In 2015, one simple game managed to create such laughter, such anguish, and such fierce competition that for everyone in their post-turkey food coma, it was really rather astounding.
Twas the night of Thanksgiving, 2015. The Magnussons (the warm, fun family of my wife Angie from deepest, Lutheran-est Minnesota), and I. This, was my first proper American thanksgiving. Brother Brent John Bjorgvin Magnusson and Gillian hosted. Deep fried turkey was the centerpiece, while I over cooked some sprouts and tried to explain over whatsapp to my mum: ‘yes, one whole turkey, 40 mins in an outdoor fryer. Yes, it is snowing!’
As belts were loosened, old people passed out, and the quieter uncles went on their merry way, the seven of us left entered the ‘board game’ time of the night. The time when a board is needed to harness attention spans, give structure to libations, and provide plentiful materials for banterous reminiscences for decades to come. At the nucleus of the magnificent seven were Denise and Mike, the baby-boomer-madre/padre-linchpins of the group, who were always down for a game and a sip sip on a tasty libation.
So, here’s how it went:
Malarkey — For a few rounds It was fine, but too many of the boring questions came up, like ‘why do most licorice sticks have ridges’,‘why are tennis balls fuzzy?’, ‘what is the cottage in cottage cheese?’ The relative tedium of this, plus an appreciable amount of booze, led to other games. I would say by this point that inside people’s digestive systems stomach acids had begun to break down the initial turkey consumption, and had started to consider how to approach the abundance of cranberry sauce.
Cranium — The British version of this classic made it tough on my mid-western counterparts. A lot of the “data head” general knowledge questions concerned Victorian prime ministers, or 90s UK soap opera stars. Separately, in the word worm challenges when as a team you have to spell a whole word backward, one letter at a time, there was always one team member who has an unwarranted ‘senior moment’, and forgets a crucial vowel. And it’s terrible ‘cos you have to pretend that it doesn’t matter. ‘It’s okay, it’s fine, you couldn’t spell ‘complicated’ backward, no worries.’ But it does! ‘Cos it’s a game! And the challenge is spelling! And we are all over the age of 8!! And the word complicated isn’t complicated to spell.
There we slouched. Tipsy, frustrated, and needing to lighten the mood. So, we looked no further than the classic that is…..CAH!
Cards Against Humanity — The card game where no holes are barred, graphic imagery is paramount, and reading other people’s humor is key. To some degree, you are actively encouraged to be as uninhibited, as taboo-fucking and daring as possible. Until then I had only ever played it with friends of my age, late in the evening, when lewd commentary was the norm. This was different. I was sat cozily between my parents-in-law Denise and Mike, who while both being chillers were still not accustomed to the social and human lows that the game can reach so so SO quickly. I’m thinking, “Ok, Reuben, play it safe. This bunch is pretty progressive and won’t take kindly to my at-times overly riskay/coarse British humor. If I get a card that says simply ‘gays’ or ‘jews’, which does happen, just be wary how you use it. Play.It.Safe, channel your inner Jennifer Aniston. Be bland.”
So, when it was my turn, and the following came up — ‘I couldn’t complete my homework professor because of a [BLANK], I chose a ‘lifetime of sadness.’ Safe. Dull, but maybe I could just about get through this game. I found my inner Aniston and turned down ending the sentence with ‘half-assed foreplay’ amongst other options.
Well, other people weren’t being so safe….For some reason, Mike was getting some of the most basic, dirtiest cards. Mike is a smiley, stoic chap, and whenever he had to choose, it seemed to follow a pattern:
The question might be ‘[Blank], high five bro’. In terms of Mike’s options to fill the blank, the first card would inevitably say ‘boner’ or ‘a massive boner’. Mike never chose the boner card, but he did like to chuckle at them. Now I grew up with a pretty squeamish father with whom you couldn’t even say ‘childbirth’ without him pulling a face like he eaten a rotten pickle, so the idea of him repeatedly considering the merit of a card which simply had the word boner on it was a bit much for me.
Denise rarely missed an opportunity to, shall we say ‘express some opposition’, whenever Mike didn’t choose her card. ‘What’s wrong with my option Mike, you don’t like it huh?’ Denise would say. ‘So to the question of ‘what do old people smell like’ I put forward ‘roses’, but instead you chose ‘Gandalf.’ To be fair to Mike, he did chose ‘Gandalf’ instead of choosing ‘sudden poop explosion disease’, amongst others.
I leapt to reassure Denise, reminding her that ‘Don’t worry, you’re winning! You’re answers are actually making sense!’ Yeah, Denise killed it for most of the game, and between sips of Franzia, nailed CaH! People chose her cards! However, as Denise’s moral dilemmas moments cumulated, she readily reached breaking point. The thing was that unlike everyone else, Denise had nobly brought her conscience to the table, while others had duly consumed theirs as a convenient digestifs. The level of baseness and graphic disgustingness was really building in the game, and some us (myself included) were seeking to push the boundaries a little bit.
So, Denise’s question card on her turn was, ‘what would grandma find disturbing yet oddly charming?’ Denise’s response: ‘Oh god guys, this is ridiculous. Okay, my options are: ‘Michael Jackson jerking off into a pool of kids tears’, ‘two midgets shitting into a bucket’, or ‘pacman guzzling cum’. I can’t take this!’
She reasonably walks off, and it’s pretty much game over. And fair enough! Denise’s conscience couldn’t take it any more. And besides, while this wasn’t my mother, I know as a son that the phrases ‘jerking off into a pool’ and ‘guzzling cum’ are not ones I wish to hear from my mom ever in my life, especially not at once and in conjunction with some comment about midget shitting!
Here we are, this bunch of mostly millennials throwing around cards with all manner of bafflingly incredulous scenarios — that my parents are hiding “lance Armstrong’s missing testicle from me”; that “ethnic cleansing can give you uncontrollable gas.” How does throwing around racist/sexist/disgusting scenarios filter through to other areas as part of the millennial identity? Do we get overly flippant about unfortunate circumstances? Fair play in a way to Denise for taking these scenarios literally, and keeping us in check. Ang and I often bicker about how I feel that she takes things far too literally. Metaphors! Symbolism! But sometimes, that literal reading of situations keeps you in equilibrium. At thanksgiving, Denise was holding us accountable to some of the card choices we were making. After the game ended abruptly, we retired to our sleeping areas, having satiated our need for a bit of fun. And then, as I do now, I respected Denise for keeping to her conscience.