Tag Archives: Family

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.

First Day Skiing

Drips and small puddles of coffee, dirty dishes, homemade energy bars cut into squares but left in the baking dish; all of this has been forgotten on the counter. There are pajamas on the floor by the fridge and a couple of backpacks lying in the living room, along with an assortment of outdoor clothing of varying sizes. Had you walked into our house on the first Saturday of January, this is what you would have found. It looked as if we had been kidnapped.

The large yellow backpack, once used for Search and Rescue, stuffed with helmets, kids boots, lunches, and extra clothes stood tall in the trunk of the car overlooking the jumble of boots, poles, skis and anything else that did not fit inside of the bag. I checked the contents of the trunk three times before we pulled out of the driveway, touching every item as I did so and opening the backpack just to make sure the boots that I already knew were there were actually there.

Luke and I are dropped off at the lodge so that we can get to his lesson on time and Erin and Noah go park the car. I heft the backpack onto my shoulders, drape my ski boots over the backpack’s straps, heft my skis onto my right should and grab Luke’s skis and my poles with my left hand. There should be parenting classes on how to get your family’s ski equipment from the car to the lodge. Luke, as he normally does, settles into a saunter despite my quick pace. I stop and turn around to wait a few times sighing as I do so; it is futile, as it should be. He just wants to take in all the new sights and sounds around him. Inside as I get his ticket and find out the details of his lesson Luke slowly turns in circles wide eyed at lodge’s surroundings—the low ceiling, long cafeteria tables, flimsy green plastic chairs, people of various sizes and ages, the metal stove resting on the old stone hearth, wooden cubbies crammed with dirty winter boots and crumpled ski bags. I put on Luke’s boots and he walks around on just his heals, a mischievous grin upon his face. Noah gives him a hug and out the door we go to our lesson.

We meet our instructor and then walk over to the mighty mighty rope tow. Luke’s balance is excellent but his focus is not with all the new sights and sounds of the ski area. This is further hampered when he sees Erin and Noah riding up the rope tow for a quick run before Noah’s lesson.  Noah has no interest in stopping to talk or even to say hi. He just points his skis down the hill and goes. By our third time getting on the rope tow Luke wants to try to go up by himself. He communicates this with much pointing for he has flatly refused to talk to in front of the instructor.  After three unsuccessful attempts he decides he’s had enough and rides up with me.  By the end the hour it is clear Luke has lost interest and we head to lodge for a snack. Halfway there Luke stops and lies down in the snow with a large grin on his face he makes a snow angel, then gets up and continues on his way.

After our snack we go back out to the mighty mighty and Luke tries again to ride the rope tow by himself without success. Soon he has grown bored with the gentle slope here on the beginners hill and starts negotiations to ride the chair lift. We settle on him having to do five more pizza wedges to show us he is at least getting the hang of it. He sets to the task with an intense focus. It is clear though that he is getting tired, and as we try to direct him in the direction of the lift, he gets upset and points to a lift in the opposite direction, the lift that goes to the very top of the mountain. I tell him we can’t go on that one and he starts to whine and carry on. If you can’t listen now then we won’t go on the lift at all, I tell him. He walks away and makes another snow angel then comes back and all is right with the world again.

Noah’s class is about to ride the same lift so Erin rides up with Noah and I ride up with Luke. As we shuffle onto the loading ramp, I ask the lift operator to please slow the lift down.

“I can’t slow it down, sorry, but I’ll stop it if something goes wrong,” he replies.

I take a deep breath, stoop slightly and wrap my arms around Luke and look over my shoulder. As the chair approaches I hope for the best. With a grunt I lift him off the ground and we flop onto the chair and are whisked into the air. I lower the bar but keep my arms wrapped around him, my fear of heights and irrotational thoughts getting the best of me.  As the unloading platform draws closer, my mind is slightly panicked. Will I have enough leverage to lift his nearly fifty pounds from this angle? What happens if I loose my balance? Will my hernia survive this?  I am concerned about all these things because I want Luke to have a good time. I want him to want to come back and do this again.  Erin and I have been looking forward to this day for so long and I don’t want something to go wrong that will turn Luke’s thoughts of skiing from fun to horrible. Just before we reach the platform I manage to calm my mind. I simply stand up holding Luke under his arms. Then I let the back of the chair push us along the platform and down the ramp. Stopping promptly at the ramps base I shuffle awkwardly out of the way.

I position Luke between my legs and have him hold onto my poles that I am holding across my thighs. Our skis are pointed down hill and we are off. At first he does well mimicking the angle of my skis, but soon he is leaning back and when I tell him to lean forward, he hangs off of the poles, his feet barely on the ground. The further down the mountain we go, the more his attention disappears.  Teaching is over for the day but we decide on one more run so that we can end on a high note.

“Go fast,” he says as we begin our decent.
With the cold winter wind in our faces Luke lets out yips of joy as we pick up speed. He tries to make parallel turns between my legs, giggling and spraying up snow as he does.

Jealousy, Judgments and Assumptions

I was hit with a dose of reality earlier this week.  I am not the only dad blogger in Utah. This should not come as shock since we live in a valley of a million people.  I may be the only stay-at-home dad blogger but now I am just splitting hairs.  To compound the bursting my little bubble, this other blog, Single Dad Laughing (SDL), is immensely popular and has only been around for a few months.

I stumbled across this blog because another dad blogger had written a post questioning its validity and basically bashing it.  Right away I started forming assumptions and becoming judgmental based on someone else’s opinion.  There was a feeling of jealousy a feeling I tried to deny.  I sent the author an e-mail, in hopes of connecting with him, but at this time I have gotten no response. This has further inflated my assumptions. In an effort to put a stop to these feelings I poked around some more on the website.  I came back with an opinion of what I thought of the writing and the content , but my other feelings persisted.  It was Erin who made me admit to these feelings.  It was a bit hard to swallow, but it could not be ignored.  I was jealous, being judgmental and making assumptions about someone I knew nothing about.  Then the gravity of the situation and a feeling of terror crept over me.  Soon Noah would be able to pick up on these sorts of feelings; he would begin to start forming his own thoughts, opinions and judgments about people. I would soon have a direct effect on whether he approached things with an open mind or a closed one.  Our society as a whole is quick to jump to conclusions and make judgments based on limited information.  I do not need to be fueling that mentality by inadvertently teaching Noah to do the same.

When I take a step back and really look at what I was jealous of, it all seems foolish.  I really have no desire to be on Ellen, though a mention would be really cool. I do not aspire to get 10,000 people to share one of my posts on Facebook.  I am not out to change the world.  I am here to document my experience as a stay-at-home dad and to entertain and every now and again help someone who may be struggling.  I never set out to make money on this, I am happy to know that my readership is steady, I exceed my  goal for visits to my blog each day and I think I am gaining a fairly loyal flowing and I am staying true to my mission statement.

I still do not have all the facts about the author of the SDL and I probably never will.  I have my opinions and have drawn some conclusions, some of which I am sure are wrong.  What I do have is a son that I need to raise to the best of my ability.  A son who looks to me to learn about the world, and whether I like it or not, a son who is watching my every move and forming the foundation of his thoughts and opinions based on what he sees.  This is what I need to be mindful of, not who has been published, not who has the most readers, Twitter followers or Facebook fans. At the end of the day these things do not matter, they will not matter on his first day of school or when he graduates.  What will matter is that we have done our best to raise an open-minded individual who can make a positive contribution to society.