The New Year’s Sucker

Creating New Year’s Eve traditions can be fun … until they backfire on you.

When I was but a young lad, I created a game that became a New Year’s Eve tradition in the Ribner family home. That said, I was the only one who actually enjoyed it. The game appealed to my inner schadenfreude – pleasure derived from others’ misfortune – and it was designed to poke a little fun at my long-suffering younger brother. I called it “New Year’s Sucker” and as its name implies, the game was designed to make the loser feel like a fool, a chump and a sap.

While my family and I were watching Dick Clark ring in the New Year, I dug a small, soft rubber ball out of my brother’s toy box. Counting on his highly competitive nature to overrule his better judgment, I said, “When the countdown starts, we’ll throw this back and forth to each other. Whoever is holding it after the big ball drops in Times Square is the New Year’s Sucker.” My brother eagerly agreed to play. As a last minute precaution, I named our father the referee in case things went sideways.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven…” Dick Clark counted down as we laughed, tossing the ball back and forth. “Six, five, four…” Our merriment subsided and our throws became more deliberate. “Three, two…” With losing an immediate possibility, we began whipping the ball. “One! Happy New Year!” Dick exclaimed. Cannons fired, people cheered and confetti filled the air as the old year yielded to the new. Like the people in Times Square, we Ribners were filled with excitement… everyone but my brother, that is. Instead, he stood frozen, the ball clutched in his losing hand.

“You’re the New Year’s Sucker!” I shouted.

“No I’m not!” he yelled. “You cheated!”

“No he didn’t,” Dad replied.

In that moment, I was thankful to have Dad as the final arbiter on the matter. I was officially declared the winner while my brother had the dubious distinction of becoming the first-ever New Year’s Sucker. He responded with his familiar cry that sounded like the braying of a wounded wildebeest, accompanied by sheets of tears. Having relinquished himself of the last thread of his dwindling dignity, he reached for the ultimate “Hail Mary.”

“Mom!” he screamed.

As expected, our mother quickly swooped in, demanding I name myself the “New Year’s Sucker” to soothe my brother’s shattered ego. Thankfully, Dad was there to remind her that since he agreed to the rules and chose to participate, he had to live with the consequences. Thankfully, I was able to remain sucker-free for the rest of the year.

After telling my stepson about my many years of playing New Year’s Sucker, he decided to give the game a try this year. Using a stuffed animal as our official “game-ball,” we adhered to the original rules established in Flint during the Reagan era. Admittedly, the experience felt like taking a step back in time… until the countdown ended and it was me left holding the bag. Needless to say, I was shocked.

“As you get older,” Jake said, “your reflexes get slower. It’s a scientific fact.”

“Thanks, Neil deGrasse Tyson!” I replied.

He and my wife had a well-deserved laugh at my expense. While they were enjoying the moment, I swear that I also heard the sound of my brother’s laughter, loud and booming, inside my ear as if carried to me upon the icy-cold winds of that crisp, January evening.
“Sucker” or not, I hope everyone has a happy New Year. And as resolutions go, I have a feeling that 2015 will be filled with plenty of transition and change… starting with the creation of new and different New Year’s Eve traditions at my house! ♦


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