Balls Out, Man!

img_1425For Christmas this year, I bought my son a Newton’s Cradle, or as he described it, “that metal ball thing that goes back and forth.”  Also described as “Executive Balls Desk Toy,” this gadget wasn’t the first thing I would have thought of when selecting a gift for my ten-year-old. Nevertheless, considering that the other items on his list included a paper shredder and a reclining, vibrating massage chair, the Newton’s Cradle seemed like a great choice.

When he opened the present, he was so happy with it.  I was, too, noting that it was almost educational.

 

Imagine how pleased I was when he exclaimed, “Look mom, this illustrates the Law of the Conservation of Momentum!”

Actually he just smiled and laughed as the balls crashed into each other.  But I knew he was thinking in physics and was on the verge of postulating his own therom.

The regular tic-toc motion of the toy was at once predictable and surprising.  You pull one ball on the left, let go, watch it strike the other balls at rest, and it launches the outer most ball on the right.  The right one swings out and falls back to relaunch the one on the left.  It was soothing.  It was entertaining.  It was proof that I was an excellent parent.

I noted smugly, as I watched the spheres click back and forth, a good mom pulls back, let’s go, and at the point of contact she launches her child into the world for a time.  Then, without any more influence from her, the child comes back to deliver his own impact. Two spheres exchange influence, relaunching each other back and forth before finally coming to rest.  How great this?!  So glad I didn’t get the paper shredder!

Of course, the metaphor of the Newton’s Cradle had its obvious limitations. The parent and child spheres shouldn’t be of equal size I guessed, and there was no accounting of how anyone learned how to put on socks.  Still, I thought as I watched the spheres click back and forth, there is a lesson here.

I left the room for a couple minutes . When I came back, my son was upset.

The Newton’s cradle now looked like this.

My son was not happy.  He definitely could have used the massage chair at this point.  We spent the next few minutes and then hours trying to untangle the toy.  But at in the end, it still looked like this:img_1428

 

As it turned out this toy illustrated yet another fundamental law of physics: the level of excitement generated at the initial unwrapping of a present is inversely proportional to the time the present will actually work, and directly proportional to the amount of stress the present will cause the parent.

At least this one came enveloped in bubble wrap.  Another illustration of the therom above,  the bubble wrap did provide hours of entertainment.

Systems tend toward entropy, I hear, especially around the holidays.

 

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Missing a Match

My neglect of this blog for the past year has led to it’s automatic renewal.  So I am back for another year.  I resolve to write more frequently and more briefly with the hope that some of my old followers will return!  I will be expecting to hear from all 7 of you.

***

Missing a Match

When I was in seventh grade I signed up for a week-long writing workshop.   As a part of the course, we had to select writing partners and this boy who was in eighth grade had asked me to be his.  Our teacher, Ms. Lattanzi, encouraged the match.  I refused.   I didn’t articulate my reasons out loud but Ms. Lattanzi could have assumed why I said no.  He was a boy.  He was awkward.  He wasn’t “cool” enough for me.

I remember Ms. Lattanzi’s disappointment.  She didn’t push the issue though.  I assume she understood the intransigence of a middle schooler’s misguided motivations.  She just said, “Okay.  You can stay with Christina.”  And she sighed.  This was the sigh she usually reserved for the cool boys when they made a joke about farting or something.

Christina was a sixth grader.  Truthfully, I don’t remember her name.  I do remember that she had good hair, though, and she curled her bangs like I did.  As Christina and I started on our joint story, we clashed immediately.  In keeping with my grandiose ambitions, I wanted to write something unusual, with unconventional characters.  She wanted to write about teddy bears who were cute.  In the end, I let her keep the teddy bears.  She let me put them on a space ship to travel to a distant planet where they were captured by an army of evil ferns.  When, at the end of the week, we all gathered to read our stories to the group I was pretty proud of our work.  It wasn’t great, obviously, but we were in middle school.  How could you expect anything great from us?

Then the boy who had asked me to be his partner shared his story. As he got up to read it by himself (no one else agreed to be his partner either), I felt a little bad.  Then, for the next few minutes I sat and listened.   At first I was interested.  Then I became more engrossed in his story and utterly amazed by how good it was.  As he concluded, to the collective gasp of his rapt audience, I looked at my teacher who, as if she was expecting this very reaction, was looking straight at me.

Again, as before, I don’t know if I articulated my thoughts out loud but I know Ms. Lattanzi knew what I was thinking.  With her knowing gaze, and her eyebrows raised with a smirk, she silently conveyed her reproach. “Told ya’,” she said without uttering a word, “You missed out.  And you totally deserved that.”

The boy, for his part, didn’t catch any of this exchange.  He didn’t seem to notice or care that he had had to write his awesome story by himself.  He was cool like that.

As I grew up, I held onto this lesson and often wondered what happened to the boy.  Much later, when I bumped into his profile on Facebook (through one of his 1000+ friends), I was very pleased to learn that he was doing just fine.  More than fine, really, but I won’t go into details. That amazing story–which includes a stunning career, world travel, and a great family–is his to tell.

 

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Poem for my son’s ninth

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You are nine.

I’m trying.

 

To squeeze an extra syllable in

to this a short, short life

that is getting longer by the minute.

 

On knees I pray with willable grin

that you avoid long, longing strife

that your balloon not burst, even with a pin in it.

 

Oh please take time my filial kin

tho each of our hours is rife

with bittersweetness and echoes of the infinite.

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Bees and Bumblers

IMG_4547It is a little self absorbed (even by blogger standards) to think that anyone other than me would be interested in what I wrote 20 years ago in a spiral notebook.  But, hey, it’s Throwback Thursday, I have a 20th reunion coming up, and also my mom reads my blog. So here goes.

The entry is from a notebook I was using for a Constitutional Law class. Prior to re-reading the notebook, main thing I remembered about this class (which purportedly explored the concept of judicial activism as it related to public policy decisions of the early to mid 20th century) was how I had a crush on this guy in the class and I was always trying to figure out how to sit next to him.

Come to think of it, that was like totally wrong given that I was busy writing heartfelt, melodramatic love letters to my long-distance boyfriend at the time.   Don’t worry, I never strayed.  (Obvs! as if a girl who tried to make her move in a Constitutional Law class, would have any clue about that sort of thing!)

Anyway, my notes regarding the actual substance of the course are incomprehensible.  This is not surprising, given that I did not comprehend the substance of the course.  But, then there was this page about a time when we were interrupted…

*****

A bumble bee came into class today and disrupted things.  The professor stopped his lecture and said, “We should get that out of here.”  So we all sat in our seats and watched it buzz around for a while.

It got confused by the lights on the ceiling and it kept bumping into the bulbs.  Someone turned off the lights, presumably to help the bee find its way out through the open windows.  Then the bee started buzzing into the glass, not quite finding an opening.

Then, suddenly, Chris jumped up from his seat and, to the cheers of the students, smashed the bee with his notebook.

*****

I don’t remember who Chris was (or if that was his real name) but I know I have met him frequently in the 20 years since I’ve left college.  He’s a nice enough guy.  He knows how to seize a moment, to take action, to eliminate obstacles. He’s successful.  He can ignore distraction and focus on the project at hand.  Who knows, 20 years post graduation he might be spearheading, an effort to “save the bees.”  He might be hosting several black tie fundraisers in his Tribeca loft to advance this cause.  There are probably plenty of people applauding his efforts.

Still, I feel a little bad for the bee.

Worker bees like the one buzzing in the classroom that day are only allowed out of the hive at the end of their life cycle.  Before they are permitted to forage for nectar and pollen, they must first perform the duties of “housekeeper, nursemaid, construction worker, grocer, undertaker, and guard” (citation here).  So it is a little sad and pathetic that she was smacked down like that (to cheers!)–right when she was finally doing (albeit in a clumsy and incompetent manner) what she was supposed to be doing as a bee.

I know we are just talking about an insect here. But in reconsidering this episode, I see how the tendencies on display here are played out in other ways.  We often cheer on and celebrate those who are “good at what they do” without considering whether “they are doing good.”   It is easy to rally behind winners.  They throw better parties for one, and, “OMG, bumblers can be so annoying!”  

Still, it is important to remember that as awkward and circuitous as their route may be, the bumblers might be on to something.  Even if they are not, and they are destined to spend their lives noisily bumping into a window pane, they could use (and would definitely appreciate) a little encouragement.

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Presents from the Past

IMG_5471 My 20th college reunion is right around the corner.  Therefore it’s fitting that I stumbled upon an old spiral notebook that contained a draft of a letter (or you might call it an overwrought meditation) to my boyfriend at the time.  He was living in another state.  He was the love of my life then, which would explain why a letter to him needed a rough draft.  And this was 20 years ago, which would explain why I was writing a letter at all.

I wrote him a lot of letters over the course of that relationship. (I was a senior in college.  I had yet to encounter the internet.  I was supposed to be writing my thesis. You understand.)  When the relationship ended, predictably within weeks of my moving home to be with him,  I lamented its loss.

Time passed.  We both moved on to other relationships.  Then I realized, predictably, that the relationship had meant more to me than it had meant to him.  Then I realized that those letters–all of those letters!–had probably been discarded.  (Recycled more likely.  He was a neat freak. Also environmentally responsible. One of our bigger fights had been about wasting water.)

As much as I was able to let go of the relationship, I missed those letters.  They were the product of so much energy and effort. They stood for not only what I was feeling at the time but for who I was then: someone at the beginning of adulthood, when I had yet to “do something” with my life, but when I could still “do anything.”  (Except maybe that thesis.)

So imagine how pleased I was when I found this letter which ostensibly was about finding–or, rather, constructing–the perfect present for my boyfriend in 1995.  It captures the essence of who I was then, hopeful, thoughtful, and a little self absorbed.  (Sort of like who I am today.   Exactly like who I am today.)

HERE IT IS. I pulled it from the pages of a CVS brand spiral notebook where it was nestled between jottings about legal realism, heart shaped doodles, and the contact information for my next babysitting job…

*****

There was a blue box on my bookshelf that I thought would be the perfect container for the perfect present I was going to give to you when I found the perfect present.  I wanted you to say, “My, what a perfect present in a perfect present box! What a perfect present giver the giver of this present is!”

So I looked around.

I went to the plaza near the Square where where rows of vendors lined up with their carts offering presents for sale: tropical fish wind chimes, jalepeño peanut brittle, and chia pets.  None of these was the perfect present.

I went to the coffee shop to think, to make a list of ideas.  I passed the old man in shiny trousers who spent days on his typewriter here clacking out pages of the same refrain.  Today he was typing, “Suffice it to say…Suffice it to say…Suffice to say,” over and over.

At the top of my paper I wrote, “Ideas for the perfect present.”

I realized I had no ideas.

I wanted to be the one to give you a “perfect present”: the reassurance that things would work out.  That you would be the one person who could say on his birthday, “I am so pleased to be me.  I am so happy to be as old as I am, to have lived as I have lived, and to be headed where I am headed, and to be doing what I am doing right now, at present.”

I guess I can’t give you the perfect present.  But I can give you a promise that I will love you. I think things are going to work out.  I am pleased that you are you. I am so happy that you are as old as you are, having lived as you have lived, and are headed where you are headed.  I wish you were doing whatever it is you are doing right now, with me.

So obviously, the present isn’t perfect.  Our present may not ever be.  But when I can read this to you in person, someday soon, our present is going to be a lot better.

*******

Reading this now I see that the characters have changed.  The intended recipient is no longer my old boyfriend (who is now married to a purse designer in California) or my current husband (who, not too into recycling anyway,  merits a proper love letter of his own). This is a letter I wrote about finding the perfect present for myself.

I am reminded that the perfect present cannot be contained by a box (or an old spiral notebook).  It is a mood, a state of mind, accompanied by a sense of satisfaction that inspires continued effort.  (I am so pleased to me.  Happy to have lived as I have lived, to be headed where I am headed, and to be doing what I am doing right now.) 

No one can give it to us.  We have to construct it for ourselves from the available moment.  As for me, I don’t expect to find the perfect present.  But I will keep looking.

Suffice it to say…this moment keeps repeating.  Whether or not it ever takes a different shape is up to us.

 

 

 

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Addendum to “What does she do all day?”

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Some Problems are Hard to Solve

I am a math person.   I am not sure how many actual mathematicians would identify me as math person because my “expertise” in math does not extend much beyond basic algebra.  Plus, my 25 year old “A” in Calculus doesn’t change the fact that I turned into a lawyer.  Still, I say I am a math person because I am not “not a math person.”

In addition, it troubles me to hear people say they are not math people.  Like this is an acceptable thing to be.  Like when otherwise intelligent people say they are not feminists.  I am so confused.  I want to say, “That just doesn’t add up!”

Having spent a little time helping my kids with their math homework, I have some insight into how “not math people” are made.

For example, this week my first grader encountered this problem:

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She asked me for help and we were both confused.  The problem seemed to make no sense.  When I looked at the shapes in the “addition sentence,” the shape I wanted to draw was a giant blank.

The problem was, this problem was asking us to address too many problems at once.  Little kids are trying to grasp the concept of quantity   (**** + ** = ******) at the same time they are trying to grasp the idea that the number 4 can “stand for” the quantity ****, at the same time they are trying to grasp the concept that “+” means “add” and “-” means subtract.   Substituting random shapes into the “addition sentence,” confounds these concepts.  It is especially confusing when one of the “shapes” is a giant “plus sign.”

In the end, a six year old solves this problem by following a pattern.  She knows:IMG_4497IMG_4498

so

 

She “plugged in” the trapezoid for the “2” and got the answer “right.”

I can’t say she understood the concept in any meaningful way.  But then again, as a trapezoid who has always felt one giant plus sign short of a parallelogram, who am I to criticize?

 

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