It (Sometimes) Helps to Follow the Directions

Backyard camping

When something needs to be assembled, my dad always has a plan: Read the directions -- all of them -- first.

I also have a plan: Look at a picture of the finished product on the outside of the box, and try to work backwards.

Our different philosophies make it difficult to work together.

Dad: Did you save the directions?

Me: Nah, I'll just look them up online or look at the pictures.

Dad: It really helps to read the directions.

Me: Overrated.

Recently it's become clear to me that I've rubbed off on my oldest son, Ford. Ford is very analytical, like his dad, but he's also impatient, like me. Directions are a barrier to getting things done wrong the first time. Interestingly, however, Ford likes to make his own instructions. When he's playing a made-up game with kids in the neighborhood, it takes him about 20 minutes to explain the rules, 2 minutes for everyone to get bored and leave, and 1 minute for Ford to come up with a new made-up game with 4,000 instructions.

In other words, Ford can make the rules, but he can't always follow them.

These were the ingredients for a bad situation after I bought the boys a tent for camping. When it was time to do a practice set-up in the backyard, Ford and I were the only ones available to do it. Who would read the directions?

I heard my dad's wise words in my head: "It really helps to read the directions." Or maybe he was actually saying this, because he was a few feet away, working on his own project with directions.

I instinctively knew that putting together a tent might prove difficult, and I wanted to set a good example for Ford. So I got out the directions. Ford unpacked the box and starting unwrapping poles while I read. "What's this?" he asked, and "Where does this thing go?"

"Hold on," I told him. "We have to read the directions first."

I knew what Ford was thinking: Why read the directions when we can study the photograph on the front of the box, the one with the happy family roasting marshmallows outside their easily constructed tent.

"How are the directions, Mom?" Ford asked.

"I don't even understand these words."

"Are you reading the English version?"


Luckily, the instruction booklet included pictures, which was helpful due to the words not making any sense. Granted, the pictures didn't make much sense either, but they were a start. The black ink drawing of a nondescript hand unfolding and connecting the tent's poles made it look deceptively easy: "Oh, if we just twist our hand this way, and follow the two arrows pointing in opposite directions, we will end up with something that looks like the next picture, which is a completed tent."

Now I remembered why I often don't bother with directions. Even as I followed each step and pored over the black-and-white drawings, I still didn't have a clue what I was doing. We put the poles in the wrong sleeve. We clipped the fabric to the poles too early. We hammered the side stakes before the corner ones. We couldn't zip the front door closed.

Alas, less than an hour later, we had a finished tent. Ford and I stood back and admired it.

"Why did you build it on that hill?" Dad said as he walked past.

I looked at Ford. The directions had not said anything about not building the tent on an incline. We pulled out the stakes and carried the tent above our heads to a new, flatter section of the grass.

Later that night, as I lay on the slippery nylon fabric and listened to my boys make inappropriate noises with their armpits, I thought about the happy family roasting marshmallows on the front of the box: Same tent, same directions, two very different outcomes. The happy family's dog half-panted, half-smiled next to the fire. Our dog slept crosswise over all three sleeping bags. The happy family's son grinned as he carefully put his marshmallow over the flame. My sons made jokes about the tent "pooping out" a boy every time someone came in or out of the zippered door. The happy family's mother looked rested and organized. I stared up at the tent's ceiling, and after realizing I'd basically just put myself in an enclosed net with my three boys, thought, "camping kind of stinks."

This wasn't in those drawings.

But then Sparky fell asleep with his chin on Ford's arm. Owen went to sleep staring at the stars through the screen. Lindell hugged my hand to his cheek and snored into his pillow. A breeze blew through the tent. A dog barked in the distance.

It wasn't in the instructions, but I realized that maybe we had just created a memory, which was really quite perfect.

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