How to Snatch Victory from the Jaws of Defeat, or, Happy Birthday, Marie


birthday lede
photo credit: Day 5 – These are not the droids we’re looking for via photopin (license)

So, Marie turns 13 today.

Happy birthday, Marie. As cool as it will be, it’ll be hard to top her birthday two years ago. See, that’s when Marie turned 11. On 11/11/11. We might have told a few people this as we made our way through that day.

Like, anyone within a 2-meter radius, or who even almost made eye contact with me.

This post appeared on Modern Parent Online (a now defunct website, so I can use this word-for-word) when Marie turned 11. How green of me, right? Besides, I’m busy making Korean pancakes for her birthday breakfast.

Happy birthday, Marie.

My Marie is a muse to Lady Luck. Maybe it’s because Marie turned 11 on 11-11-11. Lucky. Marie will come away with sweets from every cake walk. She finished her first fishing trip with – a fish. Got a goal the first time she played in a soccer match.

Girlfriend always wins

Ninety percent of games, she wins. Checkers. Tic-Tac-Toe. Mario Cart.

Marie + Game = Winner. Lady Luck tolerates me. My good luck begins and ends with claw games you see in CiCi’s Pizza and Walmart. You know, the near-impossible-to-win but near-impossible-to-resist glass box brimming with near-worthless stuffed animals.

It beckons you with color and flash and promise and allure of beating the man, the system, and the game, all with one authoritative plunge with a three-pronged claw into a sea of plush and stuffing.

I somehow win the claw game. Like, better than 50 percent of the time. Under pressure, even. I retrieved three – three! – stuffed toys from a Walmart game in Greeley, Colo., one by one, for each of my cousins.

The last dropped in the victory bin while my youngest cousin, Levi, bounced around like he’d just won the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right.

Once, at CiCi’s, I yanked a green pony with pink mane and tail out for Elise; with a swarm of kids pressing runny noses against the glass and whooping it up like liquor-soaked bandits at a cockfight, plucked out a turtle with a multi-colored shell for Marie.

She affectionately named “Arse.” (True story, the cheeky monkey.)

A day of luck

Marie chose Steak ‘n Shake for her birthday lunch. We had told anyone who would listen that she was turning 11 on 11-11-11 (OK, so mainly it was me saying that). It’s a day of luck, my friend Junko said, for a lucky girl.

Marie wanted to play the claw game waiting in the corner.

It was a big-time set-up. Big prizes. Tight squeezes. A huge claw. Fifty cents a shot. We’d been told that she should buy a lottery ticket on this special day. Why not take a rip at the claw game?

Plans developed. Prospects were scoped from all three windows. Quarters dropped. Claws plunged. Prizes stayed put. Time. after. time.

Our pitiful handful of quarters exhausted, we had to trek back to the table to show the family our empty hands. “Have fun tossing away $2?” mom asked. It gets worse. A boy came smiling past our table with – yes – that coveted toy Puss in Boots in his grasp.

Bad enough that I came up empty; but now, this kid walks by and shows up the old guy, the one with the kid with a birthday on … well, you remember.

Let’s not make this about the cat, and lose sight of the true battle: Man vs. Machine. It’s a triumph I’d delivered before, but when the stars aligned, I failed. Steak ‘n Shake became my Hamburger Hill, my elusive prize, the foil to my plan for my daughter’s perfect day.

And a good boy


I did what any other dad would do – I snatched it from his mitts and bolted for the door.

I didn’t … but I thought about it. I complimented him instead. I acknowledged the new king and hoped the meager pile of corn-dog bits and kiddie cup of root beer would dull Marie’s disappointment.

Then, a strange thing happened.

This boy, Matthew, fresh off his first season playing middle school football as a left tackle – presented the prize to the birthday girl. She smiled. He smiled. He sat down and turned to his father.

See, Dad?” he said.

So I did what any other dad would do – I got his name and told him that I’d write about him. Thanks, Matthew. I hope you were watching me fail at the claw game because I was definitely doing it for your benefit so you could learn from my mistakes.

Well done, lad.

aesop quote kindness



  1. laurie27wsmith says:

    ‘like liquor-soaked bandits at a cock fight,’ What a great line Mate, love it! A great birthday story, what a little winner as well, getting given the puss ‘n boots toy. Marie is truly blessed.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks brother – when the field is lined with angry parents, it’s quite the spectacle. I was impressed with how this boy came through. I’d like to think I’d have done the same at that age, but I can’t be sure!

      She is blessed – 10:41 on her birthday morning and she’s sleeping in.

      1. laurie27wsmith says:

        It is amazing what young boys do when it comes to getting a smile from a girl, it shows he has some values and a good heart. Sleeping in eh? A great birthday gift indeed. Once you pass 60 you tend to wake up early and make the most of the day. Give her a happy birthday from down under will you?

  2. Happy Birthday to your daughter! I hope she has a wonderful day…and you survive your first day as a dad with TWO teenage daughters. I’m already dreading this day and I have years to go!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks Nicole! Today should be a blast – and life with two teens might not be so rough. Especially when they act like kindergarteners! Wait, so do I, sometimes.

      But I do love it. Hard.

      Parenting teens is like the SAT test or a prostate screening – there really isn’t anything you can do to prepare!

      1. So glad I never have to take the SATs again. Ugh! And no prostate screening, but I’ve heard mammograms are no picnic either…

      2. Eli Pacheco says:

        I wish there was drawing on the SATs. I might have gotten into Yale. I hope to never know anything about mammograms from a first-person perspective.

  3. shoes says:

    What a great story! And what a lucky girl to have a dad like you (even if you do occasional come up empty clawed at the claw game). 🙂

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks! I’m still hitting about .800 in the claw game (well, maybe .450), and even John Elway lost a Super Bowl or three.

  4. Kim says:

    Happy birthday to Marie!! Such a fun story and how awesome that she turned 11 on 11-11-11!!! I can’t even tell you how many quarters we wasted on those claw games when the boys were little – we have never won!!!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks Kim! I swear her 11/11/11/ birthday wasn’t planned. I refuse to think of it as quarters wasted – it’s a down-payment on my future 35-cent stuffed toy I’m bound to win.

  5. Happy Birthday, Marie!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks Toby – just about to have brunch and hit the park!

  6. tamaralikecamera says:

    Happy Lucky 13 to Marie! I was just writing about a friend who turned…not 11 on 11/11/11 and how she told me that she wanted a second baby but wouldn’t start trying until after the birthday in question, because she wanted to be very drunk for 11/11/11.
    Personally, I’d prefer Steak n’ Shake and claw games.

    By the way, I have the same weird talent. I always win at those claw games. I look at it from three angles and then I release the claw. It feels good every time.

    Matthew is a class act.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      She just won her first try at Wii Wipeout, fittingly. There’s a movie about 11/11/11 but I think it’s about a devil child. I’ll take Steak ‘n Shake fries and losing at the claw game over an encounter with Damian, too.

      I feel like there ought to be a tournament for us claw masters. You sound so scientific in your approach. I’m more like Luke turning off the computer in his X-wing and going for the prize (or Death Star) using The Force.

      Kinda makes me a Jedi. Or maybe it makes Matthew one.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Isn’t it? I think she’d rather have beaten a boy to get the prize, but she was gracious.

  7. Rabia Lieber says:

    What a sweet birthday memory!! And a sweet kid to go along with it!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Not too shabby, right? Maybe that boy will become a senator or an astronaut. Or, manager of a Steak ‘n Shake who will commission me to beta test all new dishes.

      That’d be cool.

  8. Stephanie says:

    That is a great story – he got to “show you up” but still did the right (or a good) thing. She is pretty lucky, indeed.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Yes, he did good. I was impressed that he didn’t even do it for the reaction, just the good deed. Thanks Stephanie!

  9. Happy birthday sweet Marie! You have great girls!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks! They have their moments … haha.

  10. My daughter once beat the claw machine 3 times in a row. Maybe we should arrange a Claw-off?!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      I feel like it ought to be an Olympic sport, Kristi. Three straight times matches my career best … maybe I should be passing the torch to her soon.

      But not yet.

      I saw a bunny ripe for the picking tonight at Walmart. If only I had a dollar in my wallet …

  11. Rorybore says:

    Happy Birthday Marie!
    Hope she had a great day.
    I cannot play those games, truly horrible. And I am Irish! They must have some kind of charm block or something…..because I am never lucky with them. Whenever I walk past one, I just toss some quarters at it. Seems easier. 🙂
    P.S. Tell Matthew my birthday is in May and I like that fluffy unicorn from Despicable Me 😉

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks! She did, I think … I wish I could have given her more on the day.

      Some of us have the gift of the grab. The Irish can’t do this? I remember that Tom Cruise movie where he fought a lot, and was Irish.

      Canadian quarters are cooler than American ones, so save those up, would you?

      We’ll get that lad right on the orders for future birthdays. I might have to help him out.

  12. Letizia says:

    Love the story 🙂 Lucky 13 (a lucky number in Italy!)

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Thanks Letizia! I think she’s a pretty lucky girl.

  13. I have NEVER seen someone win at the claw game! Good to know it’s possible!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      When I researched the post, I found that there are government regulations that require a machine to have a strong grip at least one in 12 tries.

      Some are rigged, for sure, but I have a system … I couldn’t hack it as a pool shark, so I settled in to this as my hustler reality!

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