Uncle Monster

I have long maintained that an uncle’s job is to be a cross between a large dog and a jungle gym. After last Thanksgiving I have decided to add shooting gallery duck to that list.

It was getting to the end of the meal when my nieces and nephews sent up their messenger. My brothers and I were lounging at the table, our distended bellies challenging the tensile strength of our belts. My sisters darted about like hummingbirds, zooming in to clear off the plates and shoot us meaningful looks that we pretend to be too obtuse to interpret. The kids had all been exiled to the basement. The occasional yelp floated up the stairs, but no full throated howls, which meant that the casualty level in the basement was still acceptable.

I have 10 nieces and nephews ranging in age from 1 to 11. When the whole family gathers, they often play together in a tumbling pack. Despite the age difference, the kids all seem to like it. The older ones like it because they get a host of minions to do their bidding, little hands to construct pyramids, and serve as lackeys. The younger ones like it because the older ones always construct games of enormous detail and drama. Adults can’t sustain the detail and scope of imaginative play that an older child can. The only problem is that the younger kids tend to have a limited attention span, and right in the middle of the heroic assault on the ogre’s castle they might decide that they are not stalwart foot soldiers, but instead happy little puppies. This is not a problem that General Eisenhower ever had to face.

Sometimes the fascination of their games eludes me completely. For a while, there was a craze among my nieces and nephews for the game “Dog Show”. In this game, each of the kids picks a dog name and a breed of dog to embody. They all participate in the Dog Show with its attendant promenades and display of tricks. As an Uncle, my job is to attend the promenade and to issue commands like “Sit” “Lie Down” and “Roll Over”. I have not yet issued the command “Run over and bite Uncle Mike on the ass”, though I have been tempted.

There is something surreal about seeing the kids earnestly acting like dogs, something that could hardly be explained to a non-participant, and that is why the family has carefully videotaped it. This way we can be sure to show it at a time that will be particularly embarrassing for the niece or nephew. Maybe the first time they bring home a special someone….

Since I grew up in a large family I am familiar with games involving a cast of thousands. My older sister excelled at organizing all the kids into pageants with grand mythological themes and dance numbers. She was a cross between D.W Griffith and Busby Berkley, I think. Several Christmases she staged dance presentations for the entertainment of my Grandparents who, to their great credit, never once fell out of their chairs laughing. She had a real flamboyance, and I’m sure that if she had the wherewithal she would have had us dressed in satin knickers for the Minuet number. And I’m certain that I would have worn them, and not even questioned at all. When you are young, you assume that everything that happens in your family is the way things happen in all families. “Of course”, you think “Christmas is the holiday where we put on satin knickers and dance the Minuet for Grandma and Grandpa.” It is only when friends come over and get that slack jawed look of disbelief that you begin to realize that perhaps your family is a little different than the others.

Being in the middle ranks of kids, I was not at first aware of the subtle ranks of hierarchy that my sister had built into her games. There was a game we used to play to the musical accompaniment of a recording of Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite”. In this piece, there is a movement that musically describes the descent of a mule train into the canyon. I remember pacing around the living room on all fours, matching my mule gait to the rhythm of the music. Years later, I recalled that game to my sister. “Do you remember how we would all play mule to the “Grand Canyon Suite’. “Oh, ” she replied, “Not all of us were mules.” My sister had made an ass of me.

From the nature of the sounds drifting up from the basement this Thanksgiving, it sounded like the eldest cousin was calling the tune tonight. He is a rambunctious boy, and his chosen games drift in the direction of Lord of the Flies. They usually end with one of the younger cousins crying, and another cousin explaining earnestly that it was an accident. “I didn’t mean to step on his head…”

As we sat at the table, one of the middle cousins appeared, a Hermes ascended from the underworld, who said with conspicuous nonchalance “Uncle Tom, we have something to show you.” I went to the top of the stairs and peered down. Below, the lights were off, and there was a good deal of rustling and giggling going on in the gloaming. Clearly, the surprise in store for me was not going to be a pleasant one. I felt like the crewman on Star Trek, the one you’ve never seen before who gets beamed down to the planet with the landing party. “Spock – You and Bones and Sulu go wait over there in the well protected area. Crewman PhaserBait go check out the really dark cave with the fumes and tentacles.”

But being an Uncle means knowing when you are going to have to accept a Lilliputian beating in the name of holiday fun, so I submitted to my fate, and donned the mantle of the Uncle Victim. I descended. The basement is a cavernous cement room strewn with various piles of furniture, exercise implements, and play apparatus. The cousins had been organized into two battalions. One group was protected by a fortification of furniture and leisure tools. The other group hid in the back room, waiting to attack me from the rear once I had engaged the defenders of Fort Sofa. They had turned the lights off, and had a few flashlights that they shined in my eyes me, attempting to blind me, while they flung various dolls and balls at me.

Earlier that day, we had made a rule of “Soft Objects Only” after one of the younger and fiercer of my nephews had begun belaboring the kneecaps of his uncles with a large wooden puzzle. So now, under the hail of missiles, I felt relatively safe from crippling. Nonetheless, a hard flung beanie baby to the crotch is no laughing matter. My older brother is content to act as Uncle Target, but I decided that I would not play Wooly Mammoth to their Neanderthals. I decided to try to capture the flashlights and become Uncle Monster.

I don’t know why kids like playing Monster so much, but I do know that it is a perennial favorite. You’ll be sitting in a chair, a smiling and delightful Uncle, and one of the kids will come over and say “You be a monster”. It is no use telling them that this is precisely what your girlfriends ask you not to be. You are dragooned into dragonhood.

The successful monster is hopelessly inefficient. The successful monster shambles along, making lots of noise and considerably less footspeed then the shrieking victims. The successful monster is extremely unobservant, and will blindly rattle the furniture very close to his intended victims, unable to find them even though they are in plain sight and screaming. Both Frankenstein and the Mummy are very successful monsters.

The point of the game as I see it, is to always be on the verge of capturing the victims, but never to actually get them. The successful monster is always just behind his prey, just about to strike. The older kids can sustain this tension for quite a while, but the younger kids invariably lose it. For them, there is a moment in which the game leaps over into reality. Suddenly you are not the Uncle playing monster, you actually have become the Monster. The victim stands stock still and in a quiet and distinct voice says “You’re not a monster anymore, okay?”

Downstairs, roaring and shambling about, assailed by the slings and beanie babies of outrageous fortune, I finally managed to seize both flashlights. I turned them off, and quietly moved off to another part of the darkened room. I began giving out my Stalking Lion snarl, a kind of low growl in the nose. It’s a pretty effective monster noise, but they’re mostly familiar with it, and it only quieted them a bit. So I switched over to a new one, the Velociraptor Hiss. It’s a two parter, with a semi snore inhale, and a hiss on the exhale. That seemed to get their respect. There was silence punctuated only by my dreadful reptilian exhalations. Then the quiet voice of one of my nieces, overly polite. “Uncle Tom, would you turn on the flashlight, please.”

Victory! I turned back on the flashlight magnanimously, savoring the moment of my success. Uncle Monster triumphant! The Lilliputians put to rout!

I was returned to my proper station by a well flung nerf football to the back of the head.

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About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

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