Where had the children gone? Neanderdad looked around the playroom, puzzled. He could have sworn his two young offspring had just been playing there, but the room was childless. An abandoned toy train lay spinning on its side in the corner. Its forlorn whirring was the only sound that filled an otherwise silent room. The dog remained. The beast watched him pensively, its eyes flickering toward the hallway and then back. Neanderdad scratched his shaggy head in bewilderment. The children had gone missing again.
This certainly wasn’t the first time. His children tended to…evaporate…around Neanderdad. One minute they would be there, playing and chattering. The next minute, the children would be missing and he would be in a panic. At the heart of these episodes was a lack of attention. Neanderdad understood that it was his job to be a constant guardian for his offspring, but somehow, he always became distracted. He concluded that he was mismatched constitutionally to the task of constant parental vigilance.
Neanderdad was a hunter like his father, his father’s father and their father’s father’s fathers before them. Hunters must demonstrate brief bursts of hyper focus, for example, when a mammoth charges, or they don’t survive to be a father’s father’s father. But, alas, hunts can be interminably long, and mammoths scarce, so hunters also developed a mechanism for enduring long periods of inactivity and boredom. They withdrew mentally. Short bursts of intense focus and long periods of energy-conserving inattention therefore comprised the dual—and dueling—nature of any good hunter. Unfortunately for Neanderdad, neither trait seemed effective with the children. He lamented that reality as he continued his search.
Things had started out promising that morning. There had been waffles. There had been witty repartee with the little ones over the breakfast table. He had been right there, in the moment, for a good long stretch. But then his propensities had overtaken him. When the children had started chattering together, leaving him out of the conversation, Neanderdad had taken a moment to withdraw to his thinking place and consider a thorny work issue. When he returned from this mental trip, he had looked up to find a vacant, dish-strewn table. He had eventually found his two crumb-covered children in a bedroom, safely playing with plastic building blocks. But that episode gave Neanderdad his first inkling that he might have a problem.
It was the sudden appearance of a hole in a trampoline safety net later in the morning that had confirmed this diagnosis. Neanderdad had been overseeing the bouncing of the children. He had had a moment of…quiet contemplation…to consider what he might do next with them. When he had returned to the here and now and his eyes had once again focused on the trampoline and its young occupants, Neanderdad discerned a giant, gaping hole in the safety net. In fact, the children were happily working to cut the hole still larger with a pair of scissors that had somehow also materialized when Neanderdad was “away”. Thankfully, the girl and her brother weren’t bouncing in the trampoline anymore—just cutting. Neanderdad was momentarily transfixed by the rare feat of teamwork they were displaying, collaborating on destruction. When they looked up and noticed his expasperation, they smiled enthusiastically.
“Daddy, we made a hole so we can see out better,” the girl explained.
Neanderdad had, of course, finally awaken to his failure of supervision and rushed forward to stop them. But the damage was done. All he could do was confiscate the scissors and assess the damage. Neanderdad had then thought to berate the children, but he couldn’t bring himself to be angry with them. It was ultimately his fault. How could he have been staring right at them the whole time and still not seen what they were doing?
After this incident, a chastened Neanderdad had committed himself to greater focus and awareness. He did this by calling on his hyper-vigilant hunting capabilities. Alas, that had not made the children comfortable. Quite the opposite. As Neanderdad intently watched his son pushing his toy recycling truck across the carpet, the boy suddenly noticed that he was being scrutinized and recoiled. He moved away from Neanderdad uncomfortably.
“You’re staring at me, Dad.” The boy opined.
So Neanderdad attempted to modulate his focus. Obviously, he didn’t want to unsettle his children. But calibrating the right level of attentiveness when the kids interest veered into things where he could not directly participate was impossible. So Neanderdad’s mind started once again to stray. He was only drawn back into the children’s world by his daughter’s loud complaint.
“I need attention,” She said, trying to get him to watch her draw and color at her desk. He tried, but art is a slow-developing affair. When he drifted again, she upped her request to “I need extra special attention.” Finally, when he had started to glance out the window, She had grabbed the sides of his head to point his eyes, saying “I need serious, extra special attention.” Neanderdad had complied, but only for a while.
Still on his search for the missing children, Neanderdad now noticed that reviewing the day’s previous activities had caused him to stop and stand, deep in thought, halfway out the doorway to the back yard. Neanderdad confirmed that there were no children there and retreated back into the house. How, he wondered, could he solve the problem of losing attention when even thinking about losing attention was, itself, a loss of attention?
A small sound saved Neanderdad from this unsolvable logic loop. The children, he realized, were in the back bathroom. Neanderdad worried less, at that moment, now that he knew that they had not fled the safety of the house. With dog beside him, Neanderdad went to the bathroom to retrieve the offspring.
Alas, Neanderdad’s reunion with his children was not a sweet one. In his absence, the boy and girl had used crayons to carefully color each and every one of the floor tiles. The normally white tiles were now red and green and blue and brown and yellow; every color except white. As with the net, the children were obliviously proud of their work. The girl looked up at him with a giant smile, then continued coloring a red tile. The boy grinned and pointed proudly with a stubby thumb.
“We made the floor prettier,” he said.
And then, not for the last time that day, Neanderdad’s thoughts overtook his ability to remain in the present.