It’s one thing to get schooled.
It’s another thing to get pre-schooled — to be humiliated by a goofy kid wearing crooked glasses and footed pajamas with bear paws all over them and a zipper that runs from ankle to neck.
Well, welcome to my just completed holidays, which I emerged from feeling like I’d been stepped on by the hooves of eight not-so-tiny reindeer linemen for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
My humiliation was complete enough that I had hoped my car would start on one of those post-Christmas, below-zero days so I could drive around the city in hopes of seeing dozens of children flailing their arms with their tongues stuck to metal poles, victims of the triple-dog dare.
I’m not particularly proud of that sentiment and am fully aware that one of my New Year’s resolutions should be getting in closer touch with my inner shame.
This all started innocently enough.
A couple of days before Christmas, I decided to try cutting down on the percentage of time spent wrestling with and tickling my grandson Atticus. When I suggested we play a board game, I felt as though I might have a chance to do what my wife always does: contribute to the lad’s cognitive development.
That itchy, near-civilized feeling lasted until the Candy Land board was half out of the box and someone who sounded just like me told the poor child: “I’m gonna whup you.”
The words were spoken with the same juiced-up confidence of the guy who buys lottery tickets at the same time on the same day each week and dreams of the day he’ll pay off all his payday lenders at once.
Although my Atticus didn’t shoot back with the words, “In your shriveled dreams, Grandpa,” he did let me know that he was going to be the whupper and I the whupped upon.
As my therapist later told me, this kind of conversation is part of a dynamic in a family that has a multi-generational struggles with Candy Land.
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As I’ve confessed in this spot before, during my own footed-pajama days, I used to torture my dear late father by forcing him to play game after game of Candy Land until I successfully lowered his IQ. It was a prelude to my attempts as an adolescent to break his kind and gentle spirit.
I only now know what he knew then: That the karma of Candy Land would come back to bite me like an overdue trip to the dentist.
As I said, though, the grandfather-grandson game did get off to a good start.
I taught him to pronounce purple as “POY-ple” and yellow as “LELL-o.”
That paved the way for teaching him to yell “two POY-ples” and “two LELL-os” in what I call the Curlian style — the style spoken by Curly of the Three Stooges. (I consider it important that my grandchildren be exposed to top-notch cinema.)
Being a quick study, Atticus not only got his Stooges on, he learned to get the proper bitterness in his voice when he drew “one lousy red” from the pile for a merely modest move forward.
I had feared all this fundamental instruction might be short-circuited by one of the inevitables of life that belongs on the list with death, taxes and early-morning tweets: change.
And Candy Land has changed. There are now My Little Pony and Disney Princess versions of the game, which I consider to be sacrilege and part of the same general trend in product variation that one day will cause all of our foods to be offered with honey-nut flavoring.
Still, the basics of Candy Land are the same.
The game offers adults a chance to steer the children away from the temptations of cheating until the point that children are wise enough to steer adults away from it as well.
And when adults draw one of those cards that sends them back to a lollipop or ice cream cone and puts them behind, children can learn to say, “I’m sorry this fate has befallen you,” in a way that communicates this underlying message to one’s elders: “In your wrinkled face.”
Having been humiliated in the first game of a three-game match of Candy Land, I came back to handily win the second before drawing a “go back to the ice cream cone” card when I was well ahead in the third. It was a knife-twist of fate that allowed me to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.
As he crossed the finish line, my grandson didn’t say a word. He instead cruelly smiled at me while straightening his glasses.
That leads me to offer one word of caution for grandparents playing their grandchildren.
When losing, if a grandparent rolls over backward and buries his face in the carpet, there’s a danger that the grandchild may actually feel sorry for the grandparent and check on him.
The first time around, it’s best for grandpa to assure the child that there’s nothing really wrong before rolling over and whining.
Then additional patient instruction is required to reach the point at which you, with your head buried in the carpet, hear the child’s mother walk by and, instead of asking whether the child has hurt grandpa’s feelings says, “Atticus, did you whup up on poor Grandpa again?”
My further experimentation has confirmed that these same techniques in child moral and cognitive development work not only for Candy Land but for the versions of Go Fish, Old Maid and War slightly renamed and marketed by the friendly folks at Paw Patrol — and for the honey-nut versions to come.
I’ll end with two final bits of advice to grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and anyone going into combat against little ones.
1. Sooner or later, you’re gonna get pre-schooled.
2. If you want to even the odds, footed pajamas are now available in adult and senior sizes. Look for them next to the therapeutic footwear in most fine pharmacies.