I was getting on the train the other day when I realized my belt didn’t match my shoes: Brown shoes, black belt.
I was wearing a suit, so this was a serious faux pas. Admittedly, I am far more conscious of my outward flaws than anyone else (aren’t we all?), but even by that measure this made me feel brutally uncomfortable.
Thankfully I was able to run to a J Crew before my first meeting that morning and to purchase a brown belt. I put on the matching belt and sighed with the relief of one who has finally managed to dislodge a popcorn kernel from one’s teeth.
And all I could think as I walked triumphantly to the office was this:
How does this not happen all the time, when I am on complete autopilot in the mornings?
I will walk out the door and suddenly wonder if I am wearing shoes. I will board the train wondering if I showered that morning or if I remembered to rinse the shampoo out of my hair. I have absolutely no recollection of doing it.
But magically my shoes are on my feet and I have showered and my hair is not still goopy with Head and Shoulders. (The apple-scented Head and Shoulders is amazing, BTW. And makes me wonder how on earth Proctor and Gamble knew I’d want my head to smell like an apple. Who discovered that? Jimmy Penicillin?)
The point here is that all these actions? I do them instinctively.
(Or rather, habitually. I was corrected once by my sister. I would submit that colloquially they are synonymous, but she insists that I can’t compare washing my hair with a penguin marching a thousand miles across the tundra to blubber up or whatever they do. Whatever, man. I’m using instinctively.)
Here’s the thing:
It makes me wonder what else I am doing on autopilot? Because while autopilot helps me get ready in the morning by allowing my brain to shut off and think of other things instead of worrying if I’m putting on the wrong belt, it can’t always be helpful, right?
When else is my brain shutting off? How is that affecting my life? And how is it affecting the lives of the people I love?
Liz and I realized a few weeks ago that when we greeted each other walking in the door, we sort of did it the same way every time. Just a Hi Love! And then we’d keep up with our busy-ness – Liz may have to send one last email, I may get dinner ready, but we rarely took a moment. It was our autopilot greeting. Whereas when the dog runs in, we’re all like “Beasley!!!” and we give her big rubs.
So one day we tried greeting each other like we greeted the dog.
It felt amazing. Like I was coming home from Verdun, head bandaged in mummy tape. Liz lit up when I greeted her the same way.
But it takes work to change autopilot.
Even though Liz and I know we need to make each other feel loved, every day, it still takes work.
Even though we know the dog is fine, it just needs some belly rubs and even that isn’t terribly pressing, despite what Beasley would have you believe, presenting her belly with the urgency of a field medic plugging an artery.
There are books, you know. There are books on how to change habits and make habits and break habits. But usually they’re about smoking and eating and doing yoga.
I’m talking about changing my whole attitude on how I’m making my family feel. It feels like an every day muscle I need to get better about using. And right now I’m sort of terrible at it.
But I can do this. Because I’m not an animal. I’m people. And people rock.
I still do have those penguin-like instincts sometimes. Which brings me to…
The Top Five Things I Do Without Thinking Every Day:
1. Grab my car keys.
I’m constantly patting myself down for my car keys. This happens, mind you, after I have not only gotten in the car, but also driven the car to my destination, gotten out, parked, eaten lunch, and am heading back to the car. That’s when I’ll think I’ve left my car keys at home that morning. Because I’m an idiot.
2. Feed the dog.
I will sit bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night and think that I haven’t fed the dog in about two months. I’ll wonder, in that millisecond, if the dog has survived only by virtue of her desperate licking of the plates as I load them into the dishwasher – an exercise I always chide her for and yet, I realize, has been the only caloric intake she’s had since Labor Day. But I do feed the dog. It’s literally the first thing I do every single morning. (Stand down, PETA. Stand down.)
3. Tuck in the kids.
Lizzie is really the queen of tucking in in our house. She reads with them, they all flop in bed together, she prays with them, she’s a grandmaster of it. And still there are nights as I’m going to bed that I wonder not just whether I remembered to say goodnight to the kids but whether the kids are even in the house. Was I supposed to pick them up from somewhere? Lord help me when they’re old enough to drive.
4. Brush my teeth.
The only way I know that I’ve brushed my teeth is that the tube of toothpaste is out of the box and is gradually decreasing in volume. Still, I open my mouth to speak to a colleague and there’s that moment of panic that I’m about to hit them with an ancient volcanic bed-mouth that belongs somewhere on the periodic table next to the heavy elements.
5. Remember my wallet.
How my wallet gets in my pocket every day is literally a magic trick, because I never pick it up. It’s just there, as if Gabriel the Archangel frantically flies through my kitchen window every day, his coffee spilling all over the place, snatching my wallet and running after my car like the Six Million Dollar Man before magically whooshing it into my pocket.
Eat that, penguins!