PASSING NOTES: <span>Island of Misfit Toys</span>  

“Shake me I rattle / Squeeze me I cry / Please take me home / And love me” —“Shake Me I Rattle (Squeeze Me I Cry)” by Marion Worth

Last week’s mental excursion into the world of the Sears Wish Book has gotten me thinking about the role of toys in the Christmas season. Call me a crass commercialist if you must, but I happen to love Christmas shopping and all the glitz associated with it. My favorite Christmas album of all time is “Christmas with the Rat Pack,” and my favorite Christmas song is “Silver Bells,” which is not a carol because it is about Christmas shopping and not the Nativity.

For the record, I do have a favorite carol—it’s “Mary’s Little Boy Child.” I’m also partial to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” (If you hadn’t figured it out yet, my second favorite Christmas album is “Merry Christmas from Andy Williams.”)

But I digress.

Some of my very favorite Christmas songs and movies are—at least partly—about toys. Probably some of yours are too because they are very popular. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which tells the story of how Rudolph saved all the unloved and unwanted “misfit toys,” is the longest annually-running Christmas television special in history.

Major American ballet companies reportedly generate up to 40 percent of their annual ticket revenue solely from performances of “The Nutcracker,” another Christmas story about toys come to life.

From “Up on the House Top,” much of which is a Christmas wish list, to “March of the Wooden Soldiers” to “Shake Me I Rattle (Squeeze Me I Cry),” about a little girl longing for a baby doll, the list of Christmas songs prominently featuring toys could fill several albums, if people still filled albums, that is.

The last of those songs, “Shake Me I Rattle (Squeeze Me I Cry)” was originally recorded in 1963. I have no idea if the doll described in the song ever actually existed, but I know this much: it could not exist today. Baby dolls, after all, are training toys of a sort. Like toy tool sets, toy kitchens, and toy cash registers, baby dolls exist so children can play at being adults. (The poor kids. Little do they know.)

Of all the many things we may encourage children to play at, shaking and squeezing babies probably doesn’t make the list. It probably didn’t make the list in 1963, either, but I wasn’t around then, so I can’t say for sure.

Of course, looking back at my own toys, I can say with some assurance that it probably doesn’t matter what children play at. Certainly the toys I had as a child did little to foster the talents in me that they were supposed to.

When I was about 4, I had a spring rocking horse called “Rawhide.” (That was his model name. I did not name him.) It was a hollow, blown-plastic horse mounted to a steel frame with heavy-duty springs. I think for a few decades in the middle of the 20th century almost every American kid had a spring rocking horse. Now, “Rawhide” has been discontinued as a “death trap.”

I don’t know about death, but the blood blisters those springs could give you would make you wish you were dead. I didn’t care. I would get right back on the horse, as the saying goes. I’m not sure what the instructional purpose of a rocking horse is, but if it is to learn to ride an actual horse, “Rawhide” failed miserably in his task. The first time I was on a horse as a child, I became terribly conscious of just how far from the ground the back of a horse actually is and that it is a living thing that cannot be driven but only encouraged to do one’s bidding. I didn’t make it four feet before I started screaming.

I did, however, get one heck of a blood blister the other day trying to remove a set of cooking tongs from the drawer they were lodged in, and I didn’t have nearly as much fun getting it as I did on that spring rocking horse.

When I was about 8, I had a design toy called “Fashion Plates” that I dearly loved. The idea behind it was to make elementary fashion design accessible to children who couldn’t draw well. Everything was based on impressions of models, outfits, and patterns that you would create by rubbing various colors of pencils over the paper placed over embossed plates.

I think this was supposed to create a rudimentary sense of stylishness in my prepubescent brain, but if so, it did not work. It took my friend Susan two years to talk me out of the super-comfortable oversized men’s jeans I had been wearing since college, and by that time I was 43.

I could go on. I had building blocks as a child, too, but I am comically bad at spatial relations of all kinds. I will buy furniture many times too large for the room it belongs in, and my cats could have assembled their scratching posts faster than I did, in spite of the fact that they are terribly slow readers and also have no thumbs. And then, of course, there’s the aforementioned situation with my kitchen drawers.

The succession of baby dolls in my childhood did nothing to make me more comfortable around live babies, which I still find slightly terrifying, often sticky, and altogether too fragile.

The one class of toys I can think of that proved to be useful in my adult life was an endless stream of plush stuffed animals: bears, cats, dogs, and rabbits, primarily, but I also had a stuffed pig, a stuffed frog, and a stuffed puma I was especially fond of.

The lessons I learned from my stuffed animals have been immensely useful in adulthood, as I am Mother of Cats. (This is a title, like Mother of Dragons. Use it reverently.) Animals need to be kept clean, for instance, or they get smelly. Even if they enjoy getting wet, you will not enjoy them when they are wet. Shaking them, squeezing them, or carrying them by the ear is not good for them. And most importantly, when you are down, just hugging something furry usually makes it better.

My sincere thanks to my friend Victoria Benge for her lyrics recommendation. You, too, can recommend a song. You can write to me care of the Times-Tribune or reach out on our website or on social media. Or follow me on Twitter @ChristeeBentley.

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