Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Looks on His Face

Yesterday was one of those magical days with the kid.

When he crawled into bed with me as the sun broke through our bedroom windows, my wife was already out the door for a field trip with her class, so it would be a Saturday of just me and my son. I thoroughly enjoy these days with him, when it's just the two of us -- two boys out to have fun and conquer the world -- and when we both are both of one mind about what needs to be conquered.

It doesn't always happen this way. If he's of the mood to just hang out at home and play video games, we tend to both hole up in our own electronic shells and let the day escape us. I don't like letting these opportunities pass uneventfully, but as most parents will attest, forcing a kid to have fun ends up being no fun for anyone involved.

As we lay in bed yesterday, I suggested that we go to the Decatur Zoo, a local zoo that's about a thirty minute drive from our house. It's not the most spectacular attraction in the world, but it would be a way to get out and do something out of our normal weekend routine. When my son said "no thanks..." I thought we were headed for just another Saturday, but he followed it with a better suggestion: "Let's go to the Indianapolis Zoo!"

So after breakfast and a few chores around the house, we hopped in my truck and headed off to Indianapolis. The two hour drive was spent switching back and forth between music on my iPhone and his iPod, with each of us getting a four-song block of our favorites to enjoy.

We arrived at the zoo a little after 1pm, leaving us four hours to see all the animals and -- most important of all -- ride the Kōmbo coaster! Exiting the Oceans and Deserts exhibits, we caught sight of the roller coaster reaching the top of its highest climb in the distance. We rushed over, bought tickets, and made it to the line in time to grab the last open seat.

My son seemed to be enjoying the zoo up until this point, but as soon as the coaster pulled away from the loading station, his face lit up with pure joy. On our second ride on the coaster, I decided to brace myself with my knees and try to capture his expressions as we went around the turns.

After the exhilaration of the coaster, we went from animal to animal, finding lemurs, baboons, lions, giraffes, and rhinos among to zoo's residents. As we made our way back through the zoo following a little elephant watching, my son spied an ice cream stand and immediately looked at me with an enthusiasm that couldn't be denied. I ordered a Butterfinger bar and he decided to try his first Drumstick.

The cool, breezy day wasn't the most perfect setting for frozen food, but my son soon forgot about the cold as he discovered the solid chocolate in the bottom of the drumstick cone. A sense of pure satisfaction came over his face as he enjoyed the scrumptious last bits of his afternoon treat.

On our way out of town, we stopped by Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see if the museum and gift shop was still open, but we missed it by eight minutes. Although we're certainly not the typical NASCAR family, we do enjoy the racing and I didn't want to end the day on a disappointing note. So I drove around the far reaches of the museum parking lot to find an place where we could see a stretch of the track. I threw my son up on the hood of my truck and started snapping away. Even after a long afternoon of walking around the zoo, he still had enough energy to give me his best funny faces with the track in the background.

One the way home and as we were getting ready for bed last night, we constantly talked about how wonderful a day it had been. But I didn't need any reassurance.

All I needed was to see the looks on his face.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Keeping the Wild Things at Bay

A couple of weeks ago, as I was out taking photographs in our garden, I heard my son tap on the glass of our living room window. I turned around to find him with his arms resting on the lower sash, face up against the glass, looking out into the world with a contemplative look. I don't know what was on his mind at that moment, but I instinctively raised my camera to capture the image.

The photograph of my son behind a pane of glass reminds me of how much our children rely on us to protect them. We help them to navigate the complexities of their burgeoning social relationships, guard them from dangers in the world of which they are blissfully unaware, and help them achieve the independence and resilience they will someday need to live on their own.

Last night, my wife and I watched Where the Wild Things Are, the movie based on the book by Maurice Sendak that was one of my childhood favorites. I have been wanting to see the movie since seeing the first trailer for it, but after reading some reviews and feedback from friends, my wife wanted to preview the movie before showing it to our son.

Without spoiling the film, the wild things represent many of the fears that our children face as they grow into adults. The de facto leader of the wild things, Carol, turns to Max, who is the actual child in the story, to make things be exactly how everyone wants them to be. Carol wants Max to provide the wild things with all the answers. In one scene, Carol and Max are walking along a giant sand dune on the island where the wild things live. Carol talks about how the rock turns into sand, and the sand turns into dust, and then he doesn't know what happens after dust.

I pictured my son reciting Carol's lines, not talking about some island but our own human lives, leaving the conversation with the open ended question of what happens after dust. As a parent, there's the temptation to say something that will calm my son's fears, even though I don't know the answer myself. In fact, despite the numerous allegories of life and death that have been passed through our religious and spiritual traditions, none of us truly knows the answer to Carol's wistful wondering.

My son and I have already had conversations about life and death, and in these I have admitted my ignorance about what happens after dust. We've discussed it from a scientific standpoint, about what happens as the atoms that make up our bodies are recycled into the world. But at the end of the conversation, I am always sure to emphasize that I don't know what happens to the essence of who we are. I don't know what happens after dust.

As I look back at the photo of my son looking out at me through the living room window, I would rather help him develop his own way of dealing with the unknowns and fears of life by shining light on them, rather than creating an imaginary pane of glass that shatters when he discovers his own truth on his life's adventure. By facing his fears with a light of honesty and discovery, he can create his own way of keeping the wild things at bay.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Just Below the Surface

One of my favorite plants in our garden is a witch hazel shrub that grows along the back fence. In the decade we've owned the house, the witch hazel has grown more vibrant and beautiful each year, full of flowers in late winter and dense, lush foliage throughout the spring and summer. Its flowering in February and March is an eagerly anticipated signal that winter is coming to a close.

Earlier this month, I did some pruning of the trees and shrubs in our home landscape. It's an annual chore where I go around, taking out any diseased or dying branches. I can't remember ever having to take a branch off the witch hazel -- until this year. The flower buds on one of the branches were smaller and less plentiful than the rest of the shrub, a sure sign that the branch was dying.

After pruning the branch, I could see what was hidden under a perfectly good covering of bark. Only a pie-shaped portion of the heartwood was still fresh and living. Had the diminutive flower buds not given me a signal, I would have never known the branch was so unhealthy.

Under the bark of all woody plants is a layer of vascular tissue that is its lifeline, transporting water and nutrients throughout the plant. In this tissue lies the vitality of the plant. The bark serves as the guardian of this tissue, protecting it from the weather and other environmental impacts. But the bark also hides the waning health of the plant, often until it is too late to save it.

It made me wonder if we are like these trees and shrubs, hiding our lack of health or satisfaction under a facade of health and happiness. How many of us are walking around with great-looking bark, but a suffering vitality just below the surface? How many of us continue to hide behind our bark, as the living portion of our heartwood slowly dies? How many of us never reveal the true state of our vitality until it is too late to save us?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Forever, in Swaddling Clothes

Earlier this evening, I made a trip to the maternity wing of a local hospital to visit two close friends who welcomed their first child, Ethan, into the world this morning. Non-sibling children aren't allowed into the maternity rooms due to hospital regulations, so Ethan's father graciously offered to sit with my son in the waiting room while I visited baby Ethan and his mom.

I knocked quietly on the door and heard the hushed voice of my friend welcome me into the room. As I caught sight of Ethan's mother, I knew instantly she was absolutely smitten with her brand new baby boy. She smiled broadly and her tired eyes sparkled with the awe that infuses the souls of new parents. As I got closer, I saw Ethan, cradled to his mother's breast, sleeping the contented sleep of the innocent, needing no more protection from the world but the love of woman he has known as home for the last nine months.

Ethan's tiny features brought me instantly back to the day more than seven years ago when my son was born in the same maternity wing. As I looked at Ethan and his mother, I could feel every ounce of the emotion that flooded me as I walked into the hospital nursery and saw my son's feet over the edge of the warming table. He had been born about 30 minutes earlier via emergency C-section, and my wife was still in recovery as I took my first steps toward my new son, unsure of his future or mine, but certain that they were inextricably linked.

As I watched and listened to Ethan's mother glow over him, she matter-of-factly mused about the dichotomy between the simple act of creation and the complex new life in her arms. She was trying to wrap her mind around the astonishing power of creating life -- how an act that honestly doesn't take much skill or intelligence to perform can result in a living, breathing human being.

I can vividly remember having the same thoughts just hours after my son was born, as I sat in a maternity room chair, my son resting his head on my shoulder. I looked at him with the same awe, unable to fully comprehend this new life, but knowing that I had never felt such love, respect, awe and emotion for another human being.

My visit with Ethan and his mother didn't last long, but it was more than enough time to know that he would forever have his mother's heart. His life had just begun, and hers has forever changed. She will soon forget what her life was like before he arrived, as she adds mother to the top of the list of her life's roles.

In some ways I envy my friend and the other women in my life who have children. I can never have that bond that mothers share with their children, a bond fostered as their child has grown inside them.

But perhaps I didn't need that much time. That first day of life -- made of those moments when I was able to just be with my new son -- was all I needed. I just needed to feel the beat of his heart as he slept in my arms, swaddled in a standard-issue hospital blanket, to know that he would forever be a part of me. As much as he carries my genetic imprint in each of his cells, I will forever carry his spirit in my soul.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I've always wondered how much metal, paint and plastic goes into making all of the signs strewn throughout our lives -- giving information or directions, offering caution, invoking or prohibiting action, and promoting products or ideas. We can barely walk anywhere in public without a deluge of signs inundating our vision.

The sign in the photo above is located on the University of Illinois campus at the top of a steep staircase that leads to a sunken patio adjacent to the Institute for Genomic Biology. The staircase is narrow, with steps made of slate, and certainly a danger to the careless or those who have never walked on icy or wet stone. Rather than rely on common sense, the university (and its lawyers) determined that a reminder was necessary to warn people of the potential hazard.

So many of the signs in our public spaces warn us of hazards or give us information to find our way from one place to another. But as we make our way from the public to the private, the ubiquity of signs is replaced by scarcity. When we cross the threshold of our homes, signs disappear. With the exception of the handmade no smoking signs my mother had posted at both the front and back door of my childhood home, I can't think of any home I've ever entered that had warning or directional signs once you walked through the door.

Is the dearth of signs within our home because we don't need caution against the pitfalls of marriage and parenting? Could we not use assistance in finding our way through the intricacies of the relationships that comprise our lives?

Certainly, as our relationships evolve, we learn to read our family and friends, seeing signs in their emotion and physical expressions that give us information or warning. But humans are nuanced animals, with complex emotions and expressions that are rarely clear to understand. We don't walk around wearing signs that warn others of our undesirable tendencies or signs with explicit instructions of what we expect in our relationships.

In many ways, I think the lack of warning and directional signs in our personal lives is the source of much of the confusion and disintegration in our relationships. Too often, the warning signs are only realized in hindsight, when it is too late to avoid slipping and falling down the stairs of life.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


There are things in life that you can walk past a thousand times and never give them more than a passing glance, taking them as a mundane given in your visual landscape. The sculpture above was one of those things for me. Located on the back corner of Foellinger Auditorium on the University of Illinois quad, facing a group of magnolia trees I have grown to cherish, the sculpture is one of the two Sons of Deucalion and Pyrrha pieces by the late sculptor Loredo Taft. But for me, it was simply another inanimate, nameless statue until today.

We were greeted by a springlike day, with crisp, cool air and blue skies. I grabbed  my camera over the lunch hour with the goal of taking some botanical photos of emerging flower and leaf buds on the trees around my end of campus. As I came around the corner of the quad toward my favored magnolias, the statue spoke to me in a way it never has.

The shadows from the overhead sun accentuated the way the man hides his face between his knees, and suddenly the sculpture reminded me how much of our lives we spending hiding our faces, embarrassed, timid or scared to reveal true selves, even surrounded the promised safety of our family and close friends. Many of us remain crouched, with our head between our knees, waiting for the turbulence of life to pass. Like these sculptures, if we remain rigid with our faces hidden, the elements will eventually wear us away to crumbled ruins.

In just a couple of weeks, the magnolias that stand opposite the Sons of Deucalion and Pyrrha will proudly and beautifully reveal their true faces. Their glory may be fleeting, lasting sometimes just a few days. But they give us all of themselves, while the sculpture just a few feet away remains eternally poised in shadow.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Wish for Tomorrow

Tonight was one of my two nights each week where my son and I have the evenings to ourselves because my wife teaches a night class at a local community college. Our father-son nights have always been a uniquely satisfying time for us, when we are able to give each other an undivided attention that doesn't happen during the rest of the week.

Our evenings usually end with me sitting on or kneeling next to his bed as he snuggles into his pillow, both of us recounting how we have enjoyed the evening and each other. Invariably, he will make a profound statement or ask a question that has no easy, thirty-second answer. In these moments, I am struck by his young wisdom and challenged to comment or answer in a way that is honest, yet understandable to someone just past his seventh birthday.

Tonight, as I rose to my feet to leave his room, he said, "Being a kid is the most fun part of our lives, isn't it?"

I looked at him earnestly, realizing that answering a simple "yes" to his question might make him dread growing up. I knelt back down, my face just a foot or so from his, brushing his hair back off his forehead with my hand. And I answered him: "As a kid, you'll likely have the most pure fun of your life, free from the responsibilities that come along with being an adult. But as an adult, you will have the most incredibly satisfying experiences of your life, a life that you can truly make your own."

I tussled his hair and kissed his forehead, told him I loved him, and wished him good dreams. I silently wished him a tomorrow made of authentic, pure fun and enough wisdom to bring him one step closer to his experiences of the future.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Finding the Perfect Pair

I prefer order to chaos. All the way back to childhood, I've held a predilection for making sure everything is just right and predictable. A comes before B, so if something's an A, it should be put before B. But for some reason, this urge for order has stopped at the edge of my sock drawer. My sock drawer has always been a place where I'm content with sifting through the tangled ball of brown, black and white chaos each morning to find a matched pair.

I can imagine each sock as a different emotion, stress or demand in my life, interwoven to such an extent that's hard to decipher where one stops and the other begins. Each morning, I have the choice to pick two that appear compatible, put them on my feet, and walk around in them. Sometimes the morning light is deceptive, and I'll end up with an unmatched pair that clash with each other all day.

My sock drawer may be reflection of the life that few get to witness, a life that I can hide from view by gently shutting the drawer and going about my day, while I try to create a false sense of order on the visible fringe. There must be over one hundred socks in the drawer, but I only wear two at a time. Even then, the socks are shielded by shoes and pants, only visible when seen from certain angles.

But perhaps there is something more lurking in the chaos of my sock drawer. The chaos may be the only way we can see all the possibilities. Each time a clean batch of socks is dumped in the drawer and introduced to the mix, the potential for combination is reset. If the socks were lined up in perfect rows according to color and size, each matched in a predetermined way, the options are instantly limited.

I might lose the chance of finding the perfect pair.
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