Cthulhu on the Island of Misfit Toys

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It’s possible, at the moving-walkway pace of modern life, to grow a bit insular with your own family – to come to accept your own familial day-to-day existence as the norm. It’s probably like living next a train station in the city. In Chicago, they’ll tell that ‘the more you hear the train, the less you hear it.’ That’s kind of how it works. Intensities become normal over time; quirks and idiosyncrasies become familiar, because…well, because they are familiar. You don’t feel like the Island of Misfit Toys when all you see all day are jelly-shooting squirtguns. I’d probably be alarmed to see round wheels on a train at this point, or a correctly named jack-in-the-box.

Then there’s moments like last night, when we attended Kathy’s department dinner for her medical group. Lots of bright, witty adults. Lots of bright kids running around; I spotted a MATH OLYMPICS t-shirt on one. Lots of drinks consumed, and lots of hors d’oeuvres. Docs talked shop, and spouses did our best with the usual small talk, although most are aware of our situation and that tended to turn most interactions toward homeschooling.

And then…the white elephant exchange.

Y0u’ve been to a hundred of them, and they normally pass without much in the way of notable incident. There are oohs and aahs for the good gifts; fists are brandished in mock-seriousness as others threaten to steal those later. Recipients of the truly unfortunate receive sympathetic comments and peanut-gallery guffawing in equal measure. This white elephant exchange was largely no different. The fleece blanket we brought was stolen right up to the maximum of three times, as was an indoor s’mores maker. A wicker chip-and-dip was advertised as eminently stealable with mounting vigor. The man next to me, recipient of a plastic daisy with a built-in calculator, shook his head and sadly contemplated his lot. I was whiling away the time, encouraging the woman next to me to go steal the s’mores maker again, when my wrist was seized in a tiny, iron grip.

“Dad.” It’s E’s insistent whisper. “Look.”

There he was, in all his plush glory; Cthulhu himself, in plush backpack form. There was a single moment of absolute quiet while the room labored, as a group, to come to grips with this thing. What resulted, however, was  immediate confusion. One person thought it was an octopus, and not a very cute one at that, while another insisted it was the Loch Ness Monster, and indeed, the latter became its label for the evening. The woman who opened the big C did her best to sell a socially-acceptable facial expression, but clearly wanted nothing to do with him.

But E did. In a big way.

By way of backstory, E began reading Lovecraft last fall for the work we were doing together in Victorian and early 20th-century horror, and became a lover of all things Cthulhu in pop culture. When The Doom That Came to Atlantic City was announced on Kickstarter, she was fairly rapturous about acquiring it. And now here he was, in backpack form, no more than ten feet from her, and no one in the room even knew it was him. (It?) This would have been a destination gift for her – a Christmas-list item – and she seemed confused as to how it could possibly have ended up here, unwanted, among the scented candles and picture frames.

E was shocked. “Dad,” she whispered again. “It’s Cth-”

“Don’t say it aloud,” I whispered back, partly as a joke – in Lovecraft, you’re not supposed to say the Great Old Ones’ names aloud – but also because, on the off chance there was another Lovecraft fan lurking in the room, I suppose Cthulhu could’ve been stolen away. Based on the vigor with which my wrist was being gripped, and the wide-eyed expression E had on, I kind of didn’t want that to happen.

So the woman did her best to pimp out the backpack as numbers were called, going so far as to begin waving his claws about and giving his tentacles a festive dancing rhythm, but no luck. And thus did #18 come around, our number, and H valiantly stole him away from a greatly-relieved gift recipient. They huddled over him, doing their best to disguise the fact that they’d won him, and took turns asking me ‘how many numbers are left?’ But water bottles and crappy earbuds were grudgingly accepted, and the s’mores maker was stolen one final time, and that was that. We emerged into the cold Denver night with our Great Old One in backpack form, their breath coalescing into vaporous clouds as they danced joyfully down the street to our car, holding Cthulhu aloft. Neither one could believe they’d made off with this prize; it was as if they’d taken home a Renoir original no one had recognized for what it was.

“Even among misfits,” Yukon Cornelius once sagely noted during his time as a Rankin-Bass Production, “you’re misfits.” There we were, among brilliant but sometimes socially-awkward doctors and their brilliant but sometimes socially-awkward kids, and the whole room came to a stop because E and H were getting the vapors by turns over a stuffed monster backpack. Suddenly, our square wheels and jelly-shooting were on display once more…but it didn’t really bother me. We’re happy on the Island; it’s noisy, but it’s our noisy, and it’s odd, but it’s our odd. And what was more important to me was that it didn’t bother them at all.  That’s part of the goal, I think, as parents of gifted kids; we’re trying to make sure they end up comfortable in their own skin.

Based on the gleeful, unencumbered grin that H wore as she set off for school this morning – an Elder God grimly conveying her expandable file and calculator and pencils for her – we’re off to a good start.

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