learning / play

and then the military showed up


We tend to think we know how the story will end. Or at the least, that we’ve run through all the possible scenarios.

The short, everyday stories are usually spot on. It isn’t asking too much to expect that we will to enjoy coffee with a friend, or that we will get some amount of something done in a day, or that the new recipe will be edible. When we’re working within familiarity, the results are fairly predictable.

But sometimes you’re going somewhere different; the factors are more varied, the risks are higher, you have more invested.

These are the stories that throw us.

Take, for example, the time I bought a whole bunch of popsicles on a hot day and went to the park with the kids to hand them out.

The day before, the place had been swarming with people — lots of playing families and walking women and skating punks. They were there, all of them.

And this day — the popsicle day — was even hotter than the day before. It was sunnier and lovelier and Friday-er. It was certain to be a wild and fun story, one that would cheer the masses, inspire future philanthropists, one the kids would tell their kids and grand kids.

But that was before the National Guard showed up.

The parking lot was nearly full when we drove into the park. This seemed promising. Until we noticed that there were some huge military trucks too. And people in uniform. And military tents and complicated technology-looking items.

This was OK. There were no explosions, no apparent conflict, it really just looked like the GPS had malfunctioned and these people were setting up camp in a city park instead of wherever military people usually set up camp.

Also, there were no signs about not handing out popsicles, no one was yelling into a bullhorn: “put the popsicles down and back away slowly”, so we just went with it. I was determined to hand out popsicles because that’s the plan was.

We pulled out a table. And chairs. And our big “Free Popsicles” sign. And the cooler full of ice and popsicles as if we had been commissioned to set up our own Popsicle Camp right across the parking lot from the Military Camp.

This was about as awkward as it sounds.

I pretended for a while that it wasn’t, for the sake of the kids, but they are too old to be fooled by that now and so we just had to wear the embarrassment until the lines of people showed up for their popsicles. Because then it would be the camo that would look ridiculous, not popsicles.

So we pulled out our popsicles and waited. We looked around. There was no one within 100 feet who was not in uniform.

After a couple minutes, a mom and her girls came by. We convinced them to each take a popsicle. After a few more minutes, we walked over to a man in the parking lot who had been working on a construction project at the park.

Then one of the National Guard men in uniform came over. He was pretty friendly and took an orange popsicle and we told him to send everyone else over, since they were working hard to set up whatever they were setting up and it was a hot day.

And then we sat. And we looked for people. And there were none.

Lesson #1 is this: if you want the general public avoid a certain place, have a bunch of uniformed military personnel hang out there.

Finally we decided to bring the popsicles to the people, wherever they might be hiding. We found a couple teenage boys who were pretty stoked (they were on skateboards, so that’s the right word, I think) to have popsicles. There was a pregnant young woman with nose ring whose gave us a huge, surprised smile when we handed her one.

Then Orange Popsicle Military Man came over and told us the rest of the military people were too scared to come over. They were standing in a circle, kind of quiet and looking unsure of what might happen next. They did look a little scared.

So Lesson #2 is this: however scary men in uniform might look, children with popsicles are even scarier.

This could possibly be an issue of national defense. Knowing this, I could probably plot the next attack on the US military, maybe by releasing hundreds of children to the streets, armed with popsicles. If I have any Al-Qaeda  followers, whatever you do, please do not do this. The results would be devastating.

We did slowly come over to the group, as one might toward a cowering animal, extending our popsicles as a peace treaty. A few responded and took one, but not most.

After 25 minutes, we had only given away around 20 popsicles and that was only because we chased down every moving thing we saw within a 100 foot radius. I was determined to make this work. I was trying so hard to make this be a good story, the story I imagined: crowds of happy people with popsicle juice running down their chin.

But the people were not there.

It wasn’t a total loss. I mean, the kids had two popsicles each, so they were more or less thrilled. We gave away some popsicles and we got to see some smiles of those who were either excited for a frozen treat or tickled by the whimsy of it. But it was not what we expected.

We learned a valuable lesson:

Our stories don’t always go like we think they will.

We usually fight it at first. We try to make it be how we imagined, how we expected. We argue with reality and scream “unfair!”.

We can stay in that place, trying to make a situation be other than what it is, trying to make a person respond how we want them to and not how they are, trying to keep running with an agenda that we hold close to our hearts.

We can fight the story or we can allow it to change us. And when we allow the story to change us, it’s already a better story.

Happy crowds of people with popsicles is a good story. Letting go of your expectations? That’s a better story. Allowing a story to be what it is, that’s a better story. Learning that even fiascos make good stories, that’s a better story. Seeing humor in the fact that the National Guard is setting up camp on the same day you decided to hand out popsicles, that’s a better story.

We all had a good talk and laugh over it. Children have a knack for adaptability, something I could stand to grow in myself. They had fun, even with the disappointment that things didn’t go as they expected. And they want to do it again. Only next time, they want me to stop hogging the popsicles for myself.


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