Friday, December 5, 2014

What to do with your old National Geographic collection

Recently my in-laws asked if we'd like their old National Geographic magazines. It turns out they've been saving them since Columbus reached the Americas.

Our house is small, and we're pretty dang bad at finding appropriate storage places for things. We've still got 90% of our book collection in boxes, although I plan on that changing once escrow goes through on our house (my dreams are filled with full-wall built-in bookshelves). We almost passed on the collection, but then we were like, "but they're National Geographics!" So we took them. And then they sat around for a long while as we tried to figure out what to do with them.

Makeshift beds were made. Towers were built. Dangerous gymnastic stunts were performed with enthusiasm and daring. At which point we had to recognize the unwise use of stacks of National Geographic magazines as building blocks and play equipment.

I remember, decades ago, sitting at my parent's kitchen table, poring over the latest National Geographic magazine. I'd examine every page and imagine worlds far beyond the scope of my everyday life. There's magic in these things. Mystery. Adventure. Only yesterday, the plumber who came to fix our water heater saw our stack of National Geographics and waxed on about his own love affair with the magazine.

Perhaps most exciting of all was riffling through the pages to find the secret artifact nestled amidst articles on rain-forest spiders or new discoveries about Marco Polo's journeys. The neatly folded map is the cereal-box prize for the kid who has a little bit of Indiana Jones in her heart.

There's no doubt my four-year-old is an adventurer, so much so that she puts this home-body dad to shame. I'm working on living up to her craving for adventure. Baby steps, you know? In the meantime, this homage to her childhood and my own is what we came up with for my daughter's room:

I know that not every map is created or even accepted by the people who reside within the (sometimes arbitrary) "boundaries" that a map describes. And a thoughtful play like Brian Friel's
"Translations" complicates even the practice of naming and labeling on maps, charts and historical and cultural analyses. Yet even accepting those qualifications, I identify with Gilbert H. Grosvenor's (the first full-time editor of National Geographic magazine) thoughts on the volume of meaning, of imagination, and of creativity to be appreciated in these works of art as efforts to understand the world we live in.

"A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams."
- Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Editor of National Geographic from 1899 -1954

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Jabberwocky


If you've been around a while, you've probably noticed that I'm a little curmudgeonly about holidays and parties and anything that involves interaction with other people. But despite all the things that make me twitch, there's something I always look forward to on Halloween.

Every year we try to do a project, something that we'll remember and care about years down the road, something more than just a cute costume. Last year my three-year-old made it through the entirety of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Dang, I was proud of her. The year before that, my daughter was the star of her own Halloween horror story.

This year, my four-year-old pirate princess takes a Jabberwocky's head for a prize. *

You're welcome.

*No mythical creatures were harmed in the making of this video.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

So long as we are dirty, we are pure

"All of earth is crammed with heaven
And every bush aflame with God
But only those who see take off their shoes."

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My daughter's birth marked a landfall after nine long months of a watery existence. Little bit by bit, each additional day she was in the womb, she became a little less fish and a little more mammal.

Sometimes, even four years later, it seems as though she's still trying to make up for her sloshing fetal isolation from terra firma. When she gleefully kicks up the dust beneath her feet, I imagine an ocean-weary mariner whose feet unexpectedly hit dry ground after so many days at sea.

She wants nothing more than to wriggle her toes in it; to savor its taste in her mouth; to pour it over her own head in a perverse mockery of acceptable cleansing rituals. But when I watch her enthusiastic, gritty exploration of the world around her, it strikes me that there is something cleansing in shucking protective barriers and getting dirty. Despite my declared love of nature, despite our move to a rural mountain town, I still spend far too much time with a window between me and the world. My four-year-old is doing her best to cure me of that problem.

*          *          *

At our local public library, there's a song that the kids sing during story time. It goes,

Each of us is a flower,
growing in life's garden.
Each of us is a flower,
we need the sun and rain.

Sun, shine your warmth on me.
Moon, cool me with your night.
Wind, bring the gentle rain.
Earth, take my roots down deep.

It's one of those cutesy songs that I don't want to admit enjoying. I'd be okay if most nursery rhymes and children's songs faded into obscurity. Yet I can't deny there is not much that is better than watching a bunch of three or four-year-olds perform a choreographed dance while crooning "each of us is a flower . . ."

*          *          *

There are treasures down there beneath the dirt. Bottlecaps, old nails, crumbling pieces of brick and ancient tile work and pottery. Worn pennies and forgotten plastic bracelets. Little rocks that could be hidden gems and big rocks that could be prehistoric fossils.

"Getting buried," her new favorite activity
As an adult, I too rarely stoop to break the surface of the ground I walk. But now, excavating a moat and castle, I relive my own childhood archaeological adventures. It feels good to sweat through my shirt, to imagine what's under the next layer of earth, to see our mountain grow taller.

And it feels good to have my daughter by my side. She digs with her own pink shovel, inadvertently throwing dirt back into the hole I'm laboring over. She bends to pluck curious objects before they're lost to the settling soil. She scoops handfuls of dirt and rubs them over her skin like some luxurious moisturizer. And when we're done, she's the very best buried treasure a scurvy pirate dad could find.

*          *          *

Our neighbor, a spry eighty-year-old in a boonie hat and gardening gloves, watches from the back fence.
"What's that yer working on?" he says.
My daughter and I survey our territory, the moat and the castle mound that is currently a temporary home to assorted trucks, dolls, and transplanted flowering weeds.
"We're just digging!" shouts my daughter, waving her shovel triumphantly. 
"Are you gonna plant something?" he asks uncertainly. "Tomatoes?" 
"Not yet," I say, slowly looking around. "Just digging. For fun." 
"Yeah! For fun!" shouts my daughter, emptying a cup of dirt over her head. 
"Huh," he says, and turns away, shaking his head. 
Alan, our neighbor, is a gardening fiend. He can't wait until we stop foolin' about and start growing things. Which we fully intend. It's on our to-do list. Definitely in our 10-year plan. Living an hour from a reasonably-sized grocery store, it starts to make a lot of sense to grow things ourselves.

But for a little while, we're pretty okay with digging for the sake of digging. With examining roly-poly bugs and watching neat lines of ants trooping along the bottom of our trench. With laying on a pile of dirt and watching the clouds go by. With carving canyons with shovels and kitchen implements and with building tiny civilizations on the cliff edges. With getting so dirty that a shake of our clothes leaves a cloud of dust wafting through the air, and perpetually having dirt under our fingernails, a keepsake and reminder to get outside again soon.

The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions . . . mud pies gratify one of our first and best instincts. So long as we are dirty, we are pure.
-Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden, 1870

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Feel the burn!

Last weekend I ran the Bakersfield 10K Volkslauf for my fifth straight year. I didn't really train much in the "preseason," since we're in the middle of trying to buy a house and, well, because laziness. I almost didn't show on race day, but finally dragged myself to the starting line for the sake of continuity. And because velociraptors. My daughter, enthusiastic about my athletic goals (or lack thereof), has taken it upon herself to help me get back in shape:


She's a tough taskmaster.

I used to try this same maneuver several years back when she was ten or fifteen pounds lighter, and I was ten or fifteen pounds more muscular. If I'm gonna be able to still manage it in several more years, I've obviously got to up my game. It's daunting, but dang-it, I'm gonna make it happen. When I think of a father-daughter obstacle racing team, I can already feel the pre-race butterflies flapping around excitedly in my stomach. Next year, at almost 6, she'll be the perfect age to start.

So, challenge accepted. I'm feeling the burn.

Friday, August 1, 2014

In your image, orange, the world was made

Lunchtime. I consider the oranges at the bottom of our refrigerator. A friendly neighbor unloaded them on us after a weekend of harvesting, and they practically spill from the clear plastic bin like plunder, like hoarded treasure. My four-year-old is happy to announce to friends and strangers met on daily walks that oranges prevent scurvy and that scurvy is something pirates and even regular people really ought to avoid. 'Cause it'll "make you dead." Unfortunately, my four-year-old is still asserting her claim to self-determination by refusing most food that comes in front of her, even that globe of citrusy goodness, the orange.

I take a gamble and begin peeling two oranges. She says "yuck!" and contorts her face in exaggerated expressions of disgust which escalate into melodramatic demonstrations of extreme pain. So I take a break and we go to the internet so I can read her some poetry about oranges. Kids dig poetry, right?

Neruda's persuasive words notwithstanding, my daughter will not be moved. "That's nice," she says. "But I still won't eat any orange." I sigh and finish peeling and then start eating.

I make my way through the segments of one orange, separating each crescent landmass from its companions, musing over the exploding flavor of sun and citrus in my mouth. I handle the textured bumps and protrusions of a piece of peel, and form a continent from it. I show my daughter where we live in North America. I make a Gulf of Mexico with my thumbnail. I sliver off a piece for Hawaii. As I carve out a piece for Central America my daughter absentmindedly grabs an orange segment and pops it in her mouth. I pretend not to notice. With the aid of a map from a National Geographic, I carve Canada and South America, Africa and Scandinavia, Australia and India.

The orange segments disappear, one by one, into her mouth, until all that remains is the shell of the world that once was, the outline of the multitudes it contained.

With a spare lamp we become a sun and cross the face of the earth, waking it with the first rays of dawn and letting it fall into a slumbering darkness.

Each orange consumed offers a brief overwhelming shot of both bitter and sweet, one besting the other but never eliminating it. 

Inseparable the two tastes exist, one the greater and one the lesser. And all packed together into the ever diminishing, juicy heart of the orange. 

In the end, with all the pieces swept together in a final messy Pangaea, the pieces approximate but cannot recapture the wholeness or fullness of their original. We sweep away the remains of this world, and pull another from the bin.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


In the middle of the night, my four-year-old knelt down by my bed, tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered into my ear.
Her: "Daddy, I'm scared. It's so dark." 
Me, (trying to remember where I am and whispering so as not to wake my wife): "Um. Okay.         Let's, uh, go back to your bed and I'll sing you some songs." 
Her: "Okay."
Once she's back in bed, I lay down next to her and we sing quiet duets of "Row, row, row your boat," and "Twinkle twinkle little star," and Diana Ross' "If we hold on together."

I pause a moment as I feel a spider crawl across my bare foot. I flick it away from me.

My daughter: "Daddy! Was that a spider!?" 
Me: "Yes. But don't worry, I got rid of it." 
Her: "But it looked like a baby! You don't hurt baby spiders. You take care of them (this seems to be a pattern)! Baby spiders are my favorite!"
I sigh. A minute later, we're both on our hands on knees looking for the baby spider, and upon finding it, my daughter marches me to the front door where I deposit it gently outside.
My daughter: "I'm not scared anymore. Goodnight, dad." 
Me: "Goodnight. I love you." 
Her: "I love you too. And I love baby spiders." 
Me: "Okay."
I finally crawl back into bed, and all I can dream about it eight-legged crawly things. I'm pretty sure my daughter and I are sharing dreams.

And when I wake up and pull aside my covers, I kid you not, a spider (very much not a baby) scampers out of my bed.

It's a little frightening the way a kid's dreams, if nurtured, become reality.


The next day, we had more spider conversations on the walk home from pre-school:

Her: "Dad, do spiders talk?" 
Me: "Probably. Or, at least they use body language." 
Her: "Hmm. Well, I want to look up on the internet how to talk spider language. 'Cause I want to ask a spider to be my pet. Lately they just keep running away from me."
Keep on running spiders. Keep on running.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A father for the fatherless

Neal here. This is Lindsay's very first guest post on my blog. I held her off for as long as I could, but after two years of blogging, she finally wore down my defenses. Which, coincidentally, is also the narrative arc of our courtship and marriage. Ha! I kid (not really, it's actually pretty accurate). She's a great writer, and is in fact the one who first encouraged me to start writing personal essays. Is it weird that one of the ways my wife and I connect is to exchange essays and then edit together in knock-down, drag-out sessions of metaphorical fisticuffs? I'm sure it's normal. Anyway, right here's an example of why I decided to marry her; this girl's got a soul in her, and it's hard not to want to be a better person when you're with her. I wrote a piece around Father's Day last year that detailed my experiences assisting my wife's research with a different vulnerable population. I'm proud of my wife, and I'm proud to showcase this piece, 'cause it's a powerful reminder that no matter your position in life, you gotta fight to make a difference, and that however distant redemption seems, it never disappears.


There is barely an inch of uncovered space in the Resource Center where I work. Flyers advertising school lunch programs and community health screenings obscure the glass window in the front door. Clipboards of blue, tan, and salmon colored papers greet clients as they enter. Someone asks if I have any scholarship applications. I sift through a thick manila folder. How about a bus schedule? I pull one off the tack board hanging above my desk. Can I get a dog license? Sure, just fill out this form. Diapers? It’s an emergency! I grab my key to the supply closet. I want to quit smoking, can you help? I lead them to a magazine stand labeled Smoking Cessation Programs. I’m worried that my son was molested. First, let me close the door. Now, tell me everything, as I pull out a Suspected Child Abuse Report. At the Resource Center, we don’t tell people what we do. We ask them what they need because, chances are, we can help.

But the help isn’t free. The currency we exchange is paperwork. I greet each client, shake hands, show them into my office, and proceed to complete forms with titles like:

The titles sound so sterile, so clinical. Just the core data elements, please. Nothing superfluous. Tell us a story? God forbid.

But it turns out that stories are what 68-year-old Italian men do. I knew right off Marty wasn't from around here. With my office just across from the receptionist’s desk, I hear clients before I see them, and a Brooklyn accent sticks out like a sore thumb in a place that’s nearly 3000 miles away on the opposite coast.

In my three months of working at the Resource Center, I've noticed that the desperation the client feels is directly proportional to the number of people they tell their story to as they enter the front office. While I finish up my previous client’s paperwork, I hear Marty’s voice moving around the room, barely a pause to draw breath. To the receptionist, he details the unexpected drug bust on his niece, which led to the heart attack, which led to the month-long hospitalization. To the quiet client waiting for her appointment, he exclaims, "I had no idea my niece was into that stuff, you know! It’s crazy!" To the Sparkletts delivery man, collecting our empty bottles, Marty explains, “It’s been a month since I seen my Godson -- that’s as long as we been apart his whole life.”

Sometimes it takes a while to understand just what a client is asking for. It's understandable; when life is spinning out of control, it can be hard to figure out what will stabilize it. But as he sat down in my office, Marty told me exactly what he was there for.

"My Godson was taken away on account a his mom doin' drugs -- they found needles and all kinds of crazy stuff in her room -- and I need to get 'im back.  I need the social worker to fax me the paperwork here and then I need you to help me fill it out, make sure I'm doin' it right cause he's been away from me for over a month on account a me goin' to the hospital for my heart attack. The shock's what did it. The police come busting into my house -- and I'm retired law enforcement, mind you -- and search all the rooms. They haul Barb right off and I can't believe the things they're pullin' out of her room. I had no idea. And while I'm in the hospital just tryin' to survive, Barb ups and signs away her rights. So the state's got Mike now but I gotta get him back. Ya see what I mean?"

It wasn't long before I had the paperwork in hand.

Verification of Relative or Non-Relative Extended Family Member (NREFM)
 Application for Assessment of Relative/NREFM Home
Just three short pages, about 36 questions, to explain why you should be the one to love and care for a child. I hand the papers to Marty but he puts his hand up to block them. “See, I need you to do it,” Marty says, a hint of pleading in his mostly matter-of-fact tone. “We gotta get everything just right. Will you write for me?”

No problem, I think. Paperwork is what I do. I read aloud the first question and set to work squeezing his narrative into the space provided.

"Michael Jonathan Bricker. But we called him Mikey from day one. I was there from the time he was born, you know. He came home to my house and I've been with 'im ever since. I used ta . . . ."

"It's today. He turns 13 today. 3/22/2001. I can't believe I don't getta be with 'im on his birthday. I talked to the social worker and said I gotta speak with 'im. They let me call 'im but when I heard his voice I just broke down. I couldn't even talk. I just bawled. I can't believe I'm not with 'im for his birthday, he's thir . . . ."

He breaks off in quiet sobs. I look up from the paperwork and instinctively stretch my hand toward him. But I stop halfway there, resting it on the file cabinet that separates us. It's still at least a foot from being anywhere near to a consoling touch. After a decade working with prisoners, who were shackled to avoid physical contact, I'm still grappling with how to reach out.

Brief description of your relationship to child

I stare at the paper. I have four and a half lines to distill from Marty the special ways he comforted his infant Godson; how he had to bend his  6' 7" frame in half as he held the hand of a toddler learning to walk; how he walked the preschooler to classes everyday because "he has some learning problems but he's hangin' in there"; how he drove the teenager to and from high school right up until the day the cops burst in.
“He’s been my whole world, you know,” Marty concludes. I wonder if that description is brief enough for the powers-that-be.

"Oh, yeah. I'd take care a 'im forever. I saw my niece. I says, 'Barb, why'd you sign over your rights so fast? You don't give up on your own baby.' She said, 'So I have to hear this from you?' Damn right, you do! You don’t give up your kid for drugs. I don't care if they're 2 or 62, they're your baby forever. How does she not get that? I'll take care a 'im forever."

I'm blinking back tears. That's another thing I haven't figured out yet: do I let them see me cry? It's hard to do paperwork through welled-up tears, and drips will smear the ink. Do I need to look unphased, to instill confidence that things will be okay? Or can I show them that I'm a little afraid that the thing they want, more than they’ve ever wanted anything, might never be? Just released from the hospital, disabled, living with a friend, not realizing drugs were infiltrating his home until the cops came knocking. I'm no custody expert, but these don't sound like good signs.

One and a half lines, this time. Barely enough room to say, "Please, I'll do anything to be with my Mikey again"; no room to post your whole heart on the page.

We finish up with his signature and I prepare the fax. The space between the faxing and the confirmation feels interminable, his and Mikey’s whole future hanging in the balance. I assure him that I'll call the social worker to make sure she received the fax. I know she did, and he doesn't ask me to call, but it's all I can do and so I'll do it. As he gets up to leave, he tells me matter-of-factly, "I'm gonna hug you." He wraps his hulking arms around me -- I'm not sure I've ever been held in such long arms and I can feel how powerful they still are -- and whispers, "You're an angel," as he kisses my cheek with a loud and purposeful muah. He turns to leave and I still haven’t moved. Should I have hugged back? What were my parting words? Did he see my smile? I can still hear him repeating thank you, thank you, thank you as he hobbles out of the office, and I can’t stop smiling. Finally, I take a shaky breath and sit down to finish my paperwork.