Breaking Down the Barriers

We’re returning from a trip to the mall where we were shopping for school supplies for the new school year. As the mini-van slows and approaches the driveway to 2001 Blackberry Lane, I click on the turn signal and then push the button on the remote control to open the garage door. I pull the mini-van into the driveway, and the four boys snap off their seatbelts. They fling their belts to the side, where the hidden seatbelt spools reel them in. (If only all the clothes, coats, shoes, books, and toys flung by these boys were so neatly and automatically reeled into their proper places.)

Before the car comes to a complete stop, the front door on the passenger side swings open. Right behind it, the side door slides back. "Wait until the car stops," I yell out, attempting unsuccessfully to assert some authority. Two boys surge out of the car, with two more boys close behind them. They duck under the slowly rising garage door, and charge up the stairs into our house, shouting out their claims. It's as wild as a homesteader land rush in the 19th Century, but these guys are staking out their territory in the 21st Century. " I call the upstairs computer." "I call the mudroom computer.’" "No fair! You were on it all morning!" "Dad, I never get to play my games." "Hey, I have to download something." "Just let me check my e-mail."

As the kids scramble for their portals into cyberspace, I sit quietly in the car and take a deep breath. I let the air out with a loud, slow sigh and wiggle my shoulders. The tension of the noisy ride home slips away, and I enjoy this moment of serenity. But I can afford only a moment. I know that I'll be needed to settle territorial disputes inside. After allowing myself two minutes of calm and tranquility, I take one final deep breath, feeling my lungs expand. Then I head inside, listening for shouts as I enter the house.

Erik, my 15-year-old, was obviously the first one into the house, because he has claimed the mudroom computer, right there in the very first room inside the house. The "mudroom" is the messiest room of the house, filled with coats, shoes, backpacks, a bowl of dry Coco Krispies cereal, an empty Fresca can, a stack of a half-dozen computer CD-ROMs, and, of course, the computer, with its monitor, speakers, keyboard, and mouse. It seems like a strange place to put a computer, but it keeps a great deal of chaos all in one limited place, giving me a fighting chance of maintaining order elsewhere in the house.

Upstairs, 12-year-old Will and 7-year-old Ben are arguing about whose turn it is on the other computer, the one in the large master bedroom, which also serves as my home office. I guess the Will-Ben dispute is the first conflict I'll need to resolve. As I enter the room, I pretend to know precisely whose turn it is and exactly how many minutes each of them has played this month. I issue my edict: "Ben, you can play until 4:23. Then it's Will's turn." With a groan of disgust, Will turns away and heads into his room, where he'll listen to music and read a book.

Nelson, my 9­year-old, is wandering around in the room that used to be our dining room, looking for the origami books he's checked out from the public library. He's not as obsessed with computers as his three brothers, so he usually doesn't try to compete for computer time during the mad scramble when we return home.

Several years ago, when I realized how infrequently we had formal meals in the dining room that opens on to the living room, I converted this space into the "Creativity Room." It's now full of art supplies, books, Legos, and a big white board for drawing, brainstorming, and playing "hangman." Electronics are not allowed in this room; this is where I've drawn the line on computers, video games, and televisions. We need a safe haven from the alluring and addicting appeal of modern electronics, and this room is our sanctuary.

Within five minutes of getting home, each child settles into his own activity. It's almost peaceful, if I ignore the sounds of clashing swords coming from the "Age of Kings" computer game upstairs. I lie down on the couch, open up a novel, and wait for my eyelids to start drooping.

After a few hours of being together in a confined space or public space, we each need our time alone. Like a nuclear reaction in danger of going critical, we need to slow down the intensity of our interactions.

Each child quickly enters into his own individual world of imagination and entertainment. When they get bored, they move on to a new activity or wander into the kitchen looking for a snack. A neighborhood friend stops by, using the door-knocker on the door between the garage and mudroom to announce his presence. If the door-knocker makes a single loud crack, it’s Will’s friend. A more tentative rap is Nelson’s friend. This time, it’s Nelson’s friend and he heads outside to play.

For this experiment you’ll need milk, food coloring, and dishwashing liquid.

Part 1

1) Into a bowl, pour enough milk to cover the bottom of the bowl completely. (Whole milk works best for this experiment, but you can also use 2%, skim, or half-and-half.)

2) Carefully add four drops of food coloring (one of each color if you have four different colors). Place each drop in a different quarter section of the bowl. Don't mix or stir.

3) Observe how quickly or slowly the colors spread out into the milk.

Finally, after reading 15 pages and napping for 30 minutes, it's time for me to fix dinner. I've seen the research studies about the importance of eating meals together as a family, so tonight I try to put together a healthy and wholesome meal. Cooking is not my favorite activity, but I've learned to throw together a passable meal in about 20 minutes. My high school job, as a short-order cook at Country Kitchen Restaurant, sure comes in handy these days.

The meal of Shake-n-Bake drumsticks, flaky biscuits-from-a-tube, and peas is almost ready, and I try to reassemble the family all in one place. I stick my head outside, put my two pinky fingers in my mouth, and whistle. The loud, piercing whistle almost always brings them home, even if they're a block away. But I try not to use my whistle inside the house. We are, after all, a civilized family, aren't we? So I yell upstairs, "Dinner time!"

Over the next five minutes, the boys start to gather at the table. I send out a search party to find Erik; he's lost in cyberspace. "Don't forget to wash your hands," I remind them for the thousandth time.

Finally, we're all here. We eat our meals at a large butcher-block table in the sunny room that opens on to the kitchen. The grandparents aren't with us at this meal and it's not a holiday so we don't bother with a prayer of thanks. As soon as I indicate that we can start, there is a quick grabbing and passing of food. One of the boys decides he doesn't want meat today. Another stacks four rolls on his plate at once. The bowl of peas sits untouched in the middle of the table.

I talk about food groups and good nutrition. I point out that milk contains protein, vitamins, and calcium, and they need to drink their whole glass, even if nothing else gets eaten. The boys are quick to point out that the food pyramid, which they learned about in school, has fats, oils, and sweets at the top. "What's for dessert, Dad?"

"We'll have some ice cream later, at the beach."

Twelve minutes later, our "family meal" is all over. I don't know if the sociologists will give me full credit for this family meal. I've tried to elicit a comment or observation from each child, and I've tried to make sure that everyone has eaten something healthy. Several of the comments have turned into loud debates. And one of these debates, about Nelson’s favorite music group, has turned into an argument that I've had to cut off before it was reduced to name-calling.

The boys quickly stack their plates by the kitchen sink and scatter—each one heading back to his own world. As they disperse, I remind them, "Don’t forget that we’re leaving for the beach in 30 minutes."

It's suddenly quiet in the kitchen. I take a deep breath, wiggle my shoulders, and again let out a long, loud sigh.

Sometimes I think we're too busy. But sometimes I worry we're not taking advantage of all our community has to offer. We're pulled in many directions by school, work, friends, and entertainment. Like riders on a wildly spinning merry-go-round, I worry that the centripetal forces will overwhelm us and we'll fly off. Since my divorce, I'm aware that these forces are real, and that once someone flies off the merry-go-round, it's very hard to get them back on.

Experiment ­ part 2

1) Carefully drop a single drop of dishwashing liquid into the center of the bowl of milk.

2) Observe what happens to the colors. Keep watching for several minutes.

You can repeat this experiment, changing different elements of the experiment. Try different kinds of milk—half-and-half produces some interesting results. Instead of adding a whole drop of dishwashing liquid to the bowl, dip a toothpick into the soap and then delicately touch the toothpick in the milk. Try touching the toothpick in the center of one of the drops of food coloring. Try different shape bowls—what happens with a square container (you can use the bottom of the milk carton) or a long oval saucer? Try different combinations of food coloring—red and green for a Christmas experiment, red and blue for the Fourth of July, or your school colors for Homecoming weekend.

What's going on here?

Milk is actually a very complex food composed of over 100,000 different molecular species. If you look at it under a microscope, you'll see that it's made up of little round spheres floating in a sea of water. The little round spheres are globules containing fat (and also oils, proteins, sugars, and vitamins). These fat globules are hydrophobic ("water-fearing") and don't like to mix with water. These globules are formed during the homogenization process, which breaks up the layer of cream into these small spheres.

Food coloring is hydrophilic ("water-loving"), so it doesn't dissolve easily or combine with the fat globules. When the drops of food coloring are added, they find themselves trapped in the crowd of fat globules on the surface of the milk.

Soap molecules have a unique property. One end of the molecule is hydrophobic and one end is hydrophilic. Molecules like this are called amphiphilic ("both-loving"); one end of the molecule loves hydrocarbons such as fats and oils, while the other end of the molecule loves water. Like a seasoned diplomat at a summit meeting, a genial hostess at a cocktail party, or a parent mediating a sibling quarrel, the soap molecule can operate in both worlds at once, bringing together molecules who would normally avoid each other. When you added the drop of liquid soap in the bowl, the soap molecules quickly spread across the surface, changing the structure of the milk and altering the surface tension. In the presence of the soap molecules, many of the fat globules collapse and mix freely with the water, thus freeing the food coloring to also mix with the water.

Now you can begin to understand how soap works. It can break down a stain of fats, oils, or proteins, and allow them to dissolve in water. Individual barriers are broken down, all because soap is able to operate at the same time in two worlds.

*************

After dinner, I clean up the kitchen. Well, at least, I call it "clean." I throw a load of dishes in the dishwasher and analyze the leftovers. As expected, the biscuits are all gone, but there’s still some uneaten chicken and peas. I save the chicken for another day, but I put the peas down the garbage disposal. Experience has proven that these will never get eaten if they aren’t eaten yet.

Wth the dinner cleaned up, it’s time to move on to my favorite time of the day.

"Boys are like dogs, you've got to let them run every day." This bit of advice, given to me by a friend and parent of two boys, rings true in my experience. As we head to the local beach for the fourth evening in a week, I consider amending the advice to include swimming, digging in the sand, and eating ice cream.

When you have four sons and you find an outing that ends with everyone smiling and reluctant to go home, you turn it into a ritual. That's how our summer evenings at the beach evolved into a daily practice. Like the amphiphilic soap molecules that break down the barriers between oil and water, our beach outings break down the barriers between us and restore us as a family.

This evening, after dinner, we pile into the blue mini-van and head to the beach for the daily running of the boys. The boys are wearing swimsuits, no shirts, and no shoes. The towels, the beach toys, the sunscreen, and my beach chair are already in the back of the van, where they're stored for the entire summer.

As usual, there is some arguing about who gets to sit next to me in the front seat. When the kids were younger, the competition for the front seat was intense and often ended with at least one child in tears. Now, these mature young men are more easily placated.

Besides, they've discovered that the back seats have some special advantages. You can kick the back of the seat in front of you and provoke a brother without Dad seeing the guilty party.

However, the boy in the front seat does get to control the radio and surf among the stations to find a song that pleases him while irritating one of his brothers. This can be a particularly powerful position, unless Dad is in one of those moods where he insists on annoying all the boys at once by playing golden oldies or country western music.

The ride to the beach on Lake Minnetonka, only five minutes away, requires one stop—for Dad's coffee. "No, you kids don't get a treat yet. We'll have some ice cream later."

Arriving at the beach, Ben and Nelson, the two youngest boys, pile out first and head immediately for the water. Now, near the end of the summer, Ben’s blond hair is bleached almost white. Nelson’s hair is darker, and his skin, which rarely burns, is a darker brown than Ben’s golden tan.

Will, with his fair, pinkish skin and end-of-the-summer freckles, climbs out of the car more slowly. At the more sophisticated age of 12, he takes his time, still deciding what persona to adopt today—boisterous child, playful big brother, aloof teenager, or serious athlete.

Erik, engrossed in an 800-page science fiction novel, doesn't even notice our arrival. He probably won't set foot outside the car until he gets to the end of the chapter.

I set up my beach chair, sit down, dig my toes in the moist sand, sip my coffee, and open my novel. Every 30 seconds I look up to count the boys. Ben and Nelson are having races from the beach into the water, trying to fake each other into getting totally immersed first. Will is wandering down the edge of the beach, looking for interesting rocks, or perhaps, if he's really lucky, finding a dead fish washed up on the sand. Erik has emerged from the car, walking slowly toward the beach, still reading his novel.

Twenty minutes later, they're all in the water, pretending to be professional wrestlers. They grab each other around the neck and shoulders and do body slams and piledrivers into the water. I put down my novel and watch them closely. This game is great fun for them. But it's also a game that can slip easily into an angry brawl, with hurt feelings, scraped skin, and a mouthful of water. When I see that the level of aggression is approaching the critical stage, I know it's time to get involved. At this point, I could tell them it's time to head home. I could shout, "Cool it, guys!" I could toss a ball or Frisbee into the water near them to change the game. I could yell out that it's time for ice cream. All these strategies work pretty well. The ice cream offer, of course, is a sure bet.

But this evening—as dozens of sailboats in a long line head back to the dock after the weekly regatta, as a young couple wanders hand-in-hand along the nearby boardwalk, and as a nearly full moon rises in the east and the first star flickers above us—I'm not yet ready to leave the beach. And I'm feeling playful myself.

So, I put down my novel, drain the last sip of my now-cold coffee, and head toward the water. As the water level creeps up my legs and reaches my waist, one of the boys notices that I'm coming out to play. "Here comes Dad!" "Chicken fight … chicken fight … chicken fight," they start chanting.

We have a brief chicken fight. Nelson, sitting on my shoulders, wrestles with Ben, who's sitting on Erik's shoulders. Erik is nearly as big as me, so it’s a pretty even match. Ben and Nelson yell as they try to pull each other over, and they laugh the hardest when I let myself get dunked.

Then we start trying the diving events. I can still toss Nelson and Ben into the air, but Erik and Will are too big for me. I try making a diving platform out of my hands and launching them into the air. This works for Ben, Nelson, and Will, but Erik is still too big.

Then I remember a technique for making a bigger diving platform. I tell Erik that he's going to help me make a diving platform. "Stand in front of me and face me." I grasp my left forearm with my right hand, and then I clasp his right forearm with my left hand. He grasps his left forearm with his right hand, and clasps my right forearm with his left hand. We've created a strong, square diving platform, with our interlocking arms

------------

What's going on here?

Milk is actually a very complex food composed of over 100,000 different molecular species. If you look at it under a microscope, you'll see that it's made up of little round spheres floating in a sea of water. The little round spheres are globules containing fat (and also oils, proteins, sugars, and vitamins). These fat globules are hydrophobic ("water-fearing") and don't like to mix with water. These globules are formed during the homogenization process, which breaks up the layer of cream into these small spheres.

Food coloring is hydrophilic ("water-loving"), so it doesn't dissolve easily or combine with the fat globules. When the drops of food coloring are added, they find themselves trapped in the crowd of fat globules on the surface of the milk.

Soap molecules have a unique property. One end of the molecule is hydrophobic and one end is hydrophilic. Molecules like this are called amphiphilic ("both-loving"); one end of the molecule loves hydrocarbons such as fats and oils, while the other end of the molecule loves water. Like a seasoned diplomat at a summit meeting, a genial hostess at a cocktail party, or a parent mediating a sibling quarrel, the soap molecule can operate in both worlds at once, bringing together molecules who would normally avoid each other. When you added the drop of liquid soap in the bowl, the soap molecules quickly spread across the surface, changing the structure of the milk and altering the surface tension. In the presence of the soap molecules, many of the fat globules collapse and mix freely with the water, thus freeing the food coloring to also mix with the water.

Now you can begin to understand how soap works. It can break down a stain of fats, oils, or proteins, and allow them to dissolve in water. Individual barriers are broken down, all because soap is able to operate at the same time in two worlds

*************

Ben climbs on to our platform. Nelson and Will wait eagerly for their turn. Standing on our linked forearms, Ben steadies himself by placing his arms on our shoulders. Erik and I bend at the knees. As we move the platform up and down, in and out of the water, raising and lowering Ben, I count out a careful rhythm, "One … two … three … jump!" We launch Ben up toward the moon and stars. He squeals with joy as he's suspended in the air, a perfect moment of summer bliss for all of us.

# # #


Effect of soap on a bowl of milk and food coloring. A drop of dishwashing liquid was added between Photo 1 and Photo 2.

 

© 2001, Randall Wedin

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