Purple's promise
» Ann Hood on a very special bike.
Precious jewels
» Wil Haygood on beautiful words.
The mouse sled
» Carlo Rotella on a grown-up gift.
Lack of spark
» Andrew Hudgins on an imperfect gift.
Family ties
» Lisa Frazier Page on her last name.
Holiday Issue: The Gift

The Mouse Sled: Carlo Rotella on a meaningful Christmas gift

(Chris Hartlove)
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By Carlo Rotella
Sunday, November 22, 2009

The other day, one of my daughters, in a snit at having been sent upstairs for some infraction, knocked my Casio CQ-81 combination calculator-alarm clock off my bureau and broke it. A silver-gray triumph of late-'70s design, with its green LCD screen angled upward at the same 45-degree angle as the racing stripe on an AMC Gremlin, it looks like a sled for mice. I picture two or three of them, reclining side by side in the angle, squeaking happily as the CQ-81 zooms across the same hilly snowscape that Santa traversed on his electric razor-cum-snowmobile in Norelco's Christmas ads.

The Mouse Sled sat undisturbed on my bureau for years before my daughter got to it, and before that, as I moved from here to there over the past three decades, it sat on other bureaus and desks, on shelves, in drawers and boxes -- all the while dutifully telling the time but rarely consulted, almost never used as a calculator and only once in a long while as an alarm clock. It stopped working for a few years, then started again, perhaps because I finally changed the batteries. Now, thanks to my daughter, it doesn't work at all. But its real value has always been as a totem, anyway.

My parents gave me the Mouse Sled for Christmas when I was 15, the first of many presents intended to help me in getting organized and making myself presentable: calculators, clocks, watches, belts, ties, dress shirts, sweaters, jackets. My parents still give me presents to help me look and act like a grown-up; only now they do it with my blessing. In fact, I tacitly rely on them to help keep me supplied with work clothes. But back when I was 15, I received the Mouse Sled as a dire portent.

I didn't want an alarm clock. For Christmas and my birthday, I usually asked for war games. These were board-game simulations, with scores of little square cardboard pieces representing military units that players maneuvered on a map marked off with hexagons. A new game, unboxed, smelled like concentrated essence of new book. I would punch out and separate the pieces, place them on the board and then set about mastering the dense rulebook, which featured entries on the order of: "5.87: Unlimbered artillery stacked with non-disorganized infantry in a Brigade grouping (see 4.46-49) can be moved at the rate of the slowest infantry unit in the Brigade over clear terrain, bridges, roads, and, at a penalty of two movement points, streams and brooks (see 3.4-7), except in Rainy Weather scenarios, when special conditions apply (see 8.21)."

I didn't try to find opponents. I played both sides, more than two when necessary. I would spread the board on my desk, which my father's father built, and sit hunched over it deep into the night. My principal failing as a general was a tendency to draw out the opening phases in which the opposing armies jockeyed for position before committing to bloodshed. I shrank from the messiness of engagement, and I wanted to prolong the game. The most important thing about war games was that they took days to play. I wasn't just killing the imaginary troops under my command; without consciously having decided to, I was killing time until I could go away to college, when, I vaguely expected, life would begin in earnest.

Like a soccer team that needs only to lose by fewer than three goals to advance to the next round of the World Cup, I spent my high school years kicking the ball out of bounds, making a shabby pretense of hurrying to put it back in play, running time off the clock. I did my school work, I had friends, I didn't curl up in the fetal position, but I committed as little of myself as I could to life, and I never took a risk -- social, emotional or intellectual -- that I could safely defer. War games served my purpose, and their intimidating rulebooks and pieces bristling with numbers and symbols gave them a bookish aura that fended off parental objections.

Still, my parents picked up on my stalling tactics. I remember my father, still in suit and tie after a long day at the office, pausing at the doorway of my room late one evening. I was at my desk, bent over a map of Borodino or Tobruk, moving pieces and plotting to outsmart myself. After a while, I became aware of him and looked back over my shoulder. He said to no one in particular, "Always playing games. He's always playing games."

Now, 30 years later, I can name the unnameable unease that filled me when I unwrapped the Mouse Sled on Christmas morning. As a gift, it was both a gentle smack on the back of the head -- wake up! -- and a firm handshake welcoming a probationary adult to a life ordered by work rather than play. My parents, immigrants who worked like sled dogs and instructed by example rather than preachment, were urging me to take the measure of time: It's passing, don't fritter it away; use it well by using up what's inside you, harvesting the crop so that more can grow. Among the most important gifts they have given their sons is an awareness that life is short and work is good for you.

Now I have the Mouse Sled on my desk in the office at home, where I write. One corner is dented and cracked. When I put in the batteries, a hissing noise comes out of the alarm clock's tiny speaker, but nothing appears on the screen. The perp who broke it sneaks covert looks at it when she comes into the office. She can't figure out why she's not being punished. She's only 8; in a few years, especially if she begins to show signs of thinking that she needs only to lose by fewer than three goals to advance to the next round of life, I'll tell her the story of the Mouse Sled. It probably won't ever tell time or multiply again, but it could still wake somebody up.

Carlo Rotella, director of American studes at Boston College, last wrote for the Magazine about crime novelist George Pelecanos. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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