21 June 2011

I get knocked down

Parenthood is a project made of anxiety, delight, but most especially drudgery: and of the tedious bits some of the worst are the endless hours spent playing first board games. The absolute nadir of these is of course Candyland, whose cruel and capricious nature has driven most parents to stack the deck in their child's favor (or in their own favor, who cares, so long as the damn game ends already for God's sake).  But a close second is the game Chutes and Ladders.

Chutes and Ladders is the kinder, gentler cousin of Snakes and Ladders; of the two, the latter name more accurately describes the feeling of playing the game, which not unlike a case of the DT's. In the event you never were a child, here's a description: the game consists of a race to the final square interrupted by a string of random reversals of fate in which your piece ascends ladders or descends chutes. These titular features are arranged in such a way that victory is eternally snatched from young innocent hands and the average game length is six hours (including two nap times).

The picture above is the version of the game I played with my daughter Kate when she was three; the board, apparently from the 1970's, includes scenes that attempt to provide karmic justification for the players' rises and falls. In one square, a girl mixes batter and so is rewarded by a ladder leading to a cake; in another, a boy reaches for cookies on a high shelf and falls down a chute that ends with a concussion and a possible lifetime of epilepsy. In one confusing pair, a child either hands his mother her purse or absconds with it and is rewarded via a ladder with ice cream; in yet another, a boy skates on thin ice, only to chute to what we must presume is an icy death.

I don't think that Kate was impressed by the lessons of these scenes, but being a rational child she liked the depictions of cause and effect. She was especially pleased by a sequence where a pulling a cat's tail results in a scratched face for the abuser. Kate herself has to this day a scar from the family cat that she received in exactly the same way; perhaps she found some sort of atonement via proxy. But for me there was no comfort in these tiny morality plays, because in spite of the veneer of a just universe the game is still entirely one of chance. In fact, the rewards and punishments only made the underlying randomness of it all that more depressing. What did it matter if sweeping the floor earned the little girl a trip to the movie when her stab at the housework was just one of six random options in the first place?

Fortunately, the days of playing this game are long behind me; I think we got rid of our copy at a garage sale, or maybe it's squashed flat beneath the weight of better games on our basement shelves. But at night sometimes the game still haunts me. I wake from a dream of sudden falling and I wonder whether my life is really a series of actions and consequences or just one die roll after another.

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