Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Our daughter Evie arrived home from school recently, breathless.  This in itself was not unusual because: A. She’s eight. There’s always something dramatic happening. And B. She’s eight. She runs everywhere.

What was different was the reason. From her school bag, with a flourish and a “ta-daa”, she produced something so extraordinary, so unique, that I instantly had to concede I had no idea what it was.

It was a flat-ish bit of plastic about the size of her hand, with some sort of animal, or Martian, or super hero, or thing, embossed on one side. It could’ve been a medal, or a badge, or, I thought, a wind-up bath toy that had gone onto the road and got run over.

“It’s a smacker!” Evie said, adding the requisite “D’uh!” to illustrate how the world had passed me by.

This having propelled me no closer to enlightenment, Evie elaborated that it was “the latest big thing” at school, that smackers had, in fact, taken over, and that everyone was doing it. As a parent, I innately knew this included the cool kids. I also knew I'd be dispatched to buy some, urgently.

We all remember crazes sweeping our schools. And I don't want to sound like some cranky old bugger who thinks all was better in his day, but the things that grabbed our imaginations were – how would you say it? -- much much better. Crazes are now more crazy. Nostalgia ain't what it used to be either.

After consulting, I was relieved to learn Evie wasn’t using “smackers” in one American slang context, and that the third grade hadn’t been consumed by ecstasy. These smackers were of the weird but benign toy variety. In a quirk of international schools in China, they came from South Korea.

The point of them soon became clear to me. It was to annoy parents, by making as much noise as possible. To achieve this, one player puts their smacker lumpy-side down on the ground (or wooden floor, for maximum volume). The other player then slams their smacker onto it, with the aim of flipping the first one over.

If it's flipped, natural selection would seem to dictate that the thrower wins that smacker, and thus builds their collection. But of course natural selection, like disappointment, is now illegal. The school quickly drafted legislation to ensure smackers could not be played for keeps, lest it be seen as a form of gambling.

Having now studied it, in another unexpected bonus of parenthood, I will admit that learning how to slam bits of plastic onto the ground, properly, is a skill. But as a new-wave dad unmoved by old shibboleths of parenting, I will freely tell the kids it's one of those things they'll never need in real life, like any of the maths homework I can’t help with, or the much-overrated Pythagoras’ theorem.

On this point have I clashed with my doctor wife. She’s more mathy and sciency than me, or to use proper English, a nerd. I’m pretty sure she had a poster of Pythagoras on her wall as a kid. She regards his theorem, which is different to a theory in ways I also don’t understand, as reverentially as most people regard “socks first, then shoes”.  But I’m sorry, in my everyday life I just don’t get confronted by that many triangles, much less fret about how big they are. My mind boggles thinking about what my wife’s patients must look like.

On reflection, it’s clear that smackers are, in fact, better than Pythagoras’ theorem, in that they teach risk and reward. Noone ever lost by miscalculating the sides of a triangle, unless it was once the subject of the world’s most geeky bet.

A smacker, yesterday. As described, the latest craze in
Beijing is a bit of plastic in the shape of a thing.

This is what it would look like when one
lands on another, if the author possessed
one other "thing" -- a high-speed

Pythagoras, the man who invented triangles. He might not
be as good as smackers, but clearly by this picture he does
deserve credit for inventing the Weber barbeque.

At least smackers could teach risk and reward, had the school not banned playing for keeps. My old school was old school. We played marbles, and if we lost, we lost our marbles. Yes, it was a form of gambling, but at least it didn’t involve money. For that, we just used money.

We used to toss coins toward a wall. He who got his coin closest to, but not touching, the wall, won all the coins. I guess you could say this resembled a form of gambling for money, but then, it was a Catholic school after all.

Another craze was a game called “knives”. If you’re thinking we just threw sharp knives at each other, don’t be silly. The winner was in fact the kid who speared his knife into the ground closest to, but not touching, his rival’s foot. For some reason, this game did get banned.

We had other crazes that came and went, like yo-yos, and other, more enduring past-times which you just don’t see any more, like fighting. Now, if kids are going to throw down, that too is meant literally, with smackers.

Evie begged and bugged me daily to get her some of this playground gold, available only, she insisted, on the third floor of a building in the Korean part of town. I finally snapped, saying I wouldn’t pander to such whims, and that I’d get some at our usual toy market when good and ready. That day came and, of course, there were no smackers to be found. I put my tail between my legs, drove to the Korean quarter, and there, in a tiny third-floor shop, found the Holy Grail that was a box of smackers.

Evie took them to school. Once. They’ve sat in a bag at home ever since. I guess the craze had come and gone.