Blessed Light

Living in the Upper Lefthand Corner of the United States requires a tradeoff that is difficult at times. You must endure dampness and darkness for eight months of the year in exchange for four months of supernatural light and unparalleled beauty. Right now we’re in the sweet spot of the four months meaning there’s no other place on the planet I’d rather be.

During this morning’s run in Priest Point Park I was intermittently blanketed by the sun’s brilliant radiance as I moved steadily through the forest. Shirtless and sweaty at 7a,  I was profoundly appreciative of July. More so than I ever would be if it wasn’t for the damp and dark runs during the eight contrasting months. The contrast is key.

Mid-day, on Mount Rainier with family, the sun ricocheted off the snow surrounding Snow Lake.

Tonight, transfixed by the fading sun on the western horizon, I will sit on the deck eating popcorn and drinking a recovery beer with family. Sunset is at 9:08p.m., but it won’t get dark until 9:45-10p.m. Must store as much Vitamin D as possible.

As a visitor you probably wouldn’t get it, you’d probably say, “Yeah sure, the weather, the trees, the water, they’re all nice, but really, no need to get all worked up about it.” To which I’d say, “I’m selling it short. I can’t do justice to the blessed light that gives me an unspeakable joy and sustains me through the dark.” At which point you’d just slowly back away not knowing what to make of me. Which I would understand and not hold against you. At all.

Addendum: For those keeping score at home, the “find the spelling errors in the initial draft” scorecard currently reads, Cal Lutheran 1, St. Olaf 1, Carleton 0.

 

 

 

Choosing to Be Different

A bright, personable, caring young woman in my writing seminar this fall said she had absolutely no interest in marriage because her parents had failed so miserably at it.

I felt no need to sell marriage, but her passionate rejection of it reminded me of how we often generalize from our experiences way too much.

Then I read this blog post, The In-Between Process, by an exceptional alumnae of my writing seminar. And this sentence jumped off the page, “I get to choose to be different, and I will be.”

As sociologists remind us, the vast majority of time we follow pretty damn closely in our parent(s)’ footsteps. As we see in her friend’s kitchen, some though do manage to “be different” by seeking alternative family mentors and friends.

Those of us fortunate to enjoy happy and healthy families should never take them for granted. Instead, we should look for opportunities to love and support those mired in troubled, dysfunctional families.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Is a successful career or an especially close extended family more important? Why bother being introspective? Why are sibling relations often strained? Can family members reconcile given longstanding dysfunction?

These are some of the questions Rod Dreher takes up in his brilliant book about his sister’s life. Put down whatever you’re reading and travel to rural Louisiana with Dreher and Leming. The subtitle is “A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life”. Dreher’s book is more novel (or Shakespearean play) than social science essay. He writes extremely well and tells a riveting story that was so sad in parts I didn’t even bother tilting my head back.

Dreher contrasts his sister’s life with his own and finds his wanting. He prioritized career, often moving to pursue better journalism jobs. In contrast, Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, went to college thirty minutes away, and then returned home to teach, live next to her parents, and raise her three daughters.

Dreher’s story made my head spin. He mostly idolizes his sister’s life choices, but clearly he wouldn’t have become as outstanding a writer if as a teen he hadn’t gone to a selective, public boarding school, or if he hadn’t taken successively more challenging journalism gigs. His ambition and career trajectory enabled him to tell his sister’s story so beautifully. And yet, he’s eloquent about the costs of his professional ambition to his relationship with his sister, his parents, his nieces, and his hometown.

As young adults, nearly everyone in my extended family moved far away from their parents. Now sprinkled all over the country, we’re held together by email, airplanes, and an aging matriarch. Except for the conservative politics, I am Rod Dreher, by which I mean I’m often too introspective for my own good. Then again, without introspection, Dreher never would have bothered with the story in the first place.

While reading “The Little Way” I thought about my dad who had unimaginable career success, my sister whose longstanding commitment to her small community and her family reminded me of Ruthie, and most of all, my daughters. What will be more important to them, ambition or relationships? Will they keep the “family moving away” streak alive? Previously, I’ve written about the key ingredient to tight-knit extended families—a vision for closeness coupled with an intentionality that fosters that. Dreher’s experience, especially his father’s regrets in life, makes me think inertia probably plays a part too.

In the end, Dreher zigs when you think he’s going to zag. He doesn’t offer his beloved sister’s life as a model, or his own, instead he thoughtfully recommends something in between.

One question Dreher inspired is what’s the best way for the GalPal and I to encourage my adult daughters to live within a half day’s drive? I know I probably shouldn’t do or say anything to compromise the freedom I enjoyed in my early twenties, but our laissez-faire approach to extended family has serious limits. Maybe it’s time for some sort of an audible. Reading and talking about “The Little Way” would be an excellent start. We have to do something because I can’t take much more air travel.

imagesNext in the queue—Nate in Venice by Richard Russo. Next next—The Unwinding by George Packer.  Next next next—College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey Selingo.

How To Get Your Child Talking About What’s Happening in School

I could buy Norway if I had a dollar for every time I sat down at dinner and mindlessly asked, “How was school?” only to hear “good” or “fine.” Stimulating four word conversation.

The older the student the harder it is to squeeze any meaningful info from them about what happens between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Developmental psychologists say that’s as it should be. Elementary age children love having their parent(s) volunteer in their classroom. It’s a secondary students worst nightmare.

I know adolescents need some distance to become autonomous, independent peeps, but I still love the challenge of getting them to talk about their school day. Odds are I’ll never get the chance to interrogate prisoners of war. Here is some of what I’ve learned over the years.

The front “how was school” door is permanently locked. Tip-toe around to the side door and get way more specific. “What happened in Spanish today?” How did you do on your Math test?” What was Schaeffer up to today?” “What are you studying in history?” “Get your English paper back?” “Any interesting chemistry labs lately?” “What was the last film you saw?” “Anyone talk about Glee at lunch today?” “Who is going on the retreat this weekend?” “How’s Kaitlyn doing?” Is Noelle playing tennis this year?”

Notice that even those questions are of uneven quality. Ask my sixteen year old, “What happened in Spanish today?” and she’ll respond, “Nuthin’ really.” “How’s Kaitlyn doing?”? Rest assured, Kaitlyn is almost always “fine”. Instead, ask “what,” “if,” and “why” questions like these: What’s your favorite class these days? Why? If you only had to go to two classes which ones would you choose? Why? Whose your best teacher? Why? If you had to teach one of your subjects which one would you choose? Why? If you were the principal for the day, what’s one thing you’d change about your school? Why?

You can only ask specific questions if you’re engaged. If you’re on parenting auto pilot, forget the front, side, and back doors, no point really in even approaching the house. If you don’t know your child’s schedule, the names of their teachers, the names of the friends they eat lunch with, learn that stuff before going to sleep tonight.

There are exceptions to every rule. When inquiring about drinking and drugs, it’s often better to stay general because they won’t want to out any acquaintances or friends getting hammered. So I’ve found questions like “Much experimenting with marijuana going on?” or “Anyone you know get drunk lately?” yield more info than any “friend specific” drinking and drug-related ones.

At times the dinner table can be a conversation black hole. It’s the ultimate front door. Again, think side-door, back door, even windows. For example, I remember a few times, a decade or so ago, when Nineteen would ride her bike through the neighborhood while I ran. It was great, without realizing it probably, she talked continuously. Just now, Sixteen took the labradude for a pre-dinner walk. I should have joined her. Something about fresh air. Guaranteed I would have learned a lot more than I will at the dinner table.

Adolescents are living, breathing roller coasters, up one moment, down the next. Don’t press things when they don’t feel like talking. Give them a break and yourself. File away those brilliant, specific questions for later.

You don’t have to get any of these suggestions just right. Not even close. Your trying conveys care. Children peppered with questions often feign irritation, but deep down they always prefer being annoyed to being ignored.

Tight-Knit Extended Families Require Vision

There are only three types of families: 1) physically distant ones; 2) physically close, but emotionally distant ones; and 3) physically and emotionally close ones.

I realized this while sitting next to a man my age from Egan, Minnesota at a college swim meet recently. He was watching his son—along with his wife, brother, daughter, parents, and in-laws—a good freestyler at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse. We talked swimming, college decision making, and Gopher football. The state cross-country meet was taking place on campus at the same time, so the GalPal and I had to take a shuttle bus to the pool from an overflow parking lot on the periphery of campus. The bus was filled with three generations of family cheerleaders too.

Physically distant families have to drive or fly for several hours to see one another. According to one writer I’ve recently read, in the U.S. at least, this family type predominates in urban centers on both the East and West coasts. My family is this type—mother and in-laws in two different states, aunt and uncle in a third, siblings in a fourth and fifth, cousins and nephews in a couple of others. Physically distant families may enjoy one another’s company, but they don’t see one another with enough regularity to truly know one another which compromises closeness.

Physically close, but emotionally distant families live within a few minutes or hours of each other, but they don’t get together with any regularity due to unresolved conflicts and/or prioritizing work and material pursuits. Despite their proximity, everyone mostly prioritizes their own nuclear families in the same manner as physically distant ones.

Physically and emotionally close families not only live within a few minutes or hours of each other, but they prioritize getting together weekly or monthly. Minnesota may have a disproportionate number of tight-knit extended families.

Modern Family, the outstanding sitcom about a physically and emotionally close family is atypical because most families today are spread out over long distances. Which probably explains the show’s appeal. Viewers enjoy inserting themselves into that physically and emotionally close family not just because the writers make them funnier than our own family members, but because they’re an affectionate and loving community of mutual amusement and support.

My dad, like most post WWII execs, always took the promotions he received even when they required him to criss-cross the country. I wouldn’t have traded for anyone’s dad, but by choosing successively better jobs that paid more money, he sacrificed a physically and therefore emotionally close family because my siblings and I followed suit, deciding where to live based upon work opportunities, personal preferences, and other things besides physically proximity to one another.

Another variable in some physically distant families is eighteen year olds going away to college. Second Born, next in line in our fam, wants to go “out of state”. When asked why recently, she initially Rick Perryed (couldn’t answer), and then finally said, “The weather.” What are the odds of me having the first teen in the history of the world to base a life decision on weather patterns? Our family, like every other one, is a subculture. She’s simply following the lead of her parents, her cousins, and her older sissy. What would be surprising is if she wanted to stay close to home.

I plan on being more intentional than my dad about prioritizing family closeness. I can’t control where my daughters go to college, take jobs, or end up living, and I can’t control the fact that twenty percent of Americans move every year, but I’m hoping that living in one community for a record-length of time increases the odds of them settling down somewhere close. This is the only home they know. We are Pacific Northwesterners.

If all goes well, ten or twenty years from now, I’ll be just one of an extended family of crazies cheering wildly for a grandchild at a pool or piano recital somewhere nearby.

I Am the 1%

Not based on my five figure salary, my Kirkland Signature wardrobe, my penchant for water at restaurants, or my municipal golf courses of choice.

I am the “one percent” based upon health, meaningful work, beautiful surroundings, good friends, and a loving family.

Turning fiddy in a few months. My peers are showing varying degrees of wear and tear. Their setbacks help me appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to afford healthy food, to have time to exercise daily, to have access to quality medical care, and to feel younger than I am.

My work matters. How fortunate to get paid to help young people write, teach, and think through what they believe and how they want to live their adult lives. And remarkably, every seven years I get the ultimate gift, time to press pause and read, think, write, rest, renew.

Half the year I get to cycle in unbelievably beautiful mountain settings, swim in an idyllic next-door lake, and run on wooded trails and sleepy residential streets. In the summer it’s almost never hot or humid and there are no bugs that would prevent one from eating outside. There are no hurricanes and hardly any lightening, but I reserve the right to amend this post if I someday survive the overdue Shake.

I often climb the mountains, swim the lake, and run the trails with excellent friends. Fitness fellowship.

My extended family is a blessing. My wife and daughters especially so. Apart from one very bad leg, they’re healthy and happy. My Better Half and I just returned from visiting First Born at Leafy Midwest Liberal Arts College. Most nineteen year-old college students would be semi-embarrassed by visiting parents, but for some reasons ours was off-the-charts warm, inviting, and appreciative the whole time. Even invited her Spanish teaching mom to her Spanish class and took us to great student a cappella and modern dance concerts.

When we first arrived on campus, Spanish teaching mom went to meet her at the Language Building. I read in the “Libe”. At the appointed time I headed across campus to meet up with them. Turned a corner and there she was walking by herself to a piano lesson. Cue the killer off-the-ground hug.

We stayed in a room in this house which a woman left to the college with an unusual condition—that it always be available as a student hang out with the necessary ingredients to bake cookies.

Home Base

The suggested donation for staying there was $30/night. We had twin beds in a smallish room. The first hints of winter crept in through the window next to my bed. I could whizz while simultaneously brushing my teeth in the tiny bathroom.

But looks can be deceiving. No one would suspect that inside this humble house, in one of the modest rooms, a One Percenter slept contentedly.