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Why modern toys have lost their mysteries

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Batteries included: Why modern toys have lost their mysteries

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

There is only one thing worse than a musical toy that you can't turn off.

It's a musical toy that your granddaughter can't turn off. What can you say to a 2-year-old when she hands you a Funny Bunny that talks and sings and chimes whenever you shake it?

Yes, dear, of course I will play it for you … and you smile, because children like smiles, and you listen to another hour of "Old Macdonald Had a Farm."

Don't get the wrong idea. I love music and I love kids. I even used to like "Old Macdonald Had a Farm" and "Hickory Dickory Dock" and the one about the itsy-bitsy spider.

But down came the rain and washed my enthusiasm out when little Grayce, my daughter's first child, came running to me with her latest prize. It runs on batteries and plays a half-dozen nursery rhymes.

It plays them over and over again.

There's a way to turn it off. Somewhere on the surface of the toy there is a hidden lever. At least I think it is there somewhere. I'm sure I'll find it some day. All I need is an infinite amount of patience or a degree in cognitive psychophysical dexterity.

When I was growing up in the ‘40s, toys were different. They were simple and friendly. They were made out of things like wood and tin, and they didn't have batteries.

They sometimes played music, but only when you wound them up. I had a horse on a stick, with a kind of a wing nut in the back of his head. When you wound up the spring, the horse went "gippity-gippity" for a minute or two and then went silent.

I could ride that horse from one end of the driveway to the other before the gippities ran out. That was just far enough.

My little Rollfast bike made get-up-and-go sounds, too.

Kids these days have little battery-powered, motorbike-looking things that they attach to their Schwinns, and when you turn on the switch, the bikes sound like Suzukis on the way to the races. But I took an old playing card and clipped it to the fender stay with a clothespin so that the card flapped against the spokes.

If I rode fast enough, my bike made a "brrr" sound. And if I imagined hard enough, I wasn't riding a bicycle any longer—I was challenging the wind on the seat of a Harley or an Indian.

I built boats out of my uncle's cigar boxes. Rubber bands wound into hundreds of loops spun the tiny propellers that I carved from pine. My fleet of boxes rode the waves of our pond as effortlessly as the yachts at Monte Carlo.

Those toys were fun because they came into my life incomplete. They needed my imagination. Without it, they were just objects; they were just things.

It's easy to make too much of this, of course. Kids are still kids. They still like to hug stuffed bears and dream of Pooh. But sometimes they seem to know too much about the technology of toys and too little about the mysteries of cardboard boxes.

It won't be long before Grayce finds that hidden switch. She'll find it before I will, because I've stopped looking.

And when she learns about long-life batteries, my life will never be the same.

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