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On my nightstand growing up, I kept a series of trophies that I hoped might serve as conversation pieces at sleepovers – a few from basketball jamborees, a smattering from Junior Bible Quiz (a pursuit which deserves its own column), and even one cherished keepsake from Pizza Hut’s “Book It!” program. But the focal point of my collection was taller and shinier and marginally less-cheap than the others, and featured an unmistakable open-wheel golden automobile atop a mother-of-pearl column at its center.

“First Assemblies of God Pinewood Derby Champion,” it boasted. I was responsible for winning the others, but that one, the Pinewood Derby one…that trophy was really my dad’s.

A week prior to the derby itself, each little boy in our Royal Rangers class – think Boy Scouts, but instead of birdhouses, we built mangers – received a solid block of wood from which to whittle his car-like conveyance. Sandpaper and tempera paint were passed about, and most cars came out looking about as you’d expect, given the modest motor skills of your everyday third-grader.

But my dad, Pastor Dave, had other notions. He was and is a bit of a renaissance man, a fellow with myriad skills that have served him every which way but financially. One such faculty is woodworking, so, when I arrived at home with a lightly sanded and hastily paint-splotched block of pine, he took one look at it, whispered “You know, I thiiiink…” to himself, and disappeared off to his wood shop. The next morning, I awoke to nothing less than a work of legitimate art: a facsimile of a 1930s Rolls-Royce, complete with glittered spraypaint and a lacquer finish. She was beautiful, and a few days later, we’d find out that she was fast as well. (That extra coat of heavy lacquer couldn’t have hurt.)

I didn’t fully understand the motivation behind the pinewood derby car –  a car which is still glistening in my parents’ basement all these years later – until I had kids of my own. Generally speaking, dads have precious few opportunities to creatively insert themselves in their kids’ outward expressions; my kids are stylish and presentable, and 95% of that stylishness comes from my wife. That’s why dads like me will throw a Purple Rain t-shirt into their daycare rotation, or buy a pair of Air Jordans even though they’ll be outgrown long before watching Last Dance together is even an option. We want to see ourselves in our kids, and we have to pick our spots. This is the very essence of the Dad Flex as I’ve come to understand it.

When your kid shows a liking for BMX, so you track down a Mongoose just like the one you used to ride? Dad flex. When your kid likes the Packers/Brewers/Bucks, so you move heaven and earth to get them to a game and as close as possible to the players? Dad flex. When your kid wants to have the best Valentine’s Day box in his preschool class, and you are genetically predisposed to such unfiltered and unchecked dad flexing? See the photo here as indisputable evidence of my guilt. And on and on it goes.

From what I’m told, the window when your kids believe you're invincible closes in a hurry and without warning. The dad flex is an opportunity to pin that belief to a moment in time, propping that window open periodically until they have kids of their own. 

As confirmation of this theory, consider: once upon a time, my dad went and dad-flexed so hard that I wrote an article about it thirty-odd years later. And in so doing, something magic happened, and what began as a nondescript block of wood was whittled into the grandest dad flex of them all.

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