This brought tears of happiness to my eyes, just like the first time I saw an animation of the Mandelbrot set.
This brought tears of happiness to my eyes, just like the first time I saw an animation of the Mandelbrot set.
“Jack Bauer never sneezes.”
“What did you say?”
“Jack Bauer doesn’t just sneeze. He doesn’t just cough.”
It came randomly from the back seat through a mouthful of food. I looked in the rear view mirror at my son in time to catch him wiping his mouth on his sleeve. I suppose the magnitude of his epiphany necessitated an immediate broadcast, even if the words had to sneak past a double cheeseburger. He had that look he gets when he’s thinking hard on something, head tilted to the left, eyes up and to the right.
“Explain what you mean, Sweetie.”
“We sneeze or cough or trip over our shoes in real life, and it doesn’t mean anything. When Jack Bauer does any of those things it actually means something, or it will mean something later on in the program. He never just sneezes.” I watched him hold his stare for a moment until his taste buds came calling for a sip of Dr. Pepper.
24 was all the rage in our home at that time, and Jack Bauer was our hero as he saved the world from sure annihilation each week. Though my son’s observation didn’t carry any planetary implications , the ten year-old had accomplished a rather impressive feat of his own by noticing something that took me years of writing to discover: everything in a story–dialogue, actions, non-actions, revealed information–should work to move the story forward.
Hemingway mastered this concept of streamlining. He could tell a story with the sole use of dialogue as in “Hills Like White Elephants”. The conversation between the main characters gives us all we need to see the themes of love, control, security, and manipulation. Writing, however, was not the subject of my thoughts that day as my son swallowed his remaining fries. His observation propelled me onto a great what-if. What if I looked at my life like a writer looks at creating an episode or a book or a movie? Though I can’t escape the common reflexes of sneezing, coughing, and blinking like Jack can, what if I tried to capture all that I did under the category “On Purpose”?
Realizing that this concept was also known as “mindfulness” (in self-help books and Whole Foods) and “action” (in the business world), I stuck with the juvenile term “purpose” since an oft-used complaint in my childhood home was, “Hey, you did that on purpose!” But what I tried to lie my way out of in my youth I would now embrace and celebrate. After years of living on purpose in every action of the day I would be able to look at the fruits of my labor and proclaim, “Yes, I did that on purpose.”
My experiment design was as flawless as it was simple. That night I made a list of all the things I would like to see change as a result of my journey. I set my alarm for the next morning for 6:00, despite the fact I had been up at that hour maybe four times in my life. I resolved that every step I took that day–every word I said, every bite I ate, every task I performed–would be with purpose, non-reactionary, and mindful. Somewhere along the way I’d heard that when you’re trying to form new habits it’s best not to try to change so many things at once. Keeping this in mind I decided to leave some of my metaphysical aspirations on the back burner and focus on small, easy-to-measure goals, and though I don’t remember most of them, I know they included being healthier, being more disciplined in my writing, and being wiser financially.
My Day of Living on Purpose started with success. At 6:23 when I finally noticed it was the alarm ringing–not the fire truck in my dream–I made my first decision with purpose. Since I stayed awake so late the night before thinking about all the ways my life was going to get better, I found myself tired on this first day. Of course now that I was striving for better health I found that extra sleep was the prudent choice. My husband had to take our children to school in deference to my wise decision, and as he said goodbye I made a mental note to include the importance of cooperative spouses in a piece I would inevitably write about purpose-filled living.
Around 10:00 I rose out of bed with purpose and put on my exercise clothes. This was going to be a great day. I ate a healthy breakfast and wrote a few paragraphs of an article that was due by the end of the week. As I headed out the door to start my new running regimen my friend Joan called and asked me to hang with her at the pool. It was only 12:00, and I had to make my second important choice of the day. I told my friend I would call her back after giving careful consideration to her proposal.
By 12:01 I decided to meet her at the pool because relationships are a key component of one’s overall well-being. In keeping with my goal of eating only nutritious foods I packed a small cooler of raw carrots and broccoli, a little bit of fat-free ranch dressing, and a little to-go bottle of wine, which is made from grapes.
At the pool Joan confided in me about the struggles she was having with her teenage daughter, who had adopted an air of disrespect towards authority. We watched a mother comfort her toddler who was becoming frustrated with her doll. I lamented at the heartache Joan’s daughter was causing the family. I remember Joan’s daughter as a sweet little girl playing with her dolls by the pool like it was yesterday,
“What do you think Michael and I should do about it?”
“Maybe she just needs a swift kick in the behind,” I said. We laughed at the ridiculous suggestion, perhaps a little bit louder than we realized, as we got a few looks from people around us.
“I’m really worried about her. Maybe things will be better once she goes to college.” Joan sadness was apparent as she watched the little girl whose crying was now transitioning into a full temper tantrum.
I reached for a carrot and took a sip of wine (only my third of the day) to wash down the last of my lunch. That’s when I noticed the little girl losing her balance. The mother had walked away and not wanting to waste a moment I jumped out of my chair, lunging for the screaming toddler before she fell into the pool. In my rush to help the girl I must have swallowed my food the wrong way, and the carrot had become lodged in my windpipe. Before I could panic about my own predicament the girl’s mother tackled me, sending me to the concrete and onto my back, dislodging the carrot and wine in the process.
Unfortunately the landing place my lunch found was the angry mother’s face.
Later that evening I waited for Joan to explain to the detectives that the charges of assault against a child and public intoxication were based on a complete misunderstanding of the situation. My cellmate was Hector, a nice, elderly man brought in for true public intoxication. Tears crept down my dirty face, and I could barely walk due to the pain ripping through my back.
“Jew wan sun of my chez burr?” His outstretched hand held the remainder of a jalapeno-laden cheeseburger from McDonald’s.
“Sure,” I shrugged, taking the sandwich, grateful for his kindness but wondering how he managed to sneak it in.
My Day of Purpose was marked by productivity in my work, maintaining both a healthy body and friendship, and an altruistic urge to look out for the needs of those around me.
I took a bite of the burger, and one whiff of the spicy peppers sent me into a sneezing fit.
Jack Bauer never does that.
The following is a true account of events that occurred approximately eight years ago.
My husband and I have always encouraged procrastination in our children, leading by example. So it was no surprise when our son started on his car for the Boy Scouts’ pinewood derby about four days ahead of time, given he had six months to prepare. Since creating the car involved saws and a molten lava-metal substance, he needed adult supervision, and I was the parent drafted to be involved in yet another last-minute project. My son and I went to work. After settling on the design, the car had to be painted, the lava had to be melted to weight the car, a few striping details were added, and, finally, the car was finished on the morning of the derby.
Having never attended one of these races before, I didn’t know what to expect that night. We walked into the church basement, guided by the troop leader to the room where the “weigh-in” occurred. “Wow, I wouldn’t have eaten lunch if I knew we were going–oh, you mean the car? My bad.”
While standing in line at the weigh-in we watched Mr. Super Duper Troop Dad handle the cars with the skill of a surgeon, placing each car upon a kitchen scale with the care and precision of one who is surgically affixing prosthetic wings to injured butterflies. This self-appointed Guardian of the Scale used the same process with each car. When it was finally our turn we stood motionless while he placed my son’s car on the scale, slowly removed his hands, took a deep breath, and exhaled quietly as he watched the needle swing back and forth between 2 and 6 ounces. After being convinced the needle was at its final resting place the results of our weigh-in were announced with solemnity, which happened to be identical to my weigh-in each morning: too heavy. This verdict required us to move on to “The Pit”, although I secretly thought it looked very similar to a pre-K Sunday School classroom.
In The Pit, the “Crew Chief” had what I thought to be a needle. I speculated (to myself) that perhaps he had started and finished a quilt while waiting for Mr. Troop Dad to weigh all the cars. I was wrong, however. The “needle” was a precision drill that allowed the dried molten lava-metal to be removed by nano-ounces–or some other minute measurement of weight–in order to get as close as possible to the maximum weight without going over, like a Boy Scout version of “The Price is Right”. A few shavings of metal were removed from the bowels of my son’s car, and we were instructed to go back to the weigh-in where, at this point, we would be in line long enough for the pinewood to fossilize.
When we finally passed the prerequisite screenings we were allowed to enter the room where the race was to take place. With my husband and parents in tow, we found seats near the door. I settled into a chair meant for a four year-old and prepared to feign interest in the race while mentally composing my grocery list. It was at this point I scanned the room and first began to take note of the other cars. Apparently, it never crossed anyone’s mind that the Boy Scouts’ Annual Pinewood Derby should be raced with cars that the Boy Scouts had created. Man Scouts had built these cars! Every car in the room, with the exception of my son’s car, was an engineering and artistic marvel. It was going to be a long(er) night.
I should have seen this coming. Think about the pageant moms, the cheerleader moms, the soccer dads, and the science project dads that fill our society these days. I’m not talking about the ones who encourage their kids to a reasonable degree and give them a helping hand when needed. I’m referring to those who, because they were so insecure in high school, are always trying to improve upon those four years by making up lies about what they accomplished, as if that time period defines them forever. I’m talking about the psychos who teeter on the edge of a fatal aneurysm if little Sammy throws a double play when it’s theoretically possible he could have thrown a triple, the insecure parents who live vicariously through their children and spit fire if their four year-old daughter takes second place in the swimsuit category. I’ve grown tired of these types of parents over the many years my children have participated in athletic and academic pursuits, and now even the Boy Scout troop was infected with these people.
As I sat there watching each and every car pass my son’s car on the track, I beamed with pride inwardly while meditating on the fact that I wasn’t like all the other parents there. My ego wasn’t so fragile that I had to spend six months creating a Smithsonian-worthy replica of a car just so all the other parents could see how awesome I must have been in high school. No, I was secure in my [wo]manhood. Even though my son may not have won a single race, at least he is authentic, and at least my husband and I are good parents who let their children glory in their own accomplishments.
As I sat on the chair meant for someone half my size my discomfort was alleviated by my (justifiably) self-righteous thoughts, and they took me smoothly through the medal presentations. My self-congratulatory love-fest was interrupted, however, when they announced that a medal would be given for the “most artistic” car.
My son received first place!
“Yes!” I heard myself yell. Thankfully my overly vigorous fist pump narrowly missed the nose of the adorable three year-old girl who was there to watch her brother compete (with the car her father had built).
I’m sure my enthusiasm wasn’t due to pride or a life vicariously lived or any other shallow reason. I was vindicated by the universe for all that is decent and good in life. Here was proof that races really aren’t just about winning and losing. As I was debating in my mind whether or not it would be a good time to give an impromptu speech on what a successful parent looks like, I began to notice looks of incredulity on the faces of the other parents. They seemed confused by the choice of my son’s car as the winner of the artistic (a.k.a., best) category.
I guess the announcer must have noticed the confusion on the faces of those harsh, overly-ambitious parents, as well. He cleared his throat and sheepishly announced, “Um, we awarded the artistic prize, of course, to the car whose design and paint job were obviously performed by a child — not by parents or a professional staff. This is the Boy Scouts, and we reward the participation of our boys.”
My parents are very involved, loving grandparents. They had attended the derby to see their grandson compete. As we walked away from the room, back down the hall, and out of the church’s basement doors, my mom noticed I looked a little faint. “What’s wrong, Sweetie?” she asked. I had a knot in my stomach and my ego was somewhere crushed beneath the gravel in the parking lot.
I had designed, built, and painted my son’s entire car.