Monday, June 27, 2016

New Life

There is something to be said for the small things in life. Today on the trail I spotted what looked to be tiny seeds trapped in a spiders web.  Turns out they were tiny spiders, nestled in a spiders web. I touched the web. Perhaps I shouldn't have.  There were tiny bodies moving. I was mesmerized.  I apologized and then moved on. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Organized Memories

this was a week I will never forget. it was a week with my oldest daughter. a week of laughter on the wind. music in the forest.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Break the Chains

My family and I recently took a trip to visit friends in San Diego.  We left an ice-covered Utah for a balmy California.  We stayed with friends we have never stayed previously and they welcomed us with graciousness and hospitality.  While there, we spent quite a bit of time talking, reading, sleeping and, of course, eating.  But it was only later, as I call up memories of the trip, that I realize something about myself and how I like to travel.  It all revolves around food.

I love food.  Always have.  Trying different foods and different recipes.  Can’t get enough of it really.  Thinking about it, my view of food is a window to the way I view the world.  There is a philosophy to the way I pursue and consume my food.  It speaks volumes about who I am.  I’m not sure when I became a discriminating eater.  Sometime along my road, I started preferring nicer food, better food, food that had been prepared with more thought and kindness.  I’m not saying that I’m some kind of connoisseur (I had to spell check the word itself), but I am saying that at some point along my journey I started thinking about the food I eat, where it comes from, and who benefits from it’s production and consumption.  I’ve become a bit of a food snob.  Some folks call themselves foodies.  That’s a good term.  Better than food snob.  But in reality, they are the same thing.  There are foods I much prefer over other foods; places I prefer over other places.  It makes me a snob because I will actually not eat poor foods when given a choice.  If it’s a choice between canned fruit or no fruit, I choose no fruit.  If it’s a choice between McDonalds and nothing, I choose nothing.  I think of myself as discriminating.  Others might see me as a snobbish jerk that has a hoity-toity way of looking at food.

Chain restaurants, in general, don’t have the same quality of food that a local restaurant does.  It’s just that simple.  I get better tacos in my own town at Juan’s Place than I can at Taco Bell.  I get better hamburgers at JCW’s than I can at Burger King.  I get a better steak at Porter’s Place than I can at Sizzler.  And it’s not just the quality of food; it’s the service and atmosphere.  There is little reason in my mind to give money to these giant chain restaurants that care little for quality or service when there is a much better just as close and just as convenient.  Plus you’re helping out a local business owner that doesn’t subscribe to the big chain mentality.  So when I’m out and about, either a few blocks or hundreds of miles from home, I try and visit places that aren’t part of a chain.  Which leads me to my next point.

I love to travel.  I love going places and seeing new things – especially when friends are there to meet you.  Strangers are good too.  I love to Couch Surf (look it up – it’ll blow your mind).  But I just love visiting new places.  I’m not a big fan of the tourist places like I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants.  I want to know where locals go.  I want to eat where locals eat.  So it was with great enthusiasm that we went on our latest trip to San Diego.  But it’s also where I realized I have a strange way of remembering trips and places – I remember the food.

WARNING – I’m about to describe my amazing trip to San Diego.  And I’m going to talk about food.  I’m going to be specific and descriptive.  I’m just warning you.

Sarah and Andrew are a beautiful couple – both in body and soul.  She is a mixture of American Indian and Black Irish; she was raised Catholic but now attends a Baptist church.  He comes from an Egyptian Jewish community by way of France; he was raised Jewish and continues to be strongly connected with his ancestors and religion.  They have two gorgeous girls who compliment each other brilliantly – one is as talkative and bright as the summer sun, the other is as quiet and observant as the autumn moon.  Their family makes for storybook pictures and their love for good food is what fuels this story.

Our first full day there was amazing.  It was Easter morning and we agreed to go to Easter services with Sarah at the Baptist church.  Here’s the thing – it was an amazing experience.  We were welcomed by each and every person we came in contact with as if we were literally their brother or sister.  They were kind, thoughtful and full of smiles.  They served us a breakfast of fresh fruit, pancakes, bacon and hash browns.  Simple and filling.  Then we went into church and sang, prayed and laughed.  We remembered what was important in the world.  What things deserved to be worried about and what things deserve no attention whatsoever.  We reaffirmed our commitment to our families, our friends and something bigger than us.  Something worth looking to and striving for.  It was magnificent.

That day we came home and rested until the afternoon when we started preparing for dinner.  Friends came over.  Family came over.  We roasted a ham in the oven.  We grilled small, thick lamb chops on the grill.  We put it all on a plate with warm bread, cold salad and laughter around a table full of people who care for one another.  Then there was an earthquake.  My first ever.  We sat in stunned silence for a bit.  We laughed nervously and then went back to eating and laughing.

Later we would eat brie cheese, roasted in the oven after being covered in brown sugar.  The sugar made a delicious caramelized coating on the outside of the cheese, which is then broken open and spread on bread or crackers.  We also tried some blackberry jam, slathered on another piece of brie, roasted in the oven into a gooey mess, and then dipped into with crackers.

Sarah took us down to the harbor one morning.  The sun was bright and the sky was perfectly clear.  Down on the waterfront was a little seafood place, filled with lines of people, ordering fresh fish of all kinds.  We were there for the crab cakes.  We ordered several plates and sat around small tables with blue umbrellas.  Sitting in the warm sun or cool shade, I ate these perfectly crispy cakes of crab meat and sucked on my icy beverage.  I watched school kids on a field trip, laughing and joking with each other.  I watched an old man, propped up by his cane, dozing in the warm sun.  I watched two pretty women in tank tops, both covered in tattoos and one with a shaved head, quietly eating.  The crowd moved around us, as my girls, Sarah and my wife all talked, and I just quietly watched and munched on my crab cakes and listened to the lapping of the ocean against the docks.

One night, Sarah’s dad brought Middle Eastern food.  Grilled lamb, chicken and beef on skewers, yellow rice, warmed flat bread and pickled beats.  Humus and olives and bread.  We sat around the table and listened to Sarah’s dad tell stories about his life and experiences around the world.

On Friday night Sarah made roasted chicken, matzah ball soup, warmed bread and salad for Shabbat.  Andrew led us in a short service at sunset – a welcoming of family, an acknowledgement of God, and a thankfulness of all things given to us.  We enjoyed the simple, traditional meal that people have been eating for centuries and talked into the darkness.  When we were finished, everyone else went inside to talk while Andrew and I stayed outside and he described the history of his people, their beliefs and struggles and how, even today the feeling of connectedness, love, family and God are still strong.  Andrew’s passion and love for his history was inspiring.

While cruising around downtown San Diego, we lucked into this little Irish pub called The Field.  All the interior wood is darkly stained and polished to a glow.  It is filled with old odd and ends from Ireland – pots, pans, crockery, tools and art.  There was a man behind the bar, cleaning glasses and laughing with the customers; music was playing.  He talked with a distinctly Irish accent – teasing the women and laughing with the men.  We sat down and he made his way to us quickly, asking what he could get for us.  We ordered corned beef and cabbage, shepherds pie and Irish bacon with potato pancakes.  Nothing could have compared to that day.

I could go on and describe for you the authentic pizza we enjoyed.  Cooked in a wood stove with minimal ingredients and how they belonged to the Vera Pizza Napoletana in Napoli, Italy to insure the quality and authenticity.  I could tell you about the soul food brunch or the loads of other food we encountered on the trip.  I won’t.  The fact is, there is a lot of good food to be had out there.  It’s everywhere.  It sometimes takes a little more time and money to find it and enjoy it.  Sometimes it takes sampling things you may not like.  But every bite is an adventure.  Sometimes you have to try something you don’t like to realize what you truly love.

Chain restaurants are doing fine.  They don’t need you.  Next time you visit friends or family and want to find someplace to eat, try someplace new.  Risk it.  Find someplace unfamiliar, preferably suggested by a person from that area, and then if you’re really adventurous ask the server to choose for you.  Tell them the kinds of foods you like, stuff you simply cannot eat, then let them choose.  Or tell them to have the chef choose for you.  You’ll be surprised at what you find.  You might not like it, but the service will be better than at any local chain restaurant, the food will be higher quality, and you’ll have a great story to tell about the time you spent with your friends.

So I say all of us should rise up.  All of us should start taking an interest in food around us, not just mindlessly eating it while talking with those we love.  Food should rise to the same level as the company we keep.  Good friends and good food.  We need to be willing to spend a bit more, risk a bit, and find someplace that doesn’t make the same burger over and over and over again out of meat that was ordered from Timbuktu thirty-six days ago.  Try some local burger joint that bakes their own buns, uses fresh local beef and potatoes grown locally.  Then you will have had something worth talking about.  It’s time we were all foodies.  Be a bit of a food snob and you’ll find that not only the quality of your food increases, but so does the quality of your conversations.  Throw off the chains I say.  Embrace something amazing and local and you too will begin remembering your best times with good friends and great food.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Extending My Arm

I extended my arm for the first time the other day.  It was just a few inches, but it was enough to signal my impending death.  I had just woken up and my eyes were a bit blurry from sleep.  Or so I thought.  I rubbed them, then rubbed them again but couldn’t quite get them to focus so that I could read my book.  I unconsciously extended my arm.  Just a few inches.  And that was enough.  The letters cleared right up.  And in that moment of satisfaction there was a moment of panic.  I knew what was happening.  I was going to die.  Not right then of course, but eventually.  My eyes were going.  Just an inch.  But you know what they say about giving an inch, it’s not far before your eyes are gone by miles.

I’m not saying I haven’t noticed other things about my age.  I have.  My skin isn’t as elastic as it used to be.  The lines are more deeply defined.  There are a few more spots.  Sometimes I miss something said very low, or when someone is turned away from me.  Not often, but sometimes.  I certainly can’t run and play around like I used to.  But it was that extended arm that really struck me.  My eyesight has always been perfect.  Until now.  It’s strange getting older.  Spending every day with teenagers is an interesting experiment in feeling young while being constantly reminded that I’m not.

More than being reminded of my age, I’m reminded of the shortness of life.  It’s a strange job because at my school the student turnover rate is very high.  Each student stays at my high school on an average of eight weeks.  My kids are in state’s custody – they are either in foster, proctor or group homes.  Most of them anyway.  They all come from lives that are not completely stable.  I never know how long I’m going to have them.  I may have a student for several semesters or several days.  I’m forced to live in the moment.  My students could leave at any time.  It’s a microcosm of life I guess.  We could all go at any moment, so we should live our lives as if it’s the last time we’ll ever see one another every time we part.  It’s definitely true with my students.  I have to make every moment, every minute, every day count.  I try my hardest to plant the most important seeds of love, understanding, respect and responsibility and hope that one sunny day, sometime in a distant summer, they’ll blossom.  I may never see it, but I hope it’s true.

Not too long ago another teacher, younger than me, came into my classroom with tears threatening to burst over the dams of her eyelashes.  She asked, “Do students in normal high schools die this often?”  Another student we knew had just died.  We all felt the loss rather significantly.  The lives my students live leave them more open to death.  It’s that simple.  My kids die more often and it’s strange dealing with these deaths that come quicker than we are ready to deal with them.  We loose kids to suicide, drug overdose, crime, gangs and simple health issues resulting from abusing your young body.  My kids die too often.

So I’m forced, perhaps more practically than a normal high school teacher, to think about what would happen if each student didn’t come back tomorrow.  Have I done everything I can?  Not just teach them about government, or sociology or history – but have I taught them about life, about learning and about respecting themselves and others?  Have I shown them the respect they deserve as humans?  Because whether they leave to another foster home, go back to jail or return to their Heavenly Father they have left my influence.  I want to make sure I give them all I can while they’re in my classroom and in my life.

It is not morbid, it is practical.  Death is a part of life.  It’s on my mind, perhaps more than most, because I live with the possibility of loosing my students at any moment.  I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older lately, what with my extended elbow and my grandparents 65th wedding anniversary party the other day.  They are an amazing couple.  It’s deeply moving to see the two of them together.  They made it a long time and they intend to make it even longer.  Standing at their anniversary party, I was deeply moved by the amount of people that came to the party.  The crowd of people coming to show respect for the couple that had influenced their lives.  Some needed help making it out of their cars; some needed a walker, or an arm to stand on, and some sent children in their stead.  But they came.  Friends and neighbors from 65 years of living and serving the people around them.  It was an honor to watch it happen.

My grandma mentioned during the celebration that she did not plan on having a funeral.  There was no need she said.  I looked around at just the number of family that was present and thought about all the people that came to congratulate her and her grandpa and I puzzled at her decision.  I’m not sure what got her thinking she didn’t need a funeral.  For my whole life my grandma has had plans for her death.  She’s a practical woman.  Knew what she wanted, who she wanted to speak, what songs were to be sung.  But now she says there is no need.  I gently disagreed with her.  I think everyone should have some kind of memorial service, even if it’s a simple one.

I wanted to tell her if there was only me, if I was the only person left when she died, that I would hold a service for her.  Just me, standing in a place of importance.  It wouldn’t have to be a church pulpit or a graveside.  It could be a my tree house overlooking the deep green lawn and dark yellow sunflowers, or it could be the shore of a lake with a fishing rod in my hand, or the golden border of a field, with the sun to my back looking for pheasants flying up.  Any of those places would do.  But I would speak with a loud voice as to the majesty of my grandmother, of her courage and beauty, her testimony and love of life.  I would speak it to the wind and sky and earth.  Not for her but for myself.  Because without her around I will need to remind myself of her example.  I would need to keep my chin up and my voice firm as I reminded the world that once there was a woman of courage and beauty who inspired not only me, not only her husband of over 65 years, but her friends and neighbors and generations to come that she had lived amongst us.  That kind of worth deserves to be spoken out loud in public, not just remembered silently to ourselves.

No doubt it would be hard for me to speak of her life.  No doubt I would choke up, stutter and break down.  Raising children is hard.  Keeping a marriage together for 65 years is hard.  Watching your family rise and fall through the years is hard.  Watching your body break down, year after year, is hard.  Speaking my grandmother’s achievements is easy compared to what she’s done for me.  If she asks it, if she demands there be no formal service, I will honor that.  Because she taught us to honor the wishes of people.  But secretly I will go to a place of beauty, where the birds are singing and the fish are jumping.  I will breathe in the cool air and I will speak the life of my grandmother as I knew it.  I owe her that.  And I owe my students the same.

Because living as a teenager today is hard.  Trying to figure out what’s right and wrong, sometimes on your own is hard.  Trying to fight against drugs, gangs, pornography and just plain peer pressure is hard.  Most teenagers today have some kind of support network, relationships they’ve built up – parents and teachers – people they can trust with the hard stuff.  Many of my students don’t have that.  They’ve been moved from foster home to foster home, school to school, place to place by indigent parents.  They’re looking for a place to land and someone to trust in a world that is full of real-life monsters looking to get them.  Often they don’t have the opportunities to stretch out their lives and really live like my grandma and grandpa.  Their lives may be short, but they are worth celebrating, worth speaking out about.

Luckily I have a place of power to speak from.  The other day, after I’d gotten all worked up about something – again – my students were smiling and laughing and one girl said, “You should be a preacher.”  I smiled back and said, “I am.”  I gestured to the front of my classroom where I have an old time church pulpit keeping my notes and rolls handy.  “I preach to you, my congregation, every day and then you take my Word out into the world and spread the Gospel of Russ.”  Everyone laughed as I said this with a flourish, ever increasing volume and an upraised fist.  I do my best to speak the truth in my classroom.  Because my pulpit, like the shore of the lake, or the border of a field, is a place of power.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older.  Maybe it’s because now things are coming into focus – as my arm extends, life seems to be getting shorter.  I want to speak out for everyone I’ve known.  I want to show honor and respect to everyone who has influenced my life – whether it’s been for a week or for decades.  A life is a life.  Some lives have had more opportunities to spread their own gospel around.  Some have had the honor and privilege to live 65 years with someone they’ve loved in peace and happiness; some have had only 15 years of drugs and disruption to try and figure it all out.  What it means is we have to tell those who are present what they mean to us – the impact they’ve had on our life.  We have to speak about those no longer near us.  Remember them through stories and words and songs.  Talk about and remember everyone who has made an impact on us, from grandparents of 40 years, to students of 40 days.  And when those we love pass away from us, when their lifetime with us is done, we honor them.  We honor them with our words and actions, sometimes formally from a church pulpit or shore of a lake or the front of a classroom.  But we honor them with the time that we have left.  We honor them with our own lives.  Our own words.  Our own thoughts and actions.  That way, their lives, like my arm, just keep extending outward into clarity.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Classroom Alchemy

The Ancients believed that there was something magical about certain elements.  They believed that given the right scientific formula to follow, and the right ingredients, done under the right circumstances, something mystical could happen.  Gold.  The purest and most brilliant of elements.  Gold could be created from the basest of elements – lead.  The dullest and most mundane of elements.  A skilled alchemist could take the common and transform it into rarity and beauty.  Alchemists would search out their ingredients with fanatical determination.  They would gather the perfect ingredients to combine and create the desired results.  Now most historians believe that alchemy was often used as a metaphor to understand the human spirit, or enlightenment, or spirituality, or even mysticism.  The old alchemical texts weren’t referring to actual lead and gold, but metaphorical Lead and Gold.  How to transform oneself from something mundane to something extraordinary.  But it was the combination of elements, the formula one used, the ingredients that would really make the difference.

If you weren’t a teacher or student at my high school, if you were an outsider, one of the funniest places to hang out would be our faculty room.  At my school we call it the Family Room.  The Family Room is a place where we hang out, get away, hide, and talk.  We talk about all kinds of things, but funnily, while you would think that we wouldn’t talk about students, or our work, or our classrooms, it about all we do talk about.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to go there because that’s ALL we talk about.  But the one thing that remains constant is how we talk about our classes.

Anyone who’s taught for any real length of time knows this sociological fact – every class has its own personality.  There is something mystical, something chemical, or even alchemical, that occurs when elements are combined in order to get something amazing out of the teaching process.  Each class, each period that I teach, is like a person itself.  It has its own sense of humor, its own sensitivities, its own issues.  And all this has to do with the combination of students within that class.  Any one student within a given class might not have a particular sense of humor, but taken together a sense of humor may appear.  Any one student, in a particular class, may not be super curious about a given topic, but taken together a particular class may have an insatiable curiosity.  There is something about putting a group of people together, for a given amount of time, and watching how they form their own particular group, with its own peculiarities and personality.  It’s transformative.  It’s alchemical.  It’s magical.  Take away one or more of the students and it changes the character of the class; its personality shifts.  And where once you had something amazing and brilliant, perhaps even golden, you now have something different.  Then there have to be readjustments made, how you teach that “person” because their personality has changed.

There is nothing like the rush of having a class that just seems to coalesce into something amazing.  Together they form this gigantic learning machine.  There is something about the chemistry of all those particular students coming together that makes them attentive, intelligent, curious and willing to put in the mental effort that is asked of them.  You start with something mundane, and you end up with something truly golden.

And like ancient alchemy, teachers across the world, gather in their own particular Family Rooms and they discuss theories, combinations, ingredients, incantations and processes to get it right.  Unfortunately the one thing teachers don’t have control over are their ingredients.  The major source of our final product is out of our hands.  We, unlike the ancient alchemists, are given our ingredients without any real control for quality.  So some classes are filled with brilliance and intelligence, while other classes are filled with drama and defensiveness.  But we continually strive, sometimes more enthusiastic than others, to create something beautiful and heavenly out of what we’ve been given.  The real question that many of us have is what do we do when our greatest efforts are met with failure?  What do we do when we start with lead and we get lead?

This year my forth period class could have been a sitcom – or maybe a drama of some kind.  It had all the makings of hilarity or disaster.  When you look at the lineup of characters it seems like fiction.  But it was all too real.  There was Darius, the class clown.  He couldn’t stop talking; he joked, laughed and made the class laugh at his crude, sexual, and often offensive humor.  They more they laughed, the more he talked.  There was Trina, the teen mom who was addicted to not only alcohol but drugs as well.  She had two kids, a string of boyfriends, and alternated between identifying with her gang-banging Mexican dad, or her peace-loving alcoholic, Native American mom.   There was Jose, the dedicated gang member.  At sixteen he was already covered in tattoos.  His forearms, belly, ribs and neck clearly identified his gang affiliation and nearly every comment in class referred to his love of gangs.  There was Adam, the drug dealer, who wanted nothing more than a piece of eye-candy on his arm and millions of dollars in his pockets because of the rapper he was sure he was going to be.  He wrote beautiful lyrics about love, loss and loneliness, but he didn’t have the ability to focus in class or to stay with any one girl for longer than a couple of weeks.  There was Darby, the kid genius who’s parents had left him with grandparents, never to be heard from again.  The kid who played video games every waking hour of every day, and who was isolated and lonely because of how smart he was.  Too much time, no intellectual feedback at home, led him to loose himself in video games.  There was Jacob, the sex offender, who’s intelligence was so low that he struggled with even the simplest of instructions.  He was always lost, never understanding, and would laugh when others would laugh because he didn’t want to seem like he didn’t understand, but his eyes always held a kind of wonder at what was going on.  And then I had Andrea, the chola, a Hispanic girl who had been in the system since she was twelve.  She wore baggy pants, tight shirt, painted eyebrows and thick, heavy lipstick and big earrings.  She hangs with the OG’s (original gangsters) not these “youngsters” who didn’t know how to treat a lady.  She was sixteen.  This was my fourth period class. These were the ingredients that I had to work my alchemical magic with.  And I have to say that at the end of it all, this experiment, failed.

I love to teach.  I love it.  There is something about getting in front of a crowd and talking about stuff that I find interesting.  I love making them laugh, making them lean forward with anticipation at my next words.  I love students who are curious and inquisitive about something they may have never considered before.  There are often days when I finish a class and I feel like a rock star.  Arms in the air I silently thank the Teaching Gods for giving me my talents and the class that I just taught.  I shake my head at how cool my job is.  I get paid to do this for a living.  I get paid to teach.  How cool is my life?

Then there are the fourth periods.  These are the periods where the combination of kids leaves me cold and drained and disheartened.  I’ve only had a few of them and each one nearly killed me.  This last fourth period was a combination like I’ve never seen before.  It was the worst of its kind so far.  They were nearly uncontrollable.  Most days they would arrive late, rowdy and full of complaints and profanity.  They resisted all forms of learning.  They talked during even the most modern and contemporary movies.  They balked at the most simple requests or assignments.  Even when asked to color in a design whose lines were already drawn they complained about not knowing what to do.  They were uninterested, disengaged and unwilling to try.  And despite my best efforts most of them got low grades; some didn’t even pass the class.

The thing is, I believe in alchemy.  I believe in the ability to change something mundane into something extraordinary.  I believe in change of the most basic kind.  I believe that despite the personality of a given class, I can still mold and shape and summon something magical from the ingredients that I’ve been given.  Perhaps that makes me an idealist.  Perhaps that makes me, like the alchemists of old, a philosophical fool.  I don’t know if there is a real recipe for success when it comes to teaching.  But I keep thinking of my successes.  I keep thinking about those times when I’ve raised my arms in triumph at having taught and succeeded.  But maybe I’m just like the guy who’s played slots so many times, with a certain drink in his hand and his lucky socks pulled up tight, that I’m sure that was the combination that brought the magical ingredients together.  Maybe there is no recipe.  Maybe it is a crap shoot.  All I know is that there are few things so destructively disturbing to my self-esteem than to watch that fourth period leave my class and have not one of them look back.  Not one of them thank me, or even smile.

I want to believe in what I’m doing.  I want to believe that I have the talent to teach and to change lives.  Not just some, but all.  And maybe that belief is self destructive and even vain – thinking that I can change the world, one classroom at a time, despite the ingredients inside each one.  But I do.  Heaven help me, I do.  And so it’s at times like this, watching those kids leave my classroom, swearing and leering and jeering, that my heart feels like lead.  I feel empty and stupid and full of doubt.  I want to believe that I can make a difference in everyone’s life.  But I think I need to come to grips with the fact that there are some classes that aren’t meant for me.  There are some classes that I can’t transform.  There are some classes, that because of their alchemical combinations, they just aren’t ready to transform into something greater than they started.  I have to have faith.  I have to have faith, that somewhere down the road, there will be a different Alchemist, waiting.  Someone who can change all hearts, who can heal all wounds, who can bring peace to those classes that I couldn’t.  But until then, I’m just sitting here in an empty classroom thinking about the future.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Roots & Wings

I left home when I was 18.  I had enlisted in the navy reserve and I was headed to boot camp.  It all happened pretty fast and I wasn’t really ready to leave home.  My mom definitely wasn’t ready to have me leave; she cried quite a bit.  My dad, as always, radiated a confident silence throughout the entire experience.  I’m sure he felt heartache and trepidation at having his oldest son leave home, but he never showed it.  In fact, once I got to boot camp I began receiving letters from both him and my mom on a regular basis.  The first letter I received from him, and every letter thereafter, while I was in boot camp, was folded like a paper airplane. 

My dad explained to me, in that first letter, that the greatest gift a father can give his child is roots and wings.  Roots, he said, were the teachings, traditions and examples that a parent sets for their children.  It gives a child something to rely on; it is a foundation that they know is unmovable, unshakable, and unchangeable.  Wings, he said, are the freedom given by a parent for a child to act in a way that they feel is appropriate.  It gives a child the ability to act, with confidence, as they grow into their own lives, their own talents, their own goals.  They are free to act as they see fit because the parent has given them a foundation from which to base their decisions and actions.  My father showed once again how truly wise he was and how fearless.  Roots and Wings.  A philosophy for the ages.

And now here I am.  A father.  With two daughters who are nearly the age I was when I first left home.  I have spent all the years of the their lives trying to give them roots.  I have taught them everything that I hold dear, everything that is important, everything that I believe one should build a life on – trust, love, kindness, forgiveness and open-mindedness.  These are the things that I want my children to base their lives on.  Their roots are sturdy.  They are good people who are intelligent, sensitive and spiritual.  They are ready for the world.  But I’m not sure I’m ready to let them go.  I look over the edge and into the open air and I want to hold them back a bit.  I want to keep them in the nest a bit longer.  I want to teach them just a few more things before they go.  I want to make those roots a bit thicker, a bit more deep, a bit more unmoving.  What I really want is for those roots to wrap themselves around my kids ankles so they never leave.  I find I’m a bit stingy with the feathers when it comes to doling out wings.

You see I was fine until they started to actually grow up.  I don’t mean grow older, that is always cute, and fun and entertaining, I mean actually become adults.  Maybe it’s because I teach psychology and I am more aware of developmental patterns, or because my dad pointed out the best way he thought to let a kid go out into the world, or because I just think about this stuff way too much, but I notice these little landmarks that move the kids further away from needing roots, and closer to needing wings.  As they begin testing their newfound wings it makes me nervous. 

In the past few months my daughters have begun thinking and talking about boys and friends – and sometimes the two combined.  Not about their dad, but about people outside the home.  They’ve found the value in being with people that aren’t their parents.  And this is good.  It’s good for them, it’s just not good for me.  I want them to stay home and stay safe.  The first boy that really hurts one of my daughters won’t have my wrath.  Because that would be wrong.  I wish I could be there to face him down, explain what he’s done, smack him up side the head.  But I won’t.  I will let her deal with him, explain to him what he’s done, and she will live her own life and learn her own lessons. 

Lately my daughters are wearing makeup; they’re planning their own lives, thinking about life after high school.  They’re talking about college and maybe not college.  They’re talking about marriage, and what it would be like, and who they want to marry, and how they want their lives to be.  They’re not talking about this seriously, but jokingly with friends.  As a pastime. They are wearing bras and using tampons.  They aren’t girls anymore, they’re young women.  My life is changing right along with theirs.  Because all these things indicate that a change is coming.  Soon, my cute, shy, silly little girls will be smart, funny and beautiful women, ready to head out into the world.

People, upon finding out that I have all girls, sometimes ask if I wish I had sons.  I have to honestly say that I don’t.  At this time, in this place, I really think that girls have it better than boys.  Here’s why.  I’ve been able to raise my daughters in any way they want.  If a girl is interested in football, hockey, wrestling, dancing, dresses or makeup, it doesn’t matter.  A girl can be feminine and masculine at the same time.  They can look beautiful and act tough; they can wear a dress and be interested in snakes.  Girls have the freedom to be whoever they want to be.  Girls can tie knots, throw punches and hike in the mountains.  But boys can’t be cute, sensitive, cry when they’re sad, play dress up or have tea parties – or they run the very real risk of being labeled something ugly and hurtful.  My daughters are who they want to be, they are brave, and bold and beautiful.  They are perfect.  Perhaps they’ll talk their husbands into keeping their family name rather than taking his – but regardless of what they do, they’ll do it in their own way. 

Now all I have to do is gain the courage to give them the wings that they deserve.  I have to be willing to allow them to fall from the heights that they sore to.  I know the story of Icarus – the willful and prideful man who gave himself wings and tried to rise above where the gods believed he should.  I know that my kids suffer a very real risk of falling and being hurt if they soar too close to the sun, not with wings that they themselves have made, but with wings fashioned by their father.  So as I get ready for them to leave our home I have to make sure those wings are worthy of great heights; I have to make sure that they know how to fly; I have to make sure that those wings can withstand the weather of a world that sometimes can be too hurtful.  I have to make sure that they know they always have a home they can come to.  They have a place where they can feed their roots while their wings heal.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Trouble With the North

As summer approaches and the prospect of free time increases, I find myself thinking about what I want to do during the upcoming school break.  I love learning new things, meeting new people, and hearing new music.  I often find myself asking people about their favorite band or song.  I find it’s a great way to learn about people and find new music.  Everyone has a favorite piece of music they can talk about.  As summer approaches, I find myself thinking about places I’ve already been and want to re-visit.  Lately I’ve found myself thinking about last summer and my couch surfing experience in Texas and the music I found there.  I find myself in the wet heat of San Antonio, standing on a front porch with a man in a cowboy hat, holding an icy beverage in my hand, and how he taught me something about living and the music of the world.

Couch Surfing is one of the coolest ideas I’ve run across in a very long time.  Simply put, Couch Surfing is a system where like-minded individuals travel and stay with strangers along their way.  It is social networking for travelers who believe the world is a good place, filled with good people, who can be trusted.  The site has some safety features but it really is up to each traveler to look after themselves.  But the real magic of Couch Surfing is that strangers stay with strangers but leave as friends.  The world gets smaller, not bigger.  You get to live in the place you’re visiting; not just visit there.  You get to spend time with locals who love their city and want to show it around to strangers.  It is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had.  I hope to have more this summer.

Last summer I visited the Lavens – a family full of kindness and music.  They took me in last minute as I was headed into San Antonio, Texas without blinking an eye.  The wife, Jana, picked me up from the airport and from the first minute she was a tour guide.  Making her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend sit in the backseat while she talked and pointed out all the places of interest in her town.  She was kind and friendly and amazing.  She made me feel incredibly welcome.  Jana is a high school teacher who lives with her husband and daughter in a beautiful little neighborhood of San Antonio.  But it wasn’t until I arrived and was directed to my bedroom that I found out the magic of the Laven household.  They are musicians.

The bedroom I stayed in was lined with guitars.  Guitars of every type.  Guitars and tour posters of some of the greatest names in country western history.  I just stood and stared at this cool place and how amazing it was they were showing this amount of trust to a stranger.  I was exhilarated.  This was the kind of life I wanted to live.  This was the kind of person I wanted to be.  Trusting the world.  Not mistrusting everything everyone did.  When I made my way back downstairs, Jana explained to me that their entire family was musicians.  All of them.  The family itself was its own musical group – The Lavens.  I was amazed and impressed.  They were a true Texan family.  They would have Friday night parties with all their friends and all the food you could eat.  Lots of good stuff to drink and music.  Always the music.

Jana introduced me to her husband Andreas – the epitome of a Texan musician.  He was tall and lanky with shoulder length hair pulled back into a clean ponytail.  He wore an old pair of Wrangler jeans and a button down shirt – tucked in.  An old cowboy hat sat on the back of his head.  His hands were big and clean and he shook mine with purpose.  He was as quiet as Jana was talkative.  He had little to say to me at first but welcomed me into his home and went quietly back to what he was doing.  Jana took me on a tour of San Antonio that evening – she wanted to show me everything because she was leaving on a trip herself and wasn’t going to be around.

Jana left the next day.  The house was quiet and Andreas was in the kitchen having coffee with his daughter Rachel.  Rachel is a beautiful 17 year old who has a voice rivaling many artists out there today.  She is another Taylor Swift waiting to happen.  But she had things to do and places to go.   So Andreas and I were left to ourselves.  Slowly we began to talk and around mid-day he asked if I wanted something to eat.  I never turn down a meal and so he began making lunch for us.  It was a lunch any Texan would be proud of.  He started up the hand-made, cast iron grill out back with mesquite wood stacked just to one side.  Once the wood started to smoke, he laid marinated skirt steak and chicken legs on the grill and pronounced we had some time to wait.  So he grabbed an ice-cold beer and I grabbed a soda from fridge and went out to the front porch.  We talked about living in Texas and living in other parts of the country.  We talked about neighbors and friends.  We talked about looking out for folks around you.  I told him I wished I knew my neighbors better.  Not just the folks to the left and right of me but my neighbors.  My neighborhood.

He glanced at me then.  Just a slight turn of his head, his eyes looking at me from under his worn straw hat, and his mouth made a single line.  Maybe I’m remembering a sadness in his eyes only found when I evaluate myself.  Maybe he felt sorry for me.  But he turned and looked back out into the neighborhood and said, “Trouble with the North is no one sits on their porches.”

“What do you mean?” I said, with my one eye scrunching up a bit.  I could smell the mesquite smoke coming from the back yard and the meat cooking ever so slowly.

“Well,” he said, shrugging his shoulders almost imperceptibly “seems like the best way to get to know your neighbors is to get out of your own house.  Down here we grab ourselves a cooler full of beer and sit on the porch and enjoy the evening and invite folks who are walking by to come and have a beer with us.  Or we just take a walk and end up on someone else’s porch.  Seems like folks up north don’t get out of their houses enough.  Maybe you oughtta just sit on your front porch and talk to folks.”  He let his words hang there in the warm Texas air; the cicadas hummed hypnotically for a moment before he said, “Just my opinion.”  He finished off his beer and turned toward the door.  “Meat’s probably done.”  He headed toward the grill out back.

And there it was.  Something I’d been missing.  Something so simple.  It was the most Andreas talked my entire trip.  But it changed the way I looked at my own neighborhood and how I was interacting with it.  That day we sat in the Laven kitchen and ate smoked chicken and steak inside warmed tortillas.  We washed it down with more beer and soda and enjoyed an icy chunk of watermelon.  Juice kept trying to sneak down my chin.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about what he had said.  I just need to get outside.  I just need to spend time on my own front porch.

It’s been almost a year since I visited Andreas and his family.  Summer is coming again.  I hope to be traveling soon.  I still have a few weeks before I’m free of school, so last night I mowed the lawn.  I mowed and edged and cleaned the yard in preparation for folks who are coming to a Friday night party at my house.  We’re going to grill and smoke some good meat; drink frosty beverages and sit outside and take it easy.  We’re going to talk and laugh and enjoy each other.  We’re not neighbors, but we are friends.  I’m starting small with folks I know – then I’ll move out to my actual neighbors.  I’ll be playing some music I picked up from the Lavens – John Prine, Susan Gibson and Terri Hendrix.  Of course the Lavens themselves will play over my speakers and into my back yard and out into the spring night.

In preparation for Friday night, and for the rest of my summer, I bought a bench.  Not an expensive one and not a big one.  But it’s nice.  It’s meant for outside and it fits my small porch.  My porch isn’t big and spacious like the one on the Laven’s old San Antonio house.  But it will do.  I washed out an old cooler and left it to dry out back.  I washed grass stains and dirt off my bare feet.  Then I went inside and made me a plate of smoked baby back ribs, baked beans and sweet potato fries.  I grabbed myself an icy beverage and headed to the front porch.  And I just sat there.  I sat there and enjoyed my dinner and sipped on my soda.  I breathed in the spring air and listened to the sounds of my neighborhood – not the sounds of my television.  I smiled and waved at folks passing by.  I made kiss-kiss noises at a dog that seemed to have lost his way.  My own 16 year old daughter came out and talked to me for a while and we enjoyed the smell of the newly mowed grass and cool spring air.  I thought of Rachel Laven and her amazing voice and I wondered how the Lavens had been doing.  I stood on my front porch and held my can of Mountain Dew a bit higher in honor of Andreas – the man who taught me to smoke my food and come out on my porch.  He taught me that being on your front porch is a good thing.  No one stopped by.  No one came to sit with me.  But I have the whole summer to practice.  And a newly washed cooler to put all my soda in.