It’s nearly Christmas again. The time of year when poorly-warbled jingles fill the air, tinsel-related injuries are at record highs, and you can’t fart in a shopping mall without blowing down two Santas, a plastic reindeer and a Salvation Army kettle.
(For the record, that would not count as a tax-deductible ‘donation’. I checked.)
It’s also the season when grinchy shoppers, grumbly kids and grouchy parents froth themselves into a pre-holiday lather by recalling the slights and horrors of Christmases past. All the crappy gifts ever received — from boring brown socks to pink footie pajamas, Ken dolls instead of G.I. Joes (or vice versa), ugly art from your aunt on the farm to an ant farm from ugly Uncle Art — the memories come flooding back like Grandma’s three-day-old eggnog.
And with more yuletide disappointments surely on the way, it puts many folks into a special sort of ‘Christmas spirit’. The sort that carves a candy cane into a shiv and growls at anything green or red in sight. I see these people, receivers time and again of presents wrapped in fail with a big bow of suck on top, and I pity them. Because I’ve never received a gift so hauntingly bad, so unforgettably painful, that I still harbor the nightmares in my sugarplum dreams.
Well. Except that one. I don’t like to talk about that one.
“By Christmas morning, I was miserable and congested, propped barely upright in my parents’ bed, hoping above all that Santa ignored my list of stupid useless toys and brought me an iron lung, instead.”
And anyway, it almost doesn’t count, really. The one truly terrible Christmas present in my impressionable youth behaved exactly as advertised, performed just the way I expected, and promised months, if not years of solid fun. I even asked my parents for it, specifically. Bribed Santa with a whole plate of macaroons for it. And it caused me more pain, suffering and anguish than any object on earth, at least until the day I discovered boobs.
(But not about the boobs. That’s one for the reader to explore.)
It was the early ’80s. I was a young lad of eleven or twelve, and in my short decade-plus on the planet had established three solid personality traits:
There wasn’t a lot my parents could do about the last of these, apparently. Every winter, I’d wind up with whooping this or yellow that or streptococco-something-or-the-other, miss a few days of school, cough up an internal organ or two, and then I’d be fine. For eleven months or so, when I’d take another spin on the medical-condition-go-round to find out which bug I was catching next. It was never anything life-threatening or dramatic, of course; just a damned nuisance. But at least I was never sick on Christmas Day, thank goodness.
So. That year, I was sick on Christmas Day.
(Yeah, thanks for nothing, ‘goodness’. I’ve got a thermometer over here you can suck the mercury out of. Why don’t you ask me where the thing has been, eh?)
Actually, I was sick for a couple of weeks, with Christmas squarely tucked in the middle of my infirmary. Bronchitis, the doctor called it, and it came with an unhealthy dose of hacking, coughing, horking, barking, and whatever other euphemisms you like for ‘having my lungs attempt to escape my body by inside-outing my esophagus’. By Christmas morning, I was miserable and congested, propped barely upright in my parents’ bed, hoping above all that Santa ignored my list of stupid useless toys and brought me an iron lung, instead.
T’was not to be.
Instead, my parents had procured and wrapped for me the perfect gift. They knew I was nerdy, and also competitive. They knew I knew I was nerdy, and also competitive. They wanted, to a degree, to encourage the nerdiness, and the competitiveness.
(Of course, they probably had in mind that those traits might someday push me toward earning a Nobel prize, or curing cancer. As it turns out, they mostly pushed me toward getting high scores in Donkey Kong and ruining Wheel of Fortune for everyone else.
Still, none of us knew that then. You can’t blame a young couple for trying.)
Back to the gift.
What I’d asked for, at the very top of my Christmas wish list, was a newfangled little trivia machine made by the Coleco company. It was called Quiz Wiz, and claimed to offer “1001 Questions” (!) for budding young know-it-alls and insufferable brainiacs to answer. And there were cartridges — dozens of the things — with even more questions to try. I could keep a running score of what I knew, learn what I didn’t know, and stay safely tucked away in a corner, just… knowing things, without bothering people with questions or asking for explanations or posing ridiculous hypotheticals or any of that. Also, my folks could finally watch the Wheel in peace again.
So it was a gift for the whole family, really.
My parents moved the annual gift exchange festivities to the bedroom that year — because I was in the bed, and I wasn’t going anywhere. So, they brought Christmas morning to me. We swapped presents — I got Dad some socks, and Mom a hideous painting or ant farm or something, who the hell knows? And they got me a few gifts, the identities of which are now lost to the ages. So they must have been just fine. No traumas there.
Then, as a grand finale, they handed me the box containing the Quiz Wiz. They’d saved it til last — and I’d been trying to hide my disappointment, thinking all the presents were opened already. It’s not easy to hide disappointment with a case of bronchitis — I had a hard enough time hiding my phlegm, mind you — but I tried. I was a little trooper, I was.
But when I saw the gift, the very thing I’d asked for, I lit up like a Christmas tree. A coughing Christmas tree, with a high fever and a throbbing headache, but boy, when the hacking subsided, I was still a happy kid. My parents, pleased with the results of their subterfuge, patted me on the head and left me with my new electronic friend. And I fired that puppy up to put her through her paces. That’s when things went terribly wrong.
From the Quiz Wiz description — according to the digitized 1980 Coleco catalog — when you answer a question correctly, “you get the green light and an electronic beep.”
(Hey, it was the ’80s. Beeps were all the rage back then. This was before the internets and HDTV and we still lived in black and white with mono sound, alright? A little beep was a big deal back then.)
Should you get a question wrong, the manual continued, “you get the red light and a “raspberry”!”
(Nice. A game that taunts you publicly for your ignorance. If I wanted that, I’d have gotten married a long time ago.)
Undaunted, I opened up the quiz book and dug in. I read off the first question, knew the answer, and punched the button. The little green light came on, and the Quiz Wiz ‘rewarded’ me with the beep:
With my congested sinuses and aching head, that beep seared through my temples like a greased stiletto. I hadn’t expected it to be so damned loud. But maybe I just wasn’t prepared for it. I shook it off and tried the next question. Oh, that’s an easy one:
Nope, preparation doesn’t help. Ow. Maybe if I hold it over here:
Crap, that’s even worse. Who knew the acoustics in my parents’ bed were so good?
Probably best not to think about that right now. I’ve got enough problems as it is. What if I cover the speaker?:
Holy god, I think my brain just convulsed. Let’s take a break to make sure all my extremities still function.
All day, it went on like that. It wasn’t that the beep was terribly loud, per se. But it was loud enough, and in just the right tone and register to burrow like a napalm earwig directly into my brain. Every time I read a question and with trembling finger pressed the correct answer, that beep shot through me and out the other side. Didn’t matter if it was under the covers, on the floor, stuffed in a pillowcase, whatever. In my sickly condition, right answers on the Quiz Wiz equaled Bad News™.
So I started getting answers wrong. On purpose.
At least I could feel like I was still playing the game. And that ‘raspberry’ they mentioned? Ah, the raspberry. A beautiful, rumbling, low, almost-soothing electronic ‘*bbbbrrrrraaapppp*‘ Compared to that ungodly ultrasonic laser beam that was the beep, I could listen to the raspberry all day. So I did.
For a while. Until my parents were near by. Because that would’ve created a whole new batch of problems.
See, when your kid wants some sort of quiz game to learn things and feel smart, and you buy the kid that game to help him or her learn things and feel smart, and then all you hear for an hour is the game mocking your child for learning nothing and not being smart — ‘*bbbbrrrrraaapppp* *bbbbrrrrraaapppp* *bbbbrrrrraaapppp* *bbbbrrrrraaapppp* *bbbbrrrrraaapppp*‘ — then something somewhere in the equation is wrong. And it’s probably your kid.
(You drank from the thermometer while you were pregnant, didn’t you? Tsk, tsk. Well, you’d better have the kid tested for all sorts of damage, then. Here’s a helmet and a drool guard; better luck with the next one, bub.)
So when the ‘rents were around, I played the game straight. And I didn’t know all the answers in the book, of course. But I knew enough to pound a fiery migraine into my skull with that beeping bastard, and by the time the sun set on Christmas day, I could scarcely take any more. I put the Quiz Wiz away, and frankly, never gave it its proper due.
Sure, I got better a few days later. But the feeling — that stabbing, blinding, almost-nauseous jolt — at hearing the ‘DIIIIIIING!‘ was already ingrained into my soul. Like Pavlov’s dogs, I drooled involuntarily when I heard the bell — but those mutts were merely hungry. I was losing the feeling in my face. I simply couldn’t go back.
And I’ve always felt bad about it. My parents never gave me a hard time, but I’m sure they were disappointed. They got me exactly what I wanted, saw my face light up when I opened it, and within a day, I shuddered when I so much as touched the thing. Hell, I even felt bad for the toy — it wasn’t to blame. Circumstances and bad luck and a nasty virus conspired to relegate it to the Shelf of Unwanted Toys months or years before its time. It may seem odd to feel guilty about neglecting something that spat several dozen raspberries at me in one day, but I do. I’m an old softy, I guess.
Of course, the one who really got burned in this whole mess was me. Because after going to all that effort, picking out the perfect gift, and not having it work out, my parents really mailed it in for a few years after that. I can’t really blame them, but the rest of my childhood wasn’t much to speak of, presentwise. I have never seen so many pairs of pink footie pajamas. And if you ever thought Ken would look good in camouflage?
Unh-uh. Believe me. It’s not a good look.Permalink | 4 Comments