Sunday, December 12, 2010
Pay It Forward
Post that follows was written on 12/2; just getting around to posting it, but I am pleased to report that I have, for the most part, made good on the "pay it forward" promises made therein. Still have a few plans afoot . . . .
I was home sick today, courtesy of the oldest child, who threw up last night not less than five minutes after I uttered the phrase, “We should go out for Mexican food, because I am really craving a margarita.”
This particular talent of my oldest child (thwarting his mom’s access to frozen tequila-based beverages via well-timed intestinal pyrotechnics) dates back to the week of his first birthday, when we were forced to call the hostess stand at Pappasito’s (no one had cell phones back then) and radio ahead to the couples who we were meeting us for an impromptu birthday celebration to let them know that neither the birthday boy nor his parents would be in attendance – because, well, said birthday boy had just hosed down his father.
Another talent of my oldest child – without fail, he always aims for his dad, or at the very least begins puking on his dad’s watch (as was the case last night – at age 11, mercifully he has gotten the hang of the “head for the toilet” thing and no longer throws up ON his father). I think that it’s funny; Dad, not so much.
So I spent the day at home, sipping chicken broth and tea, and simultaneously telecommuting and surfing the Internet. (Thanks to our firm’s remote access program, I actually can open my work desktop on this computer, and I’m able to switch back and forth between the two – a little chime alerts me when I get an e-mail or something else happens “in the office.” It’s quite amazing, really.)
One of the things that popped up on my bipolar computer today (on the “home” side, I think) was a link to a YouTube clip of a flash mob spontaneously performing the Hallelujah Chorus in a shopping mall food court. I watched it, and I cried – good tears, the same kind that I cry during the Olympics and certain hokey commercials. Loved this clip. LOVED. IT. In no particular order:
1) I loved it because of the guy who sang the entire almost five-minute song clutching a yellow “Wet Floor/Piso Mojado” sign under his arm. I admire your level of commitment to your character, Flash Mob Maintenance Worker Dude, and you added a level of realism to the affair that actually, factually increased my enjoyment of the clip. Also, I had fun looking for you in various crowd scenes. It was like a live-action Where’s Waldo.
2) I loved it because of the number of senior citizens who participated – no doubt, church choir types, but I have to give them props, because I’m fairly sure that if my parents knew what a flash mob was, they would not choose to participate in one.
3) I loved it because of the number of non-participants who were singing along. Proof that, as a culture, Americans actually HAVE some culture – and, for the record, I sing along with it, too, year in and year out.
4) I love (present-tense) the fact that Americans often choose to express their love for mankind through incredibly random acts of kindness and senseless beauty. It is one of the things that makes me most proud to be an American. Also on that list, in case you were wondering: the fact that our toilet paper does not feel like sandpaper and the fact that we put ice in our beverages as a matter of course – sorry, Europeans, but the whole “you shouldn’t use ice, because the cold is a shock to your system” thing is a load of (room-temperature) horse hooey.
The first time that I became aware of joyful randomness as a defining American characteristic was in October 2001, just a few weeks after 9/11. We attended for the first (and hopefully not only) time the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, which was almost called off due to “security concerns” – a poignant reminder of just how paranoid we were in those first few days of the new era. With the benefit of hindsight, sabotaging a balloon festival had to be so far off of Al Qaeda’s radar back then, when clearly the focus was on big, expensive symbols of American wealth and power, but I remember that Parnell and I waffled a bit as to whether to go forward with the trip, for fear of bringing an almost two year-old into a potentially unsafe situation. Knee-jerk reaction to “flying object,” I guess. But we went ahead with the trip, which also included two days in Santa Fe and three days in Taos (where, come to think of it, Connor managed to infect both parents with an intestinal virus; really, the kid’s nickname ought to be “Ebola Monkey”). From a rather long list of Fiesta events, we opted to attend the Special Shapes Balloon Glowdeo, which we thought would appeal to Connor, because – well, the name says it all. Rather than balloon-shaped balloons, this event features oddly shaped balloons: ice cream cones, liquor bottles, the Marine Corps bulldog, the Belgian flag . . . . "Glowdeo" means that the event takes place at night, and no one actually takes off - they just blow up and light the balloons for your gawking pleasure.
We really had no idea what to expect – got to the park several hours in advance, treated ourselves to fair-type concessions and visited the various other vendors ringing the field. The participants started to assemble, and pretty soon there were deflated balloons Spread out as far as the eyes could see. Wells Fargo had paid for a corporate sponsorship, so two WF balloons were onsite – the ubiquitous stage coach and a piggybank-shaped balloon named “Penny.” As dusk approached, someone radioed (you could hear the radio calls over loudspeakers) the Wells Fargo team to hit its burners. Boom, boom, pow: instant stage coach. Followed by a pig. And then balloons started popping up everywhere. To our surprise and delight, the spectators were invited to go out on the field and get up close and personal with the balloons. Connor got to help with a couple of the burns (under very safe conditions – these guys are pros), and various balloon teams handed out trading cards to the kids with pictures of the balloons on the front and stats on the back.
Then it got dark. Occasionally, someone would hit a burner, and a single shape temporarily would be illuminated, but mostly there was just darkness. Finally, the countdown began:
“10, 9, 8, 7 . . . .”
On 1, everyone hit their burners simultaneously – and the whole field (the size of several regulation football ones put side by side) became a surreal landscape of stories-tall nightlights. And I do mean surreal – a Russian nesting doll, next to a giant tiered birthday cake, next to Noah's Ark, next to the aforementioned Belgian flag. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, but it was a distinctively odd – and oddly wonderful – type of beauty, and I remember thinking (as I alternated between videotaping and flopping down on my back to shoot from-the-ground-up photos of individual balloons): “THIS is what we’re fighting for. THIS is what THEY don’t understand. We are defending our right to be joyous for any reason, and for no reason, with or without advance notice.”
To my (perhaps unique, but hopefully not that unique) sensibilities, this spirit is at the center of the holidays. I fully agree that the “reason for the season” can tend to be obscured behind the hustle and bustle, the gift-buying and –giving, the endless trips to procure tinsel and bows and powdered sugar and spiral-cut hams . . . but we can also use those entirely earthly mechanisms as a means of celebrating the transcendent. Like when a hundred people in a shopping mall food court rise as one to exalt their savior – and when the non-participants around them decide to join in.
Also coming to me via Facebook in the last week: an invitation to participate in “Pay It Forward Day,” a holiday that someone out there somewhere is trying to, however informally, add to the calendar. The official day was December 1st, but I have decided – in the spirit of mall-invading flash mobs and ginormous nightlight-like objects shaped like whiskey bottles and European flags – to stretch “Pay It Forward Day” into “Pay It Forward Month.” I will do the obvious stuff – pay for the Starbucks order of the person behind me, etc. (hey, excuse to go get a Starbucks!) – but I am also trying to think outside the box. As a family we already focus a lot of attention on organized charities during the holidays, in terms of monetary donations as well as donations of our time, and certainly we spread a lot of gift-giving love to friends and family, but we could use some improvement in the “small gesture” arena. Thus, I spent my lunch break yesterday running a shopping-related errand with my mom and then grabbing a bite of lunch with her. It’s a crime that we don’t do that more often – we’re less than 10 miles apart – but the reality is that we spend less one-on-one time together, with her living here, than we did when we would visit my parents in Houston. So I want to make time for that – not just in the month of December, but beyond – because I miss that contact with her, and also because I want to pay it forward. Some day in the not-so-distant future, I hope that my boys will tell their coworkers, “Sorry, I’ll have to pass on lunch – I’m meeting my mom today.”
My pledge is to make a concerted effort to show that same individualized attention to the other people in my life. Gifts can become perfunctory, but gifts of time and undivided attention speak louder than anything that you can wrap in a box. And when I refer to the people in my life, I’m talking about a much wider group than just family and friends. I pride myself on being personable with everyone, but I want to make an extra effort this season to let the other “special people” with whom I come in daily contact know that they are, actually, quite important to me. When Mom and I were checking out at Pottery Barn yesterday, the clerk asked if I’d like to make a dollar donation to charity. I responded, “Actually, I’d like to give more than that” – and her eyes flew up from the register. Until that moment, she was just plodding through the sale, not even attempting to make an actual connection, but my words broke through the fog. She looked up, I smiled at her, and I’d like to think that in that moment I registered as a person, she remembered why she likes about her job, and hopefully she got a little bump to carry her through the rest of her day.
So plans most definitely are afoot for multiple acts of random kindness – hot chocolate for the valet parkers in the garage, something special for the UPS lady – and here’s hoping that the senseless beauty of it all encourages the recipients to pay the sentiment forward.