I caught our son Joe out behind our house the other evening and snapped this photo when he wasn’t looking. As much as he loves hanging out with friends, sometimes his deep thinking mind needs space. When that happens, he heads outside by himself for a while. This night he was out near the open space on the dirt path with a small, metal plane that his brother bought from the school store. Sometimes, when he can’t find his favorite plane, he uses a stand in…a Lego creation, a rubbery toy shark, a game console remote. I’ve even seen him use a pen taken from a hotel room as his imaginary ship. I’ve often wondered what he’s thinking about when he’s out there. For as much as he talks about Pokémon, I assume that he retreats into that world. But, he’s also a kid who reads atlases for fun, so there’s that. And he recently mentioned, out of the blue, a documentary he watched about a year ago on Netflix about transgender individuals and their struggles. Though he is honest and straight-forward about so many things, his mind is a lockbox. Try though I might to understand him, he remains a mystery to me.
Tonight, out of sheer curiosity after looking again at the photo I took on my iPhone, I asked him what he’s thinking about when he’s out there flying whatever it is he is flying. He told me he is making up stories, and the planes, game remotes, Lego ships, and even the pens are the impetus for the stories. They are the aircraft in his make-believe world.
“So…when I saw you out there with the rubber shark earlier today, was that an airplane too?” I asked. This made perfect sense to me because every other item he’s used has been a plane.
“No. It’s a shark. That would be ridiculous,” he replied.
“Of course,” I answered. “How silly of me.”
Sometimes I forget who I am talking to. Joe is creative, but he is also a bona fide intellectual working on becoming more so each day. When he was 5, he was talking to me about God and shared this bit of hopeful wisdom. “I’m not all knowing yet. But I am knowing.” And that he is.
He’ll be 14 in less than a month, and I turn into a weepy mess whenever that thought enters my head. In five years, I will be throwing a graduation party for him. I’m not sure where the time has gone, but damn if that kid hasn’t taught me more about volcanoes, reptiles, prehistory, geography, sharks, and love than I ever thought I could know. The part about sharks not flying, though? That part I knew on my own years ago, before he even mentioned it.
As we were driving home yesterday, we were discussing our upcoming weekend plans. Through the discussion, Luke realized that he was going to be missing out on one thing he wanted to participate in because he’d already committed to another get together. He was pretty bummed out about it.
“I wish I could be in two places at one time,” he lamented.
“You’re certainly not the first person to have that thought, Luke. I know I’ve wished for the same thing before.”
“You don’t need to be in two places at one time,” Joe retorted. “You just need a teleporter so you can go back and forth between the things you want to be doing. If you had a teleporter, you could be at Justin’s birthday party and then pop over to the hay ride for a bit too. You could go back and forth.”
“There ya go, Luke. Another solution to your problem,” I said.
It always cracks me up when my boys get into deep discussions about things that either will never happen or are situated precariously on the edge of unlikely to happen. Kids are great that way. Sure. Sometimes it drives me crazy when they get into a shouting match in the car about which superhero is better, Iron Man or Captain America, especially because I think someone should be weighing in for Thor in the discussion. Still…I love that they’re capable of sharing their thoughts and opinions and debating their points of view. It means they’re thinking beings, and that’s encouraging because sometimes I think the videos playing non-stop videos on their iPads may be sucking their intelligence dry.
“Nah. I think it would be better to be in both places. Then I wouldn’t miss anything at all.”
“You wouldn’t have the memories from one of the things, though, so it wouldn’t work,” Joe replied.
“Yes. I would. The memories would be shared,” Luke countered. Luke is great about imagining best-case scenarios. And, why not? If you’re going to be arguing about the impossible (or highly unlikely), you might as well get creative.
“Clones are bad, Luke,” Joe reasoned. “Do you really want two of you walking around? What if one of you commits a crime and the other one gets thrown in jail for it? I think the teleporter would be better.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because then you could spend your day on a beach in Hawaii and your night in Iceland checking out the Northern Lights,” Joe said.
“Oooooh! I like that idea,” I told him. “I could totally get behind that. But if you teleport from one thing to another can you really be tuned into where you are or aren’t you always thinking about where you need to be next. It seems like with Luke’s idea you get to live in the present a bit more. You get to live in two presents. On the other hand, though, I think you’re right about the cloning thing, Joe. Not sure there should ever be two of me walking around. I get into enough trouble with just one of me.”
We talked like this for about five minutes on the way home, arguing possibilities and loopholes and scenarios. It was fun. Some of the best time I spend with my sons is in the car when they are my captive audience. Once I drove three hours with Joe and Luke with no electronics of any kind, not even the car radio. We talked non-stop and when we got to our destination the boys actually remarked that it was fun and that we should try it again on the way home.
It seems that I rarely have fun, energetic, and unrealistic conversations with my friends. We talk, but it’s nearly always centered around reality…how the kids are doing, how the remodel is going, what we’re doing for the holidays, how midlife is a nasty beast. Yawn. It’s all so adult and boring. When was the last time you asked your buddy to name songs that would play on a soundtrack for his life or to defend his favorite superhero or to debate the merits of time travel or to share his bucket list with you? While it’s good for adults to discuss reality and engage in conversations about politics and religion and current events, I think we’re getting out of balance in life if we don’t also confer about the random and the whimsical. I’ve decided that every Friday I am going to ask someone a question that has nothing to do with anything important, just for fun. We’re all getting older, but we can choose to think young.
I had all kinds of really good intentions today to get a lot done and not rush my way through a blog at the end of the day like I usually do. That was my grand plan. But then something unfortunate occurred. My nearly teenage son reminded me this morning that he needs another costume item for his school play. And he needs it by tomorrow. You see, Joe is a pig in a fractured fairy tale, performance next week. Last Wednesday when we were both suffering from colds and should have been home in bed resting, we went on a grand excursion to the costume store thirty minutes away to spend $15 on a pink snout, ears, and a curly piggy tail for his costume. (We did not, however, make it make it to the market, have roast beef, or cry wee-wee-wee all the way home, in case you were wondering.) These items were such a hit with his drama teacher that she decided to reward me for my fine work by adding another costume item to really bring the cuteness home. A pink apron. Was she kidding me? This is not exactly an item a mother of two boys would have in a drawer or closet. Pink is verboten in this house, you know. Sometimes I think teachers just do shit like this to test me.
Despite my relative annoyance, I asked around. I could not locate a pink apron that would fit Joe. So today after getting in my workout (3860 stairs at Red Rocks), I began the grand search for a pink apron. My only stipulation was that it had to be under $10. I was not spending real money on a pink apron that I would never wear. Truth is that I already have a good apron that has been my tried-and-true buddy for 15 years, and I am faithful. I started out by going to a couple of discount stores. I got a little distracted in Gordman’s for about an hour (didn’t find an apron but I did find a 24-ounce sippy cup to hold my wine incognito at the pool this summer). Then I moved onto Ross. There I found a full pink apron covered in cupcakes but I thought Joe might balk at the frilly ruffles so I left it. From there I headed to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but all their aprons were over $20 and I would have had to dye a white one pink. No thank you very much. I hit Party City. I was beginning to get a bit desperate. I found a full paper apron that was only $3.50 but it was white, which meant my son and I would have to spend our evening coloring it with pink markers. And, let’s face it. Joe would color for five minutes and then use the excuse he always uses when he’s trying to get out of something (“I have to poop”…you want to mess with that if you’re wrong about his faking it?) and I’d be coloring that dang thing alone. Nope. Not gonna do it. I finally gave up and ran to Target. While they didn’t have an apron, necessity became the mother of invention and I found a pink hand towel and pink, fabric ribbon totaling $8 and decided I would make my own pink apron because why not? Isn’t that what moms are for?
I had planned to sew the ribbon on but realized that the bands on the corner of the towel were capable of breaking multiple needles. (I realized this after I’d broken multiple needles.) I resorted to my glue gun. My glue gun and I worked magic again, and in short order we had a makeshift apron for my little pig. I made him try it on to verify its efficacy. It was perfectly functional. He seemed satisfied with my handiwork and, well, he should be because I’m a talented genius who can pull pink aprons out of thin air. I ironed it, put it in a gallon-size Ziploc to protect it from boy hands before the dress rehearsal, and handed it to him. That was when he told me he doesn’t actually need it until Friday because that’s when the dress rehearsal is. I would have choked him if I hadn’t been so tired from the stairs and the shopping. He’s a lucky boy.
Some days being a mom is a whole lot of pointless work. You finish the laundry, and someone drops a sock into an empty hamper. You clean the kitchen and before you put the rag down someone has crumbs on the counter. You go to five stores to find a pink apron, end up making one, and realize that it’s an exercise in insanity because it’s only going to matter on a subconscious level for less than two minutes of your life and no one else will even notice it for that long. On days like these, I try to remind myself that this is how I earn my keep. I am the behind the scenes miracle worker. What I do is invisible. If I didn’t do it, though, someone would notice.
I’ve been sitting here for the past hour or so desperately trying to come up with something to write about. I flipped through all the tabs I set up in the Bunny Buddhism book, twice, looking for inspiration in the words that had touched me a couple days ago. I found none. The clock was banging away the minutes to midnight, and I was no closer to a theme for today’s entry. I was becoming increasingly stressed out about my impending failure a mere two days into my renewed pledge to write daily. I was just about to give up and write it off (at least I could write something that way) as being overtired when my eyes landed upon this quote on a page I had not marked:
It is better to hop than to think of hopping.
Well, crap. There it is in a nutshell. My problem. You see, I am a great thinker. I’m not exaggerating. I am really great at thinking. It’s my favorite thing to do. I’m curious and intellectually open-minded, happy to accept the world for all its grey matter (and not the black and white that others imagine exists). The problem is that sometimes I spend so much time trapped in my skull, thinking, weighing options, and organizing mental tidbits, that I run out of time to do something. In this way, I am perpetually paralyzed…too tangled in thought simply to be a human being and too overwhelmed by possibility to be a human doing. I am frozen and worthless.
I need to blow up today’s quote to poster size and mount to the wall in my office. Sometimes the best thing to do is tell the chattering monkeys in my mind to shut the hell up and then start hopping forward. I can worry about the quality of my written work after I’ve actually written something down. So just like the zoo keepers in Kansas City, tonight I decided to toss those chimps back into their enclosure so I could stop thinking about writing and just write. It doesn’t matter what I churn out. It’s the act of writing and not the thought of writing that makes a writer.
My friend Heather recently sent me this amazing book by Anne Lamott. In Bird by Bird, Anne, a published author many times over, confesses her own struggle with writer’s block.
“What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop.”
I am gifted at stopping and declaring defeat before I even begin. And it helps to know that even well-known writers experience a jungle-drum-level fear of doom when they’re facing a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. Sometimes we humans are our own worst enemies. I stress myself out so much about what I should say that I end up saying nothing…something I did most of the days last year. But that has got to stop. In time and with enough practice, I will spend less time thinking and more time producing. Not every day is going yield a worthwhile piece. Some days I might be fortunate to land squarely somewhere between schlock and drivel. But even schlock and drivel are a tangible result of effort, a venture out of my self-prescribed mental straitjacket. It’s a step (or hop) in the direction I want to head. A bunny that fails to hop ends up Coyote Chow. I’m not prolific yet, but I’m sure I’m not ready to be finished either.
I am jumping on a large trampoline in a spacious, overgrown backyard. There are at least seven of us jumping simultaneously as a breeze rustles the palm fronds overhead. It’s sunny, warm, and peaceful. I am where I belong. A friend suggests we go shoe shopping. “I love shoes,” I think, so I am all over this change in plans. We hop off the trampoline and begin walking down a city street to the store. Along the way I am discussing what I should spend my shoe budget on…casual flip flops or a pair of statement heels. I know I don’t really need shoes because I’m in Hawaii, and barefoot is as good as anything in Hawaii but I am excited to shop just the same. As we walk along, I glance down at my friends’ feet. They are all wearing shoes. I am the only one who is barefoot. Apparently this trip is all about me.
When we get to the store and begin looking around, I can’t find a pair of shoes I like. I’m not entirely sure how it’s possible to be in a shoe store and not have anything pique my interest. Something is distinctly wrong. Finally my eyes land upon a pair of Mary-Jane-style, black Crocs. With considerable chagrin I note that these are the most suitable pair of shoes in the entire store. “I am not buying Crocs,” I think to myself, brows furrowed in frustration. Resignedly I lie down on the floor and fall asleep on my stomach, head on my arms, still without shoes but at least no longer concerned about my shoeless state.
I wake up when I come to the awkward realization that someone is rubbing my back. What the hell? Who is rubbing my back and why? “Personal space, personal space,” my mind screams. I look behind me and see an old friend of mine. I haven’t seen him since college. I’d forgotten he lived in Hawaii. He hasn’t aged.
“Your lower back is really messed up,” he tells me. “See this, here? This is not right,” he says, pointing to a couple of vertebrae that are obviously protruding where they should not be. His concern is palpable. “What have you been doing?” he asks.
“Jumping on a trampoline,” I reply.
“Well, I’ve got to get you to my chiropractor,” he says. “This is serious.”
He shoves an oxygen mask on my face, and as I choke on the unsolicited gas I note that it’s not oxygen because my alert-level changes and I go to some sort of happy place only achievable with something reality-warping like nitrous oxide.
When I come out of my haze, I am walking through a casino with my friend. People all around are gambling. It’s noisy, packed, and chaotic. I feel under dressed. I hear an odd noise I can’t place. Panicked, I check my feet. Gratefully, I am no longer shoeless. Instead, I am wearing a pair of white swim fins and my feet are making a flapping sound as I proceed down the marble walkway in the center of the casino. No one seems to notice my fashion foible, so I press on. My friend points me down a side hallway to a door.
“His office is in there,” he says. “He’ll fix you right up.”
I waddle my way down the hallway, picking up my finned feet as I go. When I get there, there is a kind-faced man who appears to be from India. In heavily accented, proper British English he tells me they have been waiting for me. My eyes adjust to the darkened room before me. It is filled with wooden boards. On each wooden board rests an Indian man, eyes closed. The doctor ushers me to an empty board.
“This spot is for you. Lie on your back. Face the ceiling,” he instructs.
I can’t figure out what is going on, but I don’t see any other option so I comply. The room around me begins to vibrate with the chants of fellow patients. Various meditations fill the room. I remain silent, letting myself be surrounded with the peace and goodwill. I am swallowed by the moment and fade into another mental plane.
After a while, I no longer hear chanting. I hear casual conversation, dishes being clanked together, and the smell of Indian food reminds me I have not eaten in a while. I open my eyes and notice that everyone else is awake. I am the last to join them. I am in the middle of a reception in the doctor’s office. There are trays of Indian curries and naan bread. The men are all eating with their fingers and conversing quietly. The doctor approaches with half of a roasted pig, one that has been twirled on a spit and slow cooked. “It’s a half of a pig,” I remark to myself. It was sawed down the center and is now presented to me as a snack.
“Here,” he says. “Eat something.”
I take the half pig from him. It is still warm and heavy, but not so heavy I can’t hold it without a struggle. I can see hair on its body. Its snout is tanned and rubbery. I stare into the half face of the pig. It stares back at me with one eye. The doctor waits by my side, rocking back and forth, expectantly. As I try to ascertain the best way to partake of this offering, other people begin pulling off bits of pig flesh and eating them. I wonder to myself if they are getting pig hair in their mouths. I look at the pig again. It blinks at me with its one eye. It’s still alive. I am astonished. How is that possible? It seems pretty awkward to take a bite of something that’s halfway watching me. I’m uncomfortable with the idea.
“I’m sorry,” I tell the pig as I grab a loosened part of its tender underbelly and tear it away. It blinks again to let me know it’s all good. He understands. I put the food into my mouth.
The alarm clock goes off.
Now…I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “This gal must live in Denver.” And you’re right. I do live in Denver where pot is now legal and readily available for home consumption and where all kinds of spaced out, random mental experiences are possible. But that’s not what this story is about. This is a story about what happens to me when I have curry for lunch and spicy Italian food for dinner. Although, now that you’ve brought it up, I wonder what my brain might come up with if I relaxed a little and ate an altered brownie? I suppose that’s another blog entirely.
I’m fascinated by what our brains come up with while we’re sleeping, perhaps as they try to work out and file away the everyday occurrences of our conscious lives. I’ve been marveling all day at how my brain reintroduced an old college friend whose last name is Bacon into a dream where I encounter an awkward situation with a cooked pig. Coincidence? I think not.
Everything you can imagine is real. ~ Pablo Picasso
Today we took the boys to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I won’t ruin the movie for you if you’ve somehow managed to escape the myriad trailers this holiday season, but I will warn you that it may make you want to travel. After the film on our way home, our boys who, like Walter Mitty, have very active imaginations, began having crazy phone conversations in the back seat of our car using some old telephone handsets they found in the cargo area. I was only half listening while talking about the film with my husband, but at one point I believe Joe was a shark and Luke was Justin Bieber. I love my sons’ imaginations, and it’s in precisely those moments that I deeply appreciate our left-brain dominant boys and their non-stop creativity. The other night we were discussing what life might be like if we had to exist in the present with Tyrannosaurus Rex looking into our second story windows as we were getting ready for bed. Adults never have conversations like this. It’s a shame too because it would make dinner party conversations far more interesting and it would keep us from bickering about politics and religion.
Thinking about Walter Mitty and his daydreams I keep coming back to one thing. Creativity and imagination are far too underrated in this world. You have to dream it before you can do it. Someone imagined flying before the Wright Brothers actually flew and someone envisioned walking on the moon before Neil Armstrong ever did it. American society praises innovation and creativity as if we were the first upright beings to employ them. One look at our schools today, though, and you see that we talk a good game but we don’t play it. There is little room for imagination, creativity, and out-of-the-box thought at our public schools, which are instead consumed by standardized tests meant to make sure all kids measure up to the same rubric like faceless automatons. We’ve somehow determined that this is the best way to get ahead in the world, by engineering our future generations to a measurable standard. It’s sad, really. The kids who think differently are passed along because no one wants to deal with them. Their skills are undervalued and lost. We are systematically eradicating they very things that make us uniquely human…artistry, creativity, and independent thought. We squash imagination in the name of forward progress, but imagination is the one thing that allows progress in the first place.
My dyslexic kids might not fit into traditional schools because they think differently than other kids, but because of them I see possibilities. I see life and the world differently than I used to. I think “why not” instead of “we can’t.” And, maybe it’s crazy, but I sure would like to see that conversation between Justin Bieber and a great white shark realized. Somehow I think that could only make the world a better place.
“Worrying is using your imagination to create things you don’t want.” ~Esther Hicks
My good friend, Lisa, is an English teacher at Columbine High School (yes…that Columbine High School). Every year as she grades projects she posts quotes from her students’ senior portfolios on Facebook. Each and every time she does this, I find a gem of a quote I will use later. Today it was this quote about worry. I am not a worrier by nature. As a general rule, I’m not a great proponent of borrowing trouble because, quite honestly, I have enough of it already and I’m not really looking for more. I simply want to get through today. If I can get through today, I’ll tackle tomorrow’s problems when I get there. While I am not a big worrier, I am married to one and he passed his genes along to our oldest son. Beyond that, I have many friends who carry the genetic marker for worry. I feel for them and wish I could help, but there’s nothing I can do.
I’ve read many quotes about worry that I have passed along to the people I care about who are sufferers. The reason this particular quote speaks to me is its reference to creativity. How sad it is to squander precious creative energy on worry. I’d never looked at it that way before. I wonder how many hours’ worth of creative energy my husband has lost worrying about worst case scenarios that never happened. If you are that honestly creative, shouldn’t you spend time envisioning the best rather than the worst? Today I told Joe that instead of imagining Luke being run over by a car, maybe he should picture Luke becoming the President of the United States and taking him as the first one of our family members to ride on Air Force One like he’s already promised Joe he would.
I wonder how much creative energy is wasted daily worrying about things that will never happen. Then, I imagine what might be possible if we pooled and then redirected all that negative creativity toward a better purpose…repairing the damage to the ozone layer or cleaning up the ocean gyres or pursuing world peace, for example. The next time you’re tempted to worry, stop for just a moment to think where that creativity might be better spent. Perhaps instead of creating a problem for yourself, you can solve one that already exists.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~Fred (aka Mister) Rogers
Lisa, my dear friend who happens to be a high school English teacher, shared a link to an intriguing Psychology Today article the other day. The article discusses the steep and steady decline in the creativity of our nation’s children over the past twenty to thirty years. Studies have shown that as we’ve become a society more focused on test scores, our children have lost their ability to think creatively. The more we’ve restricted free time and free play (through both increased school work and increased extracurricular activity), the more heavily these creative losses are felt. While I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by the article’s revelation, I was a little shocked by the statistics behind the assertion:
“According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. Yikes.”
When I was a child, my mother would hand us a piece of paper on which she had drawn random squiggles, lines, or shapes. Our job was to create a picture incorporating the designs she had already placed onto the paper. While my mother’s impetus for giving us this little exercise was most likely to acquire some uninterrupted free time for herself, what she was actually doing was helping us develop our creativity. As it turns out, this simple exercise my mother used to engage my sisters and I when we were children is the exact test that researchers use to measure the Creative Elaboration mentioned in the above paragraph. The goal is to have the child take what exists on the paper and expound on it in an original, meaningful, and possibly humorous way.
As I reflect on the amount of homework my boys do, on the assignments they have in school, and on the advanced level to which they are asked to work in their educational environment, it’s really no wonder that my eldest will sometimes come home in tears, lamenting the knowledge that he won’t have much free time to play after school. It’s heartbreaking, really. I did homework when I was in grade school. I know I did. But, I didn’t have much of it, maybe 30 minutes in fifth grade. Maybe. I did most of my work in class, including studying for exams, and the work I did at home was largely reading and practicing some spelling words. Joe has thirty spelling words in fifth grade, including ten vocabulary words for which he must memorize definitions. This week, on Joe’s list, appear the words hypotheses, phenomena, and memorabilia. I know adults who can’t spell those words. Joe also does 28-30 analytical, multi-step math problems a night, none of which he has time to do in class. It’s no wonder he’s stressed out.
In grade school, a million years ago when I was a child, we did fun, creative things. I remember one lesson we did for Social Studies. Both sixth grade classes were assigned an imaginary culture. We were told what the people in our make-believe country prized and how they lived their lives. We practiced acting within the boundaries of our assigned culture. Then, the teachers opened the doors between the two classes and we were prompted to interact with the other culture. One culture was entirely money-based while the other was entirely love- and affection-based. It was a hand-on lesson in culture shock. In sixth grade at my elementary school, we also studied a unit on the ancient Egyptians. With the research we had done in the library, we constructed “artifacts.” From cardboard we fashioned headpieces, Anubis likenesses, and even a sarcophagus. And…get this. We did all this work in the classroom. None of it was homework. Then, believe it or not, we dressed like the Egyptians and took the children from the other grades on a tour of our ancient Egyptian tomb, which was conducted in the school’s basement crawl space. I’m not kidding. Can you imagine the potential lawsuits from that type of activity today? Kids ducking their heads and walking around in a darkened, dusty, uneven, underground space in the school guided only by sixth graders? But, I will never forget that experience because we had to be creative to carry out our project. Our teachers, given the necessary freedom, taught us to be enthusiastic scholars. Today, my son got in my car in tears over tonight’s homework load.
I’m not a policymaker in Washington. I don’t hold a PhD in education. I’m just a mom who is home with her children. But, it seems clear to me that what our schools need more of is freedom to make learning a creative exercise and fewer standardized tests for which our children spend the entire year preparing. If we want to be the country that others imagine us to be, full of that American ingenuity we are constantly praised for, then we need to rethink our educational system. Let’s use some of the creativity we developed through the free time and play that we were allowed back when we were children to reinvent a landscape where our children are rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems ingeniously. Not only would it make the future of this nation brighter, but it would make our present time with our children more enjoyable and less tearful as well.