Popcorn Wars

I have heard people say that “life is a constant struggle“. I am a partial believer of that statement when things like “getting-up-in-the-morning-to-beat-the school-bus” is a part of my regular reality. Every weekday morning I am confronted with another “beat-the-bus” struggle to motivate my kids to get up…get up…get goin.’ I suppose that each of us can identify with our own “struggles” we deal with each passing day. Struggle builds character they say. This is something you would expect a mother to say, or a coach, or someone else equally as influential. I am fairly certain someone before me must claim ownership to that phrase and I am quite certain the original author had been exposed to the joys of parenting.
Impacting the development of our children’s character, for those of us with children, and those who have mentored a child in some capacity, is a never-ending task. At best you hope to set good examples, especially when the independent type is encountered. Being the parent of two independent types, one of which has her picture in the dictionary under “independent“, I can say I am hard pressed to maintain high quality examples. Often, we are the recipient of a little “character building” of our own while pursuing activities designed to “build” character for our children. Having your character “built” while you are supposed to be doing the building will both surprise you and humble you with very little respect for your level of maturity or professional expertise.

My daughter assisted in “building” my character recently while I tried to expand her own development. The very fiber of my character was exposed to the bone repeatedly during the activity. I am confident that I endured every emotion known to humankind in a period of less than five hours as I rode shotgun on my daughter’s fifth grade Science Project. Most of what follows rarely rises above the fifth-grade level, including my own contribution to the whole character-building event.

Megan, my independent type ten-year-old daughter, had an opportunity to have her own character impacted during this joint project. She probably did. I can only hope that the impact was a constructive one leaving few scars. If she gained as much as I did, I would rate the project as a huge success regardless of the actual grade. Her perspective of the degree of success of this project probably is based upon simply surviving-another-project-with-the-big-guy. In any event, my involvement was accepted unconditionally no matter how frantic it became.

The “project” was born one afternoon while the family was riding in the car to another dining-out adventure. My wife and I have found that some of our best “family time” is spent in the car going to or from a restaurant. I am not sure it is always the best “quality” time but is certainly a good opportunity to have some. We were discussing the prospects for this year’s science projects. By then the momentary distraction of nearly driving into the rear of a slow-moving dump truck upon hearing the words “Science Project” had already come and gone. The adrenaline surge subsided, and I stepped up to take charge of “ideas, methods, and procedures” – although only briefly.

My wife Kimberly made a point of reminding me of all of the “fun” we had the previous year when I constructed a working model of the electric company’s transmission facilities from nuclear reactor, pole-to-pole, underground cable to the fuse box at individual user’s homes. All that was done to prove my son Michael’s hypothesis that copper wire was a good conductor than rubber. That is where the epic failure began.

I blatantly ignored the Science Fair pledge and applied the full power of every available technology to demonstrate my “son’s” hypothesis. You could say I bulldozed through “his” project. All of that was done on a 2-foot by 4-foot board. All that was done — only to lose the entire competition. None of it could have been done by a fifth grader. “Our” project did not just lose, it was in the way.

The story surrounding that project could only be written as either a dark mini-series or a tragic novel. I would not want to revisit that nightmare to accomplish either one. I pledged to my wife that I would never get that involved again. I kept my word for months…mainly because it was months before the project’s due date. Urgency hovered at low tide. It was either low tide of that shrinking tide just before a tsunami rolls in. Not sure, but I do not want to get ahead of myself…

Here came the chance to redeem myself. Why not? Two kids two projects. I knew I would have to behave and felt confident of meeting that reality after remembering the demoralizing retreat from the year before dragging a two-by-four foot nuclear power plant out of the classroom. I tucked my tail between my legs and retreated. What hurt most of all was my son saying, “Nice job dad!” in a really sarcastic tone. I really had no defense.

My actual work-related job requires good time management skills and leading projects in order to survive. Since I survived to this point, it was only natural for me to think those skills would somehow transfer genetically to my children. To some extent they may have but I am disappointed that they also acquired the skill of compacting most of the activity into the eleventh hour of a project’s life span. Knowing they were both pre-disposed to blatant procrastination, another genetic gift. My wife and I decided regular low-key reminders should be communicated. They were. And low-key to no-key activity resulted. Not surprisingly, turning off the TV was our first major step toward focusing on “The Science Projects”.

The rest of the conversation centered on “What should the projects be about?

Remembering my pledge, I opened with,

“Why don’t we try to keep it simple?” to which Michael, my son, the survivor of the recent nuclear project disaster muttered, “Yeah like the reactor project?”

We swapped glares in the rearview mirror, but I had to agree.

For the most part, I had mostly gotten over the humiliation of dragging the 2-foot by 4-foot reactor board out of his classroom in defeat. I felt no humiliation from defeat because we lost the contest, but of being caught red-handed with “my” project that had Mike’s name on it. I knew I was guilty when I heard one of his classmates’ mothers offer her critique on Science Fair night,

“Mike did THAT by himself?”

I was thinking of ways to defend what “we” had built together but decided to cut my loses and limp to the car dragging “our” project behind me. Thinking back, we should not have destroyed the board, the electric company may have been able to use it for training their new technicians. It was definitely not a fifth-grade project. In Michael’s defense, the hypothesis was his own product, and it was well thought out. The epic failure came from the box carload of my “parental support” that nearly caused the meltdown.

My pledge had been made. I would not do that again.

Thanksgiving came and went as did Christmas and the New Year break. Weeks of time had passed with regular low-key reminders that the “Science Project” was due in February. Our conversation of several months ago had only succeeded in identifying what the projects would be. Nothing further had been done and the topics had never been revisited.

The stage was set. Megan’s decision to compare brands of popcorn was set. Michael’s methods for boiling water were set. The due dates were set. It was now the fourth week of January and both kids were having difficulty locating the original project list that described the scientific method and the guidelines for what the finished project should look like.

We were approaching critical mass again.

I had input into “selling” the projects over the last couple of months. The themes were still seemingly simple, and my pledge was still intact. Mike’s project proved to be the easiest to complete as we turned the kitchen into a sauna with multiple water-boiling sessions. Which boiled fastest…cold water or hot water? Simple. No nuclear reactors involved but it did get quite steamy. I am proud to say he did his project without my “guidance.” Proud of him. Proud of me keeping my pledge.

With confidence soaring, Megan’s simple theme of popping popcorn would present an equally low challenge. Which brand popped the fastest formed her mission. Simple. Minor parental supervision required…I thought. The fact that we nearly destroyed the popcorn popper two-thirds of the way through the project should give you an indication of things to come. Who knew that popping popcorn would become a full contact event.

Remember, struggle builds character…

The secret to smooth project implementation is proper delegation of responsibility. When using electrical kitchen appliances that have not been stress tested for the scientific method, empowerment is not an option. Megan’s role involved measuring out the popcorn from three different brands and recording the results from our battery of tests. She took great care to keep the brands separate and accurately record the hard-earned data. We worked together smoothly.

Neither one of us realized how hot the popcorn popper would become when popping only one kernel at time in our first series of tests. We also did not allow for the fact that heating the popper over and over and over again would take us to DefCon 4. We are talking a near nuclear event! That sucker got hot!

The fact that the popper became increasingly dangerous to use made it easier for me to justify my involvement. I did not want Megan to be the one to reload the beast….and neither did she. My pledge remained unbroken. I felt good. I bonded with my daughter. We were building character.

Reality arrived about the time stupid showed up with a huge crash as pieces of popcorn popper shrapnel whistled past my ear. A big wooden cutting board that leaned up against the new wallpaper to protect it from hot splattering oil had worked its way into position to fall forward onto the popper – which was peaking at that moment. Megan and I both were not prepared for the character building we were about to enjoy.

Our popcorn popper was the model sporting the little gizmo that spins in the middle to evenly distribute heat to each and every kernel. That neat little performance-improving-feature is why I felt using this particular popper would give us good quality control on our project. And it did. That performance improving feature also contributed to us getting scorched equally as bad by each and every kernel that landed on us and the dog when it exploded under the weight of the cutting board.

We scrambled for the exit as the spray of hot kernels and boiling canola oil arched toward us. The dog ran in place on the smooth floor as she tried to get out of the way. It is funny, I never knew dog toenails scratching on vinyl flooring could create sparks. But I swear that dog hunkered down and kicked up sparks as she bolted for anywhere else.

Evenly heated corn kernels were bouncing off of everything and everyone within fifteen feet of the popper when I realized the situation quickly escalated to much worse. The half-gallon jug of canola oil laid perfectly horizontal on the countertop next to the wounded popper. The lid contributed to the character-building-of-the-moment by being about eighteen inches from where it should have been — on the jug — screwed on tightly.

Visions of the Exxon Valdese and Olympic speed skating gold medals flashed through my mind as I skated faster than Dan Jansen, Eric Heiden, or Apolo Ohno toward the counter to staunch the surging flow of oil. The jug of canola oil alternated between gulping air and heaving a cup per second of oil onto the new vinyl floor.

I considered dropping the “f” bomb.

Megan remained uninjured, at least not on the outside, and sat on a little foot stool in the corner, both hands over her mouth. The dog returned and appeared highly focused on a petroleum extraction project of her own. I am convinced the stupid dog would eat anything and was highly engaged.

I am not proud of what followed.

The echoes of the explosion and screams of panic had died as I decided what to do. The first action that came to mind involved drop-kicking the dog into the den, a distance of about thirty feet. Now I have never kicked a dog, but it seemed an appropriate course of action at that point in time given I had no idea how sick pure canola oil would manifest in a dog. I never did kick the dog but did kick in her general direction.

God punished me for the thought as the act of kicking my leg in the dog’s direction demonstrated the results of lubrication under pressure. Combine 240 pounds standing on one leg while kicking the other…add gravity, a quarter inch canola oil, and new vinyl flooring that matched the wallpaper I was trying to protect, and you have a rapidly deteriorating situation. I did not go all the way down. Fighting gravity was a mistake. The muscles pulled and strained in my heroic efforts to stay out of the oil slick may not have been as sore had I just given in the laws of physics. But no, I was not going down. But in some respects, I did go down – way down, as the “f’ word queued up and released to embellish my command to the dog,

“Get the f—- outta’ here you floor-licking sack of doggie treats!”

Yep, I had just arrived at the bottom…

Megan, still seated with both hands over her mouth did not move. As I looked at that poor helpless child, I could see evidence that something else had been genetically transmitted to her – by my wife. I recognized the look in her eyes, and I knew my outburst landed me in deep doodoo. She did not have to say a word.

After cleaning the floor, we still had several more sessions of popping yet to do in order to meet the requirements of the scientific method. When Megan regained her ability to speak, she put everything into perspective by whispering in unbelief,

“Oh my God!”

She was not supposed to say “God” in that context, and she knew it. But we were still at DefCon 4, and she knew that the pressure of the moment combined with my screaming at the f—ing dog would grant her some grace. This project had gone nuclear…without a reactor.

I was impressed by Megan’s perseverance as she bent over the mortally wounded popper and asked,

“Dad, do you think it’s dead?”

She knew we had more to do, and I knew she was ready to roll the dice. She also knew we were not going to buy another popper. She knew there was a chance innocent people could be killed if we were to get in the car to drive to Target to buy another one. She sighed in relief when I picked up the smoldering carcass to assess the probability of electrocution if and when I reattached the power cord.

Damage control reported back that the popper was 85% reusable and 350% more dangerous in the event it was used. With one handle left, the plastic cover severely cracked, and 25% of the legs damaged, it was a crap shoot to finish the popping. When you consider that it only had three legs to begin with, you can imagine the stability of the device when a small portion of each of them was missing. The gaping hole left by the large piece of shrapnel that screamed by my ear earlier gave a bird’s-eye-view into the intestines of the beast.

I braved a closer inspection into the still radiating crevasse in the side of the base. I looked diligently for the presence of control rods but found none. They must have been part of the shrapnel I dodged earlier. I knew we had only a few more minutes before the core would melt down completely.

Megan crossed her fingers, and I plugged the beast back into the wall socket. Sparks did not fly, and the nearby light fixtures did not flicker, leading me to believe fuses were not blown, and, for a few minutes more, I remained in the driver’s seat. The beast immediately sprang to life. We both held our breath and pressed onward.

I bent down to examine the wound in the side of the popper. Inside were little spring-shaped wires glowing horribly red while the performance-improving swirling gizmo evenly distributed what appeared to be more heat than ever to the last of our test kernels. The little swirling gizmo now scraped up pieces of the non-stick surface of the popper adding an irritating screech to the afternoon and a distinct, if not partially toxic, aroma of something artificial burning. With the dark gritty sprinkling of “non-stick” seasoning added to the popcorn and the acrid stench of the popper’s impending death increasing, we no longer had the desire to eat any more of our results. At this point in the project neither of us wanted any more popcorn — for any reason!

The popper appeared to die as we recorded our final data collection. With our last batch removed from the jaws of the dying beast, I swear I heard it moan. The odor of burnt popcorn, over-heated canola oil, singed dog hair, and a mortally wounded popper made memories we would not soon forget. Without ceremony, the popper was laid to rest in the trash dumpster outside. It was still hot.

Megan withdrew to the safety of her room to fire up the computer to compile the results of our efforts. With some formatting assistance from me, and minor help with the laser printer, Megan did the rest.

I do not know whether much character building took place that afternoon for Megan. Mine was certainly re-aligned. The dog seemed to be largely unaffected except for altered bowel functions for a day or so. But the pressure was off, and the project work completed on time. Out of 100-plus fifth-graders, Megan’s project won third place.

The Science Fair officials held an awards ceremony for the top three finishers. Megan was proud of the results, and I was proud of her. Without her, the project would have been aborted when the popper first exploded. She earned the award. For me, I was satisfied for one significant reason —my pledge remained intact.

The popcorn popper has still not been replaced.

* * *

Thanks for reading my words.
I hope you enjoyed this piece!

Gary G. Wise