Alex has two ragamuffins, a 4 year old girl and an 8 year old boy, who continually cause her to question her parental preparedness. Actress, writer, editor, doula, painter, and family cook, she lives in Southern California, where she actively avoids getting a real job while making a go of the whole Bohemian scene. When not idly fantasizing about yurts and eco-architecture, Alex blogs over at La Acera.
______________________________________Tentatively, my son Smoochy* has Asperger’s; the experts can’t seem to come to an agreement. He has some behavioral issue that, for a couple years, made schooling outside of the home an impossibility. In real life, this means that he often appears to be an undisciplined little brat. Non-experts tell me that's what’s wrong with him, or more accurately what’s wrong with me, although I haven’t found an expert witness to testify to it. All that is neither here nor there, though. It is only the backdrop to what I really want to talk about, which is our happy place.
[*Not officially his real name]
I didn’t know what to expect when I promised to take my son to Friday Night Magic, although I’ve met my fair share of geeks. More accurately, I wasn’t familiar with this particular subspecies of geeks, the Magic-the-Gathering ones, and I wasn’t sure how they would react to an 8 year old who wanted to play with them.
Magic is a Dungeons and Dragons-like card game, which is for ages 13 and up, because it’s ridiculously complicated and has some heavy themes. For instance, there's a "Vivisection" card. Accordingly, the best players are adults who have been playing for years. My son is really smart, though, and his Dad taught him how to play. He is now obsessed with it and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the card’s rules.
“Hey Mom, wanna hear what Gideon the Wraithsnakes abilities are? They’re really cool. Mom…”
“Ok. He costs 6 mana, 3 white, 3 colorless, and he has haste, and if he’s put in the graveyard it takes 5 +1/+1 counters to get him out, plus if you have 5 trample creatures…”
It being a little strange for an 8 year old to play, I quickly found that his opponents follow a pattern of interaction with him. At first, they are overly sweet and a little patronizing, the way grown-ups are when they are unused to being around kids. They think it’s endearing that an 8 year old plays Magic, and assume he's a newbie. They explain everything to him... until he finishes 5 or 6 sentences for them. It doesn’t take long for them to realize they don’t need to patronize him, and then their common interest in Magic breaks the ice. Soon enough, as they chat about +1/+1 counters, Smoochy’s opponents forget he is a kid and see him as just another Guy They Play Magic With.
This illusion is broken with a shock when they curse by mistake in front of him, or when I say it’s past his bedtime, or when he beats them. Then, the fact that he is 8 years old comes rushing back on the scene. It’s fun to watch the realization break on their faces – when they remember that he is 8 years old, and his mommy shuffles his cards for him. After that cycle happens a few times, they get in the swing of when to treat him like a Magic compatriot and when to treat him like a little kid.
The sweet thing about being at Magic, though, is that everyone avoids giving anyone else any crap. It’s the inner sanctum of geekdom, after all, and geeks have enough to put up with “on the outside” to bring any of it to Friday Night Magic. Most of the participants have something off about them, and there is an unspoken rule that you let people “do what they have to do,” which runs the gamut of all kinds of borderline antisocial, OCD-like behavior.
On this particular night, the first guy my son played had a ton of nervous tics. He would clear his throat a lot and wiggle his eyebrows, and his communications would come out in clipped sporadic bursts. He made short work of Smoochy, and we went on to the next round. Next up was a guy who looked to be about 17, with a bad case of acne.
“Do you have chicken pox?” Smoochy asked.
Oh god Oh god Oh god how do I stop him from talking without making this even more awkward?
“Are those chicken pox? Or what are those red things on your face?” Smoochy asked clearly and loudly, his voice ringing in the large room.
“Pimples. They’re pimples” replied his opponent crisply.
His ears were turning red. I felt bad. He probably gets teased, or anyway feels insecure about them. The worst thing about having pimples is that you can forget they are there because you don’t have to look at them; but everyone else does. Then, someone refers to them and you feel stupid for walking around in denial, as if you didn’t have them.
“What are pimples?” Smoochy asked, seemingly concerned they could be contagious.
“It just happens sometimes when you hit puberty,” I said, not knowing how to fix this trainwreck of a conversation.
“A really crappy time in your life,” the next guy over deadpanned, and we all laughed.
“That depends,” I said, “It’s going pretty well for Justin Bieber.”
We were ok from there on out, but my son proceeded to school Pimples 2-0, adding injury to insult. Smoochy dutifully shook his hand and said “good game,” which I’ve taught him to do at the end of any game, as it helps mitigate any unsportsmanlike behavior.
The next opponent was a guy with a black/red vampire deck who was pretty average-looking and businesslike. He tried to talk down to Smoochy a bit, showing him every card before playing it and over-explaining its abilities. He somehow didn’t take the hint that Smoochy is a walking Magic card catalogue.
“I KNOW,” wheezed Smoochy for the tenth time.
“Ok, I’m just trying to be helpful,” replied average-dude.
“You’ve said that like a thousand times,” complained Smoochy.
Communications were getting frosty, and I didn’t particularly like Mr. Vampire Deck. When he threw down Rakish Heir and pronounced it “Rack-ish Heir,” Smoochy jumped on the opportunity to correct him. “It’s RAKE-ish Heir,”. We’re pretty strict about Smoochy pronouncing the words right, so he was a little blown away by the error. “Rakish” is one of the vocabulary words I teach in my GRE class, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to jump on the know-it-all bandwagon.
“It means, ‘Smart, dashing, dapper, sporting, flashy, debonair’,” I chimed in.
That’s the other great thing about Friday Night Magic; you can act like you are one of the guys on The Big Bang Theory and nobody will give you any crap; in fact, you’ll blend in. It’s liberating to not have to be cool, to let your freak flag fly, and conversely, to let everyone do their thing without judging them. At this point, we’d officially ganged up on the know-it-all; he was chastened and looked at the picture of the Rakish vampire with fresh eyes.
“He does look pretty dashing,” he said.
“Like a vampire Fabio,” I replied.
By far the dorkiest conversation happened in between games, when Smoochy struck up a conversation with a surprisingly hipster-looking youth, and they compared decks.
“Hey, you have Negate. I have Negate too,” said the hipster.
“If we were playing each other, I could Negate your Negate,” giggled Smoochy.
“Yeah, and then I could Negate that Negate,” said the hipster.
“That would be a double negation,” I chipped in.
“Yeah, and if we had all the Negates allowed in a deck, we could do it 8 times!” said the hipster.
“That would be cool!” laughed Smoochy.
“More like it would NOT be UNcool,” I said.
Friday Night Magic goes on till 1 in the morning, but Smoochy can’t stay up that late, yet. After one more round it was time to go. He usually suckers a booster pack out of me as part of our exit strategy, but the evening is such a refreshing change of pace from his usual behavior/my usual embarrassment that I’m in too much of a good mood to mind.
More importantly, I’m proud of him. Not many 8 year olds can go head to head with thirtysomethings in a dragon-filled version of chess and come out ahead, as he often does. Given our track record of school suspensions and judgmental clucking while waiting in line, seeing him excel at something is all the more fulfilling. His aptitude for Magic is extraordinary, and I love watching him do his thing. Friday Night Magic has made me realize that maybe I always wanted a geek for a son.