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Can Cotton Balls Float?
Can a cotton ball float?
It’s not a hypothetical question. In fact, it might be the most important query in the history of the world. Okay, that’s going a little too far, but it was the crucial issue at a birthday party this weekend. My youngest daughter, Waffle, turned eight a few days ago. We had her party Saturday. Unlike her sisters, whose birthdays all get lumped together in a single party because they made the mistake of being born in a tight cluster of dates a few years apart, Waffle stands alone on the other side of the calendar. Her birthday party is a much smaller affair since there’s only one of her, even if she tries to make up for it by having three times the personality. The smaller crowd size means there’s more of an opportunity for board games, which is the real purpose of life. As the faint of heart began to drift away in the early afternoon Saturday, the shouty games came out. That’s when the real fun began.
Technically, there’s no reason any game has to be shouty. If you possess a basic level of self-control, anything can be played with decorum and class. We have none of those things, which is why every game in my house is a shouty game. I will scream in your face if your rook takes my pawn and there’s nothing you can do about it. My favorite shouty game is FitzIt. It’s like a crossword puzzle, but you build the grid yourself with descriptor cards describing an entire word. The cards might say things like “made of metal” or “comes in a box.” You lay down the cards and then say a word that fits all those descriptions. For “made of metal” and “comes in a box,” you might say “calculator.” Then everyone screams at you. Does a calculator really come in a box? The last one I bought, way back in 1998, came in clamshell packaging, which isn’t a box at all. Also, is a calculator actually made of metal, or is it composed mostly of plastic with trace metal elements? You can argue it as far as you want. That’s where the real strategy comes in. Do you want to be a conciliator currying the good will of your fellow players, or do you want to turn up your jerk dial to the max? You already know which strategy I take. Then your word goes up for a vote. If you’re voted down by the group, you have to pick up not just the disputed descriptor card but everything you laid down that turn. The more cards you play, the greater the risk that someone will find fault with one of them and make you pick them all up. The first person to get rid of all their cards wins. That’s what the rules say, anyway. In reality, the winner is the one who shouts the loudest. It’s the perfect game for a second grader’s birthday party. It leads to the good kind of shouting about things that don’t matter and not the bad kind of shouting about who did what to ruin whose childhood. All are welcome to play, but the kids usually shy away from this one since they don’t understand the line for discretionary yelling. They save most of their screaming for imaginary games with made up rules where no one can agree on what’s going on. Come to think of it, that describes most of my board games, too. I need to sit down.
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We had nine players at our FitzIt table Saturday, including our usual board game friends/relatives plus my mom and dad. The crucial moment came when my friend Lila said her word was cotton ball. One of the descriptor cards she used was “can float.” That’s when all hell broke loose. How can a cotton ball possibly float? It’s cotton. If you were jumping off a sinking ship, you wouldn’t use a stuffed animal as a flotation device. That would be a one-way trip to Davy Jones’ locker. (Full disclosure: I don’t know who Davy Jones was or why he went to high school at the bottom of the sea.) Lila insisted that cotton was, in fact, buoyant. Ridiculous. Accusations and counter accusations flew across the table. Everyone got in on it. Nine actual adults yelled passionately about what would happen to a white puff ball in the water. Then someone—possibly me—had a brilliant idea: Why don’t we just test it out? The rules of FitzIt specifically forbid you from looking up answers, but nothing prevented me from conducting original scientific research. We just so happened to own cotton balls. Why? Nobody knows. The only first aid in this house consists of me driving myself directly to the emergency room because I’m once again on the verge of death. I’m an all or nothing sort of guy. I ran upstairs to get the cotton balls and rushed back down to the kitchen. There, I pulled out the largest clear container I could find and filled it all the way to the top with water. I set it on the dining room table. A hush fell over the crowd. Actually, it was the opposite. The shouting reached a crescendo. I dropped the cotton ball in the water. It stayed at the surface. It could float.
The room erupted in pandemonium. Everyone yelled at everyone. Parents disowned children. Punches were thrown. Police cars were flipped over. It’s entirely possible none of that happened. The moment was kind of a blur. In that single instant, science stopped working and physics itself turned out to be a lie. Then my mom, who had been the leader of the anti-float coalition, reached out her hand and smashed the cotton ball to the bottom of the water. It stayed down.
My sister-in-law, Alice, captured the moment for posterity. That’s me having my mind utterly blown by a small piece of cotton in a bowl of water. Despite appearances to the contrary, I assure you the drama was not chemically assisted. I’d had one beer over the previous three hours. These days, I save most of my calories for Halloween candy like a proper adult. My current blood type is milk chocolate.
When my mom sank the cotton ball, the world descended into anarchy. Did the cotton ball float, or did it not? Does the fact that a ship can be sunk mean that it couldn’t float in the first place? That was for the philosophers to decide—or, in this case, a bunch of frenemies with severe conflicts of interest. It was time for a vote. I sided with my mom, if only as a matter of self-preservation. I’d still like to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner. Three other people voted with us on the side of truth. The pro-float side lost five to four. In this house, science still means something. The cotton ball stayed at the bottom of the bowl where it belonged.
Before that game, I didn’t expect my mom to be a cotton ball assassin, but in hindsight, I should have seen it coming. She and her eight siblings have always been cutthroat at board games. I just overlooked that fact because her board game of choice, Scrabble, isn’t so much a game as a torture device. It blatantly discriminates against those of us who can’t spell. How dare Hasbro expect me to have a basic command of the English language? My mom, aunts, and uncles played Scrabble over many bottles of wine every time we visited my grandparents when I was growing up. They used the back cover of their official Scrabble dictionary as a high score list, recording the greatest games over the course of decades. Getting your name in there is more prestigious than being enshrined at Cooperstown or Canton. Tom Brady would gladly give up his seven Super Bowl rings to get his name in that book. When my grandmother died, everyone couldn’t inherit the Scrabble dictionary, so one of my aunts made copies of the high score list and gave them out to everybody. Perhaps we should start a new hall of fame for FitzIt. The current score is as follows: Mom one; buoyancy zero.
The cotton ball incident wasn’t the only moment of controversy in FitzIt. Lola’s brother Calvin also stirred up trouble. For his word, he chose the Bible, and one of the descriptors he placed down was “fictitious.” It’s a good thing his own parents had left by then or he would have been disinherited on the spot. My mom is just as religious as Lola’s parents, but she didn’t give birth to Calvin, so she lacked jurisdiction for mom guilt. She did, however, pay for all seven of her children to go through thirteen years of religious education. By every objective measure, she’s more Catholic than the pope. Naturally, I sided with Calvin, probably because I found it funny at the time. If you’re looking for a deeper reason for anything I do, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I pointed out to my mom that, as a little kid, she told me that not every story in the Old Testament was literally true. That made me a pariah in first grade. While watching a movie about Noah’s ark, I told the other kids at my Catholic school that it was made up. It was like being the first one at school to find out there was no Santa Claus. I was already the weird kid obsessed with pigs. Now I was the dude who was into swine and heresy. I changed schools not long after that, ostensibly because we moved states for my dad’s job, but maybe it was really because my social status had bottomed out. I trauma dumped all that at the FitzIt table and my mom admitted the Bible could be considered, in part, fictitious. By the end of the game, no one believed in religion or science, and we all left the table empty vessels devoid of feeling. It was the best child’s birthday party ever.
There was more to the day than destroying everyone’s faith in everything. There were also cupcakes. Lola engaged in her usual frosting magic. Waffle requested a Grogo theme. Rather than creating individual cupcakes with big green ears, Lola combined all the cupcakes to create one big baby Yoda. It looked good and tasted better. The only flaw was that the frosting had to run between cupcakes to create a solid image. When you pulled a dessert out from under it, it was an open question as to how much frosting you would get. Sometimes you got three cupcakes worth of sugar paste and sometimes you got none. It was all the unfairness of life condensed down to a single baked good. Those who ended up with tragically frostingless cupcakes weren’t entirely out of luck. We also set out our sixty pounds of Halloween candy for all the guests. It was not a time for moderation. It was a day of maximum sugar and maximum volume. You only turn eight once. Waffle could live another hundred years and never have a party that goes that hard, even if she wasn’t at the center of most of the chaos. Then again, I shouldn’t lay down that challenge just yet. She’ll turn twenty-one someday.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.