Leader of the Pac
Nobody can gobble dots like the old man

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, June 18, 2006

He's at it again, wowing his fans with his awesome power, agility and strategic good sense. That his game is, well, Ms. Pac-Man, and his fans are his kids, is secondary to the real story being played out on the floor of our family room: In this moment, he is a hero.

"Watch out, Daddy!" shouts Anna. "Those blue guys are gonna turn!"

"Faster, Daddy!" Sasha chimes in. "Eat them before it's too late!

Go, Daddy, go. And here comes the strawberry 'round the bend. Don't waste your time on the little dots when you can chomp down a strawberry and rack up real points. He teaches these techniques. He shows them how to save the big blinking dots for later, when you can use them to lure the bad guys toward you, then gobble those bad guys during their fleeting moments of vulnerability.

"It's timing, girls," he's saying. "It's thinking ahead. A little delayed gratification goes a long way in this game." Anna is glued to the screen, and Sasha is draped over his back, holding on for the ride.

"Hey, champ," I say, from over at my post at the stove. I am stirring spaghetti sauce. I know my place. "Are you going to let the children play, too?"

"We play three games each," Sasha explains. "It's still his turn."

"My turns take a little longer," he says smugly.

And good for him. Go, Daddy, go. He's gone places none of us have ever gone. He's gone to Level 3. Well -- whoops -- not today. His third guy just got trapped in a corner and -- blorp! -- now he's history.

He folds over like he's having a heart attack, hangs his head in agony.

"Oh, Daddy, you were robbed," Sasha says, patting his head. "That was not your fault."

"Yes it was, sweetheart," he says. "Yes, it was."

I admire his honesty. I admire -- really admire -- so much of what has happened ever since this little Ms. Pac-Man game entered our home. Who knew a video game could foster family togetherness? We grown-ups have been programmed to believe the opposite. We've been told to limit the time our children get to spend in front of screens gobbling or blowing things up. I've heeded the warnings. I've become the classic old crank: No PlayStation in our house. No XBox. Someday, maybe. But at 5 and 7 my kids are young enough not to know to beg for one of those machines, and I figure the longer the delay, the better.

Then: Ms. Pac-Man. For $19.99 you can buy a little joystick gizmo that attaches to your TV and brings you the gift of gobbling. It came as a present from one of their school friends. I figured, okay, here goes nothing. I told my kids. No fighting. Take turns. Half an hour a day, max. I laid down the law. Blah, blah, blah. A mother's steady whine can probably wilt plants.

"Will you watch me play, Daddy?" Anna said. That's how it started. To her, the game wasn't fun without an audience. And watch he did. And cheer. And scream. And give high-fives after every minor accomplishment. When he played, they cheered him on, too. This is how it went: them against Ms. Pac-Man. Never them against each other. He taught them to shoot for their personal best, never to shoot each other down.

Anna got a clipboard, made a chart. Sasha is currently trying to beat her own high score of 4,055, and Anna is trying to top 8,455. Meantime, their father exists in his rightful place in the strato-sphere: 10,250. (My own top score is not pertinent to this discussion.) I love what he did with this. I love that he turned Pac-Man time into a pre-dinner ritual of our little family against the big, mean world.

I should thank him. I should get him a PlayStation 2 for Father's Day, but I know better than to extrapolate too far. Ms. Pac-Man is not, let's face it, God of War -- whatever that is. I only know that it's a very popular game and that it features an ex-Spartan warrior armed with lethal double chainblades.

Anna grabs the clipboard, where she indicates her father's most recent score: 6,540. "That's not even close to your personal best, Daddy."

"You're choking," Sasha says.

"Yeah," he says.

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Anna says.

"Yeah," he says. I can tell he's frustrated. I can tell he wants to do better. I swoop in for the rescue, tell him dinner is ready. Anna puts down the clipboard. I look down and notice that she has entered scores for Ellen, the babysitter, onto the chart. "Did you see this?" I ask him. "Ellen is up to 15,450."

No, he did not see this. He demands a look. Ellen is his age, not some teenager who should be good at this. Ellen is . . . a normal grown-up.

"Girls," he says. "Did you make this up? Did Ellen actually get these scores?"

"She just played like four times," Sasha says.

"She's so good!" Anna says. "Wait till you see her play!"

Right. And . . . right.

Later I think of the best Father's Day gift I might give: I choose to say nothing at all when I find him, long after the girls have gone to bed, practicing in the dark.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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