What do cup-stacking and early-morning rising have in common? See how John Morgan is learning to treasure every moment of dad life. Dad, film this. I’m gonna crush my record.”
“Dad, film this. I’m gonna crush my record.”
Levon was stacking cups in his room one night. It was the 3-3-3, which I learned is a specific formation. In fact, in cup-stacking lingo, this means cups are “up stacked” and “down stacked” from left to right or right to left (individual preference) in three stacks. Think cups arranged into pyramids and three trios of cups (3-3-3). It’s much easier to see or even hear than explain. There’s a rhythm to it. But it’s not just about the arrangements. It’s also about the ticking of hundredths and thousandths of seconds. To measure his precision, Levon has an official competition timer he slams with his palms after every signature move.
Turns out, there’s an entire community for this sport, and they are well-versed in the dynamics of sequence, false starts, and penalty points. Like in swimming, track, or speed chess, it’s all about the clock. In fact, when you think about it, every sport has an hourglass, except maybe baseball.
So there we were in his room. He cracked his knuckles, did some warm-up moves, and prepared to dominate the hourglass.
Click-click-click – clack. Click-click-click – clack. Click-click-click – clack. The piling up of official playing cups sounded like a mechanical frog, leaping its plastic legs onto his desk. In all of the commotion, a Mark Twain quote pops into my head: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.” Meaning, do the hard stuff first.
When Levon arranged the little towers in four seconds flat, I thought about how we might spend the winnings. Four seconds was fast, way fast. I only needed to find a proper way to document his triumph and alert the authorities.
I started Googling, but my dream died as I discovered some kid halfway around the world who made Levon’s sprint look sleepy.
“Levon, it says here the record is 1.335 seconds.”
He studied my face with some disappointment.
“Then, that’s my goal.”
Off he went – clicking and clacking – trying to pummel his personal best. As his speed increased, it didn’t sound like one frog, but many. After seven or eight attempts, his time improved to 3.99, then to 3.90 flat. And that’s where he plateaued. Undeterred, he moved the playing field from his desk to the dining room table where he could fine-tune leverage, finesse, and clearance. There’s something about the sound of an official cup stack happening from several rooms away that is satisfying – like the cluck of a ping pong ball skipping over a net during a rally. I watched from the bleachers of the sofa as he moved into a deeper concentration, one that I’ve only seen from a few surgeons before they placed the mask over my face. Indeed, Levon was dominating his cup-stacking game, but he wasn’t ready for the record books – not yet.
I understand his frustration. Goals consume me. I’m always obsessing over wanting to be more efficient with my time. There’s something about marking the line or starting the stopwatch that invigorates me. And I’m not talking about the half-marathon. Recently, it’s all been about writing and getting the pages down. As I look at the calendar, I’m reminded that we’re miles and months away from when the ball dropped in Times Square. I can’t even see the gleam and sparkle now because of my fogged up rear-view mirror. Other parts of life have jumped into the road, begging for my attention: the ceiling light in the basement, the valve stem in the Chevy’s front tire, grading exams, or teaching my boys how to tie a tie.
Each year when I teach Andrew Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” one line slaps me in the face: “but at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” Time is ticking! Focus more. Get things done. Put your butt in the chair and finish.
This morning I got up at 4:30. I know there are tons of night owls out there. They float around in the dark, making it look easy. Sometimes, I wish I could channel that energy, but there’s something about the morning when the house is still. I’ve gotten up at 4:55 for years, but the extra twenty-five minutes is my new routine. When I tell other people about my wake-up, it turns into a thing. How? Why? That’s stupid. By the time I feed the cat and make the morning coffee, it’s close to 4:50 before I’m sitting at my desk. After the first pieces of night rust flake off, I feel like I’m wearing new shoes that make me run faster. Though it’s all in my head, I kid myself into thinking I’m pulling one over on the world.
I keep my phone off. It’s just me, the page, and a goal: write. Get the story down. There’s no one to stop me, which is liberating. I’m fighting the clock, racing to slam my palms and stack my pyramids. Maybe it’s me staring down fifty, but I don’t have forever.
At the end of his swim season last month, my older son Atticus shaved four seconds off his fifty freestyle. In breaststroke, he chopped off even more. The hundredths of seconds mean something. Each little bit is an improvement. And this week, Levon got a hard-earned grade in math after hours and hours of extra practice. His determination inspires me. Get up early. Knuckle down.
After I say good night to Levon, I hear the stacking rev up again. All the lights are on when I walk into his room.
“Dad, one more time, okay?”
“Okay,” I say. “Tomorrow, you can eat the frog.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means your goal isn’t going anywhere.”
And God willing, we’ll all have plenty of time.