Pinball Wizard

Ah, the late ’70s. In those halcyon days of yore, Mankato adolescents flocked to pinball parlors, like Aladdin’s Castle in the (now essentially defunct, then brand-new) downtown Mankato Mall. Positioned across from a movie theater, it was the perfect lure for teenage boys, who were seeking to impress each other (as well as gaggles of giggling girls) with their prowess at Tron, Galaga, Space Invaders and whatever other games and flashing machines they could get their hands on and dump their quarters into.

Up on “the hill,” where Cine II was a draw and adjoined the infamous Albatross bar, another game arcade–a little brighter, maybe more spacious than the one downtown–also welcomed bravado-flushed teens sporting pimples and coin-filled pockets. Girls vying for the attention of a certain guy would hang out by the machine as he twitched the flippers, in an always ultimately vain effort to keep the steel balls from falling down the drain, into oblivion, game over.

How many times did I watch that process, or try it myself (usually scoring very poorly), and never fail to see the ball succumb to the hole, no matter the purported skill of the player involved? And yet I’ve learned it’s even harder as an adult–and as a parent, especially–to keep the ball from hitting the drain daily. Navigating work, household duties, volunteer commitments and the gamut of children’s activities requires more skill, more balance, more timing and more patience than any teenage Joust operator could have ever imagined.

Guaranteed: in the pinball game of life, mistakes will be made and lights will flash, buzzers sound and “game over” will occur if your pinball doesn’t hit the right bumper at a precise moment, with greater–though occasionally amusing–consequences than at Aladdin’s Castle.

Dashing back and forth between a hockey tournament and a swim meet is one pinball-like test I’ve experienced. I leave the chilly environs of the ice arena after seeing my skater play his first period, shedding my boots for flip-flops, dropping the scarf for a t-shirt and losing the coat while en route to the more tropical ambience of the City of Worthington Aquatics Center. After maybe a short stint of timing or watching my older two kids dive into their lanes for a couple of races, it’s back to the ice arena to catch the third period of the hockey game–and back on go the layers as I prepare to shiver. The words I never want to hear (but nevertheless have) upon my breathless return are, “Your kid just got an assist/goal!”  BEEP! This is the same ricocheting trail the pinball takes, shooting back and forth across the board, trying against all odds to stay in play even as everything conspires against it.

Last weekend was a classic: Friday night found me at the keyboard in the “Hairspray” pit band while two of my kids were on stage and the third played a hockey game. Come Saturday morning, it was a mad dash out the door to Mankato for the section swim meet, while the hockey player and dad stayed put for a local game. Then it was a daredevil trek back home, in snow and progressively worsening road conditions, trying to beat the clock for the kids’ theatrical hair and makeup call and my band warm-up time.  Made it–250 points for the mom in the mini-van!

No wonder that when I recently slipped a frozen pizza in the oven for a quick meal the crust was hard to cut–I’d neglected to remove the supportive cardboard circle, so it was nicely toasted (though the pizza’s bottom was not).  BUZZ!

Or how about the morning just a few weeks ago when, as I darted about the kitchen tossing backpacks at departing teens, buttering toast and slapping together a lunch for my spouse, I inadvertently included a beer instead of a Diet Coke in his bag? I heard it was quite a scene in the courthouse break room when Mr. Justice o’ the Peace nearly popped the top off the contraband beverage before being alerted to the error in the nick of time. Missed the hit, failure to connect, ball down the drain.

Game over?

Not quite. Later in the afternoon of the beer-for-lunch day I received this jocular text message from one of my husband’s colleagues: “Can you pack my lunch tomorrow? A six-pack will do just fine.”

Double bonus! Extra ball! The pinball wizard plays on.


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