Monday, November 30, 2009

The Telephone Game

When I was a kid, I remember playing the Telephone Game. The one where we sat in a circle while the teacher thought of a silly statement to whisper into little Johnny's ear. Something silly but always a little off, a little unsettling. The teacher might whisper, "The pony is planning for a picnic." Johnny would then repeat this, or whatever he thought he heard, to the person sitting next to him. She would then repeat in a whisper what she thought she heard to the person next to her, and so on and so on until the very last person in the circle would break the whispering and say the distorted message he heard out loud: "Jack and Jill fell into a pail of water, but the little engine that could did not." It might just seem like fun and games, but this past weekend it occurred to me that this game might have been trying to teach us all a lesson.

The lesson is when you hear something weird or that just doesn't sound right, don't hold it in. Disperse it, lighten the load, tell someone else. Each time you tell someone your uncomfortable story, that person will have to process it and prescribe meaning to it, so that you no longer have to be the sole person thinking about it. If you tell enough people, you could even afford to stop thinking about it all together, which is useful, especially if the stories you have to share are grim.

And these are just the types of stories my sister likes to tell best.

This Thanksgiving, I heard all about the crazies and the zanies and the truly disturbed, and many of them were stories she had heard on the 11 o'clock news. While eating slices of turkey and mashed potatoes, I nearly choked when she told me about the guy who jumped out from behind a clothing rack in her local Target and ejaculated in front of a woman pushing a baby stroller. I thought about asking her to resume telling the story after I had finished my gravy, but then I couldn't wait to know -- what did she do???

Then there was the third cousin of her best friend's boyfriend who was a pharmacist and who was held up at gunpoint for $4,000 worth of Oxycodone just the other week. And the weird part, get this, was that he was walking around the store shopping and reading Us Weekly in a full on ski mask with gloves and a terrible red plaid shirt (not the cool kind either, but the scary anti-social unabomber kind) for a full half hour and no one thought to say anything to him, like, "I wouldn't believe everything you read in those magazines." No, no one did anything of the sort, they just let him read the magazines and proceed to hold up a very considerate (so I hear) pharmacist.

There are the truly gruesome stories, like the one about the pregnant woman from the city two cities away from hers who went to meet someone off of Craig's List out of an interest for a used car seat for sale. When the pregnant lady arrived, the seller killed her, cut open her womb and took the baby as her own. These are the stories that get to me, that leave terrible red images in my head, ones that I cannot leave alone. I will try, in vain, to tell Alan in order to get rid of some of the terribleness, but he cannot stand for any story which involves the slightest brutality to women or children, so to tell him a story involving both would mean he would lock himself in the bathroom. So I must quietly suffer until there is someone new to tell, someone who has not been sitting next to my sister and the pumpkin pie.

On Sunday, as we drove home at 3 AM along the dark, quiet, eerie freeway, she decided to tell me about the recent evil spirit that had taken hold of so and so's mother-in-law, and when she tells me I can feel my arm hairs raise. I think about how frightening it would be if she were to all of a sudden become possessed herself, and what I would do if she did, all while stuck in a car on a dark, quiet, eerie freeway alone with her. And in the the most serious way I could, I looked at her and demanded, "Why did you have to tell me that?"


AW said...

Man, what happened with today's blog post?

It started all "oh hey remember that kids' game, telephone? Good times," and then quickly degenerated into gruesome "true tales of urban horror."

So, uh. Telephone! Terrible game, but check out the variant with illustrations! Now we're talking:

Tonia said...

But what did the woman in Target do??
And can I tell someone about the woman fleeing a mumbling man in her local garage only to find he'd been trying to mumble a warning about the man in her back seat?
Phew, better now.

Shaista said...

Hey did you ever think maybe your sister is possessed? By the evil story-telling genie? Maybe the way to break the spell and cast the genie out is to tell beautiful joyful happy Santa and tooth fairy type stories. The genie won't be able to endure such innocence and will leave your sister forever :)

2busy said...

You sister sounds like an interesting woman. I'm with Alan on the stories of violence against women and children. I walk out of movies that have that.

Erin P said...

I'm with you on that one: Why did she have to tell you that?

I honestly stopped watching the evening news several years ago because I just didn't want to have the gruesome stories of what people do to other people (and animals, even worse) jangling around in my head for ever after...I think it was after seeing one of those stories where the ex-husband takes and kills the kids or something like that. Why would anyone want to know such things about our fellow humans? If anyone knows the answer to how we are better for knowing those sorts of horrible stories, please let me know!

Sobrina Tung said...

AW, I had to get it off my chest -- now it's all in your head, too! muhaha

Tonia, WOW! That is scary! And it is unclear what the woman did, I think she might have just stood there in shock.

Sobrina Tung said...

BTW, Broken Picture Telephone looks awesome! I must play it later. Thanks for sharing!

Mike said...

I always thought the results of the telephone game were driven by (a) students who either didn't care about preserving the flow of information or thought it was funny to say something different and (b) people who are bad at whispering clearly. Could some teachers out there run three variants of the game:

(1) one which is the same as the regular game, except that if the last child says the same thing the teacher said at the beginning, the entire class gets an extra ten minute recess (or candy or something)

(2) one which is the same as the regular game, except that children are allowed to ask the person before them to repeat the phrase if they don't think they heard it clearly

(3) and one which combines both: (a) group rewards and (b) better communication channels

I believe this would allow us to separate out the two competing hypotheses (or show that they are both true and necessary) and solve the mystery. It would be ideal if several teachers out there ran these "treatments" in random orders, so it wasn't just the case that the students were getting better at the telephone game as they played it more.

And that story about Craig's List and the baby is horrible.

Sobrina Tung said...

Mike, I love your thinking! haha. Very well thought out experiment. Now we just need teachers and children.

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