Game of Phones

summertime family reunions are not what they used to be

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Ian Kloster


Family reunion season is winding down here in Wisconsin. The days of sitting in a half circle of creaky lawn chairs as you balance a flimsy paper plate overflowing with questionably grilled food on your lap are coming to a close. The days of awkward small talk with distant aunts whose names you can’t remember are soon to be over. Drippy watermelon, great-grandma’s weird old-fashioned cookies, and yard-temperature potato salad ... everyone’s had their fill. The humid, sweaty park pavilions – their rafters strewn with dirty spider webs and decrepit wasps’ nests – now stand abandoned.

It sounds like I’m complaining, doesn’t? To be honest, I like all that stuff. I didn’t make it out to many large family gatherings this year, and I feel sad about that. It just isn’t summer without a few forced family conversations as you quietly try to figure out why Aunt Gina’s Italian pasta salad is crunchy.

We know this much: it’s not celery.

Luckily I was able to attend joint birthday party at my parent’s place a few weeks back – a party for my kids and nieces. Four generations of the family, all together, eating and talking and playing games, just like when I was a kid. Well, mostly like when I was a kid. There was one big difference.

I was hanging out with my wife and cousins in the front yard when suddenly, as usual, I needed a beer. So I came into the house, and this is what I saw: four young teens (nieces and cousins) sitting around quietly staring at tablets and smart phones. Not talking. Not moving. This isn’t an unusual sight in 2013, but it still elicits smirks and head shakes from anyone over 30 years old.

While the adults talked about this person or that person and whether or not they used to live on this street or that street 50 years ago, I just had to sit there and be bored.

So that’s exactly what I did. I smirked and shook my head. But as I headed for the fridge, my own kids (seven and four) come marching into the room holding little devices with little screens, wearing huge smiles upon their adorable faces. My daughter looked at me and said, “We’re gonna play games, too!”

Hmm. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. Kids are supposed to be frolicking gayly outside in the summertime, right? Well, they’d already done a fair bit of outdoor frolicking – and here they were, actually entertaining themselves – so a little screen time in the nice, cool house was no big deal.

They just wanted to be like their older cousins. I get that. I used to be in their little shoes. However, it was somewhat different ...

I remember attending family reunions and peeking into the bedrooms of my older cousins to see them all playing games and having a total blast. Too young to join in, I sat there on the outskirts trying to make sense of their strange board games and card games. The most bizarre and thrilling game of all was “Spoons.” They played it nonstop for entire gatherings. It looked dangerous. And awesome. I wanted in.

But by the time I was old enough to learn, most of those cousins had graduated to the awkward conversations with aunts and uncles I mentioned earlier. They were going to college, getting married, and doing similar humdrum things. From then on, family gatherings were a lot less exciting.

Flash forward to the summer of 2013, and the cousins of my family are playing games and watching TV on their iPads. In my day, I didn’t have the luxury of watching my favorite TV shows whenever I wanted. And I sure as hellfire wasn’t able to watch TV from whatever room of the house I felt like slouching into. I had to stay in the family room. Or my bedroom. Or the kitchen.

OK, so finding a TV in my house was not hard. But! I sure as hellfire wasn’t able to stare at a tiny screen during family gatherings at Grandma’s house, transporting me to a magical world of games, music, videos, and what I’m sure are riveting text conversations with one’s besties.

No, I had to be bored, dammit! While the adults talked about this person or that person and whether or not they used to live on this street or that street 50 years ago, I just had to sit there and be bored.

And you know what? I’d have traded my entire fleet of Star Wars toys and every single one of my Transformers for an iPhone – sent to me back through time – if it meant having a distraction from my family as they yammered on about Enid Knutsen’s daughter’s husband Merl, and with whom his dad’s sister June had gone to school. Sure, I’d have had no phone reception, no one else to text, no MP3s, no Internet – and today’s games would have given me nightmares – but just flipping through the app icons would have been a zillion times more interesting to a 12-year-old kid.

I don’t blame my young family members for gravitating to their screens. However, I suspect my nieces and cousins (as well as little Mikey Paulus of yore) are missing something. I’m not saying they should totally give up their phones and tablets. Maybe they could just set them down long enough for an epic game of Spoons.

Heck, even the adults could benefit from the occasional game of Spoons. And if no one can remember how to play it, no worries. We’ll just Google it.