Toying with the pandemic

A hospital visit and an isolating pandemic rekindles the writer's long-dormant love of yo-yos

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
The writer's Duncan Imperial yo-yo.

In a few moments, nurses would wheel my son away on a hospital gurney, anesthetize his entire body and put him in the hands of a surgeon, who had already come in and marked his skin with a Sharpie. I could hear other kids whimpering nearby. Nervousness filled the sterile air. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the yo-yo.

This was no party favor, no Happy Meal-style trinket that falls apart on the way home. No, this was a candy-apple red Duncan Imperial yo-yo sitting unopened in its packaging like a shiny piece of forbidden fruit on the white hospital sheets. It was neither the time nor the place, but I had to unwrap it and give it a go.

“Oh, yo-yo tricks!” a nurse remarked in passing as I threw a yo-yo for the first time in 25 years. I grinned sheepishly and put the children’s toy away, redirecting my focus back at my understandably anxious son. 

He’s fine, by the way. The minor surgery went off without a hitch. And like all the other kids waiting to be wheeled away, he didn’t care much about the yo-yo, though my fascination with it did offer a welcome distraction. I tried to briefly explain to him how I used to be into yo-yos, sometime around middle school. 

The way I remember it, one year at Christmas I got a yo-yo in my stocking. My dad thinks it was probably his idea — let’s give the kids a classic, vintage toy. My brother and sister didn’t take much of an interest, but I flipped through the Klutz instructional book and decided to learn some tricks. Before long I could make this shiny piece of smooth plastic recoil right back into my hand with a satisfying snap. I learned how to make it sleep at the bottom of the string, then return with the twitch of a finger. 

Once you figure out how to make a yo-yo sleep, the door to a world of tricks cracks open. “Walk the dog” is probably the best-known sleeping trick. (It’s also tough on yo-yos; pros recommend doing it on carpeted surfaces to avoid dents and scratches. They also probably spend more than $10 on their yo-yos.) “Rock the baby” requires an even longer sleep time and solid string control. It also looks more difficult than it actually is — perfect for impressing yo-yo noobs. 

I remember taking a yo-yo to school as a tween. It was a novelty. Nobody played with yo-yos: “Maybe I’ll be the yo-yo guy?” Like most middle school obsessions other than fire and sports, my interest in yo-yos faded over time. Eventually I set aside The Klutz Yo-Yo Book for Klutz’s Country & Blues Guitar for the Musically Hopeless, which came with a yellow guitar pick and instructional cassette tapes. Guitar was less of a novelty; it made me feel something. And it didn’t take long to realize that being the guitar guy was way more socially advantageous than being the yo-yo guy. (“Rock Me Baby” > “Rock the baby.”)

I happened to buy a new acoustic guitar, the nicest one I’ve ever owned, two weeks before the pandemic hit last year. I’ve played guitar fairly consistently since those middle school days, though I probably haven’t improved much since my college years. So when Ohio shut down and everybody was homebound, I got an instructional book on fingerpicking. What better time to improve as a player than a pandemic? 

Instead, I reverted to yo-yo guy. I’m no better at guitar than I was a year ago, but I re-learned those old tricks from middle school and even added a few more, like “Elevator” and “Around the world.” Within a few days of playing with that Duncan Imperial, I ordered two more yo-yos (a Duncan Butterfly and a Yo-Yo King Merlin, which is so good at sleeping it feels almost like cheating). When Alive’s parent company, Gannett, switched to a new CMS, I yo-yo’d for hours while watching endless training videos. When I got stuck writing a story, I rocked the baby and walked the dog (on wooden floors, living that rebel life). When an interview went long, I took out a yo-yo. When I needed a quick distraction, I looked around for the best deal on a good “unresponsive yo-yo” — the type yo-yo masters use. (I have yet to pull the trigger and level up.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my rekindled love for yo-yos came at a time when we were nearly a year into this pandemic, isolated at home during the coldest part of an Ohio winter. In the midst of monotony, rampant death, insurrections and an uncertain future, a yo-yo is a simple pleasure, a brightly colored flash of light during a dark, heavy year. Throwing a yo-yo is mindless, addictive and relatively predictable. Rather than weighing me down with expectations of productivity — expectations that are ever-present in other areas of my life — a yo-yo gives me the time, space and permission to be a kid again, even just for a few throws.

I've found myself picking up these toys less and less the past few weeks. Winter is fading. I’m taking more walks outside, where little bunches of snowdrops have pushed up through the ground, bowing their white-bloomed heads in prayers of gratitude for the warmer days and bluer skies. Parents and in-laws are texting excitedly about vaccination appointments. It’s beginning to feel like anything is possible. Maybe even fingerpicking.