Archive for category Family

Let Children Play

Debra Harrell became a social media celebrity when she was arrested for letting her nine year old play in a park without supervision

Debra Harrell became a social media celebrity when she was arrested for letting her nine year old play in a park without supervision

In a surreal story that made its way on Facebook, a South Carolina woman was arrested for child abandonment for allowing her little girl, age 9, play in a park all day while she worked at McDonalds to provide for the family.

Still, yeah, I get it.  Nine may be too young for that.  Though I’m pretty sure the odds of something bad happening to the girl would be greater if she rode in the car to her mom’s job and spent the day at McDonalds.   But the initial result – the woman was arrested, her daughter taken away and she lost her job  – was absurd overkill.

Luckily the backlash has gotten her reunited with her daughter and she’s back working as a shift manager at McDonalds.  She still has a court date ahead though – and if it wasn’t for social media spreading her story, who knows what would have happened!

It still says something about our society.   Everything is so controlled and regulated that parents have to worry that any misjudgment might get reported by some nosy adult.   An 11 year old didn’t want to go into the store so her mom ran in leaving the girl in the car just a few minutes.   An adult saw the child, called the cops, and the mom was arrested.   Huh?  The girl was happy, there was no abuse, but the police swooped in.

They said it was 85 degrees outside, the windows were closed and the car wasn’t running.   But the girl wasn’t hot, and hey – she’s ELEVEN!  I’ve known 11 year olds who babysit!  She can open the door and join her mom in the store if she wants.   It’s not like she’s a dog unable to operate the door handles.

When my kids went to day care I had to send food for lunch.   Both were somewhat picky eaters, so I made sure that I sent food they’d like.  It wasn’t always government approved healthy.  Luckily I don’t live in Manitoba where I could be fined for such a thing.  The unhealthy lunch in question?  Left over roast beef, potatoes, carrots, an orange and milk.   How could they feed their child such rubbish!  Luckily the day care gave her Ritz crackers to make it healthy.  I mean, HUH?

What this does, of course, is push parents away from allowing kids unsupervised creative play.  If I let my kids, aged 11 and 8, go on a bike ride around town, will someone think it’s unsafe and that they should be supervised?   If they go across the street to the playground, do I have to be there with them the whole time?

Of course not, kids need freedom to explore.  If every activity is supervised and controlled, they’ll not learn how to improvise and make do with whatever life gives them.  They’ll want some kind of formula or activity – or else be bored.

Since nature is so dangerous, parents rely on the safety of videogames.  It keeps kids inside and safe.

Since nature is so dangerous, parents rely on the safety of videogames. It keeps kids inside and away from all those dangers out in the world.

Parents respond to the societal push towards rigidity and control by allowing kids the freedom to do one thing nobody will get in trouble for: play video games.  You can shop, drive, or do anything with your kids heads focused on screens and nobody will bother you.  That is far more accepted than a little creative unsupervised free time.

The culprit here isn’t just the state, but all those businesses and companies that make money off of kids.  Nobody makes money when kids run out to explore the local stream or trails.  Yet if my 11 year old falls off his bike two miles from home, someone will certainly wonder why I would let him ride so far unsupervised.

Then there is fear.  Parents imagine what could happen, no matter how unlikely, and think it will if they don’t protect their kids.  People get so obsessed with safety that they lose a rational capacity to calculate probability.   Many activities that people think are dangerous are far more safe than a car ride across town.

When I was 11 I explored Sioux Falls on my bike from one end to the other, and I’d zoom down hills reaching 40 MPH (I had a speedometer), having to be really careful no cars were coming down the cross streets.  I’d spend hours away from home, stopping by friends, exploring or just being a kid.   Yes, I’d read, watch too much TV and sometimes have to be pushed out the door.  But no one was going to arrest my mom when my sister and I would walk to the park when I was nine (and she was seven).


Schools play into this by demanding more work, tests, and seat time, leaving kids only a few hours a day for real play – and much of that gets taken up by lessons, activities or clubs.   Recess ceases in sixth grade, and parents complain about early release days.   I don’t mean this as criticism of the schools or teachers – I was President of the PTA last year at my younger son’s school and really admire the work they do.

And in rural Maine I think we have a bit more common sense.  When my youngest was in first grade he was playing with a nerf gun in the car – and proceeded to walk into school with it.  My eldest told me that he took the gun in so I headed back to the school.  The staff thought it was funny – and apparently my son turned it in voluntarily, realizing he shouldn’t have it there.  But geez, in some suburban areas I’d probably have been arrested!   Sending a kid to school with a toy gun!  And, of course, many would think I was a horrible parent, worthy of jail, for letting my first grade son have toy weapons!

So I don’t worry that the parent police will get on my case here, and there are local streams, trails, and play areas for the kids to explore.  Yes, unlike me they have to wear bike helmets when they ride, but at least they can ride.  Let kids play.  They’ll have enough serious time when they have to pay the bills and work.  This time should be magical.  They need to be in nature, not just learn about the environment.  And give parents leeway to decide what their kid can handle.

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What’s Love Got to do with it?

Throughout time the idea of love has confounded psychologists, philosophers, romantics and skeptics.   What is love?  Is it, like Tina Turner claims, “a second hand emotion?”    Is love, pure as Paul claims in Corinthians:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

We live in a society where the divorce rate is over 50%, where the idea of love is brandished around in greeting cards and songs, but little understood.  I’m thinking about this after a three month process of breaking up with someone after 16 years, going through a divorce, moving to a much smaller apartment, and making decisions involving kids and the future.

Lest anyone feel sorry for me, the process was amicable, the right course of action, mutually agreed upon, and we remain friends.  That adds poignancy to the question, however.  At some point in our discussions we had to deal with the question that maybe being able to not hate the other person and just co-exist was as good as it gets.   “There are lots of miserable people staying together,” one of us said.   Perhaps the idea of love is deceptive.

We still decided to separate – the lack of a deep relationship had yielded stagnation and wasn’t good for the kids.  We realized that mutual annoyances and distance/disagreements were casting a pall over the household that was bad for everyone.   Yet once we did think we loved each other.   Did we?  Was it an illusion?

Romantic love is often separated from other forms of love.   I have a love of life, a love of humanity, a deep love for my children.   Parental love is unconditional, romantic love tends not to be.   Love of others, life and humanity is almost always filled with conditions – I love my fellow human until the bastard cuts me off in traffic.  We’ll profess love for others and the sanctity of life until there’s  a war and then people even rejoice over dead civilians.

Romantic love is said to have stages.   For about four months we enjoy the “halo effect,” a sense that the other is the best thing that ever came into our lives, not noticing the faults and channeling our desire for love and connection into a belief it’s there.   What we don’t know about the other, we fill in with our imagination of what an ideal should be.   And with each side trying to impress the other, both play the part of the other’s ideal, reinforcing the halo.

Then reality bites.   People spend more time together, they let their true selves show.    Soon disappointment sets in, resentment over differences, and walls are built.  Love becomes conditional, the other needs to change how they behave, or if they don’t, their habits irritate.   At that point love can go two directions.   It can fade due to the building of walls and hidden resentments, or the couple can try make it work.  The important question: how do you make it work?   How do you know if love is fading due to choices made in the relationship, or some kind of deep incompatibility?

I think the answer is to let go of fear and embrace acceptance.   That doesn’t mean it will work, but one will learn more quickly if there is real incompatibility and be able to avoid falling into a delusion.

Fear prevents us from showing our true selves to others.  Early on, we’re afraid perhaps of losing the other.   So we hide things, don’t admit true feelings, push aside annoyances, hide bad habits, and aren’t fully honest.   We’re afraid the other will judge us for our past, and thus we might rationalize not opening up by saying the past doesn’t matter, rather than discussing ones’ full self and experiences.   Fear causes us to create an image for our lover or mate, and not be true to ourselves.

The mirror image of fear is not accepting the other for who he or she is.   That lack of acceptance, of course, creates incentive for the other to hide part of themselves.    Love requires accepting the other person as they are.   If love is there both people will change in some ways and in fact grow together over time.  That can’t happen without acceptance.   Without acceptance walls form and people will grow apart rather than together.

To be sure, this kind of ‘unconditional love’ isn’t possible for all couples.   But if they are open, honest, and accepting, they can find out early that it just isn’t right for them to be together and they won’t fall into the trap of fooling themselves by thinking it’s good and then wondering what went wrong.   They can recognize early the reality of their incompatibility and not let it destroy their ability to be just friends.    And if they find out that they really do fit and “get” each other, they can build a path to a long term loving relationship.

Or that’s my theory.   Obviously, I haven’t made it a reality.    I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and not let go of the belief that true long term love is possible.

My blog posts may reflect more on my personal situation rather than politics in coming weeks because with all this going on politics has seemed rather boring.   I’m really doing fine – it’s emotional at times, and I stopped blogging for awhile just to handle all the change.   But life is about change, and our quality of life reflects how we respond to change.


The Christmas Season Begins

Appropriately the traditional Thanksgiving Day parade is associated with Macy’s, a retailer.

Today Americans travel to be with family and/or friends to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays.   Most people will roast a turkey, enjoy potatoes, veggies, dinner rolls, pies, and various family delights.   Even the most secular of families will talk about giving thanks for what they have.   Many families will take out the Christmas decorations, ready to celebrate “the holiday season,” where the Christmas values of peace, love, and goodwill overcome greed and selfishness.

One need not be Christian to appreciate the Christmas spirit, expressed in everything from Ebeneezer Scrooge’s visit from the spirits of past, present and future to George Bailey’s journey in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Kids get it when they watch the Grinch’s heart expanding as he hears the Whos celebrate joyfully even after he stole their Christmas loot.    The Christmas spirit reflects a belief there is something more important than material possessions and the daily grind.   Love, connection to others, and a sense of the spiritual combine to point to a more joyful and meaningful mode of living.   The eternal trumps the temporal, values trump self-interest.

Target is one of many stores opening on Thanksgiving evening as work and shopping intrude on family

Yet today, even on Thanksgiving many “big box”  stores are opening, usually at around 8:00 or 9:00 PM.  Those not opening today will do so early tomorrow, sometimes at midnight or 2:00 AM, so that shoppers can get the best bargains of the year, so called Black Friday.   Stories of violence often accompany Black Friday — shoppers being trampled as they rush to get bargains, people fighting over the last of a specially priced item.

Then for the next month malls will be full, kids will be adding to Christmas wish lists and then feel deprived if they don’t get most of what they wanted.  Stress will grow as people churn out Christmas cards as an obligation, juggle party schedules, deal with shows and activities planned for the kids, and try to get that shopping done.   The music, lights and smells of the season will offer momentary distractions, but far too often the Christmas spirit gets defined by materialism and stress.

If stress gets too intense it feels like the evil Santa above is hounding us!

Peace on earth, good will to men. “Yeah, yeah, but I have to shop, get this package to the post office, and damn, we got a Christmas card from them?  Sigh.  I think I have one more I can send out.”     “Dad, why does he have five more presents than me, it’s not fair!” It’s the most wonderful time of the year.   Yeah, for the retailers!   For the small shops in the mall!

A savior is born in Bethlehem.   Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans and others might smile and nod, but don’t get meaning from that.   Christians will, but many will quickly pivot “hey, that’s the true meaning of Christmas, but I have to go get supplies for our party…why’d we invite so many people…”

What irony!   The Holiday most focused on our better selves has become the most stressful and materialistic time of the year.  Instead of learning the value of sacrifice and sharing, children shout “me, me, me” and fantasize about the stuff they’ll get.   Starting Thanksgiving evening we embrace raw consumerism in the extreme — “you are what you own, and today you can get great deals!”

What if people decided to reject that and grab the true Christmas spirit instead?   For Christians the answer is right there — the teachings and traditions provide a guide of how to steer clear of crass consumerism and materialism.

One does not have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the joy inherent in the Christmas spirit: Love for others, good deeds, giving without needing to receive, forgiveness, family, friends, and connections.  The Christmas spirit appeals to the part of ourselves that rises above self-interest and sees meaning in core human values rather than the daily routine or material possessions.  After all, early Christians choose late December in order to mesh the holiday with already existing pagan traditions.   The holiday spirit belongs to all of us, not just Christians.

The holiday spirit is a sense that life has a meaning beyond our mundane material existence.   If one cannot bring oneself to believe in something specific, then imagine — imagine the best each of us can be and the best for humanity.    The boundary between faith and imagination is blurry and perhaps non-existent.

Allow the season to be filled with beautiful, natural, spiritual joy.

The Christmas spirit is truth, even if one rejects the story behind the holiday.   That spirit can be tapped to defy the stress, material excess and greed that too often subverts this time of the year.   That spirit is here, inside each of us, and in the songs, movies, and ideals expressed this time of year.  Grab the Christmas spirit!  Share it.   Make this a season of joy rather than greed.   Let love and human connections trump selfishness and consumerism.    A family snowball fight always beats a day roaming the malls.   And maybe, just maybe, we can enter 2013 renewed rather than spent, focused on values rather than stuff, and thankful for our family, friends, and the lives we’ve chosen to lead.


The Stress of the Moment

I am usually a diplomatic person who tries to treat everyone with respect.  But I am sure there is at least one person who doesn’t see me that way today.

The morning routine here is good, but gets stressful towards the end.    Check the backpacks, get the boys to brush their teeth and comb their hair, and then load the car.  Then I have to get them to turn off the TV, get their shoes on and finally make it to the car.   They sometimes fight, forget things at the last minute, and some days like today we get a bit late start.

The ten minute drive into school was good though.  Dana (6) was singing as loud as he could to Dennis DeYoung’s “100 Years from Now,” while Ryan (9) explained his theories on Nerf guns.   I get to the Mallett school (K-3) and survey the scene.   Many parents pull over and park and walk their kids to the door.   Needing to get Ryan to Cascade Brook (4-6) school down the road, I look to see where I can pull over for a quick drop off.   I pass the cars on the side, watch for any blinking lights saying someone is pulling out, and then pull over.

Dana knows the routine.  He grabs his backpack, I get out and give him a quick hug.   The time the car stops to when I pull out is thirty seconds at most.   Only this time as I’m about to say good bye a young blonde woman comes up to me.

The scene. Cars pull up to the side, it’s very efficient, especially compared to Cascade Brook’s drop off/pick up

“I know you’re in a hurry,” she says politely, “but you’ve cut me off the last three days.”

I’m dumbfounded.  No way.   No way did I cut someone off today, or the last three days.   She’s wrong.   I say “Oh, OK,” and then turn to say goodbye to an amused Dana who runs off to school.

“I know you’re in a hurry, I just wanted to tell you…” she repeats.  I mutter an OK, look at my watch, see I’ve got less than five minutes before Ryan is tardy.  So I don’t look back and get in my car and drive away, feeling unfairly accused.

Of course, I realize as I drive to the second school that I handled it all wrong.  I should have smiled and said, “if I’m cutting you off I apologize, I really am careful to try to watch for other cars, but I’ll pay more attention.”    Seven seconds.  A friendly response to a polite complaint.  She’d have been happy, I’d have been proud of myself and no worries.

Instead, I spent some time indignant.  What?   Cut her off?  I don’t think so!   I watch carefully.   Perhaps she’s one of those who gets confused and stops and doesn’t do anything for awhile.  Of course I’d pass her if that’s what she does.   No way.   I’m a very good driver.   I take safety in front of the school seriously!

Then as I realized that I was letting my mood go to a dark place I suddenly knew I’d let stress cause me to to switch focus from the situation – the relation between me and a stranger – to myself alone.   I was being criticized in a stressful moment in front of my kids for something I didn’t think I did.   How dare she!

Of course, that’s a me-focus.   That happens in times of stress.   It’s wrong.   It’s defining a situation egotistically, as if the only person that mattered was me.   Instead I should have thought, “I really don’t think I did that, but she obviously does, she took the courage to come to me and talk politely, and I should respect that.   I can err, maybe I did drive in a way that could be seen as ‘cutting her off.'”

But, of course, the insight comes too late.   I acted like a hurried jerk, and she probably has a very negative opinion of me.

My take aways:  1) I have to remember this when others act rudely or brusquely to me.   Nine times out of ten people who behave as jerks are really decent people caught up in the stress of the moment, egotistically reading a situation as being “all about me” rather than relational.   I just got a reminder of how easy it was to fall into that trap, I have to show understanding when others do the same; and 2) I have to keep working on my own behavior.

I think most of my friends would have been surprised that I didn’t respond nicely to the lady – they’d say, “wow, that’s not the Scott I know.”   Yet while I may act that way a lot less than I did when I was younger, it still comes out.   I have to catch myself earlier, pull myself back and say “think of the other person and the situation, not just your own emotions.”

And I have motivation.   I was bothered by my moment of weakness all day, feeling regretful about being rude — not mean, I didn’t really say anything to her, I just brushed her off — and wishing I could replay that scene with behavior I could respect.

But hey – I can blog about it.   Who knows, maybe she’ll stumble on this blog.   Or, for those of who are reading this, keep in mind the next time someone responds rudely that it doesn’t mean he or she is a bad person.   Sometimes the stress of the moment brings out weakness.


Vacation: San Juan, Puerto Rico!

A series of polls that cascaded into each other and two hot tubs was a new kind of swimming experience!

Usually when we’ve thought about trips to the Caribbean we’ve hit a price barrier.   It’s too expensive, or the inexpensive places are not necessarily best with kids.    This year, we finally figured out what to do: go during hurricane season.   That’s the “low season,” and many wonder why anyone would want a tropical get away in mid-August?   That’s for the middle of winter, isn’t it?

Not at all.   At least not in the case of San Juan, Puerto Rico.   Not only is the tropical paradise just as enjoyable and real in August as it would be in February, but the place has so much to offer that we only got a taste in our five days there.  I definitely want to go back.

First, the hotel.   We stayed at the Caribe Hilton (pictured in the previous post ‘Back Next Week’), located on the shore with both an ocean beach and the series of pools pictured above.   The deepest pool is only about 4 feet, another is 3 1/2, and then there’s a toddler pool.   There is also a bar pool, serving drinks.    We ran up a bar tab of about $70 in five days.  That was a total of five drinks…averaging half a drink per person, per day.   But they were delicious!

The way to book this is to go to and book something for Mid-August probably into September.   That’s the hurricane season, but most hurricanes go around Puerto Rico.  Statistically, it’s a risk worth the very good deal you’ll get.   They’ll find cheap plane tickets and offer a rate that was 33% less than what Orbitz or Expedia were asking.   If you’re really worried about hurricanes they had an option for a 75% “cancel for any reason” insurance.   This makes a top class resort affordable, as long as you don’t go crazy buying drinks or eating at their on premises restaurants.

In five days we managed to fit in three distinct themes.    With kids aged 6 and 9 we spent a lot of time swimming on the beach and in the pools (which the kids absolutely loved — they would have been satisfied spending the day swimming at the hotel if we’d let them).   We also avoided late nights and didn’t over schedule.

The first theme was Old San Juan.   The city is remarkable.   We went three three of the five days, exploring, eating, and visiting the favorite square of the kids: plaza de armas.

Plaza de Armas – pigeon feeding time!

At Plaza de Armas the boys loved feeding the pigeons.   The pigeons would perch on their arms, sit on their head, and they’d have fun with a bunch of other kids throwing seeds out to the birds.   San Juan locals sold seed for $1 a bag.   The same folke were at the square all three times we visited, hanging out and selling seeds.    I admit I was a bit discomforted by the enthusiasm the kids showed for these “flying rats.”   But a promise of going to where the pigeons are got them out of the pool and willing to venture into the city!

Old San Juan had charm, two amazing fortresses, beautiful streets and homes, and delicious food.   We stopped at tacky souvenir shops as well, but it was fun to explore.

Cola Falls, in the Rain Forest

We also booked a half day tour of the rain forest, El Yunque.  It was good in that it gave us a real taste of what the rain forest has to offer.  We stopped at the Visitor Center, Cola Falls, Yokahu Tower for some distance views, and took a short hike.   Alas, it was quick — next time (and there WILL be a next time) we’ll rent a car and explore it further.  We didn’t get to the falls you can swim in because it was too long of a hike or this tour.

Our short tour of the rain forest left us wanting more

On our last full day there we went snorkeling.    We used East Island excursions, which picked us up at the hotel with a van and took us to the coast near Fajardo.    There we boarded a catamaran for a 45 minute jaunt first to an island with a beautiful sandy shore.   We learned to snorkel there, saw a small reef, and had fun swimming and eating lunch on the boat.  15 minutes away was  a larger coral reef which was beautiful.   Between it, schools of fish, and about an hour of swimming in the beautiful ocean, the trip was well worth its while!

Practicing snorkeling near an island – paradise!

The boat itself – East Wind – was an experience.   They had free drinks (weak ones), food, and made the voyage seem like a party.  The kids could order pina coladas as well, albeit sans alcohol.   There was a water slide, and the crew kept things fun.   It was a worthwhile excursion – I’d recommend East Island Excursions to anyone traveling there.   We wanted to go on their bioluminescent bay tour, which would have been great given we were there at a new moon.   But it was from 3:30 to 1:00 AM, and ultimately we decided it would be a bit much for the kids.   Next time.

The East Wind sail boat took us to our snorkeling destinations

In all, it was a relaxing and enjoyable trip.   It gave us a taste of what Puerto Rico has to offer, and allowed us to enjoy a resort experience for a very reasonable cost — our room at the hotel at the Bangor airport was more for one night than the Caribe Hilton!  (We needed that because we took off at 7:00 AM, and had to leave our car there for the duration of the trip).

We didn’t experience all the rain forest has to offer, the San Juan night life, or as much of Puerto Rican cuisine and culture as we’d have liked.   We almost rented a car to explore the island, but decided not to.  With kids and a lack of knowlege of what the place has to offer we weren’t overly adventurous. Yet we gathered info that we can use for our next trip.   Ahhh, now I have to get ready for the new semester, feeling refreshed, revived and well tanned!

My cheap camera can’t do it justice, but this was the view from our balcony that I enjoyed every night, sitting and just taking in the atmosphere!

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My Father and Me by Ryan Erb

My son Ryan is in the third grade, and as an assignment he had to write something about his father to give me for Father’s Day.   Needless to say, it made me feel real good, even if he does emphasize buying things a bit much!  This is what he wrote:

My Father and Me by Ryan Erb (for Father’s Day)

My father has (many times) gone out of his way to help me.  Most recent of all, he spent FIFTY dollars to fix my favorite video game.  Also, he is understanding when I can’t go ghost hunting (new hobby) and I get mad.  He listens to me when I have something to say.  He helps me on everything.  And he never gives up (except homework).  He has bought a lot of stuff for me and he’s still buying more.  Like ghost hunting equipment.  Life is good.

I think my father (Scott Erb) is the best father ever.  It’s like he knows the future of what will happen and what I want to happen.  I also love that if I fail, he doesn’t regret having me as a son.   He taught me a lot of things over the years, like riding a bike or using a video camera.  There ain’t nothing he can’t do!  His attitude is so strong that if he were falling out of an airplane to his death he’ll say “Wow, it’s a nice view up here.”   Life is good.

So I thank him for all that and much, much more.  It’s like I was given super luck or something to have him.  He’s so nice.  He is going to take me ghost hunting at Nordica!  Yes.  He literally reserved Nordica for me to ghost hunt.  Yes, a real haunted location.  He’s even letting me drive his car!  And we use ghost hunting equipment!  (You already know).  He tries everything to make me happy!  He took me (when I was five) to Chucky Cheese when our cat died.  Life is good.

I am like way too lucky to have him as my guardian.  I appreciate everything that he did for me.  Our bond is UNBREAKABLE.  I mean literally.  Thank you so much Father.  Life is good.

You comfort me Dad and when I need it, you do everything you can.  Sometimes I feel like you’re magic, you’re so good.  Life is good.


You comfort when I need it.

You help me when it happens.

You bring joy and happiness right into me.

You come under, and over obstacles for me.

You are more than just a father.

You are mine.


Pure Beauty

I haven’t posted much lately because I’ve been exceedingly busy.   However, busy need not mean stressed out or overwhelmed.  Today was an example.

At 2:45 PM Tuesday afternoon I got to Mallett school to pick up my sons Ryan and Dana (third grade and Kindergarten) to head to the local mountain, Mt. Titcomb.   Dana’s doing a program put on by the University called “Snow Cats,” teaching kids grades K through 3 to ski.   Ryan skied on his own with his friend Avery.

We had to wait for Avery to arrive by bus (he’s in 4th grade, at the school up the road), and with the snow falling we had a slow drive to the mountain.   Once there it was a bit chaotic.   Get the kids stuff together, make sure we have everything, lug it all to the lodge, stash the skis and poles outside, and then get equipment on.    The lodge was buzzing with activity and kids clomped around in their ski boots and got dressed.    I first got Dana to his group lesson, made sure Ryan and his friend were all set, then I got my equipment from the car so I could ski.

I enjoyed two runs, only to have Ryan and Avery tell me they were hungry and wanted to go in and get a snack.  So I went in, helped them get situated, and then went back out to ski.   “Dad, I need six dollars, and Avery only has $5 and needs one, can you loan him a dollar?”   They were in line and I opened my billfold and handed out the money.   The guy behind the counter laughed, “that’s a good way to get popular.”   Ryan beamed, “I’ve got the best dad.”   I smiled, and convinced the boys were set, went out to ski.

It was marvelous.   I especially enjoyed going up the slow T-bar.   Light snow was falling, but that phrase doesn’t do it justice.   The snow was a pure white, glistening in the lights designed to illuminate the trails.   It was twilight, lending a beautiful bluish aura to the trees, snow and lights.   Alongside that were the sounds of kids having fun, talking, laughing, sometimes screaming…perfect.   Pine trees covered in snow, a layer on the trails, the views…how can it get any better than this?

I would see Dana with his group, just turned six but master of the mountain.   Ryan and his friend Avery would go over jumps or trails through the woods.   I’d ski down, enjoying the mix of speed, control and beauty all around.

The light puffy snow kept falling the whole time, a fairy tale like atmosphere.    No wind, reasonably warm temperatures (mid 20’s), an absolutely perfect evening.   Part of the atmosphere was the sense of community that defines Titcomb.  It might be going up the lift with Pete who was there with his family, or Clarissa who was there with hers, or with a stranger carrying a huge drill bit, joking he was a dentist  (He had a walkie talkie and was apparently heading to repair something).   There were hellos and quick exchanges with other parents, and then a quick financial transaction with Niki to support the PTA fundraising effort (among other things I’m chair of our PTA fundraising committee).    She caught me taking equipment back to the car at the end and in the falling snow wrote a check in the parking lot before we went to coral our respective kids.     Farmington, skiing together.

At 6:00 it was over.    Chaos again, get the kids together, lug equipment to the car almost falling in the icy parking lot, dealing with rambunctious kids full of energy despite over two hours of skiing.   Then after leaving I had to turn around and go back because in the haste I’d left my helmet in the lodge.   It was there, the cleaners pointed it out to me.    In the car the talk turned to video games, Pokemon trades, and the like.   The mood was happy though, the kids had fun.

Those four hours from 3:00 PM to almost 7:00 PM were perfect.   Not that nothing went wrong…sometimes the T-bar stopped because a young kid fell off, my toes were a bit cold at times, and lugging equipment can be a pain.    It was perfect because it was such a joyful experience.  The pure beauty of the evening, the snow, the woods, the mountain, the people.

As I was going up the T-bar on one run I thought to myself, “there is nowhere I’d rather be right now, and this moment is as good as it can get” – even though objectively I was simply being hauled up the mountain by a t-bar.   “This makes life worth living,” I was thinking cruising down the mountain, even though it was just one of many runs.  I can’t explain the emotion, it comes from all the ingredients together – community, beauty, movement, friends and family.   They permeated every aspect of the evening, even granting magic to a boring t-bar ride.

Sometimes life is just absolutely wonderful.


Second Wind

Thursday was a snow day and as I did laundry, peeled carrots and potatoes for the roast I’d cook in the slow cooker, and did the dishes I felt proud of the kind of role model I was for my two sons.   Dad does the housework while mom’s out working!   I think at least once I muttered, “what would mom say about this” as I reached down to get an apple core Ryan carelessly let fall.

Unfortunately I’m often much better at “women’s work” than “men’s work.”   When I fix something around the house it arouses incredulous amazement from my wife.     An average 8th grader in shop class handles tools better than I do.   Now, when it comes to hooking up computers, stereo systems and things like that I’m good.   I do handle the lawn mower and take pride in my shovel/snow blower abilities.   When we go somewhere, I’m usually the one behind the wheel.   But beyond there the stereotypes end.  I tend to take care of the children more (my wife’s job has far more stress), get up at night when they’re sick, drive them places, and I’m the one active in the PTA — a predominately women’s world.

My inability to handle the more manly chores is obvious to everyone.   I know that because a few years ago I reluctantly bought a chain saw because of the need to clear some small trees in our back yard.   I mentioned this in class and a student looked at me with shock, “don’t do it yourself, let me come and help, it’s dangerous!”   If you’re imaging a rugged woodsman like student you’re off base.   Her name was Addie and her concern was real.

“Don’t say that,” another student started, apparently worried about my masculine pride.   I however was suddenly nervous.   “Why,” I asked, “what can happen?”

“Well,” she began, “the big problem is kick back.   You have to know what you’re doing and how to hold it…”   I got home and read the safety manual carefully and then took a hatchet and got rid of the offending trees.   I’m no Ronald Reagan with a hatchet but at least it’s not a motor driven chain threatening to rip open my head.

Of course, everyone here has chain saws and uses them.   I’ve seen people with no goggles or head gear cutting down small trees as if they were simply wiping a table.    But I took Addie’s warning to heart.   My father in law and brother in law have gotten good use out of that chain saw when they’ve visited, but all I’ve used are the goggles that came with it.

It’s not like I’m lazy.   I’ve actually kept myself in pretty good shape and exercise.    I used to run seven miles a day, in fact — but when I turned 37 I hit a barrier where my knees and feet said, “OK, we’ve let you abuse us for half your life, we need a bit less stress.”   Since then most of my exercise has been on machines…step machine, bowflex, nordic track, etc.     Now my legs are starting to rebel against the step machine, I can no longer use it in ski season!

Growing up I worked in restaurants.  I was a hard worker.  I bussed tables, did dishes, made pizzas, prepped food, stocked salad bars, and did books for years.  I also worked for a law firm running errands — an experience that pushed me away from law school.   My talents are in the kitchen, cleaning, figuring out books and research.   I’ve also always been a teacher — even at age 17 I was in charge of training at Village Inn Pizza in Sioux Falls.

My dad was handy with tools and had been a carpenter before he became a businessman.   He also was a damn tough football player who despite being small might have had a decent college career if he hadn’t flunked out of Augsburg College his first year and joined the Navy.   He renovated the house and I’d help some.    Mostly I avoided it, and he didn’t push me.   He seemed to realize I really didn’t want to learn how to do all the stuff he was doing and I’d only slow him down anyway.     No question from a child gives a parent such mixed emotions as “can I help?”    It’s so great you want to, but it’ll double the time the task takes!   So beyond  steaming off wall paper and a few small projects, I didn’t learn what I should have.    I wasn’t into playing team sports, had no interest in the navy, and when I became a ‘professional student’ he tolerated it with grace.   As the son of a German Luthern Minister, he didn’t want to put me under the pressure to conform that he grew up with.

In cities you hire people to fix your car, renovate your house, repair a leaky toilet, cut down rouge trees, landscape the yard, install flooring, and do just about everything beyond what requires a screw driver and hammer.   That made sense to me — that’s capitalism right?   You specialize in something, earn money and hire people to do the things you’re not good at!    Here in Maine, though, that sticks out.   Doing it yourself is something people take pride in.   And, I grudgingly admit, it seems to produce well rounded pragmatic people who understand life a bit better because they do more of the every day work.

I also neither hunt nor fish.   I wouldn’t mind killing the animals, mind you.   A former girlfriend told me she imagined that ground beef came packaged in plastic that you could pluck from some kind of tree — she didn’t want to think about the slaughterhouses.   I don’t harbor such illusions.  But to take a dead animal carcass, cut it up, deal with the blood, the internal organs…no way.   Same way with fish.  I wouldn’t mind pulling them out of the river, but actually handling them?   Yuck.   I’ll just get my fish wrapped up at the store, eyes, bones and internal organs long since removed.

It’s not like I couldn’t do these things.  If I were with a group of hunters and one told me, “cut into that deer,” I’d be able to handle it.  I’d probably feel proud of myself and say “that’s not so bad.”   My wife’s told me how easy it is to gut a fish.    But I set up barriers to getting to the point where I actually do such things — why leave my comfort zone?

And that’s the problem: I’m stuck in my comfort zone.    I work on my classes, read blogs and books, follow the news, play with the kids, struggle with my research and do housework.   When looked at that way, I come to the awful conclusion that I’ve become a boring person.   I do participate in travel courses almost yearly to Germany or Italy — nice, comfortable destinations that I know well.  Even my global travel is solidly in my comfort zone!    When the semester is not in session I’m teaching overload classes and my hobby is this blog.   It’s not that the comfort zone is bad, but it’s become too, well, comfortable!

So this year one resolution is going to be do force myself to engage in new activities.   I may not skin a bear, but perhaps I’ll go out and fish, build something or even use my chain saw.   I need to get back in the mood I was in graduate school, exploring new ideas and ways of doing things; I need to find my second wind.

When I was younger spending some time in my comfort zone was a luxurious break from building a life.   Now that I’m over 50 it’s a dangerous addiction that could cause me to miss out on the things I’ve not yet done.   That has to change!


Finding and Seeking

I am good at finding things.   When the remote is missing, my wife can’t find a book she’s been reading or one of my sons is missing his left shoe, they ask me where it is.   They often don’t bother looking for things themselves, I’ve heard my eldest say “dad where is the remote” as he walked down the hall to the living room.

The reason I am good at finding things is that I’m even better at misplacing things.   I’d like to blame getting older, but I’ve always been this way.   When I was 16 I would lose my car keys at least once a day.    I am absent minded and always have been.   That simply means that my mind tends to be thinking about ‘what’s coming’ while I’m finishing whatever I’m doing.

My wife is not that way.   This was made clear to me the other day while we were looking for part of a defective video game we needed to return.    As I was looking for it I started opening a drawer on the entertainment center.   “Why would it be there,” she demanded.    The question left me speechless.   She repeated it, not without some irritation.

You see, she’s not absent minded.   When she’s done with something she puts it where it is supposed to be and double checks to make sure it’s there.   She’s orderly, she knows where each object should be and can tell if it’s even slightly out of place.   “Why is the salt shaker on this said of the oven?” she might ask.   Oh yeah, I think, we do have a salt shaker, don’t we!

The question “why would it be there” struck me as absurd.   One thing you learn when you misplace things often is that you almost never will know why something is where it is until you find it.   “Oh yeah, I walked into the boiler room while talking on the phone, that’s why the phone’s in there.”   Once you’ve checked the places you think an item should be, all you have left is places in which you have no clue why they might be there.

One time I was finishing up an egg and cheese sandwich when I walked to the refrigerator, sandwich in hand, to refill my water.   The phone rang.   I put what was left of my sandwich on top of the refrigerator as I walked over to the phone.   After a nice 10 minute conversation I went back to the table with my glass of water and saw my plate was empty.   Odd, I thought, didn’t I have some sandwich left?   Looking around the kitchen there was not a trace of an egg and cheese sandwich so I figured I must have downed the last piece before answering the phone.

Two days later I hear “what the heck is THIS doing on the refrigerator.”   My wife is giving me an accusatory look, holding a small bit of an old egg and cheese sandwich.

“What’s that, that’s not mine,” I protested.

“Really,” she said, obviously not believing me.   “It was on the top of the fridge, did the boys put it ther?.”   This was a few years ago when the oldest was probably about 4 so I did find it unlikely that they would have stored a sandwich there.

“Well, I didn’t…” I started indignantly, irritated about being falsely accused.    Suddenly I stopped and sheepishly added, “oh wait, that is mine.”

My wife didn’t congratulate me for acknowledging the obvious.   Instead her face said “why would someone put a sandwich up on the fridge and if they did choose to do such a strange thing, why wouldn’t someone remember?!?”

Like I said she’s not absent minded.

Yet on those rare occasions where she’s distracted enough to actually not put something in the right place, I’m usually the one to find it.   I’ve had practice finding things.   The first rule is “it’s probably under something.”   Most people look for things by looking around the room.   Many times a sheet of paper or a napkin might cover a set of car keys.    The second rule is to check out the ‘usual suspects.’   For instance, I misplace my glasses about twice a week.  OK, twice a day. Sigh, to be honest, twice an hour.    So I check – by my computer, downstairs at my desk, on the dresser, on the telephone table near the entrance…90% of the time it’ll be at one of those places, often under something.

Another rule — and this is something that orderly people don’t get — is that getting irritated about not finding something only makes it harder to find.   I think it’s up there with the law of karma in cosmic importance.   When my son angrily stomps around looking for his DSi he fails to notice that it’s on the edge of the table he’s standing beside.   Not that my son is orderly — he has my absent mindedness along with the temperament about misplacing things as an orderly person.   But  he’ll learn — we absent minded people do, in time.

In the end this means that if something is missing, I’m usually the one to find it, and I’ll often be working downstairs and hear “dad, where’s my DSi Pokemon game” screamed out.   I run up and find it.  That’s my role in the family.  I’ll mutter the fatherly, “you really need to learn to look for and find things yourself,” but I like feeling useful.

Yet sometimes even as a finder I fail.   Last August I finally went in and had spare car keys made — two sets.  I had lost my spare and had gone three months with just one set of keys.   That’s dangerous for an absent minded misplacer of things.   It cost $100 to get the new set ($25 for a third), and it didn’t even have the buttons to unlock the doors or open the trunk.    That’s a scandal in and of itself; when I was first driving I could go to Ace Hardware and have a new key made for 75 cents!

So I now had three sets of keys, one with the buttons and two new ones without.     I decided to use a key without the buttons as my main key, just in case.   Now I cannot find the FOB – the key with the buttons.  I only have my two spares.   That means I’ve now lost two FOBs and I have no idea where they are.   Moreover, it seems I lost the second shortly after I had the new spares made, a weird coincidence.  I believe with slight confidence that somewhere in this house two of those key FOBs are hiding from me.   I believe with a tad more confidence that they are somewhere in this universe.

I could ask my family to help me find them, but I suspect the response would be “where did you put them” or “why aren’t they where they’re supposed to be?”   Meanwhile, I’d best get a couple extras made, just in case.


Live Every Moment

Live every moment
Love every day
Because before you know it
Your precious time slips away
Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagen

Back in college I wrote a poem “Now Lasts Forever.”  I was intrigued by the idea that it is always now.    Time is an elusive concept.   Physicists tell us that time and space are really two parts of the same thing.    Photons — those particles of light illuminating the world — do not experience time, only speed.   For them now is literally all they experience.   That seems incomprehensible but we’re really in the same boat.   We experience now, even though the world changes around us.   My best definition of time is change – you know time has passed when things change.   Now lasts forever, change is constant.

I’ve argued before that it’s important to ‘live awake,’ to see beyond the kind of fog that society and culture can impose as we go through the day doing what we are supposed to do, caught up in various little battles and problems.   Angry at the traffic jam, snapping at the kids, fretting about work.   It’s easy to get caught up in that kind of parade of emotional noise, exhausted at the end of the day from the constant push and pull — or as a line in a different song puts it “overwhelmed by everything but wanting more so much!”

Live that way and days can pass in apparent meaninglessness.  Every battle or issue that arouses emotions and causes frustration gets forgotten, replaced by others that distract one from really living.   Then at some point it ends, and for most of us everything we’ve worried about and focused upon is forgotten faster than we  think possible.   Even those who make it to the history books do it in a caricatured manner.   People remember some deeds and details, but most of the daily concerns and activities are lost.   Now has changed, that past is gone completely.   We perceive left over traces in memory and artifacts, but little more.

No wonder some philosophers see the human condition as one of suffering and pain.   Wanting and yearning, desiring and struggling for something utterly unobtainable – a world that makes us happy.   When you depend on the world for happiness and contentment, the world will always disappoint.     Especially modern humans, stripped of the meaning community, faith and tradition provided in the past, face tremendous psychological difficulties coping with trying to make sense of this world and ones’ place within it.

The answer, it seems to me, is to take now seriously.   It is now.   Always.   Now lasts forever.  Change flows through the now.   It’s not that time is passing, now is simply changing form.    It’s not that we’re aging and gaining wisdom, we’re simply changing along with the world around us.

That lends perspective.   Why let ourselves be tied down by daily drudgery?   The reason things seem frustrating and boring is we create temporal cages.    We see time as well defined and important, and thus in any battle or fight the stakes are high.

What I try to do is appreciate the now whenever it occurs to me to do so.    When I put my six year old to bed he wants me to lay there and cuddle him.   The part of me wanting to build temporal cages thinks “I have to grade papers, I want to read a book, I don’t feel tired, he’ll keep me in here a half hour, he should fall asleep on his own…would my dad lay with me and cuddle…fat chance…”   If I do that my mind gets caught up in drifting, thinking about what I could be doing and the time passing.

But if I look in his eyes, hug him, look around the room and think of its beauty and how it will change, I appreciate being with my six year old son in his bedroom with the moon light flowing in, his soft skin against mine, or his little feet kicking my back, and it’s bliss.   I’m appreciating and living this moment, keeping my mind from wanting to leap out of the now.   After all, fretting about what one could be doing accomplishes nothing yet keeps one from appreciating what one is doing.

Walking downstairs through the rec room to my office I look at the wall colors.   What a beautiful house!   Where others might see a messy room, I see toys that someday will just be memories.   It’s here now, I’m in a point of time that has great joy if I let myself simply experience.    When I read student participation in discussion board for my on line course I realize I’m part of their education, they’re learning, taking time to write at something I constructed (this course and its structure) and we’re engaged in a real learning relationship.   It’s not “damn, I have to grade,” but WOW, I get to read these ideas and respond.   How cool is that?

Focusing on now is also helpful when one is irritated.  If I think, say, my son was treated unfairly in some situation I could fantasize everything from law suits to angry confrontations.   Those won’t happen, I’d just be wasting energy due to my own lack of satisfaction with the situation.   So instead I pause.  Look around.  The beauty of the place where I am at, the things around me, the joy inherent in this moment.    Last weekend skiing I had to go up the T-bar with my six year old.  One time towards the end of the day my legs and shoulders were in pain and the ride was excruciating.  I was dwelling on my poor aging aching body then suddenly thought…wow, Dana and I are going up the T-bar together, that is so great…look at the snow, the trees, the sunlight, this is such a beautiful place, so magical.   And it was – as I engaged in that celebration of the moment the pain didn’t disappear, but it didn’t register.

We joked and laughed going up the mountain.   That laugh.   So delightful.   Today after school Dana comes out and it’s the first really cold day this year, about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.   He takes off his jacket, “wow, it’s really hot out here,” he says.  (Note: I take full responsibility for that kind of behavior, he’s acting like me in that sort of instance.)    I try to get him to put his coat on but to no avail — though he does move quickly to the car.   Other parents might struggle and get mad “how can you take your coat off, you’ll catch your death of cold, get your coat on NOW!”   I just smile and watch the stubborn and independent little guy run to the car laughing.   The moment is beautiful.

The more I manage to appreciate each moment as it goes by, the better I feel, the more I find life truly beautiful and wondrous, the more magic seems to occur.    Monday was trash and recycling day.   We recycle monthly, so I had a whole bunch of Christmas boxes I got ready to go Sunday night.  I usually leave things up there Sunday nights but it was raining – and freezing rain is not a friend to things left outside.   So I knew I had to wake up Monday early.

I did – at 7:41.  The rest of the house was asleep.   The recycling people come early and I was afraid I’d missed them.  I rushed to the garage still wearing my lounging around the house pants and headed up to the road.   It’s about a quarter mile up to get to where I have to leave the stuff.   The recycling truck is there.  I get out, “glad I caught you,” I say as I hand the guy my broken down boxes.   He smiles, takes the stuff and I head back.

But as I do I have a huge smile on my face.  What a moment.  I woke up just in time!   Can that really be coincidence?   And I got the maximum sleep possible without missing it!   The air is crisp, the sky clear, and the world full of magic and beauty.   Living in the moment works.