abyss beneath an ill-fated marble.

"Oh! You're playing my favorite game!" my daughter-in-law said, poking her head in the boys' bedroom door on her way to unpaid-wife-labor in the family restaurant, American Burrito. "You can't even buy it anymore. I found it on e-Bay."

Although she's the same height as I am, she was towering over me. Carson, home from second grade with slight temperature and a sore throat, had set the game up on a thin, New-York-Yankee-themed throw rug on the hardwood floor. He was sitting like a Zen master. I was sprawled on hips and elbows, shifting my position every few seconds.

Carson took his turns and my marbles, the red and blue ones, fell into dark space. His yellow and black marbles -- "I'm the bumblebee!" -- stayed on the board. "You're not in the safety zone, Nana," he said, and I said, "Could we move this to the dining room table?"

At the table, many "Stay Alive" blowouts later, Carson suggested we play a card game modeled on the concept of "Concentration": turn all the cards over and try to remember where the matches are. The theme was dinosaurs, twenty or so varieties with predictably unpronounceable names. (The evening before, we had reviewed Carson's spelling words for the week; I couldn't help but notice the difference in what educators believe are appropriate challenges: "through," "broad," "tried," etc., and what children are willing to tackle when monsters, fierce competition, and a dim Nana are involved: "anklyosaurus," "ceratopsia," "pachycephalosaurus"...)

I quickly found a few paired dinosaurs -- sitting at a table, cup of Tazo chai, no spatial intelligence required, this game was going well.

Then, I noticed Carson was not putting the cards back in order when he didn't find a match. He was putting them in new places.

"Wait a minute! You're wrecking the pattern. The human memory depends on patterning, not chaos --"

"What is chaos?"

"Lack of a pattern. Change that your brain can't make sense of. Random change. Are you getting any of this?"

"It's more fun this way, and it will take a long time."

"It will take forever because now it's nonsense, pure luck, no memory involved, and it's much, much harder."

This stopped him. He looked at me coldly.

"Of course, it's harder, Nana. It's supposed to be hard. That's what games are for."

It's early morning now, and in an hour or so, I'll learn if the fever has subsided enough for the gladiator to return to the arena of elementary school, where everyone sits cross-legged on the floor and learns how to make sense of a world in chaos.

I will stay home and make tiny marks on the backs of the dinosaur cards.