Etch A Sketch was a portrait of frustration

April 04, 2012

I remember the Etch A Sketch.

I hated Etch A Sketch.

I hated the adult who would give me Etch A Sketches on the presumption that it would amuse me, rather than driving me nuts from its inability to represent the arc of a curve.

In other words, Mitt Romney just lost my vote — not for being an erasable, uncommitted mentality, but for reminding me that Etch A Sketches still exists.

Dream sequence back to 1968, when every child had about 12 Etch A Sketches. They were the default gift item from single, 50-year-old uncles who drank a lot of scotch and really could relate in no way to the wishes and amusements of a 6-year-old kid.

It’s kind of like the way I give people waffle irons today — for when society says you must, in reality you just don’t care.


So I must have had four or five Etch A Sketches, which in a sense were the iPads of their day.

The Etch A Sketch had two knobs and a screen, and on the screen was a dot. Turn the left knob and the dot went up or down. Turn the right knob and the dot went left or right.

I might have that backward, but whatever it was, the dot would draw a line, either vertical or horizontal.

That’s it.

It’s one of those things where you play with it a couple of minutes and think, “Wow, that is amazing.” But after a few minutes more you come to the understanding that that’s all there is, and it leaves you feeling cheated and unfulfilled. It’s sort of like cotton candy.

So I drew. I drew up. I drew down. I turned both knobs at once, trying to make a flying saucer or something. But all you would get were those stupid stairsteps that looked like a flying saucer  had run into a mailbox.

There were no diagonal lines, either. It was up or down. I was too young at the time to grasp the concept of perspective, so I never seized on the fact that many small up-sideways-up-sideways moves could be made to resemble a diagonal line from a distance. I was a kid. Who had the time?

And the line remained unbroken. There was no way to draw a head with an eyeball in it without having a line between the eyeball and the head. And both the head and eyeball would be square anyway, which is what got me so mad in the first place.

But the main thing I hated about the Etch A Sketch is that there was always one guy per county who was really good at it. He would draw city skylines and horses and pictures of Richard Nixon that really looked like Richard Nixon.

For all the rest of us, whose Etch A Sketch productions never looked like more than a knot of lineage born not out of art but out of ever-heightening frustration, it was almost more than we could bear. We would grab the meticulous renditions of these Poindexters and shake the toy like mad.

Yes, the one great thing about the Etch A Sketch was that after you had totally messed up whatever it was you were trying to draw, you could give it a good shake and it would all be gone, clean as a politician’s conscious.

So, I suppose, it is fitting that Mitt Romney’s handler would compare his candidate to an Etch A Sketch. Just don’t expect it to impress anyone who was a kid in the ’60s.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at

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