Family on the lawn

HOW would you do nothing about something? Lying out on the front lawn on a warm August night, looking up at the dark sky, does seem like doing very little. We were not doing much, the kids and I. We were waiting for something. Something to happen in the sky. A shooting star. More specifically a meteor, ''entering the atmosphere of the earth from outer space at very great speed and thus made white-hot and visible by friction with the air,'' according to Webster. The evening news had said there would be ''meteor showers'' - a chance to see as many as 150 in one minute.

So there we were. Nathan, Kjersti, and I. Waiting much longer than a minute, making small talk, but essentially doing nothing. We had a fresh bed sheet to lie on, along with an unzipped sleeping bag to put over us as the night air cooled down.

Nathan, who is an inquisitive nine-year-old, was expounding on all he knew about the beginning of the universe. ''It broke away from something. The earth did. And then it cooled off.'' Kjersti, an unassuming six-year-old, was asking whether or not her friend Becky would still be awake at this hour. I, a pensive 35-year-old, was commenting on how nice it would be if we were at the cabin in the Sierra, an elevation of 9,000 feet. ''Couldn't we see the stars easily then?'' I said. ''Just imagine it.''

Just then, there was a sharp, needlelike streak of bright light crossing over the pine tree, trailing off toward the roof of the house. ''Did you see that?'' Nathan burst out. ''Yes! Yes! I saw it!'' I said. ''Wasn't that something?''

''What thing?'' Kjersti said.

After verbose attempts to describe what a shooting star looked like, Nathan and I settled back down to view the cosmos. As quick as a thought, another scratch of light appeared and faded. ''There's another one!'' Nathan said. ''Yes! Look at that!'' I said.

''Look at what?'' Kjersti said.

As the night wore on and we waited to tell their mother what we saw, there were three more bright scintillations of light. Kjersti never saw any of them. She was seriously observing other things: the stray dog across the street, or the jogger going by. Still, her observations meant just as much to her. As Nathan and I would begin to cogitate and theorize on astronomical phenomena, Kjersti would construct the story of the jogger's life, or improvise on the enjoyments of a wandering dog.

''Probably he's exercising to lose weight and join the Army. Don't you think, Daddy?'' ''Yes,'' I would reply between explications of Einstein's theory of relativity. ''That dog probably ate dinner at the taco place on the corner and is looking for his friends to chase a cat with.''

Suddenly I realized that all of us were thoroughly enjoying doing nothing on the front lawn. For this nothing was actually something. We were all busy working our imaginations, creativity, and recollections about related knowledge. As Piaget, the famous child behaviorist, would say, we were busy ''actively structuring reflective thinking.''

When their mother came home and asked what we were doing out on the front lawn, Nathan and I conveyed the thrill of seeing a shooting star and how we had discussed ideas of creation, infinity, beauty, and eternity. We likened our excitement to waiting for a whale to breach, or something similar to a vast expanse of space, calm and still, suddenly interrupted by an awe-inspiring sight , etc., etc., with continuing romantic metaphors.

''That must have been something,'' Mother said.

''Aw, it was nothing much,'' Kjersti said. And she picked up her pillow and walked sleepily into the house while a shooting star pointed the way over her head. Her voice trailed off into the house explaining to her mother how dogs lead a very exciting life after their owners go to sleep.

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