Toys were lots of fun before they became capitalist tools.
-- Beth Copeland Vargo
The thermostat read 85, but it felt more like 100. Jen and I sat side by side on the warm concrete, swishing our feet back and forth in the pool. A bee collided with the water's surface. Its wings pumped desperately, creating tiny ripples all around it. Jen looked to her boyfriend Rob. "Pass me the Stream Machine Hydrobolic Water Launcher, will ya? It's time for a victory launch." David and I watched in silence as Jen used the long, plastic tube to suck up the bee and surrounding water, and then, aiming the weapon over the wooden fence behind her, discharge the whole lot into the air with impressive force. Jen set the launcher on the cement beside her and said, "We were thinking of going to Toys 'R' Us after this. You want to come?"
I sought confirmation in David's face, found it, and answered, "We'd love to." Neck deep in preparation for our upcoming five-week furlough in Europe, David and I had been consumed with pre-travel to-do lists -- blowing an afternoon in a giant toy store was a welcome respite, the hiatus from responsibility I'd been craving.
The parking lot was nearly empty, as I would expect on a scorching, weekday afternoon. The glass doors slid open, and we were greeted by a delicious gust of cold air. Jen, Rob, and David beelined toward the back of the store. I lagged behind, entranced by the strange and unnaturally colorful surroundings. My sister Jane had recently told me that she would not buy any Bratz dolls, or what she referred to as "those prostitute, ho-looking dolls," for her daughter Bella, who is almost four and has been asking for such a doll ever since a well-directed commercial sucked her in months ago. Walking down the doll aisle and seeing the sexualized Bratz and My Scene dolls for myself, I understood Jane's concerns.
I pondered the prevalence of DVD and CD-ROM inserts -- "advances" with which even classics like Barbie are now afflicted. I squeezed the palm of an animatronic baby-doll, as the box suggested I do to "try" it, and jumped back when the creature let out a freakish chortle. In horrified fascination, I watched as it then, in slow motion, clapped its dwarfish, evil hands. When I stepped away from the doll aisle, I did so quickly, and backwards.
I went in search of my posse. Some-where in another aisle a child wailed the unmistakable, earsplitting grievance of a whiny brat to whom some adult had just had the audacity to say, "No." Bringing a child to a toy store is the stupidest idea since Caffeine Free Diet Coke. Any adult who does it should be checked for other signs of self-destructive behavior. Think about it. When you bring home a gift for a child, the kid is (hopefully) appreciative and delighted to have an amazing new toy. But when you bring that same child to a world of toys, and then buy only one for the kid to take home, the child is left with disappointment and longing for the thousands of items he didn't get. That would be like walking a starving man up and down the counter at Home Town Buffet and then allowing him to eat only one crouton. It's just cruel.
I passed by Jen and Rob near the center of the store, where they were testing the bounce-ability of balls on the linoleum floor. An aisle away, the word "Aquasaurs," followed by "Raise your own pets!," brightly emblazoned on a box, caught my attention. The "living toy" idea has always fascinated me in a Twilight Zone, alternate-universe-in-which-people-are-the-ones-in-the-plastic-container sort of way. A few years ago, I was devastated to discover that Sea Monkeys were not miniature humanoid aliens, but some kind of unintelligent, microscopic shrimp. Because of this tragic learning experience, I knew that "prehistoric creatures" most likely did not mean "cute little dinosaurs."
That's where David found me, staring in amazement at the box in my hands. "Did you know there are eggs inside this box?" I asked him. "That they can survive for 20 years like this? They will hatch if you add water. And they're just sitting here. On a shelf. Living things. Can you imagine?" I shivered reflexively.
"You think that's weird," said David. "They have a toy cashier machine with a microphone . The only machines I know like that are at fast-food restaurants. Apparently, it's never too early to begin training your kid for a career at McDonalds."
"Eggs in a box," I said. We shook our heads in bewilderment and meandered through the store until we were again united with our friends in the game aisle.
Jen grabbed a game called Gassy Gus and held it up to the rest of us. "This is so wrong," she said. "You feed him stuff, and he gets gas. It doesn't specify what kind, but if I had to guess, I'd say it's not the kind that comes out of your mouth."
David let out an anguished gasp, and Jen and I rushed to his side. We watched as he gingerly retrieved a box from the shelf. He turned it over to read the back, at which point I caught the name on the front: Mall Madness. The look on David's face as he studied the text made it clear that he'd finally lost all hope in humanity. "Electronic talking shopping spree game filled with sales, clearances, and fun," he read. Then he looked up and said, "The first shopper who buys six items and gets to their destination wins." He choked a bit when he added, "The worst thing that can happen in this game is that the store doesn't have what you want to buy."
"Don't look at it anymore, beh beh," I coaxed. "Come on, put it back."
"Hey, look," said Jen, by way of distraction. "Battleship has buttons now!"
Following her lead, I said, "In the next aisle they have low-riding VW buses and Cadillac Escalade MP3 holders that light up."
David dropped his head. "Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs were my favorite things to play with when I was a kid. Now most of the toys are passive rather than active. There was a time when a kid had to use his imagination and creativity to entertain himself with the toy. Now, he pushes a button and sits back, and the toy entertains him."
"Look on the bright side," I said, pointing to a corner in which giant plush-toy dogs were stacked. "It required creativity on someone's part to arrange those two on top to make it look like they're humping." This time, it was Jen who dropped her head.
Rob and Jen didn't find the water gun they'd been looking for, but they grabbed a few games.
"I'm happy we're not kids anymore," David said as we made our way toward the exit.
"I'm happy to be all grownup, too. It's, like, people think more complicated is better," I said. "Everything's been automated. It's brighter, it's louder, it sings and dances or it comes with a DVD that kids can zone out to. This stuff would just give me a headache. It's no wonder so many freakin' kids have ADHD."
"I agree, no one knows how to focus any -- Hey, look at that!" Jen said, stopping by the gumball machines. "I want one!" She dug around her purse for 50 cents, dropped the coins into the machine, and retrieved a monstrous gumball made to look like a dinosaur egg. In the car, Jen gnawed at the top of her egg in search of the sour candy center. With a wad the size of a golf ball hindering her tongue and a sugar high kicking in, she garbled, "Now, what were we talking about?"