the allure of the vending machines

Last week, I taught an all-day camp in writing and public speaking for fifth graders. The camp was held at a community center and there were a variety of summer camps going on at the same time—down the hall was Crafts, outside was Nature Explorers, and the next room over was a Dance Camp for adorable five-year-olds in pouffy dresses. {They danced to the theme song from Moana over and over and it became the soundtrack of my week, looping through my mind on repeat.} One thing that all the camps had in common was that the kids were obsessed—I mean, seriously obsessed—with the vending machines.

There were two vending machines in the narrow hallway next to the public bathrooms. One was filled with drinks and the other with snacks, but they might as well have been filled with gold for how they mesmerized all the kiddos who wandered past them en route to the restroom. The other teachers and I would share sympathetic smiles as we coaxed and herded our respective students away from the vending machines and back to class. Often this required physically positioning our bodies between the kids and the machines, blocking the view through the glass.

Sometimes, after camp ended for the day, I would leave the restroom and see a small child proudly showing off the vending machines to her mom or dad, pride in her voice as she named the various options. “But what did you do at camp today?” the parent would ask in confusion. I always sent home notes to the parents of my students, detailing what we did in class, urging them to look through the binder and see all the progress their child was making. I could envision, when asked what they did all day, a student answering, “We played on the playground and Steve got Hot Cheetos!” It was true: I always took them to the playground during our lunch break.

The same kids who announced, “I’m bored!” within seven minutes of a classroom writing activity could easily spend twenty minutes just staring up at the array of salty and sweet choices {perhaps, for some, forbidden choices}, their faces awash in the fluorescent glow, imagining ways to con the machine into giving them free food and chattering about what they would choose if their parents let them bring money the next day. I quickly learned not to let a student go alone to the restroom—that hallway would snag his attention and stop his legs like quicksand, and he would never return. Sending pairs of kids was not any more successful. Those vending machines were like the Vegas Strip to a gambler; they just could not help themselves. I pretty much always had to walk down the hall myself and drag them away from the colors and lights.

What is it about those vending machines? I wondered to myself, driving home midway through the week. Some of the kids bring Fritos in their lunch—why do the same Fritos have so much more appeal behind the glass?

I arrived home, exhausted, and sat down at my computer to answer a few emails before starting dinner. However, I soon found myself clicking over to Facebook. No news or notifications. Nothing to see here. Still, that didn’t stop me from checking again on my phone two or three times while making dinner. It was the allure of possibility—maybe the next time I checked, there would be a new notification and my brain would bask in that dopamine hit.

And, just like that, I realized—I was caught up in those same vending machine lights. So many of us are. We may not be standing in front of actual vending machines, giddily contemplating the choices, but metaphorically we are just like those kids staring up at the sodas and chips. We are sucked in by the possibility and the glamour of what we don’t have. Once we do get it, often the appeal melts away. The excitement of the Facebook notification disappears once we click on it. One of my students, who had been salivating all week over the beef jerky packages in the vending machine, was finally given money by his mother on Friday to buy something for a snack. I was shocked when he only ate a little bit of the beef jerky, then tossed the rest in the trash. “It tastes weird,” he said with a shrug when I asked him why he threw his prized snack away. All week long he’d been staring at the package through the glass. Then, when he got what he’d been dreaming about, it was no longer special but ordinary, and he was disappointed.

air hockey, guys, games, guys weekend

Teaching kids, I’m always struck by how much they remind me of adults. How much do we ever, truly, grow up beyond our child selves? Both kids and adults find creative ways to avoid discomfort as much as possible. And, guess what? Learning and growing and evolving are uncomfortable.

So many times, when teaching a new concept, I would watch a student make great progress: write an amazing hook for their essay; analyze the author’s purpose of an editorial; prepare a list of pro’s and con’s for a persuasive essay. But then, discomfort would hit. The student would feel tired. The student would want a distraction. The student would raise his or her hand. “Mrs. Woodburn, can I go to the bathroom?” Of course I would let them go—I never prevent students from going to the bathroom if needed—but, 9 times out of 10, what they would really be asking was: “Can I go look at the vending machines, and dream about the possibility of a snack I might get tomorrow, because that is so much easier than muscling through this sticky learning process right here, right now?” After a few minutes, I would walk down the hall to check on him. I would find him gazing up, awash in the fluorescent lights. I would gently prod him back to class, back to the discomfort, back to the growing.

That is what we need to do for ourselves, too. We need to be the teacher coming to check on ourselves. When you notice yourself craving a distraction—wanting to take a break from a project you’re working on and check your email, or browse Facebook, or scroll through Instagram, or even do something “productive” like wash those dirty dishes or organize your closet—ask yourself what the root of your desire truly is. Are you actually at a good stopping point, with that joyfully wrung-out feeling, when a break to recharge and rest your mind is needed? Or are you simply feeling uncomfortable or afraid, craving the “easy out” of a quick distraction, that will only leave you feeling restless or depleted when you eventually make your way back to your important work?

Of course, it is necessary and fun and important to daydream about the future. Sometimes we all need to take time to bask in the glow of the vending machines, and all the colorful options and choices that we might make tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Sometimes we need to celebrate the allure of possibility.

But we can’t spend all of our time there. We can’t live in our daydreams for the future. We need to do the tough, uncomfortable, sometimes boring, sometimes grinding, day-in and day-out work to get there. Only then will we turn our exciting dreams into reality.

And once we do reach those dreams? Once we do feed the quarters into the vending machine, make our selection, and watch the item fall from its perch and into our lives? We need to appreciate it. We need to look around at our lives and be grateful for what we do have—for all that we once coveted and now might take for granted. We need to savor every bite of that beef jerky. And then go run around on the playground with our friends. And then head back into the classroom to keep learning and growing, learning and growing, always.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What are the “vending machines” in your life?
  • What is one daydream you have for the future?
  • What steps might you take—starting today, right now—to make that dream a reality?

how far will your ripples go?

Last night, I went with my friend Marjie to UC Berkeley to see the Scottish Ballet’s stunning performance of Tennessee Williams’ famous play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was my first time going to a professional ballet performance—my only previous ballet experience was attending community performances of “The Nutcracker.” I always enjoyed “The Nutcracker” and was always impressed by the talent of the ballerinas. Still, I was not expecting to feel so emotionally moved and enraptured as I watched the performance last night.

The dancers conveyed so much with their bodies and expressions; I forgot they were not speaking in words. Because they were speaking in movement. Even without dialogue, they were able to capture the aching hope and despair of Williams’ play, and bring his story to life in a new way. What’s more, this performance imagined and fleshed out a vivid backstory for Blanche’s character, inspired by the original title Tennessee Williams considered for the play: “The Moth.” The ballet closed with a vulnerable portrayal of Blanche as a moth, struggling to get close to the light. Illuminated in a spotlight centerstage, one of her hands fluttered skyward like a moth’s delicate wings. A hush descended over the audience and some people even gasped, viscerally moved by the image, and then the curtain fell to thunderous applause.

I wish Tennessee Williams could have been there to see this interpretation of his play as a ballet. I think he would have been pleased to see his story brought to life in this new way, filled with the tension and drama of music and dance.

I have felt a connection to Tennessee Williams ever since last Thanksgiving, when my family and I traveled to New Orleans and tracked down the apartment that he had lived in during his New Orleans days at the end of his life. Serendipitously, while we were outside, taking photos and reading the small plaque affixed to the front wall, a man who lived there just happened to be returning home. He introduced himself as Brobson and invited us inside for a drink; he had lived there for many years and had known Tennessee Williams. He kindly welcomed us inside and shared many stories, even taking us around to the backyard to see the pool where Tennessee used to relax in the afternoons. {My dad wrote a terrific two-part column about our visit with Brobson, which you can read here on his website.}

Before that day, Tennessee Williams had been larger-than-life to me; a name in a list of Great Writers I Admire; a photo on a Wikipedia page. But seeing where he had lived and meeting someone who had known him turned him into a real person. There were surely days he struggled to write, as I sometimes do. Days when he doubted himself. Days when he wanted to give up. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was once merely a glimmer of an idea on the edge of his consciousness. Thankfully, he wrote the idea down, and he kept writing until the play was finished. Even when it was hard. Even when there were a million other things he could have been doing, or would have rather been doing. Even when he wondered if the words he was painstakingly stacking up, one after the next after the next, would amount to anything at all.

Tennessee Williams had no way of knowing how much his plays would impact people and how far the ripples of his creativity would extend. He had no way of knowing that on a Thursday evening in Berkeley thirty-seven years after his death, hundreds of people would be moved to tears from a new portrayal of the characters he had dreamed up.

None of us know how far our own ripples will go. The gifts we create. The lives we touch. The kind words we share. All of these are stones dropped into water. What was once still is now in motion.

You have no idea how your daily actions might inspire others. What you do and make today might affect someone tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now. Others in the future might learn from you and build upon what you have done, creating something of their own that is entirely new and wonderful, something else that will launch more ripples out into the world.

Back when I was in elementary school, I wrote and self-published a small book of stories and poems. Nearly two decades later, I received an email from a composer named Alex Marthaler at Carnegie Mellon University. He was creating a song-cycle around the theme of childhood and adulthood, and he had somehow discovered my little book. Would it be okay if he used some of my poems as lyrics for the songs he wanted to compose?

Yes! I quickly responded. Yes, that would be amazing!

Would I be willing to write a few companion poems, responding to the themes of the poems I had written as a child, now from an adult perspective?

Yes, yes! What a fun project!

And it was an extremely fun project, unlike anything else I had done before or since. I looked at the poems my child-self had written with fresh eyes and new appreciation, and I wrote new poems that were in conversation with them. It was like talking to the girl I had once been, and listening to her replies. She helped me remember why I first fell in love with writing to begin with. The magic of setting your thoughts down onto paper, and then releasing those words into the universe. Like launching hundreds of miniature paper airplanes into the sky.

I sent him the new poems, and a few months later, Alex sent me the recordings of the songs. Listening to them, I was blown away with wonder. Who would have imagined that a few little poems I wrote in pencil on lined notebook paper at my kitchen table when I was nine years old, would one day be turned into beautiful songs performed at Carnegie Mellon?

{Me in fifth grade with copies of my first little self-published book}

I love this quote from Brene Brown:

“Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world.”

How will you share your soul with the world? What ripples will come from what you share? One thing I do know is that our world will be so much richer for it.

P.S. You can listen to Alex’s song rendition of my fifth-grade poem “Peanut Butter Surprise” below, and if you’d like a copy of my first little book, it’s available here. And here is a free download of my childhood poems with their adult counterparts, in case you’d like to read them.

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open up a new document on your computer. Here are some questions to get your “free-write” going today:

  • What is a creative project you are currently struggling with or feeling discouraged about? What small step can you take right now to make it feel easier or lighter?
  • Is there a project in your heart that you are afraid to share? What might happen if you released it into the world, in all of its imperfect and messy beauty?
  • What ripples can you create today?
  • Write about a ripple that someone else created that has touched you or impacted your life.