Remember the Etch A Sketch?

I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about the Etch A Sketch lately.  What a fantastic toy.  A plastic rectangle and knobs for kids who couldn’t deal with crayons and paint.  I loved how the advertisements for the Etch A Sketch always showed works of art that could hang in the Louvre next to the Caravaggios.  All I ever drew were clusters of curved lines that looked like something prison psychologists ask serial killers to look at and interpret.

My parents arms’ came directly out of their heads in the family portraits I drew as a child, and my hand at the Etch A Sketch was not any more deft.  So I had to resort to drawings that could be made by repeating a few simple maneuvers with the magnetic stylus.  The best sketch I etched I named, simply, “The Spiral.”  I created it by taking the stylus around the perimeter of the screen, and when I reached the starting point, I moved it towards the center just a tad and repeated the perimeter, going around and around, getting closer to the center until I had a rectangular spiral just perfect for making adults seasick.  It was Thanksgiving Day that I finished “The Spiral,” and I staged an impromptu showing for my captive relatives.

“Oh, uh, that’s really wonderful, Mark,” said one uncle.  “Wow, I think I’m getting a headache.”

So proud was I of my gritty lithograph that I couldn’t bear to shake it up and lose it forever.  So I placed it on a table and announced that no one could touch it for the rest of eternity.  About ten seconds later my mother started to move it to make room for the stuffing.

“My work!” I shouted.  “What are you doing?”

“Honey, your work is in dinner’s way,” she said.

I took the Etch A Sketch up to my room where it could be cloistered in a corner.  The cretins to whom I was related just didn’t appreciate great art.  Perhaps I would have better luck amongst my peers at school.

“What are you doing?” I shouted to a “friend” of mine who was trying to pry the Etch A Sketch from my hands as we waited for the bus on Cyber Monday before it got the Cyber.  “You’re going to shake it up!”

“Isn’t that the point?” he asked.

“I just wanted to show you my work.”

“It’s stupid,” he said.  “My six year old sister could have done that.”

I kept the Etch A Sketch in my school bag, which I carried flat, in my arms, so as not to disturb the delicate arrangement of aluminum filings.  While the teacher tortured us with sums or yet another project involving construction paper and glue, I would periodically peek at the plastic mural in my bag.

“Mark, I don’t see enough glitter on your Santa,” the teacher said.  “I think you need to focus.”

At lunch time I had to be extra vigilant.  By now everyone knew I was guarding a secret in my bag, and I couldn’t just leave it in the classroom.  I would be so nervous that my magnum opus would be defaced by some juice-box-drinking bandit.  So I took the bag with me, and set it on the cafeteria table, and balanced the Styrofoam tray on top of it with my square pizza, pretzel rod, and milk.

“Mark, why are you eating your lunch on top of your school bag?” everyone asked me.

“Um, the Surgeon General says it prevents rickets,” I said.  “Didn’t you hear?”

Like any kid who walks around school guarding something in a bag, I became a minor celebrity.  As we lined up for the buses at the end of the day, some classmates encircled me, their intentions not completely benign.

“All right,” the ringleader said.  “What do you have in that bag?”

Perhaps I had misjudged them.  Perhaps they would be as entranced by the beauty of “The Spiral” as I was.  So I took it out and showed them.

“That’s it?” they said.  “An Etch A Sketch?”

“Not just any Etch A Sketch,” I said.  “I call it ‘The Spiral.’  Isn’t it grand?”

“I could do better than that,” he said.  And before I could stop him he snatched the Etch A Sketch from my hands and shook it up.  Before I knew what I was doing I was at his throat.  A teacher had to separate us, and of course the thug who ruined my work said that I started the whole thing.  Then I had a chance to explain what happened.  At last, someone would understand what I had gone through the whole day.

“And then he just shook it up, erasing my drawing,” I said.  “It’s like the drawing never happened.”

The teacher looked at me, and looked at the Etch A Sketch, its red plastic chassis glowing in the afternoon sun, and said, “But isn’t that the point?”

Remember Action Figures?

Remember action figures?

Image by Kup-is-dion via Wikia

I do.

Like all my childhood desires for material things, my yearning for action figures began at another kid’s house.  One Sunday afternoon, my parents consulted the magic directory of boys my age who lived nearby, and conveyed me to a house I’d never before seen.  And as I entered the boy’s den, it was as if I had discovered an underground city of gold.

In this room were these little plastic figures.  Properly known as “Masters of the Universe,” I referred to them by the name of their fearless leader, He-Man.

The display was intoxicating.  It seemed like there were hundreds of figures standing up to greet me.  My new best friend let me touch them, pick them up, and pretend that they were mine for a few seconds before he took them away, wiping each one down with a sanitized cloth.

As I held He-Man aloft and gazed into his noble face, the first thing I learned was that the figure made me feel powerful and special and convinced that I had to own one.  The second thing I learned about action figures was that it was very dangerous to get the web of skin between thumb and forefinger near He-Man’s rotator cuff or hip.

For the rest of that school year, the only thing that I believed would brighten my little world was to own a He-Man figure.  “He wants these things called Masters of the Universe,” my mother told my grandmother as my birthday approached.  “Just ask for those at the store.”

But instead of the He-Man figure I wanted, my grandmother got me a button shirt that my mother made me wear whenever we went to my grandmother’s house.  “I looked all over,” my grandmother said, “going from store to store, but no one had ever heard of the ‘Masters of the Human Race.’  Where are you supposed to find these things?”

Eventually my prayers were answered, and He-Man and a few of his friends had taken the place of my real friends and family.  But He-Man needed a place to hang out.  The hero of Eternia could not very well lie around on my bedroom floor like in some flophouse.  Fortunately, the Mattel company had conveniently solved He-Man’s housing problem by producing a replica of Castle Grayskull, where He-Man went to see the Sorceress, usually after a long wait in the reception area and a $25 co-pay.

All I wanted was that Castle Grayskull.  As the holiday season approached I told my parents and everyone I knew that I wanted Castle Grayskull.  I pined away at school, my coloring uncolored before me, imagining how Castle Grayskull would look in my room.  I pictured how I would wake up every morning, and open its gates, and greet He-Man and his entourage.  When I frolicked on the splintered and nail-exposed wood of the playground, I pretended that I was He-Man patrolling the ramparts of the Castle Grayskull that would no doubt soon be mine.  And as I laid my weary mop-head to sleep at night, I could see the outline of the great toy sanctuary in the shadows that danced on my cartoon wallpaper.

But my Castle Grayskull never came.  I received other toys, toys that time forgot, but my He-Man figures remained nomads on my bedroom floor, and eventually had to opt for a Velcro-sneaker shoebox with a sign out front that said “Interdimensional War Vet – Please Help.”  Years later, as I was concluding my therapy, I found out what happened.

“I spoke to the mother of that boy you used to see,” my mother said.  “You know, the one with all those He-Man things.  And she said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t buy that stupid Castle Grayskull.  It’s $30 for a plastic piece of junk.’  So I got you something else instead.  I hope that was all right.”

Sometimes I wonder if my life would be any different if I had gotten Castle Grayskull instead of the corduroy shirt with the cat face on the pocket.  I found a semi-used Castle Grayskull on eBay, and the small product image sent a shimmer of the power down my spine.  But I couldn’t bring myself to enter a bid.  For He-Man, and for me, you can’t go home again.