As These Pass From Routine

My life moves in tides formed from temporary routines that feel, as they settle momentarily, far more permanent than they remain. For a time, the chaos of change will recede in one area or another and I’ll find mild comfort in a regimen. Usually I only have anything approaching a true appreciation for them in retrospect. Here are a few of my favorites, and two from the present, which I actually can identify as they happen.

The Lunch Workout

Working at the City, at that time, was ridiculously easy. The workload was light, the atmosphere was loose and, to sully a term, municipal. I ultimately left that job for the sole reason that it was devoid of challenge and, after three years of what sometimes felt like vacation, I was surprised to find I felt trapped by the lack of pressure.

I guess we made up for the atrophy of our trade skills by joining the gym. When you feel like you have a lot of time, I guess you start to go down that list of things you always said you’d do if you had more of it. I was as surprised as anyone. There were three of us—you know, work buddies. We didn’t interact in a whole lot of social scenarios but we’d spend some amount of time most days chatting idly. It started with the two of them, I’m sure, some kind of mutual whinging about the lack of self-esteem or a sense of slipping health common in early middle aged Americans. Somehow they decided to do something about it, and they joined the local gym. I think they’d only gone a few weeks when they invited me, and I made excuses for a few days before finally trying it out.

Our routine was to break for lunch, hit the gym and then stop and grab something semi-healthy to eat back at our desks. It was supposed to match our granted hour long break we were approved to use, but in practice we regularly found ourselves absent for ninety minutes, sometimes even longer, especially as our circuits became more complex. We did very well at the gym, and we stuck with it using each other as motivators, which meant we lost weight, got stronger, became more athletic. It was hard to keep the workouts short. They became the highlights of the day, and when the office is so dull and dreary it’s easy to justify a few more reps or another five minutes. In between sets we’d shoot the breeze as we spotted each other. Later we began frequenting a different facility that had racquetball courts and the lunch breaks stretched even longer, as it wasn’t even just the joy of doing something positive but now it was a game, spending time with friends.

When I decided to move on, to seek higher salaries and better working environments, I added a commute to my day. I didn’t have in-town gym access during lunch. We tried to keep meeting up. For a while we switched to tennis at night, and that was fun, too. My schedule switched again as I got yet another job. Working nights was hard enough, there wasn’t much energy for workouts anyway. Schedules were hard to sync up. Sometimes this happens with people. Eventually I had to quit the gym. I wasn’t going often enough to justify the expense. Finally we moved away, back toward where my jobs had been for a couple of years at that point and it was looking like hitting the gym with my friends wasn’t going to be a reality any more. I still miss the ease of how those workouts fit into my schedule. I chat occasionally with my friends still, but all of our interactions happen online. I don’t know if either of them still work out. I like to think that at some point I’ll find a way to get focused, regular exercise back into my life, but it’s a challenge. I miss the old routine.

Lightbox Drawing

One of my shorter, happier routines settled in as I was in the process of graduating from trade school. One of the instructors at the school and a couple of students had formed a multimedia production house called The site is long since defunct, the domain registered now to an anonymous squatter, but this was in 1999, and Silicon Valley was in the height of the dotcom boom. I was interning there, basically just squinting my eyes and hoping a lucrative degree would land in my lap. I was less than six months away from getting married and after over a year of practical unemployment as I pursued my education, I really needed a paycheck.

Spotbox didn’t pay me, they could barely keep the lights on as I recall. They were basically a contract design firm who, in their spare time, were being spectacularly creative with what was at the time a very uncharted new medium. I was asked to create tweens: Basically an animator would draw several keyframes of an animation, maybe one of every six to ten frames necessary to create a moving cartoon. The grunt work of animation is the tweens (well, it was before computers took over everything; get off my lawn) where you just draw the transitional images that go between the keyframes. That was me.

What it involves is taking the keyframe drawing, putting it on a box with a diffused glass surface and a light inside. It’s called, naturally, a lightbox. You then place a new sheet of paper on top of the old so some light shines through and you can see the original drawing beneath and then you copy the drawing. Almost. What you actually do is make almost the same drawing only with a slight adjustment toward the next keyframe. Eventually you’re closer to copying the next keyframe and when you’re done, the rapid succession of each image creates the animation.

We did these animations by hand, on paper, and then scanned them into the computer and used a program called Adobe Streamline (now discontinued since the functionality was duplicated as part of Adobe Illustrator CS2) to convert the line art into vector format for coloring in Illustrator. It was a process that probably could have been done more efficiently, but like I said, we were experimental and we were broke. My lightbox was actually homemade out of an old drawer and was really too tall for me to sit at comfortably. I’d come home with deep grooves worn into my arms from resting them heavily on the edges of the box.

For maybe a month I would go to school in the morning, then drive a few blocks over to the Spotbox office which was on the top floor of a disgusting tenement that I can only presume was selected because the rent was practically nothing owing to the fact that there were residential apartments mixed in with the leased office space. Or maybe Spotbox just leased a regular apartment and used it as an office, I don’t know for sure. I don’t recall there being a kitchen, but I spent most of my time in the back of the side room (maybe a bedroom?) hunched over the lightbox while the rest of the people worked nearly 16 hour days on the handful of Macintoshes trying to finish design projects for Apple and Daimler Chrysler so they could pad out the portfolio.

I worked mostly on some of the side projects Spotbox was hoping would eventually become their stock and trade: These were basically webisodes and animated web series before those were actual things. We were using Macromedia Flash 2 for heaven’s sake. We did things like Yo-Yo Ninja Boy (which I did the original design and animations for, although the far more talented Scott Lewis would eventually go back and re-do all my work to make it look, you know, good; my contribution to the project will forever be lost to history which is probably for the best) and some very odd cartoons about drive-thrus.

What stands out to me most about this time was that I was spending my days in the company of creative people just being creative. We’d riff various ideas, someone would start telling a story about how they got inspired by something, maybe a run-in with a waiter or a quip by their toddler that cracked them up. There would be a joke told in response, and we’d all laugh. Then someone would take the idea and add on, doing the “What if instead of this, it was like…” thing until everyone was laughing and throwing around ideas. The sound guy (a fellow named Fred I believe) would stop by and play a riff he’d come up with and you could see the wheels turning in everyone’s head as they tried to come up with where it might fit. There was a lot of, “Hey everyone! Come check this out!” and we’d all huddle over a monitor and see what someone had whipped up. People slept under the tables when deadlines loomed. We talked about books we read or movies we wanted to see and what we would do if we were going to make Star Wars Episode I (before the horrible truth about the prequels was revealed).

Eventually I had to find something that paid. I landed a job building corporate training programs in Flash and announced I was leaving Spotbox the same day they were going to offer me a small wage (I had to turn it down; like I said, I was about to get married). I’ve often wondered if my career might have gone in a different direction if I’d decided to stick with Spotbox, maybe more along the lines I envisioned when I graduated: Commercial art peppered in my off time by creative personal projects until leading eventually to LucasArts or Weta or Pixar. I suppose I’ll never know, but I miss the creative atmosphere.

Regularly Visiting

Early in Nik’s pregnancy she was very sick. Morning sickness was a big concern of hers going in because she loathes feeling nauseated. Sadly for her it turned out to be a valid concern and the first trimester saw her spending an awful lot of time in bed, trying to keep from losing the small amounts of pretzels and buttered noodles she could force down. She was also tired a lot, and while she was going to school and I was working, her class work was mostly manageable during my working hours which were clearly demarcated so we had a lot of shared leisure time.

For several months we mostly just hung out in our room. She watched TV back there, trashy reality shows and re-runs of Friends. Since a lot of the TV she was watching didn’t interest me that much I could have spent the time away from her, doing my own thing in the other room. But I wanted to spend time with her. She was carrying my child, after all. We compromised by having me hang out with her, playing World of Warcraft on my laptop and half-watching whatever show she was engrossed in. We spent countless hours this way: I grinded my way through Azeroth while Nik controlled the remote. I’d show her silly things that were happening in the game; she’d back the TiVo up if I missed anything crazy on the tube.

I don’t think at the time that I recognized the significance of this quiet, low key leisure time we shared. I knew, conceptually, that things would change once the baby arrived but I didn’t have a frame of reference for how long it might be once a child entered the picture before a lazy evening spent in bed would be a possibility again. From the outside it may have seemed like we were in separate worlds, but I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt close to her, comfortable that we were enjoying each others’ company in that way that happily married couples can do with non-interactive diversions like two people reading separate books in the same room. In many ways it’s the pleasure of company itself that fills the need for companionship and interaction isn’t always mandatory.

In the intervening months the time we’ve had to sit in relative silence has been minimal. Stolen moments when Callie is asleep or occupied by someone else feel like opportunities that simply must be taken advantage of with the kinds of interaction we used to take for granted: Adult conversation, chore completion, shared meals, etc. Our together time seems like it is necessarily directly shared because so much of the rest of our lives right now are defined by the divide-and-conquer approach. The rewards that come from caring for our beautiful daughter cannot be overstated, and I’d never trade back down, not even for a second. But still. I miss the contented quiet.

The Cafeteria Breakfast

My normal morning routine goes like this: I’m up sometime between 5:15 and 5:30 am so I can be at the shuttle stop by 6:30. 0500 hours is excessively early for me to begin with but when you factor in a chronically sleepless little baby, that’s a very short window. Because of this I usually sleep on the shuttle as it travels to work. It’s not the most comfortable thing in the world, but sleep comfort is a forgotten luxury anyway so I take what I can get. When the shuttle drops off at work around 7:40 I don’t go straight to my cube and start working. Instead I go to the cafeteria and get a hot breakfast.

Unlike the lunch provided by the on-campus food service, the breakfast menu is reasonably priced and I like almost everything they offer. This gives me a wide variety of options every day and while I don’t often vary too far from the toast/fruit/hot cereal routine, I occasionally select the weekly healthy entree (whole wheat french toast with berries for example, or egg white scramble with spinach and bell peppers on a wheat tortilla perhaps) and I’ve been known to get a croissant instead or get a small scoop of scrambled eggs or yogurt instead of diced fruit. Then I grab a glass of milk and a small mug of coffee (both free) and I find a quiet corner of the typically vacant seating area and sit down to a solitary breakfast.

Sometimes I do a little work on my laptop to get a head start. Often I’ll read the book I carry around as my afternoon shuttle ride entertainment. Occasionally I’ll play a game on my phone or just sit and enjoy some alone time. It’s usually a big breakfast and it takes me until eight o’clock or slightly after to finish, but that’s just fine with me.

I don’t feel lonely eating my breakfast alone in the cafeteria. Mornings to me have always been—when they aren’t being reviled—the domain of quiet introspection. I love the sleepy optimism that accompanies the first part of he day: Most people have yet to find time to get their irritable dispositions into full swing, and the few who have, by choice or by turn of fortune, found themselves up before the bulk of their geographic contemporaries are typically reserved but present a quiet show of solidarity with each other in the form of slow smiles over the brims of steaming coffee mugs.

Maybe it’s the orderly way in which every day starts almost exactly the same that appeals to me. Schedules don’t get disrupted prior to the first appointments. The birds are almost always up before the people. The same parking spots are emptied at homes and the same ones are filled at work at roughly the same time every day. You can’t pinpoint when a day’s plan goes off the rails all the time, but you can be sure that starting tomorrow, you’ll have a second chance to keep it on track again. Or it could be that the weather patterns in the morning always seem a little more welcome. Even blustery, rain-soaked days seem beautiful for a moment when viewed through a kitchen window while the house remains dark and still. You move slower and more carefully to not disturb the family. Mornings contain warm showers and fresh clothes, sleepy good-bye kisses and wishes for happy days. Mornings contain scrambled eggs and cold milk and a few stolen moments to yourself.

Yeah, a lot of people—myself included—like to complain about mornings. But, I’ll miss the chance to relish them.

The Bucket of Toys

I don’t remember, even though it was only a few months ago, how my daughter transitioned into having an actual playtime. When she had crossed out of the newborn stage where she was mostly a drowsy little lump she would lie on her play mat and stare dumbfounded at the crazy lights and repetitive warbling tunes it emitted electronically. At some point she began reaching for the dangling tchochkes and tugging on them and feeling their varied fabric textures. But I don’t recall when she acquired the equivalent of a Toys “R” Us inventory stock or when she began to interact with them on some sort of self-directed schedule.

I suppose it was around the time she began sitting on her own, but I know that even as her collection of distractions was growing I would prop her up and play with her by waving the toys in front of her and acting out silly stories and nonsensical puppet skits, singing songs and giving her little tickles now and then to keep her attention. That, though, was more me playing and her staring at me as if to say, “Dude, lay off the paint thinner.”

But now she plays for real, with her own itinerary and preferential toy du jour. She pushes the buttons on her electronic whizbangs of her own accord, claps along to the warbling tunes and laughs when she amuses herself with something.

Most evenings when I get home from work she’s just gotten up from her final nap of the day and there’s a bit of time before Nik or I needs to start dinner. So I put down my stuff, kiss my wife hello and chat for a moment and then I crawl down on the floor and watch my little girl play with her big bucket of toys. Sometimes I’ll build little towers of the soft blocks and colorful plastic whatnots for her to knock over. Now and then I’ll encourage her to push different buttons on her battery-operated toys to relieve her mother and I of a tiny bit of the mind-numbing repetition. When her interest wanes I may roll a ball back and forth between us. But often I’m simply a casual observer of her own discovery, reading her board books out loud to her while she busies herself with some trinket or another, clapping along with her, or just providing her with a dad-shaped jungle gym to pull up on, climb over and cover with well-intentioned slobber.

I know that eventually my role will be more active in playtime. I’m already starting to recite colors of the objects she chooses to stick in her mouth. I sing along with the counting songs and make the few sign language motions that I know which represent the lyrics or the toys she’s reaching for. I’m here to guide, to prevent egregious accidents, to provide some educational context, to be a presence for whatever she may need. It’s not the most thrilling thing in the world. Soon enough her and I can sing together, enjoy more complex games of roughhouse or hide-and-seek or tea parties or dollhouses. For now, it’s a simple time of letting go a little bit and watching the way she discovers life. It may not be the most daring or exotic way to end a day, but it’s one of my favorite parts. And I’ll miss the wonder.

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