Friday, January 31, 2014

On Disappointment and the Pinewood Derby

Five ounces. That's the magic number.

Too much and our car would be disqualified. Too little and the other cars might out run us just a little too easily. Before the race, I told my son Michael that winning wasn't necessarily our goal. "All that matters," I said "is that we run a good race. If you lose be sure to hold your head high, and shake the hand of the scouts who beat you." That's not to say that I expected my son to lose.

Going into the derby, I thought we had a good design, especially given that we had never before competed in the Pinewood. My boy was fairly insistent that the car resemble the Bat-Mobile. Not terribly original, I know, but I looked forward to the possibilities. I enlisted the help of a friend whose shop is equipped with a band saw and a router. He took our block of pine, and shaped it into an interesting amalgam of old and new; our Bat-Mobile was every bit of Adam West, a hint of Michael Keaton, and just a touch of Christian Bale.  My son finished her off with some light sanding, a few coats of Caped Crusader black, the mandated BSA (Boy Scouts of America) wheel set, and some tungsten putty shaped into a windshield, headlights, and afterburner. She weighed in at 4.9 ounces with most of the weight concentrated just in front of the rear axle. I tried not to be too hopeful.

But on the day of the race, the Bat-Mobile streaked across the floor of our local VFW and won its first three heats in rather convincing fashion. I began to believe, and so too did my son. At only six years old, he's yet to learn to hide his emotions. When he's happy, we know he's happy; when he's sad, we know he's sad. He doesn't spend too much time in the colorless land in between those two poles. He's either on or he's off, and for those first few races he was as happy as I've ever seen him.

Little Rusty Spinner
Unfortunately, Mikey went on to lose three of the next five heats - effectively eliminating the Dynamic Duo of bug-chucking father and dark-knight son from the competition. My boy was crestfallen and on the verge of tears throughout the remaining races. He had tasted victory, but finished in defeat. Courtesy of the triple elimination system, the winner of the division had only three wins over my son while my son had five wins over his competitor, and Mikey just couldn't get his six year-old mind around the math. He struggled with losing not because he was defeated, but because he had won the most races. I did my best to console him; I told him I was proud, that his car ran a great race. For my part, I was stung not because he lost - I knew this was a good and necessary lesson for my boy to learn. I hurt because my son hurt. I hated to see him disappointed.

Seeing my son so upset, I could not help but to reflect on my own disappointments. Lord knows I've had my share; many of them streamside. Over the years, there have been any number of fish, trout and steelhead for the most part, that have left me shaking and near tears. If I was so inclined, I could speak of the first and largest steelhead I have ever hooked, or regale you with a story of that brown on the _______ River that bent straight my hook, not once but twice. I can recount more stories than I care to admit, but as I sit here reliving those moments I find that my greatest disappointments aren't those fish, those many fish, that got away. In a strange way, I cherish those memories. Perhaps as much as anything else, those moments are the reason I continue to wade the river's fickle currents.

In thirty odd years of wading those currents, I've come to understand that the river never disappoints. Rather, the sadness I sometimes feel when I step from river to river bank comes as a consequence of my own unreasonable or unseasonable expectations. More often than not, my disappointment is the result of allowing myself to be distracted by the mundane pressures of the day. Sometimes I think I seek out that sadness if only to be reminded of how ridiculous it is to be sad when surrounded by water and woods. The trick, I suppose, is to deal with disappointment in a such a way as to learn from the experience and to keep sadness from taking root and blooming into regret.

And those are the lessons I want for my son to learn: take loss in stride, focus on the things that truly matter, live without regret. Of course, I would have preferred I had the opportunity to teach him those lessons streamside than on the warped hardwood floor of the local VFW. The water softens the blow.

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