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Black Lamb


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October 1st, 2011


There is Charades, and then there is Charades.

I come from what people would call an “intellectual” family; both of my brothers have doctorates, and each of them has been married to women with doctorates (my brother’s second wife had two). My sister is a retired surgeon married to an orthodontist; my nephew is a surgeon, my nearest cousin is a neonatologist, my nieces are bilingual and academically accomplished. My son, still in his teens, has already won science and math awards.

I’m the dumb one, but that’s not the subject of this essay.

Though I have sibs who speak multiple languages and have traveled all parts of the globe and published in impressive journals, what probably defines us as a group is our humor — and the games. When we congregate, the games predominate. Yes, there is a lot of conversation, and there is some cooking and eating and physical activity; but chiefly, it’s the games.

Not board games or games requiring pieces. In my family, the default is Charades and the runnerup is Dictionary Game.

We don’t play Charades the way most of you do. There are no movie or song titles; there are only single words. There is no “sounds like” or “second syllable” bullshit; props are not permitted. No pointing to anything or anyone. There is only the word. You must act out the definition, the entire concept of

…the word.

And we don’t choose simple words, not “big” or “hungry” or “car” or “book.” At our last gathering, in September of this year, some of the words were nature, typical, transfixed, corporation, element, scoliosis, challenge, inert, evasive, western, fun, cliché, infusion, restore, and dormitory.

Remember, no props. No noises.

And if you think “fun” is a simple word, try to get someone to say it as you leap around and smile and laugh and toss confetti and jump rope and high-five invisible someones and play hopscotch and swing on invisible swings. Good luck. You will probably hear “happy” and “joyful” and “playful” and “gymnastics” and “child” and “delirious” and “active.”

We, however, got “fun.”

During earlier sessions, through the years, family members have acted out antagonize, antonym, arthropod, awkward, billow, bones, cauliflower, conclusion, contrary, curmudgeon, dyspepsia, evolution, fable, flop, frizzy, germinate, hypothesis, immigrant, intuition, jostle, lisp, manners, mixture, mortal, nerd, nitrogen, permanent, plenty, problem, prom, rebellion, regress, revolt, riddle, rustic, severe, solipsism, swarthy, thrill, titrate, and trollop.

There is no time limit on a performance, but the guessers consistently manage to call out the correct answer within a couple of minutes. Occasionally the correct guess comes in ten seconds. It’s a really interesting process, the link between brains. The power of nonverbal communication. The moment you start moving, and people start calling out ideas, the logic and sequence build, and a trail of meaning is created, and synonyms explode, and — boom — the answer.


And often, afterward, the performer says, “I never thought you would get that! How did you get that?” and the guesser isn’t even quite sure how, but yes, it works, though we go years without seeing one another. Is this brain sync a function of DNA? Not necessarily, because my older brother plays this game with colleagues and friends. He plays an even gnarlier version of it, “Marionette Charades.” In this iteration, two people are on the stage, but only one of them knows the word, and he/she must move the other person’s body in such a way as to get the guessers on point. The marionette must be limp and let the “actor” manipulate his arms, legs, face, eyelids, ears, and torso while guessers call out “Disgusted! Enervated! Repetitive! Solid! Habitat! Coarse! Winnow! Distill! Hemoglobin! Masticate! Duet!”

Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Hofstadter, who is a colleague of my brother’s, received a less famous award, a prize for being a Marionette Charades “good sport” as he tried to get his unwitting marionette to display “French kiss” (which was somehow allowed to stand as one word). He pulled and pulled on her tongue, and the audience was mystified, calling out variants of “trachea” and “choke”; the poor woman had no clue.

In our version of Charades, each person scribbles words on scraps of paper, which go into a bowl, and each actor pulls out a word to convey. You can’t choose one of your own words, but if the actor fails to get the group to guess your word, you must act it out yourself (so be prepared!). This second pass never happens in our group, though; we manage to nail all of them eventually, laughing until we nearly sob. Often there is a “I would have done…” or “That was really great, but why didn’t you…?” And during the guessing, the person who put the word in the bowl is watching with dread, saying “Ohhhh, I really don’t want to have to do this one!”

Dictionary Game involves a real dictionary; you choose an obscure word and then group members make up definitions, which are bundled with the actual one, and the goal is to come up with the correct definition among the impostors. With a family as creative (and accustomed to dictionary language) as mine, it can be extremely difficult, because all the definitions sound credible. “A small boat used for Lakota Indians” or “A metal tool for removing fungal residue” or “The act of debriding” or “A rare disease causing convulsions and temporary hypertrophy of the triceps.” (Yes, sometimes the definition is for laughs only, as with “shiny spherical objects used to train quetzals in lab experiments.”) Look into a dictionary and you’ll be surprised how many really primitive and awkward definitions there are, which means that our fabricated smooth ones are often chosen.

And no “easy” words are allowed: none that are transparent because of Greek or Latin or French roots. As I said, I have savvy and multilingual relatives. My older brother is pretty conversant in dozens of languages. Even he, though, has sometimes run to the dictionary and said “What? That can’t be right! How could that be? How could that be a word?”

(We’ve always used a giant unabridged paper/ink dictionary, at least so far. No iPads or iPhones or laptops.)

It would be nice if Dictionary Game were educational, but we don’t retain any of the words we “learn,” so it is purely for sport.

When I joined my relatives last month, I hadn’t attended a family gathering in nearly ten years (other than the anomalous one in 2007; there were no games that time, because we assembled after my sister-in-law’s unexpected suicide). The others gathered and reveled and connected, but I stayed away, the only unpartnered sibling and the only one with the atypically developing child, the only one always short on cash, the one with chronic health problems. I always preferred my sibs in “each” allocations — meaning, I liked to see them one at a time. The group clusters alarmed me. I felt exposed and wary.

But this year was different. This year they chose a site closer to me than to anyone else, so it was pretty much compulsory that I attend. And the nourishment was a surprise. I do have the aforementioned health problems, and each morning from five to nine I was very ill, running on not much sleep, sticking myself together with mental toothpicks and M&Ms and Elmer’s Glue, gulping green tea in an effort to enroll in the blaring day. But there they were, the balm of family, the people who have known me all my life, and off I would go to throw Frisbees on the beach or walk through the aquarium or flip through old photos or… play Charades. My heart would be skipping and racing, my bowels would be in revolt, my legs would be sparking and firing, my breath wouldn’t always pull in quite as it should, but I was glad to be there. The mechanics of my moment-to-moment existence drew pacing from the family’s aggregate pulse.

These are my people, and I am their person. We have memories, and phenotypes, in common.

I can flash back, way back, to the ten years when I barely communicated with my sister, to the searing childhood resentments, to the nearly catastrophic schism with one sibling in early 2007. The seams have pulled back together as we stumble and motor through mid/later life, free now of any hoary residua and impositions. I hear their voices — and their voices are mine. I watch their movements, and their movements are mine. I feel separate, and yet: these are my people.

Indisputably, they are my people.

And someone else’s people, too. Someone long gone. Absent from all the family events, yet very dramatically present: my father. He had the cheek to die unceremoniously at age forty-eight, but he put his loud stamp on the immediate descendant thread. We all have his brown eyes, his verbal agility/volume, his physical fluidity. We are all, no jury needed, extremely funny. My dad was a joke teller; but we are funnier even than he was, and I’m not sure whence we got the wit. It’s a fascinating thing, that trait. My father’s personality was gargantuan, and none of his children is reticent.

I was noticing my mother during last month’s escapades; she is the matriarch, and her blood flows in the veins of my half-Japanese niece and my copper-haired, untall son and my statuesque, freckle-faced sister. We are all “of” her, which seems remarkable to me, that fact that we exist only because she and my father reproduced, and because her father and mother, etc.

The matriarch, yes, but she can be swallowed up by the volcanically fierce energies of her children and their children. Our high-octane verbal gymnastics rocket around her and we leap to item 3 while she is still digesting items 1 and 2. Keeping up is not easy. She’s the more gentle of our parents, gifted musically but not preternaturally witty (nor can she throw a mean Frisbee). The theory that children more closely resemble their fathers than their mothers has been refuted (there’s an evolutionary advantage to looking like mom, too), but in my family certain traits seem to have vaulted, in toto, from the paternal side. From her we got the ability (phew!) to sing on key; from my father we got the facility with words, and the kneejerk cleverness. From him, too, we got… sarcasm. Sarcasm might as well be our surname.

Oh! Sarcasm! I’m saving that one for our next Charades outing! I can think of three ways to act out “sarcasm,” and I am sure at least one person will guess it. Oh, and …charlatan, that’s a great one. And retrofit, yeah, retrofit… and paradox…. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Family Issue, Browning | Link to this Entry


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