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The Call of the (Toy) Hunt

How do you deal with that irrational, sometimes-violent behavior that threatens to ruin the holidays? No, not your toddler's temper tantrums. I'm talking about the irrepressible, irrational urge that overtakes parents this time of year, when the must-have Christmas toys beckon and the bare-shelf blues set in.

The gotta-have-it toy race is on. Have you missed the starting gun?

Right now, I'm using all my willpower to resist thinking about MindFlex. This is a new Mattel mental acuity game with a sensory headset that measures brainwave activity. Players focus their thoughts on a small foam ball to see how high they can levitate it. Sounds pretty cool, eh? Is it $70-$100 worth of cool? Nah, but that doesn't matter. Neither does it matter that not one of my kids has ever mentioned wanting this toy. I'm convinced that this is the single gift that will flip the exuberance switch on come Christmas morning. Why? Because it's impossible to find…out of stock on store shelves at Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart; on back order at amazon.com and all the other shopping websites.

I'm really not one of those parents that always has to get my kids the latest and greatest. We don't own a Wii. My kids don't carry iPhones. Yet...I don't know whether I've been suckered into a clever marketing ploy or become victim of my own super-competitive spirit. Pity me. I'm hooked and the holiday must-have buzz is reeling me in for the kill.

A few weeks ago, I heard two radio DJs talking about MindFlex on my drive into work. I was mildly intrigued. Then one of them lamented how impossible it was to find this game in stores and online. It was like someone flipped a Bic under my butt. My heart started beating faster. My palms began sweating. It was all I could do to resist slamming on my brakes and flooring it to the nearest Target to get on the waiting list.

Since then, I have completed almost all of my holiday shopping with toys I know my kids will love and probably use often. Still, MindFlex keeps nagging at my subconscious, along with Zhu Zhu Pets, New Moon Barbie dolls and the Nintendo Dsi – all gifts on the limited, hard-to-find hot toy list of 2009. The more elusive they are, the more you gotta have 'em. The hunter in me yearns to rise to the challenge.

It's really not fair to judge us. My generation grew up in the height of the shop-to-kill hot toy insanity. Fed by Saturday morning cartoon commercials and the Sears Wish Book, we children of the 1970s and '80s were subliminally raised to think that the good life hinged on whether a Cabbage Patch doll or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle appeared under our trees. I still remember how painful it was the year I didn't get that Easy Bake Oven. Surely, I must spare my daughters from such agony. (Remember, there is no Sanity Clause when it comes to parenting during the holidays.)

How far are you willing to go for this year's It Gift? On Black Friday, the mad dash was all about Zhu Zhu Pets, robotic hamsters that go for $8 a pop at WalMart – if you can find them. Demand is so high for these low-maintenance pets -- they don't poop, stink or die -- that toy stores can't keep up with orders. Online auction sites are starting to charge $40-$60 for the rodents. The hamster hunt is so intense, there's even a Facebook fan site that tracks parents' searches for the toys.

What is driving us, really? Our children's happiness? Or our desire to be clever and cool enough to snag what every other parent wants and has failed to find?

There's a fine line between being a generous, well-intentioned parent and becoming one of those Furby-hunting, Wii-stalking, Tickle-Me-Elmo scufflers in the news every year. The rational, responsible parent in me gets that most of the top toys lists are fabricated by the companies that make or sell these toys; that I'm a sucker for even paying attention. It will take everything in my power not to succumb to my doubts on those final days leading up to Christmas, when the impulse buy urges come on strong. But, mark my words, I will prevail. (However, if you happen to spot a MindFlex game out there in the next 17 days, just for the heck of it, please e-mail, text and Tweet me.)

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