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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Trampoline Nights


 We don’t have central air conditioning at my house. We don’t even have a window air conditioner. And up until the end of June we didn’t even have our swamp cooler operational. With temperatures reaching 100 degrees F. we were very warm in the house. Long after the sun sets, when the temperatures starts dropping off outside, inside the temperature remained in the 90’s. In the winter this phenomenon is a blessing; in the summer, a curse. The master bedroom is on the west side of the house and catches all the afternoon heat. A few nights ago I woke up at 2 a.m. feeling like I was suffocating, my bed wet with sweat. I went and stood in the dark on the porch in my underwear and looked at the stars and let the cool night air absorb my excess body heat. Night air never felt so pleasurable. But I couldn’t stand there all night and eventually had to return to the heat of my room.
The next day it was even warmer. Rather than suffer another long night in the dead heat of my room I decided to sleep out on the trampoline in the back yard. I grabbed my pillow and a sleeping bag and tried to sneak out the back door. But trying to sneak anything in my house is like a celebrity saying something stupid and hoping no one heard.
                “What are you doing , Dad?” Story, my seven-year-old,  had caught me.
 His words alerted Glory, my nine-year-old. She came peering around the corner.  “Are you sleeping outside?” she asked.
                I was caught and denial was futile.  I nodded and they both ran to get their pillows and blankets. There were no questions asked. Dad was sleeping on the trampoline and so they would too. Sleeping on the trampoline with the kids is a natural thing to do, but it doesn’t usually lead to a great night’s sleep. The main problem is that objects with any weight tend to roll to the center of the trampoline. We won’t be asleep long before we will all be lying in a heap in the middle.
                Story is the first one outside with me. We get his blankets on the trampoline, but then he does a little dance when suddenly nature calls him. He wants the flashlight so he can go back inside to the bathroom. I direct him over to a dark corner of the yard where he can take care of business under the stars. It’s one of those great lessons a father can teach a son about how great it is to be a guy. He’s still young enough that his shorts come all the way down around his knees when he goes. I shine the flashlight on his white buns and yell, “Look, it’s a full moon!”
                “Dad!” he yells, and then giggles.
                Glory comes out a few moments later and I light the way for her with the bright beam of the LED flashlight. We got everyone arranged and then lay, only half covered, in the warm night breeze looking up at the stars. They can both recognize the big dipper and the star Betelgeuse (Beetle Juice). It isn’t long before they ask for a story and I am making up a Mr. Potato Head vs. the Potato Peeler story.  Then my seven-year-old returns the favor and starts telling me a story, but he falls asleep before he is finished. Glory and I stay awake long enough to catch a whiff of a skunk carousing somewhere upwind.
                It’s not long before I doze off and my nine-year-old is pushing on me in her sleep because I am nearly lying on both her and her brother due to the black hold affect at the center of the trampoline. I scoot as far away as I can and turn at an angle, but it doesn’t work. An hour later I am crowding in on them again.
                Sometime in the night I had to get up to relieve myself. This is where the second problem of trampoline sleeping comes in.  As I struggle out of my bag and to the edge of the trampoline the two kids start to bounce and almost catch air. Somehow they both sleep through this. They sleep bounce again as I get back in my bag.
                I awake each hour to the breeze puffing in my face or because the trampoline, although stretchy, is not soft. Also I keep sliding into my kids. I watch the Big Dipper make its rotation around the North Star. At 4 a.m. I give it up and crawl off the trampoline to go to my bed in the house. I’m hoping it will be cooler by then.  It isn’t.  The room is still hot and stifling, but at least I won’t be sliding into my kids. Before I get into bed I hear little voices coming in the back door. These aren’t middle-of-the-night voices, but awake voices talking and giggling. I learn that our stray cat had joined them on the trampoline and tried to crawl into bed with Glory. The cat smelled a little like a skunk. With the cat’s arrival and my departure they had decided to come in too. They went off to their respective rooms and I sweated the next few hours in mine until dawn. 
I finally got the stand for the swamp cooler built and with it pumping in the cool night air sleep comes a little easier. Like a character in a horror movie who is drawn to the old house on the hill even against his better judgment, for some unknowable reason I find myself wanting to try another night out on the trampoline. There must be a way I can make it work.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Obsolescence of the Senses


 I’m not sure what criteria are met when something is listed as one of the wonders of the world, but in my view, the Internet should be on the list. It has changed the world so much in such a short time.  But change, as it has always been, is a double-edged sword. Every day I find myself feeling grateful for the good the Internet does in my life. I communicate through it, I find answers to difficult questions through it, I discover beautiful things I never knew existed through it, I am educated through it, and I buy things through it. But even as I list these things related to the Internet that thrill me I am a little frightened by the power the Internet has to replace my physical, tactile world with an ephemeral, virtual world.

The tactile world is a very powerful thing. It is the thing that makes us afraid to die. Even with all its troubles and pain we don’t want to leave the world of sight, touch, sound, and smell. And yet the Internet, something that I love very much, has the potential to do just that. When I was a young man I experienced receiving perfumed letters from young women. What a delightful experience. I would hold the envelope in my hands and inhale. I would check to see if the stamp was upside-down (sign of affection), then I would open the envelope and pull out the letter. The letter would be on stationary paper with a color and design (maybe daisies, maybe bumble bees) that communicated the personality of the young woman who chose it. Then, I would unfold the paper and before me would be the handwriting in loops and curls, or slanted and regular, or something else that was a physical manifestation of the young woman’s personality. My children today have no idea what a physical delight it could be to get a letter. Today a letter is an email. Email cannot be touched or smelled and there is no handwriting. (Is handwriting still taught in school?)  Email has the personality of a breakfast of egg whites. The Internet has rendered obsolete an entire physical experience. This disturbs me.


Other physical experiences that are in danger are hearing the voices of loved ones. I hear complaints of parents everywhere that they cannot get a child to answer their mobile phone. If they want to get a response they have to text them instead. Texting is certainly convenient. I can send my daughter a text when she is in school knowing that if she is in class where she is not allowed to read it or respond she will do so as soon as she is able. I like that. But what I like even more is answering my phone and hearing the voice that is uniquely hers say, “Hello, Daddy.” Texts all sound alike. If someone took the texts from my children and removed the “sent from “ names I could not tell which child sent which text except perhaps by context.  Luckily, at least for now, my children will still call me or answer their phones when I call them. I love the sound of each of their voices.

There are still plenty of books being printed in physical form, but I think they are trending toward the endangered species list.  I suffer from a dual personality on this subject. The progressive me absolutely loves reading digital books on my tablet. I just finished a book and tonight I will select another. To do this I will press an icon on my tablet, scroll through a list of books, press another icon to purchase the book, and within seconds will be reading that book on the tablet. I will do all this while lying in bed. How great is that! Having such easy access to books makes me want to stand up and do a jig. And then reading the book is so easy. My thumb doesn’t get tired holding the book open. One side of the book doesn’t cast a shadow on the other side of the book. A breeze doesn’t keep trying to change the page on me. But wait a minute. The very things I love about e-books renders obsolete so many other things I love about books.  I miss the smell of the bookstore. I miss the sight of bound books in all colors and sizes. I miss the feel of running my finger along a shelf full of books as I walk by. I miss flipping through the pages until I reach a page with a picture on it. We have shelves of books at home. Some of my books are leather bound, edged with gold leave, satin interior, the typeface a carefully picked font—works of art! I don’t want these to become obsolete and yet I complain when I can’t get a book in electronic format. I know in the end the electronic books are going to win and the tactile book reading experience will become obsolete.

The Internet is changing the world and changing how we interact with the world. While I am in love with the Internet and how it brings the world to me I am going to take closer notice of all the sensory aspects in my day. When I am at a physical store and take change from a cashier and our hands momentarily touch I will take note of the feel. When I walk up the wood aisle of a hardware store I will appreciate more the smell of pine and cedar. When I walk through a used bookstore (how long has it been since you’ve been in one?) I am going to savor the smell of musty paper. When my phone rings and I hear my seven-year-old’s voice I am going to smile. I will do all this because who knows what sensations will become obsolete next?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fatherhood: A Second Thought



                Father’s Day is this Sunday. We fathers need to thank our mothers for Fathers’ Day. Do you think anyone would have thought up a fathers’ day if there hadn’t been a mother’s day first? Certainly not. No one said, “Fathers are so wonderful we should have a special day commemorating them.” Instead it was more like, “You know, we have a mothers’ day. Maybe we should have a fathers’ day so that fathers don’t feel left out.” Yes, I think we fathers were just a second thought. But that’s okay. Fatherhood has always been a second-thought sort of thing. I mean even us fathers probably weren’t thinking of fatherhood when we were starting the process of making ourselves a father. You know the phrase spoken to children that goes, “when you were just a twinkle in your dad’s eye?” I think the process of becoming a father was more about the twinkle than the idea of “dad.” Then the consequences of the “twinkle” arrive and we scratch our heads and wonder if this might change things.
                While my oldest son’s first child was still in the womb he asked me what I thought it meant to be a father. Why would he ask me that? Perhaps it’s because I am his father as well as the father of his seven siblings. The word “Dad” comes out of a lot of different mouths at our house and it’s all aimed at me.  With my years of experience that has cultivated great wisdom I answered, “I  . . . well, I don’t know.” Before I gave him that answer I actually did turn my thoughts inward to find something wonderful to say. I was surprised when I came up with nothing. I could have started with that poem, “Father: F is for friend, A is for . . .” and so on. Actually, I don’t that poem, but I realized that asking me what it was like to be a father was like asking me what it is like to bend my elbow. I know that just as being able to bend my elbow is a good thing so being a father is a good thing. There isn’t much more you can say about your own fatherhood. It’s too much in the present. All I know is that I take great wonder in my children and feel great responsibility for their welfare. That sums it up.
                I think you have to turn to memories of your own dad to get more meaning out of the word “fatherhood.” And you can get a wide variety of meanings. I think men are more likely to fail at being good fathers than women are at being good mothers. I was lucky enough to have a good father. I don’t think he was any better at being a father than any other good father, but he was my father. You know what I mean. What were the things that he did that define what a good father is to me?
  1.  He was honest. I don’t have any awkward memories of him doing anything dishonest and then winking at me.
  2.  He was faithful. He had one woman and she was my mother. There were no devastating “Willy Loman” type revelations that suck the color out of the world. (See “Death of a Salesman.”)
  3. He was responsible – my dad was dedicated to working for the welfare of his family.
  4. Time – this is huge. Any of the previous three things set a strong foundation for a man’s fatherhood, but Dad’s who have time for their children make fatherhood shine. I only know this from my own experience with my dad. He took me (and the rest of the family) on endless number of cookouts where he did the cooking. He took me to Kiwanis club luncheons during my lunch break during school. He built igloos out of real blocks of snow in the back yard with me. I spent entire summers at various Scout camps that he either ran or had work at. He was the guide on the Salmon River for week-long high adventure Scout trips and often took me along when there was room. He was the foreman of a trail building crew and I spent summers working with him far back in the mountains of many different states. My birthday was during these summers and he somehow would always bake me a cake over an open fire. They tasted good, too. We live in different states now and he is old. He still has time for frequent, long chats with me on the phone and will still write me letters. Time is something my father always had for me.
 My dad had his troubles. He had his dark days. But the four items above, especially the last one, forgive him of any weaknesses he had as a father. So perhaps “time” is at the center of fatherhood, of being a good dad. Traditionally speaking time is the thing that fathers have little of—at least for their families due to the fact that that they have been expected to work long hours to support their families. That would be why time is worth so much. It’s simple supply and demand economics. So you Dad’s out there who give time to your children, you are definitely investors of Warren Buffet caliber.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Blonde and a Corvette or a Boot to the Head?


When I reached forty I was in a rut. I had been married for eighteen years. I had six children. I had been in the same job for ten years. Partying for me was going out to a movie with my wife and putting extra butter on the popcorn. A rebel I was not. My life was in dire need of something to wake me out of my walking, waking stupor, but I was too “stuporfied” to know it. I was at the point in my life where I needed something to validate my life—something to help me remember that I was a living, breathing man.

A beautiful woman and a hot car can do that for a man. We’ve all seen the gray-haired man with the sun glasses zipping by in his red corvette with the young busty blond at his side. Clearly he is feeling far younger than he looks. But maybe that is how we middle-aged men are looking to feel. If a Corvette and a blond are the answer to the midlife blues maybe doctors should prescribe them. But then again maybe the feelings that come with the ‘vette and the blonde are more an illusion than anything else. My problem was I didn’t know any blondes and I couldn’t afford a Corvette. Besides I had put eighteen years of my life into my woman and I wasn’t fool enough to think starting over now would be a good thing. No something else would have to change up my life and wake me up. My wife called one day and, unbeknownst to me at the time, said a word that would change my life – taekwondo.

“Tyquon-what?” I had asked. She explained that she had been told by a friend with children about a place in town that taught taekwondo, a Korean martial art. My wife wanted to take advantage of the “free first week” offer and let our kids try it. I wasn’t enthusiastic. My impression of the martial arts came mainly from the Cobrakahn dojo in Karate Kid. It was a macho attitude kind of thing that I didn’t think fit my kids very well. Who would have known that just a few weeks later I would be joining my kids on the mat on a journey that has never really ended.

I know that as silly as the middle-aged man in the Corvette with the young blonde at his side looks to me, I looked just as silly in karate pajamas doing karate moves (let’s all do the one-legged crane holding up our arms like wings). Let’s face it, over-weight, middle-aged men starting karate are often unwittingly a comical sight and someone you don’t want to be seen with by your friends. I knew this, and yet there I was, making a fool out of myself because for some reason practicing taekwondo made me extraordinarily happy. The question is why?

Exercise: I gained about 10 pounds for every baby my wife had. She had eight babies. Go ahead, do the math. I started marriage at around 160 pounds. When I started Taekwondo I was 240 pounds. That’s NFL linebacker size without linebacker strength. I’m a big guy and carry the weight well, but I was not healthy. The taekwondo workouts were marvelous. They included push-ups, running, kicking, forms, speed drills, hitting, endurance drills, kicking, crunches, kicking, sparring, and did I mention kicking? Now it isn’t the exercises themselves that made me feel so good; it’s that I was doing these exercises with people who became such close friends and doing them with more of a holistic goal in mind than a physical goal. At the end of stretching after workouts I would be sitting in a pool of sweat and feeling so happy. Oh, yes, I got to the point where I could do cartwheels with my kids again.
    I had lost some weight by this time.
Family: I followed my children into the world of taekwondo. I would never (never, ever) have started without them. The dojang became a second home for my family. We stood at attention in different places in the lines, but still feeling the family bond. We each progressed at different speeds with our own unique challenges, but each was a coach for the other either on forms, on a kicking technique, or for impromptu sparring matches. We did kick each other a lot. My butt, being the largest, seemed to attract the most feet. Our family grew even larger with the others in the dojang. A group of us spent ten years in the program and shared in personal, family, and taekwondo crises. It was a celebration each time one of us passed the test (after years) to gain the black belt.
Third son and his mother after black belt test

Second daughter focusing
Fourth son joining the rest of us in the class

First daughter and me at her black belt test

Instructor: I am certain that I would never had stayed in the martial arts had I not had the instructor I had. If you are picturing Mr. Myogi, don’t. One of the masters from the show “Kung Fu”? Nope. The school owner and instructor more or less fell into ownership by accident. He had a wife and two kids and worked maintenance for an explosives company. He really wasn’t full of ancient wisdom and sage advice. He was, however, full of fighting, taekwondo spirit guided by a genuine concern for his fellow human being. He was big and strong, yet he never once kicked me out of control. I saw him spar convincingly with my young children and yet never caused them any fear. He had a gift for bringing confidence and self-respect out of the most timid.
Our instructor with my daghter at a homecoming party (he just came back from Iraq)
My instructor (back left) and his wife hugging my daughter at her black belt test

Fear: There are many forms of exercise a middle-aged man can engage in to try to keep fit. I worked with a fellow who would bike sixty miles to work one or two days a week. My brother took up rock climbing. Others just hit the gym. None of these did the one thing I needed—strike at my fear. I am a big guy, but I have always been more fearful than fearsome. I lived in fear of confrontations, verbal or physical. When I saw my kids in taekwondo and learned they had full-contact sparring and competitions where knockouts were allowed it scared me. And so I joined up. Luke Skywalker went into the cave to face himself. I went into that dojang to face myself. I went in at least three nights a week for ten years with butterflies in my stomach. I always came out feeling great. In my first competition I faced two opponents who were yellow belts (I was just white). My coach came by and whispered to me these encouraging words, “I know your opponents and they kick hard.” I was terrified. When the first match ended and they raised my arm as the winner my heart sank. That meant I had to fight the second guy. I won that match also.  I saw the tape of the match. My hands were visibly shaking (from fear, not some martial arts mystery force). My opponents and I had nothing like Bruce Lee about us. We looked like two bulls trying to find their way out of china shop first.  From there I went on and my fears became controllable. Today I am no more “dangerous” than I was before I started taekwondo, just a lot happier.
That's me blocking the back kick with my stomach in a competition

I broke a brick at my black belt test

Me receiving my black belt. Oldest son is next to me and daughter standing in foreground
As you can see I chose the “boot to the head” over the “corvette and blond” approach to my midlife crisis (many boots to the head, actually). Considering the fact that I still have the love and respect of my wife and children (although I looked funny in my karate pajamas) I think I made a good choice. Martial arts isn’t for everyone. I had such a fantastic experience that I can’t imagine it happening twice. Everything just came together to give me and my family an unforgettable experience that continues on in different forms today.