Friday, April 30, 2010


In Which We Play Favorites...

Man, there are a lot of things they never warn you about when you become a parent (in this case, I guess “they” would have to be my own parents, as well as any other well-meaning, child-rearing adult). I either got lots of useless advice, which wasn’t really advice, so much as fortune-cookie sized maxims: “Being a parent changes everything.” “It’s the easiest hard thing you’ll ever do.” Or I got lots of task-specific tips: “Support their heads.” “Don’t shake them.” “Watch out for spraying (for boys).” “Wipe front to back (for girls).”

No one warned me about guilt, for example, which I tend to feel a lot in relation to my kids. For uprooting them to a new place. For being too tired to do much with them when I come home. For snapping at them to quiet down when they get too crazy, or to speak up when they mutter stuff they’re not quite sure they want me to hear. No one warned me how easy it is to get wrapped up in their little lives, to grieve with them over every minor setback, or to overdo my enthusiasm over some daily triumph.

And most especially, no one ever warned me about a parent’s surprising and paradoxical ability to play favorites.

I used to be appalled whenever I heard someone referring to him/herself as their parents’ favorite. It was even worse on those rare occasions when I would hear an actual parent admit that they had a favorite child.

I’m sure my reaction was tied up with some unresolved ball of emotion from my youth. As a kid, I long believed that my Big Brother was my parents’ favorite. Not because my parents were any less affectionate—or any more strict—with me. But it did strike me that BB got a lot of attention, first when we were kids, and then later as we became young adults.

I was in high school by the time I actually voiced this sentiment to my mom. It was in a heated moment and I said it to get a rise out of her. But the joke was on me, because instead of freaking out and vehemently insisting she loved us both equally, my mom simply said I had a point. Not because she favored my brother over me, but because he seemed to require a lot more attention. “You’re very self-sufficient,” she told me. “So I don’t worry about you so much.”

When I first heard this, I took it badly, thinking Mom was only confirming my worst fears. But later it dawned on me that she was paying me a compliment. And over time, I came to realize that, while of course she did love us both equally, there were certain things that she loved about BB more than me, and vice versa.

So as I say, it’s a great parenting paradox, but I’m finally willing to admit to it: It is actually possible to love each of your children in some favorite, special way, and also to love them all with equal fervor.

I wasn’t truly able to embrace this paradox until the Brownie was born, 9 years ago today. When Her Lovely Self was pregnant with our first daughter, we used to have hushed, worried conversations about our impending second child. For two and a half years, Thomas had been the great light of our days, the sun (or son) around which we orbited, the object of more love than either of us would ever have thought possible. We couldn’t imagine how we could divide that love and attention without someone feeling short-changed. What we didn’t realize is that, instead of being halved, your love just spontaneously doubles in a way that borders on the miraculous. The same miracle occurred a third time, when the Éclair came along.

And yet, since I’m being honest, I’m compelled to acknowledge that you do find ways to love each of them in their own special, uniquely favorite manner.

Thomas is my favorite in this manner: I love the way he walks on the razor’s edge of insecurity and confidence. I devote a lot of extra attention to him in trying to help him find courage and self-assuredness. It doesn’t always pay off, but I stick with it, because, as the only other person in the house who has ever been an 11-year-old boy before, I get that this is an ongoing process that may not show any results for years. But what I really love about him is the way he can surprise me with unexpected moments of confidence and even genius, leaving me open-mouthed in admiration and awe. It never gets old.

The Éclair is my favorite in this manner: I love her sense of will. She knows her mind and has no problem articulating this. I love that she simply refuses to accept the fact that she is too young or too little to do whatever the hell she wants. And while this requires a lot of extra attention (especially when it comes to steering her away from deep water, high ledges, and hot surfaces), I can’t imagine having it any other way.

But the Brownie…

She doesn’t seem to require—or desire—any extra attention. There is no razor’s edge for her to walk. She’s all confidence. I’m sure there must be insecurity in there somewhere, but I can’t recall the last time she showed it. Instead, she moves through the world with an attitude that suggests she knows exactly where she’s going and what she’s going to do when she gets there. She exudes complete and total capability, a trait I deeply admire in any person at any age, never mind in a nine-year-old.

This isn’t to suggest that I let the Brownie do whatever she wants. When my sweet angel child of light morphs into Anna, the mouthy harpy, I take her to task for it. The same holds true anytime I find myself in the glare of her Facial Features of Evil, which I get whenever I ask her about her day, or try to understand her interest in iCarly. And don’t even get me started on makeup. Oh hell, too late. I’m already started. We got into an actual argument not long ago when she came downstairs one day wearing lipstick.

“What is that?” I asked.

She gave me the Look of Disdain—narrowed eyes, jutted chin, lower lip stuck slightly out. Which of course accentuated the makeup. “What is what?” she asked. (Speaking in Snarky Italics is also part of the Facial Features of Evil.)

“The lipstick.”

She switched to an Eye Roll. “I’m not wearing lipstick.”

“I can see it. It’s right there. On your lips. Are you telling me your lips are normally as shiny as a candy apple?”

“It’s not lipstick. It’s lip gloss.”

“Your lips are glossy all right. They’re also purple.”

“It’s colored lip gloss.”

Why are they glinting like bike reflectors?”

She threw in a Freighted Sigh. “It’s shimmery colored lip gloss.” Then, to stop me from saying anything else that might be unbearably stupid, she added, “Dad. I'm just trying it out. I'm not wearing it to school. I know what I'm doing. You have to trust me on this.”

And here’s the thing: I totally do trust her on most things (if not on makeup). In fact, I trust her more than most adults, and certainly more than my mother trusted me. For instance, I no longer ask her if she’s finished her homework—it’s usually done before I even get home, freeing me to spend time with Thomas and his homework (which he would otherwise forget to do without someone reminding him). Her Lovely Self and I have begun granting her kitchen privileges--she can cook eggs and flip pancakes with the best of them, while her older brother still has to be reminded not to stick his head all the way into the oven to see if the cookies have baked. And If I’m alone with the kids and something comes up requiring my attention—the toilet starts leaking, the dog runs off, the zombies are closing in—my first reaction is to yell, “Anna, watch your little sister til I get back!” I’ve done it so often that recently, Thomas called me on it. “I’m the older one!" he protested. "I should be the one you tell to watch the baby. You just love Anna more than me!” Which is not true. But it is true that I mark his sister as more responsible.

And more self-sufficient, sometimes to an almost painful degree. When I asked the Brownie what she wanted for her birthday, she made it very clear she didn’t want me to buy her anything. “Money or a gift card would be awesome,” she said. “That way I can just pick out my own gifts and you won’t have to feel bad about getting me something I don’t want.” Then she patted me reassuringly on the shoulder. “It’ll be easier for both of us this way, trust me,” she said.

So I will. Although I do plan to give her one small present. In fact, I’m off to the mall right now to find the latest in shimmery lip gloss.

Happy birthday, Anna. Today, you are my favorite.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


In Which We Count to Three...

Can’t believe I was doing this three years ago today.

Three years! How quick was that?

That fragmentary video from 2007 also celebrates the Eclair’s third birthday—her third hour, I mean. The clip is a favorite of the Eclair’s—right up there with Elmo’s Alphabet Rap and that wedding video on YouTube. She doesn’t quite believe that the little, red, slightly cross-eyed newborn is her, understand. She just likes it because Daddy calls himself “insane.” It’s her new favorite word. Everyday, when I get home, she comes pounding across the floor to greet me, always with a cry of “Dadeeeeeeee!” after which she steps back, looks at me appraisingly and says, “Dad, you’re insane!”

As of course I am, but only in the most delightfully demented way.

You would be too, if you were in the clutches of the planet’s most willful toddler. I don’t think the world quite realizes what a debt it owes to the benevolent influence of Her Lovely Self, and, in particular, my own susceptibility to mental domination. I’m telling you, were it not for me, and the fact that the Eclair seems content (for now) to control my every move, my youngest child would have long since become master of the globe.

This is because the Eclair was born with a natural resistance to discipline. Or to be more accurate, she recognizes her parents’ efforts at discipline as an opportunity to control us. Take potty training. She is, I’m convinced, in complete command of her bladder and intestines, but won’t acknowledge this fact. Instead, it’s another weapon in her arsenal. The other night, we had a disagreement over bedtime. She thought 9 o’clock was a reasonable hour to retire. I crazily believed that 7:30 was more appropriate. So when I overrode her will and physically carried her up to bed, she briefly tried kicking and screaming, but when that failed, she settled down on my hip, hugged me close, and peed on me.

We have also waged a long and bitter battle, the War of the Right Thumb, which she has been sucking since before she could sit up.


It used to be a comfort thing, but now, like her bladder, her right thumb (never the left) is a biological weapon she wields to dominate us. We have tried every preventive measure, short of scissoring the thing off, to break her of this habit, but she will not budge.


She doesn’t even care that, as a result of thumb-sucking, her two front teeth have grown slightly outward. It’s correctible, but in the mean time it has contributed to a not uncommon speech impediment. All her th’s come out as f’s or fr’s. All her k’s come out as t’s. This bothers Her Lovely Self and me more than it does her—and she knows it.

The Eclair also seems to understand something her mother and I have realized too late: We’ve become soft. The iron hand we wielded in raising Thomas and the Brownie has rusted. We go easy on her. We’ve fallen into the trap many unwitting parents step into: On some level, we know that our days of caring for babies are coming to an end. She’s the last and when she’s gone there will be none left, and so we let her get away with murder.

The murder in question would be the murder of my in-laws, whose heads explode at the idea that we’re raising a granddaughter in this fashion. They tell us this at every opportunity and are full of advice, which they seem compelled to give, based on their success rate of having raised three daughters with perfect teeth and tightly wound sphincters (too tightly wound, if you ask me, but never mind). Advice is their specialty. Endless advice. Enforcement, not so much. That falls to us. And we’ve dropped the ball.

But for today anyway, I can’t let myself be bothered by it. This morning, as I was getting dressed for work, I heard the Eclair stir to life in the other room. Most mornings, she calls out simple declarative statements, carefully calculated to let me know she’s got my number. “I might be going potty right now!” she cries. “Dad, I’m sucting my fumb!” she yells. Other days, she just announces her needs. “I need breffast! I need a glass of milt!”

But this morning, she said something different.

“Daddy! Daddy, please come get me!”

The Eclair only ever says “please” to the dog and to her big sister (whom she worships, and occasionally even listens to), and I thought she must be in trouble. I pictured her strangling in her bedclothes, her head stuck in the slats of the crib. In panic moments, I imagine she’s still the teensy little red-faced, slightly cross-eyed infant, and so I ran to her. It’s what I do: I drop what I’m doing to attend her, a middle-aged man, hopelessly trapped, forever under her moist little thumb.

I opened the door to her room and there she was standing, thumb cocked to one side in her mouth, staring at the door, waiting for me to poke my head in.

“Dad!” she cried, as if she hadn’t seen me in a year. “Today is my birfday!” Then she took the thumb out and started clapping. “Yay me!” she cried.

I picked her up and she hugged me close (without peeing on me). Then she held my face in her little hands and stared very seriously into my eyes.

“Know how old I am?” she asked. “Know how old?”

“I know,” I answered. “You’re three today!”

“YES!” She shouted in my face. “I’m free! Free! FREEEEEEEE!” Then she recovered herself and gave me an appraising look. “Dad, you’re insane,” she said.

But as I carried her downstairs, her head nestled on my shoulder, I realized that, while I may indeed be insane, I’m not trapped at all.

In fact, I, too, am free.


Happy birthday, baby.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, April 15, 2010


In Which We Run...

The starter’s pistol is surprisingly loud as the report echoes across the field, making me jump in my seat. The runners jump too and spurt forward, arms pumping, legs kicking, looking from this distance like colorful grasshoppers, bounding their way to the finish line in front of me.

For spring, it’s hot out. The actual temperature’s probably only in the high 70s, but sitting in it for four hours, no hat on my head, at rest in bleachers made of shiny, reflective aluminum, I feel like a martyr, sentenced to die a slow, baking death.

But it’s a good death. My son is competing in his first track meet—he’s the blue grasshopper, about 75 meters away and coming on fast in this first elimination round for the hundred-meter event. Not for the first time, I’m amazed that I have a runner in the family.

My people have never run for sport. This is not to say we’re not quick on our feet—we are, but only in life-and-death situations, or when our personal motivation is sufficiently high enough. When I was eight years old, my Big Brother saw me out the kitchen window, dashing across the yard with the last Twinkie, a Twinkie he’d been promised. He was a portly child and never known to do more than amble, but that day he moved faster than I knew he could, crashing through the dining room and vaulting an end table in the den in order to make it to the back door of the house and tackle me before I could leave the yard with his Twinkie.

Not too long after that, BB decided to take Dad’s truck for a spin. Dad stood a little better than five feet tall and had an impressive pot-belly. Not a born sprinter, but the sight of his 11-year-old leaving the driveway in his Chevy pick-up was enough to propel him out the front of the house (taking the screen door off one hinge as he did), across the yard and then up along the top of the rough, uneven stone fence that separated our front yard from the road. BB had to be going 20 or 25 miles an hour by then, but Dad caught up to the truck and, in a feat of agility I wouldn’t witness again until I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, he leapt from the stone fence into the bed of the pick-up, then clambered in through the passenger side of the cab and brought the truck to an abrupt halt.

Despite my underfed, chicken-legged runner’s physique, I was never fleet of foot. Or even able to run any distance. I wanted to be a runner—especially if the last Twinkie was at stake—but I never seemed able to summon the speed or the lung capacity to go the distance. Although God knows I tried over the years.

I don’t know why, but my body was just not able to run. I had terrible form. I was laughably flat-footed. And I was painfully susceptible to every known running malady. I couldn’t stride a lap without getting nipple chafe. I suffered from legendary side stitches: All it would take would be a run of no more than 25 yards, and I’d collapse to the cinder-strewn track, clutching my ribs as though I’d just been run through with an invisible pitchfork. I suffered leg cramps of such immediacy and severity that one waggish running coach suggested I change my name to Charley Horse. And don’t even get me started on all the weird digestive side effects that can come from hauling your intestines down the track. In those instances, I proved that my body was proficient in only one kind of running.

To top it off, my head was too big.

I’m serious. Every time I ever tried to run, I became almost instantly aware that I had a big head. I could feel it wobbling around on top of my shoulders, this outsized pumpkin on a stick, jiggling me this way and that, throwing me off my stride. There is no other way to describe it—I had a head that was too big to run with.

So it was both thrilling and surreal to watch Thomas. For the last month, he’s been training at practice two days a week and running every night on the walking track near the house. Blaze and I go with him, but it’s understood that we will never keep up. Thomas doesn’t seem to mind, and he sees us often enough as he passes us on lap after lap.

Now we’re at the first meet. Thomas is 50 meters away. He was second to last a moment ago, but he seems to have found an extra gear and kicks into overdrive. My son is full on sprinting, passing competitors, edging into 5th place, then 4th.

It’s very hot out and my head is spinning. I feel out of breath. The sensations mimic perfectly how I’ve felt every time I’ve ever tried seriously to run.

Hurdles, 1978:

Like Thomas, when I was in 5th grade, I tried out for track. Every boy in our class tried out—like playing baseball or making fart noises with our armpits, it was just what we did. There wasn’t much else going on at that age in rural Kansas. My friend Shawn, tall, long-legged, was a natural at it and fast too. He ran just about every event that was on offer and beat all but the oldest of kids. I tended to bring up the rear in every event. So the coach, after watching me jump a fence, decided to try me on hurdles.

If I’d been required to jump only one hurdle, I might have done okay. But there were four on the practice track. I cleared the first one, buffed the second one with my ass and then, attempting the third one, caught both shins on the thing and fell nose-first onto the track. The word “face-plant” was not yet known in our little corner of the world, but I was the living embodiment of the term as I landed with a flat smack that reverberated like the shot of a starter’s pistol across the school grounds. The coach peeled me out of the track—the impression of my open-mouthed face is probably there to this day—and found a towel to mop up my bloody nose. He offered me the job of water boy, pulling a rusting Radio Flyer with two plastic coolers from place to place, and I accepted gratefully.

Relays, 1980:

It’s the school play-day—a sort of micro-Olympics pitting each grade against the other in all manner of physical activity. I won the baseball toss for my class—say what you will about my legs and lungs, but my left arm was a thunderbolt. I was the only kid in little league who could throw a baseball from the outfield fence all the way to the backstop at home plate. In the finals, I placed second, beaten only by a Neanderthal from 8th grade who had the arms of a silverback gorilla.

I was so pumped from this performance that I foolishly agreed to fill in as a last-minute replacement on the relay team (the other boy had twisted his ankle in the long jump). I was third in the relay, expected to hand off the baton to Shawn, the anchor man and our best hope for a win.

Or he would have been, if I hadn’t managed to somehow get the baton caught between my own legs and trip, falling open-mouthed onto the grass and skidding on my tongue. I got up and crawled the remaining few feet to my friend, spitting turf and looking wildly for the baton, which I thought had rolled in front of me. Instead, sometime during my spectacular sprawl, I had managed somehow to kick the baton up through the back of my gym shorts, where it lodged like a hot dog between two buns. With a courage uncommon in someone of his tender years, Shawn reached down the back of my shorts, pulled the baton free, and raced down the track, taking the baton and the torn waistband of my underpants with him. We came in dead last. I bore the pain and shame of the loss—and the accidental wedgie—for the rest of the day.

Finals, 1987:

It was finals week—not for racing, but for college, and I was late to my exam in English 440: Restoration and the 18th Century. I’d been living in London since the fall. I knew my way around the city, but that knowledge only got you so far when you missed the 88 bus and had no money for a cab. So I ran. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” and in the 45 minutes it took me to get across the city on foot, I was mighty tired of both. I staggered up the steps to my school and burst into the classroom looking like a crazy man. A crazy sweaty man. A crazy sweaty man panting great plumes of cold December air into the quiet exam room. I staggered to the professor’s desk and sort of collapsed halfway across it as I reached for a couple of blue exam booklets.

The professor was a kindly man, but right now he looked alarmed, as you might look if one of your students had just splayed himself across your desk. “Are you all right?” he asked.

In fact, I was not. My last effort to mount the steps had taken everything I had. The world literally grayed out for me. I was beyond speech—which for me is saying something. I panted heavily onto the desk, feeling the invisible pitchfork in my side, leaving great ropes of drool on the desktop. I was practically insensate, except for the fact that I could hear a strange whistling noise, as if someone had left a door or window open. My professor realized before I did that the whistling was coming from me.

“Do you have asthma?” he asked. The wheezing—and the blue tinge to my dribbling lips—evidently led him to leap to that conclusion.

Of course not, I wanted to say. I just have allergies. I’ve been living in a damp, mildewed, basement flat for months. That’s all. I turned out to be wrong about that. When I got home a month later, my doctor diagnosed me with exercise-induced asthma and I began life as a guy who carried an inhaler with him wherever he went. Back in the classroom, though, I just shook my head (scattering sweat everywhere, like an overheated dog), grabbed my blue books and half-walked, half-crawled to my seat. My chest was tight as an overwound rubber band. I could barely get a sip of breath. I closed my eyes and tried to go to my happy place, but it was too far to walk, even in my own head. The kindly professor offered me a cup of tea (he was a great one for tea and kept a pot on his desk). It was very strong, and very hot, but I was grateful for the infusion of fluids and caffeine. Miraculously, my airways opened after a few sips and my color got better. In a short while, I felt well enough to start working on my exam—just as the kindly professor called, “Fifteen minutes left, class, let’s wrap it up.” All of a sudden, my chest got tight again.

The Marathon, 1995:

Well, I call it “the marathon,” but in reality it was a 10K race.

Okay, a 5K race.

But it was a big deal to me, and a not unambitious goal. Since my asthma diagnosis, many doctors and fitness experts had told me I should try a little running, citing increases in lung capacity and decreases in instances of asthmatic episodes as you became a fitter, more accomplished runner. But by now, the problem wasn’t acknowledging the truth. The problem was getting started.

So I enlisted two coworkers in my resolution and we three signed up for a local 5K run. I deliberately picked two women to run with, reasoning that they’d be more sympathetic and encouraging of me than a couple of guys. Plus, once they pulled ahead of me—as they inevitably would—I figured that at least I could enjoy the scenery as I staggered along behind them.

As it turned out, I managed to keep pace. A friend at a running magazine—a fellow who had once qualified for the Olympics and trained runners of every fitness level—gave me an interval training program that enabled me to slowly build up my endurance. We started by walking for a minute, then running for 30 seconds, then walking a minute, then running 45 seconds, and so on until three weeks later I was walking for 30 seconds and running for as much as five minutes at a time, and without needing to stop and use my asthma inhaler. By the end of our training program, I didn’t need a walking interval at all, although at points my running speed was not much faster than the pace my grandmother set at a brisk stroll.

The day of the race dawned bleak and cold. Cold air had a way of aggravating my asthma, but I’d been practicing breathing through my nose in order to warm the air up before it hit my lungs. When the starter’s pistol went off, my partners and I were in the front of the pack and it took an effort of will to pace ourselves and not try to keep up. By the time we reached the halfway point of the race, we were somewhere in the middle, behind the real runners, but ahead of the grannies and the children. I was losing steam fast, though. No photos of my participation in the event exist, thank God, but I think it’s fair to say I looked a bit frightful. My trackpants were drooping with sweat. My hair was wildly askew. As I plodded on, I became aware that I must have looked and sounded like a bull, head down, snorting out great blasts of steam, my lower face engulfed entirely in mucosal mung.

In the last stretch of the race, my partners at last abandoned me. One of them looked at her watch and realized she could finish the race in under 30 minutes, which had been her goal. My goal was simply to stay upright. I wordlessly waved her on and she and the other woman surged ahead. But as they left, I foolishly began to wonder if I could break the 30-minute mark. Runners out there won’t see this as terribly ambitious, I’m sure, but for a first-time, pumpkin-headed, asthma-addled racer, it sounded like an awesome achievement to me, so I dug deep and with a mighty blast of air and snot, lunged ahead. I fell across the finish line just as the display clock read 29:58, sank to my knees and gave out a scream of triumph. Well, I intended it to be a scream of triumph, but witnesses say it actually sounded like a wounded bull. Then I threw up. I haven’t tried to run since.

Thomas looks regal, like a thoroughbred, head high, back slightly arched. He is neck-and-neck with the boy in second place and it’s an exciting dash to the finish. I’m up on my feet, hopping a bit, trying to scream “Go!” and "Move!" simultaneously (it comes out, of course, as a long “MOOOOOO!”) He crosses the finish just a fraction of a second behind his nearest competitor, but still fast enough to place in the final. I dash down the bleacher steps and across the grounds to greet him as he drapes himself over the fence, panting a bit, but otherwise looking pleased with himself.

Before I can congratulate him, he looks up at me and gasps. “Water,” he says, then throws his head in the direction of his team’s tent. “The cooler over there’s empty.”

“No problem!” I tell him. Back up in the stands, I have a backpack full of bottles. I turn and sprint back the way I came, the perpetual water boy, supporting the team. Despite the heat, despite my flat feet and pumpkin head and asthmatic lungs, I feel great, almost euphoric.

This, I know now, is the kind of running I was always meant to do.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


In Which Failure is Always An Option...

In the wee hours, Thomas, who is regularly up before the sun, awakened me with a terse reminder that today was the day I needed to drive him and his science experiment to school.

“Get up!” he cried from his seated position at my desk. “The exhibit room is going to fill up fast and I want to get a good spot on the floor. Come on, Dad! It’s time to go learn about science!”

“Don’t need,” I muttered. “Know science stuff.” I’m all articulate like that first thing in the morning.

Thomas returned to his work—finishing up his presentation notes on my laptop and fiddling with a flash drive. “You’re in a state of inertia, Dad. Get up and show me some kinetic energy!”

So, heeding the call of science, I somehow got myself out of bed and into clothes while Thomas finished his work on the computer. Then we went downstairs and dismantled the experiment we—mostly he—had so carefully assembled.

At first, Thomas told me we had a lot of options when it came to constructing an experiment, but a careful review of the assignment revealed that students were expected to build some kind of apparatus that involved dropping marbles down a system of tubes or track, and there had to be loops built in too (well, at least one loop. You got extra credit for however many other loops you could build into the thing). There was a suggested parts list (marbles, tubing, support rods for the apparatus) and even a budget—we weren’t supposed to exceed $25.

Well, our 25 bucks got us a few wooden dowels, a honking big roll of tape and Velcro and glue (for securing your experiment to its base and support structure), and about 100 feet of track. Thomas wanted to use clear plastic tubing, but at several dollars per foot it would have put us way beyond our budget. Plus, as I pointed out, if the marbles got stuck, we’d have to take the tubing apart to get at them. The instruction sheet recommended foam pipe insulation, way cheaper, easier to form into loops, and you could cut them lengthwise in half, doubling the amount of track you could use, and creating an experiment that still made it easy to observe the transit of the marbles and retrieve them if they got stuck.

Fully assembled, it looked like this:




“Well,” said Her Lovely Self, as she appraised the work, “at least no one will accuse him of having his parents help him too much.” She didn’t mean it unkindly. We both had made a pact that we would provide minimal help, feeling—naively, as it turned out—that Thomas should do most of the work on his own. So I had largely consigned myself to any work involving sharp tools (mostly for cutting the track), and proofreading his report, which Thomas had first typed up, then put into a presentation on PowerPoint (his computer skills, honed from his early days as Art Lad, are far superior to mine in this regard).

Thomas still needed a platform to put the thing on and there I deviated from the instructions, which suggested plywood. I had visions of trying to hump a heavy sheet of wood into school and suggested instead that we get a big flat sheet of foam insulation. It was lightweight, yet thick and durable enough to support the experiment--although not, as it turned out, durable enough to tie to the roof of your car without it breaking in half and flying across the boulevard once you exceeded speeds of 20 miles an hour.


I felt a little guilty busting our budget with the purchase of a replacement piece, but 32 bucks still didn’t seem too expensive.

But then we arrived at school and it was clear that we hadn’t spent nearly enough.

The parking lot was packed with giant SUVs and pick-up trucks and even--I swear to God--a rented U-Haul, as parents unloaded massive displays. Elaborate displays. Clearly expensive displays. It was as if we’d arrived at a World’s Fair exhibit of futuristic theme-park rides.

“Oh God,” said Thomas, taking a panicked glance in back at his meager contribution to science. “I can’t go in there with this stupid thing! We have to go back to the house and—“

“And what?” I said.

“I don’t know!” he cried. “Can’t you think of something? You always tell these stories where you come up with something awesome! And pull things out of your butt at the last minute and stuff!”

I tried to explain to Thomas that writing a story on deadline or getting the last word in an argument was not a transferable skill in this instance. “This is not my specialty,” I said, a little plaintively. “If you needed me to write a press release about your experiment, I could probably help you. I majored in communications, not in saving our asses at the science fair!”

A profound silence descended there in the car, as we watched the frigging March of Progress unfold in front of us. It’s hardly an original observation to note the unfairness and inadequacy one feels at realizing that some parents help their kids way too much when it comes to science experiments, but it was a new experience for me. And I felt like a total failure. My son had clearly inherited an intellectual bounty from his mother, but what had his father given him? I had no head for science or architecture or aesthetics, or really for much of anything else. So I could write—big whoop. And thanks to a meager store of improvisational skills, I could think on my feet. Neither attribute was going to help Thomas in this circumstance. This was not a situation where he could write or talk his way out of the fact that other kids had let their parents spend two weeks building elaborate stage productions of science, while Her Lovely Self and I foolishly made Thomas do his own work.

But there was nothing for it at this juncture. So, with heavy sighs, we got out of the car and, as beaming parents wheeled in their displays on carts and hand trolleys, Thomas and I straggled behind with our rolls of tape and tubing and pink foam insulation.

The room was already crowded with parents and their kids, as well as spectators—mostly 6th and 7th graders. This was a homeroom for the upper grades and I remembered then that Thomas, despite being a 5th grader, had been moved into a 6th-grade science class. It occurred to me then to remind him of this fact, but one look at the expression on his face—the expression that warned me not to say anything to him—and I decided to keep my mouth shut. We got a small space on the floor of the exhibit room, right next to a skyscraper made of LEGOs and Tinkertoys (with a hand-crank elevator that raised the marbles to maximum height), and an intricate looping spiral tower that appeared to be modeled on the human digestive system. Thomas stared at it longingly.

“Look, Dad. They used the clear pipe, like I wanted to use,” he said. There was a sadness in his voice that was hard to ignore. But I bent to the task of reassembling our pathetic little tripod, while Thomas worked with the tubing to reform the loops of the track. Because our effort was so simplistic, we were up and running in about three minutes. As other parents fiddled with different pieces of their kids’ experiments (One dad was wearing a tool belt and using a socket wrench to adjust the tension on the metal fittings of his display, a scale-model roller coaster built almost entirely of Erector Set parts), Thomas got his marbles out and did a test run. The ball made the first loop of the track, but fell out on the second loop and rolled away. We made a few key adjustments, but the same thing happened with the next three.

“It’s all right,” I said, a trifle desperately. “What is it they say on Mythbusters? ‘Failure is always an option,’ right?” Well, it was the wrong thing to say. Thomas made an impatient noise and stomped his feet as he went off to get his marbles. I was no help in this regard--I had long since lost all of mine.

I couldn’t blame him for being frustrated. In numerous practice runs we had struggled with breaking the Two-Loop Barrier. The problem was we needed a higher starting point for the marbles to have enough speed to make the two loops. But a higher starting point meant longer dowels and we could only fit so much in the back of the car. In the end, we made the second loop smaller and tighter than the first, but it didn’t always work.

While Thomas retrieved his marbles, I readjusted the second loop for him. My workspace was getting crowded though as, coming in behind me came a dad carrying a huge piece of plywood, painted black with lots of starry glitter on it. He heaved it to the floor and in behind him came four other adults, each of them carrying armloads of dowels and brightly colored Styrofoam globes. Together, this crew hemmed me in and began assembling what appeared to be a scale model of the solar system.

Thomas had returned and stood stiffly by me as this exhibit grew (and grew and grew). Then, in came a fleshy boy who was grinning from ear to ear, looking triumphant, as if he had the whole world in his hands. As in fact he did: he was carrying a store-bought globe.

“That’s the kid in my lab group, the one who always copies off me,” Thomas hissed.

“The Dingleberry?” I blurted, before I could stop myself. But Dad Dingleberry and his four-man construction crew didn’t hear me—they were too busy arranging clear plastic tubing into wide elliptical arcs around the diorama, and fishing them through carefully drilled holes in the Styrofoam spheres.

Dingle Junior handed the globe to his dad, then turned to Thomas.

“Pretty cool, huh?” he said in what sounded like a sneering tone to me. “When I launch the ball from the starting point (here he pointed to a ceiling-scraping tower his Dad was putting up) it goes through the tubing and the tubing goes through each planet. That’s eight loops in all (I counted only seven).” He stood beaming as one of the crew began running balls from the top of the tower down into the loops. The boy pointed to the center of the diorama, where the store-bought globe sat. “See?” he said. “The earth’s at the center and when the balls are finished, they plop right into the top of the globe.”

It’s a great failing of mine as a parent that whenever I’m in earshot of my kids being picked-on or embarrassed, I feel compelled to say something. At this early hour, though, the best I could muster was to observe that scientists had long ago established that the earth was not the center of the solar system. But before I could open my mouth to impart this lame bon mot, Thomas simply snorted and pointed at the exhibit.

“Looks like your balls are stuck in Uranus,” he said.

If I had been drinking coffee at that moment, everyone in the room would have been sprayed in a fine, caffeinated mist. The Dingleberry’s mouth dropped open as if he’d been slapped across the face. The bigger kids sitting on the sidelines overheard the exchange and started guffawing—one pretty girl clapped and hooted. “Way to go, Thomas!” she cried, then turned to a friend. “That’s the smart kid from 5th grade,” she said, in a stage whisper. It was hard to tell whose face was redder—Thomas’ or the Dingleberry’s.

Then two science teachers came in and the room got hushed as they picked their way through the exhibits. I fretted a little with that troublesome second loop, then stepped back. Thomas gave a start as though he’d forgotten something and went to the sidelines to find his bookbag (which the pretty 6th grader handed to him). Then he darted out of the room and was gone.

I stood watching the teachers as they looked at the exhibits and asked students to show them how they worked. I have to say, some of them were very impressive (the one modeled on the human digestive system was particularly clever). The teachers made appropriate murmurs of fascination, sometimes turning and nodding to the beaming parents. Then they started quizzing the kids and my estimation of them as teachers went up a notch. With just a few questions, it was clear that many of the students could barely articulate the science behind them, which had been the whole point of the exercise (that’s right. This wasn’t really a science fair, just a classroom exercise. It wasn’t like there was a scholarship or even a blue ribbon at stake). Only a few students could explain the Newtonian laws behind their work (one confused girl kept calling her display a chemistry experiment, not a physics exhibit).

As they made their way around the room, the teachers were looking increasingly dismayed, which is how I would feel in their shoes. Clearly they had intended this to be fun but educational project for their students, and it hadn’t quite turned out that way. Instead, it had become a show of excess and overweening parenting. I began to see the exhibit room with fresh eyes. Many of the more stunning exhibits didn’t work as well as their makers had hoped (lots of parents were helping their kids retrieve marbles stuck deep within inaccessible clear plastic tubing). But I also saw now that there were several simpler, unadorned exhibits as well and their young makers now seemed to shine as the teachers quizzed them, and came away smiling, secure in the knowledge that at least some students—and their parents—got the point.

Then the teachers negotiated their way around the solar system, which was descending into entropy. The elliptical tubing was sagging in places and the launch tower was already listing to one side after being jostled by parents and kids coming and going. One teacher squinted at the whole thing. “It looks like your marbles are stuck in...the, uh, planet here,” he said to the Dingleberry and his dad.

Then they came to me. Or I should say, to us. I had been so engrossed in watching the teachers that I had failed to notice Thomas’ return.

One of the teachers smiled at my son. “Here’s my computer helper,” he said, winking at me. And I remembered how Thomas had told me that he had helped this teacher one day when the school’s science blog had crashed. It turned out that he had accidentally messed up the Blogger template, something that had happened to a certain Art Lad blog many times. Thomas fixed the problem in a trice and had since earned privileges in the computer lab. Which, incidentally, is where Thomas had gone. He was now holding a small laptop that he had signed out and was quickly downloading his presentation from his flash drive.

His presentation was short, but effective (mental note: hire Thomas to do all my A/V work, next time I’m putting together a lecture). He ran through the slide show and gave his report. When he finished, the teachers asked a couple of questions, then turned to regard my son’s exhibit. Thomas shot me a panicked look and I realized he’d been hoping to dazzle them with his mad PowerPoint skills and distract them from his display. Still, he soldiered on, setting the laptop down and fumbling for the marbles. He dropped one down the chute and my heart sank as, despite all our noodling, it still fell out of the second loop and rolled away. It wasn’t really that big a deal—I already knew Thomas was going to be fine, gradewise. But I felt embarrassed for him as kids, especially the Dingleberry, snickered.

“What happened there?” one of the teachers asked.

“Oh,” said Thomas in an unexpected voice of excitement, as if he’d just been asked about a special feature he was dying to show off. “That’s the Failure Loop.”

Everyone within earshot laughed, including the teachers. “The what?” the teacher asked again.

“The Failure Loop,” Thomas continued evenly. “The ball loses energy after the first loop, okay? So it doesn’t make it through the second loop. What the Failure Loop does is show that you have to raise the launch point higher or make the loop tighter so that the marble has enough kinetic energy to get through both loops.” Then he leaned conspiratorially toward the teachers. “In science you can learn a lot more from a failure than from an experiment that works, you know.” The teachers were grinning now—they liked that—and were still chuckling as they moved on.

Thomas came over to me, trembling a little, but smiling.

“The Failure Loop?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I totally pulled that out of my butt. But it worked.”

Tears stood in my eyes as I heard these words. I wanted to say something to him, but just then the pretty 6th grader and her friends surrounded Thomas, asking to see his PowerPoint presentation again, and I was quite forgotten. It was getting late and I really had to get to work, but I stood there a minute longer, imprinting that moment in my memory.

I swear to God, I have never been so proud of my son.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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