The Lunch Box Oracle

If a kid’s lunch box reveals something about their future personality development, then for me, the writing was on the wall pretty early: I was gonna be an odd guy.

Back when I was young, lunch boxes were metal, rectangular containers, like miniature suitcases, usually with an accompanying thermos for a beverage. The paint used to decorate them was probably lead based and fully toxic, but they were cool, they were fun, and they were much sturdier than the old brown paper sack option.

Go on eBay and you can find classic, retro lunch boxes going for hundreds of dollars to grownups yearning to possess them, either for the sentimental value or to add to a collection of related memorabilia. It’s not often that I see children with the metal rectangular suitcase lunch boxes anymore – nowadays it seems everyone is going for the miniature thermal coolers or flexible nylon bags to take their lunches to school, complete with frozen ice packs and plastic bottles to hold the beverage. No themes, no characters, no imagination – but the Gogurt stays cold.

I remember having lunch box envy. Some kids had superheroes like Batman or Superman or The Incredible Hulk on theirs. Some kids had their favorite baseball or football teams on them. Some kids had them with cartoon characters or favorite TV shows. They might change each year, the kids coming to school in September with a new box bearing a different theme; and some kids just kept the same one year after year. They were a reflection of the kids’ interests, their hobbies, their characters.

I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but the lunch box I ended up with was adorned with images of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Kids actually saw me carrying my lunch in this.

As the youngest of four kids, I was the recipient of a lot of hand-me-down stuff – clothes, toys, butt-kickings…  But I honestly don’t remember any of my siblings ever using this lunch box. Which means I must have gotten it new. I have no memory of picking it out; I have no memory of requesting it. I didn’t even know who the hell Jonathan Livingston Seagull was. If I had a hand in selecting this lunch box, I’ve clearly blocked out the memory.

I remember seeing the paperback book when I was little. The book had a different design than the one on the lunchbox, and someone in my family had brought a copy of it into the house at some point. I knew nothing about the story, but at the time assumed it was a tale about certain sea birds. I had no interest in reading it, and in fact, did not read it at all until I was in my twenties – and then only because I realized I had no idea what the hell the book was about, and wanted to satisfy my curiosity about why on earth someone bought me that lunch box in the first place.

After reading it, I still didn’t know why I had that lunch box. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t just a straight story; it was more like a fable, in that it had a “message”. I thought the message was pretty lame at the time, but that is more a commentary on where I was, spiritually, than any slight against the book itself.

The book is about a seagull (named Jonathan, of course) that grows tired of conforming to the limitations of traditional seagull life – wanting to give up the daily food squabbles in favor of perfecting his flying skills. In return for his lack of conformity, he is booted out of his flock. He continues to pursue greater flight goals on his own, and is eventually introduced to a new society of gulls who take him to a higher plane of existence. He meets a wise seagull who becomes his teacher, and he learns the importance of being true to himself. His teacher’s last words to him are “keep working on love.” Jonathan finally comes to understand that the spirit cannot be free without the ability to forgive.

As I mentioned, when I first read the story I was appalled that I had been duped into reading what ended up being a story “with a message” – it felt like propaganda at the time. “Sentimental hogwash”, as old man Potter would have said. I was so defensive against anything remotely spiritual, likely because at the time I was spiritually bankrupt. But it was fairly easy to ridicule the novella – I mean, it was a story about birds seeking self-improvement, after all.

Of course, I now see that – however simplistic or banal the book might have been – the message it carried is universal. I get it today. It’s a message that could benefit anyone and everyone: forgiveness yields freedom.

But my inner child says “Come on, honestly – could a six year old be expected to get that? Who picked out this damn lunch box?” (Yes, my inner child casually swears a lot.)  “I want to know whose idea that was! Hey – I loved cartoons – where was my Scooby-Doo lunch box? How about a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner lunch box? Flintstones? Jetsons? Was anyone paying attention to what I was actually interested in? I just wanna know who picked Jonathan Freakin’ Livingston Seagull!” (Apparently, my inner child is also a bit of a punk.)

Given the lessons I’ve received in the last few years, and how they resonated with me – hit me at my core – it would seem that the instruction to “keep working on love” is a message I was meant to receive at some point during this lifetime. It just seems strange that the message would technically be conveyed to me through something as ridiculous as a child’s lunch box. I suppose it’s better than a Magic Eight Ball. I am reminded of another message that I’ve received very recently: “We don’t get to choose the messenger”.

Maybe it’s one of those “it wasn’t the lunch box that I wanted, but it was the lunch box I needed” scenarios. Perhaps nobody picked it. Perhaps it picked me. It seems kinda cool when I look at it that way.

A Scooby-Doo lunch box would have been a lot cooler, though. I’m just sayin’.

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That’ll Do, Piggy. That’ll Do.

Meet “Piggy”. Piggy is a hand puppet. More specifically, Piggy is a hand puppet that is inexplicably wielding an unnatural power over my children.

Piggy, inanimate

My kids discovered Piggy in a bin at the dollar store. You know dollar stores – rows and rows full of random items you may or may not need, all of which cost one dollar. It’s a great place to buy glow sticks, but otherwise, the merchandise selection is pretty hit-and-miss. My kids often find useless and cheaply made items that they think they need to possess, and most of the time I’m successful in talking them out of it.

But one day they would not be swayed. I don’t know which one of them found it first, but they approached me with the little pink puppet and insisted that it come home with them. “It’s so cute!” they both exclaimed, and it never occurred to me that this might be some sort of charmed item, akin to a talisman – or a voodoo doll.

I looked at it, noting the cheap felt material, shoddy stitchwork, and assymetrical eye placement, and thought “Hmm. It’s probably got asbestos in it, too”. I said to my kids, “Really? You think this is cute? I dunno, you guys have a lot of stuffed animals. Are you sure you want to get that?” I said the last word with a hint of disdain, hoping to pursuade them to re-think the idea.

They responded immediately. “Yes! Yes! We do! We do!” they declared excitedly. Nearly in unison. As if they were under some sort of strange hypnosis. As though they were linked together in one mind, controlled remotely, in sync. Think “Village of the Damned” without the glowing eyes.

So Piggy came home with us. I thought the newness would wear off, like it does with most toys, and it’d be forgotten before the week was out. But my kids are weird with stuffed animals as it is. They collect them to the point of hoarding, and each one has a name and holds a space in their hearts for some unknown reason. One stuffed rabbit looks the same as another, if you ask me, but dare I utter that out loud and I’m looked upon with the scorn usually reserved for blatant racists. How dare I confuse the stuffed dolphin named “Flippy” with the stuffed dolphin named “Bourbon”. (don’t ask – I have no idea how my seven  year old daughter came to name her dolphin “Bourbon” – I don’t even drink, let alone have bottles of whiskey laying around the house)

So I was not surprised that Piggy was taken to bed, and brought to the breakfast table, and stuffed into backpacks for school. They often take their “stuffies” with them, and it’s a total random guess as to which one(s) will be selected for a days outing. Sometimes it will be more than one. And on road trips, they often climb into the car wielding a garbage bag full of these stuffed toys that they INSIST they cannot leave home without.

But Piggy somehow scored a level of reverence that I have not seen before, and what surprised me even more was how much my kids wanted — no, insisted — that I welcome and accept and love the pink puppet as much as they did. And they would not let the subject drop.

“C’mon Dad,” they would say to me in their normal voices, with normal looks on their faces and in a completely normal way, “Play with Piggy.” Everything looked normal, but it didn’t seem normal – I didn’t understand why they should care about whether I liked this pink pig.

But one day, they must have caught me in a good mood because I slipped the puppet on my hand and gave him a voice. It was completely without intent, just the first thing that popped into my head. My “Piggy voice” is high and childlike and very friendly, and his messages are always loving and comic. The first words Piggy uttered, with accompanying hand motions, were simple: “Hello! My name is Piggy! And I” (here I used my finger to make Piggy’s hand point to himself) “Loooovvvve” (here I used both fingers to make Piggy’s arms cross his chest in a hugging gesture) “You!” (here I used my finger to make Piggy point directly at the children, the ‘you’ very direct and short, sort of rhyming with a surprised “boo!”). Again – none of this was done with any forethought – it just came out.

Piggy making an "I" statement

You’d have thought that angels came down from heaven and were caressing my children’s faces, for the delight that spread over them was nearly ecstatic. They were mesmerized, and completely hooked on this talking pig. They spoke to it directly, as though it were really alive. They treated it as though it were a new puppy. They practically oozed adoration for this ridiculously cheap pink toy. And this reaction seemed to make me have Piggy say more and more.

I gave Piggy a curiosity about the kids’ lives so he would ask them their names, and what they liked to do, and all kinds of questions about every day things (“What is a ‘school’?” he would ask. “What is ‘homework'”, or “Who is this “mom” person you speak of?”). They would answer very matter-of-factly, as though it were the most common thing in the world to be speaking to a stuffed pig.

I started to get a little weirded out by how much they seemed to think this pig was a real creature, so I started injecting some silly humor into it by introducing Piggy to the concept of bacon. He responded with utter horror upon learning that pigs could be eaten. Suddenly, any time Piggy encountered a new person or animal or situation, he would ask if they ate bacon, or ham, or any pork products, and if so, he would shudder and moan. I had much fun in getting the kids to talk about something that would eventually lead to a mention of bacon, so Piggy could exclaim in terror “BACON???!!!!???” and the kids would about fall over themselves trying to assure him that it was okay, he was safe, there’s nothing to fear here. My 11-year-old son, perhaps the biggest bacon eater in town, actually began to lie to the pig and tell him “No, I used to eat bacon but I don’t anymore, I gave it up, really!” I began to be alarmed at how my children were entering into co-dependent relationships with a dollar-store toy.

At some point, Piggy disappeared, and I swear I had nothing to do with it. At first I was sure they had just misplaced him, and that they simply hadn’t searched underneath the other 8,000 stuffies in their bedrooms, either at my place or their mom’s house. But weeks went by, and every search was fruitless. Piggy had vanished.

Eventually I took pity on the kids, and I got down on the floors and looked under beds and couches and in the bottoms of closets and cupboards. I couldn’t find him. I asked if they were sure they’d checked their mom’s house, her car, her backyard – anyplace they could have left it. They said they had. I even went to the dollar store thinking I could just get a replacement Piggy without them knowing, but there were no puppets to be found.

I finally had to call off the search. Piggy was gone.

My kids were inconsolable. They cried real tears and expressed real grief at the loss of this puppet, and I was so alarmed at this that I suddenly became glad the pig was gone, because they were exhibiting such bizarre behavior. These kids had lost toys before, and they had experienced actual loss and sadness and grief that some kids never have to experience, and here they were mourning a bunch of fabric and stuffing and plastic. I thought they’d forget eventually and things would be fine again. But they never really did. The puppet was frequently brought up in conversation, when one of the kids would sadly comment about how they wish they knew what happened to poor Piggy.

We went to the dollar store on December 23rd to find some cheap stocking stuffer items for various family members, and we experienced a Christmas miracle: the puppet bins were back! Dozens of little pink pig puppets available for the taking. You’d have thought the kids hit the Powerball. Spontaneous backflips nearly broke out in the aisle of the Dollar Tree. Cries of joy and delight as a new Piggy was purchased and brought home again.

It was only a day or two before I noticed something: my kids had started to get back to normal a few months after Piggy 1 had vanished, but now that Piggy 2 was in the house, the strange charm was descending on them again, and they were bewitched by the puppet and his high, childlike voice. Yes, it was my voice making it talk, just as it was my hand making it move. But the kids really appeared to believe it was real, that it spoke to them, that it had feelings, that it was truly afraid of bacon-eaters. I swear that puppet had them under a spell.

Strange as it may have been, however, I eventually found that I could use it to my advantage. Now, this is the part where you might think I parted ways with good, sound parenting decisions, but to that I say: don’t judge me. Sometimes, a parent will go to any lengths to get their kids into action.  I’m not saying it’s right, but I am saying that perhaps Piggy has put a spell on me as well. Because if you’d have told me a year ago that I would one day be threatening a toy with physical harm in order to get my kids to follow orders, I’d have said you were crazy.

One day my kids would not get out of bed for school. I tried the usual tactics of being gentle at first, calmly rousing them from sleep and telling them it was time to get up, and when that failed (it usually does), I would get loud and obnoxious, singing or clapping or being annoying in general. This failed also. Then I said if they didn’t get up this minute, there would be no music that morning at breakfast. They didn’t budge.

I then said “If you don’t get out of bed RIGHT NOW, there’s no TV tonight.” This normally does the trick in a heartbeat, my kids loving TV as they do. But to my utter shock, they did not stir. Here I was threatening to take away their beloved television, and still they would not get out of bed. I was stunned – I’d never experienced this before. They’re well-behaved kids, but even at their most stubborn, I’m usually able to get them to do what I ask. But this particular morning, I guess they were extra tired – and extra stubborn.

I looked at the clock, aware that we were running late as it was, and that I didn’t have time to mess around anymore. Then I saw Piggy, lying at the foot of my son’s bed. And without much thought about what I was doing, I picked the puppet up and slipped it on my left hand. With my right hand, I pointed my index finger and cocked my thumb out, in the universal hand-shape of a gun. I put the tip of the index finger –the barrel of the gun– against the side of Piggy’s head, and declared loudly: “IF YOU TWO DO NOT GET OUT OF BED RIGHT THIS SECOND, PIGGY DIES!”

Eyes flew open. Blankets flew up. Kids flew out of bed instantly. They rushed past me and into the hallway, each repeating “we’re up! we’re up!” as they went. Ten seconds later they were downstairs. My jaw hung open in amazement. I looked down, saw that I still held the puppet in one hand and pointed my finger-gun with the other, and lowered both, tossing Piggy back on the bed. I followed them downstairs, stunned at what I’d just seen.

Not a word was mentioned about the hostage situation they’d witnessed upstairs, and breakfast unfolded as usual. The day went on, and that night, we’d all forgotten what happened that morning. The next day, they got up without issue, without hassle, and the day after that was more of the same. But a week or two later, I was again faced with children who would not get out of bed. This time, after ten minutes of coaxing, I remembered my earlier success and thought I’d try it again. I found a butter knife that had been brought upstairs and left on my nightstand for some reason . I grabbed Piggy, put him on my left hand, and with my right hand I held the knife to the puppet’s neck, and entered the bedroom. Piggy’s high-pitched voice called out in fake-terror: “KIDS! KIDS! HELP ME! HE’S A MANIAC! HE’S GONNA KILL ME IF YOU DON’T GET OUT OF BED! PLEASE! GET UP BEFORE HE SLITS MY THROAT! PLEEEAAASSSEE!

Both kids jumped out of bed as though propelled by electric shock, rushed past me and down the stairs. I noticed that neither of them stopped to check on Piggy, or even tried to take them from me. They just got up and ran. And again, nothing was said about the incident, either that morning or later in the day. In fact, they’ve not mentioned it at all. But now they get out of bed when I ask them to.

I am contemplating using a similar approach in getting them to clean their rooms, eat their vegetables, finish their homework… I mean, when you find something that works, you stick with it, right?

I know what you’re thinking. Am I warping them? Doing irrepairable damage to their psyches by staging my little 30-second melodramas? I doubt it. I mean, really – they are emotionally dependent on a cheap little hand puppet. Clearly, the damage was already done years ago.

It Has My Name On It, See?

I have a day job, and lately it has been kicking my ass.

I’m not complaining – I feel very blessed to not only be employed in this economy, but to be working for a good company with great people with whom I actually enjoy spending my days. I am extremely fortunate and I don’t take it for granted. But this last couple weeks, my plate has been piled high with tasks and projects that are making my  head spin.

I had an e-mail exchange with my friend Steve today. I had made a comment about being overwhelmed with work, and he reached out to me to ask if I wanted support. Steve is a beautiful man who has touched my life deeply, and when a day came last year when I thought I was saying “goodbye” to him, I wrote the poem “two crows fly away” that is posted on the Poetry page of this blog. Happily, it was not “goodbye”, only “see you later”. I am grateful for his presence, for his sage counsel, for his loving spirit.

I told Steve that I was okay, and pointed out that I get overwhelmed when I’m getting grandiose and think that I “should” know everything and I “should” be able to handle anything at the very moment it is given to me. It was a great opportunity to remind myself that I don’t know everything, and I don’t have to handle everything at once.

“The overwhelm is just an indicator that I’m trying to take control of everything,” I wrote in reply, “and I need to do a bit of surrender – a bit of letting go.”

Steve’s response was open and, as usual, questioning the various sides of my statement – the light and the dark, you could say. “Letting go,” he wrote, “a difficult thing to do easily, or an easy thing to do with difficulty? Hmmm?”

And as usual, Steve’s comment made me think. One of the things I love about him is that he usually says stuff that makes me pause and consider things in different ways.

“I think it’s the latter” I responded. “An easy thing to do, but made difficult by me.” And it’s true – “letting go” is a fairly easy thing in itself; I’m the one who makes it difficult. 

I was reminded of the story of the man carrying a giant rock on his back, a huge rock that weighs so much that it has made the man bent and crooked from years of hauling it around. The man is just worn down from years carrying the weight of this rock, and he carries it with him everywhere he goes. And one day another man, who has seen him burdened with this massive weight for a long time, approaches the struggling man and says, “Friend, you don’t need to be carrying that rock around – look what it’s doing to you! It’s destroying your body, and wasting your life – think of all the effort you have to put in to lugging it around everywhere! Why don’t you just put it down?” And the man replies, somewhat annoyed, “Because it’s MY rock!”

I’m continually amazed at how long I will hold on to something that doesn’t serve me. Inner peace is available to me any time I should seek it, but it is conditioned upon my willingness to surrender whatever I’m holding on to.