The Animator War

Animator boxSo in every kid’s life there is a moment where Christmas is ruined. Okay, that’s probably being dramatic, but I definitely can say that when you find out Santa Claus isn’t real, the holiday loses a bit of its magic. Coming in slightly behind that is the Christmas when you find the presents.

Now, when you’re a little kid, the idea of Christmas is something that flat-out blows your mind on an annual basis. You write a letter to Santa, maybe even sit on the lap of a parolee playing Santa at the local second-rate shopping mall, and on the morning of December 25, there is a bacchanal of toys. You never questioned where the presents came from, nor wondered about the hours of thought and labor your parents put into procuring said gifts (let alone the money involved)—Christmas just arrived and everything was awesome. Then, around the time you were eight or nine you start hearing from some kid in your class about how he knows everything he’s getting.

I was always perplexed by this kid. I had loved the surprise that came with Christmas morning, so I never understood why he was able to get his presents early. Moreover, he seemed to be bragging about it. Was there something wrong with this kid? Did his parents not love him enough, which is why they stole the magic of Christmas from him at an early age? What he an over-privileged little twerp whose parents gave him the presents so they didn’t have to deal with him? Or, was he onto something?

This last thought didn’t occur to me until I was about ten years old and my sister and I saw a commercial for the Etch-A-Sketch Animator, which was a toy that I swear only the 1980s was capable of producing. The original recipe Etch-A-Sketch had been out for decades, and we, just like every other kid in existence, owned one. It wasn’t a favorite toy of ours or anything, just one of those things you’d play with from time to time because you came across it while you were looking for something else or because it was the only thing available when you were bored out of your mind. But the commercials for the Animator made it seem like this was not only the next level of Etch-A-Sketch, but the next level of awesome. We were both sure that it wouldn’t suffer the same fate as its ancestor.

A device with a basic black and while pixilated display, the Animator had memory for several frames upon which you would draw image after image, which you would then have the Animator play back so it looked like you had drawn a cartoon. The commercial showed a girl animating a horse running and a boy animating a guy swinging a baseball bat. Since my sister rode horses and I played little league, that’s all we needed to know. Almost immediately, we put The Animator on our Christmas lists, which probably put our parents in a precarious situation because they were not the type who would buy each of us our own toy. No, they believe in sharing.

We hated sharing as kids. We didn’t like sharing with one another. We didn’t like sharing with friends. We didn’t like sharing with kids of family friends. We didn’t like sharing with kids who we didn’t even know but whom just happened to be at the same place we were. We weren’t total selfish jerks or anything, but when you’re a kid, morals can sometimes take a backseat to wanting all of a candy bar or wanting a particular toy all to yourself. And needless to say, when we both saw The Animator on our respective Christmas lists, Nancy and I both knew that we would be fighting over the one Animator that would be opened on Christmas Day.

And then came the day we found it.

I can’t remember if we were actively looking for our Christmas presents, or if we came across them by accident, but one day we were in the basement and in the back of my dad’s workshop we found a large lawn and leaf bag that bulged irregularly. We approached it with caution, pulled back the edge and saw two things—the puzzle toy known as Rubik’s Magic Rings, and The Etch-A-Sketch Animator.

From there, it was on. Each of us assumed that we’d be the one the Animator was meant for, so we proceeded to threaten one another with it. If my sister wouldn’t share the last donut with me, I’d say, “You eat that whole donut and I won’t let you play with my Animator.” If I wouldn’t let you watch a show or movie she wanted to watch, she would say, “If you don’t let me watch this, I won’t let you play with my Animator.”

AnimatorNow, you’d think that my parents would have liked the newfound cooperation that came with this—after all, we were sort of not being selfish toward one another—but hearing that the sharing and unselfishness came through blackmail, they obviously figured out something was up. Plus, it didn’t help that Nancy couldn’t, and still really can’t keep a secret to save her life and wound up blabbing about our finding the Christmas present to my parents. I can’t remember if my parents punished the two of us or if it went beyond a conversation wherein they told us they were disappointed in us.

That disappointment definitely registered, although the vocal threats continued because despite knowing there was an Animator in the house, we still didn’t know who it was for; moreover, to my parents’ credit, they didn’t retaliate by giving us the presents early or simply placing them under the tree unwrapped. It went under the tree as planned and on Christmas morning, my sister unwrapped the Animator.

Being ten years old, I probably was not able to mask my disappointment. I knew that I would get to play with the toy—like I said, sharing was house policy—but I was disappointed because she had won. I did not get the prize and I would be forced to be at the mercy of someone else for black and white pixilated animation fun.

Okay, that’s totally melodramatic because Nancy was never that diabolical.

We had our fair share of fun with The Animator. Sometimes we created the animations that were in the instruction book and sometimes we had fun making words appear and disappear, but most of the time my friends and I would animate a hand giving the middle finger. That, in our minds, was using the toy to its fullest potential. Predictably, after a year or two, it wound up being lost to the back of the toy closet as we got interested in other things and eventually was either donated or sold at a yard sale when we were teenagers.

As for Christmas, I’d like to say that this was the moment that changed everything, but it really wasn’t. Oh sure, I’d spend the next few Novembers and Decembers sneaking around to find presents, but for the most part, we had the same sort of Christmas morning. But gradually, the element of surprise dwindled as my parents began a tradition of taking us to the mall on Black Friday (this was before Black Friday became a spectacle of animal-level greed and trampling deaths) to buy clothes that would go under the tree on Christmas Day, something which seemed to always cause my mother to sigh, “Oh well, no surprises this Christmas.” But I honesty never felt that whatever Christmas was about was ever ruined.

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