Digging through a pile of junk on my shelf this week, I uncovered an old phone and its charger. Curiosity got the best of me, so I plugged it in and fired it up. The only thing of value that I could find—apart from a still-working version of Angry Birds—was the photo gallery. I took a sweet stroll down Memory Lane, to the days of my daughter’s first swimming lessons and my son’s toddlerhood. It was all very dreamy, and I am sure I had a little grin on my face the entire time. But it was when I came across an image that turned out to be a video that the experience transformed from a nice little moment to the gleeful highlight of the day.
Picture the scene: I am shooting the video from the middle of the street at the bottom of our sloped driveway on a chilly day in late Spring. My daughter is at the top of the driveway doing sidewalk chalk, but this video is all about the little guy next to her, who is about to take off on his Big Wheel. Not even three years old at that time, his bright yellow, sheep-covered helmet dominates his head and barely rises into view above the handlebars. As he pushes off the ground with his feet and raises them high and wide into the air as though in invisible stirrups, I start commentary as though he is Lightning McQueen from the “Cars” movie. Then as he gathers speed down the hill, he lays his head all the way back and looks up to the sky. Immediately he begins to careen off-course, and I holler, “AAAARRRGH! WATCH OUT, BUDDY!!!” Then it is laughter as he turns at the last possible second and empties out into the street by me and sets down his feet for brakes. With a look of sheer delight on his face, he looks up at me and shouts in this squeaky-yet-hoarse toddler voice, “DID YOU SEE ME, DADDY? DID YOU SEE ME? Hee hee! I’m do it again!” And the video ends with him climbing off the Big Wheel and beginning to turn it around for another plunge.
Eighteen seconds. That’s all it was. And while I was no doubt beaming the whole time I watched, near the end, when I heard that little voice—that little, squeaky voice that I had totally forgotten and that sounds nothing like his 6-year-old, big boy voice—my joy totally overflowed. It floated me through the day. Even just thinking about that sound now has me grinning ear-to-ear. About a month ago, my wife found an even older video of my daughter at that age, “helping” my then-infant son to eat some baby food. I can still hear her little, high-pitched voice—again, totally forgotten until the video surfaced, because it is nothing like today’s 8-year-old voice—saying, “Do you LIKE it? Is it GOOOOOD?” There is something about seeing them at that age and hearing those squeaky little voices that triggers an instant and unstoppable smile on my face. It’s like magic. Bottled JOY.
With those squeaky voices and free smiles fresh in my mind, I started thinking: How can I get some more of that? What else in my life—whether from an experience I need to seek out or simply from the memory of past experiences—is an automatic smile-maker? What thoughts, tastes, sights, smells, people, places, and memories are that powerful? I am not talking about things that are great about my life or that I should be grateful for—a fulfilling career or awesome family or wonderful health or financial security, stuff like that—but rather things that tickle me, that probably make me giggle a little bit when I smile, that totally lighten my load in an instant. It’s a high standard.
Okay, so here we go for my first crack at my personal Insta-Smile List:
- My son’s eyes. He has a magical mix of wild glee with a bit of mischief that gets me almost every time (I have to be Serious Dad when the mischief part goes too far). He cannot keep a straight face for anything, and I can’t either when I look at him.
- A tennis court lit up at night in a park. Always a romantic image in my mind. I can’t explain it.
- A picture of my Grandma Jeanne. The sweetness in her eyes.
- The mention of my Grandpa Hermie. Legend.
- The sound of my daughter playing piano in our play room. It isn’t even that she is any good at it yet, but I just love the sound of someone playing the piano in my house. I smile every time!
- Watching my kids run across the street to get the neighbor kids to play. This is so nostalgic for me. I had thought that this went out of style in this modern age when everyone is so wary of other people and less social. But lately my kids have done this more and more. I can’t refuse—or stop grinning—when my son says, “Can I go knock on Caleb’s door?” Something about watching them walk over there just pulls me back to the joy of my youth. It fills me.
- The smell of banana bread.
- Little kids talking to themselves. I am telling you, take any chance you can get to do some close-up surveillance on a toddler playing alone with toys. Not only are they just irresistibly adorable, but the dialogue between all of the imaginary characters is absolutely hilarious. I wish I had shot a lot more video of my kids playing like this when they were younger, because it would surely keep me giggling through my old age. Being with my three-year-old niece last weekend, I could have just followed her around all weekend and smiled continuously while listening to her commentary.
- Watching kids jump off the dock into the lake. Pure joy, for them and for me.
- Watching people dancing.
- Swimming underwater with goggles. It’s a challenge for me to keep water out of my mouth because my natural reaction is to smile when I am down there. The most peaceful place on Earth.
- The thought of my old friend Jon. Even 25 years later, I can’t think of him without a laugh and a smile.
- Sledding. I challenge you to keep from smiling!
- Skiing fast down a long, groomed run. Ditto.
- The sound of a stranger farting in a public place. Sorry, I really am a child.
- The first piano notes of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” If you have ever seen the movie “Almost Famous,” you will remember the scene on the bus with this song. It is a beautiful piece of filmmaking in one of my all-time favorite movies. Really, there are so many moments in this movie that are automatic smiles for me. It is one of the rare ones that basically tickles me all the way through.
- Robert Downey Jr. Honestly, I can’t look at this guy without a little giggle. He got me started in “Johnny Be Good” about 30 years ago, then absolutely killed it in “Home for the Holidays,” another one of my favorites. He just has that look in his eye that he is about to say or do something that will make himself laugh. Come to think of it, this is what it is about looking into my son’s eyes. It is irresistibly goofy.
Okay, so that’s my list! For now. It has been so much fun to think about, I will probably linger on the topic for a few more days, see if I can double my list. It is like smile therapy, truly. I can’t explain how uplifting this has been to work on. It has reminded me how important it is to not only revisit my most ticklish subjects, but to carry with me the kind of spirit that will let me make new ones. Smiles and laughs, I am open for business!
How about you? What in your world guarantees to draw a big, toothy grin out of you? Open up your journal and start your Insta-Smile List. I know I ask you every week to make the effort to write this stuff down, but I really, really mean it this week. This topic was a total delight to work on, and my cheeks are getting sore from smiling so much. Do yourself a big favor and make the time to really dig out a full list for yourself. You will not regret it. Which ones come immediately to mind? Why do you think they are so obvious? Does it happen frequently with these short-listers, or just memorably? Are the things on your list more memories, sensory experiences (e.g. the smell of banana bread, the sight of a lit tennis court), or things you need to experience in real time (e.g. sledding, dancing, swimming underwater)? Which of your happy thoughts are tied to nostalgia, whether directly from joyful memories or indirectly from sensory cues (maybe banana bread is tied to Grandma) or things that you still like that you liked as a kid? Who are the people in your life that trigger a laugh and a smile even just thinking about them? Does identifying them make you want to spend more time with them or make you think they are extra-special, or are they just a different kind of special but not any more valuable? What could you do differently in your life to have more of the experiences on your list? What could you do differently to create more new Insta-Smile experiences? This is a fun exercise, right? Which ones on your list are your most favorite? Which are you going to do today? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes you smile every time?
P.S. If this lightened your load a little, please share it. A smile is a gift worth giving. Cheers!