Sunday, January 30, 2011

How Air Hockey Killed Santa Claus or Way of the Puck

1: Santaphile

When I was 10, I fervently held onto my belief in Santa Claus.  Of course I had my suspicions, as every child does, but I was ready and willing to rationalize those doubts for the sake of needing (yes needing) the fat man who doled out copious and extravagant gifts.  Yeah, my desire to believe in Santa was about the gifts and only the gifts—not about his self-effacing goodness or his desire to spread peace and love around the world.

My belief in Santa, however, was smashed to bits the Christmas of my tenth year by, of all things, air hockey.  You see my oldest brother was 18 then and fervently wanted an air hockey table for Christmas.  This was the height of the air hockey craze in the 70s, that Eric D. Anderson touches upon to provide important in his excellent documentary Way of the Puck: A Documentary about Professional Air Hockey…Really.  In the mid 70s everyone wanted an air hockey table in the house…or so my brother convincingly argued each night at the dinner table.  (We still ate dinner at the table together then—the 70s hadn’t blown up that tradition, yet.)  Being the clueless Santaphile, I had no idea why my brother kept bringing this up.  I mean, if he really wanted an air hockey table (perhaps the most extravagant gift I could imagine) he should just write to Santa—which I realized was pretty stupid—or better pray to Santa for it.  Praying to Santa surely gave you a direct line to the big man himself. 

By the time I was 10 I had already tossed the idea that elves made all of Santa’s presents.  I mean, come on, that’s just stupid.  If you wanted  150 in 1 electronics kit from Radio Shack, you weren’t going to take some crap elf knock-off.  Crap elf knock-offs abounded, of course; they were the gifts that were trying to be what you really wanted, but obviously Santa turned it over to his elves to take care of.  You know—instead of a Batman or Superman action figure, you find “Superbat” under the tree, complete with his pink skate board.  (Pink?)

Lesson:  never delegate the important stuff.

In any case, it is quite clear that Santa didn’t spend his year lounging around the North Pole watching the elves do all the dirty work;  he, quite clearly, was the most avid shopper of all time.  Think of all those Tonka Trucks he had to pick up a Kmart.  All those G.I. Joes waiting with Spartan resignation at Grand Central.  When out shopping with my mom, I’d keep an eye out for Santa in disguise.

It was a few days before Christmas and we were already out of school for the break when my dad gathered me and my other brother up for a trip to Big V—a gritty little local department store.  Big V was a kind of proto-dollar store, complete with screaming children and dirty floors.  I knew there was something really weird about to happen since my father quite literally never went shopping.  This is, in fact, the only time I recall him ever shopping.  Of course he would go to the auto parts store or the feed store, but that isn’t shopping.  That’s going up to a desk and demanding exactly what you want--the height of efficiency.  Watching my dad walk into Big V, therefore, was unsettling enough in itself.

As you might guess, Dad was in quick and efficient form that day.  My brother and I chased behind him as he went directly to the section of Big V that housed the air hockey tables.  My mind was racing to resolve the cognitive shift that was blasting through my brain.
No Santa.

There is no Santa. 

There is no Santa! 

Take a deep breath.

Swallow hard.

You know how it is when something shatters your perception of the world.  The mind reels.  It always seems to happen in an instant, but you are so focused that everything slows to a crawl.  The hands shake.  The throat swells.  I think my other brother suspected something was up, as I had regularly regaled him with my theories of Santa.  He was 14,  but wasn’t mean, and generally indulged my fantasies. 

Dad grabbed the air hockey table off the shelf and lugged it under his arm to the cashier. Ok, he probably didn’t carry it like that, but I have a distorted view of my Dad, given that he died just a few years later.  I still have that childhood awe him that all kids have of their parents; I suspect, however, that my perception of his physical strength was fairly accurate.

I was still reeling from the death of Santa—standing in front of the air hockey tables on the shelf, when my brother came back from the front of the store to get me.  “Come on.  Dad’s waiting.”  I wanted him to say something about Santa and what the hell was going on, but he just grabbed my arm and dragged me out of the store.

The ride home was, needless to say, silent.  The air hockey table, all nicely boxed and ready to be played on Christmas day, lay like Santa’s coffin in the bed of Dad’s truck.

2: Elf knock-off

It turned out that the air hockey table was an elf knock-off kind, and according to my brother, wasn’t the right size, and didn’t have the right paddles.  Of course he didn’t say this to Dad, but he did let my other brother and I know the inferior nature of the table.  He didn’t dare have his friends over to play it, he said. 

In any case, the air hockey table was fun for my other brother and I.  We used to play it quite a lot.  We didn’t have a table for it to sit on, so we played it sitting down.  Playing air hockey that way gave it a sort of communal feeling.

In Anderson’s Way of the Puck you also get a sense of that communal feeling amongst air hockey players.  It is a strained community, however, in that the very nature of the game is counter-community.  Thus in Way of the Puck you have an excellent exploration of not just air hockey, but also masculine/male culture.  Each competitor is in it for himself:  each one wants to be the best air hockey player in the world.   See the trouble?  You want to be better than the other guy, but you need the other guys at the same time to form a community.  Through interviews with competitors themselves and philosopher Lou Marinoff, Anderson explores more than just the game, but how men live and get along with each other, and how there may be something missing from our culture that allows men to interact and to find their place in the world.

Anderson explicates this cultural phenomenon with grace and aplomb.  Much has been made already about how fairly Anderson treats his subjects, and how he doesn’t mock these men.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the film is “playing nice” and not showing the men as they really are.  As an honest portrayal of people who passionately pursue a quirky sport, Way of the Puck is a forthright depiction of these men’s lives—warts and all.  I don’t wish to leave you with the impression that Way of the Puck is some sort of Iron John film with all the boorish heft that Robert Bly gave it, however.  Way of the Puck is an entertaining examination of air hockey, how men interact, and how we live our lives with lots of mad air hockey action.

Not long after that Christmas when I was 10, the air hockey table was stowed under the bed, to be brought out only occasionally thereafter.  The last I saw of it in the mid-80’s, it was piled on top of a junk pile out by the barn.    Air hockey itself was seemingly consigned to the junk pile of pop culture by the late 70s.  In another major theme of the movie, Way of the Puck examines the dedication a few men have in keeping the sport alive by buying old manufacturing equipment and whole companies to make air hockey supplies. 

This lands the movie squarely back into the basic contradiction the men portrayed in the movie face:  how to live in a community yet still push for individual success.  There are several men pitted against each other in their efforts to “save air hockey.”  It reminded me of watching cats—sure the cats will hang out with each other, but each one makes sure the others know that they have their own space.  Some of the men are more cooperative than others, but one wonders if the basic problem with professional air hockey is that they are too competitive to ever get along to form a working professional league.

Way of the Puck  is available on DVD from, or digital download at


  1. great post, clint. loved reading it.

  2. Thanks, Melissa. It was fun to write and is the longest piece I've posted in years.

    Is that sad?


  3. awesome. I love the frame of your childhood experience and how you connect it. pretty impressive, I must say.

  4. Well thank you Lisa B. I didn't want to write a standard review, but wanted to connect to what I watched, and, I hope, make for an entertaining read.

    Perhaps I should take on more reviews?