On being a dad

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Being a dad has many fine points: pushing the swing just high enough that BOTH dad and daughter are a might nervous; telling the stories of Wanda the Wolf (who lives at 1 Cave Road in Circleville PA); encouraging the toddler to coast just a wee bit fast on her Burly MyKick Balance Bike and then convincing her the resultant skinned knee makes her look tough.  The list can go on.

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Photo taken 30 seconds prior to said skinned knee.

Perhaps though, the best part of being a dad is being able to better know my own father.  No trigger I can yet identify causes me to be thrown back to my own childhood, though from the vantage point of my dad:

  • Once, when holding my daughter’s hand I felt oddly nostalgic.  Seeing her hand in mine, I could see my hand in my dad’s when we would walk to the local diner for hot chocolate with whipped cream (now the Bistro at Haddonfield).
  •  Walking down a path in the woods, some combination of roots, rocks and ferns enables me to see myself, three decades prior, running down a similar path.

Just as my dad helped guide me as a child, these rare moments of role-reversal deja vu continue to guide me as a father.

Just because it’s hard

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Gnarly road rash from super aggressive sandpaper.

For most of 2016 (and really, for most of the past 20+ years), I’ve been pondering my future: who I want to be, what I want to do, where I want to live.  Pondering one’s future is not an easy task because it requires a person to review their past as they plot their next steps.  Pondering the future takes time and energy; time and energy that may be devoted to other pursuits.

In fall 1997 or 1998, Outside Magazine ran an article with the 100 things to do to have a successful life.  The activities I remember include: getting marooned on an island (and escaping a week later), bungee jumping, and spend a night in the Sahara.  I’ve tried, with no luck, to locate the original article (update: Here is the article, sent to me by a reader).  Every few years Outside compiles a new, though similar, list.

It must have been fall 1998, because I was dating my high school girlfriend at the time.  Anyway, Outside Magazine inspired my 17-year-old self to write my own list for a successful life.  I spent a teenage eternity of four hours developing my own life-list.  Only 48 goals could spill out of my mind in those hours, but I remember reviewing the list and feeling good about the direction of my life.

The notebook got lost as I moved from home to college, then college to my permanent residence, but one goal really stuck with me: “Be respected in life”.

I wrote those simple words as a 17-year old because of two events that greatly affected me.  I will try to condense those stories here:

  1. When I was 12, my grandfather died unexpectedly.  As the story goes, at the service one of my grandfather’s friends mentioned my grandfather’s height – he was 5’6″.  Astonished, another of his friends disputed the fact stating “Bill [my grandfather] must have been taller!”
  2.  A high-school teacher of mine did his best to mingle with the high-school kids.  He tried to be ‘cool’.  At this point, I am unable to recall specifics, but rather than elevate the students to an adult level, he lowered himself to the student’s level.  As an adult, I’m now aware this particular teacher was experiencing some personal stresses at the time, but this ‘lowering’ behavior disturbed me.

Combined, these two stories demonstrated to me the type of person I wanted to become.  I instinctively knew the ability to elevate others, as my grandfather did, took steadfast personal energy while lowering oneself, as the teacher did, required no energy.

My original journal surfaced a year ago.  Rereading the writing of a 17-year old, the clarity of the 17-year old’s vision astounded the 34-year old.  The list included not only activities: see Mt. Everest from base camp; go skinny dipping; and see a full moon from each continent, but also lifetime milestones: get married; start a family; never stop learning.  The day I reread the list, I checked off nearly one quarter of the entries.

I realized, of the activities I had accomplished, the more difficult the activity the more satisfying the memories.  Wendell Berry alludes to this in his book The Unsettling of America.  While Berry does not outright say “difficult work leads to satisfying memories”, he does argue for a return to a more settled, agrarian society rather than the fragmented, unsettled, city-based society we have today.  Yet he acknowledges that the work he advocates for is not easy and maybe not even enjoyable on a granular scale.  However, when taken in its entirety the work is satisfying.

All of my farmer friends confirm Berry’s thesis.

A minuscule ebb tide of people from cities to agrarian wilds exists today.  Authors such as Wendell Berry and Ben Hewitt actively pursue this lifestyle.  Others, such as The Frugalwoods, want more meaning out of life, so they leave cities such as Cambridge, MA to head to rural locations.

A pall of dissatisfaction hangs over America today.  We are wealthy and the work is easy, but neither appear to bring satisfaction.  Yes, a growing rift between the wealthy and poor does exist in this country, yet some of the most satisfied people I know do not live on the wealthy side of the rift.  Farmers, sawyers, and contractors predominate this satisfied-but-not-wealthy clique on the ‘have not’ side of the rift (which begs the question: What does it mean to ‘have’ or ‘have not’?).

What do all of these people have in common that a large portion of the US seemingly does not?

These farmers, sawyers, and contractors embrace hard work and the satisfaction that follows.  In his book Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World (a spectacular read if you haven’t already), Ben Hewitt discusses both the struggles as well as the satisfaction of a hard-work life.

I have trouble explaining why I enjoy lifting a 120-pound drum sander out of my car only to give myself gnarly road rash on a Saturday morning, but I do.  Is it easy to elevate people as my grandfather did?  No, but my grandfather did so and based on conversations about him, he led a satisfied life.  My farmer friends would “absolutely not trade the financial and physical hardships of this life” for easier work and a larger paycheck.

The older I get, the more I am convinced the answer to the riddle is simply “Just because it’s hard”.

Turtles in the sun

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My daughter holds the painter line as I push our canoe into the water.  Even though the lake is calm, the momentum of the canoe pulls my daughter to the waters edge.  I steady the canoe against the marina’s short cement wall.

Marina is a generous term.  Landscaping timbers form parallel tracks along the curve of the lake.  Every ten yards or so shorter timbers, perpendicular to the lake, elevate the larger timbers eight inches off the ground.  The parallel timbers hold inverted canoes, kayaks and row boats.  A six inch concrete retaining wall provides the hard stop between land and water.

I’m the biggest of the three paddlers tonight, so I enter the boat first.  Crouching low and holding the gunnels, I walk to the stern.  Our canoe rocks gently as I take my seat.

My wife passes the wooden paddles, float cushions and bag of snacks (tortilla chips, craisins and homemade lemonade) to me.  I arrange the float cushions in the middle of the boat and spread a towel over them – the perfect place for the smallest paddler to lay and watch the clouds pass by.

Next my daughter steps from terra firma into the canoe.  The rocking fluid motions of the boat return her to the I-just-learned-to-walk state of unsteadiness.  She instinctively grabs for the gunnel and refuses to release her mom’s steady hand.  I convince her to grab the outstretched paddle and walk to her float cushion nest.

Before stepping into the canoe, my wife surveys the marina to make sure nothing is left ashore.  After she has taken the bow seat, I steer the boat through the reeds at water’s edge and enter the lake.

“Which way do you want to go?” I ask my daughter.  A moment’s pause and she points south.  “That way.”

A deep, gravely “Stroooke…stroooke…stroooke” encourages us from the cattails at shore’s edge.  A bullfrog is making his presence known.  The cadence, variety and intensity of the croaking attract female frogs not dissimilar to certain dance floor rituals performed by homo sapiens.  “Come here my Love” is the closest English translation of the frog’s croak.

After five minutes, my wife and I have found our paddling cadence.  She performs two forward strokes to each one of my J strokes.  Our’s is a comfortably lazy paddle, a perfect speed for the end of a hard day of work.  My wife and daughter had worked, stooped over in the garden, most of the day.  I had worked, stooped over in a half-height basement, mixing and pouring a concrete pad.

The evening is quickly approaching the golden hour, those few magical minutes at the end of the day when humidity seems to drop, the mosquitoes temporarily stop biting and the sunlight makes the world look storybook-perfect.

After ten minutes of paddling, we’ve reached the lake’s southern terminus.

“Mom, I’m hungry.”  The snack bag is out and the toddler’s crunch crunch crunch can be heard over the dip swish of the paddles.

I (expertly) turn the canoe west and head for the opposite shore, along the earthen dam forming Lake Perez.  Red-winged black birds buzz at the top of the dam while swallows skim the water’s surface hunting bugs.

We enter a cove on the western edge of the lake just south of the Civil Engineering lodge and high ropes course.  The ropes course’s towers loom over the cove; in a previous mythical era, I could imagine the ropes towers covered in Saruman’s standards while our group of Isildur spies prepare for Aragorn’s main assault.

This is not Middle Earth and like the marina, “cove” is a generous term.  On a larger lake, the dip in the shoreline we entered might not even register on a map.  However, in the magical world of quiet evening canoe paddles, this is a cove.

We see our first painted turtle, enjoying the remaining sun’s rays atop a fallen tree.  The turtle slips off the log and into the tannin-dark lake water as we approach.

We cross the cove.  It takes us less than a minute – six forward strokes and three J strokes.   I watch the shoreline for birds and other wildlife.  We’ve seen green herons, pileated woodpeckers, osprey, geese, wood ducks, mallards and yellow warblers.

I’m unconsciously filtering frog and human sounds while trying to pay attention to bird sounds.

“Green frog” my daughter says.
“What?” I reply, mildly annoyed.

“Listen” my wife instructs.  Then, in the reeds at shore’s edge, I hear the unmistakable banjo twang of a green frog.  As always, my daughter was right and she was paying attention (what have I missed?).  With a little imagination, I hear the green frog saying “good-bye” as we pass by.

We paddle north, along the western shore.  An osprey flies overhead, alighting in a dead tree to survey the lake for an evening meal.  The trees along the shore shade our boat trip; the eastern shore is bathed in the remaining rays of the golden hour’s sun.

The lake is shaped like a crude ‘Y’ and we enter the northwest cove.  One painted turtle remains on a partially submerged log, unaware the sun has set in this cove.  As we approach, the turtle slips into the water and I watch the wake created as it swims six feet away from the log.  The turtle’s head then pops up and he observes our progress around the cove.  I’m reminded of the diving spotted turtles in David Carroll’s book “The Year of the Turtle”.

For five minutes, we drift in silence, observing the world.

Lake Perez; Envinity built pavilion

“Oh, look!” my daughter whispers.  An unidentifiable bird flits between trees where the branches meet the water.  Somehow, in the perfect quiet of the evening, my daughter knows her whisper carries more strength than a shout.

I turn the boat back to the marina.  Taking care to make the dip-swish of the paddle silent.  My wife’s forward strokes join my J strokes as we enter the open water.  Four minutes later, we are back to the marina.

Getting out of the canoe, we exactly reverse the sequence for getting into the canoe.

My wife packs the car as I lock the canoe to the parallel timbers.  My daughter climbs into her car seat as I watch the sun setting over the lake.  I turn my back and head to the car.

“Good-Bye…Good-Bye…Good-Bye” twangs a green frog.

 

Frog and Toad

Growing up, I remember my mom’s tales of spring time in New Hampshire – roads slick with the smashed bodies of spring peepers; drivers navigating turns as if black ice covered the road.  For some reason, these tales made me want to hear and see spring peepers.  These tales also instilled a love of all cold blooded animals (the ones with four legs at least).

In third grade, I found a male box turtle that I named Boxer.  Not knowing how to care for box turtles, I decided the best plan of action was to call the Philadelphia Zoo and ask their reptile experts.  The zoo’s employees were quite helpful and for the next four years I kept three box turtles: Boxer, Shelly and Mr. Dinosaur.

The turtles hibernated in the leaf pits, swam in a foil tray of water and ate bugs and ground beef.  Eventually they escaped their enclosures to return to the woods directly behind my house.  At about this time in my life, I began noticing the opposite sex and my interest in cold blooded companions waned but never disappeared.

Never did I want to risk the life of a delicate creature such as a frog, toad or tadpole until my wedding day.  I was mowing my parent’s lawn in the morning and I found a three legged toad.  Unsure what accident befell this small fellow, I decided an appropriate name was Moe.  He lived with my wife and I in a terrarium for six years.

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As an adult, I feel I now spend more time in the woods than I did as a child.  Weekly my daughter and I go to the farmer’s market and then on a woodland expedition/adventure (expedition if it’s raining, adventure if sunny).  We venture many places around our town: Bear Meadows, Little Flat Top Mountain, and The Kombucha Water Place (the spring on Three Bridges Trail) to name a few.  One day in April, she and I ventured to Bear Meadows.

Bear Meadows is a fen wetland surrounded by mountains.  I enjoy hiking and trail running around the wetland.  Low- and high-bush blueberries grow along the trail and through the fen.  The rocky trail stays wet for long periods of time resulting in some pretty epic muddy spots.  The most beautiful view in all of Pennsylvania is standing on the bridge at Bear Meadows facing the fen while the sun is setting over Little Flat Top mountain.

On this particular April day, the noise from the spring peepers was physically-hurting-your-ears loud.  The video above does not do justice to the cacophony.  As we walked by the vernal pond, the peepers closest to us would quiet until we passed.

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Two weeks later, we were again on an adventure, only this time to the large pond in the Scotia Game Lands.  She and I have seen a family of geese, heard woodcocks, and caught salamanders at this pond.  However, on this day, our normal salamander spot had been taken over by hundreds of tadpoles.

Seeing or hearing frogs and toads always makes me smile, bringing me back to my childhood and reading all the Frog and Toad stories.  For some reason, the image of Toad covered in melting ice cream with two horns of waffle cone is etched in my memory.  My daughter now enjoys the stories, not yet reading them to herself but pointing out the letters she knows – P, W, O, M, T, S.

Reading these stories to my daughter allows me to relive my childhood, only to rediscover how special my childhood really was.