Allegory of the Slinky and the infinite lanyard loop

One day, while our kids were playing in various parts of the house, my friend Ellen and I were sitting in her kitchen and talking about a hundred things that overlap and coalesce and converge and circle back around on themselves the way we do, and at some point I noticed that she’d been working on unsnarling a plastic slinky that had become enmeshed in itself. This process is probably familiar to most parents, having been handed at some point at least one of these brainteasing challenges that somehow feels like an act of defiance against physics, requiring a combination of fine motor skills and mental dexterity to restore that signature shape. I almost asked her to let me have a crack at it, as I actually enjoy little projects like this and am known in my family for being the one to whom knotted necklaces and such should be given for rehabilitation. Instead, understanding that Ellen is like I am in so many ways and therefore was probably relishing in the tangible nature of this fixing this little predicament, I told her about how I’d spent a solid ten minutes the night before: trying to untie a knot that I’d noticed in the lanyard Arlo used for his mask.

I’m surprised and dismayed to be saying this, but I failed. It was a knot that, despite my best efforts, I could not figure out how to disentangle. This is because, after I’d loosened the cinch in the knot, this is what was produced:

That’s right; what I’d basically discovered was a Mobiüs strip situation. There was actually no way (as far as I could tell) to put the thing to rights without somehow pulling one end, which had been sewn to itself around the plastic washer that connects to the clip for the mask, through the hole in the spherical spring-loaded push-button slide toggle adjustment apparatus, but the hole was completely too small for the washer to fit through it. I don’t say this a lot, but I finally gave up and asked my husband for help, but he couldn’t fathom how to do it either.

That fouled-up Slinky and the puzzlement of the lanyard felt so familiar as human experiences: as we interact with and encounter one befuddling, sometimes supremely frustrating circumstance after another, we’re called upon to mindbend through each problem to smooth things out. Sure, once in a while these are enjoyable endeavors, just challenging enough to yield gratification upon achieving the desired result, but others spin us into a spiral of consternation if not a state of downright vexation. Think about all of those minor “twisted Slinky” moments we deal with on a daily basis: how to fold up a stroller with one hand, what to use in a recipe that calls for a can of diced tomatoes but there are no diced tomatoes in the pantry even though you swore you bought two cans last time, what words to choose when helping a kid work through a social dispute, when and how to address the unacceptable behavior of an overtired child. Even something as seemingly simple as meal planning can feel like an untangling of sorts, one that can weigh onerously at times but ultimately isn’t terribly difficult to accomplish. But then there are the Mobiüs moments, those “no solution” situations where there doesn’t appear to be any way to iron out a problem despite all manner of concerted effort and creative thinking. We’ve had some of those crop up around here recently, and it’s such a disorienting feeling to feel unequipped to see through a problem to its solution.

Identifying problems and figuring out how to fix them are what we do as people; it’s the work of life and a lifetime of work. Slinkies gone sideways and the knickers they twist are par for the course as we walk our way down the staircase of each day, and while sometimes it’s easy to stumble across an easy fix, there are times that unspooling a debacle is as simple as making a Slinky step its way upstairs.

May your day be full of more spring-twists than lanyard-loops, more Slinky than Mobiüs. And may the untangling feel like a victory that’s pure instead of Pyhrric, untrammeled triumph instead of toil.

And if anyone has an idea about how Arlo did that to his lanyard, please send help.

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