Playing Without Fire


We got a bundle of those battery-operated LED tea lights, the kind that look like candles without those problems of open fire and wax and smoke and stuff. We were going to get just a couple, but we couldn’t find just a couple of battery-powered tea lights because the Meijer we were in is renovating so that nobody can find anything anymore. I walked along the aisles, sinking further into the helpless despair that comes from finding magazines on display next to men’s shirts or houseplants scrunched up a little too close to the mouthwash aisle. Maybe I was overreacting, but I sure felt at parts like I was going to have to survive by eating my own shoes and drinking rainwater out of a fountain drinks cup scavenged from the parking lot. Maybe I need to go to a different Meijer’s until the renovations are done.

It turns out over by the regular candles they had the imitation candles, which we probably should have guessed. I didn’t see them right away, so guessed maybe they’re in housewares, or maybe by the lamps, or maybe a little farther out, and I think I was going to give automobile parts a try on the grounds I had nothing to lose, when my love found them. And we kept finding packs of more tea lights in each bunch. Tea lights turn out to be very economical when you buy in quantities of over four thousand at a time, and we’re now very set, lighting-wise, for both our decorative and for our teeny tiny localized power failure needs.

They’re bilingual tea lights, so as to let us pretend they’re Sans Flamme brand lights, unless they actually are called that and the bilingual directions and warning label is a coincidence. Among the warnings, printed in English and in French, is: “This is not a toy”. The warning comes out a good deal more merry in French: “Cet article n’est pas un jouet”. This makes it sound like the thing battery tea lights aren’t is some kind of jest, or an obscure sport from the Old Country, or maybe one of those long early medieval poems about French kings killing Angevins. It depends what a “jouet” is. Between middle and high school I took four years of French classes. I’m helpless to do more than agree that household articles are owned by relatives.

But now the warning’s given me a challenge. Is there a way to use tea lights as a toy? The obvious way is to use them next time we play Monopoly, letting them take the place of traditional tokens like the thimble, the dog, the pawn that immigrated from the Sorry board before that was lost, and the tiny Rubik’s Cube earring that broke off its mount long ago but, hey, tiny Rubik’s Cube you can use as a Monopoly token. Tea lights would fit right in, because then when we got tired of the game we could turn them on and declare that the game was ended by arsonists.

Except! I can’t call a board game token a “toy” and neither can you. I may not have a perfect conceptual theory of what a toy is, but I’m fairly sure that if you imagine getting it for your eighth birthday, and realize your response would have been an age-weary groan, then it isn’t a toy. It’s some kind of socks or perhaps a decent set of trousers. And there’s no using tea lights for socks, battery-operated or not; any decent pair of socks is powered by the feeling of discomfort you get after they’re soaked through by an unexpected puddle. An indecent pair of socks is made whole again by darning, a process people were able to do until the early days of television when you had to be careful about your language.

I grant this all sounds like the tea light subject is getting away from me. But the point is I’ve got plenty of battery-powered tea lights, and I’m interested in ways in which they could be used as toys. I think it’s because I’d like assurance that the prohibition on their use as toys isn’t just because the manufacturers are opposed to fun but because they’re worried of the consequences of a toy-tea-light-based explosion or the like. So, this is why I haven’t had the time to do any of my real work lately.