Absolute power

Pinewood Derby track starting line.
The starting line of a typical Pinewood Derby track. I get nervous just seeing the picture.

Every January since 2008, I have been participating in the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, a diabolical scheme in which a young boy and his dad are supposed to transform a 1.25-by-1.75-by- 7-inch block of wood into a 5-ounce vehicle capable of speeds up to 140 miles per hour.

If you are an engineer or a woodworker or have a son who is an engineer or a woodworker, this is great fun.

If you are an ordinary Joe without the right tools or access to the right tools, it can be a gut-wrenching activity fraught with peril.

The most stressful part of the entire affair is check-in. This is when you take the fruits of your (and theoretically your son’s) labor and hand it to some pimply-faced boy scout or adult leader who carefully inspects your car to ensure it can lawfully compete in the next day’s race.

I have approached the table with my heart racing and fear welling in my soul.

Pinewood Derby check-in table
The moment of truth. There should be a tissue box at the check-in table… not for the kids but for the parents.

That guy with his pencil and his template board that’s cut to mimic the dimensions of the track, studying his notes, measuring with his little ruler, has absolute power over you in that moment. I hate that guy.

Last night, I was that guy.

I don’t really know how it happened. I’m currently a den leader and an Assistant Cubmaster, learning the ropes from our seasoned Cubmaster. Because I’ll be taking on even more responsibility next year, I had to learn the ways of the Pinewood Derby this year from Reed. That meant I sat, as his understudy, judging people’s hard work, marking off the 15-point checklist and banishing them to the work table where they could alter their cars to meet the specifications.

After inspecting about 50 cars, I got to the point where I could just tell by looking which ones wouldn’t make it. My day job is public relations. I had to use every one of my tricks of the trade to communicate bad news in a way that a 6-foot-6, 300-plus pound dad would hear me without snapping my pencil neck.

Pinewood Derby car parts
This is all you get. It is maddening and wonderful, all at the same time.

I am also a seasoned church goer with years of experience working with people on their spiritual journeys. I had to use every counseling technique in my arsenal to comfort the teary-eyed mom who had employed all possible resources to get the car built but had come up short on wheel clearance.

I recognized the emotions on their faces. I knew the pain they felt. I have been there. I have been banished to the work table to frantically add weight, straighten axles or align wheels, all with my boys staring over my shoulder, looking at the clock, offering helpful reminders such as “Dad, we’re not going to finish it in time!”

What I needed then and what I needed last night was a giant dose of perspective. This, I think, is the real benefit of Pinewood Derby. Yes, I have written before about how the derby gives you an opportunity to work on a project with your son. And that’s still a valuable gift.

But having sat in the seat of judgment for two hours, feeling the tension rise up my spine until my neck and shoulders locked up, I realized that this was a child’s event, not a matter of life and death. The worst possible outcome was disappointment, which is really just a teachable moment for boys and their parents.

aircraft carrier pinewood derby car
Harris chose an aircraft carrier for his design this year. Let’s hope it’s faster than an aircraft carrier.

So today as the cars race, I will be otherwise occupied at my church. Carla will have the boys huddled around the track with 100 or so members of our community, watching the engineer and woodworking dads reap the rewards of their hobbies. They’ll cheer for each other, and Harris’s aircraft carrier will hopefully receive some design recognition if not capture a first, second or third in speed.

After all the cheering dies down and the elementary school cafeteria is cleaned and reset for serving lunches, I hope we can take a deep breath, recognize the good from our investment of time with our sons and get that giant dose of perspective.

But then again, there are only 364 days until the next Pinewood Derby.

Have you been that anxious parent at the Pinewood Derby check-in? Do your child’s or grandchild’s activities make you a nervous wreck? How do you cope? Leave a comment below and help us all get the invaluable perspective we so desperately need with our children’s activities.

That other Lance

Lance Armstrong's less triumphant pose. Oprah Winfrey Network photo.
Lance Armstrong’s less triumphant pose. Oprah Winfrey Network photo.

If an electric current pulses through a device in your home or pocket, you have been inundated with the confessions of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong this week.

With a given name like “Lance,” it’s impossible for me to escape the iconic figure who once stood for so much more than a sport.

The similarities are myriad:

We’re both Texans. We’re both in our 40s. We both spent a portion of our careers at nonprofits that do good in the world. We’re both named “Lance.” We’re both world-class athletes. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement, but we both have run marathons.

The contrasts are profound:

He won seven Tours de France from 1999 to 2005. He beat testicular cancer. He pumped performance enhancing drugs into his body. He lied about it. He destroyed people’s lives who tried to expose him. He went on the Oprah Winfrey Network to make a calculated confession.

Me and the boys after the 2010 Running for the Bay Marathon in Appalachicola, Fla. I confess: I took two Ibuprofen during the race.
Me and the boys after the 2010 Running for the Bay Marathon in Appalachicola, Fla. I confess: I took two Ibuprofen during the race.

I’ve run four marathons from 1998 to 2010. I’ve never had cancer. I did take two Ibuprofen during the Running for the Bay Marathon in 2010 which enhanced my performance so that I could cope with a raging case of plantar fasciitis and finish the race. I haven’t lied about it. I try to be kind and honest with the people around me and help them in their careers. I met Oprah Winfrey in 1991 but didn’t confess anything to her… that I can remember.

With a name like “Lance,” I’ve had a lot of nicknames: Sir Lancelot, Lancer, the Lance Man, the Lancenator, Lancey-poo (it took a lot to type that), and even Lance Armstrong.

I have no delusions about my athletic prowess… OK, maybe a few delusions, but I never thought of myself as being in the same league as Lance Armstrong. He won arguably the most grueling sporting event in the world seven times after beating cancer. To be called “Lance Armstrong” used to be something that was appealing.

Not anymore.

I won’t waste the time or virtual space to castigate Armstrong any further. The consequences of his actions are obvious and significant. I will say what I think I have learned from Lance Armstrong.

First, we can all succumb to temptation. My mentor and former boss used to say “Your morals are only as strong as the last time they were tested.” There are many disciplines in which I engage to prevent moral lapses, but I am not a man of steel. I am human. I must always keep that in mind.

Hollow victory?
Hollow victory?

Second, pursuit of a goal is noble, but when it turns into an obsession and is fed by a drive so strong that it removes our ability to distinguish right from wrong, it is destructive. I like structure. I have goals. There are certain achievements in life I strive for. But I cannot allow those goals to rule me.

Finally, ego is an insidious and catastrophic element of our makeup.  My diagnosis of Lance Armstrong’s chief malady is that Southern idiom, “He got too big for his britches.” It’s really not hard to be “too big for your britches” when you wear those skin-tight, spandex cycling shorts, but that’s a whole different topic for another day. The bottom line is that when we get too full of ourselves, there is no room for anyone or anything else.

Lance Armstrong’s story is sad. He no doubt had drive and talent. Just completing the Tour de France, with or without doping, requires a tremendous amount of strength, endurance and determination. The seeds of heroism were present in his character. However, the line between heroism and villainy is often thin. What separates the two are choices.

Lance Armstrong could have won fewer Tours and still been admired and continue to inspire those battling cancer. He didn’t need to win to be a winner.

Too timid to call into sports talk radio shows? Leave your comment below, pro or con, and share your unvoiced perspective on the latest scandal of betrayal to rock our society.

Here’s to you, January birthday person

For people who don't have a national holiday in the honor, January can be a tough month in which to have a birthday.
For people who don’t have a national holiday in their honor, January can be a tough month in which to have a birthday.

Conventional wisdom is that folks with December birthdays have it the worst. Their special day gets lost in the run up to Christmas, and those with Dec. 25-31 birthdays are completely overshadowed.

I think we have a contender for most under-appreciated birthday month people: that would be the January folks.

After looking at our calendar for the month and realizing we have seven friends or immediate family members with birthdays, I’m seeing first hand how the January birthday person suffers.

To avoid being indelicate, we will not attempt to examine the cause of January birthdays. We can all subtract nine. Instead, I offer five reasons why January birthday people face previously undocumented hardship:

1. Christmas hangover. People get depressed when they put away the Christmas decorations. It just happens. The vacations are over, the gifts have been received and need to be returned, the parties have ended and “cheer” is replaced with “drear.” In comes somebody with a birthday. People can’t even remember their name the first few days after the Christmas holidays much less your birthday. And when people finally realize they forgot, it’s spring.

2. Almost a tax write-off baby. When I worked in newspapers, I worked several new year’s day holidays, which meant I went to the hospital to interview the parents of the first baby of the new year. Their joy was always mitigated by the knowledge that they missed a significant tax deduction by mere minutes. When you are resented as being “late” at birth and costing your parents money, that can carry over for your entire life. “Yay. You were born at 12:01. Now we will be reminded every year that we missed out on an extra $3,600. Happy birthday, you.”

3. Friends and family are broke. I’m sure all of you follow Clark Howard and Dave Ramsey and budget for Christmas gifts so that you actually are cash flush come January, but some people aren’t. And they are related to you. So even if they remember your birthday, the best you will get is a card. Gee, thanks. A card. How thoughtful.

4. People are narcissistic because of new year’s resolutions. In January people are exuding so much energy to stick to their new exercise regimen and diets that you don’t even register as a life form in their universe. They will not realize other people live around them until the resolutions wear off or their birthday, whichever comes first. They will acknowledge other people when they want them to give them a party and some nice gifts. You? You’re dead to them.

5. Bad weather. After about the second or third week of winter, the absence of sunlight and cabin fever form a deadly depressive mood that dominates people’s outlooks. They might remember your birthday, but it will just depress them. They will dwell on their own mortality, and if they throw you a party, it won’t be a good party. It will be one of those obligatory, dud parties where everyone talks about their medical conditions and all the people they know who have recently died. Try making a wish in that environment.

This will help you January birthday people feel better, I'm sure.
This will help you January birthday people feel better, I’m sure.

I am not one of those misfortunate ones with a January birthday. Mine comes at the end of July when people are sun tanned, relaxed, vacationated and generally mellow. They are so mellow that they give extravagant gifts, and it’s been so long since they’ve had a holiday excuse to throw a party that they welcome the opportunity to celebrate your birth. So, I’ve got it good, and I know it.

But for anyone not named “Elvis” — people like my mother-in-law, brother, dad and other close friends — fate has dealt them a bad hand. I’m sure they are glad they were born, and January was a fine time for that. I just don’t think they’ve ever gotten the attention they deserve for the grief they valiantly carry.

So, here’s to you, January birthday person, you are loved and appreciated, and no matter how late your day is acknowledged or how few gifts you receive, you are important and you are worth celebrating.

Now excuse me while I get these cards in the mail.

Do you have a January birthday? What has been your experience? Does your birthday get overlooked or am I off base? Leave a comment below and speak out. Maybe we won’t be too depressed or cold or self-absorbed to notice

The gift of a time machine

Programming note: For nearly two years, New South Essays has been published on Friday mornings. Because of my job change, I’m finding that Saturdays are working better. I hope you’ll stick with me as I move to Saturdays. To ensure that you never miss a weekly post, click the email subscription link on the right. Thanks!

I was minding my morning business a few months back, checking the daily media mentions of my employer, when I ran across an article with the ominous lead sentence: “The video game is 40.”

I nearly fainted.

Immediately, two conflicting thoughts flashed to mind: “Has it really been that long?” and “Have video games really only been around for 40 years?”

Carlton plays Space Invaders
Carlton at 4 had no trouble picking up Space Invaders.

Fast forward to Christmas. During our visit to my parents in Lake Wales, Fla., we took the boys to see “Wreck it Ralph,” one video game villain’s quest for heroism that featured a walk down arcade game memory lane with dozens of characters from video games of the past. It was one of those occasions when the boys stared at me in wonder as I laughed out loud at what they thought were inappropriate moments.

On the night we arrived in Florida, not long after opening our gifts from Mom and Dad, we discovered my mother was obsessed about one Christmas gift she ordered on Amazon that didn’t get delivered in time. True to my parents’ form, they had ordered one for each of their three sons, but it had not arrived for any of us. Sitting at her computer, Mom diligently followed the tracking number across the country and each morning over my coffee she updated me on the shipping status of the mystery gift.

Honestly, I had forgotten about it by Wednesday when I returned to work. With the resumption of my routine, Christmas and its gifts were far from my mind when the UPS truck pulled up outside our home. Then I remembered there was one more gift to open.

We made the boys wait until after supper before diving into the plain cardboard box. I could not have predicted the bizarre emotional reaction I felt when the “Atari Flashback 4” emerged. I stared at the box, not with the eyes of a 42 year-old father of three but with the eyes of a 10-year-old on Christmas morning unwrapping a pulse-quickening, hours-wasting, life-changing, dream-making device. It was the Holy Grail. It was my Red Ryder BB gun. It was the most amazing device my brother and I had ever seen.

Desperate to plug it in and get started on the 75 games that came pre-programmed on the slightly smaller console, the boys pleaded and begged for me to set it up. As I examined the contents, I had that strange feeling of deja vu. The console and power pack were smaller. The joysticks were wireless. There were buttons on the front of the console where the little levers used to be. I was both taken back in time and a little confused.

So I did what any parent does in those moments: I sent the boys to bed. I needed time to sort this out. No, I didn’t need help plugging it in and turning it on. I needed to sort out the complex emotions this gift evoked.

Harris plays Atari
Harris didn’t know what to do with the overly simple controller at first.

By the time I got home from work on Thursday, the boys had figured out how to hook up the system. The family was gathered in the living room around the “old TV”. As I made my way from the kitchen, I could hear the rumble of tanks. The appropriately named “Flashback” did just that, taking me back to my youth when my brother, Lee, and I would press the red buttons and strain the vinyl-covered stick as we tried to put English on the bullets coming from our tanks.

Video games have played a part in my life almost since I was old enough to play them. Seeing that Atari’s Pong had turned 40 and then seeing this “Flashback” console made me wonder what will be the retro toys my boys will find memory-provoking 40 years from now.

I can’t imagine where technology is headed. I just hope my boys will have positive memories from their wasted hours playing video games together. For me and my brothers, the memories are what made the wasted hours worth it.

So what’s your earliest memory of video games? What was your favorite? Were you an Atari or an Intelivision person? Did you blow untold fortunes in quarters at the arcade? Share your memories by leaving a comment below.