ALTHOUGH Mulligan’s, the miniature golf course in my neighborhood, is now closed for the season, I still get the tiniest of buzzes when I spy the simple fairways and the concrete moose en route to or from the freeway. Mind you, my desire to play miniature golf is right up there with my desire to eat excessively-sweetened breakfast cereal while watching cheaply-produced Saturday morning television. Nevertheless, the presence of Mulligan’s—well, it makes me feel good, or at least slightly better, about the state of America and the world at large.
Here’s a notion for my fellow educators: Miniature golf provides an excellent framework for teaching basic physics. We’ve got friction (including static and rolling), the conservations of momentum and energy, and good ol’ gravity, which is why placing the hole on the top of a hill makes sinking a putt very challenging, and why placing the hole on the side of the hill makes the task even worse. By the way, in the educational publishing biz, we like to say “challenging” when we mean to say “hard” or “difficult” or “no way in hell, that’s freakin’ impossible.” Apparently, it’s good to challenge kids, but we don’t want to insult them with labels like easy/medium/hard.
If miniature golf is not your cup of tea, I’ve got a non-traditional family event to recommend: Tag-team sheep chasing. We did this yesterday, in the dying light of a cold evening, with “we” being my wife, the teenage son, and yours truly, with the toddler blissfully absent, asleep in the car seat. Sheep are generally timid but very fast and easily aroused—they’re not the helpless blobs of wool with head and legs that you see in the Wile E. Coyote vs. Sam the Sheepdog cartoons. The three of us had quite the time chasing the sheep around the pen, barking orders and suggestions to one another, using our combined human intelligence to outwit the livestock. It took a while, but we triumphed! We managed to pin each sheep to the ground, generally by the horns, and then deposit the suddenly-contented sheep into the homey confines of the Saturn Vue, made so because I had put the rear seat down and lined everything with cardboard, and had thrown in lots of hay.
While the rest of the family hightailed it to a birthday party, because there’s always a birthday party, the sheep and I motored on westward to their new home, a farm due west of us, a few miles short of Amherst. Driving along Route 2, I put on some David Bowie, figuring that the sheep might enjoy “Space Oddity” or “Young Americans” as much as anything else. I imagined a cop pulling me over, and peering inside after I rolled up the window. What would he make of this? Or what if I got into an accident, and the tow truck came and hauled a car full of sheep to wherever cars and sheep get hauled to? What if the sheep escaped and started grazing by the roadside, or hitchhiking, or praying to the god that sheep pray to when they’re confused and far from home?
None of these things happened. After depositing the sheep at the farm, I stopped for gas, a bathroom, and some cookies.
Would anyone care for some Jello right now?
Yes, I am changing the subject, because yes, I suddenly am in the mood for Jello. As in Jello-brand flavored gelatin dessert.
Back home in Minnesota, I think pretty much everybody, including me, would say yes to an offer of Jello, at any time of any day. And why not, dang nabbit? Jello is sweet, colorful, substantial enough to be eaten like other foods, yet too slippery and amorphous—not to mention lacking in nutrients—to be taken all that seriously. Jello is fun, fun, FUN! That’s right, you betcha!
Only after I moved to the northeast did I encounter the opposite opinion, which is that gelatin is….hmm, well….kind of disgusting. The anti-Jello crowd will tell you that gelatin is made from horse’s hooves, which is false; or that it is made from boiling the bones and hides of various food animals, which is true; or that the artificial flavors are childish and pointless, which is a matter of opinion. A while back my wife prepared three servings of Jello—all of which, to my bemusement, were for me, because everyone else in the household was born in New Jersey or Massachusetts.
The other day I spent a few minutes talking to a fellow Midwestern transplant, and I asked her if she liked Jello.
“Of course I do!” she replied.
“Does your family here like to eat it?”
“Of course they don’t. They think it’s disgusting.”
Last Wednesday I watched some of the memorial service for George H. W. Bush, of whom I had thought little when he was in office, but from the perspective of modern events now seems like a saint. Watching the service felt like a wonderful, borderline patriotic way to wallow in the past, seemingly irretrievable, a time when at least we could pretend that Our Nation’s Leaders were noble or honorable, humble or self-sacrificing, and proponents of quaint concepts like justice, freedom, and democracy. The Present President was also in attendance, sitting miserably at the aisle-end of the front pew next to his wife, and down the row from several of his predecessors and their wives, none of whom like him. At least he didn’t say anything.
I have come to accept that I live my life in pieces. One moment I am working my job, which involves wrestling with contracts, cajoling writers and editors, reviewing artistic renderings of light rays passing through a convex lens, and parsing the challenging from the not-as-challenging—and the next moment I’m playing with the 17-month-old, tossing a foam ball up the stairs and watching it bounce down, which he enjoys ad nauseum. Or I am listening to the 13-year-old argue with precision and vehemence that I should purchase for him the latest video game, which he absolutely must have for his personal enjoyment and social standing. Or my wife asks me to take out the garbage and recycling, and is annoyed with me because I should do so without reminding.
I need the reminding.
As I kid I played a lot of miniature golf and ate a lot of Jello. Among the breakfast cereals, I liked Cap’n Crunch and Froot Loops, while my brother liked Lucky Charms. We would try new cereals, like Quisp and Quake, but tended to fall back on the favorites. Once a box came with an Archies record incorporated into the back panel, and I remember the joy of cutting it out and playing it on a turntable. The song was “Sugar, Sugar”, which went like this:
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you.
I think I thought the song was about the breakfast cereals.
Years later, one of my girlfriends would call me Sugar, and another would call me Honey.
Those names always got to me.
I do like the sheep, although I don’t quite miss them yet. The sheep are quiet, they don’t cause trouble, and they are grateful when you bring them hay. I can’t say anything comparable about the indoor animals (the dogs, the cats) although as my wife made very clear, we must distinguish between the pets and the livestock. The sheep, who live outdoors, are livestock.
So the sheep are now living on a farm and have as much hay (and much cheaper hay) as they care to eat. By now I expect they have forgotten their former home and caregivers, and that is how it should be. Sheep are all about the present. Sheep do not wallow in nostalgia.
What am I going to do with all of my childhood collections? I still retain boxes upon boxes of baseball cards and airline timetables, as well as decks of playing cards, ski resort brochures, various magazines, letters and postcards, and copies of the short stories I wrote in high school and college. How long do I keep these things? Who would buy them? If I get rid of them, would I ever want them again?
My wife suggested I should find employment as the manager of a journal about baseball or about the airline industry. She thinks I would enjoy it. She might be right.
That’s all for now. Stay warm and dry, everyone, and enjoy the blessings of the season.