Day at the Races
(the Diaper Derby races at the Baby Faire, that is)
Jackson Gillman © 2001
is the Baby Derby?" I urgently pant as I enter the Baby
Faire at Boston's Bayside Exposition Center. The man taking
my ticket doesn't know what I'm talking about. "The baby
derby, my daughter is racing at 2:00 pm, I don't want to miss
it." "They're racing babies?" he says skeptically.
I race past and figure I'll just find it myself, but there
is a bottleneck of strollers everywhere. Trying not to break
stride, I dodge caravans of infants, toddlers and their parents.
Eventually I realize I'm just adrift in a sea of babies, with
tide and time working against me. I finally find an information
booth, and am directed to the furthest corner of the exposition
hall. As I slalom past toddlers and hurdle carriages, I spot
my wife and daughter, greet them and am absolutely crushed
to learn that I've arrived too late. I can't believe it.
firstborn's premiere sporting event and I've missed it. What
kind of father am I going to be? My wife, Susan Mann, calmly
assures me that we can enter Jillian in the next race at 3:00.
Phew. We'll have plenty of time to relax, look around at all
the baby paraphernalia that we're very happy to live without,
especially given the price tags, thank you. Plus the fact
that we're already swamped with hand-me-downs of every sort.
Susan and I have both come into parenting relatively late
in life. In my mid-forties, I would qualify for membership
in FOOOFF (Fraternal Order of Old Fart Fathers) and Susan's
not much younger. If we're not mistaken for 10 month old Jillian's
grandparents already, we probably will be by the time parent/teacher
conferences roll around. But we've been around the block long
enough to have entered into parenthood as eager as can be.
And we've been around the vendors here long enough to seek
a refuge before the Big Race.
since I'd heard about the Baby Faire's crawling baby race,
I wanted to see it. And I also happen to have one adroit little
cherub to cheer on. So I've been atwitter with anticipation
for weeks. I'm even stealing away from my storytelling conference
for the afternoon. I'm certain this will be fun, and sure,
I'd like Jillian to do well in the race, but the emphasis
of course is on the fun, right? Okay, I'd really like to see
her win. We even had a training session at home.
has already had quite a bit of fame in her young life. At
the tender age of 20 hours, she had a 20-second cameo on the
6 o'clock news. The medical center where she was waterbirthed
was being used for a special on breastfeeding and they happened
to need a fresh baby for the segment. Five months later, she
was on prime-time television in Japan, featuring a classic,
multi-generational New England cranberry farming family, for
which Mann Family Farms certainly qualified. As the youngest
of the three generations in that documentary, our very own
little cranberry again got to steal some scenes. As cute and
special as we know she is, however, she only achieved stardom
by being in the right place at the right time. But now, just
five months later, this was her chance to take matters into
her own hands (and knees).
first a few preliminaries: in order to enter, we have to sign
a liability waiver. Hmm. What could possibly go awry with
a crawling race. A side-swiped baby bouncing off the wall
at 1 mph, overturning and causing an eight-baby pileup? Doubtful.
It's probably just for the overzealous fathers who get murderously
competitive, like the hockey dads I've heard about in the
news, actually killing each other over a game; can you imagine?!
What incredibly immature role modeling. Not that I lack competitive
spirit, myself. A former cross-country runner in high school,
I won a race or two in my time. I even placed a respectable
eighth in the Vermont state finals. So when my Jillian, who
definitely has some quick genes going for her (compliments
of her old man) gets her adhesive racing number pasted on
her back, whoa baby! Number Eight! It's an omen. She's destined
to follow in her old man's fleet-of-foot steps. God, I'd do
anything to see her win. Well, short of blackjacking some
we've got some time to get prepped and psyched for the race.
Susan is about to nurse her, but hold on just a diaper-changing
minute, here -- that would have the opposite effect of sport-enhancing
doping. Hel-lo? As a frequent observer of the Twilight Zone
that often follows a breastfeeding session, I know that hormone-induced
mellowness is the last thing we need. No -- that would never
do. Better to just have Susan subtly flap the bottom of her
blouse at the finish line to give a hungry Jillian all the
motivations she needs. Other parents have been seen to shake
rattles, toys, and baby bottles. How synthetic. Keep her thirsting
for the real prize, that's the ticket!
for what their parents deem success, other babies are seen
sporting every kind of footwear possible. Designer racing
shoes for creatures that can't even walk yet? Yeah, right,
like a baby's going to "Just Do It"! Do what, other
than poop? Speaking of poop, one of the workshops offered
at the Baby Faire which we would have liked to attend was
-- scout's honor -- "Reading your Baby's Diaper."
Are parents invited to bring a fresh sample? Is it like reading
tea leaves only more aromatic? I wonder what Jillian's would
say: "You are destined to be a winner"? Or perhaps
"You don't digest carrots well"? Incidentally, for
the occasion, it's out with her normal cloth diaper and diaper
wrap, in favor of (gasp) a lightweight, aerodynamic, disposable
model for maximum mobility. As for the rest of her outfit,
she's sporting snug, striped pants and a light flouncy blouse
with nothing extra to get in her way, while other babies are
seen burdened with heavy overalls or ruffled dresses.
now back to the feet. Since no part of the foot is really
involved in crawling, except perhaps the toes, Jillian is
the only one going au naturel, barefoot for better toe traction.
If talc wasn't carcinogenic, for better hand grip on the vinyl,
her increasingly excited coach might even add that to her
arsenal of advantage not to mention a little grease on her
knees for less drag. Don't worry Jillian, Daddy won't shave
your head for the race, though it might give my lean, mean
crawling machine a psychological advantage over some of those
beribboned and curled bonbons.
first heat is about to begin. The first and second-place winners
will join the winners of the next two heats in a Race-off
for valuable gift certificates. Wow, prizes too! Come on Jillian,
a chance to earn your keep. Maybe after this race, there'll
be the state finals, the nationals, the baby Olympics, product
endorsements and TV commercials! Boston Marathon, here she
comes. It all starts here and now. We take our position in
the last Lucky 8th lane. Me, and Jillian, poised on all fours
at the start; Susan at the finish. I frankly wonder if Jillian
sees her mother as a separate entity yet, or still a detachable
extension of herself. In any case, all she has to do is close
that gap and plug mom back in as quickly as possible.
are announced by the referee, looking very official in his
black and white striped shirt.
Babies can not be push-started over the starting line. (Mr.
Ref advises that this generally causes a negative effect
anyhow. Also, any form of "baby bowling" is frowned
upon, and can cause nasty vinyl burns)
2. Only babies are allowed on the track.
3. Babies do not have to stay in their own lanes and rarely
4. Any baby standing and walking in the race can be applauded
for their precocious bipedalism but will still be disqualified.
5. Any form of cheering or enticement is highly encouraged.
6. Lastly, babies must reach the finish line themselves
and not be pulled across.
it, folks. And now, for the moment we've all been waiting for!
The track court and the throngs of people surrounding it have
become electric with the countdown. On your marks
And they're off
to nowhere. The only discernible
movement is from parents who are gesturing frantically trying
to get their tykes moving. Some even give the illicit nudge
over the starting line which does indeed backfire, as bewildered
babies look backward thinking "What? What! Why are you
pushing me away?" and then crawling back to security to
escape all the raucous commotion. Indeed, there is absolutely
no uncoerced forward movement at the starting line whatever,
with the exception of
Lane Eight! Jillian Estelle clearly
understands the words of her dad's rallying cry to "Close
the Gap!" Her eyes are locked on the prize and she blasts
off like a little rug rocket towards her refueling station.
Granted, her trajectory takes her a bit wide of her lane, but
that is no matter as she barrels down the track with a singular,
or should I say twin focus. She prances across the finish line
to her jubilant mother and accepts a temporary sippy cup rehydration
before she is later and more discretely awarded her First, then
Second, prizes, cradled in mom's arms.
who jokingly chided me earlier about my own competitive hockey-dad
hormones, is ecstatic and admits that her heart was pounding
throughout the whole action-packed minute. And it is easily
another whole minute before one of the other seven rug ramblers
gets it together to dribble across the finish line. Our cup
runneth over with pride. Our little Jillian Estelle was poetry
in motion, as she bounded across the court like a little gazelle.
We relive the excitement while we try to calm ourselves on
the sidelines and watch the next heats, sizing up the competition.
heat is a stitch to watch and the referee's color commentary
adds immensely to the action or inaction as the case may be.
"On your marks, get set, G0!
any baby want to take the first move? These babies are all
such good sports. After you. No, after you, I insist. Okay,
#4 in the Pokemon outfit is off and crawling -- he's no slow
pokey mon and he's not stopping. Well, we know who the first
place winner will be. No, he has stopped one inch short of
the finish line. Mom is trying everything to get him to hiccup
over that line. He's never seen his mom so animated before
and is delighted to just sit and watch. Back at the starting
line, one little princess is off, but she's stopping now to
readjust her headband. Yes, image is important; you look marvelous,
dear. All right, now there's more movement afoot. A string
of babies have caught sight of a bunny on the sideline and
they're after it. It looks like a whole pack of plodding greyhounds
are defecting off the track. Wait, a mom at the finish line
is frantically shaking a box of Cheerios. It's not working.
She's tossing one down the track. Her baby sees it. He's after
it, he's got it, he's stopping it to eat it. Mmm good. Here
comes another Cheerio. Other babies have caught scent of their
favorite snack. There's a scramble for it. Oops, there's a
pileup in the works. There are going to be a heck of a lot
of speed bumps for her baby to run over. Don't worry folks,
we've got the Jaws-of-Life standing by if we need it. More
Cheerios are raining down the track. It's a madhouse. Never
been anything like it in Diaper Derby history. Oh, now what?
Princess Headband has a Cheerio fragment imbedded in her hand.
She's showing it to everyone. Yes, we see it, dear. No, sorry,
you can't demand a restart. Now she's back in gear, she's
bearing down on Pokemon who hasn't budged yet. It's going
to be a photo finish, and she wins by the cutest little nose."
Needless to say, everyone is in total hysterics. After the
dust settles and the Cheerios are swept away, tension mounts
for the final Crawl-Off of the winners.
back in the observation deck, there is absolutely no tension
however, on the part of Little Miss #8 who has long since
"closed the gap" and has been obliviously nursing
on the sidelines during all of this excitement. I, in turn,
have been totally absorbed in the races and was unaware of
this development. Had I noticed, I might have tried to cut
her off, just rationing a little appetizer so she'd still
have that hungry edge for the checkered flag, or the flapping
blouse, as the case might be. But Susan, being the softhearted,
feed-on-demand mom that she is, probably wouldn't have gone
for it, and it's all moot now as she has already allowed Jillian
to top herself off. Uh oh. Will it give her the recharge and
courage to go out there and do what needs to be done, or will
it pull the vinyl out from under her speedy little knees?
We'll soon find out, as she and I take our position now on
the favored post lane Number One.
the countdown, but this time the start of the race really
does resemble a blastoff as the seasoned winners from the
earlier heats are off in a cloud of diapers. A whole pack
of babies surges toward the finish line. All that is, with
the exception of
Lane Number One. Jillian takes a token
paddle across the starting line and plunks down. Our former
gazelle has turned into a lane hog. I try to imagine what
is going on in her milk-clouded mind. Is she giving the competition
a sporting head start a la tortoise and hare? The track is
only twenty feet long, dear. Perhaps she figures she has already
established herself as the hands-on winner -- been there,
done that -- what else is there to prove; a pragmatic decision
to retire undefeated? Or, yikes, could this be early genetic
evidence of her father's attention deficiencies? Or is she
just one sated little infant happily under the influence of
on any image for a closer view.)
the reason, Jillian is sitting there contentedly watching
all the excitement, looking at everything but her two parents
trying to get the attention of the 8-Ball sitting just two
paces from the starting line. I realized then that depending
on which way you look at the number 8, it could also be seen
as the symbol for infinity, and through my tears of laughter,
I see this cosmic little buddha, totally at One with herself,
possibly pondering that same conundrum. Who says the Dalai
Lama can't be a girl?
heard of athletes being in the Zone. Well, Jillian is in the
Meanwhile, the winners and runners-up are cheered, others
straggle over the line, and those stalled out along the route
are gathered up, all to great fanfare and applause, even by
our sportsmanlike guru at the starting line. Just as I had
been, Jillian was totally absorbed in the action, exhibiting
the same hyper-focus flip side of attention deficiency: definitely
daddy's girl. I'm still trying to get her attention, patiently
urging her to finish the race no matter how long it would
take. "Jillian, we won't deny you the chance to finish.
If it takes a few more minutes, that's fine
don't think they close up till 8:00
maybe we could camp
out here -- it doesn't matter, just finish what you start
and you'll always be a winner. Just come to papa."
the commotion (and hormones?) subside, and there is nothing
else left to look at, Jillian finally notices us and flies
off toward us as before. She's like a bat out of nirvana,
sprinting straight to the finish and into the arms of her
cheering parents who are laughing so hard that they have to
strain to not leave any wet spots on the vinyl. Neither could
decide which they enjoyed more, the utter thrill of victory
or the side-splitting pisser of defeat. As for Jillian, she
couldn't have been happier with her booby prizes.
[This color commentary is dedicated to my own "Best Beloved"
and was started at the very same spot that Rudyard Kipling
began penning the" Just So Stories" for his "Best
Beloved". I have the annual privilege of being Kipling-in-residence
at Naulakha in Brattleboro, performing to groups touring Kipling's
historic home there. A live version of this story will be
included in my new "Dad's Eye View" show at Acadia
Repertory Theatre premiering August 20 and 27.]