Michael P. Branch

Sticking with the Stick

The photograph of Curator Man that hit all the wire services and accompanied most of the online stories shows a tall, thin, well-groomed, friendly looking fellow (the kind of guy you’d actually call a “fellow”), with short hair, prominent ears, wire-rimmed glasses, and what looks like an expensive tie. In his hands he displays an elegantly framed item that in a few moments will become the most prized and celebrated treasure in his museum’s collections. Curator Man’s proud smile tells us that this is a big day for him. and what is the treasure behind the glass in the mahogany case? The stick.

This stick is at once just any old stick and not at all just any old stick. It is the stick that on November 6, 2008 was inducted into the National toy hall of fame at the strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New york. as the second anniversary of the stick’s induction rolled around, I was reminded of this photo of proud Curator Man, who could not have anticipated the media circus his museum’s stick would provoke. When news of the stick’s induction was announced in a ceremony and accompanying press release, the stick story was picked up by hundreds of online news sites and blogs, and even featured prominently in the last sixty seconds of many local tv news programs, right in the slot where the sextuplets usually go— which proves that even sextuplets can have a bad media cycle. Journalists invariably skipped the obvious question, “Is there really a Museum of Play?” and went straight to the kind of penetrating reportage that helps a benighted public understand the complexities of so important an issue. “What can you do with a stick?” they wondered in print. “Who plays with sticks, and just how do they do it?” since the stick doesn’t come with directions and doesn’t cost anything, they worried: how will Americans figure out how to use or value it? Not to be outdone, the tabloid sites asked what we really know about the panel of nineteen “so-called experts” whose deliberations resulted in its selection?

In short, everyone demanded to know what’s so great about a stick. I’m intrigued by this famous stick for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I still can’t figure out if it is profound or absurd, or profoundly absurd, or absurdly profound.

And there’s a little of the emperor’s clothes phenomenon going on here, I think. When I tell people about the celebrated stick, the reply is nearly always the same. “You’re shitting me. A stick? You mean a real stick? Like one you’d pick up off the ground?” There follows a long, uncertain pause. And then comes the grinning reply: “Hell, yeah, the stick. Greatest toy ever. Totally brilliant!”

After proclaiming something “totally brilliant!” it is difficult for people to turn back. But I do want to turn back, to ask whether the museum’s stick was nature masquerading as culture, or culture masquerading as nature. I want to return to the moment in which we had to decide for ourselves what to make of the idea that a stick, rather than being viewed as an object of play, needed to be displayed in a museum.

If Curator Man thought any of this was funny, he certainly didn’t let on. First, he pointed out that the selection panel of esteemed judges—intellectuals, artists, curators, poobahs of various stripes—had a very difficult decision to make. Not only that, but they adhered to a formally articulated set of explicit criteria when choosing a toy to join the vaunted ranks of already inducted classics like crayons, marbles, the Teddy Bear, and Mr. Potato Head. These rules mandated that a toy must: 1. possess icon status; 2. have longevity; 3. encourage discovery; and, 4. promote innovation.

Curator Man went on to extol the many virtues and uses of the stick: “It can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight’s sword, a boat on a stream or a slingshot,” he pointed out. “No snowman is complete without a couple of stick arms, and every campfire needs a stick for toasting marshmallows.” And I speak the gospel truth when I say that the media’s immoderate love of Curator Man and his stick spawned a widely syndicated “news” article actually called “Notable Suggestions for How to Play with a Stick.”

It is at this point that the stick story jumps the tracks and begins tearing through the weedy field of american popular culture, no longer under anyone’s spin control. In Rochester there was still a stick in a case on a wall, but the story of that stick had gone viral. The first wave of responses to the stick was uniformly positive. What we might call the “Good old stick!” crowd rushed to expand Curator Man’s already long list of noble uses for the stick, and they were mighty hard to argue with. I wasn’t so impressed that a javelin and a golf club may be considered sticks—finding one so dangerous and the other so dangerously boring as to have no use for either—but a fishing rod and a baseball bat were sticks of an entirely different sort, and it was painful to imagine life without them. And what about a conductor’s baton or a pair of drumsticks? The fretted neck of my guitar is a kind of stick, and even my harmonicas are little, ten-holed sticks. The more I thought about it, the more impossible life without stickplay seemed, and for a while I teetered on the brink of conversion.

But then the intellectuals got involved, and before I could make up my mind about the stick all hell broke loose. First the developmental psychologists more or less said that kids would all be retarded without sticks, and some careless readers concluded by extrapolation that add, ADHD, OCD, LH, SLD, SLI, HDTV, THC, PCP, and LSD could all be blamed on the condition of brutal sticklessness to which “kids these days” had been so unfairly subjected. Evolutionary biologists then asserted that it was the use of sticks that caused humans to develop immense cerebral cortexes, which apparently we needed to ensure that the really sharp sticks would poke the saber-toothed tiger and not our brother-in-law—that being the kind of “accident” that might halt activities leading to procreation and would surely have been selected against by evolutionary pressures. The sociobiologists went even further, asserting that the human affinity for sticks was evident in our fort building behaviors, and in our innate desire to have pickets in front of our house when somebody came over to kill and eat us.

Then, predictably, the closet luddites who might best be described as “old white guys who recently learned how to use email” got involved in the debate, and they were so elated to see the triumph of the good old stick that they felt their lives fully vindicated. The excruciatingly detailed “When I was a boy. . .” stories about sticks proliferated so quickly as to crash several servers, even as young It guys scrambled to figure out how a lowly stick could have brought down their networks. These old guy stick lovers were soon joined by the TV haters, who didn’t care about sticks one way or the other but reckoned them better than what they called the “mind numbing cancer” of television, never mind that they were sitting in front of glowing computer screens posting their views on blogs with names like “Turned Off Moms.”

At last, the very worst occurred. the environmentalists got hold of the story, and that was when the shit that was already hitting the fan started to stick. Although we environmentalists are the last to get news of any kind, once we get it and bend it to our own uses, we’ll never let go. According to these green defenders, the stick is important not because it is iconic, or because it promotes discovery or innovation—indeed, even the detail that sticks might actually be played with by children drops out of the story at this point—but rather because it is “ecofriendly,” “the ultimate disposable, biodegradable, versatile, multipurpose plaything.” these ecobloggers celebrated the stick as “sustainable, recyclable, and upcycleable.” One euphorically exclaimed that “you can even turn it into mulch when you’re done playing with it!” which for some reason made me imagine tearing a stick from my daughter’s little hands and jamming it into my wood chipper.

I don’t want to rain on any parade that puts a humble stick in the lead float— after all, if silly Putty and the Easy-Bake oven can make the hall of fame, who am I to bitch about the stick having its day in the sun—but there’s something creepy about this whole business. as the viral contagion of the stick story spread, I found myself possessed by a desire to shake Curator Man and his army of zombie bloggers and yell, “Hey! Y’all are talking about a fucking stick!” But once the stick’s coronation was hijacked, what had once been a plaything was transformed into Captain Ahab’s doubloon, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, Citizen Kane’s rosebud: not a window onto childhood play, but rather a mirror in which obsessed grownups saw only the reflection of their own faces. The stick’s induction had been distorted from a celebration of how kids play into an ideological skirmish into which adults brought their own values and anxieties. And at this point something in the stick story was lost forever. After all, isn’t the beauty of a kid playing with a stick precisely that it is never our stick but always already theirs, that their imaginative powers define its shape, name, and use? Somehow, it seemed to me, we pathetic grownups wanted to usurp the magic of the wand: to name and claim it, to wield it as a shield against time and tide.

That’s the first thing that’s suspicious about this stick story. Who could be so pretentious as to think that a bunch of grownups—even worse, “expert” grownups— could possibly be capable of selecting toys for a Museum of Play? The real experts, who are obviously the kids, hadn’t been asked about any of this—including whether the idea of a toy hall of fame makes any damned sense in the first place. And what about the fact that all the negative connotations of sticks were being glossed over by these disconcerting stick enthusiasts? The sordid etymology and usage of the word “stick” offer powerful reminders that the stick we might imagine as a medieval knight’s sword in fact has a double edge. What about “stick in the mud,” “stick it to them,” or “beat him with a stick”? What about the wonderfully imaginative denigration of a pretentious person as having “a stick up their ass,” or the fact that soft speaking is enabled only by the carrying of a “big stick”? how about the derogatory slang terms “dip stick,” “dumb stick,” “dick stick,” and “weak stick,” or “to give stick,” which means to disparage or criticize, or the suggestion that one “stick it” (either in their ear or elsewhere)? or the unfortunate transformation of perfectly decent food like bread and cheese into sticks; or, conversely, the use of the stick to skewer and roast things like squirrels? And what about chopsticks, which americans would starve if forced to eat with, or stick shift, which we often can’t drive, or the hair band styx—which isn’t quite the same, I know, but still makes my point that for every two sticks lashed together to make a mast or rubbed together to make fire, two others are used to make nunchucks or a crossbow. For every bouncing pogo stick or stirring swizzle stick, every forked dowsing stick or sacred rain stick, some poor stick figure ends up swinging from the hangman’s gallows. for every bur- nished walking stick there is a cancerous fire stick, for every joy stick a night stick, for every prayer stick at least one stick of dynamite.

Of course the stick lovers don’t tell you any of this. They’d also like you to forget the main thing sticks do, which is to “poke your eye out.” And even if a lot of things in life are “better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” one thing that is not in fact better is actually being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. Indeed, the same people who are now swooning nostalgically over their own stick-blessed childhoods are also yelling at their grandchildren to put down the goddamned stick before they put somebody’s eye out. Let’s face it, sticks are dangerous. And if you look at what kind of imaginative play the old guy stick lovers valorize, it is invariably martial. One blogger unironically opined that what he most missed about his lost youth was the nurturing imaginative play by which he “could pretend that a stick was a big bazooka.” And Bazooka Lover had plenty of company. The most treasured memories of childhood play reported by these bloggers featured the stick as rifle, shotgun, machine gun, sword, knife, spear, bow, arrow, harpoon, spear gun, blow gun, and even pipe bomb (good old pipe bomb!). One respondent enthusiastically described the good fun of attacking his siblings with a stick that he pretended was a “Borg prosthetic arm/gun.” Another waxed sentimental over the character building effects of a spirited round of “dodge the stick,” a game that, from what I could discern, basically amounts to throwing sticks as hard as you can at another guy’s head. But in addition to the Good Old Stick Crowd valorizing the violent imaginative and literal uses of the stick, they were also smug. Here is a representative posting: “The toys we in the older generation grew up with, like the stick, fostered the imagination. Nowadays, children sit in front of a computer screen playing video games that teach them violence and disrespect. It’s no wonder kids these days are obese and ignorant.”

Perhaps the targets of this abuse were already in front of their computer screens, but in any case it didn’t take them long to put down the Big Mac and Wi-imote and give Gramps a piece of their mind. To their credit, the folks in this second wave of responses to the stick’s ascension were more playful than those in the Good Old Stick faction. Some mocked the stickophilic sentimentalists with sarcastic remarks like this one: “The sticks we had when I was growing up were way better than the ones they have now.” Others used humor to fight back against the characterization of American youth as depraved because they play with computers instead of sticks. My favorite of these technophile backtalkers was the kid who wrote wryly, “I have an old atari 2600 that I use as a makeshift stick.” Yet others used exaggeration to ridicule the violent pretensions of the Good Old Stick folks. “In a related story,” wrote one mockumentarian, “The National Child Toy Safety Commission has issued a recall on the stick, identifying it as the nation’s most dangerous toy. The Commission is now in negotiations with leading environmentalists, who make access to sticks easier every year.”

One especially witty blogger imagined comments that might have been posted to Amazon.com by consumers who had heard of the stick’s new fame and then rushed out to buy one. One of these fake postings, from a Mom and stick purchaser, describes the trauma suffered by her son after he discovered the troubling indeterminacy of the stick’s meaning. She advises that parents “speak to the neighborhood kids in advance to reach a consensus as to what the stick represents.” Another, posted by the wonderful “Grandpa Dan” (who, of course, writes from Florida), reads as follows: “The stick will never be beat. And it’s a great bargain, too! The wife and I bought a single stick, sawed it into five pieces, and now all our young grandchildren are having a grand time talking on their ‘cell phones.’”

But the best was yet to come. The debate about the stick soon spawned a number of playful mock campaigns to have various other items inducted into the toy hall of fame. Among these nominees were the leaf, bubble wrap, the popsicle stick, the log, the egg carton, shadows, the pillow, the dildo, the shoebox, dirt, the snowball, and Pete Rose (after all, Rochester is only 174 miles from Cooperstown). But the mock campaign that gathered the most momentum was the one agitating for inclusion of the rock in the toy hall of fame. First the rock advocates appropriated the discourse of racial justice to argue that the elevation of the stick over the rock was a clear case of bias, pointing out that sticks had received preferential treatment for far too long.

They also observed that “sticks and stones” had long been associated with one another—in various cultural contexts including the breaking of people’s bones—and it was thus unfair that the stick alone should receive recognition. And, of course, the rock folks gave hundreds of examples of the many wonderful ways in which rocks foster imaginative play. Taking a page from the battle plan of Bazooka Lover and his ilk, for example, they pointed out that a stick’s ability to be a gun is in no way superior to a rock’s ability to be a grenade. I found this hard to argue with. Finally, the rock people emphasized the precedent of the toy Pet Rock, which in the seventies swept the nation and made so much money for its creator that the guy became a millionaire overnight and at last achieved his lifelong dream: to own a bar in Los Gatos, California.

The persuasiveness of the rock campaign caused me to wonder not only about sticks and stones, but about all the toys that have been inducted into and rejected from the National journal of creative sustainability toy hall of fame. As it turns out, debate has surrounded these selections from the very beginning. For example, when the inaugural class of 1998 included Barbie but not Ken, a group of college students complained of sexual discrimination, adding that even if Ken is gay he still deserves equal billing with his female counterpart—who, they also pointed out, is insipid, emaciated, nippleless, and has poor taste in purses and terrible gay-dar. Some Marxist critics declared that the induction of “Radio Flyer Wagon,” “Duncan Yo-Yo,” and “Crayola Crayon” constituted the baldest form of product placement advertising. Wouldn’t “wagon” or “crayon” have been good enough, or was the hall of fame taking kickbacks from these companies? When Monopoly was the only board game included in that first class, the aficionados of everything from Candy Land to Parcheesi to Backgammon went wild—not to mention the evangelical Scrabbleites, who had plenty of choice words for the hall of fame after their snubbery (if that’s even a word).

Most interesting in this annual debate surrounding the choice of inductees is the adult baggage displaced onto and projected through these bizarre skirmishes over toys. So while the Ken doll faction was clearly in it for the laughs, the Raggedy Ann fans—who actually call themselves “Raggedy fans,” and who in many ways disturbingly resemble a cult—were in genuine fits from the beginning. It wasn’t so much that Raggedy Ann, whose oft-recited pedigree dates to 1915, was rejected—it was the fact that that mindless whore Barbie had been inducted with the very first class. The Raggedy fans took to the warpath, and for four long years endured repeated defeats until, at last, in 2002, came the “magical moment” (their words) when Raggedy Ann became the 26th toy to join the ranks.

During those four years the Ann cultists collected more than 8,000 petitions, but still had to endure the humiliation of having been outgunned by the Mr. Potato head lobby, which, after suffering a similar defeat in the inaugural year, had their man in office straightaway in year two.

My study of inducted and rejected toys also revealed the precedent that indirectly enabled the stick’s ultimate success: the surprising choice, in November, 2005, of the cardboard box. The box was an influential inductee, because it was the first plaything not produced by a toy manufacturer to have made the hall of fame. And once the humble box had cracked the dam of the hall’s logic, other toys not made to be toys couldn’t be far behind. The affinity between the cardboard box and the stick was in fact remarked upon by many folks who responded to the stick’s induction. One would-be parodist offered the onionesque headline “stick enters toy hall of fame, Cardboard Box snubbed,” only to be told that, in fact, the box was already in. And many parents liked the choice of the box because it confirmed their observation that no matter how much dough they shelled out for toys, their kids preferred to play with the box in which the toys came. As a parent who has spent too much time repairing over-engineered toys, I too approved of the box and stick, both of which I added to my personal list of “things that actually Work,” which until that time had included only WD-40, bourbon, and Moby-Dick.

I also found it instructive to consider some of the Toy Hall of Fame’s selections in light of their explicit criteria for inclusion. For example, while I’ll fight the man who claims that the Slinky doesn’t “posses icon status,” it is harder to see how the Atari can be said to “have longevity.” the Atari was inducted in 2007, by which time it had been obsolete for decades, and to make matters worse the Atari shared the class of 2007 with the kite, which is a 3,000- year old toy. It is also difficult to see how some of the toys selected “encourage discovery,” unless, as in the case of Play-Doh and Silly Putty, the discovery is simply that it is better if you don’t swallow it. And how can we legitimately claim that the Jack-in-the-box works to “promote innovation,” given that playing with this toy amounts to mindlessly cranking it up, scaring the shit out of yourself, and cranking it up again, over and over?

Then there’s the problem of the still-rejected toys. I note that after the embattled first year of the toy hall of fame’s existence, when every nut who could click a mouse raised hell that their favorite toy had been left out in the cold, the panel of wise toy “experts” responded in year two by rejecting both the soccer ball and baseball glove, thus ensuring that they would piss off every person on earth. And, as with the Raggedy Ann standoff, adult obsessions were at the heart of these debates. For example, after being judged unfit for service in the Hall of Fame for several years running, G.I. Joe went commando, and was carried into the hall in 2004 on a testosterone-driven groundswell of support from advocates whose appeals sounded as if they were excerpted from speeches by General Patton. Gender politics were equally transparent in the induction the following year of the Easy-Bake oven, which, though reviled by feminists as a symbol of the subjugation of women within a hegemonic, patriarchal system of exploitative domestic servitude, was celebrated by other women as “really cute.”

I ultimately decided that to settle the troubling matter of the famous stick I would have to consult a real play expert. Our daughter, Hannah Virginia, who is six years old, seemed the right choice. She’s thoughtful, asks good questions, and doesn’t jump to conclusions about anything other than the need to eat ice cream immediately. She has informed opinions about things she has experience with, and clearly she has experience playing. One day while Hannah and I were driving to her school, I told her all about the Museum of Play, and the Toy Hall of Fame, and about the stick. She listened carefully, raising her eyebrows a few times.

“Who are the kids who get to decide which toys are allowed to be in the hall of fame?” she asked.

“They aren’t kids,” I explained, “They’re all grownups.”

“That’s weird,” she said. “Kids have a lot more practice playing. Why don’t they ask kids?” I told her I didn’t know. Hannah said she could understand why somebody might think of a stick as a toy, since kids could use sticks to . . . and then she breathlessly listed about fifty uses of the stick that had never occurred to Curator Man: a bridge for an ant to walk across, a hole poker for making secret caves, a key to a magic ice castle, a cloud scratcher. Next, Hannah wanted to know how the grownups decide what’s a toy and what isn’t.

“If a stick is in there, how about a whole tree, which is better because me and a lot of kids love to climb trees. Can that be in there?” I told her I didn’t know. Hannah has always loved learning the names of flowers and trees, and so she also wanted to know what kind of stick it was. Was it a stick from a Utah Juniper, or a Jeffrey Pine, or maybe a Quaking Aspen?

“Nobody ever said what kind of stick it was,” I replied. Now she frowned in earnest.

“They put it in a museum without even asking its name?” she said.

I was nonplussed by how quickly Hannah’s simple questions were exploding the pretentions of the Toy Hall of Fame, and I was quietly embarrassed that her best questions had never occurred to me. But her next question was especially provocative.

“When kids visit this Hall of Fame, can they play with the stick?” I paused. “Nope, the stick is in a display case on a wall in the museum.”

“Really?” she said, with genuine surprise. “Why do they call it a ‘Museum of Play’ if you can’t play with the stuff there? Maybe they could make the case with a lid so you could just get the stick out. Or maybe they could have lots of sticks, so if a bunch of kids showed up they could all have a stick to play with. Why don’t they do something like that?” Again, I told her I didn’t know.

In effect, Hannah had identified the debate we’ve been having about modern art since about 1915. Does the display of an object—an African mask, a bicycle wheel, an antique milk jug—deprive that object of its life? When we put a vernacular object in a museum and declare it “art,” are we celebrating the meanings of that object, or are we decontextualizing it, impoverishing our understanding and enjoyment of it? Is a stick in a case just another butterfly with a pin through it? Is a stick on display in a museum even a stick at all?

Hannah was still thinking hard, and she sat quietly for a while before reaching her conclusion.

“Dad, since the stick isn’t made by people, it really is different than a hula hoop and stuff like that. and I think all nature things should be together, so if the stick is in there, then it isn’t fair not to put in the whole tree, plus leaves, and rocks, and everything else, with bugs too, but it isn’t nice to keep bugs inside like that. I think they ought to just leave the stick outside. that way it can get wind and rain, which it’s probably used to, and bugs can use it to crawl on, and also kids can play with it.”

I’m aware that we’ve been waxing rhapsodic about the wisdom of children since Billy Wordsworth tromped around the Lake District (without children, I might add), but this struck me as a sensible verdict, rendered by a thoughtful judge, and based on a sound interrogation of the facts. We grownups had turned the stick into everything from a three wood to a bazooka, but hannah had turned it back into a stick. I suppose we could say that adults crave play too, and that playing with the famous stick’s meanings is the grownup way of trying to think up something as cool as using a stick as a cloud scratcher. By eliciting the two most powerful forms of nostalgia, the loss of nature and the loss of childhood, the celebrated stick had captured our imaginations. But while we were arguing over its meaning, turning its induction into the Toy Hall of Fame into a cause for celebration or protest or the writing of essays, we also didn’t go outside and play. and I suspect that it is this failure to play—this atrophying of the ability to imaginatively engage nature and then also leave it as we found it—that separates us from our childhoods, and perhaps also from our children. We’ve been grasping at the stick because we need to recover something that we dropped on the ground a long time ago.


 Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is co-founder of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and series co-editor of the University of Virginia Press book series, Under the Sign of Nature. His creative nonfiction has appeared in magazines including Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Places, and Whole Terrain. He has had pieces nominated for the Pushcart Prize and recognized as “Notable Essays” in The Best American Essays, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. His monthly blog essay, “Rants from the Hill,” appears in the online edition of High Country News.