By Pam Linn

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Fun and games at home

When times are good, when people are doing well, they buy toys. Those with means have already bought the SUV or the sports car, the trophy house with the plasma TV. So what happens when the economy sours?

Well, with gas at record highs and the housing market circling the drain, some people stay home and play with the toys they bought when times were better. Stimulus package to the contrary, they make fewer trips to the mall.

After two weeks on the family ranch in California, I’ve learned a great deal about toys. I actually learned how to play some of them.

Now, I must admit to being way behind the curve having grown up without electronics. We made up our own games, not because we were poor, but because the cool games hadn’t been invented yet. No iPod, no Xbox, no computers.

We had a Steinway grand piano. We played vinyl records on a gramophone, sans lip sync or air guitar. Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra. Adults didn’t cringe or tell us to turn the volume down. Of course, that was BE. Before Elvis. After that, some sensible adult invented portable players and ear buds to retain their sanity.

We had bicycles and roller skates (four wheels, one on each corner, and a key to tighten them onto our saddle shoes) and a Flexi Flyer, a kind of dry land sled for sloping sidewalks that could be stopped only by turning onto a lawn or into a hedge. Then someone went and invented skateboards and many kids wound up in emergency rooms. Pretty soon they had to wear helmets, knee and elbow pads, and things were less fun.

Anyway, my grandkids introduced me to all kinds of games. Card games with pet pictures, a favorite of the youngest, backgammon and Chinese Checkers.

The teenaged boy lured me into a game called Guitar Hero. The software comes with some kind of joystick, but parents are sold on something that resembles an electric guitar but has five colored buttons on the neck and a clicker, and a “whammy bar” for the right hand. First off, let it be said this same boy has had many lessons on several real guitars, also real drum sets and three recorders. All of these he mastered without ever learning to read music or understand harmony.

Guitar Hero is like air guitar only you listen to recorded songs and watch a video of the neck of this guitar with the buttons lighting up in corresponding colors. The idea is to press the correct button and the clicker simultaneously while being distracted by disgusting images and deafening sounds that bear no resemblance to anything I would call music. You can choose the song and artist, and adjust the degree of difficulty and tempo from slow to breakneck speed. If you survive, the screen displays your score, how many notes correctly hit or a percentage thereof.

The teenager demonstrates, selecting “Rock and Roll All Night” by Kiss at “expert” level. In case there aren’t enough distractions, the screen keeps track of your progress with smoke and lightening bolts and information, like: 50-note Streak, Star Power Ready and You Rock. When it’s over, our young player has earned four stars and an encore with some 96 percent of notes hit.

“Come on, Gram. It’s fun,” he says. I acquaint myself with the instrument while he resets the levels to idiot, actually, Practice, Easy and Slower, on a number called “Slow Ride.” I’m lulled into a false sense of security. I mean, I used to play Rodrigo on a real guitar.

Oops. I forgot. This is an exercise in eye-hand coordination. I have none. When I was a teenager my tennis teacher suggested I find another sport. That’s why I rode horses and skied. If the ball comes toward me with any velocity at all, I’m toast.

Guitar Hero is like that. After my first effort at “tempo di learno,” as my band instructor used to say, my score is 54 percent of notes hit. “Not That Bad” the screen says. If I had been on performance level, I’d have been “Booed Off the Stage.” The teenager tries again on the Rolling Stones hit “Paint it Black.” He gets five stars, 96 percent and “You Rock.”

We adjourn to the playroom to try out the new pool table. Well, I might have a chance in a game where the ball sits still and lets you hit it. Alas, I’m out of my league. My son the cowboy arrives and saves my backside. He challenges the teen to a game of three-ball that stretches to a dozen games. They’re both very good, but the cowboy is more patient and prevails. He applauds as the teen hits some awesome shots, cheered on by his kid sister, who has already learned all the terminology.

With any luck at all, gas prices will stay high long enough to keep the kids at home playing games. I could even get into this pool thing, but Guitar Hero is definitely not my game. There’s a chance, however, I might resurrect one of the acoustic guitars and give Rodrigo another go.