So, I've returned home from vacation with the kids in Vermont.
During this past week, I am pleased to report that we managed to survive one of the most grueling, dangerous activities that one family can undertake, something far scarier and odious, in fact, than any of the Biblical horrors that plagued Job.
Am I talking diving into a pool of blood-thirsty sharks? Engaging in a caged death match? Singing karaoke? No, no, no. Even worse.
We played Risk.
Risk! The game of world conquest. Produced by Parker Brothers and invented by French film director Albert Lamorisse in 1957, as La Conquête du Monde (The Conquest of the World). The goal of the game is "world domination," to control all the territories—or "conquer the world"—through the elimination of the other players on the board.
It's also a sure-fire way to get the whole family really, really pissed off at each other.
The idea to play this abominable game was my son's. You see, Theo's at that wonderful age where everything I say or do is looked upon as a source of scorn and/or open ridicule. Playing Risk, I beleve, was his way of finding an constructive outlet for his desire to rip dad apart, limb from limb...or in this case, country from country.
"Oh, isn't this great!" said my friend Pauline, who was staying at the beach house with us. "Everyone's actually able to play this game!"
Yeah, great. Just great. Of course, that was before the bloodletting began.
See, I think it's easier for Pauloo, because she has only one child to worry about. And also, Amber's extremeley self-reliant, and wants to win at everything she does.
No, wait, I think that's possibly an understatement. Amber just doesn't want to win at everything she plays. She wants to DOMINATE. With a capital DOMINATE. Everything. It doesn't matter if it were a game of Musical Chairs or Tiddlywinks. Either way, Amber would make certain that she was the last one sitting when the music ended, and the one standing with all the tiddlies. Maybe both at the same time. Second place is not a part of her vocabulary.
(PS: I'm also very, very fond of her. She reminds me a bit of my sister Laurie, except that she lacks that obsessive desire to see me put out of my misery, worthless piece of shit that I am.)
Now, you also have to understand, I had been raised in a household chock full of overly aggressive people, people whose favorite weapon of choice was the game of Risk, as it turns out. My father, my sister Laurie, and my brother Tommy would love nothing more than waging heated battle upon each other on rainy Sunday afternoons, spending hours filled with the sounds of dice rolling, with words of anger, and with my sister Kerrie and myself, curled in a fetal position underneath the table. If Pat Benatar's right, and love truly is a battlefield, then sibling rivalry is probably closer to a nuclear meltdown.
So naturally, even thinking about playing the game of Risk brought back...well, memories. From the corners of my mind.
Even worse, unlike Pauline, who was wise enough to only spread her loins and give birth to one child, I faced the thrilling prospect of adding into the equation the bloodthirsty desires of my 12-year-old son (who shares Amber's thirst for blood but tends not to think about strategy...he just wants to kill!) with the needs and desires of my daughter Ashes, who basically can't stand games and was simply looking to stay in for more than one turn.
Case in point: during the reading of the rules, Ashes spent the time playing with her make-up.
"Ashes, listen to this! It's important," I'd say, nudging her on the leg.
Ashes just shrugged and went back to playing with her make-up.
Hoo boy. I could tell this wasn't going to be a fun adventure for her. I knew it would actually bother her, too. Ashes may say she doesn't care, but I know she really does, deep inside. And I totally get that, being just as thick-headed and incapable of expressing my real feelings as she is.
So, once the game was underway and it was her turn, I tried to give her a few words of helpful advice.
"Ashes, you should try building up your armies in Australia. You have a few countries there, and might be able to win the whole continent," I suggested.
Suddenly, Theo was filled...no, consumed...with righteous rage. "Why are you helping her?" he demanded, pressing his acne-filled forehead up against mine.
I wanted to say, look, Ashes needs all the help she can get in this game, she spent the instruction period working on her lips. But of course, that would only get Ashes angry. "I wasn't helping...I was just suggesting," I said.
"HELPING. Thanks, Dad," said Theo, looking highly offended.
Ashes shrugged and for once, incredibly, started taking my advice. Soon enough, she had actually kicked Theo out of Australia. And, because of Theo's tendency to attack first and think about strategy later, he was soon reduced to about four countries. And glaring at me, because of course, it was ALL DAD'S FAULT.
I mean, of course it was, right? Clearly, my well-meaning advice to Ashes was my way of sending out a signal to the world that I loved her better...by far, way better than my namesake. I may as well have rented out an airplane and had it fly around our Vermont farm, dragging around a banner that said "I love you Ashes, way, way, WAY more than Theo!" all day long.
And all the while, Amber was embracing this heartwarming family dynamic to slowly rule the world.
Egad, the pressure was unbearable. It was like reliving one of those innumerable family sessions from my childhood, a helpless lamb among sharks, all over again.
Finally, after a half an hour of Theo glowering at me from across the board...and losing pathetically...I decided to throw him a bone and deliberately cede control of Africa, so that he could regain his stake in the game.
Theo, of course, would have nothing to do with my noble sacrifice. In fact, he deliberately scoffed, and said out loud, "There's no way I'm going to invade Africa now. Not now. NO WAY!"
(Of course, my noble sacrific was accompanied by a...well, somewhat dramatic declaration, "Here you go, Theo, it's all yours, now! If you know what's good for you, you'll invade Africa!" But that's really picking nits, don't you think?)
It was at this point that my brain went haywire. "I can't play this game any longer," I said. "It's over. Over!" And I stormed out of the room and hid in the bedroom, waiting for my loving family to follow after me.
Well, as with any horrible meltdown, it took us all a while to recover from THAT. Yes, the family came in, and after about a half an hour, we were back to playing games, but things just weren't the same. I made nice and refrained from saying anything else dramatic (well...THAT dramatic), but still felt like a total bum, and around 11:30 I said good night to everyone, and meekly slunk up to my bedroom, lonely and unloved.
Around an hour later, after everyone had gone to bed, Theo crept up to my bedroom. "I forgot to say good night to you, dad," he said.
I pretended to have just woken up, even though I had been thinking about the fight, all along. "Ohhh...hey, thanks!" I paused for a moment. "I love you, Theo."
"I love you too, Dad," he said, and hugged me.
Hmmm. Well, maybe I take back that "tearing me apart, limb from limb" line. Maybe he does love me still, just a little, after all.
At least, when other people aren't around. Kind of like that little old lady in Blazing Saddles who delivers an apple pie to the town's first black sheriff after hours, and says, "Of course, you will have the good taste not to mention this to anybody, tomorrow."
"I'm sorry I got so angry," I said. "And we'll never play Risk, ever again, right?"
"Right dad," said Theo, and left.
Right, dad. The next day, as I stumbled down the stairs, there was Theo, eyes bright, clutching a game in his hands. "Can we play Risk today?"
Well, I did play Risk with him, two additional times. In fact, that last night in Vermont, Pauline, Amber, Theo, and I agreed to engage in another all-out death match, with the understanding that a) I wasn't helping anyone out no way no how, it was every man for himself, and b) NO ONE was going to get upset.
Our game lasted until midnight, with all of us playing nice. I controlled Europe, Amber controlled Africa, Theo controlled South America, and Pauline built up a sizeable empire that originated in Australia.
Once the clock struck midnight, I turned to the group and said, "It's getting late, and it's time to mix things up." And then, I proceeded to destroy Amber's African empire and North American assets, at the same time, severely weakening my own empire, in the process. This allowed Pauline to sweep in and decisively win the game.
It wasn't my win, but it was someone else's win, and of course Amber, who had won every other game we had played that week, was not happy with the outcome. However, in my own uniquely passive-aggressive way, it did provide me with at least a few fleeting moments of pleasure, until the guilt inevitably started settling in.
Call it my own little act of revenge against intensively competitive people everywhere.