What Rubik’s Cubes Competitions Taught Me About Being a Dad

When my son and daughter entered Rubik's Cube competitions, I could contribute nothing to their success. Turns out, they could teach me a thing or two.

by Jason Ockert

I got my first Rubik’s Cube when I was ten. It was a Christmas gift. It was 1984. It was the same year that the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis and gave Hoosier kids like me a team of our own.

When we weren’t in school, my friends and I spent all of our time outside. We’d build tree forts, make elaborate bike ramps, catch crawfish in the creek, and play Ghost in the Graveyard until nightfall.

I kept my Rubik’s cube on the nightstand next to the latest book I was reading (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, The Secret of Nimh, How to Eat Fried Worms, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Choose Your Own Adventure). Like many kids in my neighborhood, I was intrigued by the way the three-by-three multi-colored puzzle worked. The rows moved left and right or up and down. The goal was to arrange all of the colors to their assigned sides until you had a beautiful white, yellow, orange, green, red, and blue plastic block. When you turn a cube, there’s a pleasant, soft, sliding tick. It’s a little like the sound of a wrench tightening a bolt or a screw boring into wood. Mixing up the colors and shifting it around in your hands is rather calming. It’s only when you actually try to slide the cubes into their proper home that frustration sets in.

I wasn’t the kind of kid who gave up easily. I really tried to figure out the secret code to make the cube whole again. Every time I thought I was close, I’d twist it the wrong way and have to start all over again. The best I could ever complete was two sides and that was with dumb luck. I didn’t know a single kid who could solve it properly. I did learn how to take it apart and put it back together again. My best friend peeled off all the stickers and rearranged them. We were cheating, but we didn’t really care. It was a different kind of solution. It allowed us to put the cube aside and move on.

I got older. My family moved to South Florida. I tried to become a Dolphins fan. After college, I lived in DC for a little while (the Redskins). I eventually migrated to western New York (the Bills) and then to South Carolina (the Panthers). I have no idea where my Rubik’s cube ended up. Probably pitched in the trash with all my other ’80’s toys: Matchbox cars, Star Wars figures, LEGOs, Etch-a-Sketch, Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Gone into the receptacle with my youth. Replaced by paying bills, mowing the lawn, washing the car, and trying to be a decent father to my son and daughter.

My wife, who is normally in charge of “school stuff,” is the one who noticed the announcement of the Rubik’s Cube Club at the bottom of my son’s fourth grade weekly newsletter. Since my son expressed interest in joining the club, my wife went online with him to research solutions. It took them two weekends to figure it out and my son joined the club.

The Rubik’s Cube Club turned out to be training for a county-wide Rubik’s Cube competition. Apparently, it’s not enough to just solve the cube; you also have to do it quickly. While I slumped in my recliner on football Sundays, my son sat perched on the couch and practiced. He’d complete the cube, I’d scramble it for him, he’d put it back together. Solve it, scramble, resolve. Kickoff, halftime, game over. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Schools from all over the county arrived at our local convention center a few months later to compete in the Rubik’s Cube competition. There were easily two hundred kids packing cubes. It sounded like a forest full of crickets as each kid turned the cube around and around, in deep concentration. I quickly grew nervous for my son.

Like many fathers, I’ve spent a significant number of hours sitting in bleachers and cheering for my kids. I’m familiar with the rush of anxiety that comes with rooting for them powerlessly from the sidelines. During the Rubik’s Cube competition, I felt a different brand of anxiousness. Unlike the sports where I coached him, I had no idea how to solve a Rubik’s cube. If I had to compete, I would have smashed it apart and put it back together (which would have taken me about three minutes). So, I stood there with all the other clueless parents while my son waited in an enormous line for his chance to compete in the solo race. Each kid stepped up to the judge’s table, examined the cube, and worked his or her fingers around until it was complete while a clock ticked away: one minute and forty-five seconds, two minutes and eleven seconds, three minutes and twenty seconds…on and on and on. By the time my son calmly took his place at the table I was jittery. All those kids twisting and turning their cubes made me jumpy. I didn’t know what to do with my own hands. I shoved them in my pockets and watched.

When he practiced at home, my son’s best time was one minute and fifteen seconds. Under the gaze of his teammates, his competitors, the judge, and me, he snatched the cube and solved it in 59.4 seconds. His score was fast enough (by three-tenths of a second) to win first place in the county.

I could make an analogy here and say that his victory was like hitting a homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning. Or swishing a three-point buzzer-beater. Or kicking a field goal as time expires. All of these comparisons are inaccurate because those events, while thrilling, are familiar. Everything about this competition felt foreign. I understand the adrenaline rush from a sporting victory, but a Rubik’s cube in my hands was just colorful and complicated plastic.

And when my son won the county-wide Rubik’s cube competition, he did it on his own; I had nothing to do with it.

I received my second Rubik’s cube for Father’s Day. It was 2015. That year, the Panthers lost to the Broncos and Peyton Manning — who had brought Indianapolis a Super Bowl victory—ended his career with a final ring. My wife and son offered many times to teach me how to solve the Rubik’s cube. Whenever they’d try, I’d always find an excuse: “I’m too busy,” or “Puzzles aren’t really my thing,” or “Maybe after the football game.” It was my seven-year-old daughter who finally convinced me to try—really try—to solve it.

Who among us does not have trouble saying no to our little girls? The second my daughter looks at me with her big, brown, expectant eyes, I cave. Plus, she was seven. (The next year, she became the youngest kid on the school’s Rubik’s Cube team and finished with a personal record in the solo competition.) She posed a very good question: “Why won’t you at least try?”

How could I respond to that? No way that I knew how. So, I conceded. “All right. What do I do?”

“I’ll show you,” she said, demonstrating with her own cube. “It’s easy. First, you make the yellow daisy.”

I twisted and turned the cube and tried to follow her directions.

“Now the white cross.”

“I can’t do it.”

“Yes you can. It just takes practice.”

That sounded familiar. Isn’t, “It just takes practice,” my line? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to teach our kids? Want to learn a cartwheel? Practice. Want to ride a bike without training wheels? Practice. Hit a tennis ball, golf ball, ping-pong ball? Practice, practice, practice.

“Fine,” I said, gripping the cube tightly. “Here’s the white cross.”

“Good. You have to move it like this to get the first two layers.”

“This way?”

“No, that way.”

“All right. Like this?”

“Yeah. Great! Now all that’s left is down, left, up, right.”

“I messed it up.”

“You didn’t. Trust me.”

“Down, left, up, right. Down, left, up, right. Down, left, up, right.”

And then, to my amazement, I deciphered a mystery that had baffled me for over thirty years. I solved the damn thing.

“Good job,” my daughter said. “You did it!”

Parenting would be easier if it were like completing a Rubik’s cube. Our children are never “solved” or “unsolved.” One of the greatest obstacles I’ve had to overcome, as a father, is to avoid comparing my childhood to my kids’ childhood. It’s tough to do. After all, we are a compilation of our experiences; how can we possibly avoid seeing their exposure to the world through our perceived memories of how things used to be back in the day? I have to catch myself anytime I begin, “When I was a kid, I used to…” My history was different. I want their childhood to be better than mine. Who doesn’t?

When I was a kid, I couldn’t solve the Rubik’s cube without breaking it. Somehow, the 1980’s artifact resurfaced recently to give me a second chance. The toy has reminded me to be patient. To listen. To keep practicing. It’s a gift that has allowed me to learn from my children.

These days, my kids can solve the cube in less than 30 seconds. They know a number of shortcuts. They understand different methods and have memorized complex algorithms. They have learned “finger tricks” in order to increase their speed. Watching them solve it is like observing hummingbirds at a bird feeder.

I keep my Rubik’s cube on the side table next to my recliner beside the remote control. I pick it up from time to time just to make sure that I still remember how it works. I’m not very fast. I wouldn’t win any competitions. Sometimes, I make mistakes and have to start all over again.

Jason Ockert is the author of two story collections, Neighbors of Nothing and Rabbit Punches, and the novel Wasp Box. He teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University.