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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted May 11, 2009 | 01:26 PM (EST)

I'm a Yo-Yo, You're a Yo-Yo


In the spring, according to the time-worn adage, a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love. Maybe because my young-man days are in the receding past, my thoughts aren't turning to love this spring. They're turning to the days when I was a much younger man. They're turning to the yo-yo.

When I was eight, nine, ten, spring was yo-yo season. Yes, it was baseball season, too, but along with a baseball bat and glove, every kid I knew had a yo-yo -- and not just any old (or new) yo-yo. It had to be a Duncan yo-yo, because Duncan had the monopoly. Duncan was the yo-yo of choice. Duncan made a wooden yo-yo with the string looped around the axle, not wedged into it. That way, a yo-yo thrown with proper force spun when it reached its limit. In yo-yo parlance, the yo-yo would sleep.

When it slept, all sorts of yo-yo tricks with descriptive names were possible. The basic trick was "Walking the Dog." While the yo-yo slept, the yo-yoer allowed it to touch the ground and staccato forward. Then, the yo-yo was yanked back before it stopped spinning. There was "Baby in a Swing," which required manipulating the string into a triangle shape and letting the yo-yo hang within the configuration. There was "Around the World," which was whirling the yo-yo in a wide circle, even more than once.

There were many more tricks, the names -- and execution -- of which escape me today as I think of those days and wonder why I don't see children on my block playing with yo-yos now that the trees are in bloom and the days are longer.

For some time, I've been aware that Duncan -- founded in 1928 by Donald F. Duncan, who bought rights to the object from a Philippine yo-yo carver named Pedro Flores -- no longer makes a wooden yo-yo. (Apparently, maple was the optimum wood.) Only plastic Duncans are available, but they're no longer overseen by Donald Duncan or family (which actually held the patent for some time), because the business was sold in 1965 to Flambeau Plastics, where reasons for the commitment to synthetics is obvious.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I remain partial to a wooden yo-yo and still have one. It isn't any of the ones I had as a pre-adolescent maven, nor is it a Duncan. Although it's a handsome specimen, it doesn't have the Duncan name on it. I received it as a takeaway gift at some promo event, and it rests on a shelf above my computer with two other yo-yos, one green that was part of promo seduction for a Michael Lewis book and one white, which has the words "Executive Stress Reliever" on one of its hemispheres.

That's the point, isn't it? The appeal of the yo-yo -- which blossoms when school is close to letting out for the summer -- is that it's a mindless activity. It's an pastime that wipes daily cares from yo-yoers' minds. Concentration -- if you can call it that -- is focused on the yo-yo itself.

Sure, there are yo-yoers who turn yo-yoing into a competitive support. Every year in August serious yo-yoers converge on the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Florida to crown the year's champ. A fellow called Hiroyuki Suzuki is a one title holder who does things with his plastic yo-yo you couldn't imagine.

More power to him, but I maintain that the yo-yo's main appeal has been as a dumb object for us amateurs. Records indicate the item -- sometimes considered the world's oldest toy, second only to the doll -- was known to put early Chinese minds at ease and, eventually, also soothed the Greeks. Later, the French got hold of it and called it the "emigrette," which is why Gallic playwright Beaumarchais handed deathless fictional hero Figaro a yo-yo. How does Figaro respond when asked about it? "It is a noble toy,' he says, "which dispels the fatigue of thinking."

Dispelling the fatigue of thinking is one of the great lessons I've learned at the hand of the yo-yo -- or with a yo-yo on my left hand, (I'm left-handed and have never gotten into two-fisted yo-yoing.) But there's an even greater lesson I learned one day at my hometown Woolworth's, when a yo-yo demonstrator of the sort common in those bygone days was at work. Showing wide-eyed spectators how to do a particularly intricate trick, he fouled up, finishing with his yo-yo drooping at the end of a severely entangled string. Looking at what he'd wrought for a second, the clever lad said, brightly, "That's how not to do it."
Instantly, he'd turned something negative into a positive -- and isn't that something we must all learn how to do? I've known it ever since, thanks to my everlasting love of the yo-yo.