Nothing Rhymes with Orange Julius

The great American indoor mall is a lumbering architectural dinosaur. An unwieldy beast that has been hit by the meteor that is the Internet and is slowly becoming an amber-encased fossil of a simpler (but decidedly less convenient) era.

As a kid, malls enchanted me. As an adult, I still find them enchanting but also oddly melancholy. My happy boyhood memories of visiting Capital City Mall with my mom, combined with so many of them falling into disrepair in the 21st century, has given malls a nostalgic, warmly faded appeal for me.

Maybe that’s why Starcourt Mall from Stranger Things was such a cultural touchpoint. It’s a vividly remembered place that feels frozen in the 1990s, and is being lost to the ravages — and renovations — of time. Extinction feels imminent.

But luckily for my nostalgic self, malls do still exist. And due to the quarantine era, as well as our increasingly online shopping habits, my young children have somehow never knowingly been inside an indoor mall. (Our 6-year-old son did go with us a few times when he was too young to remember.)

So on Friday after work, since the wind was too jagged to take the kids outside, I followed a random impulse and took them to the Capital City Mall, that relic of my childhood, for a field trip of sorts. I didn’t want to buy anything; I just wanted to give them a new sensory experience.

I didn’t know what Greyson and Violet would think or whether the trip would be a dud. But it was a delight. Largely because the kids are so naturally filled with delight.

The most delightful part is that they were so content with the mere experience, they didn’t once ask me to buy them anything. Even when we walked past the toy section of Macy’s and saw shelves full of items branded with Peppa Pig, a show they enjoy for some reason that lies somewhere beyond the realm of my adult understanding.

Their lack of consumerist greed made my fatherly heart swell with pride. On the drive over, I had given them my usual talk (“Do we need to buy more stuff?” “No.” “Right! And why not?” “Because we have plenty of stuff already!”) and it sure seemed to pay off. I like to think my grandparents, who sadly never got to meet Greyson or Violet, would have been proud.

As we strolled down the mall’s central corridor, I had my 6-year-old son read the names of each store aloud and I told the kids what items that store sold. I mumbled something about gifts when we shuffled quickly past Spencer’s. The kids and I both made note of the disproportionate number of stores that sold shoes (a whopping 7 I think) as well as candles (do we really need 2 in the same mall?). They didn’t ask what it was that Victoria was keeping Secret, which I appreciated.

Strangely enough, the thing that exhilarated my kids the most was the sight of every bench or cushioned chair in the middle of the mall walkway. Each time they saw a sitting area, they ran over to clamber onto the benches and conjure up some pretend scenario in their minds.

They have both been oddly obsessed with furniture lately, and they wanted to know if the mall had beds and dressers and ovens and refrigerators like a house does. I explained to them that no one lives or sleeps at the mall. Although when we did see one bed in Macy’s right before we left, they were pretty thrilled. (They’re easily thrilled, which is one of their most endearing qualities.)

I walked them through the food court and explained what kind of food was sold by each tiny restaurant. They were intrigued by the sign for the shut-down Saladworks being reversed, and I told them that most people must not want to eat salad when they go to the mall. Violet was still talking about that backward sign after we got home. You never know what will make an impression.

When we got to Dick’s Sporting Goods, I called an audible and decided to give the kids a whirlwind sports education. So I did my best to explain each sport, demonstrating the use of a baseball glove and a lacrosse stick, and letting them hold each kind of ball. Then at the putting green, the kids grabbed $80 putters and each of them 13-putted from 6 feet away. So it would appear Tiger Woods and Jordan Speith don’t need to watch their backs quite yet.

During our entire mall visit, at this mecca (or former mecca) of consumerism, I spent a grand total of $1.00. And it wasn’t even for something the kids asked for. I saw those vibrating chairs they have in the middle of the mall, near the cell phone case kiosks. And I couldn’t resist letting Greyson and Violet take a ride.

So I had them snuggle up next to each other on one of the chairs. I built up the suspense a little. I watched their eyes get wide with excitement. I inserted a dollar bill.

And I watched with pleasure as they experienced a 3-minute back massage. (Which was really a head massage for Violet because she’s so short.) “It feels bumpity!” she cried giddily. Truly a dollar well spent.

Once we returned to our starting point, they joyously ran circles around the open, blandly empty carpeted area where Santa sets up shop every December. Just ran and ran. Because again, it simply doesn’t take much to make them happy. And that is one of the happiest, simplest joys of my life.

So I would like to say to the fading malls of America: Thanks for the memories. From 1985 to 2023, you’ve given me an enchanting indoor escape. Back in the days when wide-eyed little Jeremy held his mom’s hand. And now in the days when I hold the tiny hands of my own wide-eyed wonders.

Because just like the kids happily plinking and plonking their golf ball all the way around that little putting green until it finally dropped into the hole…

Everything comes full circle.

The Improv Comedy Troupe in My Backpack

Every day I’ve gone to work for the past few years, I’ve had stowaways in my backpack.

One day it’s a duck and a tiger. The next day it’s a pelican and a giraffe. Yesterday it was a lynx and a unicorn. A different odd couple each morning.

Stuffed animals, stuffed into my backpack with love by my animal-loving children.

At first, it was just one animal, selected by my then-3-year-old boy. Then when my little girl got a little older, she joined in the fun. Ever since, it’s been a pair of animals each day, marching 2 by 2 into their Jansport ark. Kind of like in the story of Noah, but without all the catastrophic flash flooding and wanton obliteration of humanity. (Which is good because my morning commute is challenging enough as it is.)

When my bird-loving Greyson first started sending a stuffed bird with me each morning, I used it simply as a desk mascot. I would set the meadowlark or mockingbird near my keyboard as a little morale boost, so that I would have a reminder of my little boy all day long.

Then one day, I decided to make a video on my lunch break. I took the stuffed animal into an empty classroom of the law school where I work, gave it a goofy little voice (nothing remotely Pixar-caliber, I assure you), and used my iPhone to film the animal conveying a message to the kids. Probably something about missing them, and hoping they were being good for Mama, and telling them about helping me at work. Then I texted it to my wife to show both kids (including Violet, who was 1).

Well, let’s just say it went over quite well. The kids were tickled. And as a result, I have made videos for Greyson and Violet almost every work day for several years.

Some days I do it out of playful joy, and some days I do it out of sheer, wearying contractual obligation. I just can’t bear to endure the disappointed looks on my kids’ faces if I miss a day.

I’ve come to realize that my ability to spark a good idea for these videos on a given week is a kind of bellwether for my mental health. When I am up, when I feel myself, I easily think of all sorts of goofy and creative premises for my little stuffed animal sketches.

I’ve filmed the animals on benches, behind blinds, up in trees, stacked on top of each other, and in various nooks and crannies around campus. I’ve had the animals write messages on a whiteboard with dry erase markers. I’ve used my water bottle as a prop in multiple different ways. I’ve done an Abbott and Costello style routine.

But when I am down, when I don’t feel myself, it takes all my mental power to conjure up an idea for a sketch. And that idea is usually a blah, recycled one. My improv skills are thwarted by a deadening mental block, so the video is slapdash and uninspired.

At least it’s uninspired in my eyes. The kids never seem to notice or judge these gradations in my performance. They are the most generous audience any sketch comedy troupe, stuffed or human, has ever performed for. They smile or laugh at just about any cheesy, strained joke I put into my videos. When I get home from work and ask them about it, they regale me with a wide-eyed plot synopsis of what happened in that day’s sketch.

Their appreciation is a beautiful, pristine thing. Even when my mental health is not.

And so I will keep churning out a video each day, even on the days when I have no ideas left. Because those videos, clever or not, inspired or not, are the lifeline connecting me to my kids in the middle of every workday.

Reminding me of why I go to work. Reminding me of the simple value of creativity. Reminding me to not take myself too seriously.

And hopefully reminding my kids how deeply they’re loved.

After all, I feel self-conscious and sometimes downright ridiculous when I improvise a goofy conversation between a stuffed cat and a stuffed cardinal. And I am not inclined to make myself feel self-conscious for just anyone.

But for those two beautiful, beaming, bright-eyed children?

Sign me up for improv.

A World of Pure Imagination

What do a mossy boulder, a messy minivan, and a massive (or miniature) jungle gym have in common?

Each of them is transformed, in the eyes of my young children, into something magical. Each is a blank canvas they can exuberantly fill with the vivid scribblings of their imaginations. Each is a relatively small space that expands in their wide-eyed perception to become its own world worth inhabiting, furnishing, and exploring. Sometimes even for an hour or more.

(Oh and also, the world they imagine is usually a house. I guess they just really like houses.)

What this means for me as a dad is that all I have to do to create a magical experience for my kids is to plop them in the minivan and drive them to a playground or to the boulder-strewn Appalachian Trail near our house.

Or if I want to save on gas now and then, I don’t even need to put the key in the ignition. They will sometimes directly ask me, “Can we play in the minivan?” So I just open the side doors and let them climb around inside, creating their own tiny world. The kingdom of Sienna, if you will.

The backseat of a minivan, the contours of a boulder, or the chutes and ladders of a jungle gym. For a child, these are mere portals to whichever corner of the multiverse they feel like visiting on a given day.

My kids are still just 6 and 4, so to some extent their sprawling imagination is simply a feature of their God-given software. Children are born hard-wired with the marvelous ability to transport themselves to envisioned worlds. In that way (and in many other ways), they’re way cooler than most adults.

My sense is that most kids gradually lose that imaginative instinct as they slowly morph into teenagers. But I like to think the decision by my wife and me to consistently limit their screen time will help our kids hold onto that curiosity and wonder for as long as possible.

For years, and even during the pandemic when I worked from home and we were all piled on top of each other, we were unwavering in keeping them to 20-30 total minutes of TV a day. Now it’s more like 40-60 minutes, which includes our post-dinner family viewing of Bluey or Max and Ruby or part of a nature documentary.

(Or sometimes a face-melting Caspian concert video since, as every good adolescent psychologist will tell you, rock music is crucial for proper cognitive development.)

The kids also don’t play with iPads or cell phones, other than to read tracklists and view album covers (“Can I see the picture?”) on Apple Music when we listen to music together.

I suspect this minimal screen exposure has helped to preserve the dynamic clarity of their imaginations. Our kids improvise freewheeling poems and stories, without an ounce of self-consciousness, that blow us away with their unencumbered creative sprawl. They are natural storytellers who are always crafting little narratives together and on their own.

I like to think their instinct for world-building would impress Peter Jackson and James Cameron. Well, Jackson at least. Cameron seems like he’d be pretty hard to impress.

It gives me great joy to hear their expressive little voices in the next room as they regale each other with wild (and sometimes nonsensical) scenarios. They’re like a 2-person improv group that takes whatever props are available, usually stuffed animals or little plastic pieces of furniture, and enacts goofy sketches for an audience of 4, or even 2. (Sometimes even 1 if their sibling isn’t around.)

I’m grateful to be an audience for their improv theatrics, often through eavesdropping from the next room so I don’t impinge on the spontaneity of the proceedings.

It’s a beautiful thing to behold. And it reminds me of a peculiar fellow named Willard Wilbur (better known as “Willy”), who once sang:

Come with me, and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination

I am deeply fortunate that as a parent, I live adjacent to that world. Sometimes the adult world starts to seem bleak or untethered, which has happened more times than I can count since my first child was born in 2016. (What a wearying 7-year stretch in American history, am I right?)

When I grow weary or bleary-eyed, I find it comforting to eavesdrop on, or escape into, that “world of pure imagination” which my kids can so instinctively conjure up.

A world as pure as their untainted hope.

As pure as their sweet innocence.

As pure as imagination itself.