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?

28-Day Blog Challenge

Happy first day of February! Wow, hard to believe how quickly this new year is already flying by.

I mentioned in my earlier post reviewing The Happiness Project that this year I am trying something different with my yearly goals: I’ve broken them up into topics and am trying to focus on one topic per month. In January, for example, I unveiled my Year of Kindness challenge. I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to focus on for February, and yesterday I serendipitously came across this post by Katy Widrick in her terrific blog “Healthy Living in a Hectic World” about her 28-Day Blog Challenge. Sign me up!

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The idea is to spend some time refreshing, rethinking, and reinvigorating your blog, however you see fit. I love how the challenge is self-guided while also having a community of motivators behind you. And I love how Katy includes in her post a long list of ideas to get you started. {Her Blogging Homework series is also great!}

Anyone want to join me? You can officially sign up to participate in the challenge here.

I’m looking forward to making little tweaks and perhaps some bigger changes, both onstage and behind the scenes, over the course of this month!

For today, I updated my Day-by-Day Masterpiece Facebook page, then took the leap {gulp} and invited all my Facebook friends to “like” my page. {For those of you would like to become a fan of Day-by-Day Masterpiece on Facebook, here’s the link: you will make my day!}

Have a fantastic Friday and a lovely weekend! Stay warm!

-Dallas

marvelous monday: little oases of rest in a hectic, busy season

Happy Monday, everyone! It’s that time of year … the holidays are upon us. All weekend I’ve been seeing not just Thanksgiving decorations in stores, but Christmas decorations, too! Some houses in my neighborhood have even put up lights and lawn ornaments. {Which I’m admittedly not used to, coming from California, but it does make sense here in Indiana where you want to get the lights up before the first snow hits!} It seems like Christmas season sets upon us earlier and earlier every year … which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me, a girl who starts playing Pandora Holiday stations in October. I love the warmth and comfort of the holiday season!

Still, the holidays bring with them a lot of busyness — gifts to buy, special meals to cook, cards to send, relatives in town, parties to attend, and just a general hectic pace of life that can be overwhelming. Coupled with the approaching end-of-semester obligations and deadlines: final papers and projects to grade, class presentations, meetings — and for me this year, a completed rough draft of my thesis to turn in — and life can quickly feel out-of-control crazy-busy!

I’ve started doing a brief stretch and deep-breathing routine each morning to get my day off on the right foot, which I’ll share with you later this week. But something else that has helped me keep my sanity and approach the holiday season with a grateful heart {as it is meant to be celebrated, after all!} is to take little breaks throughout the day to slow down, take a breath, and reward myself for the work I have gotten done. Even just ten or fifteen minutes away from my computer or pile of dirty dishes can be enough to clear my head and make me feel worlds happier and more refreshed. Here are some of my “oases”:

  • making a phone call to my friends or family
  • reading a chapter of a good book or a story from a magazine
  • taking a power nap
  • going for a brisk walk around the neighborhood
  • daydreaming with a cup of tea

How do you keep your sanity and stay energized during the crazy-busy holiday season? What are your little daily oases?