The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Race Matters



The older one was always adamant. He is adamant about everything, but this maybe more so.

He would not dash.

Not ever.

No way.

The office has a run. It’s a fundraiser. There is a 5k and a 10k and a walk. There are mascots, the Berenstain Bears and Benny the Bull. And family activities, involving things like water balloons and bean bags.

There is also a kids’ dash.

But he won’t dash, and I cannot let it go, and so every year the conversation goes something like this.

“Yo, this is the year you are going to run the dash,” I say, “right, yes, sweet, you are.”

“No, never, not this year, not ever, you know that,” he says.

“It’s not going to be windy,” I say, “I totally checked that already.”

He doesn’t like the wind. Not that I actually checked whether it will be windy, the race is weeks away, and who’s to say what the weather will bring.

And yes, please note I have just lied to my older son. Parents do that a lot. I could defend it as a necessary means for getting though the day. I could also acknowledge that it is very poor modeling. Then again, if we’re going to get into modeling, and poor examples thereof, we will be here forever.

So, yes I lied. I had to. And again, we were talking wind.

“That’s not it,” he says.

“The mascots will leave you alone,” I say, “promise. I know a guy who knows a guy and arrangements have been made.

He doesn’t dig mascots. I don’t totally get it myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also acknowledge how weird a sweaty faux fur covered beast with an enormous head and unmoving eyes might be to a child.

“No, that’s not it either,” he says turning away.

“What is then,” I say, “what, why, what?”

“Nothing, I don’t want to do it,” he says, “not even for you.”

“You want a pony,” I say, “maybe we could get a spot for him or her in the parking garage?”


No is no with him, which will certainly be admirable trait when I’m not actually raising him, but that’s done, again, and no I don’t know exactly why this is, and why he won’t run.

It has something do with anxiety, and control, and pressure, and maybe, probably, the fact that I am such a prick and that I want it so much, which of course can only bring more stress.

But I don’t know for sure, so I tell myself I don’t care.

Just like I don’t care about soccer, T-ball, basketball, golf, or judo, because if he doesn’t want to do sports and he prefers the theater, it’s fine, theater is cool. More than cool, I like theater and Improv too. So it’s cool, really. Sports, running, whatever, that can be my thing, and my thing alone.

It’s totally fine, no problem.

Now, does that mean that I never lie to myself when it comes to parenting? And let’s be clear, I have already established the fact that I lie to my children. This is about whether I ever lie to myself about my children, the act of parenting them, and whatever might come in between.

Sure, maybe a little.

For the record, I also said I didn’t care about whether he was boy or a girl as long as he was healthy. But was that true? Maybe, but when he came out, all slippery, covered with muck, upside down, and spewing his crazy hair, only to finally flip over and reveal his penis, was I happy to see it, or more accurately, happier than I may have been otherwise.

Fuck, yes.

Or, what about when he had colic, and I said I didn’t even care if he worked at AM/PM when he was an adult as long as he stopped crying all the time.

Was I lying then?

Again, yes, maybe, of course I was. Are you kidding?

He’s going to make cool documentaries that they will rave about at South by Southwest. Dance with the Joffrey Ballet. Win a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in war torn countries. Become the first Jewish president, a Supreme Court Justice, the next Pope or Dali Lama, definitely, possibly, who knows.

So, I do bring up the dash every year, but that doesn’t mean anything either, right?

No it doesn’t, not at all, as I said, it’s cool, totally.

Except that I’m a fucking liar and I am dying for him to run that fucking dash.

So, maybe the question then, is what the fuck is wrong with me?

Let’s break it down.

Maybe I want him to be more like me. That’s a possibility, he may not want to make documentaries or win the Nobel Peace Prize, which is fine to the extent that those are things I aspire to, but will not accomplish at this point, due at least in part to my complete lack of effort to do so.

He may fail on other big things as well, which is also fine, but if he can’t pursue my selfish projections for him, or even pretend that he will be a better, cooler version of me, at least as I define it for him, then ought he not give me something that makes me think of me.

He owes me that, doesn’t he, I did at least partially create him, and I run, it’s part of who I am, so why not him too?

Seriously, why not, how is this supposed to work?

Of course, this explanation is fairly suspect really, because I don’t want him to be like me any more than I want to live where I grew-up. I know myself, and I’m fine, but why not something different for him?

Maybe then this is about the great power and freedom I found in running, which I want to believe that if he opened himself to the possibility of he could find too.

Of course, we can’t make people do the things we think will be helpful, even our kids, not really. We can suggest, and we can cajole, but at some point we need to step back, which sucks, even if it’s right.

Ultimately though, I wonder if it’s something much simpler than documentaries, projections, and freedom. I want him to be more normal, and not later, normal later will be of no benefit to him. But now, as a kid, and a little boy who goes to public school and gets teased because he isn’t into sports.

Maybe running the dash, something everyone else seems to be comfortable with, would help him get by, and help him see that other activities deemed “normal,” like playing soccer before school, aren’t so bad.

To be clear, I’m not an advocate of normal as better, even when it’s easier, but since he can’t quite embrace the state of not normal yet, and we can’t seem to help him do so, wouldn’t it be easier for him at this point in his life?

You might say, life isn’t easy, and everyone has to learn that, but why can’t we put that off as long as possible? What’s the rush for him to learn this?

“You don’t know what it’s like,” he tells me.

I couldn’t embrace being not normal myself, the comic book collecting, the weird parents, and bad lunches, so, I used to think that I knew what he was going through, that we could connect, but I was wrong, and he was right.

When people teased me I punched them, and they stopped, and later I just ran from it, all of it, literally, but he won’t do any of that, which I admire, he’s better than me.

Which leaves us where?

It leaves us here, at the starting line, sort of. I’ll explain.

There is also a younger one, and the younger one runs the dash the first year he can. He cries. But he does it. His balloon bracelet in place and baggy sweat pants pooling around his ankles. It’s beautiful, and when he’s done I think that the older one will have to succumb to peer pressure, this little ball of clay just dashed right there in front of him, and now he will have to dash as well.

But he doesn’t, and there’s something sort of beautiful in that too. He won’t do what he won’t do, and he’s not willing to succumb to anything, something that will also serve him well later.

It’s just that it’s always later.

You could ask me here whether it means something to me that the younger one ran when the older one wouldn’t, and how it makes me feel in relation to him, this older son who will not dash?

It makes me love him more fiercely, that’s how I feel, and it only solidifies my belief that it will work out, if not now, later, and that it, this, life, will be fine.

Which might raise another question, how do I feel then, when he decides to finally dash the following year, walks up to the starting line, and just like the mascots and the wind, the dogs, and all of those things that once seemed so impossible to overcome, but that he is now done with, he is now done not dashing as well, just like that.

Because there he is, and he is off, his legs all askew, but strong, his arms pumping, his expression determined, and beautiful.

What do I say then? Maybe the better question is what did he say to me?

“You happy,” he says after he is done.

“Yeah,” I say, “what prompted that?”

“Nothing,” he says.

And then he walks away.

He has done it his way, and when he was ready to do it, not when I was ready for him to do so, which is sometimes sooner, though usually later, but always his way, regardless.




He will not come out.

He has stopped moving, pushing, gliding. He will not be born.

We have to remove him with forceps, the doctor says.

She is wearing a Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt, and you trust her, but you don’t want this.

What, you say, because what else is there to say?

What, what, we are going to do our best not to puncture his skull, she says matter of factly.

And that is that.

The doctor leans in and grabs his head with a pair of black salad tongs and this action is both amazingly gentle and fraught with violence all at once.

He comes out, beat-up like a prize-fighter, all bruise and muck.

Later, lying there on his mother’s breast, with his tiny breaths, balled-up fists, and glowing skin, he is a ball of clay, yet to be formed, and yet to become what he will be.

What he is at first is tears, always tears, and if not quite like his brother in terms of intensity, they are still there for a long time regardless.

He is longer to talk as well. And walk. He is longer to start these things anyway.

Yet he will sit there and smile, and he is like a donut, if you can imagine such a thing, and as you stare at this once little ball of clay, now donut, you wonder, because you have to, what he will be, and who he will become.

You are run and his older brother is not, not then anyway, not at all. But this one, who knows, he is still unformed and the possibilities are endless.

Well, until, he’s not.

Because there he is on his feet, potty-trained, talking, explosive, and sudden, no panic, just go, and he will run this one, you know he will run.

Which is good, because there is a race, a work thing, and the older one will not run, but this little one, he will, he is no longer a ball of clay, he is taking shape.

Do you want to run, you say?

Okay, he says, just like that.

And then there he is toeing the line, so small, and so soft, his baggy sweat pants bunching up around his ankles, his number nearly the size of his shirt.

You try not to stare, but it’s so hard, so you look away, but that doesn’t work either.

So you look again.

He is adjusting the balloon bracelet on his wrist, the one that is shaped like a rocket ship.

You smile.

He suddenly bites his lower lip and tears begin to well-up in his eyes.

What, why, no?

You look at him and you force a big smile, it will be okay, you mouth to him, mentally imploring him to just run.

But he’s not watching.

He is crying and he is staring off into space, and he is waiting, just as you are, and just as you have been for so long.

Then there is the gun, and he is running, and now you can’t control yourself.

Not as you run along to meet him at the finish line.

Not as you scream for joy when he’s done.

Not as you sob and gather him up in your arms as they place the finisher’s medal around his neck, ever closer to the big world that still awaits him.



Can I get ice cream, the little one says?

You can get ice cream, yes, of course, you say.

Can I get Sponge Bob, he says?

It is hot and Sponge Bob is big and messy, with his drippy bubble gum eyes, and no, you don’t want him to have Sponge Bob.

But he has all the power.

You are supposed to have the power. But you don’t.

He has it, because you want to run. His mom and brother are not home. And so he goes with you or you do not go.

Sponge Bob is fine, you say.

You pack extra wipes and paper towels, another T-shirt, and jam him into the baby jogger.

Faster, he says when you hit the sidewalk.

Can’t, you say trying to find some rhythm, pushing you.

You’re old, he says, and slow.

Maybe, you say, but still handsome, don’t forget that.

Still he isn’t wrong. You are slow, and more so every day, and every year, and maybe now that he’s gotten older, and you can run more often, and more easily, your slowing has slowed, but that doesn’t make you fast, not by a long shot.

You are old and out of shape. Your knees hurt most of the time. As does your back and even your shoulders.

So yes, you are slow.

But you are still holding on to the idea of running regardless, you have to.

Why do you have to though, and might you be doing something else that brings this same feeling?

You wonder.

Running is freedom and liberation, an escape from doubt, fear, and confusion, and this holds true even when you’re out pushing him.

And what could replace that?

Nothing you’ve found yet, not quite, not even writing, not exactly, though you might have to soon, how long can you keep this up?

Where’s the ice cream man, he says?

We have to get out to the lake first, you say, breathless, already feeling the sweat pooling on your lower back, behind your knees, and just above your brow.

When do I get to run, he says?

What, he wants to run, where, how, together, really, because that is something worth holding on for.

You try not to get too excited. You try to breathe.

What do you mean, you say, like how old do you have to be?

No, like today, he says, can I run today?

You look down, the sweat sliding along your wrists. He is so small, and competing in an organized kids’ dash as he has done is one thing, but could this work, no, how?

Then again, why couldn’t it?

Right now, you say, really, expecting that to be that.

Yes, stop, I’m getting out.

You stop.

He pops out of the baby jogger and stands next to you, no taller than your hip.

Let’s go, he says.

And so you go, along the sidewalk, across the street, into the park, under the highway.

Stride for stride.

Little arms pumping.

Breathing slowly.

People staring, everyone, it’s so weird looking, but he is so smooth, and you are so proud, though self-conscious too, wondering if people think you have forced him to do this.

You are now well into the park and you have run at least one half a mile, though maybe more, and then he just stops, just like that.

Can I get back in, he says?

Of course, you say.

And yes, this you can hold onto, running together, really running together, that is something.

Stay cool you think.

Don’t get too excited and talk about it, what it means, your plans for the future, all that. And don’t think about how you used to run with your dad either, no tears, not tears of joy, or sadness, keep it cool, keep it cool, keep it cool.

But you can’t, not totally anyway.

Hey, we should do this again, you say, and maybe even race together some day too.

Do you see the ice cream man, he says?

Not yet, you say, but be patient, he will come, and it will happen.

And it will come, and it will happen, soon you think, all of it.

Ben Tanzer is the author of the books Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal and a Bronze medal in the Science Fiction category at the 2015 IPPY Awards, Lost in Space, which received an Honorable Mention in the Chicago Writers Association 2014 Book Awards Traditional Non-Fiction category, and now The New York Stories, among others. He has also contributed to Punk Planet, Clamor, and Men's Health, serves as Senior Director, Acquisitions for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life. More from this author →