Monday, October 08, 2012

The Eyes Have It

I once spoke to a crowd of over 5000 college students.

I was in attendance at a conference in Anaheim, CA as a representative of the university I was employed by at the time. The conference was for community and junior college students, the leaders on their respective campuses, to try and see what four-year institutions they might want to transfer to once their time was up at their current school. As a co-sponsor for the conference, our university was to be given 5 minutes to speak to the crowd, and to "pitch" our school to them. I was certain that my boss, who was traveling with me, was going to stand behind the podium and speak while I just stood to the side smiling, like the people at awards shows who stand there awkwardly to usher the recipients on and off the stage.

The morning of our presentation, he asked me if I wanted to speak in his stead. I don't recall much of what happened next, although I apparently said "yes" since I spent the rest of the morning writing out notes, slightly freaking out, and rushing down to the gift shop in the hotel to purchase a tie.

I once spoke to a crowd of over 5000 college students.

You can ask me what I said to them, and I can tell you I genuinely have no clue. You can ask me how it felt to speak to a crowd that large, and again, I can tell you that I genuinely have no clue. The subject, the terror, the sound of 5000 people applauding you as you take the stage - these are all white noise moments in my memory. I know they're there, but they're indistinguishable and vague.

What I do recall? The faces. The eyes. The looks of people close to me on the first few rows, people in the balcony, people standing in the wings of the stage.

Mainly because this was in 1999, and I didn't own a cell phone yet.

Now that I have done the unthinkable and spent three separate trips away from Kai in the past six months, I've come to appreciate the ways in which we play together. Although Ashley will say I am guilty of this as well, far too many times I have seen parents out and about with their kids - at the park, the zoo, the museum - and their face is buried in their phone and not watching their child. Granted, I do at times get sucked in to my Twitter feed when I should be doing something else, but for the most part, I put my phone away when I'm out with Kai - unless he's doing something amazing and I have to get a picture of it.

These times when I've been away from him conferencing it up, meeting people in real life that I've wanted to for some time, and making new friends that I still text with on a moderately daily basis, I will admit: my phone has been my closest friend. I've been able to check up on Kai, be all social-media-savvy by texting and Tweeting as things happen, and do everything else one isn't supposed to be able to do with a phone. And it's been great, since it gave me a sense of connection to the events that were happening.

Coming home, I've had to recondition myself to put the darn thing down and not erupt in some kind of Pavlovian response pattern every time it buzzes from the adjoining room where I left it. And it's not because I don't want to be involved in the discussions happening online or that I don't have anything to contribute.

It's because of Kai's eyes.

I can sit in his room and build all kinds of Lego constructions worthy of Norse songs. We can go outside and kick his soccer ball for hours. We can color, cut things up, and put on a parade, but it doesn't feel like we've connected until he sees me looking at him. Eye contact. Not talking or playing at each other but with one other. It's when he sees me fully investing my time into him and being fully present with him that he just gets this crazy big grin all across his face. It's real to him. We're not just rolling cars to one another: we're driving them. We're not just playing with actions figures: we are defending our house and Maggie against the forces of evil. We're not multitasking: we are investing.

That's what I remember about speaking to 5000 college students. That's what I remember about sitting on the steps of an office building eating lunch from a food truck. That's what I remember about how I am supposed to talk with and interact with people before my social muscles began to atrophy as a result of being a stay-at-home dad.

It's the eyes.

'Eye' photo (c) 2009, Luis Antonio Rodríguez Ochoa - license:
Computer characters or icons are great, and can and DO lead to meaningful friendships. But when I'm with someone - especially after having been physically gone for some time - I need to be emotionally, mentally, and simply focused on them when I am right there beside them and close to being in their personal space.

They need to see me focusing on them as much as I need to see their eyes reflecting the knowledge that nothing is as important to me as they are at that moment.

Unless Kai and I are needed because Loki escaped again. Then you can just check my Twitter feed to see where all the battle has taken us.


Ed_Cyzewski said...

Great post! i'd write more but ethan is crying now!

Sonny Lemmons said...

HA! I'd write more, but Kai is starting to wake up from his nap now... :)

Katie Axelson said...

The other day my roommate asked me, hypothetically, if I'd speak in front of 4,000 college students. I said yes, but not tomorrow. If "not tomorrow" turns into "later today," I'm calling you for pointers. :)

Sonny Lemmons said...

I might even give you a few. DOUBTFUL, but I might. You might catch me on one of my "be nice" days. ;)

Katie Axelson said...

Your generosity never ceases to amaze me. ;)