In the Absence of Toys

It had been a dull morning. I was still recovering from a cold, though the worst of it was behind me. There was a long day ahead of us, with no other plans than to hang out with Ruby and Francis. Lacking my usual energy, I didn’t have any major adventures in mind, and was even content to remain indoors most of the day. Pema was pedaling her bike around the Buffalo Room, the large central room of our community, while I brought some polenta to boil in the kitchen. I added butter, salt and some of Tia’s dried apples. Francis, who had till then been eating breakfast contentedly in the corner with his mother, had a plate of eggs and toast, soup, and tea with honey in front of him. Spying the polenta I was making, he shouted, “I want some.”


After offering a bowl to Francis, I walked into the Buffalo Room and set a bowl down for Pema on a side table. “Here you go, pup,” I said, turning to cross the floor to the opposite side, where I had arranged a few boxes of letters and envelopes. I had a large mailing to send out, and I planned to hand write the addresses, stuff the envelopes, and affix stamps intermittently as I hung out with the children throughout the day.


“When will Ruby be here?” Pema asked.


“I don’t know, pup,” I answered, “When they’re ready, I guess.”


When I sat down, I could see Francis, his white porcelain bowl of polenta carefully balanced in both hands, walking down the steps from the kitchen. “Hi Pema,” he said, half shouting, with a bright smile on his face. “Hi Francis,” Pema replied, with long drawn out words, as if it pained her to say them. She looked away, feigning boredom, her head slumping sideways in the universal expression of disinterest. Francis, oblivious as the sun, walked towards her in his new pajama suit, apropos of Christmas, with red, white and green stripes. His blond hair, still relatively thin on his toddler-sized head, resembled that of a balding old man with a windblown combover. Smiling, I grabbed my pen and started writing the first address.


“Daddy?” Pema asked, a few seconds later.


“Yeah, pup?”


“When will Ruby be here?”


I love this question. What I mean is that I hate it. But I do laugh at myself and Pema as we cycle through it, morning after morning, day after day. Typically, I’ll answer as I had earlier, two or three or fifteen times, until I reach my limit and, an edge in my voice, say, “Pema, I’m not going to answer that question anymore. Okay? You can keep asking me, but now I’m just not going to say anything at all.”


But I wasn’t exasperated yet, so this time I answered, “Oh, I don’t know, pup. Probably thirty minutes or so.” I turned back to my paperwork.


The Buffalo Room is worthy of some explanation. To begin with, we live at New Buffalo, a small community north of Taos, NM, an old hippie commune that has been restored and is now privately owned. There are currently thirteen of us living here, most of whom have some previous experience living in community. There is nothing “intentional” about New Buffalo, except that we intend to live here for the time being. Having lived in several community situations before, this is by far the most anarchic, though by that I only mean that there aren’t a whole lot of rules or agreements, not that things are crazy. We are a relatively normal and calm group of folks, ranging from two and a half to seventy-eight, in an area where alternative living arrangements are not uncommon.


Originally, New Buffalo was about one-hundred and fifty acres, a prime spot within the Arroyo Hondo valley, where the Rio Hondo flows, springs of all variety ooze from the earth, and the water table is in some places so near to the surface, that it’s almost marshy. Like most of New Mexico, however, if you walk fifteen feet away from the water you are standing in the desert, where sage, juniper and pinon predominate. There is plenty of bare earth.


Most of the original acreage of New Buffalo was parceled off long ago, and today the property is about fifteen acres. The lots on all sides are pretty wide open, so there aren’t any very near neighbors, but it’s not like being in the wilderness. It’s more like being in a rural farming area, with cows and horses, but one that happens to lead directly to the Rio Grande, one of the largest river basins in the southwest, and which occupies one of the most majestic gorges in the country. There are hot springs just down the road.


Each of us has a private bedroom at New Buffalo, which I also use as an office, and otherwise we share the common space, a kitchen, bathrooms, showers, workshop, greenhouse, storage sheds, etc. And, there’s the Buffalo Room. The Buffalo Room is a large, oblong room, large enough for small children to run across and even ride their bikes. Though there are tables and chairs, the main floor space is largely empty, and the earthen floor is mostly covered by two thin carpet remnants, a motley of burgundy and brown. The ceilings are high, about fifteen feet, with tongue and groove, and in the center is a large octagonal skylight.


The Buffalo Room is partially sunk into the surrounding earth. Made of adobe walls covered in a brown earthen plaster, the overall feel is very earthy and reminiscent of a kiva. On one side of the room, an original that hearkens back to the old hippie days, is a well-sculpted buffalo, about four feet across, that is part of the wall itself. On the other side, a more recent addition by the current owner, is a towering talismanic figure, sculpted of wood, tortoise shell, antlers and many natural textures and shapes. In one hand it holds a staff, and in the other a spear. Its aspect is fierce, and yet somehow its presence is warm, almost protective. It reminds me, in some ways, of the old Chuck E. Cheese’s, where huge, furry puppets hung on the wall in shadows and sometimes came alive. Except, fearful as that was, this one does not move and talk, at least not to me. But I won’t discount that, deep in the night, the right kind of person in the right kind of moonlight might have strange and powerful visions here.


What’s hilarious is that much of the time this room is full of shouting and scrambling kids. Almost museum-like, the room was seldom used when I first arrived here, and, needing a place to gather and play, it was the natural place. Now that we have a regular gathering of children, the community, by and large, has given free reign to the children, and the owner, thankfully, is the sort of man who loves beautiful things and likes them to be used. All along the walls, above built in earthen benches, are shelves with dozens of exquisite handmade drums and instruments, which the children drag about and handle as if they were their own. The room, let’s say, is alive.






“When will Ruby be here?”


“Jesus Christ,” I almost said. Instead, I threw my pen at Pema, who laughed. Then Francis, a little uncertain, laughed too. Acting like I was angry, I got up to retrieve my pen. Francis, spying the opportunity, picked it up and ran to the other side of the center table, made of an old wagon wheel and axle. “Chase me! Chase me!” he shouted, circling the table. I ran after him, and Pema took off after me, giggling uncontrollably. “Gimme that pen!” I shouted, matching my pace with Francis so that we circled round the table three or four times, never catching each other. “Gimme that pen!” I shouted. “Nooooo…” squealed Francis, who, in his striped pajama suit, looked all the part of an elf.


“All right, all right,” I said, as if my time limit were up. We all stood still for a second, as the children gauged my tone. “Come on, give me my pen back,” I said to Francis, who wasn’t so ready to give away the key to the game. “Come on,” I said, “I’m going to sit for a little bit and do some work.” He took off running again, but this time I caught him and wrestled him a bit in the air before grabbing the pen and gently slamming him to the ground with appropriate sound effects. “Pffff…” I said, wrenching my face in a mock snarl. Pema climbed on my back and I threw her, softly, on top of Francis. “Arrghhhhh…” I shouted, raising my arms in triumph. Feeling satisfied, I took my pen and returned to my table in the corner.


Shortly afterward, as I was neatly stacking the first few addressed envelopes in piles to be stamped, I looked up to discover Francis attempting to climb the center table, an impossible feat for someone his size. By that point, Francis’s mother had finished cleaning up in the kitchen and was sitting on the opposite side of the room, next to the masonry stove. Another one of our housemates, a quiet young woman, sat nearby on the rocking horse, eating her vegan breakfast. Spying Francis, the three of us shared lackluster comments along the lines of, “I don’t think you’re going to get up there, Francis,” which, of course, simply encouraged him. Francis is decidedly obstinate. And he was still wearing those striped PJ’s.


The situation kindled Pema’s attention, who had gone back to her bike after our brief wrestling match. She decided to show Francis how it was done. Squirming her midsection onto the table top, she managed to pull herself forward, swing a leg over the top, and stand up. Francis was delighted.


There was a brief moment as my mind scanned about for what I thought of my daughter standing on the table in the middle of the room. It hadn’t quite happened this way before, so I didn’t have an immediate reaction one way or the other. But the air was triumphant, and in the next moment Francis’s mother, doubtless having encountered similar thoughts, asked Francis, “What do you think might help you get up there?” To which Francis, who immediately made the mental connection, replied, almost berserk with excitement, “The stepstool! Yeahhhh!” After running in a circle for a second or two, he blasted into the kitchen to retrieve it. I love co-parenting with these two.


Meanwhile, as Pema stood proud and erect on the table top, I began to issue phrases of caution, as in, “Careful of the edge there, pup,” and other unnecessary remarks. Pema, in response, huffed and answered dramatically, “I know Dad,” because, of course, she did. “You don’t want to fall,” I continued.


The table itself deserves a little description at this point. It is about the size of a card table, with a round top. Made of an old wagon wheel, it is inlaid with woods of varying colors and trapezoidal shapes between the spokes, and sanded flat. Its iron ring, dented like hammered pewter, is still secured around the edge. The central leg is the wooden axle of, presumably, the same wagon, and is even more intricate than the table top. No mere column of wood, it is made of dozens of hardwood pieces fitted together precisely, like puzzle work. Curved and shapely, like a leg turned on a lathe, it is fluted near the top where it connects to the wheel, where it forms a sort of gear with intermittent hollow spaces, all made out of hardwood. I have no language for it. It is at once both astonishingly beautiful, massive and strong, the kind of woodwork that, for a modern man like myself, is hard to comprehend. Things like this are, in my experience, only made of steel. But one can immediately feel the massive weight and horsepower that this wooden machinery must once have commanded.


The table is so heavy and centrally balanced, aided by the addition of a few oak feet, that though it’s only the size of a card table, I cannot lift it myself. To move it around the room requires two people, or one person who can drag or “walk” it. The table can hold me, standing at the very edge, without the slightest inclination of tipping. I know, because, like Pema, I would soon be standing there too.


“I got it! I got it!” Francis shouted, carrying the stepstool down the stairs and into the Buffalo Room. He unfolded it and set it next to the table, while Pema watched from above. Climbing the two steps, he put one foot on the table and then the other, happily up top. At this point, the scene was riveting. Another housemate came through, a crotchety, but good-natured old man, and took a seat. Two children under the age of five on top of a table in the middle of a large room filled with ceremonial goods. Who would want to pass this up?


It took only a few seconds for all of us to realize that the consummation of the moment required jumping. “Okay wait, hold on, hold on,” I shouted, standing up, but by now I was all in. The floor, though covered in a modest piece of carpet, was hard as stone. A fall from that height wouldn’t have broken anything, but it would end with crying.


I scanned the room quickly. All along the outside, the earthen benches were covered in dozens of little seat cushions made of old Navajo rugs. There were also a few blankets by the wood stove. Then I spied the masterpiece. Under those blankets was a three-inch thick custom cushion that filled a deep recess in one of the benches. Curved like the benches, it was about five feet long and two feet wide. Set in front of the table, it was as if it was designed explicitly for this moment, a final piece inlaid in the old spokes of the wheel that now extended into the room, tying the past to the present. Hell of a cushion.


Adding some buffers with the pillows and blankets, the adults all seemed to casually approve, and the game was now fully at hand. Pema jumped first, laughing as she rolled onto her knees and back. “My turn! My turn!” Francis shouted, almost incapable of holding this much excitement. He landed on the far side of Pema, spilling into a roaring laughter.


They were quickly back on their feet and scampering up the stepstool. Francis’s mother smartly adjusted the stool to the rear of the table, and the two of them proceeded to jump, roll, scamper and climb, among an incessant thrill of laughter. The four adults looked on. This was a moment of pure bliss.


“I can’t believe we never thought of this before,” I said, sitting back down. I began writing another address on an envelope. I was already thinking about what Ruby would think when she came in. Ruby is one of the most tactile children I know. She is a climber and, at three and a half, has an excellent sense of her body in space. She has a wrestler’s intuition, but a sort of sloppy style befitting her age and size. She falls and slips constantly, which she tolerates because she is always at the ready to catch herself on a ledge, a stone, my pant leg. “Whoa,” she says, “I almost fell,” and then giggles.


By now we had the basic rules set in place. No jumping on each other. No holding hands on the table, because even though you think you’re going to jump at the same time, you don’t. Wait till the person on the ground is off the cushion before jumping. Only one child on the step stool at a time. There wasn’t a whole lot to it.


“Hey! No laughing!” I shouted, my typical mock remark. “You can’t laugh in here. What are you doing?” Francis, laughing, paused to look at me and say, “Nooo… Joe…” indicating that he knew I was joking. That’s my favorite. “Hey, watch it!” I shouted, getting up for the umpteenth time.


“Alright, I want a turn,” I said. I like to be the center of attention. Pema and Francis laughed, uncertain whether I was joking. I climbed up the step stool and suddenly I was on the table too. Height is a magnificent thing. Though I had stood in this room hundreds of times before, standing on the table gave me a new perspective, a new feeling. It was unequivocal triumph. Danger mixed with fun.


I pressed my toes to the edge, making sure the cushions were clear of any straggling children. “Aghhhhh…” I shouted, landing on my side. Pema and Francis were not far behind. “Get him!” Pema shouted. “Wait, hold on!” I answered, rolling out the way, as the two of them landed nearby. I rolled back up and wrestled them a bit and then said, “Okay! Okay!” my arms waving and my eyes wide with the exaggerated expression that means I’m about to lay out a plan. “Let me get set up, and then you guys can jump on me.” Pema and Francis looked at each other and shouted.


First, I lay on my stomach. No real sensitive organs that way. Francis went first. Pema is about forty pounds, and Francis is maybe twenty-five. He landed on my back, giggling and spilling to the back of the cushions. No big deal. “Okay, make room for Pema,” I said. “Ughmph!” I shouted, as Pema landed on top of my diaphragm. A direct shot. I could feign discomfort like this all day. My muscles were tense, protecting my innards from unwanted intrusion, and the kids were gleeful to have such a large punching bag. Meanwhile the other adults in the room looked on with the sort of excitement one feels when watching another adult almost injure themselves.


“Alright,” I said, rolling over, “Let’s try this way,” for no other reason than to find out what would happen. Laying on my back, I felt much more exposed. I expected to catch the kids in my arms, softening the blow, but a well-placed foot could easily catch me in the guts or the genitals. What is it about mild injuries that are so funny? Just a few weeks ago I had been ice skating and, asking my Dad to take a video, I had fallen suddenly, as if in a slapstick routine, onto the ice. I brushed it off, but every time I watched that video I spontaneously erupted in wild laughter - even though it was me being injured. Something about it is just hilarious.


Again, Francis was first. He’s small enough that I can catch him mid-air. I wrestled and rolled him down to the ground, feigning discomfort, roaring gently, laughing completely. Great fun. Then came Pema. I was a little concerned. She’s not only bigger, but, being my child, she knows her father’s strength and she has no hesitation to test it, even with well-thrust kicks. “Okay, pup,” I said, “try to land here,” indicating my arms and chest. “Not below the waist!” my usually reticent housemate shouted, clearly sympathizing with my predicament. She jumped.


“Omph!” I shouted, grabbing her midair as she crashed into my stomach. “Ruby!” Pema shrieked, clambering off me and running to greet her friend. I rolled over and watched Ruby’s face as she grasped the scene. Her father, a gentle but very stoic man, laughed. He and his brother, who have lived next door to New Buffalo their whole lives, grew up in this room.