Let me ask you this: As parents of children in the same class, do we need to talk to each other?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying talking should be, like, banned. You probably enjoy talking to other people! That’s so great! And everyone is super nice and interesting!
But is there any way of opting out without being, you know, that creepy guy who is just standing in the corner sort of watching everyone? And since when is people watching a crime?? If people-watching is a crime then send the SWAT team to sidewalk cafes around the city and start roundin’ up law-breakers, J. Edgar Hoover! People there are self-proclaimed people-watchers! They call it people-watching!
But outside of the NYC cafe scene, it is taboo to stand at a social gathering and remain silent. You must speak to people, even if it is the last thing on earth you want to do, even if it brings you great anxiety.
Which brings me to last Friday. When I was secretly dreading our kids’ Family Fun Day.
It is called Family Fun Day because it is objectively Fun For The Whole Family. There were food trucks! And a magician! And it was all in the field outside West School with a big playground and basketball courts!
And lots and lots of other parents. And we would be there for an hour and a half. And Liz was out of town.
On the drive there, I tried to play it cool.
“What say we all stick together?” I proposed to Finn and Lucy. “It’s called Family Fun Day, after all!”
“Totally!” they cheered.
But we got there and the doors opened and my kids were gone, because they saw their friends and they had to go bounce off each other like atomic particles.
So I was looking down the barrel of Family Fun Day. Alone.
I pass the ticket table and enter the vicinity. Everyone is talking to everyone – I can see that already. The only other person I can even see that is alone is not actually a person, it’s Westy the Whale, and he’s not walking as much as sort of drifting, kind of like an actual whale, across the basketball courts.
Nobody else is alone on Family Fun Day. Because you’re not allowed to be alone. Because if you are alone you are weird.
And thus the voyage of the introvert begins.
Introverts at gatherings like this have one mission: Somehow remain invisible to everyone else around them.
Now, as Westy the Whale was demonstrating, the best technique for one to remain invisible is to remain in constant motion. Nobody just stops a person in motion. When you are in motion you are doing something. You are not a creepy weirdo that stands alone and stares at things like people and the sky.
But you have to be careful, my introvert friend. You can’t just walk. If you only walk for an hour and a half people will notice because you’ll start to look like a Roomba. So here’s our secret: Introverts must learn to walk with a purpose.
That’s what I did. I walked with purpose, over to the food truck. It was an ideal time-killing ploy. You have to wait on line, you have to choose your food, you have to wait for them to cook it. If you’re lucky you’re looking at a full fifteen minutes.
It backfired. I went in too early, so nobody else was on line and the food truck guy was excited to serve his first customer so he saw me coming and by the time I got there he was already holding a hot dog out at me like the sponge guy at mile twenty-two. The whole thing took maybe forty seconds. I barely broke stride.
Out of options now, I was forced to play my last card: I walked over and laid out our picnic blanket next to the other parents with picnic blankets. I took as much time as I could, setting that out, praying my kids would show up. They didn’t. So I had no choice. I sat down with my hot dog. And since I’m not good at sitting criss-cross apple sauce, I sort of reclined back.
I knew I had made a mistake as soon as I did that.
I’m alone on this picnic blanket with this hot dog and lying down like I’m expecting somebody to come over and balance my chakra and I appear to have no children whatsoever. Which I’m sure is now causing everyone to stare at me and talk about the guy just lying down alone with a hot dog on a picnic blanket like a disoriented vagrant. So I pop back up but I’m still alone, and that’s a problem because nobody would choose be alone at Family Fun Day, so if you are, you must be an object of sympathy, and I just know that a nearby parent who prides herself on her charity work is going to be standing up and putting her fists on her hips and turning to her fellow parents and declaring “Well I don’t care if he does lie down alone and eat hot dogs! I am going to go talk to him!” And then I’ll be trapped because it’s not like I can just start rolling away from her.
And in that moment – my most desperate moment, when I was sure there was no escape – I was rescued. By Lucy.
She came running over with her friend Twila. “Lucy!” I cried, arms out, as if she had just returned from war.
Twila and Lucy both wore beautiful dresses, because they had agreed to wear beautiful dresses to Family Fun Night. Lucy had a piece of pizza folded in her mouth. I made her take a photo with me. You’ll see in the background there is a kid who has fallen to the ground, because somehow kids are always just sort of falling down.
“Dad. Can we get a balloon from Balloon Louie?”
“Who’s Balloon Louie?”
“The guy making the balloon animals.”
I looked over. The balloon line was long. Balloon Louie was taking his time, chatting with every single kid. It was perfect.
I told Lucy I’d get her a balloon animal.
“And for Twila too?”
Things were looking up. I walked over to stand in line. I was a man with a purpose. I was a man who was not weird at all. Then Finn came running over.
“Hey dad. Have you seen Magnus?” Finn panted. “Wait – what are you on line for?”
“Oh. Have you seen Magnus?”
I told Finn I didn’t know if I’ve seen him because I don’t know what Magnus looked like. “Is that Magnus?” I pointed to a kid running past.
“No. Are you just guessing?”
“Well can you be base?”
“Okay. If we see Magnus tell him you’re base, okay?”
So Finn hung out with me for a few minutes on line for a balloon animal.
And suddenly not only was I not the weird guy rolling around alone on a picnic blanket with a hot dog in his hand, I was a father talking to his son and getting a balloon animal for his daughter and her friend Twila. I was totally fitting in.
Then Finn ran away because Magnus said I couldn’t be base.
But it was okay because Lucy skipped back up to me.
“I got tattoos,” she said.
“From that guy over there. Near Westy.”
“No – I mean where on your body?”
“Oh. Right here.” She stuck out her arms.
“Nice,” I said.
“Okay, I’m going to go get a popsicle,” Lucy said.
“Come back when you’re done.”
“You have to tell Balloon Louie what you want.”
“I want a dolphin.”
“I don’t think Balloon Louie makes dolphins.”
“Can you ask?”
“I’m afraid he’ll feel bad if he can’t make it.”
“Can he make a puppy?”
I shrugged. “Probably?”
“Okay. I’m going to get a popsicle.”
Balloon Louie could make a puppy.
Balloon Louie made them all puppies.
Then she ran away with Twila, on the right in the light green dress, because it was time for freeze dance. But first she took a photo with Westy the Whale.
All of this, this whole story, is merely to say this:
You know how people say “Practice gratitude!” And it never helps? Because you probably just sat in peanut butter and why should I be grateful about sitting in peanut butter?
Well, I have trouble feeling gratitude for Family Fun Day. Events like this are viper pits for an introvert.
But because Family Fun Day was a source of anxiety for me, it ended up doing this for me:
Every tiny moment that allowed me to avoid a conversation with somebody gave me a moment of gratitude. The walk across the lot to get the hot dog. Getting to wait on line for balloons for – no lie – forty five minutes. Acting as base for my son and acquiescing to balloon animal demands for my daughter.
Any of those things could have annoyed me. They could have put me in a bad mood and frustrated me. And yet on that Family Fun Day, they turned into gifts. Not because they were any different from those normally annoying things, but because I was desperate. And desperation is the stage on which Gratitude shines. It’s when Gratitude walks out of the wings and into the spotlight and brings down the house.
I’ve felt that desperation before. I’ve felt it in much bigger and in much more difficult phases of my life. I’ve felt the moments of pure, undiluted gratitude for tiny moments in those difficult phases.
But those moments didn’t have photos of Lucy holding a balloon puppy, standing next to Westy the Whale. So I’m writing about this instead.
You get what you get, people, and you don’t get upset.
While we’re at it, here are…
The Top Five Balloon Shapes that Balloon Louie Was Making:
An easy one for little girls to get happy about. And it kind of looked like a flower! But it wasn’t, it was a balloon.
Balloon Louie was getting a little lazy with his swords at the end. Toward the end of the evening he inflated a long balloon and a kindergartener grabbed it before Balloon Louie could put a hilt on it and went running off like he was the Highlander and Balloon Louie just kind of shrugged.
You can see Balloon Louie making an alien in an earlier photo with me and Finn. That alien was no joke, man. It was like a full-bodied alien. Definite wow factor, that alien.
4. Swan That You Wear on Your Head
I guess a crown would be boring, or maybe it just sort of looked like a swan and some kid decided to jam it on his own head, I don’t know.
5. Balloon Giraffe
Literally a balloon dog with a longer neck. Come on, man.