Tag Archives: Family

The case for microadventures

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 12.58.40 PMWith the sporadic warm weather finally upon us, everyone in the house has begun to grow a bit antsy. We are ready to shed the heavy layers of winter clothing and play outside until the sun casts long shadows across the ground. We daydream about wringing as much adventure out of the following few precious months as we can.

In past years, we’ve talked a good game about all of the things we are going to do over the summer. Then life grabs hold—we don’t write any of our ideas down or schedule them on Erin’s weeks off. We become comfortable in the rhythm we happen to fall into, and excuses come easier than the little extra effort it takes to make an adventurous memory with the boys. Then the summer is gone, and we are left wishing we had done more. This year we are determined not to let this happen.

Alastair Humphreys has bicycled around the world, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, run 150 miles across the Sahara and much more. Most of us don’t have the time, the finances or the gumption to take on challenges like this. Which is why Alastair came up with the term microadventure. At its heart, a microadventure is simply a way to get people out of their routines, out of their comfort zones and into a wild place. It does not matter what you do, as long as you’re out there.
From a parent’s point of view, I classify a microadventure as anything that is out of the house, out of the yard (unless you’re having a family slumber party there) and outside for an hour or more. Adventure is more attitude than anything else. It will take a little extra effort and some planning on your part. You’ll have to slow down, disconnect and focus on wherever you are at the moment. Let the kids lead the way, but most importantly stoop down, look closer and see the world through their eyes. By doing these things, a simple walk along the edge of a field can reveal an amazing world you never knew existed.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 1.01.19 PMPack a simple dinner and head to your favorite trail for an evening hike. Pack a thermos of hot chocolate and watch the sunset from the water’s edge or the top of a cliff. Anything you can think of can be a microadventure. If you want to turn it up a notch, then I would encourage a mid-week campout at a designated campground or at a suitable spot a short hike from your house or car. After all, the hours between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. are easy pickings for an adventure.

In next month’s column, I hope to share a longer list of microadventures for the upcoming summer, along with some other nuggets of information. I would love for you to share your ideas and suggestions with me by clicking here. The more ideas and information we have, the easier it will be to plan your next adventure.

Written for The Charlotte News Vol. 58 no. 19 – April 21, 2016

Caleb’s Story

Bully LogoIn the fall of 2014, Caleb, a bright blond-headed boy with inquisitive eyes and a great curiosity for learning, started kindergarten. He loved his teacher, made friends easily and was happy to go to school. Then Caleb began to come home with stories of how Joey was tormenting some of the kids on the playground. One time he told his mom, Rebecca, that Joey pushed Timmy so hard that he split his chin on the concrete, requiring Timmy to get stitches. The stories continued, as did the accusations that the recess attendants spent more time talking among themselves than they did watching the children.

Caleb has never been one to tolerate injustice, and he tried to protect the other kids when he saw them being bullied. This quickly made Caleb the target. The gang would chase after him and yell “Get him!” and Caleb would run and hide. His mom talked to him about not running and hiding and perhaps playing closer to the teachers, but Caleb did not like that idea. He and his friends liked to play by the swings where they had a lot of space to run.

One day while Caleb was climbing the ladder on the jungle gym, Joey started beating him on the head, then he tried to kick Caleb in the face. Rebecca sent a note to the teacher and called the guidance counselor, but only got her voicemail. The next day Caleb’s teacher sat down with Joey, Caleb and another boy to talk about what was going on. The boys refused to sit near Joey out of fear. In the end the teacher made Joey write an apology. The teacher told Rebecca that Joey was often in trouble for this kind of behavior.

The guidance counselor, who worked only a couple of days a week, called back a few days later. She was surprised that Joey was acting like this and said she had not heard of him doing such nasty things. The recess attendants, the counselor stated, said that Caleb had started a group of kids who reported bad behavior to one recess attendant in particular––the attendant claimed that Caleb had a wild imagination and was trying to fulfill a dream of being a superhero. The counselor mentioned that school was almost over but nonetheless she would file a report and talk to Joey’s parents. The rest of the year passed without incident, and Caleb reported that Joey was acting much better. Perhaps, Rebecca hoped, things had taken a turn.

The start of first grade brought the discovery that none of Caleb’s close friends from the previous year were in his class. Caleb’s new friend, Toby, began threatening that if Caleb did not give him his school store money he would not be Caleb’s friend. In another instance he said he would bash Caleb’s face in if he didn’t give him a drawing that Caleb had done. On top of that Caleb was again coming home with stories of Joey and his gang causing terror on the playground.

Once again Rebecca spoke to the teachers and the guidance counselors, and promises were made to keep a closer eye on things. His parents discussed their options and worried about what had happened to the sweet, curious boy they had sent off to kindergarten the year before. Caleb was now quick to lash out or react in anger, he cried more easily, clenched his fist and hit his dad. By Thanksgiving break even extended family members noticed a difference.

The final straw came when Caleb told his parents about how before the break he was hiding in the tires from a boy who was chasing kids around and hitting them with a stick. Eventually the boy found Caleb and hit him on the back a few times before Caleb was able to run away. He lifted his shirt and showed them the faint marks on his back. Rebecca and her husband felt like the school had brushed them off and let them down. Shortly after Thanksgiving they pulled Caleb out of the school.

Vermont Law states that all schools are required to have a bullying and harassment plan in place that is equal to, or more stringent than, the one developed by the state. There is even an advisory committee through the Agency of Education that helps with the setting up of these policies. We cannot just send our children off to school and think that we don’t need to engage them when they get home. We need to be asking questions, look for the subtle clues and listen to what our children have to say.

I fully believe that to some extent situations like this can make a child much stronger and more fully prepared for the toxicity of our current culture. However, we need to know when to step in and pull them back from the ledge before they become part of the problem or, worse yet, decide it is just not worth facing another day.

Written for the Charlotte News

Lost and Found

I spent a good portion of my twenties wishing I was doing something else or was somewhere other than my current situation. I would think to myself, If I could just get to this point, I would be happy. If I just did this more, I wouldn’t feel this way.

In 2008 I was hired as the graphic designer for a living history park. I can honestly say that I loved going to work. We had only planned on staying in Utah for three years but since I had found a job that I actually enjoyed we decided to stay longer. Then, on a Monday two weeks after Noah was born, my boss called me at home and asked me to stop into his office when I got to work. When I got there, he told me they were going in a different direction and they were letting me go. I knew I’d been doing a good job, but just like that it was over. I went home, and after some soul-searching my wife and I decided that the most logical thing was for me to stay home with Noah, even though this was not part of our plan.

I thought that I had figured it out, that with the job at the living history park I was finally able to define who I was. Then the job was gone and I felt lost and completely uncomfortable in being defined as just a stay-at-home-dad. At first I tried to do some freelance design work. Then I began writing this blog but soon became more concerned with how many people were viewing it and how often I was posting, and it became more stressful than fun so I stopped. After so much time spent on the computer writing, I drifted into painting, which led to printmaking, which led me to turn our shabby garden shed into a shabby but functional art studio. Every month or two I would freak out and exclaim that I could no longer do this and I needed to get a job. Then I would come to my senses. I looked into being a volunteer Chaplain at the VA but found that, unfortunately, the time commitment was too great. I looked into ski patrol, but for the same reasons I decided against it. My painting turned to sketching and then to watercolors, which were easy to transport when I was out with Noah. I would try running now and again but it never stuck. So I stayed with the art, even though what I put on the page or the canvas never looked like I had planned it to. I did a lot of journaling for myself and the boys, and spent a lot of time putting my sketches onto my blog and looking at other people’s sketch blogs and wishing I was as good as they were. Then my dad’s cancer treatment stopped working and his health deteriorated fairly rapidly and I wrote poems nearly everyday to cope with it. After he died, I stopped sketching and soon journaling but the poems continued, for a while. Then it all stopped. It was all just too hard.

We moved back to Vermont and I again tried freelance graphic design only to discover that I really did not like being a graphic designer anymore. I was really struggling with the loss of my dad, the move, the stages the kids were in, and who I was. Then I began to trail run and it felt right, so I kept at it and that helped release some of the pain and frustration I felt and the extra pounds I was carrying. Yet something was still missing. I wanted to be writing more. Then I would remember the stress that having the blog caused me and I would think, I’ll write when the kids are in school and I have more time.

This past winter I began journaling again and I started carrying a small notebook in my pocket again. I got rid of all my old ideas that what I put in the small notebook had to be good, and I just put everything into it, thoughts, things I would hear, descriptions of people, the start of essays, poems, and random notes. Then I decided I would start writing for this blog again on a regular basis. I came up with a posting schedule and I developed an editing system. I read a book about writing called Writing Down the Bones and it opened my eyes.

When I recently agreed to write a monthly column about parenting for our local paper, it occurred to me that God had a plan that was not anywhere near my plan, but it was obviously a better plan. As hard as it is to stay home at times, it has allowed me to try all these different things with little risk. We have a greater freedom to spend time together as a family, and my writing has given me a creative outlet and a way to capture the little moments in life that are often lost to time. Running allows me to satisfy the adventurer in me and gives me time to clear my mind. I’m no longer looking for something else or thinking if I just do this I’ll feel better. I finally feel comfortable in the definition of who I am: a runner, a writer and a stay-at-home-dad riding the coat tails of his boys’ imagination.

The Mission

My brother, Tycen, is six years older than I am, and for obvious reasons, he did not want me tagging along with him and his friends when we were growing up. One summer day, though, he had no choice, and so I found myself crawling down the middle of a cold river fully clothed and pretending to be on a military mission.

Tycen and his friend, Josh, had a ‘“mission” of high importance planned for the day Mom told him he had to watch me. My brother had been fascinated with the military since he was young, and in turn so was I. (Unlike me, he turned his fascination in to a twenty-plus year career.) Undeterred by my presence, he told me to go get ready. I asked what the mission was but they told me it was top secret. I went and put on my Army fatigues.

We quickly moved across the openness of the backyard to the cover of the pine forest planted by our neighbors’ ancestors years before.  As quietly as two teenagers and a eight-year-old can, we moved along the hillside making our way down to the back of the neighbors’ pole barn at the edge of the forest. Here we paused to check the area for hostiles. One at a time we darted across the open lawn, jumping over the bank and sliding out of sight on a cushion of rust-colored pine needles. Once we regrouped, we proceeded the last twenty yards to the river.

Where we entered the river marked a fairly dramatic change in the landscape, and the last easy access point. Upriver the land came down gently to meet the banks and you could see the bridge where the road crossed over. Downriver hundred foot cliffs rose up from the water’s edge on the right and on the left was a steep embankment, covered in stinging nettles and thorns, that led to the back yards of the houses along the road. The river was strewn with rocks ranging in size from pebbles to boulders. We waded into the cold rushing water up to our ankles, and I was briefed on what the mission was. We were going to crawl down the river approximately a half mile to the local swimming hole which was known as The Dam. I protested about the crawling but only briefly. With that Tycen and Josh lay down in the water and started crawling. Luckily the river was deep enough and the current swift enough that I mainly floated using my hands to propel and at times steer me along.

We floated through a narrow tranquil pool that had a strip of sandy beach between the water and the nettles.  A little further down the river, the water moved in a tight frothing ribbon closer to the base of the cliff, then disappeared over a waterfall. We slipped out of the water and made our way along the shore, to the edge of a twenty-foot high horseshoe-shaped waterfall.  Tycen scouted around to see if there was an easy way for me to climb down but it was determined that was not an option. I would have to jump.

“Once you hit the water,” he told me, “swim as hard as you can to me. Your pockets will fill up with water and it will feel like your shoes are pulling you down. Just swim as hard as you can to me.”

Then he turned around and jumped off the water fall. I stood dumfounded for a moment. Then I saw him pop out of the water and swim to the edge of the pool below. I took a deep breath and jumped.

The section of the river after the waterfall and before The Dam has faded with time. But my first trip down the rock slide into the clear pool of The Dam is one of my strongest childhood memories.  The Dam was the place to swim; it was the place that you got to go when you were older.  Just a short walk up the hill from the center of town, it was tucked below an abandoned house and accessed by a steep narrow trail that opened onto wide area of rock that had been formed into something akin to stadium seating. On the far side, a cliff, covered with moss and a few scraggly pine trees, rose out of the pool. The downstream section of the pool was shallow. The upstream section was eight to ten feet deep, ringed partially by a ledge that reached four to six feet above the water.

The rock slide at The Dam is its main attraction. About a hundred feet in length it takes you from the top of a fairly steep pitch and propels you down off a waterfall into the clear pool below where the current pushes you towards the shallows. We stood at the top of the slide, and my brother again gave me the same instructions about swimming. Then he sat down on the sun warmed rocks  and  eased himself into the slipstream of the river. I waited until he had swum to the shallow end, and then I sat down and slowly slid my body in to the water. I felt the current begin to take me, and then I was rocketing downward. I saw my brother on the far side of The Dam watching intently, and then I was airborne for a moment before splashing into the water, feeling the current pushing me down. I opened my eyes and looked around the underwater world.  Feeling the weight of my pants and shoes pulling at my legs, I pushed towards the surface and began to kick with all my might.  It seemed I had such a long way to go but then my feet touched the rocky bottom and I turned around to look back at what I had just done.

Mission accomplished.

My Father’s Creed

We cleaned out my father’s office shortly after he died.

Located on the third floor of the Opera House in downtown Rutland, Vermont, my father’s office was a unique space that occupied the far corner of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission. Two six-foot high windows looked down onto the businesses of Merchants’ Row and out over their rooftops. One wall was exposed brick and the two others stopped short of reaching the twenty-foot high ceiling that was decorated ornately with swirls and other embellishments.

As unique as his office was, the items that were kept inside were even more so. A menacing wooden mace hung on the wall between the two windows. A bulletin board took up most of one wall and tacked to it was a large picture of a bear named Taps that I had drawn when I was in the first grade, various comics, pictures, plaques and quotes—all of which I looked at often when I would stop by. In the lower left hand corner was a G-rated picture of me with a huge smile on my face holding a large yellow towel open and flashing the camera. The picture remained in this spot until, as a teenager, I begged him to take it down out of sheer terror and embarrassment. Hopefully he threw it out, but knowing him it is tucked away somewhere.  The shelves were filled with planning books, reports that dated as far back as the seventies, a sculpture of the  Bremen Town Musicians, a green tea cup and matching saucer with the likeness of our ancestor General Blucher, and pictures both old and new.  On his desk was a rectangular wooden dentist box, that was opened with a small key on a red velvet string. Here he kept pencils, ink for his fountain pens, a broken pair of glasses, post-it notes  and other assorted things. Next to that was a small metal clown jack-in-the-box on a square of white marble that was a paper weight.  On the low shelves below the windows were a couple of plants, books, pictures and the doorknob and a piece of the door that was my grandfather’s office door when he was a planner in Detroit. Always within arm’s reach of the guest chairs was a small square wooden tray with ten numbered blocks in it and one empty space—a brain teaser made by my great-grandfather. Two drawers of the credenza, we discovered, were filled with his day planners dating back to the eighties. On top of the credenza sat a large wooden box that to my amazement I discovered was a writing slope. I believe it too was made by my great-grandfather. I now use it for my writing.

Of all the treasures we knew were there and of all the ones we discovered while cleaning out his office the most amazing was a small plaque with a poem on it.  The image behind the poem is that of a person in a red coat walking on a bluff above the sea, faded trees with no leaves can just be seen off to the left and two equally faded birds fly above the horizon. The poem has been pasted unevenly onto a dark wood plaque with a beveled edge, at the top is a tarnished brass hook embossed with a vine-like design. I remember always seeing this plaque in the office but I never paid much attention to it. As I took it off the wall I paused to read it before putting it into the box.  I stood there for a few moments as the words and what they meant began to sink in.

That man is a success who has lived well,
laughed often and loved much;

Who has gained the respect
of intelligent men and the love of children;

Who has filled his niche
and accomplished his task;

Who leaves the world better than he found it,
whether by an improved poppy or a perfect poem or a rescued soul;

Who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty
or failed to express it;

Who looked for the best in others
and gave the best he had ~ by Bessie Anderson Stanley

Over the past few weeks my brother and I had gained a deeper understand of who my father was, outside of the man that we knew as our dad, and how important he had been to the local community and the state.  As I read this unassuming plaque, held dear by an unassuming man, I came to realize that I could apply every word of it to the way that my dad had lived his life.

A month after Dad passed away we received a letter from Chris Campany, the Executive Director of the Windham Regional Commission. It speaks volumes.

“Mark was one of those rare people who was universally respected for not only his service to others, but also his humanity and empathy he demonstrated through that service.

I’ve been with the Windham Regional Commission for about a year and a half. Mark made a point of welcoming me to the director’s circle when I first arrived. I never heard him offer a harsh word about anyone, and his optimism was contagious. At a recent meeting he gave all of the directors a mug decorated with a “No Whining” symbol. It’s a wonderful reminder of Mark, his spirit, and his guidance to us as we continue our work.”

Dad gave those mugs to everyone when he himself was dealing with the reality that there was no longer a way to keep his cancer at bay. He was probably also in a tremendous amount of pain as the cancer began to aggressively ravage his body. He had every reason to whine, to give in, but he never did. Never in my life did I hear him complain.

From time to time I look at the plaque to make sure I am doing my best to follow what is says. None of it is hard to do and yet in our hyperactive partisan world it is easy to forget. If only more people followed this poem and made it their creed, as my father had, our lives would be inherently better. I am trying to teach myself to live this way so that I can teach the boys to live this way—something that my dad tried to do for me and countless others both young and old. I can see that now, for three years after his death I am still hearing comments and stories that reinforce that he lived every word of a poem that was written on a small plaque that hung on his office wall.