Some people love misery, so they play with Rubik's cubes.
That's what my 11-year-old does when he needs a good self-torture, provided that he's already crashed his bike and flooded his liver with Cheeto dust.
That middle-born boy bought his first cube at age 7. His rigid mind swiveled into place with the colors - and when he looked up from the cube at this chaotic world, everything gathered into neat matching bricks before his eyes.
Until he scrambled it too far.
"Mo-om!" yelled Middleborn. "I can't fix my cube."
"It's the devil's toy," I muttered.
"What'd you say?" asked he.
"I said - sure, I'll try," and I cleared my throat.
But I am not one of those people who can unravel a scrambled cube in my head. I spent the next two afternoons studying a Youtube video of two pale, elongated hands solving a cube one algorithm at a time. I finally mastered it.
When I handed the solved toy back to Middleborn, he marveled at the bright colors: some joined neatly at coy right angles. Others ran parallel, oblivious to one another until the next fateful mix-up.
Then he scrambled it again, and we solved it together, repeatedly, until he, too, learned the algorithms.
Back in the pre-Youtube days, which I keenly remember, thugs and warlords would give Rubik's Cubes to children as a psychological attack meant to cripple the nation.
If you can't defeat your foe nations with force, simply confuse their children to death. That's also a great way to get neighbor kids out of your garage, but back then, I was the neighbor kid in people's garages.
The cube didn't come with an instruction manual.
You always thought you could teach yourself to swivel back in the reverse direction by which you'd scrambled it. But that was a delusion, and so was your mother's Kool-Aid, which contained only a fraction of the recommended flavoring powder.
As for me, I didn't die of confusion or drink the Kool-Aid. I pried the cube apart and smashed it back together in its proper order.
"Solved!" I shouted at the top of my lungs.
But no one heard me because, while I was pouring my precious soul into a hateful toy, my parents and siblings were out in the sunshine torching weeds from the bouncing rear rack of an old farm three-wheeler.
Here in the present day, cube mania still grips my ginger-haired boy. Middleborn has his old three-by-three cube. He also has a two-by-two, a four-by-four, a five-by-five - and a cube that is chrome-colored on all sides, whose heat-sensitive panels reveal their original colors fleetingly, under the warmth of human touch.
Then there's my favorite: the Gan. The whole cube is metallic purple. Its sides are distinguishable only by a difference in the depth of their bricks. When scrambled, the Gan looks like a heap of dried Play-Doh. Once solved, it looks like an alien touchstone.
"Hey, buddy. Put the cube down so I can read to y'all," I say on a faux spring evening as snow pelts the windowpanes.
"Uh-huh," answers Middleborn, swiveling faster.
"Yep, so put the cube down."
He swivels faster. His hands blur into the reds, yellows and blues, whites, greens and oranges. I'm not sure whether to chuckle or vomit.
"Juuuusssst uhhhh seconnnd," says Middleborn.
"You're not gonna understand the plot of this book if you cube the whole time I'm reading it," I say. "Remember that time you were so busy cubing, you thought Harry Potter was the villain?"
He doesn't remember. His whole existence is one meticulous algorithm. Where other little boys have rogue spirits eager to accept Harry Potter's fate, that one has only the urge to make the universe perfect.
I can see it in everything he does, from the way he shaves the crusts off his sandwich with a pocket knife - which he then disinfects - to the way he glowers at his socks when they stray to his brother's side of the drawer.
"SOLVED!" he shouts, holding up the perfect Gan.
The universe is far from solved at this moment. But I let him believe otherwise.
"Great job, buddy!" I say. "I bet you could solve a fifty-by-fifty."
He wrinkles his nose. "Mom. I could solve a billion-by-billion."
"That's nice, dear. Now put the cube down."
Middleborn perches the cube on his shelf and imagines a solved world.
But slowly, rendering tales from long ago and far away in my bedtime-story voice, I scramble it up again.