Inside Those Specially Marked Boxes

OUR kids have discovered that television commercials are not just 30-second programs. And they have learned, therefore, that there is a relationship between television commercials and the ``specially marked boxes'' in the cereal aisle of the supermarket. It's an initiation into the world of Astronaut Ice Cream send-away offers, glow-in-the-dark great white shark charms, and all manner of stickers mentioned in commercials that begin, ``Hey kids!'' The supermarket shelves stocked at the exact eye level of five-year-olds are a virtual catalog of Saturday morning commercials. On a recent walk down the cereal aisle, examining the glittery array of candied oat, wheat, and rice kernels, the kids told me that the box of Super Atomic Apple Crisps they had chosen for its promise of a toy inside was actually ``full of goodness, pleasant to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise.'' Though I had heard that line before, I bit. The stuff seemed redolent of the misspent Saturday mornings of my youth, eating sugar-coated cereals in bed and watching Wiley Coyote and Road Runner defy several of Newton's laws.

Over in the cookie aisle our four-year-old was busily searching for Tiger Cookies which, Hilary explained, were ``exploding with flavor.'' We couldn't find Tiger Cookies, so we settled for Oreos, which, she quoted, were ``stuffed with creamy goodness.'' In the car she twisted them apart and ate the filling first, just as the commercials recommend. Life imitates commercials.

Some boxes are specially marked with enticements to send away for special prizes. Six-year-old Spencer was thrilled by the Astronaut Ice Cream coupon in one cereal box and we had to put it in the mail as soon as we got home. Waiting patiently as we ``allowed 6-8 weeks for delivery'' was torturous - but it eventually arrived: a chalky slab of pink stuff the weight of Styrofoam in an official-looking tin foil package. It tasted just like you would expect freeze-dried ice cream to taste - sweet, chalky, pink Styrofoam.

The cereal aisle is to Spencer and Hilary what the tool aisle of the hardware store is to me. I truly need to wear one of those carpenter tool belts, preferably the leather one guaranteed to be ``the professional's choice,'' when I change light bulbs. And that double-insulated worm-drive 5-inch circular saw with the carbide-tipped blade - the contractor model - would be perfect for making a sandbox. I go nutty in the plier and wrench aisle. I won't be satisfied until I have the right tool for every electrical, plumbing, or carpentry contingency.

A lot of catalogs arrive at our house each week and it won't be long before the kids realize the difference between a catalog and a magazine, the relationship between an order form and my Mastercard, and the role played by the United Parcel Service truck. I fear the day may come when Spencer has ordered my Christmas present from a catalog. I'll find myself paying for a radio-controlled model Ferrari Testerosa in a box marked ``DAD'' under the tree. It'll even out, since I'll be giving him a Rototiller. It's going to be a big sandbox.

For all of the allure of commercials and catalogs, when it comes to actual play the kids gravitate toward what is basic: a few boards and nails, the dirt pile out back, and the dress-up closet. It's fun to imagine being in the scene depicted on the cereal box or the catalog photograph: eating the chalky ice cream in your lunar lander or amazing your friends as you peel out in the Ferrari. But the imagination energized by the advertisement, the imagination which is at the heart of play, is usually disappointed when the product arrives. It's not full of goodness. It's never as big or red or fast as in the ad. After a few disappointments the specially marked boxes do make one wise.

The simplest pleasures are crafted by the imagination rather than for it. In other words, effective play is more a relationship with an idea than the use of an object; it's a gift you must give yourself.

Spencer and Hilary can play contentedly for an hour and a half given a large bowl, a few soup spoons, and a medium-sized mud puddle - two hours if you add grass clippings and leaves. Our backyard is harbor to a fleet of handsome, plywood battleships and airplanes crafted with wood from my scrapbox, hammers, nails, string, copper, and markers - which don't simulate the sound of lasers and warp-drive engines. The kids add the sound effects.

And I'm more satisfied when I bring a project in under budget because I haven't gone out and bought exactly the right tool for the situation but have improvised in some clever manner - or reacquainted myself with the acoustic rasp of my handsaw.

We've taken to exporting our notion of play by crafting the birthday presents we give to school chums. For Zoe and Amanda's parties last week the kids and I built wooden treasure boxes. I cut the wood and then they helped assemble the box - they sand the wood and drive the nails I have started. Then we get out the acrylic paints. Zoe got a smiling portrait and her name in big thick letters on the lid. Hilary painted a minimalist landscape and ``Amanda'' in vivid, painterly strokes. I coated their work with polyurethane, for durability, then we attached hinges and a clasp from the hardware store.

We made one ``store-bought'' concession and put some barrettes in Zoe's box and fingernail polish in Amanda's. Treasure boxes need treasure, after all. This was far more satisfying than a trip to the megalithic toy store, where every aisle is a trek through prime-time television's most fetching allusions to specially marked boxes.

I shouldn't claim too much for our birthday boxes. Spencer and Hilary seemed more excited by the anticipation of the party: candy, balloons, and playing Space Invaders at the video arcade. But when the next party rolls around and I say, ``Hey kids, what shall we make?'' I think they'll get excited about treasure boxes. After all, we're not just making a gift. We're making time for one another.

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