I’ve been a cynic for most of my life, and that part of my personality has not been a terribly positive attribute. I have a conflict of conscience buying in to things like sappy movies, hometown pride, and team spirit. They all seem like manufactured reasons to express feelings. Parades are confusing to me, too. I’ve been in them, I’ve watched them. I don’t get them. They’re a socially acceptable candy distribution event outside of Halloween, but other than that, there’s just no reason. It’s like the town is saying, “Hey, look at all this stuff! There’s a marching band! Some horses! A firetruck! WOW! Seriously, sit down on this blanket. Don’t move a muscle, we’ll bring it past you slowly. Now, don’t you feel something?”
Yes. Regret for coming to this parade.
Now let me clarify that I am not a monster.
I say that, knowing full well that when someone says “I am not a monster”, it’s because they are, in fact, a monster. But here’s some proof:
- I love my wife and children more than anything on the planet and they can make me smile on my worst day.
- I get a little misty-eyed when I hear Willie Nelson’s version of The Rainbow Connection because it was the first song I played for LB in the hospital the day he was born.
- I didn’t sleep well for a week after reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
I won’t spoil that last one for you, but it’s a bleak story about a father and his son trying to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s terrifying and wonderful.
In short, I’m open with my feelings, but I’m selective with my sentimentality.
And that’s why Build-A-Bear Workshop was a trial by fire.
On a trip to Minneapolis, our family spent some time at the Mall of America, where my old-manitude was on high alert. We had eaten lunch, and were strolling through the promenade when the “sentimentality for sale” alarms suddenly went off. It was a Build-A-Bear Workshop. My son, who is two, was drawn inside like a moth to a flame. The moment we crossed the threshold, a young female employee sprang like a commerce-ninja from behind a display of teddy bear accessories, “Hi! I’m Megghan, can I help you pick out some bears today?!” Megghan was far more caffeinated than I was – always a warning sign of an impending retail transaction. My internal response was, “you just settle down there, Rainbow Brite. We’re browsing.”, but what came out of my mouth was, “uh, yea, a bear? Sure.”
Megghan was probably in her early 20’s, wearing a backpack which resembled a teddy bear. I found myself wondering what was in the backpack. Was it additional, smaller teddy bears? Was it her lunch? Was it something profoundly unrelated to teddy bears, like her Master’s thesis on the correlation between poor dental health and the occurrence of bacterial infections in joint replacement recipients? Or was it… empty? A reminder that we’re all carrying tiny, empty teddy bears on our backs just to maintain appearances.
With gusto, she pointed us in the direction of the most popular (and, by happy coincidence, the sale-priced) bears. My inner-voice cleared it’s throat, folded it’s arms and said, “Sure, the bear is on sale, but I know this racket. You’re going to invoke your Build-A-Bear Sales Associate University training (I made this up, it may or may not be a real thing) to try to up-sell us into a tuxedo or an ‘Official NFL Licensed helmet and uniform’ for this discounted bear.” My outer-voice listened intently, offering nothing more than nods and smiles as Megghan showed my son a bear made from camouflaged fur (we were, after all, in the upper midwest).
LB was as giddy as a kid in a candy store in which the candy is TEDDY BEARS, and we were getting close to Megghan sealing the deal on an unstuffed bear husk. The cynic in me wanted to explain to my child that these empty bears were manufactured in a far off land, by children not much older than he – but since Build-A-Bear Workshop prides itself on ethical practices in its supply chain (through the International Council of Toy Industries), I would have been lying to him for the sake of my own cynicism.
And I realized that.
It was at that point that I chose to absorb the moment. I watched my wife smiling and laughing as she helped LB pick out his new stuffed buddy. He picked a beagle and gave the thin, floppy form a big hug. Megghan got down on LB’s level to explain how he was going to fill his dog with stuffing – part of that process was giving him a heart. I immediately thought of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, which made me think of Willie Nelson singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which triggered my throat tightening and my eyes leaking a bit. The “heart ceremony” was very real to my little boy, and it was one of the first times I’ve seen him give something notable reverence. I swallowed my cynicism deeper.
Next, LB was given a very important job. Megghan instructed him to step on a pedal to fill his puppy with soft fluffing. You can see how serious he approached this task. In his mind, he wasn’t buying something, he was making a friend. By the time we chose a name for LB’s new pal and walked out with him (in a cool cardboard “pet carrier”), I was no longer analyzing this as some +40 year old jerk, looking to ruin everything innocent and joyful in the world. I was just daddy. My buddy experienced something really cool, and I was fortunate enough to be a part of it.