Saturday, December 7, 2013

Stay warm

It's snowing outside, so it just seemed appropriate to get a fire going and watch Christmas movies as a family. Nothing quite like warming your bum by the fire.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The first snow

The last two days we've woken up to snow flurries -- big fat ones -- falling like frozen tears from baby cherubs, dainty sendings of heavenly sorrow crystallized while passing through rarefied atmospheres. Tiny beautiful fairies, perfect and unique, that melt slowly into nothingness and oblivion on the deck. Or just snow flurries. We'll just leave it at that.

But there really is something both beautiful and haunting about early morning snow, and the way clouds hang heavy over the mountains. The lightness of the flurries and the weight of those enveloping vapors contrast in interesting ways that get me thinking as I stare out the window. I almost run to wake my daughter.

When she finally does wake up, I tell her to go look out the window, and she does, trailing her curiosity behind her like her old ratty bunny. And then I hear her scampering feet, rushing back to shout,
 "It's snowing! It's snowing!" 
She dances around, a pint-sized but enthusiastic manifestation of my own introverted feelings. There's nothing like watching a kid celebrate snow that brings you back to your own childhood, before shoveling, before scraping car windshields, before trying to drive to work or the supermarket.

The snow melted everywhere but on the upper elevations. I wonder how long it will last there. It's beautiful, but I almost look forward to its passing so that the next snow can be a surprise gift, just like this one.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nature called. It wants you to come out and play.

We don't currently own a ball for Addison to kick, so it was fortuitous that this tumbleweed decided to come and visit. What, you don't get tumbleweeds where you live? Maybe you would if you lived in the kind of town that doesn't bother to remove trees when paving its streets.

All of these are within a quarter-mile of our home.

And this kid, she knows a good thing when she sees it. She really does.

A girl and her tumbleweed

Saturday, November 16, 2013


We've been in our new place for about two months now, and the process of re-establishing ourselves, our habits and our goals, has me thinking a lot about what makes a house a home. There's some kind of magic in the way that a bunch of wood and drywall and glass arranged at right angles on a slab of concrete can become something more than a mere assemblage of construction materials.

I've lived places that had no soul. Places that seemed little more than shells, uninspiring storage containers for living bodies. These are often in-between places, places in which you don't want to invest too much because you may not be around for long. Places that accumulate clutter like flies. And then once you've cleared it all up, it doesn't feel tidy; it just feels empty.

But now we're in a house that we hope we might have for the long haul. I love the pine trees outside, the fireplace, the high ceilings, and the view from our front door.

Addison took this photo while wandering in the back yard

All of these things, and more besides, add up to make a wonderful place to nest. It's not perfect; a lot of people might be turned off by living in less than 1000 square feet of home with little-to-no insulation and decor and appliances straight out of the 1970s. A place where there's no trash pick-up, the postal service only delivers to a P.O. Box, and where half the population doesn't get cell phone reception.

Despite its utility, there's something rather clinical about comparing all of those pluses and minuses in coming up with an abode to call "home." Such lists are stoichiometric -- more "scientific method" than "poetry." They're about cancelling things out to see what's left over. They're about neutralizing and off-setting instead of celebrating. And if you've got such a list in your head, it's hard to ever enjoy something without qualification.

Watching Addison shows me that there is another way.

Kissing her "nicest, most favoritest" rock she's ever found

It took Addison a little while to adjust to our mountain cabin, but it's a special thing to watch the way she finds magical moments here, moments that never made it onto our pros and cons list. Kids don't cross things off of some master list as they decide whether to commit to a place. I came across Addison, the other day, reading a book in her room in a ray of light.

It reminded me of my own childhood in a house in Northern Virginia, and the bay windows under which I'd cast myself, basking in a glowing patch of sunlight warmed from a hundred million miles away.

Me (with the wide eyes), my siblings, and dad all sitting in front of those windows.

I have many fond memories living in that house, but the sunlit patch and those accumulated cozy afternoon moments of Zen reside at the forefront of my recollection.

It's impossible to predict which experiences, which memories will mean the most, at least when we're right in the thick of them. It might be decades before the teasing presence of a certain memory or routine finally coalesces into something we can articulate. And whatever item Addison loves in one moment is so often cast aside a day later (with the exception of her Bunny); the activity that she craves so constantly for a few weeks or months is largely replaced by another as she matures and her interests evolve.

But I hope this one lasts.

I hope that anytime she comes across a spear of sunlight illuminating an otherwise ordinary space that she perceives the miracle in it. That she can see in that gentle glow that crosses an impossibly large, impossibly empty and dark expanse, an analogy for finding warmth, comfort, and hope in unlikely places.

It strikes me that while I want my daughter to love and miss the home of her childhood, to yearn for it (and us) and seek to return to it (and us), the most wonderful thing about a patch of sunlight is that she'll be able to find it in most any place she ever finds herself. That sense of "home" never needs to be too far away.

These sunlit memories may or may not inhabit my daughter's subconscious as they do mine; I suppose she'll have the rest of her life to explore and define her own psychological safe-havens. But watching her settle in has, for me at least, conjured the magic to make this house a home. Thanks for that, Addison.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The most beautiful dream . . .

That dream is still alive, but it's like a dagger in me every November. Now, both springing forward and falling back offer a lose-lose situation. Ah, well, only like another decade of this, right?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Raven

For your Halloween enjoyment, my three-year-old's narration of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. I thought we'd only try a single stanza, but she was a trooper. It only took three single smarties and a kid's handful of pretzels to convince her. She's always had a love/hate relationship with birds:

And, if you're so inclined, here's another animal-themed video (which I made when I was in film school), to fill that blank spot in your psyche that is made up of terrifying deer nightmares.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013

Merry Halloween to you, my good sirs

We struggle a little bit with Halloween in our house. Really, we struggle with most holidays. And by "we" I mean me. I'm not the sort of person who likes big productions, decorations, groups of people, or expectations to act a part. I don't really get excited about costumes (although I admit I'd like to dress my kid up as a Jawa), and I kinda hate getting my picture taken. Perhaps it's the introvert in me. Perhaps it's the contrarian in me. And yeah, I'm a lot of fun at parties.

My wife told me I probably shouldn't include the "bastards" bit in this comic, that I might alienate sensitive readers (along with all her relatives). And if you read my blog much, you know I tend to lean way further towards the sappy than the snarky. But when it comes to the almost universal social expectation that I should love a holiday or tradition, the curmudgeon in me tends to come out full force. If it's any consolation, I promise not to defile Christmas. Not too much, anyway.

Halloween isn't all bad. I mean, after you take away all the dumb commercial stuff, I can definitely appreciate a holiday that celebrates being a little creepy. And if you're the proud parent of a creepy kid, it resonates all the more.

We're still going trick-or-treating this year. I do make a few sacrifices for the happiness of my three-year-old. Last year, my daughter was a pirate, which was mildly fun and subversive:

This year, she wants to be a princess. Here's her actual request, I kid you not: "I want to be a Princess trapped by a Pirate." Sigh. I'm okay with that. Really. As long as she never stops wanting to play in the dirt and build rocket ships, she can be my little princess.

Be safe out there, kids. And be nice to all the little monsters, and pirates, and princesses.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The mountains are calling and I must go

A little over a month ago we moved from Orange County to a mountain cabin in the Los Padres National Forest. This is what we wake up to in the morning:

We knew that things would be different. We now have to drive nearly an hour to get to an affordable grocery store. We've already had near-freezing weather, snow is on the way, and we've exchanged palm trees for pine trees. We literally live on the side of a mountain, and we're still figuring out exactly what that means. While we were moving in, Lindsay got a little education from a conversation with our neighbor:
Neighbor: Do you have any cats? Do you want one? 
Lindsay: ? 
Neighbor: I found a feral cat, and I've been feeding him and nursing him back to health. 
Lindsay: Well, actually we’re kind of allergic to cats.
Neighbor: We’ve also got raccoons here. You like raccoons? 
Lindsay: They're alright . . . 
Neighbor: There’s a whole shed full of ‘em across the street. I feed them too. See? There’s one on my porch right now. They’re real friendly. 
Lindsay: Oh, wow. Okay. 
Neighbor: How do you feel about bears? 
Lindsay: Real ones? The big kind? 
Neighbor: Yeah, they get big. This guy finds a mother bear with cubs, and he takes out a pistol and shoots her. Idiot! Anyway, those cubs were living under your porch for a while. 
Lindsay: Our porch? 
Neighbor: Yup. Animal control said to just let nature take its course, but . . . 
Lindsay: You fed them? 
Neighbor: Yup. 
So, gotta watch out for those critters. I'm waiting for the day Addison wanders in with a moose on a leash.

We were a little worried about how well Addison would transition to a new place. When you're three, your house and your routines are your whole world (heck, they're still my whole world). And for the first day or two, she had a tough time. She missed her Grammy and Gramps. One night, she sobbed for 45 minutes, saying that she "just does not have any friends here!" and "there are not so many people here!" And recentlyAddison told us that "sometimes when I'm playing by myself in my room, I pretend I have no friends and am very, very lonely."

Still, it wasn't but a few days before she was wandering around at the playground holding some random kid's hand, instructing her "husband" to dance with her like Beauty and the Beast. 

And she's excited by neighbors she can interact with. While we construct make-shift play equipment in the backyard, she has conversations with our elderly neighbors, who tend a garden and always pop something off a plant for Addison to put in her mouth. She loves their cherry tomatoes. 

With a little coaching, Addison wrote them a thank-you note, on which she drew tomatoes and a space ship. I couldn't find her for about thirty seconds, and then I heard something outside. She was standing at the fence between our lots, shouting at their house:

We're still working on what it means to be "neighborly," though I can't fault her enthusiasm.

The adventurous streak is strong in this one. She gets that more from her mother than from me. I love her boldness, her confidence, her inquisitiveness, even if it sometimes catches me off-guard. But I can understand that there's nothing quite like exploring a brand new place, especially when that new place is filled with rocks, lakes, mountains, and all manner of furry critters.

In the end, Addison has transitioned to our new life even better than I imagined she would. Every day that she snatches up her staff and asks to walk to the park or the library, I'm inspired by her excitement for a new quest. When she requests some time to go out back and dig a hole, I'm gratified by her eagerness to go out under the pines and get her hands dirty. When we step outside to search the clear night sky for the brightest, luckiest star, I'm reminded that she's an adventurer, and that to her, the magic of the world vastly outweighs the anxieties. She's a brave kid, and it's gonna stretch me to keep up with her.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On falling down

“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation -- either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” 
                                                      ― Martin Luther King Jr.

If there's one concept I wish I could teach my daughter, it would be this. The Universe seems inexorably to succumb to decay. But in each of us is a creative power that trumps the destructive forces that surround us, if only we will have the will to use it. From the ruins of tragedy may be built soaring towers of transcendence. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A million splashes

Our new place is a short walk to a park with a fishing pond. As we walk along the road to the pond, Addison and I fill our pockets with little flat stones. Skipping stones is a new skill that Addison is keen to learn. As I skip a rock, she counts the splashes: "One . . . two . . . threefourfivesix!" And when she tosses her own rock like a shot-putter hurling a cannonball, she waits for the single massive splash and shouts, "Whoa! A MILLION splashes!"

We go to the pond almost every day. I scan the ground for likely candidates as we walk. My heart skips a beat when I pick up a really quality skipping rock, something with a comfortable heft and a nice place to curl my finger around it. The kind of skipping rock that's so beautifully formed, so perfect for its purpose, that you save it for last and then don't want to use it after all. Because in the end, the very best skipping rock is the one that skips the farthest and then sinks into the depths, beyond recovery. Such great potential paired with the heartbreak of such a singular moment, a brief triumph that can never be repeated.

As I watched my daughter bend down to pick up stones in the dirt shoulder of the road, I considered her little self. So perfectly formed. And her hand fits so perfectly in mine. I kind of just want to keep her in my pocket and never let her go.

But really (I have to keep telling myself this), raising a kid is like having a perfect skipping stone 
that's MAGIC. You throw it out, and it skips incredibly, beautifully across the surface. And then it comes BACK. It always comes back. So long as you've treasured it, cradled it in the palm of your hand, loved it with all you have. So long as you pause a moment before launch, breathless, preparing yourself mentally for all that will come. If your throw is true and pure, imbued with the experience of many past successes and many hours of practice. If you've earned the stone's love, it comes back.

And then, one day, the stone will learn that it can throw itself. All those times when you launched it out there with your heart in your throat -- they were all for this purpose. So that someday, even when you're not there, the stone will keep throwing itself out there, and keep skipping gracefully, magnificently across the surface, and never sink to the bottom.

"Whoa! A MILLION splashes!"

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Booming the scares, taking care of hurt monsters, phoning dead relations, wanting new parents, PICKLEWEASEL!

We're almost done with our move up into the mountains, blog post to come soon. In the meantime, there have been a bunch of conversations I wanted to record. As first seen on my Facebook page, here they come:
Addison has recently been complaining about scary things at night, something that's never been an issue before. She'll come running out of her room at bedtime, saying, "Scares! In the dark! There are scares in my room!" 
So Lindsay tried to teach her a little trick with an invisible magic wand to make the scary things go away: 
Lindsay: Just say, "Abracadabra scary things away, BOOM."  
And then Addison's maternal instincts kicked in and all her fears of things that go bump in the night faded away, to be replaced with this:

Addison: Oh no! You boomed the scares! But now all the little scares are hurt and they don't have their moms and dads to take care of them. I will be their mom now. Poor scares. Poor, poor scares.

And so Addison, now refusing to go to bed for a different reason, starts wandering around to all the dark little corners of her room muttering "it's okay, scares. It's okay. I'll take care of you."

Kids. They take that parenting manual and really scribble all over it.

My daughter, running breathlessly out of her bedroom: 
Addison: There's monsters in my room! 
Lindsay: Oh? 
Addison: Yeah. And some of them are hurt. And I need to take care of them. 
Lindsay: Okay, well, get back into bed and take care of them. 
Addison: Okay. 
I can see that we may have a new bed-time routine.

As we near our move-out date and Addison contemplates what it means to move from one home to another, and since she thinks about her deceased (great) Grandpa all the time, this is where her thoughts went: 
Addison: Does God have rooms? 
Lindsay: Uh. What? 
Addison: Like to sleep in... 
Lindsay: Um. Maybe? 
Addison: Let's call my Grandpa and ask him to ask God to give us some rooms to sleep in after we die. 
Because when you travel from one place to another, you always want to know that there's a safe place to land. Count on a kid to remind you that mundane things act as analogies for the big concepts in life. I'm gonna have to put some extra special thought into cozying up her new room.

My daughter's revolution continues. She said, "I want new parents." 
The reason? "I want new stuffed animals," she said. "These stuffed animals are not my favorites." 
Me: And why do you need new parents for that? 
Addison: Because they will have different stuffed animals. They can still be named Lindsay and Neal. But they will wear different clothes.
Lindsay: But we'd miss you so much. 
Addison: It's okay. My new parents will bring me to visit. Or maybe you can come live with my new parents, too. 
My, how easily we are replaced. It's a little sad that she'd trade us for a new set of stuffed animals . . . but at least she doesn't mind if we still live together.

Typical phone conversation with my daughter: 
Me: I have something to tell you. 
Addison (from a distance): No! 
Me: Ok, then I'll tell you this: Pickle-weasel! 
Addison (suddenly much closer and engaged): Pickle-weasel to you!

Me: No! Pickle-weasel to YOU!

Addison (at max volume): NO! PICKLE-WEASEL TO YOOOOUUU!

I'll treasure these conversations.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Tire swings and quiet moments

It's not often that we catch our daughter in a moment of repose. The world is too big, too exciting, too explorable for her to sit still for more than a fraction of a second. If I ask her to come and sit on my lap and tell me about her day, she comes running, gleefully, and touches down like some winged thing. And then, before I have a chance to wrap my arms around her, she's off again, a bird of prey soaring away with something snatched in her talons. She's a will-o'-the-wisp, materializing in unexpected places, and then slipping away before I've fully realized she was there. She's a pioneer, pushing every frontier, striking breathlessly through liminal spaces, a tiny human-shaped vessel going where none have gone before.

And yet there is a quiet place in this little dynamo. There is an eye to the storm, a still center about which great energies revolve.

I glimpse these moments and I imagine a strange alchemy which converts energy from her recently wind-milling limbs into conceptual fuel. The propellent ignites from a spark in her synapses, and her mind goes questing, boldly travelling her internal infinities.

Or perhaps there is repose both inside and out. Perhaps in these moments her mind empties itself of the myriad distractions of this world. She finds calm. She finds peace. She finds simplicity. And she quietly refills her psychic reserves, safe in sanctuary, before launching back into the wide world of possibilities.

I'm pretty sure I'll never know what secret conversations she has with herself in these moments; I think I like it that way. Because as I watch her and imagine, mystery and possibility fills my head, too.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

My little reader and my Google Reader

First, a few pictures of my blossoming reader. After that, a request for help.
The only one on the plane who took the safety announcement seriously
Still poring over it, long after the presentation was over
There be dragons here
We spent a good 25 minutes talking about this single page.
In a couple of days, Google Reader will disappear. Every time I log in, I get a message reminding me of its impending doom. And I still haven't found a replacement. When the demise of Reader was announced several months ago, I spent some time researching alternatives, but I wasn't ready to make the leap. Now I'm going back and trying to do more research, but it's tricky because a lot of the reviews I find are many months old and may not be fully accurate.

According to my stats, I've got over 100 subscribers on Google Reader. My Google Reader companions, I feel your pain. You might consider subscribing to my posts via e-mail (there's a "Follow by Email" button on the sidebar); that's probably the safest way to make sure you see my stuff.

But for a Reader alternative, I found this article on Lifehacker that offered a few brief reviews for replacements, and based on it, I'm thinking Feedly, The Old Reader, or Newsvibe. Have any of you started using an alternative? How did you choose? How do you like it?

Note: I originally created the Then/Now comic for the Insatiable Booksluts. It's a cool blog about many things literary. You should check it out.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Hand in hand, into the great unknown

My daughter thinks I'm a real strong-man. She'll saunter up, jab her finger at me, and shout, "Show me your muscles!" I squat down, roll up my sleeve, and let her feel my bicep. "Wow," she exclaims. "Nice muscle." Said to the guy who hasn't weighed more than 130 pounds in years. Then she holds up her arm, and I poke and measure her bicep. "Wow," I tell her, "That's a pretty good muscle too."

Sometimes she'll pick something heavy up, squeeze it tight to her belly, and carry it over to me, grunting all the way. She'll drop it in front of me, and wait for an impressed exclamation. In time, she'll learn that the size of her bicep is less important than stretching to do hard things. I want my daughter to feel confident that most obstacles in life are surmountable with the right attitude and a lot of hard work. 

At the same time, I want to communicate to her that part of becoming strong is both supporting and relying on the people you love. Like trees with intertwining roots, we can be stronger as a group than we can on our own. It's a concept I sometimes struggle with myself, being an extreme introvert (lovingly, my wife sometimes calls me Boo Radley). But it's the reason I got married. And I see its importance even more now that I have a little girl. Which brings me back to the concept of holding hands -- another analogy that projects big in my mind.

I've written before about holding hands with my daughter. I love holding her hand. I love the way she weaves her warm little fingers between mine. It's a primordial pleasure; it sparks instinctive feelings in me, feelings connected to fatherhood; feelings connected to family. I love holding hands because of what it says about trust, and what it says about safety, and what it says about joining forces with another person to confront both the dangers and the mysteries of life.

When Addison was younger, I'd need to proactively steer her away from streets, from electrical outlets, from delicate display cases in stores. She's grown a year wiser, a year more circumspect; also, a year more adventurous. She knows not to dash into the road; she understands that things are breakable; she knows that some things are off limits. She is maturing from a wide-eyed foal, transfixed by shiny baubles and new sensations, into an eager colt, a daring explorer. The transition isn't necessarily one of lessened danger, but one of maturing, deliberate intentions. Where before she had little sense of her own fragility, at almost three and a half years old she's truly in the midst of judging risks and making calculated decisions. She's getting bigger, stronger. Literally and metaphorically, she's flexing and growing her muscles.

We haven't stopped holding hands. I still instinctively reach out to her, and she still (when she feels like it) reaches back. What's really changed is that I used to be the captain of our ship, choosing a direction with a crew that was sometimes amenable and sometimes insubordinate. But now as often as not, she is the charismatic visionary at our helm.

"Daddy, come on," she'll say, hauling at my hand, seeking to move her big lump of a dad, no matter whether our break has been five minutes or five seconds. "I have something to show you." It touches me that even though she sometimes wrests leadership away from me, she hasn't kicked me off the boat. She's not just sailing off on her own. She wants to explore, but she still wants a partner. Or perhaps a first mate. She wants to burst upon that frontier but she wants to do it with a companion at her side. I love the way she tugs at me now, urging me on in the same way that I used to urge her on. She threatens, she cajoles, like a tiny parent.

"I will LIFT you up. Like this. Ungh! I am PULLING you up! Ungh! You need to LISTEN to me! We are GOING! We are still 'SPLORING!"

It's a fun new phase, this moment where she is excited to explore, and equally excited to share. It's fun to be hand-in-hand with her. And the significance of hand-holding isn't lost on her. Right now her go-to form for a figure, whether drawing humans, monsters, or aliens, is to draw their arms extended, so that she can stretch each limb out to touch the next. It's a worldview I can get behind.

Alien family. Note the number of eyes. And the overlapping arms.
Monster family. Note the scary faces and funny bodies. And the arms.
Our family. Arm in arm.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fatherhood: A reason to make things right

I usually stay pretty focused on my own navel here on the blog. I write about my own experience as a dad, and I don't usually spend a lot of time critiquing society or offering calls to action. And this post isn't intending to do those things, exactly, but I hope it offers something a little different to think about.

In May, I read a post from the National Fatherhood Initiative about a new program to help men in jail reevaluate their responsibilities as fathers. And then the other day I learned that Sesame Street just created a show for kids with parents in jail or prison. In the past, Sesame Street has tackled things like divorce and bullying, but this is a really significant new step. It's a thirty-minute special feature (you can watch clips of it here) that probably won't be broadcast. With Father's Day around the corner, this stuff has got me thinking about parenthood and incarceration. One in 28 kids in the U.S. has a parent incarcerated. That's up from 1 in 125 twenty years ago. Where we'll be in twenty more years is anybody's guess.

This isn't a completely new thing for me; my wife actually spent most of her master's degree researching various angles on incarcerated men, especially their financial experiences. Several years back, we even moved to a town in Illinois and spent three months interviewing men in jail for her thesis. My thoughts stem from that experience.

Across the table from me sat an imposing man - large in all directions. He wore a neatly trimmed beard, and smiled as all of the newly selected researchers took their seats. My wife and the other lead researchers had set up a preliminary discussion with this guy who'd recently been in the jail. He explained that, years before, he'd fled the state to avoid arrest for drug charges. He eventually joined a church, got married and had kids, and ended up deciding that he wanted to clean the slate. He returned to Illinois, walked into the jail, and asked to be booked so that he could serve his sentence. It wasn't easy. He lifted up his shirt and showed us the scars from improvised knives. He also described being allowed to hold private meetings in his room with several other men for what the guard thought were KKK meetings, though they were in fact scripture study sessions. If there's something I learned from that discussion, it was that appearances can be deceiving.

A week later, we arrived at the jail for our first visit. The female researchers had been asked, awkwardly, to please not dress provocatively. A guard took the entire team on a tour of the jail, and when we entered the cell blocks, every eye was on us. Men sidled up to the glass and leered. Some seemed to be goading others into calling things out. "Hey, sweet thing." "Hey, look over here." A couple men barked.

The first interview I helped run was with a young black guy, maybe 22 years old. He wore the standard black and white striped uniform. Scraggly beard hair. He sat comfortably, but with good posture. He gave us firm handshakes, and smiled. We asked him about his family relationships and about his children. We asked him what he was charged with. "Armed robbery," he said. What did he expect to do when he got out of jail, we asked. He wanted to be a chef, maybe start his own restaurant. When we asked how often he felt like he couldn't get going, he said, "every day."
How often did he feel depressed? "Every day." How often did he feel lonely? "Every day."
The next interviewee was easily six feet tall and 180 pounds of pure muscle. He entered the room cautiously, and his handshake was careful, tentative. We thanked him for coming in, and he waved it off, warming up to us. "Hey, I'm not doing anything else. And this research is gonna help people, right?" We said it was. "Well, let's get started!"

Another guy we interviewed sat across the table from us, fidgeting constantly. He cried after nearly every question we asked, and apologized each time. "I'm sorry guys, I don't know why I'm crying so much. I hardly cried at all last week." We asked if he had a good relationship with his parents, and he cried. We asked if he understood how compound interest worked, and he cried. He didn't know how it worked. The jail's nurse came in and gave the guy a paper cup with pills in it, and one filled with water. When she left, he explained,
"I've been in solitary for like three weeks now, and I swear I'm going crazy. I just needed to talk to someone."
We interviewed guys who were in jail on drug charges, for moving vehicle violations, for grand theft auto, for armed robbery and conspiracy to commit it, for murder, for sexual assault. One intimidating white guy, the minority race at this location, had a completely shaved head and extremely long goatee beard. He was covered in tattoos. It turned out his arrest was for dumpster diving.

We never knew whether many of the men had done what they were charged with. In fact, we told them it was in their best interest to merely state their charges, and not give further detail. Still, some frankly admitted guilt. Others admitted that they deserved to be in prison, but that the specific charges brought against them were bogus. Others said it was their first time, and they were scared. A few claimed innocence.

I'd always intellectually understood that guys who go to jail aren't necessarily bad people. But what struck me, over and over again, was how normal and friendly these men were. Once they were away from the watchful eyes of other men in the cell-block and alone with us in the interviewing room, they were just regular people. Yes, probably in many cases people who had made big mistakes. And there were some men who refused to interview with us. But the ones who agreed seemed to genuinely want to both become better people, and to help other people to do the same. They shook our hands, laughed with us, told jokes, cried.
They talked about wanting to invest, wanting to hold a real job, wanting to provide for their wives, their girlfriends, their kids. 
More than anything else, it was their kids who made them want to fix their lives. They didn't always know how to fix things, but the desire was obvious. In talking with a lot of these guys, I couldn't help feeling that they were just like me, only they hadn't had all of my advantages. Many came from broken homes. Many lacked involved fathers; many learned to commit crimes from their fathers. Many had never had a single male role model show by example that there were ways to survive without resorting to crime.

That's it. I don't have a huge point to make; mainly just that being a father matters. Someday I want to do community service work in a jail; there's a demographic there that needs people to care, that needs people to try to understand. And it's a powerful thing to realize that fundamental feelings about parenthood unite us. For many of these men, fatherhood is a beacon of light, sometimes the only beacon of light, beckoning them in from the storm. And I salute any man who catches a glimpse of that beacon, and struggles forward against all odds to reach it. There's a lesson in that for all of us.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hut, hut, hike! A birth story

For the next couple weeks I'm thinking particularly hard about being a father. Ironically, my wife and daughter will be out of town until after Father's Day. Which leaves me a lot of time to muse about stuff and try to articulate some things that bounce around in my head.

Three years, three months, and 21 days ago, Addison was born.

It's not often that I've been able to mark a point in my life where everything changes. I know, I'm only thirty (thirty?! shoot, I barely remember turning 21); I know there will be other moments that rock my world, for the better and for the worse. But in my young life, my daughter's birth marked a transition point that was remarkable both for its long-term impact and for the visceral contrast where one moment she was not here yet, and the next we were graced with a squalling, powerful announcement of arrival. And then feedings, and diaper changes, and rocking, and cradling, and staring, awestruck, at this creature we made. Sometimes it seems as though only disasters produce the kind of sudden change I'm talking about. But the birth of a child, that's a notable exception.

I didn't see my daughter's birth. I was in the room, just a foot or two away. When my wife made that final push, I was holding her hand, my head close to hers. When I think of it now, it reminds me of a moment we'd had together years before, before we were married. We were sideways in her car, held in place by our seat-belts, cocooned in crumpled metal, bleeding. Emergency responders scrambled about, spreading an opening here, cutting a piece of metal there. A helicopter settled nearby, its rhythmically thumping blades like a manic heartbeat.

I know that there are parents, both men and women, who find the birthing experience exhilarating. But during Lindsay's labor I was as anxious as I had been so many years ago when I looked over at my girlfriend in that mangled vehicle, and saw how the roof of her RAV4 was caved in, pressing down on her head. She'd ask if I was okay, get confused, and thirty seconds later ask again if I was okay. Over and over. When the paramedics tried to test her responsiveness, she only answered when I leaned in close, gripped her hand, and repeated the question. Four years after that roll-over accident, and here I was squeezing her hand again, my face inches from hers, asking her to focus, telling her she was doing a good job, praying that it would all end well. Inside, I was tied in knots.

Lindsay was in labor for nearly 24 hours. From the early morning all the way through to the evening, Lindsay and I worked through a series of coping techniques that we'd practiced ahead of time, because she wanted to labor at home for as long as possible. In a lot of ways, those techniques were for me as much (more?) as for her. We were nervous and excited; mostly I was nervous and she was excited. But as the sun started going down, things started going south. She'd had pain all day, and managed it. But as we entered the evening hours, our coping efforts just weren't doing the trick. It turns out she was having back labor because the baby was turned the wrong way, though all she knew was that things were getting really freaking hard. The nurses later expressed frustration that Lindsay never mentioned she was having back though a first-time mom should know what that is. Lindsay thought maybe she could last a little longer; we debated it. Finally, we got in the car, and met our doula at the hospital.

The next five or six hours were rough. Lindsay had so much pain. She was trying to avoid unecessary interventions (pitosin, epidural, etc.), but near the end she had lost control. Sometime after midnight, when she agreed to the epidural, she couldn't lay still enough on the bed, and the anesthesiologist almost gave up. I'd hoped that I wouldn't have to bear the sole burden of guiding my wife through these tough moments; that's why we got a doula. But in the end, I was the one she looked to. I swallowed hard and stepped up to the plate. With our eyes locked, our fingers entwined hard enough to hurt, and me desperately trying to maintain a calm, confident tone, we made it through the epidural, and ultimately, through a successful birth.

When they asked me if I wanted to cut the cord, I was done. No thanks. I just wanted to slump next to my wife, and stroke her hair, and hold her hand -- gently, this time. Lindsay was okay. Our baby was okay. When they brought Addison over and put her on Lindsay's chest, it was like a ray of light burning away a sky of storm clouds. It was a miracle. It was the end of a race, that moment crossing the finish line where your muscles don't just relax, but become quivering mush. We cried. Our little girl cried. Everyone cried, breaking the dam of so many hours of frustration and pain and anxiety and determination.

When I was talking with my wife about the experience, she said jokingly, "Man, I forgot about all that. I was a superhero." I can't deny it; my wife was freaking amazing. And no less of a superhero was my little girl, who squeezed through the proverbial eye of a needle. And then stuck her tongue out at us, as though to say, "Get ready for some sass!"

When I go back and read my wife's account of her labor experience, my heart starts beating fast, just like the thumping rotors of that helicopter. My breath gets shallow, my hands a little sweaty. Why, I wonder, can't people just drop a seed in the ground and wait for a kid to sprout out of it? Why's it gotta be so hard?

It says a lot about the worth of a kid that we go through so much to get them here. I'm gonna say "we" here because even though what my wife did was much harder, what I did is still probably the hardest thing I've done in my life. Hardest and best. That kind of trial is like a purifying fire; it's a scorching baptism that, should you make it through to the other side, clears away all the chaff and leaves only the things that matter. It gives you a chance to start over, to plot a direction with the incredible momentum of a birth to spur you on your way. Of course, the distractions of life come sneaking back soon enough; but that's why I like to take a moment to look back and remember that moment I became a father. Putting words to this stuff helps me see the path I perceived then, and the path I'm on now, and try to nudge them a little closer together.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On coloring like a boss

Lindsay and Addison have been gone for a week. Yeah, I've missed them, but not in the "I don't even know what to do with myself" way that some people describe. I was a solitary guy before I got married or had a kid, and though I usually spend my days with a three-foot side-kick and I see my wife frequently since we're both at home, solitude is still comfortably nostalgic for me. I may in fact have compared myself to Boo Radley in a recent interview.

But just because I like being alone doesn't mean I don't also like thinking about my family. I've spent a little time going through the old pictures on our camera, which are mostly of Addison and my wife. They're pretty people. I like looking at them.

Right before they left, I got a series of pictures of Addison coloring that I've particularly been enjoying. Here's the scene:
It's around one or two o'clock, and Addison and I have just returned from the gym. I want to go check my e-mail and talk for a minute with Lindsay, so I tell Addison to color for a minute.
I sort of lose track of time, and haven't been hearing any noises from downstairs, so after 15 or 20 minutes I tiptoe to the family room (if she hears me, she'll tell me she needs my help) and this is what I see:

Nice. She's productively engaged, she isn't trying to stick anything in the electrical socket, she's not coloring occult symbols on the walls. I sneak back to my room and get back on the computer. Another ten or fifteen minutes passes, and I decide to check on her again. 
I tiptoe out, and she's gone from coloring regular to coloring LIKE A BOSS. I mean, look at that stance. That coloring book doesn't stand a chance against her:

And as I watch, she switches from coloring like a boss to whatever the next level up from that is, something truly epic and hardcore:
Yeah, my daughter planks while coloring (maybe this shouldn't surprise me, given her history with this position). She's not even thinking about it. She's so into her coloring book that she unconsciously chooses a position that tenses and tones every muscle in her body, so that it can match the intensity of her coloring. This girl, she kills me.
Also, she does some ballet-looking moves. I guess it's in her blood, since both her mom and grammy were dancers:

For the fun of it, here's two memes. Before you know it, you'll see some football player doing one of these in the end-zone, and then it'll be everywhere.