Archive for May, 2011

Zamboni Small Talk

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

I can’t stand small talk. Somehow I don’t think I’m alone in this. What is intended to be polite has become mundane. And there’s only so much you can say about the weather. Or the local sports team. Even politics and religion seem like good alternatives to the cotton candy drivel that we discuss when passing someone on the street or sitting uncomfortably on the bus.

There’s a limit too. After all, you can only ignore someone for so long. One minute elevator rides deserve nothing but a passing glance and an offer to select a floor for your fellow passenger. Beyond that, they’re on their own. Any more than a passing glance and it suddenly gets uncomfortable. So we look at the ceiling, then at the floor, then at our watch and finally at our Blackberry, nevermind that the only thing we can find is the junk e-mail advertising a certain enhancement therapy – it’s still better than making eye contact. Subway and bus rides test the limit. For these we feign sleep, read the newspaper or tap on a keyboard. We pretend to not notice the person to our right (or smell the person to our left), but without the use of these tools, we might just feel the need to talk. Even if it is only about the weather.

But cross over an hour and even the newspaper won’t work. The laptop runs out of battery and no one sleeps that long without snoring or drooling, and that would violate altogether new levels of behavior. And so we break down, turn to the person that doesn’t smell and start a conversation. For me it typically happens on an airplane with the person next to me – also too cheap to pay for anything other than coach. For some it may happen with your spouse – but that’s another matter.

In years prior, I’d ask the typical questions:
• “So is San Diego-Chicago-New York-Des Moines-Moosomin home?”
• “So what do you think of the food?”
• “They’ve certainly increased the size of the seats, don’t you agree?”
• “Lose any good luggage lately?”
• “How’s the weather – is that a hurricane outside the window?”

Okay, so maybe the hurricane question might be more of a statement, but you get the point. Either way, the responses were always typical and the follow-up questions were expected. And in the end, we did nothing more than traded lines and consumed oxygen for several hours. So when I was recently offered the chance to travel to San Diego, I figured I’d better plan accordingly. I brought two laptop batteries, stocked up on newspapers and grabbed the MP3 player, only to be seated next to the most outwardly conversational person on the plane. And he wasn’t going to give up. So after several abrupt responses that “I wasn’t from San Diego”, the “I didn’t like the food”, and “I had no idea what the weather was like”, I replied rather flippantly to his next question of “so what do you do for a living”. “I’m the purple Power Ranger in the feature production of Power Rangers on Ice,” I replied. Clearly this was not what he expected. To be honest neither had I; sometimes these things just come out without much thought. But now it was too late. I had to back it up. He asked how I got the job. I told him I took Ice Sciences in college. He asked how long the show lasted. I told him it was four months of work every year. He asked if I knew how to drive a Zamboni. I told him it was all about getting the outside circle first and learning to lean into the curve.

Pretty soon I started elaborating on my lie. I told him I learned karate for a brief stint with Japanese baseball. I also told him that I was auditioning for a roll in the upcoming ice show based on Star Wars. I wanted to be Yoda, I told him. And I think he believed me. And before I knew it, the plane ride was over. He shook my hand and offered me a business card. Turns out he was an elephant trainer. Much more interesting that a Power Ranger. Too bad I never asked him about his job. Either way, it was much better than small talk.

Since then I anxiously await the opportunity to talk on the airplane. The last time I travelled I said I had a hand in the invention of the little plastic tables that they put in the middle of your delivery pizza so that the box doesn’t smash your cheese. Thankfully the person next to me wasn’t the real inventor of this fantastic device. If he had, it would have been a very uncomfortable trip. Still, I described the invention in detail, even telling about how long it took us to find the perfect blend of plastic that wouldn’t melt and how the initial prototype was made out of wood. Who knows, I might have even put more thought into the lie than the real inventor put into the invention.

In the end, I enjoyed these conversations; not because I wanted to be a Power Ranger or I like the idea of inventing something like a pizza table that may make me a millionaire, but because I also met some wonderful people that I wouldn’t have met if I buried my nose in a newspaper or tapped on a keyboard. I still hate small talk, but at least now I have something to talk about. So the next time you’re on a plane with a man that claims to be the inventor of Lucky Charms cereal, have some fun and make up something too. Pretend to be a Zamboni captain. And remember, it’s all in the wrist and the first curve.

Watching the World Go By

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

It’s dusk and the laptops come out. Brooke corresponds with other families fighting cancer from the desk in the office, Gracie is curled up in a chair in the living room with her latest Harry Potter book and I’m at the kitchen table writing about the latest adventure or creating an estimate for work. Nothing new – it’s been almost four years now.

Two weeks ago a friend asked me how we cope. After all, we’re happy, right? I told him we force a smile and stay busy – very busy. Between just Brooke and I we hold the equivalent of 6 full-time jobs, running two businesses and a charity. There’s little time for sleep, no time for coffee breaks and barely enough time to realize you’ve skipped lunch for the fourth time in a week. Up at 4:50 am and to sleep at 11:45 pm we know of no other life. Then again, we know that we have all the time in the world. We’re no longer fighting. Still, having just lost his daughter months ago, I’m not sure if my words were of any comfort. It was the answer he feared – still it was the only answer I could offer. And in the end, it’s how you do it. Staying busy means you can’t think, you can’t get depressed, you’re too tired to remember, and you can’t run away.

Lazy weekends used to be wonderful. Today we live in fear of two days with nothing planned at home by ourselves. And now we finish our second weekend at home alone since the beginning of the year and I hate it still the same. I wanted to go away – anywhere but here. Brooke disagreed but by the second day I think she’s thinking the same. And although we probably still did more than most people do on their busiest weekends, we had too much time to think. And we thought too much.

Four, five, six – even nine years ago it was different. I remember the first night. Elena was starting to walk for the first time and I had just gotten home from a day which I figured was the last for my fledgling company. In time, whatever crisis I was concerned with at the time would pass, but the memory would remain. And as I held her hands walking to the deck in the backyard she stopped to sit on the edge, enjoying the peacefulness of the first summer night. But rather than continue to the playset in the backyard, we sat for what seemed like hours, watching the bees fly from flower to flower, the squirrels chase each other from tree to tree and the wind blow through the trees. And for that moment, we were calm, we were happy and we watched the world go by. From that day on, not a day went by that we didn’t sit on that deck or look out the window from the back of the couch when the weather turned cold, listening in complete silence to the orchestra of our backyard.

In time she would grow older, yet still our tradition continued. Gracie was born a little over a year later, but she was far too loud for our evenings. Preferring the company of her mother, they had their own ritual, often laughing from the comfort of the kitchen table inside while offering accompaniment to our experience outside as we listened to the sounds around us.

Even as she fought cancer, we still had our nights. Although not as frequent, they were still special, this time moving from the backyard to the front steps of our new home where instead of bees and squirrels we’d listen to the sounds of the nearby street, fire trucks and trains announcing their presence, and the neighbors going about their own rituals. A departure from normal life, it was a chance to stop. It was a chance to do nothing. It was a chance to connect without so much as a word.

Since her absence our ritual has continued in the backyard. This time with me standing at her tree in the darkness, listening to what I hope she too hears. Sometimes minutes, other times seconds, it is none less a ritual which I will never forget. And today my memories are prompted by a photo that rests on the shelf next to our mantel taken that first night as Elena and I sat on the deck in silence.

Two weeks ago, just minutes after my conversation with my friend about the loss of his daughter, the memory returned. I touched the frame of the photo, clearing the dust that had collected on the glass, consciously aware of the dust that had also accumulated on my memory of her. And then I returned to the front porch, joined this time by a sleepy eyed Gracie, too hot to sleep in the wake of an early summer night in spring. A cold glass of milk in hand, we enjoyed a new ritual – listening to the fire trucks and trains, the neighborhood children engaged in a contested game of basketball and the sound of televisions drifting through the open windows. And while Gracie was not quite as quiet as her sister, it was a blessing to finally find peace in doing nothing as dusk settled on our home.

We’ve met on the front porch many nights since – sometimes by coincidence, other times when I sneak up to her bedroom and coax her from bed to join me on the porch with a glass of milk while her mother types on the computer at the front desk. And each night it is special – our own little rebellion of doing nothing as the world passes by. Laptops not allowed.