Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Haggis, the High Road, and a Chat for the Ages

“A Scot will give you the shirt off their back,” a new friend explained, as a group of us discussed her people, her nation, and the future of this rugged and resilient land, late into a cool, fall night outside a blowup pub in a yard in Scotland.

It was only my third day on Scottish soil, yet I understood exactly what she meant -- a lesson learned just moments after we arrived.

My wife and I landed in Edinburgh two days prior in the mid-morning, tired and hungry from the overnight flight. In a rental car with the stick shift and steering wheel in the wrong place, we anxiously set out for our destination – a cousin’s home in Hamilton, southeast of Glasgow – hoping we’d find some food along the way.
We passed small houses, tightly-packed villages, and flat fields shielded by morning mist as we navigated round-a-bouts and typed ‘breakfast near us” into a smart phone. Google pointed us to a chain coffee shop in the village of Chapelhall. Lack of parking and luck took us further down the block to a spot in front of the Mallagh Family Butcher & Bakers, a small storefront on a squat block of stores.
The sign out front read, “Full Scottish Breakfast.” We parked and entered awkwardly.
Like a bounce house for adults, this blowup
pub served as the night-after party place.
Inside the tiny butcher shop, we were confronted by a long case of meats along one counter and a shorter one of pastries, rolls and steak pies on the other. Behind the counter, men and women toiled in white aprons, serving the small gaggle of customers barking greetings and orders faster than an American could comprehend.
When I say tiny, I mean it. The place was miniscule. Nowhere to sit. No tables, no chairs, and barely room enough to change your mind.
“What would you like?” an older gentleman shot our way as we looked blankly at the board behind him, trying to decipher the names and prices of the various items listed. At least, that’s what I assume he asked. The Scottish accent is notoriously hard to decipher for the untrained ear. Yet it took less than a syllable out of my mouth for him to know we were lost and hungry Americans.
A few indecisive moments and misunderstood attempts to communicate later, my wife and I decided to leave – a full retreat, so that we could regroup, reconsider our options, and prepare for our next Scottish encounter.
“Aye,” he said to us, holding up a finger to imply we should stay put. “I have your sausage rolls coming.” He quickly followed that with a nod, “On me.”
Before we had a chance to refuse the offer, a younger, taller butcher darted from the back with two wrapped sandwiches. The older gentlemen handed them to us as we thanked him and said he shouldn’t have.
“You’ll be back,” he nodded again. A strange thing to say to two Americans who might never set foot in Chapelhall again.
But he was right. After devouring two soft rolls with square sausage while sitting in the front seat of our rental, we went back in for a bag of scones. And he filled our ears with small talk about where we were headed, how it was near where he grew up, and what we thought of Scotland thus far, at least that’s what we think he said.
To have any hope of understanding the Scottish accent, you have to listen closely. Not merely pay attention, but actually listen, focusing and straining with every fiber to break down what’s being said and reassemble it in your brain in way you can understand it. It’s not just the accent, but the speed, the cadence, and their general penchant for colloquialisms that make it so hard to follow.
If you haven't danced to The Proclaimers 
and sung Loch Lomond, you haven't 
been to a true Scottish wedding
My wife and I were in Scotland for a family wedding – her cousins Brian and Mary were celebrating the marriage of their eldest daughter. And, since they’d made the transatlantic trip to come to our nuptials years ago, we wanted to return the honor. So we did. And for a total of five days and four nights this fall, we ate, drank, danced, celebrated, and spent time with my wife’s Scottish relatives.
We had a blast, etching memories we’ll never forget, like singing Loch Lomond while linked in arms with an entire wedding party. And our hosts made us feel incredibly welcome, putting us up and feeding us well, including a Full Scottish Breakfast with four types of sausage and breakfast haggis.
In our time there, and after saying “what was that?” more than I care to count, we also got better at understanding the wondrous Scottish accent, to the point that we could not only order sausage sandwiches but hold actual conversations.
On our third night, the bride's parents hosted a party in an inflatable pub in their yard, and I engaged in a particularly enthralling chat with a handful of new Scottish friends and a British gentleman from Portsmouth in the south of England, if my memory serves me. Over beers and flavored gin, we discussed the European Union and Brexit. We debated globalization and immigration; news in the age of social media and the rise of Donald Trump -- which they were most curious about. And, of most interest to me, we talked about the complex world of Scottish politics.
To ever hope to understand politics in Scotland, and the Scottish people’s place in the world, you must not only listen closely, but you also have to wrap your head around the region’s complicated history, which has been shaped by economics and religion, proximity and pride.
And, it’s a history that’s still unfolding.
At the foot of any conversation about politics in Scotland these days lies the remnants of two major public votes held in recent years. In September of 2014, after months of persuasion, years of planning and centuries of debate, Scotland held a referendum on its independence. On that day, 55% of Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and 45% voted to become its own nation.
Then, not even two years later, in June of 2016, the entire UK voted 51% to 49% in favor of Brexit, the referendum on leaving the European Union. If it had been up to just Scotland, however, Brexit would have failed miserably, with 62% opposing it and just 38% in favor.
In Scotland, questions on these votes tug at the minds of friends and neighbors alike, much the way the Trump election does with Americans: How did you vote?
And as the economic turmoil of Brexit begins to show on Scotland’s main streets, a new question has arisen. Would you vote the same today?
Because, ironically, one of the arguments used for voting against independence was how it would hurt Scotland’s EU membership. Following the loss of industrial jobs starting in the 1970s, and with the growth of a service-based economy in recent years like financial services and tourism, along with exports like whisky and oil, the Scottish economy has become deeply entwined in that of larger Europe. And that’s been a good thing for much of Scotland. But, will that continue? Will tourism, the financial services sector, and even, whisky take a hit?
It’s an uncertain time for Scotland and its economic future.
A second vote on independence may yet occur. But in the meantime, Scotland reels with the ramifications of exiting the EU.
Hamilton, South Lanarkshire
We spent most of our time there in Hamilton, a quaint city twenty minutes outside Glasgow, with old churches, new college buildings, and a well-known walking and shopping district, where brick rows houses line stone streets on the slight incline of downtown. Hamilton had great bones, I thought. Though I was surprised to see cell phone peddlers and pawn shops in storefronts where you’d expect to see bakers and boutiques – and likely did, not too long ago.
“It’s a bit run down, these days,” one of the young people we got to know said of Hamilton.
When I prodded, the city’s challenges were attributed to everything from the Brexit vote to ASDA, the UK-version of Walmart, that’s likewise taking shoppers away from the city centers. Whatever the cause, the same uncertainty that plagues all of Scotland was visible on the streets. A lesson on economics.
The lesson on religion began at the wedding itself. My wife and I are Catholic, as are her relatives in Scotland. So, we knew the structure of the mass that accompanied the ceremony, even if the priest was hard to follow at times. Yet, when we came to the part of the mass where you share a sign of peace -- shake hands and say “peace be with you” to those around us -- I turned around to a row of twenty-something Scots and extended my hand. They looked at me confused, even like I was a leper. Then at communion, not a single person from that row took part. And I realized they weren’t Catholic. Not that it matted to me.
Catholics only make up 19 percent of the total population, with most living in and around Glasgow. This population was boosted by Irish immigration in the late 1900s. In Glasgow itself, there are several poor, working class neighborhoods where Catholics dominate. And all the problems that happen in poor, working class neighborhoods exist there, defining Catholics for some Scots.
“There’s still a great deal of anti-Catholic bigotry,” another cousin told me later.
More Scots, if they’re religious at all, are members of the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian faith adhered to by about 25 percent of the population. And, in Scotland, your religion matters. It can tell people where you live, dictate where you go to school, and even influence which local soccer team you support. (Celtic all the way for my wife’s family).
Though, many young people may be starting to move away from these old divisions. In fact, a census in 2011 found that 37 percent of Scots claimed no religion at all. The looks I got during mass were likely the result of the agnostic youth and not disdain for Catholics. And several of the Scots I spoke with expressed their general concern for how religion often divides their community, and that was a reason so many chose to be non-religious.
Still, the residue of religion can be felt in many places, and it almost certainly affected how many voted on independence – though maybe indirectly.
The results tell the story. Of the 32 local municipalities Scotland divides itself into, only 4 voted in favor of independence. One was Glasgow. Polling also showed that people in their late 20s and 30s, the working class, and those living in “deprived” areas were more likely to support independence. Many of those areas are Catholic.
Clearly, there were many reasons for and against independence beyond religion, from the economic to the political. And most of those reasons speak directly to the historically knotty relationship between Scotland and the Brits to the south.
Looking for an outing the day after the wedding, we stumbled upon a vestige of that relationship. It’s hard not to stumble upon history when you’re in a place like Scotland. We found ours by asking Google for “Castles near me.”
A short drive later, my wife, father-in-law and I arrived at Bothwell Castle, a thickly built stone stronghold originally constructed in the 13th century. And one with quite the history.
Bothwell: Good luck storming this castle. 
During the First War for Scottish Independence, Bothwell fell into the hands of King Edward 1’s forces. In the year 1298, it was then laid siege for 14 months by the Scots, before falling into their hands. Edward’s forces retook the castle a few years later and held it until it was surrendered to the Scots in 1314, following Robert the Bruce's victory at Bannockburn. The Scots then razed Bothwell so their British foes couldn’t use it against them again.
“Spite is a powerful emotion,” a new friend joked when I relayed that part of the story.
A few years later, Bothwell was rebuilt and was famously occupied by Archibald Douglas, known as Archibald the Grim, the son of James "the Black" Douglas, a close ally of the Bruce and a character in Netflix new “Outlaw King” movie.
Over the next 500 years, Bothwell was expanded, ravaged and rebuilt many times, finally laying in ruin in the 18th century. But, for a couple of Americans with little sense of Scottish history beyond watching Braveheart, it was a tangible and awesome reminder of the history of the region. A history of conflict and conquest. One that resulted in to people joining together for mutual benefit, and the tensions that continue to pull at the seams.
“And there it is,” exclaimed one of the Scots in our chat dramatically, almost comically. “There’s the patronizing arrogance we’ve come to expect.”
He was responding to the sole Englishman who braved our conversation and had wondered to the group how Scotland could possibly support itself if they did vote for independence. He qualified it by emphasizing that there are only 5 million residents, after all. Then he dug a deeper hole by mentioning that the Scots get great benefits from their inclusion in the UK, including free college.
“You think we wouldn’t do the same if we were independent?”
One of the misnomers of the debate is that Scotland is dependent on the UK for benefits. In reality, the Center for Economics and Business Research found that Scotland contributes slightly more to the UK economy than it receives. It was also pointed out in our chat that the free college program and free care for the elderly, which don’t exist in the rest of the UK, were enacted by the Scottish parliament and not as a way for the UK to prop up Scotland or to address its high mortality rate, which the group joked had as much to do with gin and sausage as anything else. And, yes, many Scottish do prefer gin over whisky. By my count, almost all of them.
Clearly, five days and a few conversations, though enlightening, are hardly more than a scratch at an understanding of Scotland and its people.
As for what the future holds, it is certainly uncertain. But I have faith in Scotland.
“We are a proud people,” she said. “And we are a generous people."
I concur.

Here's other articles you may enjoy: Going to Carolina; One Smiling Moment -- The Truth Behind an Okay Photo; and Real People and Pearls in the Crescent City.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Going to Carolina

Someplace warm: that was the goal.

A minivan on a mission, filled with four kids on their April break and two delirious parents.

It was the most spontaneous thing we’d done since we had kids. And, possibly ever. Certainly, the most unplanned trip since weekends in grad school, when we’d depart for Canada on a whim. Or that time we went to Sackets Harbor in December, almost two decades ago, because my parents had a gift certificate for a hotel that was going to expire. That story was actually a ruse – one that ended in a proposal.

This time, there was no plan, by either of us. We just headed south. With no place to stay. Not even a certain destination. Other than "someplace warm."

That’s what my wife kept mumbling after a Winter that wouldn’t relent, even as the Spring months ostensibly took charge of the calendar. She wanted to be warm. So, on we drove. Southward.

We left midweek. Wednesday, if memory serves. A few days away from work was all I could muster without more notice.

“My wife can’t take it anymore,” I told my boss. He understood. Everyone understood. Though, I’m not sure I did.

“I think your mom has lost it,” I told our eldest, as we cruised south.

“Just go with it,” she advised, with all of 15 years of wisdom under her wings.

So, I did.

And with each mile and each degree, the light returned to our eyes. Several hours into our journey to warmth, we picked a place out on a map: Carolina Beach.

We’d been there once before, briefly, for the wedding of a friend. I remembered liking it and hoping to return.
My wife had hoped to go further south to some island off Georgia, where it was going to be in the 80s. But that would take another six hours. Besides, I knew that come late June we’d make our annual trek to Hilton Head. And that would be spoiled if we went so close to it just two months prior. So, we settled on the mid-70s.

As I drove, and the kids slept and fought and complained about being hungry, my wife found a place on HomeAway that was available for the rest of the week. A small place, a few blocks from the ocean, with enough beds and good reviews.
She called the owner, and emailed her, and texted her as we hurtled down I-95, not sure where we’d end up.

No answer.

We started looking online at other places. Then at hotels in the area. Then cheaper hotels. Then motels.

Then the phone rang.

The place we wanted was available. And we could rent it for the rest of the week, into the weekend. The owner was a fellow New Yorker. She’d gone to the North Carolina coast and fallen in love with it. Bought a place and fixed it up. My wife liked that last part.

She said we’d love it. So, we booked it.

Suddenly, we had a destination. And a place to stay for that night and a few more. It was just south of Carolina Beach, in the small coastal community of Kure Beach, North Carolina.

To say the entire Carolina Coast holds a special place in our hearts would be an understatement. My wife did her undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill and took many trips to the coast throughout her college years. Before that, she was introduced to the region when her parents started going to Hilton Head, South Carolina, when she was a kid. Quite a hike from Pennsylvania. They loved it so much, they bought a timeshare. And, it was that timeshare that has drawn us to Hilton Head each summer since we started having kids, even though it's an even longer hike from Upstate New York. The truth is, our children have grown up going to the beaches of South Carolina.

But North Carolina was new to most of our family. And Kure beach, during that miserable Spring, seemed downright exotic.

The moment we arrived, we knew we’d chosen well. The towns of Carolina and Kure Beach crowd several blocks deep up against the ocean dunes, connected by a single road -- two places inseparable to the untrained eye. With the ocean on one side and cape fear on the other, the peninsula that’s also an island reaches down to the southern tip of what is called the Outer Banks. Though, this bank is much closer to the mainland than some of its northern brethren and is only an island because of an almost imperceptible cut in the land under a bridge on the north side of town.

Along the ocean’s edge of the peninsula, pastel homes on stilts and brown condos stand shoulder to shoulder, broken up occasionally by stout older homes that have yet to be torn down and replaced. As you drive south from Carolina Beach to Kure, the stouter homes become more common.

You know you’re in the center of Kure Beach when you arrive at the stoplight, with the fishing pier one block to the east, and small beach houses in rows and alleys to the right.

We found our place on 6th street, surrounded by other one-story brick homes.

And inside, we found what we’d come for. A comfortable, cozy, perfect little beach house.

And in the time that followed, we had a Spring Break for the ages. We ate well at Jack Mackerels Island Grill and Kure Beach Diner; A&G’s Barbeque and the Shuckin’ Shack. We explored to the state park with Venus Flytraps and to the coastal village of Southport. And we found the best donuts in the world at Britts, and we devoured them.

We walked along boardwalks, beaches covered with shells, and on the pier that reached into the ocean.

For a few days this April, Carolina and Kure beach were our refuge. Our Spring salvation. Our warmth.

Today, I’m thinking of these places and the people that call them home. Like the waitress at Jack Mackerels, who was originally from Ithaca. She moved south a decade before, like so many did, to Wilmington – just inland from Kure Beach. Then, she decided she wanted to see the sunrise each day and feel the ocean breeze on her skin.

She was the first person we met there, the one who put up with our stir-crazy kids as we relaxed at our first meal, and drank drinks made for island dwellers.

For a moment, I was jealous of her life. Thinking, maybe I belonged there. That we belonged there. 

My wife had often talked about convincing me to move to the Carolinas. When she did that, I always thought of places like Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Nice places, no doubt, but not places I longed to be.

If she had taken me to Kure Beach, she might have won that debate.

It felt like a place that could be home.

I think of that today. And I also think of all the things these days that divide us as a nation, in our minds and in our hearts. The North and South. The Red and Blue. The who did you vote for, and what news do you watch. 

As a storm for the ages bears down on this place that is special to me, a friend on Facebook joked that these people voted for that orange guy, they don’t believe in Global Warming, so they reap what they sow.

That’s no way to think. 

I know these places and the people. And they are as diverse in their thought as the neighbors on my street, and in my state. They come in all creeds and colors and beliefs. And they have no more culpability in what mother nature brings, than any of us. Not that it would matter much if they did.

And I know that they are good. And that we owe them one -- my family does.

So, now, I think of this place. And its people. And the pier, reaching out into the ocean. And I hope that what makes it special remains so, and recovers from whatever the days ahead hold.

And I pray for them.

For strength. For safety. And for warmth.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Real People and Pearls in the Crescent City

He reached into his pocket between spoons of etouffee and leaned over to us, showing the picture on his phone of the fish he’d caught that morning. What kind of fish is that, I asked, knowing a thing or two about the practice and the appropriate questions.

“That there is a redfish,” he said in low tone muddled with an accent, nodding and grinning in one motion. He was young and thin and had a stiff-capped baseball hat, turned to one side.

On the phone the fish was splayed out on the ground next to his boot – footwear included for scale, I assume. Then he wiped his finger on a napkin and swiped his screen, revealing an even bigger redfish next to the same boot. It was at least twice the length of the shoe, it’s white belly bulging a bit and the rest of it emitting a rusty hue beneath its long dorsal fin.

What did you catch it on, I asked. A rod he said. And I said, no, I mean what lure. So much for me knowing the right questions.

“Just a shad,” I think he said, pulling his phone back and picking up the utensil again with his free hand and digging back into his first course as we waited for ours to arrive.

It was loud and crowded in the restaurant, a dark space with neon lit signs on the walls and costumed customers at each table, and a long line out front of people waiting to get inside -- a line we skipped for the most part by having a small party and opting to sit at the bar.

And it was unlike any bar we’re used to. Instead of the makings of drinks and liquor bottles behind it, this bar was perched over sinks packed with unopened oysters where three men in black shirts and red aprons, donning gloves and wielding blunt blades, stood and shucked all night long.

The oyster shucker in front of us, named Michael, was also our waiter and our wisecracking host. He saw the exchange about the redfish between my wife and I and the other customer, and he put his knife down for a second, “You catch something today, Dee.”

The way they addressed each other breathed of familiarity, with knowing nods and grins preceding the words.

“Shore did,” Dee boasted with the subtle pride of a decent fisherman, turning the screen in Michael’s direction.

He bent over the sinks for a better view, the light from the screen illuminating his face for a moment. His brown eyes widening at the image on the phone.

“Wow-wee,” Michael exclaimed.

“You put a plate under dat and it’ll cost you twenty-two dollars,” Dee said.

“Or more than that,” Michael laughed, flashing the big bright smile we saw quite often during our brief time at the Acme Oyster House. Then, he was back to shucking.

He grabbed another black, stone-like lump from the pile in the sink, placed one angle of it down momentarily in a small, warn metal vice. Then his knife hand prodded and pried at the up-facing edge, almost instantly he popped off the top half of the shell, discarding it down a waste hole in the countertop, revealing the pale silky flesh of one of the most sought after culinary treats in the world. He then slid the knife underneath the meat, to make sure it was free from the bottom shell and placed both oyster and shell on a metal tray. Then he did it again. And again. And again, all while taking orders, fetching drinks, and greeting customers as they came in with jokes and wise comments. When one purple, green, and gold festooned woman upset about waiting in line with her party of ten came in asking for the manager, Michael flashed his smile again and said, “I’m the manager.”

He wasn’t the manager, he confided in us after she went back outside slightly appeased that her impatience was acknowledged. We figured he wasn’t, because of his youth and the mountain of shells before him. But, based on his skill and ease, he could’ve been.

In our brief time at the counter, eating oysters, raw and chargrilled, and crawfish ettoufee and bread, and having a few drinks, Michael shucked more oysters than we could count, several trays full and a few plates, too, as needed for those wanting to eat them raw, for which the place has been renowned for more than 100 years. The others were bound for the grill or the fryer or some other concoction. He told us he shucked close to 1500 a night, as he grabbed another giant mesh bags of the unopened shells from a crate below the counter and dumped it into the sinks, a new pile to be worked. And he’d been doing this job for four years.

The math on the number of oysters tumbled through my head, and I got lost in it for a moment. That’s a lot of years of prying and plating and playing jokes on the customers of this little restaurant with a big reputation. And, I imagine he was smiling the whole time.

As we ate and drank and watched him work, while next to us Dee ate his main course, Michael’s smile infected us. I wondered about his story and his life, and how long one could shuck oysters for a living.

We certainly enjoyed our first night out in the Big Easy, and our oyster shucker had another treat for us.

“Well, lookee here,” Michael exclaimed, after his hands and knife had worked over another, prying and gliding without pause. He tipped the opened oyster on it's side and a small pearl fell onto his hand.

He reached across the divide between us and handed it to my wife. It was small and dark, not like a pearl you see on a necklace.

Does that happen often, my wife asked.

“About once every few weeks,” Michael smiled, as he grabbed another oyster to start again.

“That’s pretty cool,” nodded Dee, just finishing a plate of twelve chargrilled.

We nodded back, as the math tumbled around in my head some more.

Pretty cool, indeed.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Making Good on a Promise at Mardi Gras

It only took 13 years for me to keep up my end of the bargain, but a promise is a promise.

Back in 2005, when my wife and I first moved from Washington, D.C, to Upstate New York, she made me promise that we’d go someplace warm in February as a way to deal with the long, cold, snowy, unrelenting winters. Unrelenting is her word.

She likely meant every February. But it didn’t work out that way. We had just one young daughter at the time, and I took a job for a state legislator, and it just so happened that January through June is the natural busy season for the legislature.

Then we started having more kids. And those kids started going to school. And the one week each February they had off from said school – a thing in New York known as the winter break – just happens to be the busiest and most expensive time of year to travel away from Syracuse in a mode of transportation that could get your and your kids someplace warm fast without losing your sanity.

So, every February since then, we’ve hunkered down in Syracuse and worked while waiting for winter to pass. Luckily for me, my wife has a good memory when it comes to things like promises. And every February, she reminds me of the fateful day that I shook my head yes and accepted her one request on the great move north.

It’s not like we never go anyplace warm, ever. We just have always waited until the end of the school year. A few times, we have piled in the car and made it as far as Washington, D.C., in February to visit my wife’s sister, her husband and the growing troupe of cousins there. But Washington in winter doesn’t count as someplace warm. Trust me. I’ve tried to make the case and lost. It’s warmer, but not actually warm. 
It was over 70 degrees in NOLA today. 
We did go to Florida with the kids once, but that was in November after an election and before the depths and true depression of an upstate New York winter take hold, turning everyone into Jack Nicholson in the Shining. The November trip didn’t count. And as much as I’d hoped we’d make that a regular thing, and get our warm trip in slightly outside the set parameters of winter, we have yet to go back. We want to, but the whole kids/time/money grid never quite aligns properly to make Florida a regular thing.

In any event, between 2005 and 2017, we never took a trip to someplace warm in February. I was 0 for 12.

This year, that has changed.

And to top it off, we’re doing it without the kids. (Sorry, offspring. I promise to take you next time -- whatever that is worth).

This morning, we got on a plane in the wee hours of the morning and we lifted off toward the south and away from all the snow, with our final destination in the much warmer climate of New Orleans. It’s not exactly the Caribbean, but I hear it’s a fine place to be – especially in February. Something to do with an approaching religious holiday.

There is a catch, of course. And here it is.
We are going to New Orleans not out of the goodness of my heart, nor because I’m turning over a new leaf in the promise-keeping category (I do happen to keep most promises), nor even to just thaw out. We are going because the annual dad blogger conference, the internationally-acclaimed Dad 2.0 Summit, is being held there this year.

You might remember the Dad 2.0 Summit from a past post, How to Make Virtual Friends and Find Your Tribe. Though it’s more likely you didn’t read that one – based on google analytics and this math thing called probability.

But, either way, it’s a conference I’ve gone to in the past and enjoyed immensely. And, if you did happen to read that other post you’d also know this conference brings together a strong community of writers and friends of which I’m proud to be a member.

Of course, you may also have noticed that I’m really not much of a blogger these days. I haven’t posted since November, and that was one of only a handful from all of last year. I’m also not vane enough to think anyone notices when I don’t write. Though I did have one guy see me and say, relieved, “You haven’t posted lately, and I was worried something happened to you.”

Like if I croaked, the only way people would know is that this blog went dark. Kind of a back-handed compliment, but I’ll take it.

The truth is, I was never much of a blogger to begin with. I learned that joining this community of dad bloggers and meeting guys who have thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of followers. If you look at the nifty, little Facebook plugin on the right side of this post, you’ll see I’ve got about 500, most of which are there because they are related to me or were pressured into liking my page by yours truly. Some are there for both reasons -- thanks, mom.

But, my insignificance in the blogging world doesn’t matter. Not this weekend. Because, this group of dads and writers and content producers are my friends. Some of them are a big deal in the “social media influencer” world. And some are just struggling writers like me with enough savvy to set up a blogger account. (That takes zero tech savvy, by the way). And some of them even read this dumb little blog of mine.

As an added bonus, this blog and this conference have helped me finally make good on that promise I made 13 years ago.

Our plan is simple: I'm going to attend most conference events. And she and I will hang out together around those events and in the days before and after the summit. When I’m not around, she’ll just bask in the warmth.

So, let the record state that over the next few days, my wife and I will be enjoying someplace warm in February, finally.

(Don’t tell her, but the forecast for Saturday says it’ll be in the 50s. Yikes. I hope she packed a jacket). 

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Dashing Dreams in the Drop-Off Line

It began with an innocuous radio ad on a trip to the middle school at 7:50 a.m.

My daughter had missed the bus. As always, she changed the station before I had the car in drive, from NPR to Top 40. Our fingers fought over the presets, calling a truce on the light rock one playing holiday music for the coming weeks. It’s a game we play.

Then the song ended, and some auto ad said something about “financing available.”

“What’s financing?” She asked.

I turned the dial down. I relish conversations like this, held in cold cars on grey mornings with kids who’ve missed the bus.

“It’s when you take time to pay for something,” I replied, conjuring up a good way to describe this complicated aspect of life as an adult. “Say you want to buy something for $1000, but you don’t have $1000. You can arrange to pay $100 a month.”

“Oh,” she nodded, as our familiar path took us down a side street, past our church, and toward the big school with the white columns.

“But the catch is that, you don’t pay for 10 months, you pay it for like 12. So, you end up paying $1200 dollars for a thing that cost $1000.”

“What?!” she exclaimed. “And people do that on purpose?”

“Yes.” Though I’m impressed she finds the concept off-putting. “It’s called paying interest, and it’s why it’s important that you study math in school.”

“That’s just adding and multiplying,” she began, laying the ground for a question all kids ask at some point. “Why does anybody need to learn algebra?”

She’s good at math, by all accounts. So, I wondered where this came from on this particular morning commute. I explain that Algebra teaches problem solving; It teaches logic. I tell her that if she wants to be an engineer or a scientist, a doctor or a nurse, she’s going to need to know lots of math, and it starts with algebra.

With thoughts of life beyond school in the air, our car makes the turn into the parking lot and begins the dreadfully slow crawl that is the morning drop-off line.

She seizes the moment we’ve created.

“That’s why I want to be a professional soccer player.”

It’s a dream she’s held for some time, recently turning it into her standard answer for what she wants to be when she grows up. I love it about her. But I also know it’s not terribly realistic. I say that not based on her skill, or her drive, or her work-ethic, but just based on, well, math.

Very few kids grow up to be professional soccer players.

I’ve wondered for a while when she was going to grow out of this dream, not wanting to rush it but also not want it to hurt too bad when it happens. This wasn’t the time I’d imagined. But, on this morning, my filter failed to function, and the truth stumbled out of my mouth.

“You should probably have a backup plan,” I say, too easily for the daggers it contained.

“What?” she shrieked, aghast at my bluntness and lack of faith.

“Well, it’s just not many people play professional soccer.”

She stared straight ahead, and I saw the look on a kid’s face when her dad heartlessly dashes her dreams in the drop-off line at middle school.

In defense, it wasn’t heartless. It hurt me to say it.

I tried to backpedal, telling her that if she wants to be a professional soccer player, she should start playing soccer every day in the yard rather than hanging in her room on her cell phone. I wasn’t saying I wanted her to do that – though I’d prefer it -- I was saying, if she wants to that’s what she needs to do. It was my version of tough love. And it felt cruel.

My middle-schooler, atop a medium-sized mountain. 
But the subject touched on something I’ve struggle with of late: the parental desire to balance the myth we tell our kids from the time they are born – that they can be anything they want – with the reality of life.

I’ve wondered of late about the usefulness of reasonable expectations, and whether a dose of realism early on could contribute to long-term happiness.

We say we all want our kids to dream big. And that’s what we train them all to do. And for some, those dreams come true. A very few. For most, the dreams don’t happen – at least not the way they expect.

I often wonder if the bigness of our kids’ dreams isn’t creating adults who fail to find contentment in their decidedly mediocre lives.

I don’t mean mediocre as in bad. I mean mediocre as in normal – no excessive fame, no ridiculous wealth, no millions of followers on Instagram. Just a happy, normal, mediocre life.

Maybe we should encourage our kids to dream medium.

It doesn’t sound as catchy, it won't sell a ton of inspirational cat posters, and it sure wouldn't make for a particularly compelling moral to a new Disney movie, but it might make more sense.

These thoughts all tumbled through my mind as we crept along in the middle school parking lot waiting our turn to disperse into our day, her to school and I to work.

She sat quietly. Staring at the car ahead and refusing to get out until we were closer to the door, despite the sign saying student drop-off started three car-lengths back.

I didn’t want her to go.  I also don’t want her to let go of her dream. Not yet.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as she finally opened the door and pulled at her backpack.

She shrugged. “It’s okay.”

Then she departed.

I hate math.

Don’t get me wrong. I do want my kids to dream big and to want to do great things. I hope all their dreams come true. But, more than anything, I want them to be happy. Content. Satisfied. I don’t need any of them to be professional soccer players, or Astronauts, or YouTube stars. I just want them to feel gratified in the life they live.

That’s my big, medium parental dream. And there’s nothing mediocre about it.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Who In Their Right Mind Plays Basketball at Five in the Morning? Answer: Dads do.

“Dad, I hope I never get to the point where the only time I can hang out with my friends is at 5:45 in the morning.”

My daughter said that to me recently. And there’s a reason.

We were discussing the fact that, for the better part of the past year, a group of dads and I -- all in our mid-30s to mid-40s – have been meeting at the local YMCA at 5:45 a.m. one day a week to play basketball. 
That’s right. I said 5:45 a.m. 
That’s the official tip-off time. We play for about 45 minutes (exactly 45 minutes, according to the official dad-timekeeper’s watch, to be precise), finishing and parting ways by 6:30 a.m.
I wish I was a little bit taller,
I wish I was a baller...
For the record, basketball is not my sport. Soccer, yes. Lacrosse, maybe. But when it comes to basketball, I kind of suck. I’m short, relatively speaking. And even if I’m taller than some people, I can’t jump very high. Oh, and I have no aim. In fact, while some people shoot 30 percent from behind the arc, and that’s considered a good thing, I shoot a about 30 percent from underneath the basket. Layups. That’s not considered a good thing.   
If you’re old enough, you likely remember those commercials for the U.S. Army: “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.” We could have similar commercials, though they’d be more like: “We miss more layups by 7 a.m. than most people miss all year.”
I say that in jest, because not all of us are bad at basketball. In fact, a few of us are quite good -- one of us, in particular. (Let me stress: I am not that person).
But, in a weird way, it doesn’t really matter. Every Thursday, whether we’re going to make all our shots or none of our shots, we gather at this ungodly hour under the baskets at the local YMCA, when our kids, wives and most normal people are deep in their dreams or hitting the snooze, and we break up into teams, and we play. Because, that’s when we can. 
Since we started playing, I’ve heard lots of stories about other groups like ours who gather in other gyms on other mornings and play before the sun comes up. I’d bet that, across the country, at any early morning moment, there is likely a group of almost middle aged men playing morning basketball in most towns. 
And there’s a reason for that, too.   
Anyone who has a kid or two or five knows the challenge most parents face when it comes to both having a social life and staying in shape. The challenge being, when exactly do we have time for either? 
Despite the Instagram post of some within our cohort showing both six-pack abs and well-adjusted kids, most parents with children in the home suffer from friend-time/workout-time/space-time constraints.
There is no time for much of anything outside of what we must do. Between work and parenting, making meals and driving kids around, and, of course, sleeping, what is left, really? Heck, my wife and I are pleased with ourselves to even shower each day.
For many years, I just suffered through this lack of personal time.
Then, a couple of years back, I was told by some doctor that if I intended to suffer through as many years as I wanted to, I had to start working out more regularly. And, soon after, I discovered that the only time I had to do that – or anything other than work – was between 5:00 and 6:45 a.m. 
So that’s what I did. I started waking up a few days a week and getting in a workout before the rest of the world awoke. It began as personal workout time, and still mostly is: running on the treadmill, riding the stationary bike, or wandering around the weight room trying to look like I belong there.

Now, some mornings it involves a team sport I’m not all that good at.   
Despite the ridiculous hour, we always have enough willing participants to make a game of it. Most often we play 4 v. 4, pulling from a pool of about 10 dads.  Some days we play 3 v. 3. Occasionally, we play uneven teams, like 3 v. 4, with that one really good guy on the lesser-numbered team. And that team usually wins, anyway. 
But again, it kind of doesn’t matter. Because, it’s 5:45 in the morning, we’re getting in a workout, there are no kids around, and we’re among friends. 
And, by the way, it’s often the most fun 45 minutes I have all week. That’s not meant as an insult to the other 10,035 minutes in the week. But it is fun, despite the significant scars to the ego caused by so many missed layups. 
So fun that I often leave wishing we played every day. Not that I’m suggesting we do. 
Because I also like to sleep. And 5:45 a.m. is pretty stinking early.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A high schooler. Let that sink in.

It’s been two months, so the reality of the situation has taken hold, and I finally have the strength to write these words without feeling like I’m in a bad dream: We have a high school student living in our house.

And she’s our daughter.

Our wee first child, who I remember being born and a thousand other little kid things since. That precocious little blonde who could count to 16 before she was two, and said “actually” so clearly and so often as a toddler that we knew we were in trouble early: she’s officially a freshman.

Which makes me officially old. It makes all my old friends officially old too, and some of them are taking it harder than I am.
I almost accidentally kicked this sign.
But I didn't.
It really hit me when she went to her first homecoming game under the lights at the high school football stadium. The rest of us attended, too, though we promised not to acknowledge her. It hit me then because, while I don’t recall much about my freshman year, I remember my first homecoming game. It was rainy and cool and smelled of popcorn. We were under the lights of our much smaller stadium with all the new friends I’ve lost touch with in the decades since. It was a blast. At least, I thought it was at the time.
And it really wasn’t that long ago. Honestly.
The weird thing is that, as she begins this adventurous time in every young person’s life, all I can think about is the next looming milestone: college. That’s what gets me. Oh my god. She’s going to be in college soon. Like sooner than how long ago she was in elementary school, which wasn’t that long ago.
College, like leaving the nest, and moving out, and getting away from this whole family of ours. And that makes me want to put my head in my hands and wail. I miss her already.
And how are we going to afford that, anyway? A thought that makes me stop wanting to cry and start wanting to hyperventilate.
WTF is she doing to us, growing up and causing all this pain, self-reflection and general regret that all these years have slipped through our fingers forever.
But she doesn’t seem bothered by it at all. She’s having the time of her life, attending high school football games, taking honors courses I would certainly fail, and going to things like Improv Club.
Improv Club? Really. We didn’t have clubs like that at my school. God I wish we did.
I also had a lunch break. Which she doesn’t, and for the life of me I can’t figure that one out.
Maybe it’s because she goes to a school that has way too many Type A parents, or something, but most kids at her school don’t take a lunch. And that’s not a typo. They don’t have a lunch break in their daily schedule. They grab and go, eating in art, or study hall, or some other elective that’s supposed to make them more desirable to some college admissions officer.
No lunch?! Whoever heard of such a thing? And why exactly are they doing this? Preparing these kids for a life of eating at their desk and working through dinner? Besides, if they are never in the school cafeteria, when is the big musical number supposed to happen? When are they going to stand up to the big school bully and dump his (or her) tray of food all over their letterman sweater?
Seriously. I couldn’t have survived without a lunch. Still can't. Nor would I want to.
I have half a mind to pull her out of that darn school and start teaching her myself. I remember algebra, a little. I’m sure we could figure it out together. ("Dad, algebra was 8th grade. I'm taking geometry now"). Fine. I’ll just have to quit my job and brush up on a few other subjects. And then we could also have lunch together. And we could keep her here and protect our wee little girl from all those mean people in the world who don’t even want her to eat.
That could work.
... Or maybe it couldn’t.
Maybe this is all part of the parenting gig. This bitter sweet job that you wish away half the time, and yet never get enough of. Maybe letting go is part of the art form.
I’m just not ready.
I guess I’m fine with high school. Sort of. But not college. Not yet.
I don’t even want to think about that.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Brief Rant, Because I Can't Take It Any S'more!

With campfire season upon us, it’s time we had a straight-forward talk about something that’s been bugging me more and more in recent years. I’m talking about s’mores, specifically the frequency with which these traditional campfire treats are concocted for our increasingly spoiled children.

It used to be that you had a campfire to have a campfire. That was the reason. Occasionally, once the initial excitement of starting the fire and the pure awe of the fire itself had begun to wane, some well-organized parent would announce that they’d brought the various ingredients for s’mores. People would cheer and then search for appropriately long and thin sticks. This was not an every fire thing, but only at the special occasion campfire.

It doesn’t work like that anymore.

Now, s’mores have become a seemingly necessary part of every darn fire, ever.  If there is burning wood in a pile with people sitting around it and children in the vicinity, the kids expect there to be some s’mores. If not, they will be downright disappointed.

S’mores are not special anymore, but required.

It’s gotten so bad that we even have fires for the sole purpose of making the s’mores.

And what's with the spelling? "S" Apostrophe?
It's just annoying.
BTW, that marshmallow is done.
Two parties I’ve attended in recent weeks ended the exact same way. At some point as the evening wore on, the host announced that they’d bought the ingredients for s’mores. There was no campfire when they announced this. The kids all got excited, of course, and I’m looking around saying, but there’s no fire?

Let that sink in. Rather than busting out the s’more ingredients at an existing campfire, they busted out the ingredients and said it lets go make a fire so we can cook these ingredients.

This is just wrong.

What’s worse, these were the first two campfires of the long spring and summer campfire season, and already my kids have had s’mores twice. TWICE!  Thinking back, we were lucky if we had s’mores twice a summer.

I blame the parents, as always.

You see, us parents fondly remember that time we had s’mores a few decades ago at that one fire, and now we try to give our kids that same experience every gosh darn time. I add it to all the other ways parents these days go way overboard to the detriment of everything decent, including our sanity.

But here’s the other problem. S’mores kind of suck. And most people don’t even like them that much.

Think about it. You’ve got three ingredients. First you've got the marshmallows, which are quite disgusting both in form and in substance. Do you know what they are made from? Sugar, water and … gelatin. Look that one up. It’s a made from a substance found in animal bones. Puffy, white mashed-up animal bones.

Then you’ve got graham crackers, which are pretty much toddler food. Sure, they’re good crushed and turned into a crust under cheesecake. But when’s the last time you saw someone eating a graham cracker who wasn’t teething.

And, of course, you’ve got the chocolate. Everybody loves chocolate. But if you think about it even more, the least tasty way to indulge in chocolate is probably within a s’more.

It just so happens that at both of these parties – and at most campfire parties that I attend – the s’more supervision parental duties got left to me. That’s because I’m a bit of a safety freak, and for some reason I get nervous when twenty kids between the age of 2 and 14 gather around an open pit brandishing sticks that often turn into marshmallow torches, always to the shock of everyone involved.

“OMG! Your marshmallow is on fire!”

No crap. They were sticking it in the flame for the last three minutes.

And of course, in every bunch there’s at least one little pyro who tells you how much they like the burnt ones. It’s a lie. They just like burning stuff and pay the price of eating a burnt marshmallow for the rush.

As always, once the s’mores making frenzy is underway all chance of me relaxing to hypnotic dance of flames is extinguished. In its place, there’s left a few fights over the best stick, mild corrections for kids who cook too close to the flame or too far above it, and, of course, don’t forget the warm, gummy bizarre animal byproduct that covers everything from your fingers to your chair to your beer can to your daughter's hair.

Most of the kids don’t even eat the darn s'mores. They take a bite or two, and then purposely drop it in the dirt and demand another one.

A kid at one of the parties who’d half eaten three of the concoctions before conveniently dropping them, came up to me and asked for another. I told her, rather than make another s’more, how about you just burn a marshmallow on a stick and eat some of this here rapidly softening chocolate. She agreed to the plan.

Because that’s really the only good part about s’mores, isn’t it? Eating chocolate and burning stuff.

I know I’m outnumbered. But I vote to eliminate this whole s’mores thing and get back to having a fire for the fire’s sake.

If you want to bring some chocolate, fine. But let’s dial back the s’mores. Okay, people?

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