Friday, March 15, 2019

Watching Your Kids Fall Down

Down he fell again, this time landing on his back. I could practically feel the rock-hard ice reverberate through his little body. Pads or not, that one had to hurt.

He hesitated, worrying me that he was actually injured this time. Then he rolled over, scrambled to his feet, regained his balance, and skated on — certain to crash land again in the moments ahead.

It was a cool November morning during his first hockey practice when I realized my son didn’t know how to skate.

We’d gone skating before as a family over the years, a few times at the outdoor rink downtown and once or twice on a pond near our house. But not often enough for my 3rd grader to feel truly comfortable on the ice. And it was showing.


He fell again, likely the 50th time he’d hit the ice in the first half hour. Each time, I watched him, waiting for the tears to come, for him to skate off the ice — or crawl or crash — and announce that he was done with hockey.

He’s wanted to play hockey for years, bugging me to let him each year when I get obsessed with how deep into the NHL playoffs my team will go. This past year, my team won it all, and we watched every game we could. After they hoisted the Stanley Cup, he made his mom and me promise we’d sign him up for hockey in the fall.

So, we did. We just forgot to teach him to skate first.

One of the things I’ve always struggled with as a parent is watching my kids fail. What parent doesn’t want to protect them from some of the pain and disappointment life has for all of us?

I distinctly remember the feeling I had when I got cut from a travel soccer team in fourth grade. I was devastated. I don’t want my kids to go through that kind of rejection.

The boy, while not on his rear at hockey practice
As a parent, I often prepare my kids for potential setbacks, saying things before soccer tryouts like, there are so many kids that I’m sure lots of good players are going to get cut. Or telling them before play auditions that even getting a call back is something to be proud of.

That’s how I prepared my high schooler for her audition for this year’s school musical. Last year, she didn’t make it – as most freshman don’t. So, this year I prepared her for any potential disappointment.

“There’s so many talented kids, dear.”


“All you can do is give it your best.”

Along with a few;

“No matter what happens, we love you.”

I was surprised when she expressed frustration with my attitude on the matter. She liked that was hard to make the musical and just wanted me to believe in her.

I've begun to realize, I’ve been so worried about preparing my kids for failure, that I’ve been undermining their confidence.

It seems a strange thing to admit in an age when most parents do a disservice by filling their kids with too much confidence, convincing them they’re the best at everything, when they’re just average. And sending them out into a world that is going to level them with reality in the years ahead.

That’s a mistake in itself.

Parents can make that one even worse by further protecting their kids from that eventual leveling by stacking the deck in their favor. That’s become clear recently, as we’ve seen wealthy parents across the country who have been so concerned about protecting their offspring from life’s disappointment that they’ve spent thousands of dollars and resorted to cheating so they can get into the college of their choice.

What those parents did was wrong.

But I understand the instinct. Believe me, I do.

That morning in November, I wanted to run out onto the ice – or skate, or something – and pick my son up and give him the biggest hug I could.

And, if I could’ve figured out a way, I probably would’ve made sure all the kids who tried out this year made the high school, just to spare them all, and most importantly my daughter, from the potential pain. But I didn’t.

I suffered as they struggled, and I worried as they worried.

In so doing, I’ve come to realize there is a balance to be had. Kids need confidence, for sure. But they also need to know the hard work it takes to get better at things, whether it’s hockey, or soccer, or singing, or school. And they need to know it’s going to take a lot of hard work on their part to reduce the number of disappointments in their future.

If I didn't know this already, it became obvious watching my kids face their challenges.

In the months before the musical auditions, my daughter put in the hard work. She worked on her singing, and she spent hours in dance classes improving her skills and even learning a whole new dance style.

And, guess what. She made the musical. She even had a speaking role and was a part of a few big dance scenes, including the tap dance number. Who knew she could tap? I was so proud of her. To top it off, the show was amazing.

As for my son, after that first day of practice, the one where he fell countless times, he skated over to me waiting by the boards and exclaimed, “I love hockey!”

Then he looked at me, and said, "I got better. Didn't I, dad?"

Boy, did he.

Now he’s been playing a few months, and he’s improved so much. He rarely falls, and he's even been scoring goals.

I’m the first one to admit I don’t have this parenting thing figured out. But, I’ve certainly arrived at the conclusion that a bit of failure and disappointment doesn’t hurt kids all that much.

In the long run, it might even help.

Despite my instinct to protect them from even the smallest failures, I probably knew this all along.

After I got cut from that soccer team, I tried again. The next time, I made the team. Then I continued to play the sport through high school.

While I never forgot the pain of being cut that year, it made any success I had later that much better.

So, as hard as it is, let your kids fall down. And then watch them get back up.

You'll both be better for it. 

Like the article?  Here's others you may enjoy: New Year, Few Expectations, One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, New Fish and Kid Quotes from a Family Hike,

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Long Way Home

“License and credit card please?” asked the uninterested woman behind the rental car counter outside JFK International Airport.

This was it. I was going to cover the final 250 miles of my quest in a rental. Four hours of driving rather than waiting two days for another flight? Fine by me. I love driving. In another life, I was probably a trucker. So, no problem.

Most importantly, I was going home.

After four days away and serious doubts about getting back due to winter weather disrupting travel across the country, I finally had a plan that would get me to my wife and kids.

I opened my wallet to retrieve the identification necessary to rent a car and … nothing.

My license was gone.
I rifled through other sections of the leather tri-fold holding the vital instruments for my livelihood. Nope. I felt around in my pockets. Empty.

“I don’t have my license,” I replied to the woman, and to everyone, and to no one in particular.
She blinked unsympathetically.
“I don’t have my license!” I repeated, patting myself down like a handsy TSA agent, my voice going up an octave and a few decibels, as panic welled up inside me.
My mind quickly flashed back to a real TSA agent and the last time I knew for certain I had my license, handing it to her at the security checkpoint in San Antonio, along with my boarding pass. She handed it back, and then I recall throwing it into a grey bin to be scanned, along with my wallet, my computer, computer bag, a tightly-packed carry-on, my belt, my shoes, and whatever loose items were in my pockets.
That damn license must be in Texas.
I’d been in San Antonio since Thursday for the latest Dad 2.0 Summit, a yearly conference for social media dads  which is way cooler than it sounds.
My quest to get home began on Saturday evening, the last night there. 
Walking between bars with another dad, a simple text from American Airlines delivered the news that my flight Sunday morning had been canceled, and I’d been rebooked on a flight on Tuesday, two days later than planned.
San Antonia was fun, but Tuesday? Really?
I just couldn’t do two more days in Texas, which would mean two more nights in a hotel room, two more days away from work, and two more days missing my wife and kids.
At this point, some people might think, you’ve got four kids four awesome, loud, quarreling, dish-dirtying kids. And someone just told you that, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, you had to spend two more days 1,700 miles away from them in a hotel. What’s the problem?
But, believe it or not, I really missed them.
When you’re at a dad blogger conference, you actually spend a lot of time thinking about your kids, and you really want to see them again.
Reading that rebooking text, my immediate response was: Hell, no. That’s when the Mission Impossible music played, which turned out to be the ring tone of some guy I was standing next to on the street corner. But, still.
Flights were canceled from Chicago to Boston 
due to severe winter weather.
Back in the hotel room, I began my own impossible mission. After two hours on hold and another hour of negotiations with American Airlines, I finally found a new flight home. Or, should I say flights.
I also learned from Google while on hold that it would take 27 hours to drive.
My new flight was a three-hopper – San Antonio to JFK; JFK to DC; and DC to Syracuse – leaving at 9:00 a.m. Sunday. That it didn’t get me back home until 11:40 p.m. didn’t matter. That it was a highly inefficient thing to fly to New York City then down to Washington then back up to Syracuse, didn’t matter. That one of the legs of the flight might yet be canceled didn’t matter. If I could get to New York City, that would put me 1,400 miles closer. I wanted to be home, after all. And that’s all that mattered.
At 9:08 a.m. the next morning, it was wheels up.
News of my second canceled flight came in another text, this one as the flight descended into JFK airspace. Probably karma because my phone wasn’t set to airplane mode.
The cancellation was due to 60 mile per hour wind gusts in Syracuse, and the agent at the airline counter told me it was affecting all flights into Syracuse. From DC, JFK, Philly, and Boston, all were canceled. Worse yet, flights the next day were either canceled or booked solid with rerouted passengers.
“You can fly standby on Monday, or I can book you on a flight Tuesday,” she said. Dominica was her name, and she was kind. Which I needed her to be.
It was then that it struck me how hotels in New York City are probably a lot more expensive than in San Antonio.
After standing at her counter for a solid half hour, doing my best pouty face and talking more glowingly about my kids then they likely deserve, we both gave up on the thought of me flying to Syracuse.
That’s when I decided my best option was to just rent a darn car.
I’d driven to NYC before, and I’d even driven to JFK, so I felt certain I could get myself home. Online I went, booking a car with Budget  both the company name and the reason I chose them.
And that brings us back to where we began, with me, at the car rental counter a solid mile from the American Airlines terminal at JFK, realizing that my license was nowhere to be found.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I said to the Budget rental car lady.
She shrugged. “I could call you a cab.”
A cab. A cab!
“To Syracuse?!” I replied.
She shrugged even less sympathetically.
I stepped away from the counter before I hurt someone – myself included and thought about all the ways I could get home that would be less expensive than a cab: like simply buying my own car and filling it with premium gasoline.
Then I thought about waiting until Tuesday and flying home – which would be impossible to do because I couldn’t get back through security without my license.
And that’s when the real desperation set it. Because. when you are in Jamaica, Queens, 250 miles from home, without the identification needed to rent a car, or to get back into the airport to board a flight in two days, certain things run through your head. Like, which bridge I was going to sleep under that night.
I felt like Jimmy Stewart running through Pottersville, except I was standing still, and reality was moving around me. I stood there for a while. Frozen.
Then I started moving again. I called the San Antonio Airport lost and found, nothing, who patched me through to the TSA, nothing. My next move was to go back to the American Airlines counter, outside the security checkpoint, to see if I’d dropped it on the flight, maybe.
As I walked that way, I turned to higher powers.
Now, I’m not an overly religious person. I’m a Catholic. But whenever I lose something important, I slip in a prayer to St. Anthony.
I also called my wife, who is my earthly version of the patron saint of lost things.
As expected, she did her impersonation of tech support asking if the computer was plugged in, which is exactly what I would do to her.
“Did you check your pockets?”
“I’ve been stranded outside JFK for 40 minutes looking for my license in every orifice I have, do you think I checked my pockets?”
She was unfazed and went back to the tech support manual.
“When is the last time you had it?”
“San Antonio!” I replied, only slightly yelling, consciously trying not to let my frustration and hopelessness cause irreparable harm to my marriage. I also tried to channel the advice we give our kids when they’ve lost something and say things like, I already checked there. Our line is, “How can we find what’s lost if we don’t check in places we’ve already looked?”
Still, being on the receiving end of the have-you-looked-here checklist can be very frustrating. So, I brought her up to speed on my status.
“I’ve checked my pockets. I checked both my bags. I already called the San Antonio Airport, I even spoke to a TSA agent there. He was very nice. And, I am so screwed!”
“Where is the boarding pass that was with it?”
“My pocket,” I replied, fishing it out and waving the practically translucent rectangle of paper in the air like a mad man. “No license!”
"And your computer bag?"
“Yes,” I replied, opening the front of my computer bag again, where my two other, now useless, boarding passes for canceled flights were carefully stowed. “I’ve checked there.”
Then I caught sight of a small pocket in the computer bag for business cards. And I vaguely remembered stuffing the cards I got during the conference, and the leftover “Ruddy Bits” business cards I didn’t distribute, into the pocket at some point during the past 8 hours.
I know what you’re thinking: What kind of dork has cards for their dumb blog? You’re right. But I realized after the first blogger conference I attended that cards were a useful thing to have. So, for ten bucks, I got 500 of them printed up. I’ve still got 450. I’ve also since learned that getting blog business cards is kind of like getting tattoos. You will have them forever.
I pulled out the cards belonging to myself and other bloggers I’d met and started shuffling through them like a one-handed black jack dealer.
And, holy shit, there was my license.
“I found it!” I yelled to my wife, into the air, and to everyone else. “It’s here!”
Relief poured over me like a model in a Sprite commercial.
I thanked my tech support, and told her I loved her, and that if all goes well, I’d be home tonight.
Then I went back to the Budget rental car counter to seal the deal on my ride home.
Yet, they had one more surprise left for me. They didn’t have any cars.
A rather rude manager explained to me that all these flights were canceled, and I was the tenth person in the last hour to show up and try to get a car that was booked just moments before. What did people think, that they have cars just sitting around waiting for people.
“You’re a car rental company. So, yes,” I replied.
She didn’t like my attitude either, and I wished I was talking to the uninterested counterperson again.
That’s when I must've prayed to the patron saint of rental cars, because another counterperson, who wasn’t uninterested or rude, intervened and asked how comfortable I was driving a van.
“That’s what I drive,” I told him, squeezing in the fact that I have four kids, so nobody thought I was a pervert. “You know, like a minivan.”
Not like a minivan, an actual minivan.
Notice the step needed to get in. Not a minivan.
Within minutes, I signed a contract, refused extra insurance, and had the keys to a rental van – a ginormous 12-passenger, people moving, shuttle van. It looked like a European ambulance without the emergency lights. And I was about to drive this behemoth through New York City and 250 miles north.

But I knew I could do it. I was born to do it. Not because I was a trucker in a former life. Because I was one of 8 kids. Not a typo. And, at one point in the 80s my parents bought a used, turtle-top, 15 passenger van with red and white stripes to get us around. The Ruddy Bus, as it came to be known, originally shuttled people from a Marriot hotel to a tarmac at some airport, and it had big black numbers on top (M-17) so the flight tower could identify it. That people-mover even had a bus door that went "PSHHH" when you pulled the lever. It's amazing what you can find on the secondary market if you know where to look.

In any event, I was ready to drive this big rental van home. It was in my blood. 
I spent the next hour snaking my way through Queens and across the Bronx, pondering the question, “Am I a car or am I a truck?” each time a sign on a bridge read, “Passenger Vehicles Only – No Trucks.”
And then, for the following three and a half hours, I chugged through New Jersey, Northeastern Pennsylvania, and into upstate New York driving the equivalent of a main sail in 60 mile per hour wind gusts, all so I could see my wife and kids.
Somewhere in New Jersey, I looked back and saw all the empty seats, and wished I’d tried to find any other stranded Syracusans who needed a ride. That took care of my guilt quota for the remainder of the ride – Catholic, remember.
And some 24 hours after my first flight was canceled, and 14 hours after the plane lifted off from San Antonio, a shuttle bus carrying one passenger pulled into our driveway.
A swarm of kids greeted me at the door. Mission complete.
Because, sometimes, you just want to go home.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Why You Should Always Make One Last Cast

I was done, having had no luck all day. I’d changed flies, tried different techniques, added weight to sink the midge lower in the water, taken weight off to let another float along the top. I’d matched the hatch and turned to my trusty never fail. I’d thrown everything in the bag at them over several hours. And nothing.

The kicker: it was a crystal-clear day on my favorite river, and I could see fish all around me. But they weren’t taking what I was serving.

Situations like this remind me of my favorite W.C. Fields quote: “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it.”

So, I was calling it quits.

Walking out along the creek, I decided to throw one more cast in the direction of a big brown trout I could see nestled behind a rock. It was my most half-assed cast of the day. I literally flipped the rod over as I walked and let the fly plop down on the water with a thud no respectable fisherman would aspire to.

And, WHAP. He took it.

Before I go any further, you should know now that this is not going to be a post about fly fishing. It’s about far a less interesting subject: the stage of success known as quitting.

Fisherman often claim that fishing imitates life. Just as golfers say it about golf, and knitters about knitting. But, in this case, it’s more about how life can imitate fishing.

As some people know, I’ve been writing this blog for quite some time now. I used to write here quite regularly. Even posted weekly, for a while. And, over the years it has been a fun outlet for my creative side and a fine place to chronicle our family adventures – now of great use to my increasingly forgetful mind.

It’s also opened some interesting doors. Because of this dumb blog, I reconnected with some old friends, met some new ones, and, one time, I even got our family a free ski vacation. One of the most interesting things to happen due to this whole blog thing has been my involvement with the Dadbloggers Facebook group and my attendance at the Dad 2.0 Summit – a yearly gathering of dad social media influencers and parenting writers.

One of the 2018 Spotlight Bloggers, Doug Zeigler,
 reading his blog post to the conference.
I’ve gone twice: 2016 in Washington, D.C., and 2018 in New Orleans. Not that I’ve ever influenced anyone. Heck, my kids don’t even listen to me. But I’ve had some great experiences at these conferences, picked up a few writing tips, made those friends I mentioned, and had a lot of fun.

As it happens, each year the organizers of the Dad 2.0 Summit recognize a few bloggers from across the country and have them share a post – as in read it – to the hundreds of people at the conference. It’s the Blogger Spotlight and it’s kind of a big deal.

To become a Spotlighter, a post has to be nominated (most often by the author) and then get selected from a few hundred submissions. And, for the past four or five years, I’ve had posts nominated (most often by the author).

I always wanted to get selected because I looked at it as validation from my peers that I wasn’t totally wasting my time. I also dreamed that it would be one more step on the way to other goals – like writing books, or early retirement.

Yet, it never happened. And, I started to figure it never would. 

Lately, I haven’t exactly been the most prolific writer, by any stretch. As time has marched on and sped up, the ideas just seem to come to me less often, and the opportunity to write passes before I have a chance to funnel my thoughts into a coherent thing worth putting into words.

To be honest, I’ve thought lately about letting this old blog just fade away. I always say to myself when I’m preparing a post, maybe this will be the last one.

I wouldn’t stop creating, altogether. I’d focus on the dumb book I’m halfway finished writing. And I’d tweet, which has much more immediate returns than blogging, from the positive feedback side of the equation.

Maybe it was time, I thought, to quit RuddyBits.

Then, in January, I got a text. Actually, it was a Facebook message – which is now considered old school. It was from one of the Dad 2.0 Summit organizers asking if I’d like to read one of my post as a 2019 Spotlight Blogger.


It made me think again about how, sometimes, it's right when you are ready to walk away that your luck turns around. Some people call it persistence. But it might be something else. But, whatever it is, it can change your perspective.

You know that time on the river, when my last cast of the day landed the fish? It ended up not being my last cast. I kept going.

How can you walk away after something like that, am I right?

So, now I’m headed to San Antonio to read a blog post on parenting. And I imagine, at some point, this damn fool will probably want to write about it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Chaos Theory of Parenting

A butterfly flaps its wings in New Zealand, and I end up late for work.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely the butterfly’s fault. It really started, one morning last week, with my eldest daughter and her talent for sleeping through an alarm clock. Literally, this is her super power. An alarm clock could be buzzing right next to her ear, and nothing. Which probably has something to do with her penchant for staying up late to finish homework. Which may or may not have been on abstract mathematics.

Our typical morning routine has a predictable linear structure. (I know it is redundant to call a routine typical, as that’s the nature of a routine, but this is Science not English). Child 1 ostensibly gets up at 6:15 a.m., to be on the bus at 6:52. Children 2 and 3 rise from their slumber when child 1 departs, and they get on their bus at 7:40. That’s when child 4 awakes, his bus arriving at 8:12, which he dutifully boards.

I call this predictable structure the Ordered Family model. And it works well on paper. In reality, it rarely occurs.

Here’s a sample of our reality through the lens of one particular day last week when my wife just happened to be away on business.

And this was the best time of all.
The alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. as planned. Our oldest child didn’t move, however. Unplanned. Then it went off again. And again. When she did finally move, she announced she needed a shower because “it had been a few days.” We have an unwritten rule that we never stop a kid from cleansing themselves. Still, the shower was unplanned. And it ate up precious seconds.

Long story short: she missed the bus. So, of course, I had to drive her. I woke the two younger ones, who are just barely old enough to be left home alone, and ordered them to get ready as I took the eldest to the High School.

When I got back, the house was still standing and everyone was alive, but nobody was ready for the middle school bus, now just moments way. So, I quickly threw together their lunches, prodded them to brush their teeth and get dressed, and then I watched as the bus pulled away while they sat at our counter nonchalantly eating breakfast. Bus missed.

To take them to school, I had to wake the boy, as he cannot be left alone for everybody’s sake. Once his sisters were deposited at middle school. We went back home to get him out of his PJs and ready for his bus, which he missed. So, it was back in the car and to the third school of the day to drop off yet another child.

By the time I got home, I had exactly zero minutes to get showered, dressed and off to work. Needless to say, I was late. Like, really late.

That’s when it occurred to me the similarities between math's Chaos Theory and the way my wife and I are as parents: the Chaos Theory of Parenting.

This theory is not so much a planned philosophy or a framework as an observational reality. And it’s one that can be witnessed by spending even a single morning at our house… or an afternoon… or any given Saturday.

In mathematics, Chaos theory is used to describe dynamic systems where minor variations in initial variables can cause wildly different outcomes. It’s been popularized by the analogy known as the Butterfly Effect: A butterfly flaps its wings and that results in a hurricane half a world away. A little farfetched, I know. But smarter people than I claim it works.

I find it easier to understand Chaos Theory by thinking about the game Plinko on the Price Is Right. That’s the one where the lucky contestant drops a round chip down the Plinko board and it bounces around rather unpredictably until it reaches the bottom. In reality, the reaction of the Plinko chip to its surroundings is quite predictable, scientifically speaking, if you know all the precise variables, which include the speed of the chip, the friction of the board, the angle it hits the first peg, and the second peg, etc. The Chaos comes in when even the slightest variation in any one of those variables dramatically changes the path of the Plinko chip. I like the Plinko analogy because I feel like a Plinko chip going down the board on a daily basis.

The Plinko Theory of Parenting isn't as catchy
The difference is that in Plinko there are only five possible outcomes. While in life, and in parenting, there are infinite. Kid 3 could miss the bus. Kid 2 could leave without gloves and have to stay in for recess. Kid 4 could forget his homework, and his parents could get a call from the teacher. Dad could be late so often that he gets fired, and the whole family could have to move to another state. Anything could happen. All based on Kid 1 sleeping through her alarm and a host of other initial variables.

I tried to explain this to said kids in the car on the evening of the particular day in question.

“Have any of you heard of the Butterfly Effect?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied the high schooler. “Isn’t that how a butterfly on one side of the world can cause a hurricane on the other?”

“Yes!” I responded, almost gleeful.

“Wait,” said the 12-yr-old. “I learned in science that the weather is caused by high and low pressure in the atmosphere?”

“It is,” I stated, trying to think how to marry the two thoughts. “This is before all that."

“What kind of butterfly?” asked the 10-yr-old.

“That doesn’t matter,” I replied.

“So, butterflies cause high pressure fronts?” asked the 12-yr-old, confused.

“I thought you told us once that hurricanes are caused by extreme low pressure,” said the high schooler.

“I did.” God save me. “I was just mentioning the Butterfly Effect to relate it to our mornings and making the bus.”

“What do butterflies have to do with the bus?” asked the 10-yr-old.

“Look, take our typical morning routine…”

“Doesn’t the word routine imply that it’s typical?” pondered the high schooler, in a condescending way.

“Ugh,” I grunted.

The 10-yr-old recollected, "Remember when we went in the butterfly tent at the fair?”

“Yes. Look, it’s just that if one of you misses the bus, it can make me late for work.

“Um. I still don’t get what this has to do with the weather,” said the 12-yr-old.

“You know what, never mind.”

“I have to pee,” said the 8-yr-old.

So, rather than accurately describing Chaos Theory to my kids, I showed them an example of it in conversation form.

Not that they need to be shown. Because, the truth is, you can look at almost any aspect of our lives and find discernable examples of chaos.

You could be observing us on what seems like an otherwise quiet evening when an unexpected (but predictable) variable occurs, like someone yelling, “Oh My God! We forgot soccer practice!”

And then we suddenly find ourselves scrambling to get our tween to her indoor soccer practice, and the whole plan for dinner is out the window and half our kids are crying because they’re hungry and haven’t started their homework. All because one of us had to run to the store after work to get an ingredient for the dinner we now aren’t making and, in the frenzy, simply forgot it was a practice day.

Come to think of it, the ingredient we were missing was chicken broth. And we were out of it because I'd made soup the day before. I made soup because it was raining. It was raining because of a big storm that had hit the whole coast. So, it may well have been the fault of a butterfly, after all.

Clearly, I have only a rudimentary understanding of the real Chaos Theory, however I’ve found that with proper use of vagueness and big words, anyone can sound like they’re an expert on theoretical mathematics.

Parenting, on the other hand, is not quite so easy.

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.

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