We’re here to fart around

Snowtime-Snowman-Mylar-Balloon-198454A supermarket snowman showed me that I’m doing it wrong.

A year ago I was in the supermarket checkout line with my then 6-year-old. He clanked his Keds against the shopping cart as I fed groceries to  the conveyor belt. While my hands worked I thought about which items would go into the freezer, which ones I’d cook right away, what we’d eat later that night….

“Daddy, look at the snowman.”

“Huh?”

“Look at the snowman.”

“Honey, it’s summer time. There’s no snowman.”

“I see a snowman.”

“OK, cool.”

I looked up, my hands still moving groceries from cart to belt. “Where’s your snowman, honey?”

“Right there.”

He pointed. I looked. I saw it.

A snowman. In the floral department, a balloon shaped like a snowman, about 18 inches tall.

I never would have if he hadn’t pointed it out. His question was valid: why was there be a snowman balloon for sale in July? What an odd thing that I missed. What else had I missed that day? Or any other day? I wanted to know.

That’s when I vowed to notice what I was missing. The first step, I figured, was to identify how I was missing things. Once I found it, I could change it and then cease missing things. I began to monitor my habits. Not change them, just observe. I was stunned at how frequently I invite distraction upon myself. Here’s what I was doing.

  • Wake up in the morning, switch on the news. I dressed while barely glancing at my clothing. Heck, I watched the news while barely glancing at TV. Between buttons and sound bites, my eyes scanned email while my brain ran its own acrobatics: What will happen today, what will happen this weekend, I need to do laundry, why are the kids moving so slowly, don’t they know it’s a school day?
  • Eat breakfast, turn on some music. I eat and listen to music with the bulk of my attention on email.
  • Drive the car while listening to a podcast or an audiobook. I never, ever drove the car without either a podcast or audiobook playing. Never.
  • In the evening, watch TV while talking to my wife and browsing the Internet. That needs no explanation.

Eventually, I realized something significant: I never did what I was doing. For example, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t get dressed. Instead, I spent that time filtering much incoming stimuli: The TV, email, my children’s progress towards getting ready for school and so on. My mind wasn’t on what was happening: Selecting clothing. Buttoning a shirt. Tying a shoe. Tightening a belt.

Likewise, when I drove the car, I didn’t drive the car. I got lost in the mental images I generated from the novel I was hearing. I sipped a soda. I thought about my destination and how quickly I could get there. I barked at pokey traffic. I didn’t feel the wheel, press the gas, observe the scenery, feel the tires hug the road.

With the problem identified, I worked on eliminating it. In the morning, I turned off the TV and the computer and just got dressed. I even told myself, “I’m getting dressed.” It was nice! I found that I appreciate that I have the motor skills required to dress myself. I found that I have nice clothes. I found that my backyard looks nice in the morning through the bedroom window, and I can look down on the berry patch and rhubarb plants. When I was done, I felt, well, happy.

Later, I realized that I love driving my car. It’s a little butt-kicker with a sweet exhaust note if I may say so. I never noticed that before.

Today, I strive to do whatever I’m doing, and only that. Nothing else matters in that moment. Here’s a great example of that experience from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut:

[When Kurt Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying an envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don’t know. The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, with the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

The Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” From The Miracle of Mindfulness:

“While washing the dishes, you might be thinking of tea afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means you’re incapable of living during the time that you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life.”

This practice has benefitted my professional life as well. Twitter, while both a tool and a toy that I love, is the ultimate enabler in this regard. When a webpage is taking too long to load, I refresh Twitter. Between emails 1, I refresh Twitter. And that’s just the beginning.

Let’s imagine that 10 tweets arrive. One is about launching a weather balloon. The next is about a Droid phone. After that is something about a video game, then an Australian wine and then Major League Baseball. In a sense, using Twitter is not using Twitter, as I don’t have an opportunity to process and think about that cool weather balloon video because my brain is already on the Android phone and how much I’d like a glass of Shiraz.

Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do two things at once. Nor am I suggesting that we eschew productivity to examine every detail of every moment. Sometimes I like to write and listen to music or breeze through my Twitter stream like a humming bird. But now I know that’s what I’m doing, if that makes sense. And I’m missing a lot less.

Including snowmen.

  1. Why is email running all day, anyway? Another mistake.

Your father’s music

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“David, we’re late,” my mother says, stuffing me into cold weather clothes. I open my mouth to answer but she’s already in the kitchen grabbing a Dukes of Hazard lunchbox, two backpacks and her own coat and hat faster than a quick-change artist. She opens the door and the cold air hits us like a board.

“Into the Embarras-mobile,” she says. “Go.”

The Embarras-mobile was an ocean blue Ford Galaxy 500 with no hubcaps, fist-sized rust holes and flesh-colored patches of unsanded Bond-O. It was huge — with a hood like a helipad and bench seats half a mile long.

I climb in. The windshield is caked in a thin sheet of ice. My mother cranks the defroster and peers through a shoebox-sized hole in the frost.

She clicks the radio on. “Another Saturday Night” by Sam Cooke floats through the speakers. “Ugh,” she says. “Your father’s music.” She shifts it into drive and hits the gas.

My father listened to the “oldies” station with a smile on his face. “Someday,” he’d tell us, “I’ll take the car to the car wash, drive through the spray and the brushes and when I come out on the other side … it’ll be 1963.”

“That’s weird, dad,” I’d say, but he wouldn’t answer. He was lost in a memory far away.

My mother turns the corner and the icy windshield suddenly shines with piercing sunlight. “I can’t see,” she says.

I roll down my window and stick my head outside. “Don’t worry, mom, I can see,” I lied. “Keep going.”

“Are you sure?” she says, hitting the brake.

“Yeah,” I say. The frigid air burns the tip of my nose and makes my eyes water. “Just keep going straight ahead.”

The collision throws me hard against my seat belt. We hit a parked pickup truck.

“I thought you could see?” my mother says.

“I thought I could, too,” I say. Now the radio was playing “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” and I was wishing for a magical car wash.

* * *

Last week, my wife and I took the kids to the playground. After three days of bickering in the house, we needed to get out.

We pulled out of the driveway and my wife turned on the radio. A Van Halen song blasted from the speakers.

“Jeeze, hon!” she shouted, turning the volume down. “Don’t leave it on like that.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“What was that?” my daughter, Gracie, asked from the back seat.

“Your father’s music,” my wife said.

“Someday Grace,” I told her, “I’ll go to the car wash ….”

We ride the Polar Express and it stinks: A cautionary tale

My grandfather was immensely proud of his Kodak rotary slide projector.

We’d visit him in Oneida, New York knowing that, before the day ended, we’d be sat in front of the white vinyl projection screen looking at photos of my grandparents in San Diego. And Hawaii. And Cape Cod. Memories preserved and shared with what was the latest technology.

Years later, my family vacations, birthday parties and other notable milestones were punctuated by the blazing spotlight on my father’s 8mm camera. He shot everything, observing much of my childhood through a two-inch viewfinder.

Now that I’m a parent, the viewfinder is larger, the camera is smaller and the urge to capture and share is greater than either of those men would ever imagine.

I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Here’s how I came to that realization.

In Chris Van Allsburg’s modern Christmas classic The Polar Express, some children ride a train to the North Pole, drink hot chocolate, receive a bell and enjoy a wonderful time. Some American towns that still have trains lying around stage their own interpretation of the book each December. It’s an enjoyable, family-friendly tradition that includes hot-chocolate burns to the face, waiting, skinned noses and chins, more waiting, terrified children, snot, tears and cranky adults. And it’s only $75!

I grabbed a fully-charged iPhone complete with three photography apps, two video editing apps and a travel-sized, articulated tripod mount. Bring on the Christmas. We piled into the minivan.

Once we arrived, we left the car and walked toward the train. The conductor was running about, looking like Sir Topem Hatt. Extravagantly dressed elves held ornate, colored scepters high in the air, giggling and waving, as the enormous train hissed and made all sorts of nostalgic noises.

“Kids, stop,” I said, posing them next to the train.

Click

I cropped and applied a filter.

“Dad…”

“Just a second.”

Share >; Tweet

“What?”

“We’re getting on.”

Inside the train, a waiter held a large tray of paper cups filled with steaming hot chocolate. We took four and my wife poured one into a sippy cup for our son, William. It was quite hot, so we let it sit with the lid off to cool.

The train started to roll as I mounted my iPhone on the tripod with my Glif, ready to record a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. My touchscreen glowed with scenes of people’s backyards, abandoned cars, winterized fishing boats, stacks of lobster traps…real “Christmas in New England” stuff.

Ten minutes in, William, who was a year old and opposed to sitting still, began to cry. I gave him a bag of pretzels as my wife tested the hot chocolate. It was just pleasantly warm, so she put the lid on and offered it to him. He stuck it in his mouth and but immediately pulled back from the tilted cup, which continued to pour warm hot chocolate all over his face and clothing.

Scream.

Click

Instagram >; snappy caption

Facebook >; sad face

Finally, there’s an announcement. “If you look to your right, boys and girls, you’ll see the North Pole!”

Every adult produces a phone. Commands are issued throughout the train. “Look here! Suzie, look at me.” “Hold him up so I can see his face.” “Hold on, let me send this.” “Is there Wi-Fi in this train?”

Others discuss the relative position of the engine and the conductor. “He said to the right. Does it work like a boat?” “It depends on which way the conductor is facing,” someone says. “But the conductor can MOVE,” the answer comes back. “Well, not when he’s actually driving the train,” one adult offers. “Actually,” says another, “you don’t technically DRIVE a train.” “Ugh, why doesn’t this thing have Wi-Fi?”

That’s when I saw it. The children were ignoring the adults. They weren’t looking at screens, at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube. They were looking at the wonder just outside the train.

The adults were missing it completely.

I wanted to shout, “Hello! Christmas Magic here! Childhood memories under construction! There are 8- and 9-year-olds on the cusp of disbelief sitting right next to you! How about preserving the magic? My daughter is about to implode because she actually believes that a 25-minute train ride through Sandwich, Massachusetts, ends at the North Pole! Who cares how many “Likes” you just got? Just look out the window and say, ‘Oh, look, honey! The North Pole!'”

We exit the train and it’s very cute. The station is decorated nicely, and teenagers are running around dressed as elves, looking busy. An older woman, dressed as Mrs. Claus, is contentedly knitting in a rocking chair next to a wood-burning stove.

My daughter refuses to approach her. She refuses to approach Rudolph. Ditto the elves and other “helpers.” There’s a cute tree set up with a train at its base, which William promptly de-rails. One elf is taking the names of passing children to check if they’re on the Nice List. Grace, of course, blows him off when he asks her for her name. My wife tells him what it is, and he announces to his workers that Grace is on the Nice List and that they should begin preparing presents for her immediately, which they do. It’s very cute.

Grace glares as if they kicked her dog.

At this point we were waiting (and waiting and waiting) in the long Santa line. William was screaming and writhing around and I knew that the entire thing would culminate in my children refusing to acknowledge Santa. I was right.

On the way back to the train, I posed my daughter for a video I could post to Path. William, whom I should be watching, took a wicked digger and landed square on his face, cutting his nose, lip and chin. Now he’s screaming and bloody. It was at that very moment that I opened my mouth and say something so thoughtful, so sensitive, so insightful that it will be remembered in family lore forever.

“I’ll put my phone away.”

My wife, who is a good person without a vindictive bone in her body, shot me a look that said, “One more word and I will throw you underneath this train.”

We had a quiet train ride back to Massachusetts (until William fell off of his chair and started screaming again), and a quiet car ride back home. That’s why I love the holidays: It’s a time for families to come together, set their expectations unrealistically high, and fantasize about a holiday experience that is perfectly wonderful. As snowy and sparkly as Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve, and as heartwarming and uplifting as the final musical number in the Albert Finney version of A Christmas Carol. Then, you pour hot chocolate on your child, you piss off your wife and the best part of the day passes buy as you tweet the rest.

Finally, you realize that life is not a scene from Currier and Ives, but a portrait of four people doing the best they can. All you can do, really, is put the phone away, lean in close, look past the lobster traps, abandoned cars and trashy backyards and whisper, “Look, honey. The North Pole.”