SARAH SMILEY

The fairness of the universe (and coin tosses)

Posted July 27, 2014, at 10:30 a.m.
Sarah Smiley
Sarah Smiley

If you have multiple children, you know the worst situation a parent can have: there are several options, but only one that is good, and everyone wants it. It doesn’t even matter if that option really isn’t good by adult standards. As soon as one child says he desperately wants it, that he will go in his room if he doesn’t get it, every other child thinks that option is as fantastic as a winning lottery ticket.

My older brother Will (he has one child) experienced this firsthand during his family’s recent trip to Maine. Will and I were taking the kids canoeing, and although we have just one canoe, we have three paddles. Two of them are metal and considered by most adults to be the “better paddles.” Indeed, Dustin and I paid good money for them.

The third paddle is wooden and was found under an old shed. It very likely was someone else’s trash. Still, everyone under the age of 30 that day wanted the splintered, wooden paddle. What’s more, they all wanted to sit in the back of the canoe, too.

I watched amused as my brother maneuvered this dangerous territory. By the end of it, I could see in his eyes that he was tempted to go out into my dad’s work shed and build another wooden paddle.

Will looked to me for help because the canoe trip was actually my idea. In about 45 minutes the sun would set on the western side of the lake, and I was positive it would be as spectacular as the night before, when the sun bounced maroon and golden hues off the clouds and across the water. Only Dustin and I went on that sunset paddle. It was quiet, beautiful and romantic. Surely this sunset would be the same if I went with four children, right?

“How about one of you take the wooden paddle on the trip out,” Will said, “and then you switch?”

Sounds reasonable. Unless you’re younger than 16.

“And what about the seats?” Owen said. “Who gets to sit in the back?”

“One of you will sit in the back on the way there, and one of you will sit in the back when we come home,” Will said.

My children stared at him. Did he really think it could be solved that easily?

“I’m older, so I get the wooden paddle and the back seat both ways,” Ford said.

“No way,” Owen yelled.

(Meanwhile, the sun was beginning to slip further toward the horizon.)

“I know,” Will said triumphantly, “Let’s flip a coin.”

That sounded easy, too. Then Will realized we needed to flip four times: twice for the seat (there and back) and twice for the paddle (there and back), because Ford thought it was not reasonable to flip once and then give the return trip/paddle to the loser. That’s because Ford was sure he would win by choosing heads, which has, according to him, a “50.37% chance of winning every flip.”

Owen claimed tails, and apparently, the world was on our side. The flips for the paddle ended fairly: Ford would have it one way and Owen the other.

Will threw the coin up again. It seemed to flip in slow motion. Everyone came closer. Will uncovered the coin. Ford won the back seat for the trip out. So far, fate agreed with the fairest of options: split everything.

“Do you really want me to flip a fourth time?” Will said looking at me. His eyes were pleading.

“You have to,” Ford said. “It’s the only way.”

Flipping again, of course, meant that Owen (tails) might lose his chance to sit in the back of the canoe both ways.

Will flipped the coin. It seemed to beat the air as it spun. Inside, I yelled, “NOOOOOOOOOO,” in one long, drawn-out breath. I have never wanted to see tails on a coin so badly before.

Will caught the coin on the back of his hand, took a deep breath and uncovered it.

Heads.

What happened next is a story that should be stored away, never to see the light of day until my kids are getting married and I need to embarrass them.

Amazingly, the sun was not waiting for this nonsense.

By this point, no one even remembered what they were fighting for. But Will, as the uncle, knew he had to fix it. I might never know what magic he worked that night, but ten minutes later, everyone was happily getting in the canoe.

We raced to a small island, where we hoped to watch the sun’s show. But the universe, of course, had the last word in this drama: The sun unceremoniously, and without even a hint of maroon, slipped below the horizon and left me and my brother sitting there with kids bickering about who was wearing the other’s shorts.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.

 

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