Author Archive
Game
Kinesthetic

Handball

Additional informant data: My informant is a 2nd-grader in South Los Angeles. He has lived in LA his entire life. He is Latino and speaks both Spanish and English. He attends a public, coeducational elementary school, which has students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Several times during the day, the children at my informant’s school have a recess period, when they’re given access to balls, jump ropes, etc., and are allowed to play outside.

Contextual data: My informant and I sat down outside his classroom after two months of my teaching his class the fundamentals of folklore through USC’s Joint Educational Program. When asked about games he and his friends play at recess, he immediately thought of handball–a game he learned from his father. The following is an exact record of our conversation:

Jackson (me): Why don’t you tell me about handball?

I (my informant): Well, you hit the ball, you can bounce it, you can catch it, you can . . . you can’t scratch the ball and then you can’t hit the ball like straight, or else you’re gonna be out, uhh . . . you can do, you sometimes you can do rainbows, uhh you can do treetops sometimes, umm . . . that’s it, that’s all I know.

J: So those are different moves you can do with the ball?

I: [Nods]

J: What’s a “scratch”? What does “scratch” mean?

I: When you scratch it, it goes, like, on the wall, you scratch it, and then it goes like down, and then you’re . . . you’re out because you can’t scratch it.

J: Oh, ok. What’s a “rainbow”?

I: A rainbow is when it goes over the wall . . . umm . . . that’s it.

J: And, uhh, what’s a . . . what’s the last one? A “treetop”? What’s a “treetop”?

I: It’s when you get the ball on the . . . on top of the . . . the roof of the wall and it stays there and then it falls and that’s it.

J: Do you remember who taught you handball?

I: My . . . my dad.

J: Your dad?”

I: [Nods]

J: Was it a long time ago, or was it pretty soon? [sic "recent"]

I: Long.

J: Ok. And you guys play this at recess?

I: [Nods]

J: You play with your . . . with your friends from your class? Or do you play it with kids from other classes, too?

I: Kids from other classes and my friends from my class.

What my informant described for me is a common game played in elementary schools and middle schools, which I’ve also heard go by the name of “wallball.” While he had some difficulty explaining the technicalities of the game, for the most part, I understood what he was trying to convey–especially having played a very similar game growing up in the state of Washington. The point of handball is to take turns bouncing the ball against a wall, not letting it bounce twice on the ground in front of you before you hit it back. There is a strict set of rules that must be obeyed. If one is broken, the guilty player is “out.” For example, as my informant explains, “you can’t hit the ball like straight”–meaning you have to bounce the ball off the ground and then against the wall. If, when it’s your turn, the ball bounces twice before you can get to it, you’re out, and you generally go to the end of a line of waiting players.

The boy’s description of the game was particularly interesting for me because of its unique terminology. Unfortunately, I had a hard time visualizing what he was trying to explain, and I was unable to watch him play, but what we see is a complex system of etiquette and jargon all associated with the recess game of handball. I’m unsure about whether the game has some kind of underlying social significance, but, as far as I know, there is no canonized style of play, and it’s usually played by children without adults having to teach them. The game changes, in terms of specific rules and terminologies, and it remains popular across the United States.

Annotation: Seen in Louis Sachar’s 2011 children’s novel A Magic Crystal? (beginning of Chapter 5, no page numbers) (called “wall-ball”)

http://books.google.com/books?id=BDTfiYKVRxoC&pg=PT27&dq=wallball&hl=en&sa=X&ei=KvaZT6SxLaTe2QXB-cDbDg&ved=0CFwQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=wallball&f=false

Game
Kinesthetic

Freeze Tag

Additional informant data: My informant is a 2nd-grader in South Los Angeles. He has lived in LA his entire life. He is Latino and speaks both Spanish and English. My informant attends a public, coeducational elementary school, which has students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Several times during the day, the children at his school have a recess period, when they’re given access to balls, jump ropes, etc., and are allowed to play outside.

Contextual data: My informant and I sat down outside his classroom after two months of my teaching his class the fundamentals of folklore through USC’s Joint Educational Program. After I began asking him about games he knows and plays often, he came up with freeze tag–a popular children’s game–and began explaining it to me. The following is an exact record of our conversation:

Jackson (me): Can you tell me about freeze tag?

I (my informant): Freeze tag is a game where you have to tag a person and they . . .  they stay there for . . . uhh . . . as long as they . . . uhh . . . forever, or if somebody stays, or if somebody tags them, somebody else, they . . . they . . . they’re unfroze, umm . . . if they’re all froze at the same time, the person who . . . the person who tagged them wins freeze tag and . . . if they don’t get all tagged . . . if they don’t get all tagged, then the person loses and the other people win, and that’s it.

J: And it ends when recess ends? Do you just keep playing until the bell?

I: Yeah.

J: Who do you usually play it with?

I: My bro— uhh . . . my friends, and my sister, and my brother, and my other sister, and my other brother.

J: Ok. How many people play, usually?

I: Five or six.

J: Ok. Do you remember who taught it to you, or did you kind of just learn it from people at school?

I: Umm . . . my . . . my . . . the one who taught it to me was my grandpa.

J: All right. Do you have anything else you want to say about freeze tag?

I: Nope.

I suppose few students in the United States–and probably in many other parts of the world–haven’t played tag at some point in their lives, and freeze tag is one of the most common versions. Whoever is “it” has the goal of “tagging” all the other players by chasing them down and touching them. When someone is tagged, they must freeze in place, and they can’t move until another player touches them.

While my informant didn’t have any ideas about the underlying significance of freeze tag, I have a few. The notion of one person being “it” and tagging others–rendering them physically immobile–seems to me like a sick person infecting others. If this is the case, it makes sense that someone else must “un-tag” them; that’s like being healed by somebody else. I discussed this with my roommate and he told me at his school they used to play this same exact game, but there they called it “germ tag,” and whoever was “it” had the germ. This reinforced my idea of freeze tag being modeled after some kind of fear of viruses or infection, as everyone is trying to run away from someone who has suddenly become dangerous, in a sense. In addition, this person is (or was) one of their close friends, which makes the chasing and tagging process a lot more disturbing. The person who is “it” is singled out and has the task of subduing all their friends, and the intentional quality of their behavior might reflect on the pervasive feelings against people who infect others with diseases.

Beyond this, freeze tag (or any kind of tag) could just be another schoolyard attempt at labeling “the Other,” or maybe it’s just a simple, fun game. It’s extremely common, but rather than discard it as commonplace because of it, I think we ought to pay special attention to the game precisely because it’s so widespread.

Annotation: Seen in the title and plot of Caroline B. Cooney’s 2004 novel Freeze Tag. Here is the Amazon.com synopsis of the book:

From best-selling author Caroline Cooney comes this suspenseful story of Meghan, whose relationship with her perfect boyfriend is destroyed by a girl who can freeze people with a touch of her finger.

When Meghan and West first played Freeze Tag with Lannie, it was no ordinary game. Because when Lannie tagged someone, they really froze. Icy blue and cold. Like death.

Now Meghan, West, and Lannie are in high school, and Meghan and West are in love. They’re the perfect couple. But Lannie is determined to have West for her very own… and if she doesn’t get her way, she’ll freeze Meghan… to death.

http://www.amazon.com/Freeze-Tag-Point-Caroline-Cooney/dp/0590456814

Humor
Legends
Narrative

The Coconut Tree

Contextual data: My informant (my roommate) told me this story late at night when I asked him if he could think of any stories his parents had told him when he was younger. Another of our friends was present, and she was laughing for much of the performance. According to my roommate, his father told him this story about a coconut thief and two lovers–all of whom have horrible fates–as a joke when they were driving in the car a couple years ago. His father was goofing around and trying to make him laugh, so we can assume this story is usually told as an attempt to be funny. My informant’s father is from Vietnam, and he presumably heard this story there. The following is an exact record of our conversation:

Jackson (me): All right, why don’t you tell me that story that you just told me?

I (my informant): Ok, so once upon a time, there was a Vietnamese farmer. Within his backyard, or farm, or whatever you want to call it, he had a coconut tree. Umm, one day a thief decided that he wanted to steal some of the farmer’s coconuts, so he snuck into the backyard, climbed the really high tree, and . . . umm . . . used his knife to cut off a few coconuts, and put them . . . uhh . . . he tied them around his waist and held a few. And then, underneath the tree was a couple kissing, and when the thief had too many coconuts he accidentally dropped one and it fell onto the man’s head, and he bit off the girl’s tongue. So the girl eventually died of blood loss in her mouth, and the man died of concussion, from the coconut falling on his head from meters above the ground.

J: [Laughing]

I: And, ultimately, the thief was tried for burglary [laughing] and eventually put into jail. The end.

J: [Laughing] All right, do you remember who told you that story?

I: My dad.

J: Uhh, did he mean it as a joke, or like a—

I: I think . . . I think he was just like joking around, but it’s definitely a story that he heard in Vietnam at one point in his life.

J: Ok, so your dad’s from Vietnam?

I: Yeah, he moved over in the 70s—to the U.S. in the 70s.

J: Do you think that the story has a meaning behind it, or something like a moral?

I: Uhh . . . don’t kiss under a really high coconut tree?

[Both laughing]

I: Umm . . . pay attention to your surroundings. Like, if the farmer was actually paying attention, then the thief would have been caught before all this stuff happened and umm the couple would have avoided a tragic fate. And the thief shouldn’t have been so greedy as to grab so many coconuts and dropping them to the ground.

J: Does the story have any personal meaning for you?

I: [Laughing] Umm . . . don’t stand under a coconut tree . . . or any dangerous objects.

Even just judging by our reactions (and that of my other friend who was present), the story is meant to elicit laughter, but it does so through very dark humor. It’s all about people doing things with bad connotations–a thief stealing coconuts and a couple having a romantic rendezvous late at night–and then getting into trouble because of it. As is the nature of all contemporary legends, this story may or may not have actually occurred, but the details have undoubtedly changed as it has been passed on. I think my informant is right about the meaning behind the story; it’s about being aware of your surroundings, but, beyond that, I think it’s about not doing what you shouldn’t be doing. It’s definitely black comedy, and it’s entertaining to listen to, but, in the end, everyone has something bad happen to them almost as punishment for what they’re doing right before. And who knows? As a contemporary legend, it could have actually happened.

Game
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Musical

“I Went to a Chinese Restaurant”

Contextual data: When asked about childhood games or rhymes she knew, my informant immediately thought of this game. My informant was born and grew up in Hawaii. She says she first learned this in first grade at school through a friend. She says at the time everyone used to play it. The lines are said simultaneously by two partners, to a simple tune, clapping hands in different patterns every other syllable. At the end of the game, both players freeze, and whoever moves first loses. This can be decided by the spectators surrounding the players, or by one of the players themselves. The following is a transcription of the song’s lyrics (line breaks my addition):

I went to a Chinese restaurant / to buy a loaf of bread. / The lady asked my name, / and this is what I said: / my name is L-i-l-i pickle-eye pickle-eye pom-pom beauty x-y cutie Indiana Jones don’t move!

My informant and I both had difficulty thinking about the significance behind the song or game–in her own words, the game “sounds nice” and “it doesn’t matter when you’re in first grade”–but I’m sure there is some. Perhaps “pickle-eye pickle-eye” is some kind of racial slur against Asian facial features (perhaps the owner of the Chinese restaurant?), and “pom-pom beauty x-y cutie” could reference any number of things, from cheerleading to large breasts. The lyrics are so abstract and seemingly disparate that it’s hard to string them together. Perhaps by this point they’ve changed so much from their earliest forms that it’s actually impossible to pinpoint any original, intended meaning (if there ever was one), and now people find significance in the simple pleasures of playing the game.

Legends
Narrative

Goatman’s Bridge

Additional informant data: My informant was born and raised in Northern Texas, about thirty minutes from Denton.

Contextual data: My informant told me this story when I asked about ghost stories from her hometown. She says she learned it from friends, when she was around 16 years old. She says she would tell this story if she was “telling someone where to go for fun,” and one time she and her friends actually made a trip to the place (though one friend got really scared so they didn’t get out of the car). The following is a description of the legend in her own words:

There’s a bridge in Denton, Texas called Goatman’s Bridge. If you park outside the bridge at night and honk your horn three times a goatman will appear. He’s half-goat half-man. I want to say that he screams, but I don’t remember. There’s the bridge, and then there’s this sort of cul-de-sac area around it, and if you park in that area then he appears in the entrance of the bridge. On an unrelated note, a lot of people have died there–I don’t think in the recent past, but a long time ago–and I don’t know how, but I know it happened. It’s in a really sketchy area.

This type of story is a common one, involving a haunted place and a summoning ritual (often including a 3x repetition of an action). My informant wasn’t sure about the historical background, and neither was I, but a little research showed that legend has it that there was a successful black goat herder who lived near the bridge and was hanged off the side by angry Klansmen. According to my informant, taking a trip to Goatman’s Bridge late at night is a fun and scary adventure, and it’s often a bonding experience, as everyone gets scared together.

Annotation: Seen in YouTube user SilkOlive’s documentary video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIrnzzTmP0s.

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