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Diggin' in Your Genes


by Marrit Ingman

Marion Winik writes in 1998’s The Lunchbox Chronicles: “So you have a child and you think you’re going to mold him and shape him. He’s going to share your interests. You’re going to take him under your wing and show him the way. Then you wake up one day and find yourself a soccer mom, a Cowboys fan, and a frigging golfer, for that matter. It’s the offspring who’s done all the molding and shaping here, and you, meanwhile, have turned into something you couldn’t have imagined.”

I had to look over my shoulder when I read that passage recently. Sometimes you get that chill of recognition: oh shit. Another parent says something and you feel it kind of in your gut because you’ve had that day, too. And you know you’re in store for more of it in an older-kid way. My kid isn’t old enough to be interested in football—I kind of hope he never is, but we’ll stick a pin in that idea for a little later—and he and I are both introverted enough that we have to push ourselves toward planned group activity. No athletics, and the kid doesn’t dance—since birth his idea of dancing has been running in a wide circle, sometimes waving a toy wrench.

He’s like his grandfather, who doesn’t dance either, who will not dance, but who married a former Milby High School majorette. But he’s most like his grandfather, who drove a motor grader and contracted bids for a road and bridge company operated by my grandfather, in terms of his obsession with construction. Like father is like son in our family: My other grandfather also worked in road and bridge construction. Earlier in life my uncle operated a tower crane.

Every man in my entire family is Bob the Builder. Every woman? She’s Wendy.


Who is the construction-obsessed child? You’ll know him or her by the lingering interest in dump trucks. They might froth at the mouth whenever the family passes by roadwork well into age four. They do not accept the word “digger.” There is no such thing as a “digger.” There is an excavator, which has a narrow, downward-facing toothed bucket afore the cab, and there is a front loader, which has a wide, upward-facing toothed bucket afore the cab, and there is the backhoe, which has a wide, upward-facing toothed bucket afore the cab and a narrow, downward-facing toothed bucket behind the cab. (When I was little, my father called backhoes “front-end-back-end-loaders,” a typically hyphenate bit of Texan roadwork patois.) If it operates under water, it is most certainly not a digger but a dredger, perhaps a chain-bucket dredger.

For the many months (or was it years?) of roadwork on 45th Street, my son used to boggle at all the machines lined up to resurface the asphalt in the blocks between Guadalupe and Red River as we would drive from school or home to the Capitol Plaza HEB or the Chronicle office. He’d emerge from the car at our destination and corral the nearest person: “I saw an excavator and it was digging in the road, which had been broken up, and there was a steamroller and a paver!” he’d yell to the guy clearing shopping carts from the parking lot. “And it was really cool, and I’m going to see them again when I get home.”

(continued at right)

Did I say he was introverted? He is. Unless he’s talking about construction.

And not just any construction! No, he wants to build highways. “I’m going to build a highway!” he’ll yell in the sandbox, and some of the more hippie-ish parents will freak out a little. He has some molds in the shape of roadway, with raised center lines and a slight curb, and he once stamped out a superhighway encircling the sand castle of a homeschooled girl who was talking to me about Charlemagne.

In Dallas or Houston he’d be encouraged. Here in Austin we’re politely indulged.

Once at Zilker I met the mother of another construction kid. She was kind of agitated about the whole construction thing and was hoping to wean him onto trains. “I can’t get him interested in reading,” she said. Of course, there are books about construction machines, but get ready to have Machines As Big As Monsters pressed into your hands while the books with stories draw dust. Even Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was too narrative.

Our games of imagination at home were construction games. My purple yoga mat became a layer of make-believe asphalt. Legos were barricades cordoning off the new road. We brought an actual hard hat home from Academy; even now one or the other of us is generally wearing it when the family is at leisure playing games. We took breaks by reading Machines As Big As Monsters.

There was a brief turn when he began imitating a polar bear and encouraging me to do likewise.

“You’re the polar bear mom,” he instructed.

“Got it. And you are…?”

“The polar bear baby.”

“Awww, the polar bear baby,” I roared. I gave him a hug with polar-bear paws.

“Now we build our den,” he announced. He got out his toy wrench.

Soon after he announced that he was starting his own construction business. It will be entirely operated by children. Its name is “Kid Work.” By suggesting we make a sign for the company, I’m able to get him to have “art time”—otherwise he doesn’t doodle, and he actually acts apprehensive about being expected to write even though he reads well on his own. But he likes the idea of a sign. He’ll put it in the yard when he does a job, the way construction companies do in our neighborhood.

I imagine my grandfathers high-fiving each other in Contractor Heaven.


It’s not that I’ve discouraged his obsession. I’ve tried to extend the idea of construction out a bit beyond Tonka trucks in the sandbox, but the kid is still a born contractor. Even so, a born contractor can appreciate other things: dental care, nutrition, music, word roots and families, traffic safety.

I used to sneak non-construction books into our book bag at the library. When he was three I might get a tantrum for my trouble, but now other books are tolerated as long as we have something about heavy earthmoving equipment in our load.

Moreover, the presence of heavy earthmoving equipment—even if it is peripheral to the story—dignifies any work of art, makes any lesson comprehensible. (Imagine Trigonometry at the Construction Site.) My son still remembers Last Holiday, a Queen Latifah vehicle that is totally forgettable aside from Queen Latifah, as having a front loader in a climactic scene with an avalanche. LL Cool J can’t get up the blocked mountain road to Latifah!

“And the front loader comes in and clears the road!” he’ll yell, when I tell the story at his request. “It saves the day!”
 About the Author:
Marrit Ingman
is a freelance writer, film critic, occasional educator, and constant mother. She is a frequent contributor to the Austin Chronicle, and her writing on popular culture has also appeared in Brain, Child, Fertile Ground, Alternet.org, Clamor, and Venus. Her first book, Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health out with the Diapers, describes her experience with postpartum depression and was published in 2005 by Seal Press.


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