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Connections | Magazine

To beat my dad at Mindball, all I had to do was relax. Why was it so hard?

I couldn’t let him win in front of my kids.

Maura Intemann

I dwell in stories; my dad, a submarine engineer, in machines. The Connecticut Science Center in Hartford beguiled us both. And it especially beguiled my sons Elliot and Ari, who at ages 9 and 7 poured out of our granola-encrusted minivan ready to play.

It was one of those trips — multigenerational, to a crowded place — we used to take for granted. And hopefully will again.

We came to an exhibit on sports science. “Time me!” Elliot demanded as he hurled a baseball toward a simulated catcher. “Watch me!” Ari shouted, challenging his reaction speed against the video of a 90-mile-an-hour heater. Little Leaguers from even before they had words.


I, meanwhile, took a computer quiz that determined I might not like team sports much, and suggested I try more individual endeavors like tennis or swimming. “If only we’d known this before you tried to coach me in eighth-grade basketball,” I said to Dad. My tone was joking, but we both winced a little at the memory.

Elliot, Ari, and Dad loved team sports. In the spirit of “it skips a generation,” a chief joy of his retirement was coming out to see his grandchildren’s tournaments.

At one end of the exhibit loomed what looked like an instrument of torture. It was a table with a track down the middle, a Ping-Pong ball resting in the track. At either end, a chair and a metal headband. “It reads your brain waves!” Elliot said.

I thought he was making it up. But sure enough, he and Ari strapped on the headsets, faced each other across the table, and tried to move the ball toward each other using only their thoughts.

Amazingly, it worked. I’d had no idea technology was bringing us this close to Jedi mind tricks. The ball nudged across the goal line on Ari’s side. Elliot ripped his headset off gleefully. “Grandpa, I want to face you!”


My father settled in while I read about the game. Called Mindball, it’s a biofeedback device that responds to your brain waves. Alpha and theta waves, described as those of meditation and relaxed focus, make the ball move away from you. Beta waves, which look as jagged as my routine of too-little-sleep and too-much-coffee, weaken your position. The goal of the game is to relax the ball across your opponent’s post.

My father had aced MIT and the US Naval Academy in part because of his capacity to contemplate complex mathematical phenomena with unnatural calm. He sat down across from my sons and, his breath disciplined and regular, dispatched first Elliot then Ari.

“Greg?” he taunted.

Our history was on the table between us as I pulled my headset into position. I couldn’t let him win, not in front of my children. But where and how was I to hide my racing thoughts, the rising anxiety of being exposed by this man who had led my Boy Scout troop, who had judged my piano practice habits so poor he’d taken the whole instrument away?

Like a nightmare from an Indiana Jones movie, the ball rolled toward me the moment I occupied the cursed seat. “Stop!” I mentally projected into the electrodes, sending the ball practically leaping toward me. I tried deep breathing. I formed images of arctic winds.

Disaster rumbled my way. A Yoda smile played on my dad’s lips. Elliot and Ari, as Little Leaguers will, began a sideline chant. I swore under my breath.


And then — the absurdity of our contest hit me. I began to laugh. And — miracle of miracles — the ball stopped. Then reversed. Ten seconds later it was over: The ball rolled across my dad’s goal posts. My kids cheered and my eyes welled with tears.

I’ve hung onto the lesson: Find ways to laugh specially when stressed.

And while team sports aren’t my thing, losing isn’t, either.

Greg Harris is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to