Splitting the Atom


My daughter is strapped onto me, her little limbs dangling from one of those kangaroo pouch getups that hippie/yuppie parents use these days. We are swimming upstream through a school of charity walk/runners—shimmery and identical in their matching green tees, their spandex, their day-glo athletic shoes. My daughter points at things, babbles monosyllables, cries intermittently, flails her tiny legs.

This whole charity walk/run thing is an extremely popular thing to do, if you haven’t noticed. People donate a small sum—in the Green-Shirts’ case, for instance, $30—and then they don matching T-shirts and walk and/or run in a large oval around the park. I get the $30, but how does the walking/running part help the cause?

“It gives you a feeling like we’re coming together as a community and doing something,” a sweet-natured woman in spandex and $100 sneakers made by Chinese slave labor tells me. “You get some exercise. You meet people. It’s really great.”

I drop my sweet baby girl off with her mom, where she suicidally throws herself toward her mom’s bosom, and toward that feeling of oneness that accompanies it. Her mom and I are separating, tearing our selves in two. The pain is almost unbearable. Then I head to the plaza, where the NorCal Yo-Yo Championship is being held. Chico, as you may or may not know, is the National Headquarters of Yo-Yoing and the place where the National Yo-Yo Championships are held, annually. What does it mean about this town that yo-yoing is the one activity in which we serve as its Capital City, its Mecca? (Once, years ago, it was debauchery, but that’s since been displaced.)

Under Sunbrellas, onlookers sit watching as children and adults go through the “Trick Ladder.” The Trick Ladder goes like this: an older gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt, who’s got a great ‘50s radio voice and uses the word “golly,” announces, over a PA system, tricks with names like “Split the Atom,” “Buddha’s Revenge,” and “Candy Rain.” Then the (95 percent male) contestants perform the dozens of ridiculously elaborate feats of hand-eye coordination. They are judged by a panel of yo-yo professionals: four athletic looking young men dressed in bro-clothes and identical Wayfarer Ray-Bans, their faces masks of grim, judgmental concentration and professionalism. Upon the performance of an especially arduous trick, the crowd of proud parents/grandparents/girlfriend (purposefully singular) erupts into applause, answering, finally, the Zen Koan: “What is the sound of eight hands clapping?” Afterwards, medallions are awarded to the winners, like one happy young boy who took home First in the 10-and-under division (out of one contestant).

“I got bored one day,” 19-year-old Chris Ng, a Chico State chemistry major wearing spectacles and a yo-yo tee, tells me, of how he developed his passion for the yo-yo. “It gives you something to do, something to work toward. It’s really productive.”

“Once I discovered girls, I went the other way,” a kind, loving father of two of the contestants tells me of his brief experimentation with yo-yoing, during his adolescence. He and his family came here all the way from Valley Springs, CA. He’s in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank affixed to it, tubes running this way and that. His yo-yo arm is bound in some sort of sling.

We walk/run from feelings; we walk/run toward others. And even if LOVE is just a feeling in our brain, what other options do we have?

About Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

View all posts by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff
Former busboy, sauerkraut-mixer, and Japanese hair model, Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff is a writer and father of two, living in Chico. After quitting a job as an Erin Brockovich-like legal investigator, then hitting rock bottom in a scene that involved roommates, tears, nudity and police officers, the UC Berkeley graduate decided to go for broke (and he’s accomplished his goal!) in the exciting world of small town weekly newspaper writing.