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The Wind-Up Monkey

Why I won't go to the toy museum in Munich


I'm in Munich, and I really think I have better ways of wasting my time besides going to a toy museum.

In fact, I seriously think I would have more fun pushing buttons up my nostrils, as my little sister once did when she was 3.

I remember it really well, how my father was dashing for the car keys, bellowing about how my sister had shoved a button up her nose and now we had to take her to the hospital to crack open her nasal cavity and dig it out.

At that point, my sister, who was brilliant even at 3 (barring the button-shoving), convinced my father she was just kidding and hadn't shoved anything anywhere. Then three years later she had to get her head X-rayed on account of how she somehow used it to pound a hole in our living room wall (all I know is that it was hardly my fault).

I'm told that the doctor clipped the film on the light tray, peered closely at the outline of my sister's skull, and exclaimed softly, "She has a button all up in her head."

After that she got to stay in the hospital for a few days, where they served her hot chocolate every time she asked for it. So I'm not kidding when I say I'd have more fun shoving buttons up my nostrils than visiting a toy museum in Munich.

And I only mention the Munich toy museum at all because it's always brought up on my way there, as inevitably there is a co-worker on the flight who has never been and is all excited about going, and who tries to enlist me, the German interpreter, to come along and translate everything.

First, I am a lousy translator. What I don't know I make up. Once, way back before I could say no, I got shanghaied by the crew into attending a tour of a castle outside of Frankfurt, where I was to serve as the interpreter to the actual tour guide.

At the end of the tour, I had my fellow crewmembers believing that German royalty of the Renaissance era fertilized their gardens by sticking their actual asses out their turret windows to crap on the flower beds below. But to my credit, though, I'm almost positive the tour guide really said that.

The toy museum, though, I have avoided going to all this time and don't plan on deviating. The German word for toy is "spielzeug," for one, which translates literally to "play device," which is a damn boring way to refer to something supposedly fun, if you ask me. I envision the museum with row after row of old wind-up play devices encased behind glass, all of them made from wood, probably, with placards before them that my bad German would butcher into warped facsimiles of their real meaning. "It says here," I'd probably say, "that this was painted with authentic human ear wax."

I bet not even one of those toys is as fun as the mess of electrical stuff I used to get as a kid. I remember one in particular, a set of plug-in metal molds that came with tubes of colored goop made from nuclear, cancer-inducing polypropylene, probably, and you would squirt the goop onto the molds, which were in the shape of flowers, and then heat it up.

The metal plates got so hot we could have used them to cauterize freshly amputated limbs. My big sister and I each routinely burned our fingers down to bloody stubs playing with this set, but it was fun, I tell you, and in the end we had a lovely collection of little choke-hazard rubber flowers to show for it.

But my little sister's favorite toy did not even need to be plugged in. In fact, it was a wind-up monkey that never left her side, with the fake fur rubbed down to just a rough nubbiness, pretty much.

When wound up, it did the same thing, again and again, as far as I could tell. But for some reason it did other things for my sister. Somehow it performed all kinds of wondrous feats and mischief.

Once we discovered her in the bottom bunk, with her monkey next to her, hanging by its feet. "I caught him cheating at cards," she explained.

Another time we found her with her head festooned in fresh daisies, brought to her, she said, by the wind-up monkey. For me, though, the monkey never cheated at cards or picked flowers, it did the same thing again and again.

So I have never gone to the toy museum in Munich. I don't see the appeal of playthings behind a locked partition, things that, if you wound them up, would do the same thing over and over again. Maybe I'm worried I'll be alerted to the danger that I'm hardly any different.

Maybe I should be more like my little sister, who saw such wonder in simple things, and who would have loved that museum and the treasure it encases.

But me, I've been routinely coming to Munich for more than a decade, and as of now, I know what I like to do.

I like to lock my door, for one, and rest my rough nubbiness until it's time to wind myself up again.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood (Harper Collins), now available in paperback. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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