1 — As long as we’ve had Mario Kart, we’ve had Rainbow Road. The controller breaker. The swear word generator. If you’re unfamiliar with this particular track, think back to the last time you drove a winding mountain road, to the tension you felt of knowing that steep incline was right there, just waiting for you to make a mistake. Rainbow Road is like that, except you’re trying to go as fast as possible, the road might as well be made of ice, and there’s a drop-off on BOTH sides. That’s not “challenge.” That’s “actively displaying a contempt for the player.” Rainbow Road is a game designer poking his finger into your sternum and quietly saying “amateur.”
2 — It’s 5 AM and she’s awake again. It’s not hunger or a dirty diaper this time; she just woke up and did what anyone would do without a well developed conceptual model of reality: scream. She opened her eyes and genuinely wasn’t sure that everything she loved still existed, that the darkness would not hurt her, that she wouldn’t be alone forever. I am deeply tired, I was just woken from a very nice sleep, I am standing in the dark in my underwear, and it is my job to convince her that everything is okay, gently and wordlessly. Rainbow Road has nothing on this.
3 — The way you know for sure that Mario Kart’s designers hate you is that Rainbow Road flips everything you’ve learned on its head. You mastered power sliding around corners, and riding out the resulting speed boost; but here the track surface is impossibly slick, so if your slide doesn’t send you off the course, the speed boost very well might. You learned to aim a green shell at the player ahead of you, but now the moment of concentration it requires is more than you can spare. And every time you go flying over the edge, the game dangles you over the track, making you watch the other karts pass beneath, your hard won position evaporating before your eyes. And then it plops you back down, like a stern instructor saying “do it again.” This is what it’s like to have a piece of software laugh at you.
4 — She doesn’t actually know how to go to sleep. That’s the weird thing. I’ve been quieting my mind and body into rest for so long that I forgot it was a skill I had to learn once. And I have to remind myself of that, because otherwise I would think this eight-month-old baby was intentionally messing with me. She puts her head down on my shoulder and goes quiet, but then suddenly she pushes away and complains loudly. When I finally get her to go down in the crib, she somehow gives me just enough time to get back in bed before yelling again. A few months ago, I would have felt frustrated and defeated, and probably begged my wife to take over. But tonight I’m back up immediately, standing with her in the dark, patiently bouncing, patting, and humming the simple tune that I can repeat without thinking. This is the inner peace I’ve learned to find in the middle of the night. It’s what she required of me.
5 — Eventually you gold medal all the other tracks, except for one. Rainbow Road sits there patiently, mockingly, waiting for you to try again, now the gatekeeper of true completion. So you try, and you try, and you swear you’re never playing this stupid game again but you do. Then one day, something is different. You relax. You’ve failed so many times that there’s no ego left. And then you learn.
You learn not to arrogantly skate the edge of the track. You don’t power slide every turn. You let off the acceleration once in a while, even if you’re not in first. You don’t immediately fire off every speed-boosting mushroom you get, just hoping you can control it. In fact, you might drop a mushroom behind you, leaving it for a more foolish racer to try and manage. Most importantly, when you do make a mistake and go flying over the edge, it doesn’t break you. Instead of quitting and restarting, you take the penalty and continue, and surprisingly you finish third. The laughing game designer in your imagination straightens up, folds his arms, and looks on with interest.
6 — One by one, I drop the comforts. The humming goes silent. The patting becomes a still hand on her back. The bouncing settles into slow rocking left and right. She’s ready, but the technique here is crucial. I’ve got to move her from vertical to horizontal and down a couple of feet into the crib without jostling her enough to wake her up. In one practiced movement, I take her off of my chest, turn her in my hands and rest her down gently. She complains a little during the transition, so I quickly drop to one knee and reassuringly pat her a few times. She’s good. I stand up slowly, and remember to step around the creak in her floor on my way out. It’s 5:16 and she’s asleep again. One of my better times.
7 — Crossing the Rainbow Road finish line in first is almost surreal. They built this track to break you, and it did, and now you’ve won for letting it. “Amateur” he called you. It’s a French word that means “lover of.” It wasn’t an insult, you realize. It was a challenge. “Prove to me your dedication,” is what he was really saying, “you think yourself skilled because you know a handful of tricks? When I take them all away, what’s left? Do you have what it takes to keep going when you have been thoroughly beaten?”
8 — It’s 7AM and she’s awake again, but that’s okay, because my alarm was about to go off anyway. When the baby monitor kicked on there was no crying, the just warm, happy babbling of a brain that woke up in the light with a bunch of new neural connections to play with. She squirms and smiles when she sees me, and starts showing off the latest utterances she’s discovered the moment she’s in my arms. She doesn’t remember waking up in the dark. Someday she won’t remember this time of her life at all. She’ll know herself, and me, in the wake of these moments that changed us.
9 — This is what I draw from it all, what I hear being said, gently and wordlessly. “There was no other way. To make you better I had to break down what you were, and force you to become something more. I was never demanding perfection. I was demanding that you let go of perfection. I had to strip you of ego and comfort and dignity because they were in your way. Only after kneeling could you rise.”
Author’s note: The title of this piece is a reference to the Old Course at St. Andrews, one of the oldest golf courses in the world. The great American golfer Bobby Jones once famously walked off of the Old Course in frustration, only to return years later to master it and fall in love with it. Jones, it should also be noted, was an amateur golfer.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like this other post about parenting and fatherhood: Waxing