Nature’s Way

My wife was the first one to notice. A bird had built a nest in the wreath that hung from our front door. Actually, it was two different birds, as thereFullSizeRender (21) were two types of eggs in the small stick structure–two speckled brown and four light blue.

The boys were fascinated for a day or two, but quickly lost interest as the eggs just seemed to become another adornment in the wreath. They were not intrigued by the gestation period the way I was. Throughout the spring, I looked out the small window of the door, down into the nest, with the excitement of a toddler on Christmas Eve. I placed a step stool against the inside of the door and checked periodically on the egg inhabitants. The mornings were simply a chance to make sure all the eggs were still there, but the evenings afforded more interaction with the mama bird.

It became part of my nightly routine: put the dogs to bed, set up the coffee pot, check on the birds in the nest. At first, the mama could sense me staring down on her, and would fly away. But I quickly learned to position myself to the side of the window.  Once I mastered this, I could marvel at the mother bird’s determination to protect her offspring. Her head was on a swivel, moving side to side to ensure her babies were safe, and the porch light added a warmth that she seemed to welcome. After a minute or so, I would leave my perch and quietly walk to the comfort of my bed.

Then, one day in mid-June, I looked out the window in the early morning and found that there were no longer eggs, but a mass of fuzzy creatures, bizarre in their ugliness and shape. I laughed at my ignorance. Why would I assume the birds would hatch looking more like, well, birds? In addition, not all the eggs hatched. Someone told us that the one mother bird probably removed the other mother bird’s eggs from the nest. My first reaction to this was, how cruel, followed quickly by, this is nature’s way. And only three of the four blue eggs hatched–again, the way the natural world works.

The boys now had a newfound interest in the nest. I would catch them standing on the bench on our front step, peering down at the trio, trying to make out where one bird ended and another began. I watched them bring their friends over to spy on the latest stage of development.

As for me, I was somewhat put-off that the birds were so indistinguishable. Then one day, about a week after their birth, I noticed something that FullSizeRender (22)amazed me; each worm-like mass had a tiny yellow triangle towards its top. They’re beaks! I thought aloud. Again, I was surprised at my ignorance. Yes, Michael, birds have beaks. You remember kindergarten, right?

After that, I was hooked. I gazed down at the nest several times a day, watching these beaks turn into birds. I stared in wonder as each bird developed its head, focused its eyes, sprouted its wings. The wreath wriggled with constant movement, as the mama bird flew back and forth with food. I had gotten good at watching her flight patterns, and could see her occupying various branches on the pine tree near the front pathway. I even took to speaking with her. “It’s okay, mom. I’m not going to harm them.”

During those few weeks, I made several observations. There was an order to the three birds. The one towards the front was in charge.  He watched over the other two, he opened his wings first. The one in the middle followed suit, and the one towards the back seemed to develop more slowly and tentatively. Also, the perimeter of the nest was comprised of their waste–did the birds know to do this instinctively? And the mother bird visited the nest less often. I surmised that this was her way of getting her young to be more independent–forcing them to fly. However, she was never far away. I could spot her on various limbs in the trees nearby.

 

Metaphors abound in nature. One can find lessons and connections between nature and our human existence almost at every turn. Poets have mused about this for centuries. People learn to take comfort in the beauty–the daffodils that sprout after an interminable winter, the caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly, and understanding in the tragedy–the thousands of sea creatures that feed off a dead whale’s carcass, the need for predators to stalk their prey in order to survive. Indeed, nature is humanity’s greatest classroom. Yet, we seem to ignore it in our day-to-day lives. It takes a tremendous effort to get us to notice things. To appreciate them. The arrival of this nest prompted me to rediscover the array of birds and wildlife that surround our home. We live in a beautiful area ensconced with trees, streams, a pond, walking trails. We are very fortunate. And, sometimes, we look up from our phone screens long enough to spy the blue heron’s wingspan as he ascends into the sky, the camouflaged frog springing in the tall grass, the design on the turtle’s back who has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, after a summer storm. Nature has its reminders, its lessons, yet there are perhaps too many for us to fully appreciate. So, when the world offers you a nest of birds–a literal bird’s eye view, one can fully embrace the mundane miracles that surround us.

FullSizeRender (23)As the birds became more active, so, too, did the interest from our dogs. Huckleberry, a hound rescue, and Rosie, a black Lab, started to spend more time near the front door. When Huck finally put his paws on the door and started clawing towards the wreath, we knew it was time to cordon off the front entrance. I set up a makeshift barrier of old puppy gates, and moved the bench. We had stopped using the front door months ago, so that was no hassle. Yet, the dogs’ newfound discovery made us worry. The three birds had come so far, we didn’t want to now be responsible for their demise.

And just as I learned to talk to the mother, I did so with her three young. “Good morning! How was your night? It’s okay. You’re safe.” My greeting was met with a frightened fluttering of wings and a bobbing of heads. Their reactions made me realize they were almost ready to leave the nest. These birds were now full-fledged. It was time to fly.

I watched one hot morning as the first bird–the front bird–moved up the wreath and attempted to flap his way out into the world. “Come on buddy. You can do it.” And he did. He teetered. He dipped. But then, he flew. High enough to disappear into the trees, joining his mother, I hoped. “Goodbye!” I called after him. “Good luck!”

The second bird was gone by sundown. No one watched her departure, but we were confident she was somewhere right above us with her family. The last bird, the tentative one, was struggling. Whereas the other two became emboldened with each passing day, this creature remained stagnant.

“Do you think she’s okay?” my wife asked at dinner that night.

“Yeah. It just takes some longer than others. She just needs a little more time to gain confidence.” Again, I could not help but think of the parallels between animals and humans. Everyone is different. All in due course.

The next day, she was still there. But she had managed to climb out of the nest and up into the faux leaves of the wreath. When I approached to check on her, she seemed skittish and panicky. “You can do it,” I said. But I had my doubts. I cursed the notion of survival of the fittest. Two out of three isn’t bad, but it doesn’t seem fair. Nature has a way–this now refrain popped into my head, and I wasn’t certain if I thought of this as a positive or a negative. A way of fulfilling or eliminating. Time would tell.

When I checked at bedtime, she was still there. Alone. “You can do it,” I whispered.

In the morning, I forgot about the nest until I was leaving to drive the boys to camp.

“Guys, shhh. I want to check on the bird,” I said in a loud whisper.

“I’ll do it,” said Hayden (10). He hopped on the bench. “Dad, it’s empty!”

“She may be hiding up inside the wreath,” I said, moving nearer to investigate. After a closer look, I was confident. “She’s gone,” I shouted. “She made it! I was worried about her,” I finally admitted.

As we walked away towards the car, the two dogs came bouncing around the house, hoping to join us for the ride. This had started to become part of our morning routine. But something else had gotten their attention in the Pachysandra that bordered our front path.

“What’s Rosie doing?” asked Owen (11).

“She’s after something,” I said, unaware.

“Oh, no!” yelled Hayden. “The bird!”

“Rosie, NO!” I screamed.

Confused, she looked up, with tiny feathers protruding from her closed mouth.

“Drop,” I hollered. “Rosie, drop!”

Rosie obeyed and a little creature tumbled out. It seemed to take a moment to regain form. But there, on the path, was the bird.

“Bad dog!” Hayden yelled. Tears had instantly shot into his eyes once he realized the worst, and Owen was in the driveway crying to himself.

“Is she dead?” Owen asked.

“No,” I said. “She’s just scared. Labs are retrievers. They have soft mouths.” I was grasping at hope here, not sure if I was making that up or not. “Get the dogs inside.”

While the boys did as I asked, the bird zigzagged her way under a bush. “Aww, birdy. Sorry about that. Are you okay?” She seemed weak, yet I wanted to be optimistic. I took the gates from the front door, and now made a barrier around the bush. If she did not progress by nightfall, she would probably die, I thought.

The ride to camp was somber. The boys stifled their tears, and I defended their canine sibling.

“Guys, Rosie was just doing what she was supposed to do. Dogs sniff out other creatures. Labs are hunting dogs. So are hounds. It’s in their nature.” Then I attempted to convey that birds, like all beings, need to quickly adapt or they will not survive, but as I began this line of thinking, both boys looked more distraught.

“Do you think she’ll live,” Owen asked.

“I do. I do,” I said. And I almost believed it.

“Should you move her?” asked Hayden.

“I might,” I said, but I really didn’t want to. “Well see.”

We pass a dead raccoon in the middle of the highway. “Whoa! Look at that.” Owen says, matter-of-factly.

It’s funny, I think. Roadkill doesn’t affect us. The bird that flew into our widow and died last month didn’t bring us to tears. We squash mosquitoes with glee. We fish in our pond. But certain lives affect us more. When you watch something’s life from creation to independence, you feel a connection, a bond. As a family, we felt this bond with these birds, on our tiny thumbprint of land that we call ours.

When I got home, I saw that she was tucked under the bush, up against the house. Her head was hidden in her wing. Is she giving up? I wondered. 

I kept the dogs away from this area and went about some yard work. She remained in her spot.

Before I went to pick up the boys that afternoon, I discovered her near the edge of the path. I was excited for her. “Good job. That’s it. You can do it.”

As soon as they get in the car at pick up, I give them a report. “Boys, she moved away from the house. She might even be gone when we get home.”

“If she’s not, you’re gonna have to move her,” said Owen.

“Okay! I’ll move her if she’s still there,” I said begrudgingly.

Once home, Hayden bolted up the driveway to check on our friend. “Dad, she’s still here. You’re gonna have to move her.”

“Okay. Okay,” I said. You’re the adult, Michael. They’re watching you.

With a surprising grace, I bent down and gingerly cupped the tiny bird in my hand. She was so light. So soft. The boys looked on suspiciously.

“I got her, guys. Don’t worry.”

I walked over to the shaded edge of our property where the dogs could not access. I found a spot hidden among the tall perennials. The grace I had moments ago was gone. Although my hand was inches from the ground, her landing was not soft. I had hoped she would flutter more when I opened my palm. There was little movement, and she fell over as I placed her down on the top of the small slope near the trees. I propped her up, but she was listless.

“Dammit,” I muttered, but the boys had already gone inside to get out of the June heat.

“Is she okay?” one asked.

“Yep,” I lied. “I’m just going to bring her some water. Come have your snack.”

By the time I came out with her water, minutes later, she was slumped over, dead.

“Shit!” I said, then I looked up apologetically, imagining her mother witnessing this scene from one of the many familiar branches she had stood upon these last few months. “I’m sorry,” I said to the trees, “I tried.”

That was a Friday. We were going to the beach for the weekend, and before we left, I checked on the bird one more time and pretended she was fine. I lied to the boys and told them she was doing well. They did not seem eager to check on her. Perhaps they did not want to confirm their doubts. By the time we came home Sunday, there was no trace of her. It was probably a nice surprise for the cat next door, or one of the many creatures that visit our property unbeknownst to us.

FullSizeRender (25)Weeks later, this small death has remained on my mind. A silly little bird, and I can’t seem to shake it. We live in a world where the atrocities dominate our attention. Murder, hate, destruction is at every turn. I’m still reeling from the horrific events at the nightclub in Orlando, and there have been at least five monstrous acts since then. My boys are still quite naive. We try to address concerns they may have, but we don’t actively seek current events to teach them how wicked the world can be. If they ask, we’ll answer, but they’ve made it into double-digits pretty unscathed.

I was so moved by the reaction of the boys when they discovered Rosie with the bird. They were crying before I could even piece together what had happened. I was relieved that their sadness was so palpable–honest and pure. And, oddly, I am jealous. In middle-age, I can barely shed a tear when moved to do so. I did not cry when I found the bird dead. Nor, did I cry over the recent loss of one of my favorite neighbors, or the many experiences that are worthy of tears–many tears. Is it human nature to become numb? Do our senses dull to the point where what was once tragic is now merely trite?

In the end, I guess the realization is I want to feel more, react more, notice more. I am humbled that raising these boys has allowed me to see things fromFullSizeRender (24) other, younger, perspectives. To grapple with innocence and naiveté in all its forms. To assist them as they navigate the truths of the natural world–death is a part of life. Nature takes its course.

Nature has a way. Everyday, creatures are born and they die. Beings thrive or succumb. Innocence is preserved or abandoned. Mothers and fathers do their best to protect and empower. And nature teaches us all the while. For those who are willing to look, to watch, to wonder.

 

To My Facebook Friends: An Apology

facebook-556808_640Dear Facebook Friends,

I owe you an apology–all 899 of you.

You see, for the past year, I have not wished one friend a “Happy Birthday” on Facebook. I have not written on anyone’s wall, or posted an emoji in honor of another year passed, even though I would get several reminders from my news feed to do so. I can’t claim I didn’t know. I DID know, and still, I chose to do nothing. The reason? Guilt. I could not, in good conscience, wish certain people a happy birthday, while knowing I would miss other people’s birthdays during the days I did not go on Facebook–oh, yes, there are days I do not go on FB.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Facebook. I like feeling connected to the people who comprise my world. I like seeing what childhood friends are up to, even if I haven’t seen them since childhood. I like that the boy who was mean to my wife in grade school complimented her on a photo she was in recently. I like getting friend requests from people who would not invite me to a party in high school. I like seeing your children, your pets, your sunsets (I could do without the food shots, except for @phillyfooddude‘s). But I do not like the feeling I get when wishing some people a happy birthday while completely ignoring others. I do not like the pressure I feel when Facebook reminds me that Dutch and 4 other friends have birthdays today; that Leanne and Jennifer had birthdays two days ago; that I have 27 friends with birthdays this month; that I could send money or a gift to them–all 27 of them… I didn’t even like when Facebook would automatically type the birthday wish for me. All I had to do was click “send a message” and the words would magically appear in the comment box. Yet, the guilt remained.

It was too much. So, I decided to stop the madness. I woke up one day and thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t acknowledge one, or ten or 500, and NOT acknowledge all 899.” It had to be all or nothing. I chose nothing–and that has made all the difference.

I must admit, there were times I was tempted. And I did cheat once or twice by writing a comment underneath other comments that indicated well wishes to the birthday boy/girl. But I could not officially write on someone’s wall. Hell, I can’t manage to send cards– or even a text message– to those who are closest to me. My bar is set so low that I can only make sure I have cards and gifts for my wife, sons, and mother, and I will sign any card my wife sets in front of me. That’s it.

To those of you who have mastered this birthday wishing in our modern world, I salute you. To those of you who have wished me well in the past, I thank you. And to those who have forgotten or ignored my birthday, I understand. I truly do.

Tomorrow is my birthday. I humbly request that you not write on my wall. I won’t even mind if you write on the walls of the seven other people who share my birthday on your Facebook.  I just think it unfair.

Thanks for reading this. Thanks for being my friend. I hope that this year of your life is the best one ever (I used to write that on certain walls:). I’m looking forward to liking your next post, and commenting on occasion. Until then, take good care.

Your friend,

Michael

P.S. Laney and three other friends have birthdays today.

Car Talk: Summer 2015

Car_toyDriving my kids around can be such an enlightening experience. As they rapidly grow from children to preteens, I am amazed at how mysterious I find them. What are they thinking? What’s going on in their little minds?

The car affords one of the best places to gain insight into your child–ask any parent. And, since my boys are still relegated to the back seat, at times I feel like a taxi driver, trying to get to know my customers a little better before releasing them back into the world at large.

The boys are in a morning soccer camp this week. We are all feeling the effects of the waning days of summer–not wanting to lose this freedom, yet in dire need of a routine. Because of this contradiction, I find that they and I become irritable as the start of school approaches. Such is life.

But today, on the drive to camp, was one of those days where their thoughts revealed such deep thinkers and observant young minds.

As we rode in unaware silence, Owen (10) offered this view: “So many times, I think about how weird it is that we are here, that we’re alive, since we are all going to die.”

“I know,” I say, “I think about that a lot, too. I think a lot of people do.” PAUSE: Let me take a moment to acknowledge that just a few years ago, my neurotic tendency would have made me say something like, “Well, try not to think about death,” or “It’s best to avoid such thoughts.”  Translation: Just stuff all that dark matter DEEEEEP down inside to feed on your anxieties. But now, I’m not motivated by fear. I welcome these thoughts because I understand they are completely natural and talking about them is healthy.

Hayden (9) becomes excited by this subject. “Yeah,” he chimes in, “how DID the first person come to life?”

“A lot of people think it was God, that he made humans,” says Owen.

Immediately, I counter him, “But, a lot of people also believe in science. Scientists say we came about as a natural development of the environment.” Here, I lag in expertise. “…that with the help of water, cells interacted…” I trail off, surprised at just how daft I am in the theory of evolution, having attained most of my knowledge from the first Jurrasic Park movie.

Owen pipes in, “Yeah, water was key. The body IS made up of something like 75-80 percent water.”

Sounds good to me. I move away from my scientific discourse and advance the subject. “I often think of that movie we saw about the prehistoric family, The Croods.

“Oh, the one where they had to hide in that cave most of the time in order to survive,” says Owen, “but then they start to adventure out and realize all that they were missing.”croods

I love that he remembers the moral of the film.

“Yeah, and how they had to hunt for their food,” I respond. “Could you see us doing that? Imagine how skinny we would all be if we had to hunt and kill everything we ate?”

Owen, who is skin and bones, considers this: “I think I’d be one of our first meals!”

I laugh at this. A strong, hearty laugh.

+++++++++++++

A few hours later, I pick the boys up from camp. They are hot and tired. On the way out of the park, I notice a younger couple, on a lunch break from work, leaning up against the hood of their car, arms wrapped around one another, kissing passionately. I look at them and think how fast life moves. How many lifetimes ago was that? Then, I look to the back seat where Owen is watching the same encounter. He is studying their every movement. Half jokingly, I say, “Owen, don’t look at that.” This prompts Hayden to look away from the kids playing soccer and directly at the kissing couple.

“Isn’t it funny,” I say. “When someone tells you not to look at something, what’s the only thing you want to do?”

“Look at it,” say the boys in unison.

“I know,” I say.

“And if a grown up tells you not to look at something, you definitely want to be sure and look,” says Owen. “That usually means that it’s must be something awesome.”

Again, I burst out with a laugh.

Two rides. Two glimpses into the minds’ of the young. Thank God, and/or scientists, for the car!

Throwing Stones

FullSizeRender (13)August, 1973

I am sitting on the curb outside of our house, gathering up pebbles in my tiny hands. I am two months shy of my fourth birthday, but it’s not my birth I am fixated on–it’s the birth of my new brother and sister: twins!

My mother is coming home from the hospital today–having been absent from my life for over a week. Oh, she’s seen me. Dad took us over to the hospital and sat us on a bench in the lobby. “Wave to the camera”, he says. “You’re sure mom can see us?” I ask. “Yes, mom can see you on the TV in her room.” I take his word for it, but it all seems so alien to me.

I miss my mom. The last few days have been a blur. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, has been running the show. She’s efficient–making sure we are fed and dressed–but she’s not very warm. Not the type of grandmom whose hugs you get lost in or wants to shower you with kisses. Still, I can’t complain. Besides, there’s really no one to complain to.

The morning has been a rush of activity; the five of us–my three brothers, one sister and I– are busy getting the house cleaned for mom’s homecoming–with two more kids. My dad seems excited and extra patient with us. I like it when he’s like this.

Bored of my chores, I wander out the door. I tend to do a lot of wandering. I make my way down the driveway. I keep looking up and down the street, half expecting my mother to magically appear.

Our neighborhood is lined with twin houses: driveway, house/house, driveway, house/house… I like where our house is positioned on the street because we are right across from a stop sign. Every car that drives down Thunderhead Road must slow down in front of our house.

I love to steal a glance inside each car; to see if anything dangles from the rear-view mirror (fuzzy dice, a bandana); to overhear a lyric which blasts from the AM radio (Brandy, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be…); to count how many people are in the car, and of those, how many are smoking (three and two); to spy a bumper sticker and pretend I can read what it’s saying (Wi-Fi 92’s gonna make me rich/ Flick my Bic).

But today I am distracted, nervous. I forget what my mom looks like. Plus, I’m about to be replaced as the youngest child–by twins, no less. How can I compete with that? I stand barefoot in the gutter and begin to gather pebbles. I throw a handful in the air, and listen as they rain back down to the ground. After a few throws like this, I see a car headed for the stop sign. I sit my Billy-the-Kid shorts on the curb, grasp some gravel, and wait for the car to pass my driveway. Then, I launch the stones into the air-aiming for the back of the car. As the tiny rocks spray onto the trunk, the sound–an echoing tinkle–is so much cooler. The driver keeps going.

Emboldened by my act of vandalism, I gather another pile, and repeat the procedure as the next car comes to a stop a few feet from me. The sound is just as thrilling and the driver seems oblivious once again. I am getting away with being bad  cool, and it feels exhilarating. As the next car comes, I grab another handful of pebbles, this one a bit larger. I am invincible.

But as they land on the car, the driver turns and stares at me. Caught! Yet, he keeps going. This guy knew what I did and I still got away with it. God, I love America!

I get up from the curb and attempt to find even bigger pieces. How far can I take this? Well, I’m about to find out.

With some larger stones in hand, maybe even a rock or two, I spot a Cutlass gliding its way to the stop sign. I don’t even bother to sit back down, to remain inconspicuous. I simply cock my arm back and launch the handful at the car. The sound is much louder and not nearly as melodic–more like a thud. As I watch the tail lights glow red at the stop sign, I notice they remain on. A woman in dark sunglasses stares straight at me and puts her car in park. As she opens the car door, I sprint into the house and up the stairs.

Curious, I wait at the top step to see what will happen.

Before there is even a knock, I hear my father speak through the screen.

“Can I help you?’ he asks.

My stomach drops. I cover my ears, but remove my hands every few seconds; Her words are distorted, but I am able to piece together her report: a little boy… threw…landed….car windows open……two small babies in the back….could have been…

My dad apologizes on my behalf. He then informs her of his two babies that he will be bringing home in an hour. “I’ll be sure to talk to him about this, and again, I’m sorry.”

In seconds, he appears at the bottom of the stairs. “What were you thinking?” he asks. “I’m just excited for mom to come home,” I reply. “Well, she has enough to worry about today, so why don’t we just keep this between us,” he offers. “O–okay,” I stammer. What? No yelling? No punishment? Maybe having twins around won’t be so bad after all, I think to myself.

“Thanks,” I say.

I remain upstairs for the rest of the morning. I don’t dare step foot outside, on the driveway, for fear I may be drawn in to more criminal activity, or worse, that I might watch a cop car pull up, with dark-sunglass woman in tow, to press charges on me for maiming her children.

The screen door slams repeatedly, as people move in and out of the house. Finally, it squeaks a bit more slowly, and I hear, “Oh my gosh! They’re home!” I watch from upstairs as my mom enters the living room in her sundress with two afghaned bundles. My dad spies me on the steps. His eyes tell me that he has honored his promise–that today is not the day to burden my mother–or him–with such trouble.

I slowly walk down the stairs, planting both feet on each step. Once on the landing, I run over to my mom and bury my face in her side. I am lost in the dangling blankets. I catch glimpses of my new brother and sister: a tiny hand, a fuzzy ear. I peer up at my mom’s face, reassured. She looks just as I remembered her.

***********************************

This is my second memory. My first involves me in a high chair talking to the refrigerator and dumping chocolate pudding on my head. But this is the one I recall often.

In childhood, I would usually conjure it if I needed to make myself feel guilty. As a good Catholic, I wasn’t comfortable unless I felt uneasy about something, so this became one of my go-to guilt triggers: “Like that time you almost blinded those children in the back seat of the car…” Such phrases would rattle in my head til I was reassured I was headed to Hell. As a teen, this event took on an Oedipal air: “How ironic would it have been if I blinded two small children on the same day that two small children were finding their way to my house?” Later in life, and most significantly, this event would serve as a reminder that there were times when my dad handled situations with a tenderness and grace that made me feel everything would be okay.

Now, as a father, I find that the most powerful response I can give my sons is one of understanding. When they come to me having done something wrong, consumed by guilt, expecting me to explode, and I simply say, “It’s okay. Everything will be okay,” it’s as if I have just waved a magic wand and made it so.

Such is the power of parenting, of perspective, of the words we choose–or do not choose.

Something to think about the next time you’re about to throw stones.

 

On Killing the Mockingbird

Atticus Finch is my hero. To Kill A Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. Like many before and after me, it was one of the rites of passage of high school English. And like some, it was because of that book that I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. The casting of the Academy-award winning film is probably the best book-to-screen adaptation that I have ever seen. Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch. He (Finch/Peck) is the consummate father, citizen, and lawyer the literary and film world has ever known…

…I can never be Atticus Finch–I don’t think anyone can. But maybe I can channel his presence through my persona, my alter ego: Dadicus Grinch. I want to be the kind of man he was, yet I find I am a bundle of contradictions: a friendly curmudgeon, an open-minded critic, a pessimistic optimist, an angry peacemaker… I have the best intentions, but I will always have my demons. Here’s a chance to put some of them to rest.  –excerpted from my first blog post,                         August 18, 2012

So, here we are, on the literary cusp of a sad day for Finch fans. I’ve spent the last week reading reviews, interviews, and the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/postquel to TKAM. And like the rest of the world, I was saddened and dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch advocated segregation. The headlines screamed: Atticus Finch was a bigot. “No!” I cried. “Not Atticus!”

Yet, after having some time to reflect, I must admit, I am a bit relieved. Atticus Finch is a literary hero, but he has turned into a paragon, a demigod. Decade after decade, he remained the ultimate father and citizen. And therein lies the problem. He was PERFECT. He lacked any flaws. Sure, one could admire him, and aspire to be like him, but, in the end, his persona was unattainable–even for Atticus himself. This does not sit well with the world: We like our heroes without flaw, beyond reproach. We seem to forget that heroes are human, and, therefore, fallible.

I am disheartened to learn that Atticus was not whole in his support for African Americans, but I am even more dismayed by society’s need to bring this book to the fore. The elusive and reclusive Harper Lee spent the better part of her life shielding it from public view. For more than half a century, Ms. Lee was content to let To Kill A Mockingbird remain her solitary novel. Speculation has even arisen as to Lee’s current mental and physical state. Thus, for me, the question remains: Was this really her intent? Why would a very private, humble woman finally agree to publish a work that will reshape her entire legacy?

Lee’s perplexing decision reminds me of the mockingbird referenced in her classic.

As Scout recalls:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'”(90).

I can’t help but think of Harper Lee’s voice as the mockingbird in question. For most of her adult life, her solitary novel served to6320407696_c23c605e65_n create music for generations of readers to enjoy. By breathing life into a young Scout and her father, Miss Lee sang her heart out for us.

Yet, we live in a world of insatiable appetites, one where greed trumps integrity, and our desire to know everything denies one’s request for privacy. In so doing, we have killed the mockingbird Lee tried to protect for over 50 years.

Sure, there is a chance that Lee knows exactly what she is doing. That by bringing Watchman to light, she is finally giving a complete, well-rounded perspective of the character. As many of you know, he was modeled after her father. Perhaps Lee wanted to pin down the wings that we have given St. Atticus, and make him more believable, fully developed–a truer reflection of a noble, but flawed, Southern white man of his time.

Now, you may be wondering if I plan on reading the book. I do. Yet, I will do so with a heavier heart. I am already mourning the loss of the man I have thought of often as I parent; the man I aspired to be. Truth is, like many, my sense of indulgence will get the better of me. Unfortunately, I am a product of my environment. I am human.

It turns out Atticus was, too.

(more…)

To Hayden on His Ninth Birthday

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First of all, I’m sorry. Sorry for the bangs. That clump of brown hair that thrusts itself against your forehead like a shellacked fortress. It took me years to train my bangs into the emblem of the 70’s: feathered wings– with the help of a comb that I carried in my back pocket from grades 6 through 8. Who knows, maybe you’ll bring back the trend.

And I’m sorry that you seem to have inherited the Grinch gene. You are a moody one, much like your Dadicus. You’ve mastered the art of frowning and sulking. From the beginning, you seemed to make your presence known by reminding us that the course of true love never did run smooth.

The day we brought you home from the hospital, you stopped breathing. You started turning blue in my arms. Thankfully, you jolted yourself back into the living world–with a little shaking from yours truly.

At your one week check-up, we relayed this to the pediatrician. He looked at Mom and me and said, “He stopped breathing and you didn’t bring him to the emergency room?” Feeling chastised, we both searched for some lame excuse. “Well, he started up again,” I offered.

And so it’s been for these nine years. You have been such a source of life in our hearts, but never typical in your approach. You are kind, sensitive, loving, and honest. And you can throw a fit like no other.

As you move into a new phase of your life, as your limbs no longer resemble those of a young boy, as you are on track to be taller than me by middle school, I thought it appropriate to give you a glimpse into some of your life thus far. There are so many stories–too many for a single blog post. And because it’s you, I can’t be all cutesy–all snips and snails and puppy dog tails. I want to embrace the many sides of you in words, which is quite challenging, but here goes.

DSC_0003As a baby and a toddler you were the conductor of many a freak-out. In infancy, you cried fiercely. As a toddler, you could throw a tantrum worthy of selling tickets. We consulted books (Brazelton’s Touchpoints/ The Super Nanny/ I’m Okay, You’re a Brat/ Magic 1,2,3); we asked fellow survivors  parents; we took any advice from your daycare teachers, neighbors, friends and strangers.

At around age four, the timeout in your room was no longer a viable option. It seemed like we had tried everything but duct tape. Ohh, we thought about it, but never tried it.

One day at work, a friend shared advice as to how they handled their son as a toddler:  her husband reversed the lock on the door knob to their son’s room. “So, instead of him being able to lock us out, we could lock him in!” Eureka! We had found our answer.

However, Mom was very much against Operation Alcatraz. “Well, I don’t know how to contain him when he throws a fit, and I don’t want to hurt him,” I pleaded.  “We’ve tried everything else-I’m giving it a go.”

The next day, I bought a brand new door knob set, and after school, I set about building your new cell. And as life would have it, you wandered into your room, curious as to what I was doing. I offered noDSC_0017 explanation, just asked you to hold a screw, hand me a tool. Soon, you ambled into your closet, where you started to play with various things. Then you discovered your memory drawer in an old dresser where I started storing memorabilia for each of us. For the next half hour, as I unscrewed and fastened, you paraded out of your closet with photos, and artwork, and blankies, and keepsakes. You wondered at your framed footprints, you squeezed your head into your old beach hat…  Before long, Owen joined in, and the two of you had more fun sorting through your lives.

As I finished replacing the knob–with the lock on the front of the door–you had created a pile of stuff around my tools. Looking down at the items, I was reminded of all the joy and love and hope your life had brought us. Mom came home to find you sitting in my lap, naming all your friends in a picture from pre-school, Owen in the background singing and sorting through his own memory draw. It was one of the tenderest moments of our lives.

But then, she spied the reason we were all gathered in your room. She shot me a look and tears sprung to her eyes. “I cannot believe you are really doing this!” she said angrily. “I’m at the end of my rope,” I replied. “And who knows, we may never even need to use it,” I mused.

The next day was a Friday. Mom had decided to pick you up from daycare so I could get moving on some landscaping projects. As I tilled in the garden on that late spring afternoon, I kept thinking back to the day before. I marvelled at all the experiences we had already created together. It was such a weirdly pleasant event, being in your room as both jailer and guide, and a reminder that we are all working hard at building this enigmatic thing called “a family.”

I was roused from my thoughts when I saw Mom’s car careen into the driveway. Right away, I knew something was wrong.

As she jumped out of the driver’s side, I could hear screaming cries from the back seat. “He’s going right up to his room! Right up!” she called to me from the driveway. You flailed, as mom wrestled you into her arms and inside the house.

Well,  I just had to laugh. How’s that for irony? Mom was the first one to use the new system, and the very next day, no less.

I walked in and stood at the bottom of the stairs. There was Mom sitting on the floor in the hallway outside your room. And you? You were safely in your room crying, yelling and throwing books. And the new door knob was securely locked from the outside.

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Thankfully, we didn’t have to use the lock often. It was more comforting just to know it was an option. Yet, as much as we have had to learn to adapt to your personality, we have reaped the benefits of your charm, your wit, your loving side. I honestly think that one of the reasons you’ve had to adjust your temper is because you feel things so deeply. You absorb the world in ways that others do not. You have a sense of empathy, an awareness of all that goes on around you.

I’ll give you an example. When you were a toddler, I taught in Ghana for part of the summer. I was gone quite awhile and you did the funniest thing. You found an old pair of  eyeglasses with the lenses popped out and you put them on. Mom said you wore them for much of the time I was away. It was as if a part of me was with you in my absence. When I returned, you slowly found no need to wear them. Your other pair of glasses was now safely home. That’s how deeply you care.

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Everything can’t fit in a drawer filled with memories, Hayden, but I wish you could remember so many aspects of your childhood. Here are just a few:

You are a lover of LEGOs.

At bed time, you rotate which stuffed animal to bring to bed with you.

You dance like no one’s watching.

You’ve proudly appointed yourself class clown.

You’ve earned the nickname “Hot Dog” in Little League, and had the thrill of hearing your teammates chant it as you hit a home run this season.

You insist that Mom and I both kiss you goodnight.

You love it when I snuggle you.

When I am about to leave your room at bedtime, I whisper in your ear: “I love you Stinky Face.” (From one of our favorite baby books)

Sometimes, when you and I get REALLY mad at each other, we just start cracking up laughing.

You are the luckiest one in the house–winning raffles and carnival games like it’s your job.

You’ve discovered Harry Potter. You proudly play your recorder for anyone who’ll listen. You’ve never met a carb you didn’t like. You’re loud–REALLY LOUD!

And we love you. Through it all, we love you.

Looking forward to sharing more of this ride with you.

Dadicus

hayden's b-day

To the Man in the Black Hat

To all those who have served in the spirit of freedom: Thank you!

Dadicus Grinch

To the man in the black hat

walking the white dog

who passed me while I was taking a break

from running in the park,

my back to him as I stretched under the

canopy of green trees

To the man in the black baseball hat

whose gray hair hugged his tan neck

while I watched him walk away on the path

enjoying my freedom in the cool breeze

on this late day in spring

To the man in the black baseball hat

with the yellow letters that cradled the opening

on the back of his cap. Seven letters that seemed to call out to me,

as if to say: “This is what today is for. This man fought a war–maybe

two, maybe five. Maybe he is still fighting a war

–within–

so you can stand here and stretch in the afternoon sun

with all of your limbs, and no…

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