Blueberry Muffins and the End of Everything

My three youngest daughters were all up early today. They were spread out in the living room. One reading, one drawing, and one on the iPad.

“What muffins today?” they asked. We have been alternating between blueberry and chocolate chip muffins, with a cinnamon option every once and awhile. 

“Blueberry,” I say.

They respond, “OK.” But I can tell they wanted chocolate chip muffins. But there were only two left at the end of the day.

Next week is graduation for my second son.

I turn 50 this year.

I completed the Writer’s Digest 2021 April Poem a Day challenge. (You can read the poems on my Creative Corner for Writing blog. I’ve been posting them when I can. I am on day 9.)

I just finished Kevin Garnett’s book A to Z. (Great book!)

And maybe I’m just waiting for the end of this pandemic, but I’ve noticed that there are more endings in my life lately. I understand that time moves on. That doesn’t stop my mind from considering how everything ends. By chance I learned that my stepmother died in November. I haven’t spoken to her or my father in decades. Of course learning of her passing brought back memories (not many were happy). The obituary mentioned that her children were by her side when she passed. No matter what happened while our stories were on the same path, her story is now over. 

I guess the aspect of endings I have been troubled by is the finality of most of the endings in this life. There is no way to redo moments in our lives. No matter how much we want to. That knowledge is the hard part of the ending, especially the ending of joyful moments. One of the lessons you learn as a dad. Letting go. Letting go of your children. Letting go of youth. Letting go of the past.

Yes, there is tomorrow and there are new beginnings. But a hard truth of life is that most of the endings in life leave you with only memories.

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A Sonic Mint and Holden Caulfield

I sometimes consider taking a picture to catalog all the weird things I see on my walks. I’ve found money, seen lost toys, socks, gloves, you name it. Each item gets me wondering about how it found its way to that place on the street. This morning I found a Sonic mint.

I wondered what the story was of the mint. I imagined a car load of teens making a late night food run, not unlike my son and his friends. Easter break started on Thursday. My son and his friends made a McDonald’s and DQ run that night. How do I know? Because the family room where they hangout was littered with McNugget boxes, McDonald’s bags, and DQ cups with red spoons in them. Normal teenage behavior. 

I continued down the street thinking about the Sonic mint. Did they search the bag inside the house wondering where the mint went? I smiled at that thought. I started to think about how crazy life is. Whoever lost the mint had no idea that I discovered it. That I would write a blog post about that mint. 

Then Holden Caulfield came to mind. And I stopped for a minute because my eyes started to tear up.

I had one of those deep moments of understanding brought on when your life experiences connect to a book, or song, or other media. I understood why Holden didn’t want time to move on. Why he didn’t want to grow up. But standing in the middle of a street a few yards away from a Sonic mint I felt the weight of change Salinger was writing about in The Catcher in the Rye

Especially over the last year, I have walked the streets of my neighborhood a lot. During the lockdown last spring, I would walk a few times a day. Sometimes with my kids, sometimes alone. It felt like the world had stopped… but life didn’t. Each day I was different. Today, I felt it. I understood how heavy life’s change is. Simultaneously, I felt joy and sadness. 

Joy because life is an adventure. Each day brings opportunities to grow, to discover new things, to learn, to laugh, and to love. Yes, there are negative things that happen each day, but we can learn from them, too.

The wave of sadness was the strongest, though, standing there. Rationally we all know that time doesn’t stop. My second son will graduate in May. My youngest daughter is seven. I will turn 50 this year!. We all know the truth about time, but what hit me was the reality of all the good things that have ended. This morning there were only 5 Easter baskets, instead of 6. I will never watch my son wear number 15 in a varsity game. I will never be 18 again. I felt all those endings this morning.

I’m not sharing this to paint a picture that life is sad, on the contrary, those endings mean there were beginnings, middles, and stories to tell. But Holden was right. Every day we are different in some small way, even if you see a rainbow, it is sad knowing that rainbows have an end, too.

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Estimated Miles Per Gallon May not Represent Actual Life Lived

On Saturday I pulled into the garage after returning from Lincoln. The odometer read 171,201 miles. And that was just for this minivan, which we purchased in 2014 when we found out that we were having our sixth child. At the time it was the only minivan that had 8 seats. Our first minivan had over 80,000 miles on it.

My heart was full of memories driving home from watching my son’s basketball team play in the state title game. The team earned the runner-up trophy, but the hardest part of the day was knowing that my son’s career was over and that we wouldn’t be traveling for his basketball games. My wife and I talked about how many times we traveled I-80 to Lincoln, or Omaha, or Minneapolis, or Chicago, because of basketball. 

But those 171,201 miles represent more than basketball trips. They represent college visits two years ago, traveling on mini family vacations to the Omaha zoo. My wife and I have traveled to marching band competitions, honor band performances, and art award ceremonies.

Yes, part of parenthood is spending time on the road to support your children’s activities, and we have spent a lot of time on the road. But many of the miles also represent our Saturday trips to the library where we would play games before we checked out books. We rack up miles every weekend grocery shopping. There are miles on the odometer that are from simple date nights of DQ treats and parking at the lake to talk.

Over the last seven years, the minivan has taken us 171,201 miles. What that number doesn’t show is the memories of the places we have been. You can’t feel the panic of driving in all the different weather conditions, or the near miss of an accident in Chicago. The miles can’t show the funny view of every child asleep with their heads at odd angles in the back, or see us all jamming out to the song playing before a basketball game. Every season there was a new song. 

The miles don’t express the love between me and my wife. We have traveled most of the 171,201 miles together. We have laughed, cried, and been exhausted as we’ve traveled these roads, but we have driven them together.

171,201 miles is one way to measure a life lived. 

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An Open Letter to Basketball from a Parent

Dear Basketball,

I wanted to say a few things to you today as a basketball parent. I am writing this letter the day after my son’s last game. His career ended with the runner-up trophy at state. A bittersweet moment for sure. But I’ll come back to the ending later.

Runner-up 2021

First, thank you, for so many things. See, I’m a football guy. I played basketball in junior high and my sophomore year in high school, but football is my game. Yes, I thought my sons would play the game I loved. But they found you instead, especially Dante.  Basketball became a central part of our family for the last 10 years, and our family is stronger because of it. Let me explain.

Both of my sons started playing basketball in elementary school. In fact, they played together on the YMCA’s 3 / 4 grade team. My oldest son stopped playing after junior high because he found his passion on the stage, but basketball became a part of Dante’s journey of becoming a young man. And what a journey it was for him and us. As I write this through the flood of memories, I have to laugh because my son was at the top of the zone on that first team, and would be the main player at the top of his high school’s 1-3-1 zone. (He ended this season with over 70 steals.)

But, this letter is about what you gave to use as a family. Basketball, you gave us moments together. From heartbreaking last second losses to incredibly joyful wins. You showed us the best in people, and sadly the worst sides of people. You brought friends into our lives, and revealed how connected our own personal journeys are.

It started with Saturday morning trips to get coffee and then to a local gym, sometimes with good seating, other times parents would be shoulder to shoulder standing against the wall trying to keep little ones from stepping onto the floor.

As my sons got older we traveled to elementary tournaments. We would pack snacks, drinks, try to plan when we could eat. By this time, the boys were on separate teams, and we would sometimes have to decide who went to watch who, let alone timing the games because we only had one car. My wife and I would send game updates and pictures to each other. We strengthened our communication skills for sure.

Then, when Dante earned a spot on the Bison team (Nebraska Basketball Development Association) in junior high, you took our family to another level. In fact, I am a better father because I messed up during a summer tournament.

Bison Game

The tournament was in Omaha. We traveled back and forth from home to Omaha like we usually did, I was tired. Any parent who travels for AAU knows the bone weariness that comes with traveling. It was an early Sunday morning game and I did something uncharacteristic. I yelled at my son during the game.

OK, basketball, you know that fans and parents, especially, can be harsh and disrespectful. We have always tried to be respectful of the game, teams, and officials. In fact, except for this year, I was pretty quiet for a sports dad. This year, I just had to cheer loud! But back to that Sunday morning, Dante committed a turnover, and I hollered something in frustration. Honestly, I can’t remember what I said exactly, but it hurt my son. I knew it right away, too. After the game it took him 30 minutes to come to us and he gave me the cold shoulder. He wouldn’t walk with us to the car. I apologized to him, but it took awhile for him to forgive me. I have never crossed that line since then. Even though it was one of the toughest lessons to learn, I have to thank you for it.

You are also responsible for another tough lesson as a father, maybe not a lesson but a milestone all fathers have; that moment when a son is better than their father. I don’t know how many hours we have spent playing basketball on our driveway. When the boys were young it was them against me. As they got older, the games became tougher to win for me, so we would play Red, White, and Blue (One-on-one where the person who makes a basket stays and the other player rotates in). Then came the day Dante straight-up beat me, you can read the poem about it here: Driveway Basketball.

Again, as memories flood my heart, our driveway hoop had a hand in building Dante’s other passion, photography. He would experiment with creating cool images of him shooting. He would set his smartphone on the concrete and make shots, then blend them together. Basketball, you have been an inspiration, even for art, for my family.

3 on the driveway

The biggest thank you, though, is for all the awesome memories, and not just on the court. As mentioned before, you have given our family opportunities to be a part of other families’ lives. On Championship Saturday we got to share in the victories and defeats of former Bison teammates. We understood their basketball journeys on a level the casual fan couldn’t. We appreciated their game because we knew their life off the court. Because of basketball, our lives are richer with friendships and stories we can share when our paths cross in the future.

And some of those stories are just for our dinner table. Because of the opportunity to play basketball, our family has created our own memories, from grandpa meeting us to drop off forgotten shoes, to having our engine basically rebuilt in two days while in Chicago. (Thank you, Brett!) You have strengthened my family by allowing us to experience life, both on the court and off. Thank you, basketball, even as my son’s career ends and I feel the pain of never watching him drive to the basket again, my heart is filled with joy for being the father of a basketball player.

Dante Dunking

P.S. My elementary daughters have enjoyed the game, too. My second daughter plans on playing next year in junior high.

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A New Foundation

I love it when life inspires me with dots. For my regular readers you understand, if you’re new to this blog, dots are moments in life that connect to reveal a theme or idea that I share in a post. Yesterday, life provided two dots to highlight an important aspect I had been thinking about.

In the morning I was reading the book, Dragonwings, by Laurence Yep, while waiting for my wife to complete her doctor appointment. I read through the part of the story when the earthquake devastated the neighborhood except for Miss Whitlaw’s home. “‘Papa always built well. He said he wanted a house that could hold a herd of thundering elephants -’ … No one had constructed the houses along the street as well as Miss Whitlaw’s father had built his” (pg 157).

At the time, I was just enjoying the story, not connecting any deep life themes. Until about an hour later when we headed out to get groceries.

I know it is hard to see, but this house is having a new foundation built underneath it. You can see how the ground underneath of the house is being dug out, you can see sunlight toward the back of the hole. They have half the road blocked off for the trucks and the excavator. There are temporary supports in place. Putting in a new foundation looks like a lot of work, but it can be done.

As I am prone to do, the metaphor of a foundation connected in my head, maybe because I have used it before in a blog post about parenting (“Trust Your Foundation“). However,  this time I connected the metaphor to our personal foundations, which are built with the help of our parents in our younger years. If the foundation is strong at the beginning, like in the book, we can withstand an earthquake. It doesn’t mean the house isn’t damaged, but we will be standing after the storm.

Not everyone has that strong of a start. People can feel lost in this life. They can feel like they can’t withstand the troubles life brings, but the second dot makes an important counterpoint. With some hard work, any house can have a new foundation. You have to dig deep, find the support you need, then take the time to build a new foundation for your house to rest upon.  

Our foundation is the base of our everyday life. The foundation supports our goals and provides us a stable home to live in. Our foundation will be tested in this life, there will be storms. We will stand or fall based on how well we built our base–even if we are older, working on a new foundation.

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Reason to Fly

I enjoyed taking the trash out to the end of the driveway today because it felt like spring. There was not a cloud in the sky. I placed the garbage and recycling totes at the end of our driveway and then just stood there enjoying the beginning of a nice day.

I noticed the moon was visible, then a plane that was approaching the moon. I took a picture of the moment.

When I first saw the plane, I thought it would be cool if the plane would fly across the moon. It would make for a fun picture. As I watched, it became obvious that the plane would miss the moon. I found that sad for a second. Then this classic quote came to mind;

As I watched the plane, getting ready to take the picture, I thought how wonderful the view must be from the plane. I started to think about my own goals, about being a writer, about being a poet. I have never made it to the moon, but the view has been breathtaking. 

Crazy dreams are worth chasing. They allow us to fly, to rise above the routine of living. Crazy goals give us a chance to see our life from a different view. Chasing a dream is a ticket to a different understanding ourselves. Reaching for a dream as far away as the moon keeps our eyes and hearts up. That airplane was not going to reach the moon, but it was a beautiful morning to fly.

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The Power of a Father

I have over six different drafts of this post. I have different introductions, pop culture references, links, and music in the rough drafts. The issue I want to talk about is the power of fatherhood. More specifically the devastating power of not having a father in a child’s life.

I have been working with the idea of doing a series of posts about what it is really like to be a dad, but an episode of Happy Days got me thinking about the effects of not having a father in my life and the effect it has for other kids. I had never seen the episode of Happy Days before. My youngest daughter likes the show Happy Days. We watch the show on MeTV. One Sunday afternoon the episode, “Arthur, Arthur,”  was playing. The episode is part of the last season of the show. By the end, I was in tears.

The story line of Fonzie and his dad is highlighted in season 6 with the episode, “Christmas Time”.

My story is different.  I have shared parts of that in a past post (Life Lessons About Fatherhood). The feelings of abandonment, anger, and questions of why are similar, though.  But in “Arthur, Arthur” there is a moment that rocked my soul. I have tried to find a clip of the episode, but there is not one to be found. In the episode Fonzie finds out his father has died. That changes everything. Fronzie expresses how he always hoped that someday he would be able to see his father. That while his dad was alive there was always a chance to understand why his dad left. A chance to heal the emotional wounds. With his dad passing, that opportunity was gone. Fonzie would never get to know why. The wounds would never fully heal.

The episode ends with Fonzie showing the broken gold watch his father wanted him to have. He wasn’t going to get the watch fixed because it represented his dad the way it was. A broken watch for a broken relationship.

I understand how Fonzie felt… in my own way. But that specific pain of a son (or a daughter) not having a father in their life is almost universal.

This song was released my senior year of high school. By that time, I hadn’t talked to my father for about eight years. But had lived with three step-dads and a few boyfriends that my mother had. The lines “I didn’t write these pages / And my script’s been rearranged.” expresses one of the perspectives children have when a parent leaves them.

Being abandoned by people who are supposed to guide you in this life is devastating. I know I am focusing on fathers, but the same holds true for mothers. 

There are too many kids trying to navigate this life on their own. And they write their stories with a foundation of loss, of uncertainty, and a deep sense of not being enough, not being loved because their parents are not there. 

I am not a perfect father or husband. But I try every day. And maybe that is the hardest part of looking back. I am raising six kids. Even though I make mistakes, I try to make sure they know they are loved. It is not easy, but I am proud of my kids. I am proud of the home I have built.

But everyday I wonder why wasn’t I worth the effort?

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Move

Sharks have to move to stay alive.

This is mostly true (Must Sharks Keep Swimming to Stay Alive?). For most species they have to move to push water thru their gills to breathe. So, to stay alive, they must constantly swim, be in constant motion.

What about us?

Do we need to move to live?

I say, yes.

And not just physically. We need to move mentally and emotionally. Living is moving. One of my dadisms is “We are all works in progress.” I know that we can stop growing, but we shouldn’t. Yet, there are too many things today that hinders us from moving in our lives.

The obvious factor is smart phones. I see the effects of this device as a dad and as a teacher. 

My students get restless when we take notes, but if I give them some down time with their phones… the room is quiet… and they just sit there looking at the screen. I see this with my daughters, too.

The way we use our smart phone gives us a false sense of motion, of living. An interesting TED Talk, “Why our screens make us less happy” by Adam Alter, highlights the fact that many of the apps, social media, and games have no “stopping cues”. Moments that allow us to consider moving on to something else, like the end of a chapter in a book. So, we scroll through Twitter or Instagram because we can, it feels like moving. It keeps us scrolling because the feed is moving, too. There is nothing that cues us to stop. Of course tools like this don’t want us to stop.

Adam’s talk also highlights why this can be an issue. In his talk he visually shows how much time we have in a workday from three different years; 2007, 2015, and 2017. The blue sections indicate work, responsibilities for family, and eating/sleeping. The white space is our “personal time” and the red area overtaking the white area is how much time we spend on a screen.

Chart from Alter, Adam. “Why are screens make us less happy.” TEDTalk. April 2017.

Life is moving. We are not moving when we hold a screen in front of our face. It’s not just the physical aspect either. If you think about it, much or our life is lived in our hearts and minds. The way we think, what we feel, our motivation affects how we move about in a typical day. 

We need to move in this field of our lives, too. Screen time is not the main hurdle in this area, attitude is. As an English teacher I have to fight the belief students have that reading is stupid. Understand, I teach seniors, so their belief about reading (and writing) is hard to break through. Reading is one way we can learn, but we can learn from others through listening to their stories and perspective. Social media is not the place for this, especially at this moment.

Growing takes emotions and thinking. Feeling all of our emotions allow us to understand ourselves. This takes courage and a willingness to face our own shortcomings. Thinking through our emotions and our perspective makes us better people. Also, this type of moving allows our everyday life to be lived on a deeper level, to have a fuller, more joyful life. We stop taking things for granted because our hearts and minds are in constant motion. We are moving. We are living.

Maybe Ryan Bingham (character from the movie Up in the Air) was right…

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Reflections Jan 27, 2021

The girls are settling down. The house is becoming quiet. My headphones are playing some of my favorite songs as I build a writing playlist on Spotify. Earlier I wrote a poem for my personal challenge to write a poem in 100 different forms. It was poem 81, a haibun titled, “A Father’s Gift.

But the writing muse is still burning. I am not sure where this post will end up, but it should be good (it will be musical).

I am tired. I am tired on so many levels, from the perpetual cycle of hate expressed in our culture, to the perceived apathy of living from people around me. I could link to any number of news articles to reveal how much pure negativity there is in this world, but I am tired of viewing those stories. If I took a random picture anytime during the day, it would show people staring at their phones. As if the height of living is text messages and photos saturated with filters.

In some ways, life is pretty simple. It is who we are and what we do with our time. A simple concept, yet filled with possibilities. Maybe it is because I am just months away from my 50th birthday, but time is a constant force in my thinking. I swear I can hear the grains of sand when all is quiet. I still have goals and aspirations I want to accomplish… the time to complete those is running out.

Again, maybe it is because I’ve been living for 50 years but I know that love works. I do believe that we have the choice on who we are. We are in control of how we treat people. What I don’t understand is how we keep thinking hate and pain make this world a better place. What saddens me the most is how deep this has gone. How many kids aren’t loved by their parents. How mean we can be to someone sitting next to us. How easy it is to tweet venom.

I have faith, though. Love is more powerful. Love is strength. I know I can’t change the world, but I can build my world, my home, my life with the foundation of Love. That is a start.

And then there is the pursuit of dreams… if I could figure this part out… Would I like to make a living from writing? Yes, I would. Will I? I don’t know. Money is not the main goal of my writing aspiration, respect or recognition is. To know that when someone says my name, they consider me a writer, a poet. I understand that most of that falls on my shoulders. How I present myself to the world. I know I am a good poet. My words do make an impact for readers. Yet, I feel like the world views me as someone who has a nice hobby. And I don’t know how to change that…

A final note as I wrap up this informal and somewhat musical blog. Even in these troubling times, this life is wonderful. There is pain, troubles for us to overcome. That is what makes the next day better than today. Tell your friends and family that you love them. Have a good cup of coffee and turn up that jam and dance.

Because when it is all said and done, today is the only day you have. It’s worth living for.

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One of the Rewards of Writing

For those readers that have followed my blog or my writing career, you know I’ve been doing this writing thing on my own. My first collection of poetry, And I Never Told You, was printed at a local printing shop. I sold copies through the local coffee shop and by carrying copies with me in case someone wanted a copy.

Today there is social media. I use Amazon to publish my books. I use Goodreads’ giveaway option to give signed copies away. I’ve written letters to libraries and stores to publicize my books. 

Being an indie author is hard. One thing all writers want is to know people have read and enjoyed their works. I have had the privilege of learning how my writing has inspired readers. (I share that story in the blog post: “Our Gift is for Others”.)

As I was organizing information for the winners of my latest giveaway, I wondered how many states have received one of my books (some states have more than one book). 

As a writer it is cool to think one of my books is sitting on a bookshelf or night stand in Hawaii or Tennessee. Maybe there is a bookmark poking out of the top, or some of the corners are folded. Thinking that someone might lend the book to a friend because they think that person would like my poems makes me feel proud of the work I put into my writing.

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