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Before dinner, while the grown-ups shuffled around the kitchen talking about professional sports and kugel recipies, my nephews and cousins were outside building up their appetites in a more direct manner: by inventing, then competing in, makeshift obstacle courses.

I wandered into the backyard, and was immediately seized upon by my nephews to design an obstacle course. "No problem," I told them, "except I'm not going to design an obstacle course. I'm going to design the greatest obstacle course this world has ever seen." They seemed OK with that.

I sized up the backyard area, quickly assessing the contours of the land and any stray objects I could use to create makeshift obstacle course challenges. I wanted it to flow organically, with a series of challenges of steadily increasing difficulty, until the course climaxed in an epic release of victory. Here's where I landed:

  • Begin at the paper plate, then run at top speed to the toppled-over plastic toboggan
  • Leap over the toboggan and, as you land, drop into a somersault
  • Upon getting up from the somersault, immediately scale the steep hill, heading directly toward the blue plastic thing I placed at the hill's crest
  • Touch the blue plastic thing and then race at top speed back down the hill, toward the plastic children's picnic table
  • Seat yourself at the picnic table, then raise your left arm in victory, screaming, "AMERICAN FREEDOM!!!" to signify your completion of the obstacle course.

We went over the "American freedom" chant a couple of times, because they wanted to make sure they had the line reading and hand gesture 100% correct before beginning the course. One by one, they rehearsed the chant/gesture, looking to me for my nod of approval. Once I was satisfied, the race was on.

I lined up Oliver (age 6) and Avery (age 4) at the paper plate, and instructed each of them to shake out their nervousness with a small loose-limbed dance of my own invention. (This step was not necessary—they alreadly seemed pretty loose to me—but was impossible to resist simply as a way of reminding myself how easy it is to command the minds of children when a goal is involved.) Then I gave the orders. "Ready...set...LEMONADE!"

I don't know why I false-started the race, but I think history demanded it. Not that it mattered, because Avery was out of the gate as soon as I bit off the end of "set." I escorted him back to the starting line, and apologized. He seemed pretty worked up. We tried again. "Ready...set...GO!!!"

Oliver, game but graceless, stumbled off the paper plate while his younger brother steamed ahead. He took the toboggan with authority, then dropped into a perfect forward roll. Oliver forgot the somersault altogether, or ignored it, and started up the hill. But something was wrong. Avery was just standing there, at the base of the hill, reaching his hand behind his back to touch his shirt. Was he letting his fastidious nature overshadow the importance of athletic competition? Or did I set up the somersault obstacle on the only patch of lawn that was soaked through and muddy from the previous night's rain?

It was an oversight on my part—a major one. Avery was soaked through his shirt and the seat of his jeans. This made him very fussy, and he mumbled something about needing new clothes. Avery shuffled into the house, where my sister dressed him in a clean, dry shirt and little girl's jogging pants. (She hadn't packed an extra pair of pants for Avery, because she overlooked the obvious possibility that his horrible uncle would command him to roll around in wet mud for his own sadistic pleasure.) Meanwhile, the rest of the obstacle course competitors quickly lost interest in the challenge. And I went from being the Howard Roark of obstacle courses to the Dick Assmunch of Boner Junction. I was genuinely crushed, in the way only a group of small children can crush you. In a way, I'm still running that obstacle course, over and over again, in my heart. I'm just kidding. It was actually pretty hilarious seeing Avery walk around the house in girl's pants. Thanks, kid.

WE FIRST MET ON 04.19.2006

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