Avery should not be behind a wheel. He’s four years old, and he’s strapped into a fully drivable miniature jeep his grandparents bought him for Christmas in a fit of largess and careless disregard for his personal safety. He lives for speed and has absolutely no appreciation for the functions of the brake and steering wheel. As soon as he gets in the jeep, it lurches forward in whatever the most dangerous direction is – a steep ditch, a barbed wire fence or the open road.
This gift represents a significant financial investment from my wife’s father. We are often at odds when it comes to gifts for my son. My job is to keep Avery safe from traumatic brain injury while Robb’s mission is to prepare him for life as a NASCAR driver or drummer in a heavy metal band. Every gift he gets seems unnecessarily loud and designed to scare the bejesus out of me.
I have been carefree and mellow for most of my adult life, but as a new parent I am on constant guard against forces of destruction. I can’t seem to shut off my protective instinct. I’m like an out-of-control robot on “Lost In Space” spinning madly and reporting “Danger Will Robinson” at the slightest provocation. An uncovered electrical outlet sends me into palpitations because I recall sparks flying out of such an outlet when I was a small child and began sticking random metal objects into outlets in my room out of boredom and curiousity.
The jeep gets little action in Asheville where we have a small yard that fronts on a road. I am convinced he will somehow make it past me and onto the road just as our neighbors come barrelling out of their driveway. The neighbors I am most worried about are the ones behind the ten foot tall privacy fence just across the street. Are they operating a meth lab behind that fortress of a fence? It’s impossible to say. A fence that tall only leads to idle speculation and gossip. Everything looks normal enough through the narrow space between the wooden slats, but still.
When we move to Alabama, I am ready to give the jeep another chance. We are living in a rented house with a huge backyard. What can possibly go wrong with all this open real estate to explore? Somehow, Avery gets the jeep going in just the wrong direction. I’m forced to sprint up and scoop him out of the jeep before it crashes into whatever it was about to hit – a stone fountain, our wood fence or the side of the house. The jeep starts to look like it’s been used as a crash test vehicle, and I quickly get tired of chasing it around the yard to make last-minute rescues.
The jeep is a frustrating Christmas gift, but nowhere near as maddening as the Macarena Duck Robyn’s parents gave Andrew when he was eight years old back when we lived in Pennsylvania. This was a full season after the Macarena was played on the radio on a daily basis so often I became physically ill when I heard it begin. The Duck doesn’t skimp when it comes to the song, playing it for far longer than necessary. The toy gets left in odd places in our house, activating randomly in moments that are inappropriate for a Latin dance craze like a harsh commentary on the ridiculousness of our lives.
I try throwing the duck away several times. But I am not good at kicking the duck to the curb. Andrew keeps discovering it as he takes out the trash because it only takes a slight vibration to set it off. “How did my Macarena Duck end up in the garbage again?” he asks as he digs it out and cleans some spaghetti off its beak. I shrug. “He must be depressed,” I offer. “He keeps trying to die. Maybe we should let him go.”
Maybe the most annoying toy both boys ever got is the Furby. It’s supposed to be so artificially intelligent you can teach it to speak English. It’s the super red hot toy of Christmas. You can’t buy them for love or money. They sell in stores for about $50. But since they can’t be found in a store, there’s a thriving black market on e-bay where Furbys are going for nearly a thousand dollars.
It’s understood that you are a bad parent if you cannot give your child a Furby for Christmas. A failure. You will not be able to look other parents in the eye much less your own child unless you can produce a Furby like magic out of thin air. Robyn is relentlessly hunting Furbys. It’s surprising she can get any actual work done since most of her day consists of a search for Furbys.
But when we finally do get Furbys for both of the boys, they are big, mindless, wide-eyed automatons that are activated to speak gobbledygook whenever you pass by them in a room. Who decided these were cool? They look like Mogwai, but they are as annoying as Gremlins. Why were they all the rage? Why are parents shamed into pursuing toys each year on some list that big media types coo over on television?
If I am not trying to rescue Avery from a massive head injury in his miniature jeep, I am trying to avoid the endlessly playing Macarena coming from under a sofa cushion or looking into the giant vacant eyes of a Furby wondering why I fell for the hype.
At times like these, I get a warm spot in my heart ….for the Grinch. A flugelhorn echoing off the mountainside early on a morning might drive anyone to a rash act. The last Tickle Me Elmo on a shelf shouldn’t inspire a fist fight between moms, but it does.
Thank God the boys are older now. Avery is 15, and Andrew is 24. We live in New York City, our own island of misfit toys. On the subway, a tuneless beggar is singing a Christmas carol. “Through the years, we all should be together,” he squawks. I should have more charity in my heart, but I have been spoiled by the better buskers who charm me with their songs.
We are not precisely fitting in here yet, but we haven’t been driven mad looking for toys we can’t find or living with toys we can’t stand. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” the vagabond troubadour finishes. He goes around passing a Santa hat to collect our pocket change. I’m unmoved.
Bah humbug. I’ve heard better. I’m such a snob about it I don’t even dig around in my pockets as he wishes us a Merry Christmas. Maybe I’ve already lived here too long.