A Family Tree, Nuts, and Poetry

Nothing bubbles the excitement within our house like autumn.

Our calendar explodes with plans and activities for the entire month of October:

Our children pose for a picture on a trail laden with fall leaves.
Our children pose for a picture on a trail laden with fall leaves.
  • Decorating the house for Halloween
  • Fall and Halloween-themed meals
  • Homemade apple pies and other apple treats
  • Walks in nature to surround ourselves the warm colors of fall
  • A visit to a pumpkin patch
  • A night of screaming at “haunted” trails and attractions
  • Pumpkin-carving
  • A fall or Halloween-related craft or art project
  • Costume-shopping and make-up practice
  • Visiting a cemetery or other local places of lore at night to tell ghost stories
  • Bonfires and keeping packet of hot dogs and marshmallows in stock
  • Trick-or-treating wherever and whenever we can fit it in (school, church parking lots, downtown special occasions – we are there)

This year, we were able to spend an afternoon at Bernheim’s ColorFest event. For a five-buck-per-car entry fee, we all enjoyed a $200 time. We launched pumpkins, folks, with a giant slingshot. We ran through a hay maze, made necklaces out of natural things foraged from the forest, made the prettiest mud pies you eva’ did see, played strange-looking instruments, and listened to fantastic live music (not crappy music, but actual sit-down-and-listen type of music).

Our older girls laughing seconds after launching a pumpkin through the air using a giant slingshot.
Our older girls laughing seconds after launching a pumpkin through the air using a giant slingshot.

At  some point while perusing the artists’ booths, we were asked if we wanted to write a poem about our favorite season, trees and the hippies who love them (we kind of fall into that category), or why we love nature. My teens and wife were leery, and hung back.

Our 7-year-old stepped up to take a pencil for a spin with her imagination at the wheel. She chose to write about winter (spelling corrected for easy reading) and is untitled:

Our youngest daughter's poem about winter.
Our youngest daughter’s poem about winter.

Winter

Cold, windy

Holiday, celebrate, no leaves

Santa goes to deliver presents

Mrs. Claus

She sometimes tells me she will be an artist like me, and other times she says she wants to be a writer like me. I tell her she can do both. I tell her she can do many things. I do.

Then I wrote a poem too. Moved by the moment of time with family I was fortunate enough to enjoy, I quickly penned the following (slightly edited from original):

Family Tree

My poem inspired by spending time with family in nature.
My poem inspired by spending time with family in nature.

Never a tree

More precious to me

Than mine, my family tree

Though it also be

Beyond flesh and bone

Its gold leaves

Bark

And nature

Are my home

I forget how much I enjoy writing poetry. I never forget how much I enjoy our Octobers, and that we don’t have too many left to spend like this.

My wife and youngest seconds tag-teaming the launch of their pumpkin.
My wife and youngest seconds tag-teaming the launch of their pumpkin.
Accurate pictorial representation of the wife and me.
Accurate pictorial representation of the wife and me.
Mud pie art.
Mud pie art.
A necklace made with flower petals, seeds, fuzzy leaves, and other items foraged from the forest.
A necklace made with flower petals, seeds, fuzzy leaves, and other items foraged from the forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I’m Never Camping Again

“Mom, camping is not a date; it’s an endurance test. If you can survive camping with someone, you should marry them on the way home.”

― Yvonne Prinz, The Vinyl Princess

I just needed to feel warm again.

We had arrived at the Green River campsite 18 hours earlier. My clothes were soaked with a salty combination of late September rain and sweat.

I trudged in muddy boots up the hill to the restroom that doubled as a shower house. I slipped behind a moldy curtain, an inch of light on each side where the curtain fell short of hiding my shivering body away from the world. I only brought shampoo with me and a roll of paper towels to dry my hair as we forgot to bring towels. I needed the steam and hot from the shower to quicken my blood and release the numb from my limbs. I’d scrub the dirt away later. I didn’t have anything to use anyway, unless I wanted to snap a pinecone from a tree out back.

I tilted my chin up to let the blessed water slip down my back, and opened my eyes. Three of the four corners in my tiny shower stall harbored well-fed spiders. They crouched in their webs watching my naked form.

“Stay there, guys, and no one loses a leg,” I warned them. I watched each of the spindly arachnids to ensure their obedience.

my-family-is-one-tent-away-from-a-full-blown-circus

The spiders were not a big deal, and they were not why I hated camping.

I hate camping because I’ve never had a good camping experience absent of something that makes me declare every single time that I am never going camping again. I’ve now camped four times, and all four times, something horrible happened ranging from a bad sting needing a steroid injection to a campsite take-over by a Mexican Baptist Convention in which the attendees were so excited for Jesus, they sang about it all night long.

You can imagine I wasn’t thrilled by our friends’ suggestions to gather up our children and go camping.

“It’ll be different,” they said. “You’ll be with us, and we always have fun.”

They were right of course. These people, Joe and Robin and their two girls, were our favorite family. We were all best friends – the kids too.

So I relented. My wife wanted to go, and the kids would love it. We set the schedule, divided the expenses, and packed the cars for Green River. Here is a rundown of events that followed:

Friday

  • We arrived at dinner time on Friday. The kids were hungry. We were losing light, and it began to rain a steady pour despite the weather claims for a calm evening. We managed to get our tents up.
  • 45 minutes out of the car, and one of two change of clothes I brought for the weekend were already soaked. I only had one hoodie. I lay shivering in the dark on a weird foam beach bed my mom gave us to use for the trip. My hip ached from laying on the hard surface.I wondered how the kids would do on a diet of chips for supper. We would not be able to light the wet wood in the fire pit to cook for our group of four adults and five children.
  • Our tent leaked. I felt around in the dark, and could feel large areas of wet and cold on our sleeping bags, pillows and blankets. The glow of cell phone lights revealed the tent was indeed leaking in several spots despite the rain protection tarp thing strapped to the top. The old, but expensive tent belonged to my father, who passed away six years ago. I never got the chance to use his camping stuff.
  • We realized at some point we forgot most of what we needed to make dinner. Even the heavy duty aluminum foil rested in the cabinet of our dark house. Not that it mattered. A fire won’t start in the rain.

thank-god-no-one-forgot-the-booze

  • When I informed our friends of our fumble, they realized they also left behind many of the groceries purchased specifically for the trip, including breakfast and cooking utensils.
  • No one forgot the booze.
  • Our first night “camping,” we ended up eating chicken strips and ice cream at a nearby Dairy Queen in our wet clothes. We voted on whether to buy another tent and stay the night or go home. I lost the vote.
  • At Super Walmart, a slippery, half-eaten kiwi slice took down and injured one of us in the produce aisle (identity omitted), but the rest of us got out unscathed. We purchased a new tent, re-purchased all the items both families left at home, then headed back to the soggy campsite.
  • The first night camping closed with my family sleeping on damp bedding in a dry tent wearing wet clothes. The cold ate at my face and hands, but the alcohol lulled me to sleep off and on throughout the evening.

Saturday

  • Saturday opened with pockets of rain that forced us to rush food back and forth from the table to the coolers and chairs back into vehicles throughout the morning.
  • Our 7-year-old girls found most of a large fish skeleton and decided to share their find with the whole family back at our campsite. They brought a trash can lid also assumed a treasure to place over it for protection.
me-with-7-year-olds
Me and the 7-year-olds (dead fish to the left unpictured)
  • The family dog lost her mind every time she saw another dog, which was often. She tried to eat the fish bones too.
  • The rain almost prevented us from cooking hot dogs for lunch, but we managed to get them cooked enough. We dubbed them “acid rain dogs” and ate them plain since we forgot condiments.
  • I took a hot shower with shampoo to thaw my body. I dried my hair with cheap paper towels we purchased from Super Walmart and the hand dryer next to the sink since no one thought to bring a hair dryer.
  • I suggested a walk to the beach to stretch and get away from the camp. The family competed in a rock skipping contest, collected geodes along the shore, and explored. The fun forced my bad attitude back into the corner of my mind for a while. The rain, for once, rested during this brief time, but it began again when we started the walk back.
  • My nerves snapped. I picked a fight with my wife, and we sat up until late talking before she crawled into a tent to try to sleep. Sleep was beyond me.
  • I sat by the embers in the fire pit and stirred them for heat. Midnight had long passed, and the camp was quiet, until I heard what sounded like someone dumping water onto the ground behind me. I turned in my chair to look, only to see my dear friend Joe peeing on a tree. I was grateful for the lack of lighting. I decided it might be best to also retire to the tent lest I witness other men emerging for middle-of-the-night peeing sessions.

Sunday

  • I awoke to a woman yelling at a boy about his clothes. I heard footsteps running away after his final defiant, “No!” The campsites were so compact, it sounded as if they were arguing right outside our tent.
  • I needed coffee and couldn’t find any more cups. So I dug through the trash until I found a used one. A hair clung to the coffee-stained side. A rock and possible bug hung out in the bottom. I used the water pump to rinse away the undesirables, then filled it with hot, brown caffeine. I took a seat by the pile of arranged sticks in the fire pit. Joe attempted to build a fire, but the lighter refused to strike. Joe informs me there were more coffee cups in the car.
file-oct-03-9-07-52-pm
Geode we found on the beach.
  • Not long after, we packed the cars and drove away from what many consider paradise. It definitely was not paradise for me.
  • Finally headed home, I shot my wife a pitiful look. She turned on the heat, took my hand and squeezed it.

I recognize there are no other people in the world whom I’d rather have shared this experience. Our family’s ability to come together, to overcome, and still laugh in the pouring rain spoke of a decade of deep friendship and connection. Between all these moments of feeling like my face would freeze off, we played card games. We light-heartedly poked fun at each other. We watched the kids make friends with other kids. The children got to run around like sprites in the forest and gather wood (since we didn’t bring nearly enough). We sang weird songs around the campfire, likely disturbed our neighbors, and didn’t give any cares. Robin and I snuggled – a lot. We huddled in our tent and shopped for Halloween-themed leggings during a heavy rain. We held deep discussions uninterrupted by the outside world.

take-a-sad-song-and-make-it-better

Then there were those beautiful moments on the beach. We were all dirty. Wet. Hungry. Tired. But we were together. We were one large family playing on a sandy shore brought together by love, not blood, and we were making the best out of a horrible series of unfortunate events. We had a sack-full of incredible memories to add to our trove.

That was the take-away, and it was a gem I’ll treasure far more than our 7-year-olds treasured that dead fish. But I still hate camping, and I still declare I am never going camping again.

 

 

My Wife Will Die Before Me

Barring a horrific car wreck, aneurism, or other freak accident in which life stumbles from my mangled body, chances are high that due to our 10-year age difference, my good health, and my wife’s Chiari Malformation, she will die before me.

My wife’s disease, Chiari Malformation, is a brain disorder that is progressive and dangerous. I could lose her as early as age 60 if not sooner if she needs a second or third brain surgery, which is 20 years from now. At that time, I’ll be 50, about the same age as my mother when she lost my dad to lung cancer. Watching mom experience life as a widow has been both equally inspiring and terrifying. She survived the trauma. She is happy. And although I know I would survive losing my wife and so would our children, I still cannot help but selfishly wonder what will happen to me.

These thoughts occur most often when I see older couples sitting down at the table next to me in a restaurant, one sweetly caring for the other. She will take his cane and lean it carefully against the wall. He will help her, fragile as a glass trinket, sit and scoot under the table. Sometimes these thoughts plague me when we hang out with our friends, many of them older than me. I get jealous. Most of them are partnered, taking fabulous vacations, and vivaciously pursuing life. What is going to happen to me when I am their age?

What about our children? In 20 years, our children will be 26, 33, and 35. I was 26 when I lost my father, and shrink away at the thought of our kids dealing with the death of a parent at a critical stage of adulthood as I did. Will I be strong enough to help them?

Depressed yet? Hold that dreary feeling for a moment before you let it drop.

I am lucky. My wife is the perfect fit for my quirky, anxious, creative, and loud personality. She is the yin to my yang. She is patient when I am not. She is the quiet pause when my brain storms. On our honeymoon, she jogged back to our car to grab granola bars and the container of expensive organic almonds to give to the homeless teens in the park. Though our children are at an age where we vomit money for their education and care, she pushed me to take the risk of quitting my job and pursue my dreams. She loves me with a ferocity written about in novels and screenplays.

Yes. I have accepted the likelihood that my wife will die much too young. She may be robbed of seeing daughters marry and meeting grandbabies. I will be widowed before I should be expected to be ready. I will be far from retirement age, with plans all laid out for how she and I will travel; plans that will likely never come to fruition.

But even knowing what fate has in store, I would never trade living every single moment with this incredible human being for the next 20 years for anyone or anything else. One breath of a moment with her is worth the pain of a million absent her.

I am blessed.

Trading Bandwidth for Bonding

My family on a black out Friday snapped a quick picture before putting cell phones away in favor of family time.
My family on a black out Friday snapped a quick picture before putting cell phones away in favor of family time.

Story originally published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less” on April 19, 2016. 

At our house, we can watch T.V. shows and movies on four television sets, two tablets, two computers and five cell phones. We can play games on all thirteen of these “smart” devices too.

But when I walk into the room and see all of my children, who are six, twelve and fourteen, with their heads bent over slick screens, fingers typing away and faces awash in artificial blue light, it doesn’t feel “smart” to me. It feels unnatural.

I’ve read the blog posts by “experts” wagging their fingers at parents who allow their children hours of butt-sitting, game-playing, social media-scouring and television-watching time on screens large and small. “It’s unhealthy,” they say. “It promotes sedentary lifestyles. There’s no brain enrichment.”

I’ve read the other blog posts by “experts” claiming time on electronics is time well spent. It can be a time for learning, a time for socializing with friends or expanding creativity and imagination. My six-year-old would gladly testify in a court to defend Minecraft as more than just a game. My older girls would swear social media is the best way to get to know their friends, “No different than you, mom,” referring to when I spent hours talking on the phone with the cord stretched all the way into the closet.

I’m no judge and jury. I convict myself guilty of too much time on social media and reading news websites. What I do know is that a time came when I felt disconnected from my children. Perhaps this is where the unnatural feeling originated. Buried in their online worlds, my children were not poking their heads out to breathe. Or say hello. Or say anything to me other than, “I’m hungry.” They were growing, changing and making new friends, deciding on a new favorite color or maybe even developing a new skill. They were finding a new favorite online celebrity to follow. I’d ask questions, but get no answers. “Fine,” doesn’t really describe how one has been doing lately.

The hours of screen time had to be cut. Our family had become more connected to the online world than each other. My motherly instincts screamed at me to fix this.

One of family crafting projects was painting monochromatic bells.

One afternoon after work and school, backpacks cratered on beds and dinner boiling on the stove, I walked into the living room and looked over my family, heads bent down over their various tools to plug in online like plants in need of water.

“Listen up, family,” I said. “I think it would do us some good to have time when all electronics are turned off. We will call it a black out night, and instead of our noses in screens, we will make art and play games. We will talk about whatever you want. We can plan our summer vacation or be silly. I don’t care what we do and I’m open to suggestions, but absolutely no electronics, including cell phones, during this time.”

I braced for the whining.

“Cool! Can we paint bottles? I’ve seen some designs online I’d like to try,” Mackenzie, the middle child, responded.

“I have an idea too. Let’s do a fire in our fire pit with outdoor games,” said Madison, the oldest.

The youngest chimed in, “Can we color together? I’d like that.”

I was stunned. This was not the reaction I expected. Instead, my children agreed, and we listed several ideas for our black out days. We decided Friday evenings would be a good start since we rarely have plans.

For our first black out Friday we built a fire in our fire pit, roasted all beef hot dogs on sticks and made ice cream s’more sundaes, played football and talked about space travel, stars and planets as the sky began to darken and sparkle. No cell phones or other electric devices were allowed.

We painted donated bottles one evening for our family bonding time.
We painted donated bottles one evening for our family bonding time.

The second black out Friday we colored in coloring books, but not just any coloring books. I purchased a nice set of colored pencils and “adult” coloring books, which are full of small details to shadow and take a long while to complete. We ate homemade pizza and talked about our favorite colors, our favorite seasons and our favorite classes. I taught them about the color wheel.

We built an art room where we teach the kids to paint. No electronics allowed, of course.

By the third black out Friday, my children were turning off their tablets and cell phones ahead of time. I found them, dark and abandoned, tossed about the house.

It hit me. They were enjoying this as much as I was. They needed time to connect as a family as much as I did.

Spending less time in virtual reality strengthened our family bonds. Now we spend more time updating the status of our relationship with each other than any of our social media accounts. Who knew unplugging could lead to feeling so plugged in?

The Parent’s Snow Day

snow dayMy phone began ringing at 5 am. It’s mom calling to place me on alert. My daughter’s school is closed for a snow day, she informs. She works at the board of education and is often privy to this information before the school uses all of technology’s bitches (text, the elderly email and the more elderly phone call) to tell everyone else.

Great.

I have to get up now, 30 minutes before the alarm bells pry open my eyelids because school closings don’t often translate to work closings.  In fact, for my current job at the bourbon distillery, they never do. People gotta’ drink, I suppose. I could use one now.

So out of bed I roll. Into the shower I crawl. Into a uniform I stumble. All the while listening to my phone ding, bang and ring with alerts school has indeed closed.

A decision I must make. Damn. Why the hell am I channeling Yoda at 5 o’ clock in the morning?

Anyhow, to make this decision I must first know whether snow is yet on the ground. I peek out the bathroom window. Snow is impending. This means I can safely transport my precious cargo, Madi the lucky first grader, to her great grandmother’s house for a day of pjs and crap she shouldn’t be eating while I work and watch the roads ice over.

Time to deliver the news. I flip on her bedroom light. She doesn’t flinch. It’s an hour and a half too early for her.

“Madi bug. Wake up baby. Snow cancelled school. Just put your shoes on and I’ll take you to nani’s house,” I say as I grab her bumble bee-shaped overnight bag from her closet and hurriedly fill it with a change of clothes and a stuffed kitten she named Sparkle.

Who knew if school would be on tomorrow. I’d still have to work. The roads would still be too unsafe to have her out, so we usually opt to keep her in one place instead of risking transport on bad roads. Hence the bee bag.

All of this before 6 am. I’m supposed to be clocked in by 7.

She raises up and rubs her eyes.

Instead of putting her shoes on, she looks out the window and informs me that there isn’t any snow on the ground so she can ride the bus.

Snow is coming I tell her, trying to rush. I ask her again but a little more stern to please put her shoes on and to just wear her pjs. Mommy still has to work and we have little time to make it to grandma’s before I’ll be late.

She puts her shoes on while I run to the kitchen to gather lunch. Do I have leftovers to bring? I can’t remember. It’s too damn early to think and I don’t have time to look. I grab a frozen meal and stick it awkwardly in my purse, the corner of the box jabbing my arm pit when I pull my bag over my shoulder.

My sleepy 6-year-old appears in the kitchen with shoes on. I coat her and zip her up.

Out the door to the car we go. In my rush, I didn’t think to heat up the car, and I certainly don’t have time now. I thank the universe for garages so we don’t have frosted windows to deal with.

Madi, starting to wake up a little now, begins talking from her booster seat in the back.

“But mom I just remembered. Is it Wednesday? Summer was going to bring cupcakes for her birthday,” she says.

I must proceed with caution. I hear disappointment and sadness in her voice. Combine those with the general early morning crankiness she inherited from yours truly and you get tears.

“Well I bet Summer will just bring them the next time school is in,” I said, pinning hope on Summer.

Madi continued to voice her concern. She didn’t think it was fair to cancel school on Summer’s birthday. She wanted to wish her a happy birthday on her birthday, not after. And the cupcakes may not taste as good. She didn’t cry, but she was really bothered.

I was struck with how different our worlds are, mine and hers. Her absent cupcakes are my early morning mad dash because of snow.

No, my sweet baby girl. I won’t get a cupcake today either.