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Navigating the Marble

This is not my toy. This is my grandson’s toy.

It consists of a transparent plastic sphere, about six inches in diameter, inside of which there is a strange hybrid of industrial maze, an abstract sculpture from a museum of modern art, and some bright scheme of a biological being with its blood vessels, intestines, and breathing tubes presented in different colors. There is a single small marble, shiny metallic ball less than a quarter of inch in diameter, which a player has to navigate through the system from some start point to the end point where a tiny plastic hemisphere would hold it safely. That’s it. The toy is simple and, according to the description, is oriented to children of four and older. My grandson is almost seven and he likes the game. His younger sister, who is four, is not interested – the task seems too difficult to her.

The task is difficult! There are 69 steps one must accomplish to bring the marble to the triumphant finish. Most of the steps are simple. You just have to twist the big sphere a little, turn it gently, and the marble will follow a short fenced route to the next step. Some steps are more difficult. The most sophisticated step is, in my view, the 48th, on which the marble travels through a yellow tube reminiscent of the letter “S” twisted in the third dimension. For me, at least, it was the stumbling block. My grandson, to the best of my knowledge, has never reached the tube.

But, first of all, let me explain it to you – the very fact that I started playing with the toy and spent some hours mastering it. Well, I probably wouldn’t have done it had President Obama and House Republicans not been in so much disagreement about the spending cuts and had not a low level manager in one of the Federal buildings decided to retire. Due to those two independent developments, my company that is a contractor to a contractor to a Federal institution, furloughed me; and I got more free time than I was prepared for. So, on one sunny winter afternoon I took the plastic sphere in my hands and tried to navigate the ball. With some considerable effort I placed the marble onto the starting position, shifted the sphere a little and easily accomplished the first step. Then I accomplished the second one, then – oops! – the marble jumped, quickly moved along a beautiful violet fork, and the next thing I noticed was the marble’s jingle at the bottom of the sphere. I repeated my actions – with exactly the same outcome. I knew then that my grandson was able to pass the ball along some twenty plus steps, and so I got quite a strange feeling of being a complete failure. Then all my life, almost 64 years, appeared to me as a long sequence of underaccomplishments. “Well, said I to myself, you shouldn’t buy this. Your six year old grandson can do it, so you also must be able. Concentrate!” I tried for the third time, and lost the ball at step six. This was definitely some progress. Encouraged, I started anew.

An interesting question for me is: what would have happened hadn’t I succeeded to pass step three on my third attempt? Would I have quit in despair or would I have continued anyway? Well, I will never know. What I do know is that when I miserably failed the third step again after proceeding successfully to the sixth step, I accepted this failure graciously and started again without hesitations and even the slightest affliction. OK, I can do better; I just have to try it once more.

My troubles with the sixth step persisted for at least five more tries. This sixth step seems so simple to me now – what the heck couldn’t I understand right away! Well, the truth is: I never had good eye-hand coordination. There was no real mystery that I was slow in mastering the toy – much slower than my six year old. But when for the first time I succeeded – by pure accident, still not understanding what I was doing – in passing step six, I felt like George Washington at Yorktown. The marble slipped away just two or three steps further but my enthusiasm did not. I continued my exercises until my hands got tired, and I postponed continuation to the next day. At that point my highest achievement in steps was 27.

The next morning I got up with a pleasant sensation that something important was awaiting me. I did not immediately realize that that important something was a toy intended for age four and up. But when I finally realized it I had no feeling of shame or inappropriateness. To the contrary, the task to master that toy seemed to me like a good match. I hastily dressed up, drank my coffee and returned to work.

One of great psychoanalysts, maybe Freud himself, said that repetition is among the greatest sources of joy. Well, probably, he was right. But the repetition of unsuccessful attempts is also a great source of irritation. The further I was able to pass on my way toward the magic final hemisphere, the longer I had to work just to repeat my previous successes. For quite some time I couldn’t move beyond the thirtieth step. And each time, after the ball’s humiliating rumble sent me back to square one, I was squandering two, three, five, ten attempts for stupid interruptions on earlier steps before reaching the magic thirtieth step only to fail again. When I passed that thirtieth step for the first time, I couldn’t believe it – and immediately jumped to pleasant feeling of surety – as I passed this one, nothing would prevent me from reaching the finish. Well, it took a lot of efforts to get to the 48th, to the yellow tube.

While exercising, playing with the marble I suddenly caught myself on going back and forth through my memory, bringing to the surface – one after one – the most intimate and the most shameful things that I had been avoiding for years and years. Surprisingly, they felt less painful, some – even not painful at all. Even more surprising was the next discovery: forgetting about the marble I was moving it along faster, with more confidence; it was like watching my own hands from outside my own self and witnessing the growing firmness and precision of their movements. I remembered that street hooligan hitting me with his left hand and repeating: “You see, I don’t even have to use my right hand! See – you can do nothing!” And he was correct: I couldn’t do anything. How many years ago was that? Forty five? Good guess. Forty six, to be precise. I remembered my first wife, long dead, crying in the flat we lived in in Moscow, and then, almost immediately, as the marble was delicately moving along the same curve but on another side of it, - her again, again crying, this time fifteen years later, in another town, in winter, on Friday. Did I ever recall that Friday? No, at least not in America. I dropped the marble once more and had to start anew.

As I was slowly but surely mastering the toy, its geometry and design became more and more obvious to me. What a great design idea, simple and powerful! The tube (step 48) was one of a few elements that the ball had to pass through only once. For almost all the elements of the maze, there were two passages – the first on one side of the surface, the second – on another. The most difficult places were not those that looked the most difficult; quite to the opposite: the real danger was awaiting the mazemover where one would not expect it.

Now I have achieved some proficiency in navigating the marble. Once I was even able to go through the whole labyrinth twice in a row. Isn’t it time for me to rest my case? Especially, because this is not my toy after all; this is my grandson’s toy, as I said earlier. And now I am ready to help him with the toy. If he is willing to accept my help indeed.


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