It has always mystified me how something can quickly fall from the very top of a Christmas or birthday list to the absolute depths of disdain — and the back of a closet. During the past fifteen years I’ve watched our children repeatedly obsess about some item they swore they couldn’t live without, only to abandon their affection for the desired object with astonishing swiftness. Sometimes the entire transition is completed in less than a day. The process is often peppered with back-and-forth discussions, beginning with a pathetic bit of parental logic (“But you’ve been saying for months that you wanted this”) and ending with the child’s final judgment: “Well, it’s a piece of junk.”
In the case of an electronic device, all it takes to render the thing useless is for the child’s friend to get one with more gigabytes. Or higher megapixels. Or better graphics. If Brandon gets a new iPod that holds eight thousand songs, my son suddenly feels claustrophobic with room for only thirty-five hundred.
“Are there even eight thousand songs in the whole world?” I ask.
“It isn’t just songs,” he answers, stunned by my ignorance. “It’s movies, photos, videos, games…”
“But this is the iPod you wanted, and you insisted that you couldn’t wait.”
“Can we please just forget it?” he yells, as though the conversation had been my idea.
And so it goes, both sides utterly confounded by the other’s inability to understand. In these days right after Christmas, I can almost hear the disagreements as they erupt in homes all across the continent. It seems to be part of our nature to appreciate things while we’re wanting them, and then lose that appreciation soon after we get them. Most things just aren’t as great as we’d imagined. Almost nothing is as great as the advertisers told us they would be.
When I was ten, there was a brand new toy called Pretzel-Jetzel: “The Jet-Age Pretzel Making Toy.” It was similar to Suzy Homemaker in many ways, except it appealed more to boys, I guess because the finished product was salty and rough rather than sweet and soft. You mixed a powder with water to create the batter, which you poured into a mold. Then you sprinkled salt on top and sent the molds through the plastic bakery on a conveyor belt, where the pretzels would be cooked to perfection by a hundred-watt light bulb. The baker on the box promised it would make “Zenzational Pretzels!” (The baker was apparently supposed to be German, so having him say “Zenzational” gave him an air of authenticity. Also, the words “Jet-Age” meant that this was the most advanced pretzel making system anywhere, and would meet the kind of rigid specifications required by NASA and other high-tech snacking organizations.)
I wanted a Pretzel-Jetzel more than I wanted to breathe. The very idea that I could whip up a batch of delicious hot pretzels any time I wanted almost made my brain explode. And when I unwrapped that huge box on Christmas morning in 1965 and caught a glimpse of the name, I was close to having an out-of-body experience. Looking back now, it seems likely that I got a few other gifts that year, but I have no idea what they were. I could think of nothing but pretzels. All I needed was a light bulb and I was in business.
But my parents didn’t have a hundred-watt light bulb anywhere in the house. And it was Christmas. Back then, nothing was open on Christmas Day. Nothing. Except, of course, church. My mind raced with a scheme designed to get the bulb. All we had to do was go to church. I was an altar boy, and knew where everything was stored. Then we could return the light bulb after we’d bought our own. Would that be stealing? I wasn’t sure. Stealing was a sin, but I’d be in church, and could do a quick confession on my way out. The problem was, I’d already been to church that day, so there was no way of putting my plan into action without arousing suspicion. (“What are you saying? You forgot to say some of your prayers, and you want to go back?”)
Why didn’t my mother just buy a hundred-watt light bulb when she bought the Pretzel-Jetzel? It says right on the front of the box, LIGHT BULB NOT INCLUDED. She said she hadn’t noticed. I was confused by this, but let it go.
We bought a light bulb the next day and raced home. I mixed up a batch of batter, poured it into the mold, and started up the conveyor belt. The molds began to move into the bakery, and after a few endless minutes, emerged at the other end. I looked closely. The pretzels were an unexpected color. They weren’t brown and salty. They were a sickening tan color, and filled with pinholes, which I guess were caused by popping air bubbles. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of hardened lava. After waiting for the pretzels to cool, I popped one out of its tray. It looked tiny, even in the hands of a ten-year-old, and a far cry from the stack of pretzels shown on the box. The baker had promised mouth-watering, crunchy pretzels. I was beginning to believe this guy wasn’t a baker at all. Or even German.
I bit into one. It tasted like a cooked pencil. If I had been confused by my mother’s failure to buy a light bulb, I was completely bewildered by this. How could a toy company be so dishonest? Wasn’t that a sin? How could they say this thing was like having your own pretzel factory? These things were nothing like any pretzel I’d ever eaten. I tried to feed one to our cat and she ran away, and didn’t return for two days.
When my father came home from work, he asked me how I liked my Jetzel-Pretzel. “It’s a Pretzel-Jetzel,” I told him, “and it’s a piece of junk.” He resorted to that pathetic bit of parental logic: “But you’ve been saying for months that you wanted this.” I handed him one of the pretzels to taste.
“Isn’t it zenzational?” I asked.
He never mentioned the Pretzel-Jetzel again. No one did. And I learned, a little too late, that I really could live without it.