I Think I Understand

Another Father’s Day has come and gone, the fifth one without my dad. The first year without him was really tough, and each successive year has been a stark reminder that I can’t call him and wish him a happy Father’s Day.

We’d have a lot to talk about right now. The Braves are playing great, but both of us know that getting too high on June baseball standings is like celebrating a win in the fourth inning of a game. You just don’t do it. We’d both agree we’d get more excited come September because the inevitable August swoon has killed many playoff hopes, especially for Braves fans. There aren’t many people who want to hear me drone on about the Braves, but Dad did. Our relationship was like that.

As the years have passed, I’ve tried to put my dad into the context of our lives together, to understand him on a level that I wasn’t necessarily capable of when he was alive. Looking back, the ending seemed so abrupt, like walking out in the middle of a conversation, but the truth is that I had the enviable luxury of saying goodbye. Most people don’t get that with their parents. Despite that luxury, it’s not any easier.

Dad was from a generation on the other side of the Baby Boomers. He went to work, came home to a meal that he expected my mom to cook, and often went to bed shortly afterwards. He was never a conversationalist. He didn’t spend much time with his sons outside of weekend errands and family visits. I have faint memories of him throwing the baseball with me and shooting baskets in our driveway on a few occasions, but once my brothers were old enough to do these things, Dad never joined us. He expected us to be quiet during his many naps on the weekend. I swear the man slept for half of my childhood.

I can remember being disappointed when Dad went to take a nap. I felt like he didn’t want to be around us. I didn’t understand it then, and maybe I don’t really understand it now, but I think Dad suffered from depression, and his way of dealing with it was to sleep it away. His life wasn’t exactly easy. He worked a dreary job for over 30 years, a job he hated but kept out of necessity to support his family. Even with the job, he was under constant financial duress, which is enough to drive anyone over the edge. The recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s left him unemployed for four years, and he never recovered from that. He had few choices in his life, nor did he have the drive to make the changes to get himself to a better place. He just curled up in his bed and hoped in vain that things would change or at least that his problems would magically go away.

After logging three decades as an adult myself, I can understand. Life likes to sucker punch you every once in a while. Disappointments outnumber wonderful surprises. It’s rare for things to turn out exactly how you envision them. It’s enough to make anyone want to crawl into bed and ignore the realities raining down on them. I personally prefer to punch back, and it bothers me that Dad never did. I can understand being down for the moment, but spending your entire adult life that way makes no sense unless you suffer from chronic depression.

Dad never discussed such things. He rarely let go of any emotion or opened up about how he felt or why he behaved the way he did. He never offered any explanation. To be fair, I never asked either. Those questions were too painful to speak out loud. There were times when I wanted to scream aloud my frustrations with him, but I bit my tongue. He was my father. I loved him dearly, and some lines you just don’t cross. Instead, I just try to understand and be thankful for what we had. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

 

 

The Time That We Lose

Yesterday, my wife and I dropped our son, our youngest, off at a week-long overnight camp on a local college campus. As we were walking back to our car, we had a flash forward moment. In five very short (and I’m sure very fast) years, we’ll be doing this for real. The realization was unsettling. In adult land, five years is not very long.

Every parent wants his children to grow up into healthy, independent adults. It’s what we work so hard on as parents. Everything we do is geared toward that goal. It’s a bumpy and treacherous road because few things go as planned, and quite frankly, some days you wonder if you’ve failed miserably at the one job you have as a parent, but there are so many wonderful, beautiful moments that wipe away any fear of failure you have. In those moments, time seems to stand still briefly, and you know it’s all worth it because if this isn’t, nothing is.

It’s those moments that we treasure so much. Over the years, I’ve taken pictures of some of those moments, and others just reside in my treasure chest of memories. I remember the first time my infant daughter (my oldest) grabbed my finger and looked at me like she really saw me for the first time. My heart melted in that moment and I knew then that I’d do anything for that little girl. She will always have that hold on me. I remember when I came home from my first long business trip when the kids were toddlers. I had arrived in the middle of the night. The next morning, I woke up before the kids and when my son finally came down the stairs and saw me he jumped from the last few stairs into my arms because he was so happy to see me. You don’t get those moments back, but they fill your heart with such joy that it runs over.

Before you know it, those sweet, little kids that once followed you every step of the way outgrow you. They no longer need (or want) you around. It’s a perverse thing in that you want them to grow up, but you don’t. Sometimes, I wish I could freeze time in those joyous moments with the kids and keep things as they are because I know that the next moment will come too soon. It’s all that time we lose that bothers me. In our hectic daily lives, time just slips away. The moments pass like the slightest murmur in the night.

I like to think I’m ready for the time when my kids pass into adulthood, but the truth is that I probably won’t be. I’ll be happy and sad at the same time, but I will always have those memories.

14 Remain

On Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to beautiful Burlington, Vermont to run the Vermont City Marathon. Despite the warm temperatures, I enjoyed the race and finished within the time I expect nowadays. Vermont marked my 40th state in the quest to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. before I turn 50 years old in December 2020. I started this quest around my 40th birthday, so I’ve been running marathons regularly for almost nine years. It’s been equal parts thrilling and frustrating because just when I think I’ve cracked the code on running these things time and gravity conspire to do a number on me.

There was a time in early 2014 after I suffered an ankle injury when I feared I’d never make it this far. It took a long time to recover from that injury, and I didn’t run a marathon for over a year after that. Truthfully, I haven’t been the same since. My right ankle still gives me fits nowadays, but we’re like an old married couple in that we bicker and ignore each other hoping that the issue just goes away. I still don’t fully trust the bastard because he’s always looking for an excuse not to run.

Despite my love-hate relationship with my right ankle, I’m still running and I’m on track to finish my goal before I turn 50 unless the right ankle reads this and reacts in a pure fit of spite. Stranger things have happened.

Friends ask me what’s next after I finish the 50 states. Well, I won’t be quite done with marathons at that point. I’d like to run a marathon on every continent as well. I’ve already run one on four continents, so what’s three more, right? Also, there’s the small matter of Washington, D.C. It’s not a state, but it seems weird to leave it out if you’re going to claim you’ve run marathons all over the U.S. By my count, that means I have ten marathons left for the remaining states plus another one in D.C. I need to race in Australia, South America, and Antarctica to finish off the continents. That leaves 14 marathons to go. That’d put me at 62 for my career, and that’s just enough for me.

After that I’ll hang up my marathon running shoes and retire to running 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. Those distances accrue less abuse to the body, and let’s face it, if I’ve learned anything from this marathon challenge, it’s that I’m not getting any younger.

 

My Favorite Thing

I’ve traveled quite a bit over the past 25 years. I’ve been all over the world and have visited most of the states in the United States (only New Hampshire and Maine remain untouched by my feet). One of my favorite things to do when I arrive in a new place is to walk around and see what there is to be seen. In some cases, it’s nothing much, but in others, I usually discover some interesting sights and learn more about the local area than I otherwise would if I just drove around.

What I consider walkable is probably a bit wider radius than most people would entertain. If it’s within a three-mile radius, I’m walking it. Of course, I could rent a car or take an Uber, but it’s hard to see things when you’re driving or speeding by in an Uber. You can’t really see a place until you slow down enough to actually look at it. Although my walking pace is brisk, I never miss an opportunity to stop and explore. I have hundreds of pictures on my phone to prove it.

I’ve done this just about everywhere I’ve been. I’m not sure exactly how it started, but I do remember traveling with a former coworker back at the start of my career. We worked together at a paper products company and it seemed that every location we traveled to was as dull as a butter knife, but she wanted to go out and explore it nonetheless. I remember a trip to Phillips, Wisconsin, which is barely a dust speck on the map, where we discovered a park full of sculptures made from cement and broken glass. It was odd and seemingly puerile but interesting much like many oddball roadside attractions scattered across the U.S.

We drove to a lot of places, but we also walked a lot too, and since then, I’ve always enjoyed a walking tour no matter where I am. I learn so much about a city or town when I walk it. I can almost form the map of the town in my head. I can drop down into the middle of anywhere and get a good feel for the streets just by walking around. It’s fun to see how everything is connected and then expand my reach from there.

This weekend I’m in Burlington, Vermont, which is a place I’ve never been to before. I arrived late last night, so I didn’t get to see much then, but after breakfast this morning, I walked a few miles snaking through the town center and meandering through the myriad shops. Afterwards, I walked down to Lake Champlain and strolled across the bike path at the waterfront. Later, I took a walk up the hill from the lake and visited the University of Vermont’s beautiful campus, which was erected in 1791 when the U.S. wasn’t even 20 years old. The campus architecture is phenomenal and particularly picturesque on a gorgeous spring day.

I’m only here for a couple of days, but after walking through so much of the town, I feel like I know it or at least I have learned enough about it to keep it in my memory. That’s why walking a town is one of my favorite things to do.

Legacy

This past weekend I, along with my family and brother, moved my mom to a new place. It’s much smaller than the old place, but plenty big enough for one person. Most importantly, the place is on a single level, which removes the danger presented by the steep staircase in her old place. When my kids were babies, I worried about their ability to maneuver stairs safely, but I had thought little about stairs since. Now that my mom is old, I can see how they present a serious obstacle for her. You really do come full circle in life.

My mom, who has had little change in her life or little that she has acknowledged, does not deal with change well at all. Her life-long battle with anxiety has become more pronounced in her later years. The smallest disruption to her daily routine can cause a tsunami of anxiety, so moving from one place, even if it’s one she’s only lived in for five years, to another just a few miles down the road provokes all sorts of hand-wringing. In the weeks since I told her she was moving, I’ve worked to quell her anxiety and assure her that my brother and I would take care of everything. That didn’t stop the worrying or the countless phone calls fretting over the impending move.

By the time moving day arrived, the tension was as thick as the fog rolling off the Golden Gate bridge on a chilly morning except not as peaceful nor as pleasant. In the weeks prior to the move, my brother and I had worked with my mom to winnow down her belongings. She’s something of a pack rat. She rarely throws anything away or donates things she doesn’t use even if they haven’t been used in years. Surprisingly, she seemed willing to turn a new leaf and had committed to sorting through her stuff to relieve the load quite a bit. We threw stuff away and made multiple trips to Goodwill, but come moving day, the amount of stuff still seemed overwhelming.

We had packed up most of her things the night before, but even the few things that remained unpacked seemed endless. A closet that didn’t seem so big the night before became an endless pile of stuff that stretched over the decades. Cabinets and drawers that seemed fairly innocuous in their contents felt like one of those circus clown cars where clowns keep coming out one after another. What seemed liked one more load became two or three more loads. By the end of the day, we were all tired down to our bones.

The hardest part of the move wasn’t even the physical labor or the jockeying about what to do with yet another unused kitchen item among the endless sea of unused kitchen items. It was the small things that reminded me of Dad. His watch, the one he received for working 30 years at Ford, almost reduced me to tears. The jacket he wore forever, tucked away in a closet, no longer had that familiar aftershave smell that rekindled memories from my childhood. I couldn’t even bear to open the garment bag that held his National Guard uniform. His presence and his legacy had been reduced to these inanimate things. Moving them or considering what to do with them felt like desecrating his memory.

A day that was physically exhausting quickly became one that was emotionally exhausting as well. As I lay in bed that night, before I quickly succumbed to sleep, I thought about how we will all be reduced to the things we leave behind. Our legacy will persist in those few things that only matter to a very few, and those few will hold in their hearts the memories of us that matter most to them. My dad’s legacy lives on within us. Sometimes, I fear it has faded too much, but then, I’m reminded he’s still there.

Back at It

The holidays were a little more than disruptive to my writing. While I continued to write as much as I could, there was just too much going on to be fully immersed as I had been for much of the year. Now that the new year has turned and we’re getting back to our regular routines, I’m hoping to return my focus to the stories that I’ve been working on for the past few months.

My writing goals this year are very simple in terms of concept. I want to finish The Things We Cannot Keep and I want to attend the Atlanta Writer’s Conference. Given everything else going on, I can’t imagine doing much more than that without spreading myself hopelessly thin. In between all of this, I’ll continue posting to this blog including the remaining episodes of the serials I started last year – Donna Quixote and Standard Ink.

Toward the end of last year, I reduced the noise and distractions that constantly begged for my attention by eliminating many of my social media accounts except Instagram and Twitter. I reduced the frequency of my posting and checking on these accounts. I did this to reclaim so much time I had lost to pointless frittering online. This has tightened up my routine and re-routed a lot more of my time in the morning to actually writing and/or reading, which are far more important than the latest viral videos.

Speaking of reading, I’ve done a lot more of that since I reduced my social media activities. I read 14 books last year including a new all-time favorite in Where the Crawdads Sing. I had a great reading year thanks to many wonderful authors who continue to release excellent work. I’m looking forward to releases from some of my favorite authors this year including Robert Dugoni’s latest in the Tracy Crosswhite series.

There’s a lot to look forward to, and I’m glad to be back at it. Here’s to a happy, healthy 2019! Let’s get this year started!

My New Favorite Book

Over the past decade, if anyone asked me about my favorite book of all time, I’d tell them about¬†Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The story, set in Bombay, India, is about an Australian fugitive who flees to the country and gets involved with the local mob while making life-long friends and falling in love with a beautiful woman. On the surface it sounds as cliche as a story can be, but Roberts’ narrative style and masterful use of language takes the reader away to India and leaves him wanting more by the time the book comes to an end almost one thousand pages later. I loved that story from its poetic opening to the last heart-breaking pages, and it stayed as my all-time favorite until this week.

A week ago I began reading Delia Owens’¬†Where the Crawdads Sing, a story about a little girl who is eventually abandoned by her entire family in the marshlands off the North Carolina coast. She is forced to grow up on her own and learns resilience and self-reliance in the most extreme circumstances. It is equal parts heart-breaking and inspiring. Owens not only brings to life a beautiful, full character, but she paints the picture of the marshland so vividly that I can feel the Spanish moss whisking across my face as I float through the water with Kya, the main character.

The book follows Kya’s life as she struggles to survive and comes of age with no constant adult presence other than the sweet store owner, nicknamed Jumpin’, who mans a store/shack on the pier in the nearest town. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel become surrogate parents for Kya. To make the relationship even more interesting, Jumpin’ and Mabel are black and Kya is white in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina. There’s a symbiotic relationship between Kya and the couple because both are ostracized by the locals since neither is accepted or understood. The locals derisively refer to Kya as the “Marsh Girl” or swamp trash because she lives in a rundown shack, never attends school, and prefers to avoid contact with people. The reason the locals show disdain for Jumpin’ and Mabel needs no explanation in this unfortunate era of American history.

Despite all of the odds stacked against her, Kya survives and eventually becomes an expert on the creatures of the marshland. She falls into and out of love, and there’s an intriguing accidental death/murder that occurs in the marsh, which Owens expertly weaves into the narrative of her life. Just when you think you have it all figured out as the climax of the novel happens, there’s a twist and one final release that will leave you reeling at the end. I’m purposefully being very vague about the story line because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s best read unimpeded by explanations. The beauty of the story is how it unfolds and toys with your emotions. I loved it. I felt sadness when I had to say goodbye to Kya after I read the last few words of the book.

I absolutely love books that paint a vivid picture of the setting and bring the characters fully to life as living, breathing people practically sitting next to you as you read. Owens’ prose is efficient and spare, not quite Hemmingway-esque, but certainly not as flowing as Roberts’ prose in Shantaram. Nevertheless, the narrative voice gives the reader plenty to like. The story stands on its own, somewhat complicated but not so much so that I had to flip back pages to keep it straight. Owens is a scientist and it shows in her efficiency. What she has created is a wonderful novel worthy of all of the praise she has received. I add to that the dubious honor of being my favorite book of all time. I’m sure she’ll take it to the bank. In all seriousness, thank you Ms. Owens for this beautiful story.