When I go to Target with my wife, I’m like a bored 6-year-old. She’s busily checking items off her list, muscling slabs of paper towels into the huge red cart while I wander off, not quite humming “la la la,” but gazing dreamily around finding . . . what?
Sometimes products. “Affresh Washer Cleaner”? Really? People clean the inside of their washing machines? Whatever for? What’s next? “New Soap Soap! Makes your yucky soap bars springtime clean!”
Sometimes people. School is starting, so mom/child duos were stocking up on necessities for that first flap away from the nest.
“Do you want it?” a mother said, holding up a dish rack - a dish rack is a plastic coated wire assemblage for holding dishes while they dry, I should mention, in case any freshmen still read the paper.
“I don’t even know what that is!” the daughter huffed, in a tone of exasperated annoyance that compressed a decade of mother/daughter conflict into one phrase, spoken in the tone of “I hate you mom and can’t wait to get away from you and your constant dish rack pushing.”
“For doing dishes,” the mother explained, flatly, one of the 100,000 little nudges a parent must give a child during the excruciatingly slow slog toward adulthood. Washing dishes, I should point out, again for those theoretical freshmen, is a process performed after your parents collect your dirty bowls and plates off the sofa and before those plates appear, as if by magic, back on the shelves ready to be used by you.
We don’t have much drama in the Steinberg household. Then again, the boys are 19 and 20 - not boys anymore - and besides, both were gone most of the summer. The rising junior was in Washington, D.C., at a right-wing think tank (“Just don’t become heartless” was my sole piece of advice); my sophomore was wrangling 13-year-olds at a summer program at Northwestern (“I’m never having children,” he informed me, several times, and I smiled that turnabout-is-fair-play smile).
We drove out to see the older boy in June. It happened to be at the height of the right-wing fuss over my attempt to buy an assault rifle, with Rush Limbaugh hooting in ridicule and Fox News running little morality lessons that were almost entirely false. We met the boy at his office.
“Well, you’ve had a relevant week!” he said, smiling. I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, feeling that 20 years of parenting effort had been rewarded.
The younger one offered us reward as well, pulling out a deck of cards and announcing he would teach us a new game, “Mao.”
“It isn’t like ’52 Card Pickup’?” asked my wife, on guard after years of whoopee cushions, snapping gum packs and powder that turns milk solid.
Mao is like Crazy Eights. You try to get rid of the cards in your hand, only in Mao you learn the rules by playing. The dealer establishes the rules in his own mind, but does not reveal what they are. Instead he assigns penalties as you violate the rules you haven’t been told. “Penalty for not saying, ‘Have a nice day,’” he might say, sliding a card off the deck into your hand, while you puzzle over what happened.
At first it all seemed arbitrary and frustrating. My wife was almost standing to quit when I shot her a look, practically guiding her back into her chair with my eyebrows.
“Kent is teaching us a game,” I said and, to her credit, she got my point.
It turned out to be fun. Most card games are stupid and almost automatic - the only time I truly regretted being a parent was years ago, grinding through endless rounds of “War.” But Mao demands rigor; you are placed in a situation where you don’t know the rules and the only way you can find out what to do is to play, pay attention and learn from your mistakes. Rather like life.
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