A day off at the joy factory


Thinking back on my daughter’s first Christmas, there was a hint of disappointment in me. 

We all know children account for a majority of the fun at Christmas as we get to sit back and watch their wide-eyed excitement over everything ­– both great and small – related to the season.

But my lack of foresight taught me on that first Christmas that a four-month-old really could care less about presents. Seeing her laugh or smile at the bright lights was about the extent of the hype. 

Since that first Christmas I was cautiously optimistic each year until she hit fifth gear on the holiday season. That happened at about four, and we have not slowed down since.

As Elizabeth and I contemplated this year how to wow the nine-yearold and the three-year-old in our lives, we came to the conclusion that we had never considered a swing set.

I say swing set and some of you say “great idea,” some whisper “don’t do it” in a desperate, knowing plea, and still others sit up and say, “oh, I’m sure this is going to be good.”

A swing set is not Legos or a talking doll. Those can be given from the couch, no tools required. A swing set is an adult commitment like a bicycle used to be before all the stores got smart and began offering to put them together for us.

A swing set sounds good, but makes you sit around for days thinking about all the reasons you really might not want to go through with it.

My oldest memory thinking my dad was mad at me was when he was putting together my swing set. He growled, yelled at long metal poles, let a few expletives slip and I was sure it was my fault that my new source of happiness had possibly sucked out all of his.   

So I suspected that the swing set building battle would be one of anger, irritation and a potentially spirit-breaking experience. Then there’s the idea that not only is your house full of things, now your yard is as well. It would mean more things to repair, to potentially move, to replace. 

And only three months ago my daughter broke her arm – jumping off a swing set. 

So, I hit “purchase” and moments later had an e-mail congratulating me and telling me my swing set was on the way. 

As I waited for delivery, I got a number of e-mails offering me help putting it together. These were not from friends, but from the company that sold it to me. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.

I’m no handyman, but I built a doghouse, repaired a toilet, sort of put down laminate flooring and built and rebuilt a wide variety of IKEA furniture. I was ready.

I did mental battle with the unopened box leaned on the wall next to the front door for a few days. I’d say to myself, “the box isn’t that big, how hard could it be?” The box would laugh.

The plan was to put it together on a Friday before the kids were home that evening and surprise them with it so it could be enjoyed through the holiday break. To be ready for the worst, I set aside an entire day. 

After two cups of coffee I dragged the box into the yard, dropped it and opened it, pieces falling out everywhere.

The weather was nice, so I had that going for me. The instructions seemed clear, and I was determined to have a calm, fun experience.

Not bragging, but I only had to backtrack three times. You know there’s always these subtle differences in pieces that generally seem exactly the same and interchangeable. That one hole is on the wrong side, or that one pole is an inch longer than the rest, and it is always for a critical reason. It is like that bookshelf you put together and had to decide if it was worth taking the bottom piece off because the unfinished side was facing forward. You know you did that.

So yeah, I mixed up a few poles, a brace or two, and contemplated how useful the sunshade would truly be as I wanted to stop fighting with it, but I kept focus and four hours later I sat back in a chair and said “now that’s a good swing set.”

It was honestly the first time I ever took a day off for something besides a family emergency or specific plans to be out of town. I wondered why it had always been so hard to put work aside to do something that I knew would bring so much joy.

The joy for those now climbing all over it is more than enough reason to make it all worthwhile and cause me to recognize what a little effort can do to make your loved ones feel loved. I get how my dad overcame the frustration with years of watching me enjoy the fruits of his day of struggle. I’m looking forward to years of the same out my window.

I’m no engineer or craftsman, but after this experience I can imagine looking for more ways to build a little joy for the most important people in my life.