I left the house in a mood that stank of rancid vinegar. Our ensuing move to Zurich was looming and I was already late to a lunch date. The mid-August day in The Hague did nothing to offer me solace; the dank, smothering gray reminded me that cold and humid can be just as bad as hot and humid.
On the street, people were moving in slow motion in front of me. I had to weave and wend through a sidewalk littered with children toddling blindly around their abandoned strollers, storekeepers chatting with patrons, and, of course, bicycles. Bicycles everywhere. Some were there, rusted and askew, almost apologizing, “it’ll only be a second, I swear”, while others, proud and shiny, were sneering at me, “you better walk around, biped”. I could either sidestep and squeeze through the rows of bikes on the sidewalk or walk on the street and risk getting run over by one. I chose to squeeze through, but carefully, because in the Netherlands knocking over one means you’re picking up at least six. That fact pissed me off even more.
I got through the worst of it and told myself that I’d kick over the next one that was so inconsiderately parked in my path.
I saw one. Well, three.
A quick inhale followed the pleasant spurt of adrenaline that pulsed through my body. Fifteen years ago I would have done it. Fifteen years ago I would have kicked the shit out of those bikes and probably thrown them. The guilt and remorse in me that quickly supplants rage in these types of situations would have coerced me to pick them up too, but I would have acted on my impulse and released the unbridled ire.
One nice thing, I suppose, about being a balanced adult is that your frontal lobe is developed enough to suppress the primal surge of anger and bottle it up for future use. A stockroom full of bottled anger can be very damaging, though, so I try to let my toxic feelings evanesce by fantasizing about what I woulda done. Yes, this keeps my emotions brooding on the surface, but it does keep me out of jail and from causing myself bodily harm.
The bike tumbles over and over down the sidewalk; the chain comes loose and the bell clanks helplessly. I stand over the defeated bike; I hear a pathetic rhythmic creak as the tire rubs against the brake housing, the front wheel wobbling as it winds down, slowly succumbing to its final rotational death throes…
All of this in grainy black and white in my head with the sound of a projector wheel underneath the soundtrack of carnival sounds and laughing children. It was then, ironically, that the sound of a laughing child distracted me and brought everything back into color and reality.
A high-pitched squeal of what can only be described as unadulterated joy started to loosen my knot of anger. I looked up and focused my eyes, I saw a man. Tweed jacket, jeans and casual leather shoes. I reckoned he was not the source of the squeal, though he was talking to something on the ground.
On a wooden balance bike was a three-year-oldish boy. His platinum blond hair wound tight in perfect ringlets except on the right side where it was a bit disheveled from his mid-morning nap. Here in the Netherlands even the kids speak Dutch, and the little boy was explaining to the man something wonderful. Both his diminutive hands were pointing at the sky up above his head, he garbled something and smiled big exposing a smattering of stumpy teeth.
I saw all of this in a matter of three paces. And in those three paces, my bike-kicking fantasy faded away. All I could see was that little boy in all of his innocence and joy. His large and clear hazel eyes shot from his dad to me. His gaze locked on mine.
Kids tend to stare at me. They always have. I noticed this a while back and now when a kid stares at me, I stare right back. Sometimes I make a funny face, sometimes I cross my eyes, but I always control the stare because I am the adult and I don’t lose to kids.
Yet, this was different. This little human was controlling me. I had succumb to the whims of a three year old. I was helpless, vulnerable and slightly terrified.
It’s as if he knew the grumpy stranger approaching him could use a little pick-me-up. All the while during the stare, he took his right hand that was still pointing upwards and opened up all of his chubby little fingers. He was calling for a high-five. I’m American; so (like Pavlov’s dogs) I saw his open hand and reflex, conditioning, subconscious, autopilot, whatever you want to call it, kicked in and did the rest.
I swooped down and gave the little guy a high-five with a loudly whispered “Alright!” to boot. With that, I was released from the child’s spell. Immediately, a rush of blood went to my head as I realized what I had just done and pondered if the Dutch were OK with strangers touching their children. Another squeal and a man’s laugh quelled my fear of being struck with a balance bike. I smiled.
A warm, soft and very sweaty high-five from a child pulled the plug on my pool of anger. I forgot why I was upset earlier. I didn’t care. I was about to wipe my hand on my leg but I stopped myself and just looked at my hand. I could feel my hand start to dry despite the damp, cold weather, but my happiness remained. As I stood there, I thought that perhaps it was the sweat that caused my sudden upturn in mood. Of course it wasn’t, though. It was the connection. It was the reminder that attitude is everything, and, yes, it can rub off on other people. It was the reminder that even though kids eat dirt, run into things and are never completely dry, they have much to teach us. And it was the reminder that you can’t sweat the small stuff, but when the small stuff sweats you, high-five it. You’ll be glad you did.
[image courtesy of alakaskids.com]