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Gizmos, Gadgets and Child's Play

FOR several years nobody gave me toys. Gadgets and novelties, maybe (like those wind-up teeth, those denture salt-and-pepper shakers we love to bestow on my brother the dentist), but no toys. My family and friends, the gift givers, seemed to share some common assumption that a man in his 20s would not appreciate a toy, would not know what to do with one. And they might have been right. Then I turn 30. At a party in my honor, a friend gives me a top. It's not just any old top: It's a spring-wound UFO top with flashing red lights and a high-pitched scream. It's fun. It's fun at the party, befuddling the cat of the house, who watches it from a crouch while it goes hurtling across the parquet floor in all its noisy, red-glow glory. It's fun at home, where I give it a spin on my kitchen linoleum each morning before pouring my juice, toasting my bagel, and performing all those other lonely morning ablutions.

For Valentine's Day I'm given another toy, this one a punch-the-button-and-watch-it-spin affair that you hold in your hand. It says, ``You spark my love,'' and shoots red and white sparks from its face as it spins, like those space guns I remember having as a kid.

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And suddenly I'm more aware of toys, I see them all around me. My friend Joe, a professor/poet, received a kite for Christmas. On a clear but breezy Saturday in February he sends it aloft, telling me on the Monday after how a bird got momentarily snagged in the tail, pulling the kite into an ominous dive but untangling itself in time for the kite to recover and shoot back up into the clouds with a sudden, striking freedom. His eyes sparkle as he describes it. He doesn't care who overhears. It was an adventure.

My father-in-law, an Oklahoma wheat farmer, has moved into town. And when he takes visitors through his home, he frequently pauses in a back bedroom to take a rusty red metal farm truck from the bookshelf where it sits. It's my toy, he tells them proudly, letting them hold it, raise and lower the tailgate if they wish. (Antique? Certainly not. It's no older than he is. It's his toy.)

Last Sunday afternoon I went to the home of our college dean. He was hosting a small gathering of writers. Two of the writers read from their works-in-progress, and as I sat listening attentively, trying to look intellectual and sensitive and critical all at once, I glanced to the mantel above the dean's fireplace and was happy to find there a wooden choo-choo and a hand-sewn doll. There's nothing like a good, old-fashioned plaything to break one's veneer of pretension.

I've heard of magnates who collect lead soldiers, millionaires who give over a room in the mansion for an electric train with its requisite village and station, its tunnel and mountains and woodland retreat. But what I'm beginning to sense is that we all need toys. The second childhood should not come with senility, or when you're so rich you feel you've earned the right to play with toys. (Having children of your own is another sly but popular excuse to browse in toy stores.)

There's genuine comfort in toys, isn't there? They're patient. We can pick them up whenever we want, no hurry. They're loyal to the whims of our imagination. They're self-contained and self-sufficient, like art. Like exercise, they help relieve the stress of our grown-up world. And they're more honest than many other popular diversions, it seems to me. We tell ourselves that we watch television to ``keep up''; we go to the movies to appreciate ``good films''; we attend many parties out of ``social obligation''; when we play with toys, we know we're wasting time, and what of it?

So now the toys are trickling in, gifts from friends and loved ones. I take this phenomenon as a compliment, their way of telling me, ``Have a toy, we think you're old enough.''

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