Matt McHugh
Matt - Blog - August 2006


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My Son the Genius
August 17, 2006

So here's a thing. A few years ago, at my request, my wife bought me this building toy kit, the Hoberman Expandagon Construction System. Chuck Hoberman is an architect/engineering specializing in collapsing/expanding structures. His work involves elaborately hinged gizmos that fold and spread like multi-dimensional umbrellas. Beautiful and impractical, these gizmo are fixtures at science museums and the inspiration for a whole line of upscale toys. If you've ever seen any of them--the expanding Hoberman sphere is a particularly popular item--you know how fascinating they can be. At some store somewhere (long before the kids arrived) I'd seen this construction toy kit and told my wife I'd like that as gift someday (I am a frustrated many things; among them is architect/engineering). She got it for me. I never opened it. It's sat on a shelf for some six or seven years.

Recently, my son noticed its colorful box and began been nagging to play with it. I kept putting him off, saying it was too complicated and it would likely just frustrate him--but he kept at it. After a few days, I caved and took the thing out. I sat on the floor with him and read the directions. In order for the expandability to work on different shapes, you have to snap the pieces together according to some basic rules. It's a little counter-intuitive, but you get the hang of it with some trial and error. The instruction book has different examples of projects you can build. My son wanted the rocket. I followed the step-by-step instructions and put it together for him. Took me 15...20 minutes or so. My son seemed only semi-interested in either the process and result. Afterward, all the parts got disassembled and left on the floor in my den/attic. Over the next few days, my son played with them a little, making interesting patterns but nothing that followed the rules of expandability. Can't blame hm. They're complicated. Took me--a grown-up with the instructions--half and hour or so to even get the basics.

Tonight, he's up in the attic playing with the expandagon parts for a while He comes downstairs with a perfect replica of the rocket, properly assembled according the rules of expandability. Even more, it wasn't an exact replica, but contained a variation of the design to feature a peaked, orange "flame" and one end. In about 15-20 minutes, working off nothing but his memory of what I'd put together days ago and the few basic rules I showed him, my 5.5 year-old assembled this from loose parts:

Needless to say, I was pretty damn impressed. Single pieces in the kit all have moving parts built into them, so this looks much more complicated than it is, but I'm still pretty damn impressed. As I said, it's not intuitive (at least not to a adult) how the pieces need to go together. But he worked it all out, even the orange flame construct, which he completely made up.

"Genius" is a wretchedly abused word in the current vernacular, but I honestly consider this a work of genius--an example of a little mind working out something unfamiliar based on, largely, intuition. I read the instructions. He figured it out. I'm 35 years older than him. I'm not saying ship him off to MIT today; I'm just marvelling at how his nimble young gray matter can grasp something I seriously thought far beyond him. These are the things that make being a parent truly electrifying. Most of the time, it's a maddening slog through the mud, but when those clouds part... man, it's something else.

-- mm

Pretty Crying Woman
August 11, 2006

So I go out for lunch today, walking a couple blocks from the office to my favorite pizza joint. I'm waiting in line and can see out the window across the street, where there's a bus stop with kiosk and bench. Sitting alone on the bench is a 30-ish woman--brown haired, well dressed in business casual style, pretty in a simple, unassuming way--who suddenly, for no obvious reason, bursts into tears, though that stock phrase doesn't do the action justice. One moment, she is following the traffic with a nondescript gaze; the next, her whole face squints and her shoulders twitch with a few bubbling waves of sobs. Then, she is calm again. Ten seconds later, she is sobbing. On and off for minutes as I watched from behind the shaded shop window.

My first thought was, of course, why? Crumbling love affair? Death of friend or family? Some private regret too obscure to register to anyone but her as worth a sniffle? She was holding a manilla envelope. Medical test results? As you can imagine, I imagined a whole series of scenarios in a tumble of jump-cut montages with implied back stories threading invisibly from each. My mind sometimes works like that, and I like to encourage it when it goes on such a trip.

As all that flashed by, I experienced a sudden, unexpectedly strong desire to go over and comfort her. That surprised me a bit, so I reflected on it. Aside from being inappropriate, presumptuous, ludicrous, foolhardy, and just downright nuts on my part, I also realized it was pungently hypocritical. I mean, I wouldn't have given a second thought toward a sobbing, dirty old homeless man. Yet, there I was, mentally fingering the possibility of offering a stranger's comfort to an attractive young woman. I sat down to eat, making sure my back was to the window, and put on my iPod.

This tiny non-incident has stuck in my mind like a nick in a banister that snags your sleeve each time you use the steps. There's a whole tapestry of personal psychological associations I could weave from it, but in the end what seems to stand out to me is just how much I live in my own head. Walking through each day, I spend vast stretches of time just imagining things, embellishing the details I observe to fit my own never-ending soap opera. I guess we all do, but I do it to excess. Comforting a cute sad gal--regardless of motive--is actually doing something. I don't feel like I do much actual doing of any kind. Sometimes that bothers me.

-- mm

Tha Boyiz Famahleee
August 10, 2006

So I'm out tonight (Wednesday, my dearly negotiated night off from daddy duty) and I get home late to find the day's artwork on the dining room table. Nothing uncommon about that, but here's one my 5.5 son drew:

The drawing ain't so great (not sure why mom looks like a cello and little sister doesn't even rate his standard, three fingered arms... though, I must say, I'm pleasantly surprised he drew me smiling and not yelling), but I do so enjoy the phonetic rendering of "My Family."

-- mm

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