A Walk Under Bare Branches

Not long ago, the four of us took an unfamiliar walk together. Up a dirt road, through the trees and the sound of wind and water, we walked through the light drizzle of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The air that touched only our faces and fingers was colder than the girls had ever felt. They jumped in the puddles and stomped down the remaining snow and my wife and I held hands. It was wonderful and foreign. The smiles beneath our red cheeks was the only story that needed to be told.

The unfamiliar has a way of reminding us of beauty that might otherwise go unnoticed. We take for granted that which we see every day. Until, of course, we don’t see it every day. I try very hard to appreciate all that is around me, but on that cold morning, a thousand miles from home, it was the barren branches that reminded me how full life really is.

The dormancy of winter is part of the natural cycle. Perhaps it’s an ending. Perhaps it’s just the beginning, though. Soon after the snow melts away the leaves return and grow vibrant and green. Summer comes and life is full. The air turns cooler again and the leaves age, gaining character and depth in their oranges and reds and yellows. Then they fade and fall. What once was the abundance of life quietly blends into the floor below and infuses the soil with the energy to start the process all over again.

Beginning, middle and end. But not really. The beginnings and endings are only reserved for the leaves themselves. Each one of them individual, experiencing the tree and then the forest in their own way. To the leaves, there is no such thing as before and no such thing as after. But each one of them is simply part of the circle. And to the circle, there are only middles.

I think it’s easy to get caught up in just being a leaf. It’s hard to see past the other leaves on the branch and to understand our relationship to everything that we can’t see. It is, indeed, a big forest. Without knowing what was here before us or what will be after, our perspective becomes limited. The little bud that turns into a brilliant green and then a comfortable orange can feel so finite even in its beauty. And then when another leaf on our branch separates and falls away we can sometimes only see the suffering of the end of that leaf, and sometimes only our own.

What is comforting is to know that it is bigger than that. All the leaves will fall and they will all feed the forest. They were all once beautiful and then they were gone. And that’s okay. They are still beautiful, now just in a different way. They may not be what they once were, but they are still part of the forest.

It was a beautiful walk that day not long ago. We were surrounded by trees without any leaves at all. I will always try to remember the sound of the wind whipping through the bare branches just waking up, ready to continue the cycle with new leaves. It was nice to think about the leaves beneath our feet, the ones beneath the mud and snow, and how they are still there, only now in different form. It was nice to be reminded that they will always be there.

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On Unpreparedness

Feeling unprepared is a pretty big part of parenthood. In a way, it’s kind of a theme. You might have thought every imaginable angle through and considered all the hypotheticals, but you’re never really prepared in the true sense of the word until that new thing actually happens and you have to deal with it. Before all the stages and milestones and beginnings arrive you really don’t have a clue how you’re going to react.

Hearing my daughter say “I don’t want my sister to die” falls into that category for me.

Things are a bit heavy around here right now. There are a lot of changes going on, a lot of things to face, not the least of which is the fact that our dog – their sister, as we have always called her – is dying.

I sat with my furriest daughter for a few minutes before I left this morning. We talked about the simple stuff and I rubbed her belly. I thanked her for all of this and left it at that. I didn’t want to give her the heaviness that was on top of me. In my head were thoughts of finality and impermanence and just how different things are going to be in the next days and weeks. I didn’t want all of that to come out of my head and hands and land on her, though. It was, of course, just an exercise in comforting myself. Thoughts manifest themselves in energy. She knows that as well as I do. Probably better.

When I got in the car I heard Carole King being interviewed on NPR and it took me back to when I was a kid, before I did adult stuff like contemplating death and listening to NPR. I remember listening to “It’s Too Late” riding in the car with my mom and singing along to a chorus that I had no way of processing. I knew nothing of romantic love, let alone the saturation that comes with the end of such love. But I could feel something in that song. Without any context with which to frame what I was feeling, I always focused on the line “something inside has died and I can’t hide” and that song became my own adolescent contemplation on death itself. Symbolism, evidently, had yet to occur to me. Or maybe it had.

Hearing that song today and King talking about it didn’t bring on the same equivocal sadness that I felt when I was a kid. I have reference points now and my own experiences to inform my emotional reaction to the song and, specifically, that line. Now it just flashes me back to riding alongside Mom in the Honda and then to some of my own relevant relationships. Hearing it today also got me thinking about my girls and how they must be feeling as they process their own contemplations on death.

We found out Jasmine was sick a few months ago and there have been many conversations with the girls to follow. But now things are moving quickly and they can see her deteriorating. The talk last night was about how it would most likely end. The disease itself won’t take her – it will probably need to be a conscious choice to let her suffering stop. And as much as we try to frame that in a way that can be digested by these two young minds, there is no getting around our hand in it and the pinpointing of the moment that we are coming to.

That was when Rainbow Pony said she didn’t want her sister to die. And that was a moment I was wholly unprepared for, despite the many hours that all of this has circled my mind.

Being prepared in the sense of having an answer or correct canned response would have been wrong, though. We humans have no answers to these things that would explain away the difficulty. We’re not supposed to have answers, just like the song that I so completely misunderstood when I was young talked about in regards to failing love. The answer is to just experience it, to sit with it and to let it become a part of you.

“Something inside has died and I can’t hide and I just can’t fake it”

So, in the face of something we could have never prepared for, we did the best we could do. We didn’t hide. We sat on the kitchen floor, all five of us and we hugged and pet our dog and we let it be what it is. The girls have no way of wrapping their heads around this and that’s okay. They don’t need to. They just need to experience it, as we all do, and to know their parents are there to hold them and love them and experience it with them.

I know I’m not prepared for the next thing that will happen either. And that’s okay, too, because I know I’m not supposed to be.

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The Boy Scouts and My Gay Coach

All of this kerfuffle about whether or not the Boy Scouts should allow homosexuals into their group has me thinking of an old friend. I’m not sure I should really call him a friend as I haven’t spoken to him in more than twenty years, but that’s how I think of him. I guess he was more of a mentor or a teacher, considering how much I learned from him. Today I think of him as someone who helped me to become the person that I grew to be. But back then I just thought of him as Coach.

I played football in high school. Not very well, mind you, but I played. I played with the awareness and understanding of an average teen age boy, which is to say I really didn’t get it. I did play well enough, though, to be expected to be one of the leaders of the team.MERINO

One of our assistant coaches was a man named Chuck Merino, a local police officer and prominent Boy Scout leader in the area. Coach Merino was popular with the players, but not because he was easy on us. He was popular because he treated us with respect, so we respected him. He treated us like the men we thought ourselves to be. He pushed us and demanded from us more than we knew we had.

My clearest memory of Coach was from my senior season. At the end of every practice we ran “gassers”, a seemingly endless number of ten-yard sprints, each set off by a whistle blast just seconds after the last one had finished. I would hear his voice behind me, yelling that I should be finishing first every time. Don’t run with the pack. If you want to lead then you have to lead from the front. Don’t be content to just finish, finish strong. Work harder than everyone else.

It was the kind of growl from coaches you become accustomed to in football. It’s part of the culture and a sound that permeates every practice field. His growl seemed to carry extra weight with me, though.

One day, his voice ringing inside my helmet after finishing one repetition, I looked up at him with what must have been surrender in my eyes. He came in close and quietly said “you have more to give than you know”. I lined up for another sprint and felt his hand grab the tail of my jersey. I turned to see why he had grabbed me and he just pointed down the field. He wanted me to drag him.

For the rest of the season, I dragged Coach Merino up and down the field during our end-of-the-day conditioning. We didn’t ever really talk about it, but I knew what he was trying to teach me. If you want to be great, you have to be willing to sacrifice more of yourself than you think you can. In life, hard work will get you everywhere.

To this day, I feel his hand on my jersey all the time. I’ve been dragging him around for years now.

More than a year after my senior season, Coach Merino was all over the news. He had been kicked out of Scouts for publicly saying he was gay. He sued and initially won, though that ruling was overturned. He appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before his case was ultimately dismissed.

I was still very much a naïve kid when all of this happened. Coach was the first gay person I had known, or at least the first one I had known was gay, even though none of us ever knew about his sexual orientation when we played for him. I was probably guilty of making homophobic comments back then, but I don’t remember ever really having strong feelings that way. I followed the crowd, the way so many compliant young boys do. To me gays were weird and different because they were not part of the world in which I lived. Since the only thing I knew about gay people was what I was told, those negative stereotypes became my reality. I didn’t know any better and had yet to gain the capacity to decide for myself.

I couldn’t fully contemplate the gravity of an organization such as the Boy Scouts indoctrinating discrimination into millions of young minds or grasp the absurdity of classifying someone as dangerous because of the kind of genitalia they found attractive. I had not realized how ridiculous the idea was that gay people will inherently impose gayness onto any impressionable young minds with which they come into contact. I had not come to know yet that gay people were exactly like me except for one tiny biological difference.

I didn’t understand that someone could be gay and still teach me how to be a better, more successful human being, as if those two things are even remotely relatable. I didn’t, that is, until I learned that Coach Merino was gay.

I’m a grown man now and I have learned all of these things. Coach Merino was the beginning and a huge part of that education, but it has been sustained by many years and many more amazing people. I am embarrassed for the leaders of the Boy Scouts, but I don’t begrudge them their right to make up any asinine or archaic rules they see fit. After all, they are a private group and this is a free country.

boy-scouts-gay-banThough, it’s good to see the Boy Scouts’ ignorance on full display. My hope is that their leaders will see the ludicrousness of their position and choose to change it. If not, I hope the parents of the boys involved with this group will stand up for what they know is right and withdraw their participation. The Boy Scouts certainly do teach some valuable things, but hatred, fear and discrimination are not among them.

I also hope that Coach Merino, wherever he is, is proud of how he stood up for what he knew was right. It’s precisely that kind of courage and character that the Boy Scouts claim to value. And that is exactly what I learned, both on the field and off, from this man that they claimed was not worthy of representing their organization.

I am forever grateful to Chuck Merino for what he taught me. And I am proud to have called him Coach.

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And, in the Backseat, You Will Receive Total Consciousness

This parenting gig is about as predictable as a speed dating event sponsored by Ambien and Wild Turkey.

But, there are a few guarantees. You will say things that you would never think would come out of your mouth. Your children will do things that you could never imagine a functioning primate would ever do. You will at some point decide you are too tired to change the channel or your underwear. The first three rows will get wet.

And the inside of your car will, at least at times, look like a garbage truck collided with a toy store built over a toxic waste dump.

Count on it.

Not mine, but I do love that they secured it with a Club.

Not mine, but I do love that they secured it with a Club.

Being the primary shuttle for my daughters, my car has found itself polluted more than a couple of times. I’m never sure how it happens, exactly. When my car has been clean in the past it usually starts with some doll joining us on a ride to the store. From there, it all rolls downhill. On the next trip maybe a coloring book is brought along. Perhaps a little jewelry for another. An afternoon with multiple stops may find a snack box, a couple more books and a microphone added to the mix. Once the 17 pieces of art per kid per day from school are thrown on top, my car starts to look like an episode of Hoarders.

Of course, nobody (including me, I must admit) would ever think to take back into the house that which was shoveled into the car on any given day. That would be too easy. I’m not sure that trashing my car hasn’t become an addiction for my girls on par with obsessive/compulsive disorder. I think I may need to look a little bit more closely at the possibility that those first dolls are some sort of vehicular accompaniment gateway drug.

I’m considering an intervention. Maybe one for me, too. I wonder if they have group rates for those things.

A few days ago, when I was having trouble seeing out of the windshield from behind a small mountain of doll clothes, rice puffs and crafty detritus glued to construction paper, I thought perhaps it was time to clean the car out. The girls and I dragged two laundry baskets, a trash can and a recycling bin out to the driveway, affixed spelunking lights to haz-mat suits and went to work.

They got into it. Stuff was flying out faster than I could organize it into the proper receptacle and from inside the car I could hear shouts of discovery and, occasionally, pain. They worked hard, but lost interest a bit before we could actually see the floor boards. I picked up the slack and, by the time the car was empty, we had nearly filled all 4 containers (a feat made more impressive – and difficult to admit – when you consider the trash can was one of those 32 gallon jobs from the hardware store). I broke out the Shop Vac (don’t tell me I’m not suburban) and pulled up enough sand to start our own Bedouin off-shoot tribe. A rag and some industrial, though environmentally friendly, cleaner (also, don’t tell me I’m not conscientiously suburban) and the ol’ car had an inner sparkle that she hasn’t seen since the car seats were facing backwards.

I’m not gonna lie – it felt good getting a sense of order back into the car. It also felt good as a few mysteries that have been plaguing us for some time found resolution, such as “How is it that we have 12 single, unmatched shoes in the shoe bins?”

The next day, Bug and I loaded into my revitalized chariot to run out together and in the air hung this uncharacteristic silence for the first several minutes. Finally, she said “I like riding in your car when it’s clean, Daddy. I can just sit here without thinking about anything.”

Taken at face value, it might seem a little off putting that she went blank slate on me like that. Once I was convinced, though, that all the right cylinders were still firing in my little girl’s noggin, it occurred to me just how cool and powerful that statement really was.

My car was so clean the damn thing had actually become meditative. The clear mind that I covet and actively work towards she achieved by being strapped into a newly vacuumed Jeep. The simple act of removing half their toys, 17,648 hair clips, three quarters of a pound of cashews, 112 books and a ream of paper (and that was just from the floor of one side of the backseat) provided her the distraction free environment that enabled a deeply quiet moment. And this is not a little person who permits a whole lot of deeply quiet moments, I assure you.

In the days since, the trend has continued – and spread to her sister. I even checked the rearview mirror twice on the drive to school today just to make sure they were still in the car. The calm that has been injected into our car rides has been startling. I think I can now safely add to the list of parenthood guarantees: “Silence will become a cause for concern when maintained too long without the assurance that one or both of your kids are trying to get away with something.”

We all have loved the effect the peaceful cleanliness has had on us and we will be continuing to try a little harder to keep the car neat. It won’t be as easy as it sounds, though, as it took the three of us two trips to get all of the masterpieces they made at school just yesterday.

It’s been a good lesson and one I have been learning during an ongoing effort to minimize the stuff that we surround ourselves with inside the house, too: A lack of clutter begets clarity and clarity begets peace. Now, if I can just keep a tight rein on the gateway dolls.

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A Post About Saying Thank You

It was one of those moments. The kind where you knew why it was important. The kind that counterbalances darkness and sadness and apathy. The kind that doesn’t surprise you when it comes because its approach is deliberate, inevitable as endings tend to be, and you had seen each step. Each significant, resonant step had brought you along, showing you the way and reminding you that you might not think you know shit now, but you will. Follow me and you will. So you did and maybe you still don’t know shit, but you know more. And you became comfortable with the whole shit-knowing paradox.

The more I know, the more I know I don’t know. Or something like that.

You weren’t sure of when the last step would be, but you knew it would come. And you knew you would be ready, but also, you wouldn’t.

And then, when it did come, you cried because each of those steps along the journey to that moment that took years to reach ran through you. You got to see each one again and live it and feel it and remember why so many of those steps felt wrong and ached. You got to see again that they ached because lessons do if they are good ones and then they give way to clarity. If there is one thing that parenthood often lacks, it’s clarity. But it is fat with good lessons.

You cried, too, because you were standing in front of this person who gave you clarity and acceptance and permission to be imperfect and you were trying to somehow verbalize that you knew what they had done for you. One sentence to convey the mass of gratitude that you felt because you knew that was all you would be able to get out before your voice collapsed under the weight of demonstrative sincerity. You barely even got that sentence out.

In that moment, trembling words and tears and all, there was a part of you wishing your girls were just a little bit older so as to be able to know this moment with you. Not that they needed to conjure some poignant speech of their own or even cry (though, they are genetically predisposed to do so), but just to know that this all happened. For the connection. For the lesson. For the memory. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be, though. What you learned was beyond their grasp and wasn’t theirs to learn, not until they are parents themselves. It was for you. It was for you for them, you know?

And now the moment has passed and you get to sit with it, watching all of those years leading to it stack up in your mind as you write. You may wonder where you would be without that friend, but you never need to know. The universe doesn’t work that way. Not always do you know what you’re ready for or who the people are that you need, but sometimes – sometimes – those answers rush in at the same time. If you’re paying attention, you just might get to experience another one of those moments.

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Digging Down to Perfection

Laying on the love seat behind me, her breathing sounds as it always does this time of night. It is slow and rhythmic and loud, punctuated by bursts and snorts. Her paws twitch a little and her lips curl at whatever it is that dogs dream about. There on that grungy old love seat that has over the years become exclusively hers, Jaz sleeps as I write. This has become our late night thing. Sometimes, when a sentence won’t do what I’m asking of it, I’ll read it to her and sometimes she’ll even wake up to listen. She may not be the most attentive editor, but I always know she’s there. Tonight I am letting her just sleep and keeping my words to myself. She looks – and sounds – too comfortable to bother. She sounds peaceful and content. Really, you wouldn’t know that anything is wrong with her.

A few months ago we found out that Jaz is sick. We were told then that she had maybe four months left, but for a dog with only one month to go on her sentence, she’s doing very well. So much so that she almost ran down a man on a bike not long ago. Cancer or not, she doesn’t cotton to men on bikes with their hoods up riding past her house. I would imagine he didn’t think she only has one month to go.

Despite most appearances though, she’s showing signs of waning. She tires easily and she limps on her cancer-ridden front shoulder. And she has a way of looking at us now, one that I try not to humanize with description of emotions with which we can identify, but one that is different than it once was. We’re watching her begin to fade.

And all of that leaves me raw and open. In the face of fundamental, natural change I walk with sadness and appreciation and reflection. I know that what is coming is going to be hard and that the graduality of it is some inherent way of preparing us – and her – for what is to be. Life has a way of holding your hand like that.

With this I am also reminded that the beauty of life is not what is simply beautiful on the surface. Real beauty digs down and sometimes is uncomfortable. It is perfect in its imperfections. That which brings us to a new level of understanding of and connection to all that is around us is sometimes the struggle that dances beneath a pretty and illusory exterior.

Last spring, for Rainbow Pony’s fourth birthday, we got her a butterfly garden kit. It was a simple cage in which you put a milkweed plant laden with butterfly eggs. The eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the plant, spin into a chrysalis and transform themselves into a butterfly, all within the confines of the cage. It’s a relatively unobtrusive way to capture the rhythms of nature. Life presented for easy human consumption.

Our encapsulated milkweed plant, we quickly discovered, was so heavy with eggs that the resultant caterpillars would have eaten through it before they were all properly nourished. So, we got more plants, took the first plant out of the cage and turned our screened porch into one gigantic caterpillar zoo. It wasn’t long before fattened caterpillars were scaling the walls, windows and everything else in the room, searching for the perfect spot to begin their metamorphosis. In the end, we counted more than thirty pupae.

The whole process was fascinating to watch so closely. The image I had in my head before we began was one of grace and delicacy. I pictured a fluid transformation devoid of the inelegance that seems to plague our human existence. After all, this was nature and nature was perfect.

What we saw, though, was the primal and imperfect struggle that life is. The caterpillars would anchor themselves prior to their pupation with diligence, as if they knew the fight they had ahead of them. Once hanging securely, its skin would split at the head and the caterpillar would convulse and whip itself around violently in order to shed this now unnecessary shell. Most survived the process, but some didn’t. Some broke their anchor and fell helplessly down. Some seemed to succumb to the struggle itself and stopped moving, dying where they hung. It looked agonizing from my human perspective.

This is a video of the process I managed to catch on our porch.

The emergence of the butterfly was no less wrenching. After more than a week, the pupa would tear at a seam and a wet and mashed butterfly would begin to make its way out. Once free, it would hang by its feet and slowly beat its wings to dry and expand them. Some wings stuck together, never to open fully. Some were misshapen or asymmetrical. Some fell. Some seemed to just be too weak to even try.IMG_2464

Most caterpillars made it to the pupal stage. A little more than half of the pupae emerged as butterflies and flew away. I picked up a lot of butterflies that never made it out of our porch. Nature, it seemed, was far less than perfect.

But, just like the mistake of humanizing my dog’s emotions as she ends her journey or attaching the human concept of pain to the metamorphosis of a butterfly, the idea of perfection is a limiting and flawed human construct. Life in all forms and in all stages is perfect in its own way just as it is a struggle in many ways. Perhaps it is the struggle that makes it perfect. Perhaps the word “perfect” in the natural world is incongruous with the word “flawless”.

We try so hard to separate ourselves from struggle and from death that the concepts themselves have become synonymous with imperfection in our culture. These things are difficult, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t perfect.

As I write this, Jas is still breathing loudly behind me. She is also dying. Right now. Slowly, but surely. Maybe she does feel some of the same sadness we feel with the impending loss of a member of our family. Maybe she knows what is happening to her and feels a peace with it that we don’t understand because she hasn’t been socialized to disassociate herself with death.  Maybe the butterflies that fought through that process we were privileged enough to watch didn’t feel the agony that I attached to it, but a visceral elation that we have numbed out with all of our hopes and expectations.

Perfection is a tricky thing and prone to interpretation. I think I once imagined perfection to reside beyond pain and struggle and loss. What I have come to understand is that it is woven so tightly into all of it that perceptual judgments cease to exist.  All that is in our natural world is perfect – all of the struggles, all of the triumphs, all of the beginnings and all of the endings.

Perfection is the beauty that lies underneath the obvious. It is the beauty of not just the elegant butterfly or the healthy, vibrant dog or the colorful flower, but of the whole of each of those things. It is the struggle and the journey that makes it beautiful. And that is the perfection I want to know.

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On Memories and Murals

It feels like it was a cool fall morning, but considering that it was Southern California, it may have been any time of year. Dad and I drove out to the edge of East County, where suburbia gives way to rolling brown hillsides of chaparral. Just off the freeway, in a community of widely spaced houses and unnecessarily gridded streets, we met some of his friends from college and some of their sons at a grassless baseball field. We were there to dig out the pitcher’s mound. I had, and still have, no idea why.

And then, like now, I didn’t care why we were digging out a pitcher’s mound nearly an hour from our house. I was going to spend the day with my dad – that was what mattered. That is what I remember.

I think of that day often for some reason. Removing a hard packed pile of dirt from a field on which I, nor anyone else I know, ever played anything doesn’t seem like something that would really stick with me, but that day has.

I find it interesting the memories that hold on and the ones that fade away and I wonder what the mechanism is driving all of that. I’m sure there is some neurological explanation that would answer a lot but amount to little. Deeper than electrical pulses and sulci, though, I think some memories, like that day with Dad, hang around because they represent more than what is on the surface. Memories are the artwork of our lives, broad murals perhaps, where the painter chooses otherwise mundane moments with deeper meaning to illustrate emotion and connection hidden behind the details.

The details of that day seem clear nearly thirty years later. We drove out in Dad’s rust-colored ’54 Chevy pick-up with a 3-speed H-shifter on the column, bouncing down the freeway much slower than everyone else. It was overcast. Dad worked hard, as he always did – and does – doing more than his share of the digging. I only knew one of the other men, Mr. Damschen, an old football teammate of Dad’s from college. He was an imposing man and I kept looking at the stretch marks on his chest that extended up from his armpits and wondering just how much bigger he must have been at one time to have scars like that. I liked Mr. Damschen – he always treated me with kindness and respect, like all of Dad’s friends did because that’s how Dad treated me. I liked how dirty we got and I liked how the men talked like there weren’t any kids around. We stopped by 7-11 on the way home and got Big Gulps.

Memory is a funny thing, though. As much as I attribute each of those details to that day, I won’t be surprised to hear from Dad that my recollections aren’t entirely accurate. I’m sure Mr. Damschen was there, outside of that it’s possible I’m stringing together any number of other similar experiences. All of those things did happen, but when I think carefully about it I’m not sure if they all happened that day.

Whether those memories are accurate to that day or not really doesn’t matter. What matters is that those things are part of the grand, beautiful mural that is my life with my dad. That is who he is, who we are, and what we’ve done. Riding in his truck. Working hard and getting dirty. Talking as equals. Sharing simple moments and Big Gulps. And all of it draped in love and kindness and respect.

If I had the opportunity to go back to that day to see exactly what did happen, to correct any errors in my memory, I wouldn’t think it necessary. Whether or not my memory of digging up a pitcher’s mound with my father is photographically accurate makes no difference to me. It is truthful and real in that those things happened at some point or another, maybe on a day that isn’t so vividly painted into my brain. So, why would I want to edit it? What value would changing any of it hold?

Lately I have been feeling a strong pull towards minimizing stuff – possessions, things, shit accumulated over nearly forty years of living. I’ve been putting a lot of thought and energy into this and I’m finding it valuable to do. I want to shed myself of the physical, to allow my energy to be uncluttered. To be clear, I am not trying to rid myself of the past, rather I am embracing where the past has brought me and focusing on now.

Lots of the things I have been sorting through went away without a thought, like speakers that haven’t produced sound in a decade. Some took a little more reflection on the goal of downsizing material possessions, like books I’ve already read but deeply loved. Most recently on this path I was faced with a much more emotional challenge, though – sorting through thousands of old photographs.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how many I would be able to part with. Isn’t it pictures that you are supposed to grab right after the kids if there is a fire? Aren’t pictures supposed to be forever or something? It didn’t seem right somehow to even consider throwing any away.

Sifting through years and years of pictures was fun, too, which would seem almost a reason in itself to save this bit of life from the great purge going on around here. Those were pictures of a lot of really good times. Laughing faces in ridiculous clothes doing ridiculous things. As I made my way through the piles, though, I found that I already have with me all that I need. All of those people who laughed with me through all of that ridiculousness are all with me, just like Dad and that pitcher’s mound. Pictures or not, the people – and their part of the mural – are all there.

I will qualify that the pictures I have from my childhood were already pretty minimal and were largely spared (plus, Mom and Dad have a ton of them). Similarly, the pictures – thousands of them – of my life with my wife and the lives of my own kids’ are digital and weren’t part of this exercise as they don’t take up any physical space. The pictures of which I am speaking come from what can be called the Epoch of Grand Irresponsibility, comprising my late teens to my late twenties. It was a wonderful moment in time, to be sure, but not one that needed to be photographically recorded to the extent in which it was. After all, you never know who might decide to run for office someday (though, certainly not me).

Don’t misunderstand, those people with whom I caravanned through this glorious and silly time are infinitely important to my life. They, like my family, are my life. But, pictures of those moments don’t make that any more or less true. Another shot of us arm in arm does not make their presence in my very being any more significant and the absence of that same picture doesn’t make their presence any less so.

I am who I am because of an infinite number of moments with the remarkable people with whom I have been lucky enough to surround myself. During most of those moments no one had a camera.

After going through thousands of pictures, I kept maybe a handful and, yes, it was an emotional experience to throw the rest away. Looking through them brought smiles to my face and a feeling of connection to the picture itself. The picture, though, is not the memory, is not the connection. My memory of the moment may be imperfect in detail, but will always be rich in connection. And the impact on my life of the people in some of those pictures will never fade.

In the end, as connected as we may feel to pictures, they are just things. What we are truly connected to are the moments that those things represent. They may make it easier to see those moments and the people that make those moments special, but the picture isn’t the memory.

When I am old and grey(er), I will think of digging up a pitcher’s mound for what may seem like no good reason and I will think of my dad and he will be right there with me. He will be there in ways that may not be accurate to that day or as clearly defined as a photograph, but he will be there in a much deeper way than any picture could portray.

And I will think of all of those people who have touched my life and shaped who I am, people I now have fewer pictures of, and I will feel the part of me that they are, too. I have put more faith into the mural of my life now that I have so many fewer pictures of the moments that make up little parts of that mural. On the surface, that may seem difficult – memories fade and maybe, too, the people in them. What I have found, though, is that the mural isn’t dependent on the perfection of the memory, nor the existence of a picture. It is the connection and the emotion that lies underneath it all that ultimately paints the mural and those are forever because those are the things that, not just the mural, but our lives themselves are made of.

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My Daughters, My Teachers

It happened twice over the course of one week. Both times my wife told me that she needed to talk to me, that preface that almost never means an enjoyable conversation is to follow. Our daughters had approached her – separately and totally independent of each other – and asked her to talk to me for them. They hadn’t wanted to come to me themselves, but they needed me to know something.

They told her that I am mean.

There were, of course, other ideas communicated and details to follow, but the overarching premise was that I am mean to them. I’m grumpy and angry and mean. And they were afraid of talking to me about this themselves.

A lot of emotion and thought goes into parenting. When something like this happens – twice – the waves of feelings and the reflection on all of it weigh heavy and fly in all different directions.

Parenthood is humbling. And it is the greatest education I’ve ever had.

When my wife talked to me about the first daughter coming to her, I was rigid. Of course she said that, I thought. Of course she didn’t like whatever I had said to prompt such a discussion with her mom. I was sure she didn’t like some discipline I had doled out or some answer I had given her that wasn’t just a big, sparkly “Yes, you can do whatever you want!” She didn’t like my boundaries or my rules or my sense of responsibility and so she didn’t like me. And now she was going to run to mommy and play her against me. I probably even heard this first conversation with a dismissive smirk.

Not for a second did I hear what my daughter was trying to communicate. My ego was just too loud.

I justified my defiance to this news in all kinds of ways. They don’t like me as much because I’m the stay at home parent. I’m the dad and so I don’t have that natural, biological bond that they have with their mom. I’m not supposed to be popular. I’m their father, damn it (whatever that means).

I threw the internalized, middle-aged man version of a temper tantrum.

Still, the conversation my wife and I had stuck with me. It didn’t, however, deliver me to the point of reflection that I clearly needed to reach. I didn’t hear what my daughter said as a commentary from a valid source on the overall climate I was creating. Instead, I dismissed it as a one-time, unsubstantiated reaction from a kid. My ego had set up a solid defense and being called mean once just wasn’t going to make it over the castle walls.

Thankfully, the universe (and my daughters) weren’t going to make it so easy for my ego to maintain the status quo.

As much as I rationalized the first conversation, it still hung heavy on me. I couldn’t help but consider that my daughter is unhappy with me, unhappy around me and afraid to talk to me about it. At best – and I talked myself into all the best case scenarios I could – this was not good.

When I heard of the second conversation, I could feel those walls that initially held firm come crumbling down. And I came down with it. Hard.

I try to be kind and happy and loving. I want to create a safe space for my daughters in which the light that shines from me will show them how to nurture their own. In the face of mounting evidence, I could see that I was failing.

And I can’t say I didn’t know.

I have been kind of a miserable bastard lately. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve been a miserable bastard for quite a while now. The causes of all of this are inconsequential to the story, though. If I would have written this in the immediate aftermath of my daughters approaching my wife, I might have dug into all of that a bit. But there is no need. That isn’t the point.

Wallowing in what I may think has gone wrong or what I’m not happy about is meaningless. That is the past. I can choose to pay attention to what is behind me or I can see what is in front of me in this moment. Looking behind you, whether it be at success or failure, stops forward progress. Learn the lessons and move on. I got stuck looking back and became inwardly miserable and outwardly a complete asshole. I lost my joy because I lost my perspective.

And I poured that out onto my children.

My daughters didn’t attack me – they gave me a gift. In a way that was so gentle and strong, they showed me my own suffering and showed me how it was causing them to suffer as well.  I am blown away by what these two little people are capable of.

The three of us sat down a few days after they had talked to their mom and we talked. I told them a story. We talked about how they felt and how I felt and what we were going to do about it. We talked about how lucky we are and how much we love each other. I told them I was sorry. And I told them I was proud of them. They told me they were proud of me, too.

It is always in the quiet moments that we can learn the most. When the air becomes polluted by the noise of the past or the roar of the ego, important lessons get lost. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am that these two powerful people that I get to call my daughters took it upon themselves to create the silence that I needed to bring myself back into alignment.

They are wonderful mirrors, our children. I don’t think I will forget this lesson for a very long time. When I inevitably do, though, I know I can count on my girls to show me the way.

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One Fuzzy White Slipper

I was going through some old short stories I wrote and found this one. It was a (rejected) entry in a past round of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction contest. I like it and would love to know what you think.

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

What was the goddamned dog barking about anyway?

She had slammed the door so hard that it opened with some difficulty. The frame was cracked and a bolt was missing from one of the hinges so it didn’t work right anyway, like so many things in her house now, but her thunderous escape into the spare bedroom had wedged it tight.

She stormed down the hall, as much as anyone can storm in fuzzy white slippers.

Why won’t that dog just shut up? Just a couple of minutes, that’s all I want. One minute. Anything.

Already she had forgotten what book it even was. It really didn’t matter. She had only managed to read a couple of pages before the barking started.

She had tried to ignore it. He was probably just barking at a squirrel or a crow or nothing. But he just kept barking, every couple of seconds and in rhythm, with this strained almost-whine at the end of each bark. And she couldn’t ignore it.

Her slippers dragged across the tile floor. The padded strips that stretched over the tops of her feet were tired and worn and barely hung on. Each step scraped like she was limping on both legs. They weren’t even really fuzzy anymore. Most of the fuzz had been rubbed away or mashed down into what looked like a dirty bath mat. But she wasn’t ready to give them up. They were a gift from her husband and she had loved them then. They were so warm. Now they were just old and sad and the easiest thing to put on when she woke up on the couch to Jacob’s crying.

She couldn’t believe what she had said to her son. And the way she had said it. With each step her shoulders dropped and that ache in her stomach came back, the same one she feels every time she yells at him like that.

But I’m so tired. I just wanted him to stop. I just needed a minute.

She looked through the divided panes of the door out to the small backyard and the dirt and the fences. He was too young to be out there by himself. She knew that. She would go get him and tell him that Mommy is just tired. Mommy is sorry. He’ll be all right.

The backyard was filled with that awful bark and the sound of the cars on the street behind the neighbor’s house. The sun was low and traffic was heavy. People coming home from work. Husbands and wives talking about their days. Sons racing to meet their daddies at the door. Those other houses and those other daddies. No cars are coming here. Her face scrunched up from the glare and the reminder and she walked into the backyard.

The sand box and the toy trucks in the corner were quiet. She called to Jacob. She turned toward the sound of the barking and tripped on a ball or a tractor or something and her left slipper fell off. She called his name. Around the side of the house, to the barking and the back gate. He must be. She called his name. The gate was closed and the dog just kept barking and barking and staring at the gate and barking and she called his name and again and again. Into the sun and the sound she called his name and her breath left and she stood alone in an empty yard in one fuzzy white slipper.

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Sharing Quiet Moments and Tacos

As a father and a daughter, our connection is unbreakable. Her mom calls it an invisible string that connects our family together. Nothing could ever sever that string. Nothing could ever come between us.

But human relationships don’t always fit neatly into the simple, magical world of a bond between parents and children. Strip away the biological mandates and that’s what you are left with – a human relationship. Two people, individual in their paths, sorting through ego and selfish survival and trying to build relationships deeper even than that which is naturally dictated by conception and birth.

That may sound cold, but I don’t look at it that way. I want to find that deeper connection with my children. I want to know them as more than just my daughters (though, that is a substantial ‘just’). I want to discover where our energy – the energy that I know connects all humans –spirals together.

That feels very warm to me.

Connections, though, are not always easy. And Bug and I sometimes struggle with ours.

She is five, going on six, still searching and growing and developing in every way imaginable. She is brilliant and thoughtful and powerful and all of that doesn’t always add up to ease and peacefulness for her. The timid yet combustible little girl of a year ago is slowly dismantling her timidity and replacing it with a self awareness that I would never expect of someone her age – one that I don’t often see in people my age. That’s got to be a hell of a burden for a ripening mind. Knowledge of self weighs more than any of our shoulders can always bear.

And I am flawed, as we all are. The ego that clouds my vision and makes me question my own worth is the same one that muddies my relationships and leaves me full of doubt and frustration. I want things to be simple and I complicate them. I want peace and I wage war. I want to move beyond my self-imposed limitations yet I remain all too human.

With all of that, I know what I am capable of. I know that I am on the right path. I know that the darkness only exists because there is just as much light.

We are so much alike, she and I. We generate so much light together, yet sometimes that light flickers. I see myself in her. I’m sure she sees herself in me. And I’m sure that she also experiences abundant joy and frustration as a result.

In these quiet moments where I get to sit and reflect on who we are together, I love that about us. I love our complexity. The moments, though, are not always quiet.

Sometimes she and I get those quiet moments together and we both get to see it, see what we are together.

A few nights ago, her sister and her mom had an appointment together and I asked her what she would like to do. She said we should go out for tacos.

(I told you she was brilliant)

We sat in our booth talking about the crucifixes decorating the one wall in back, the difference between odd and even numbers, and how to make tortillas. She colored on the back of her menu. We ate our tacos and decided that we both liked mine better. She showed me how she colored all of the even numbers on her menu blue because even numbers felt softer to her.

After our plates were cleared and the sun began to tuck itself behind the buildings down the street, we just sat together quietly, my arm around her, her arm resting on my leg. We didn’t need anything else and we didn’t need to talk about it. We were connected there, as we always are and as we sometimes forget and as we don’t always see. We were connected there, shining our light.

“I like you a lot, Bug.” I said to her.

“I like you a lot, too, Daddy.”

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