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“Love your kids.”

“Huh?”

“Love your kids.”

“I already do.”

Love… Your… Kids…”

And so began another little journey into understanding a little more about who God is and what being a parent is supposed to be.

I’m not sure why I was told that – I just know that during one of my chats with God (most people would call this ‘praying’) – He said three words…  Very simply, without a clue as to why this time was any more special than any other time.. “Love your kids”

I’ve learned, over time, that if you don’t pay attention to God’s Celestial Feather Duster, you occasionally get acquainted with God’s Celestial 4 x 4.  Having had enough experience with the 4 x 4, and the scars to prove it, I knew that paying attention to the Feather Duster would be a good idea.

So I paid attention.

And a few days after that, on a Sunday, just after church, my phone rang, and it was my daughter, in an absolute panic because she’d been working so hard at putting in practice all the hard lessons she’d learned about finances, and one automatic payment hadn’t been cancelled when she’d done a payment early manually.  Bottom line, if both payments hit at the same time, there wasn’t going to be enough there to cover it, and there were going to be fees – reminders of those lessons she’d been taught in that hard way that we often learn lessons when we’re young.

She had the money – it was supposed to get there on Friday. Problem is, it was Sunday, so she needed to borrow money for 5 days and was willing to write me a check to deposit on Friday.

The thing is, she hates calling and asking for money.  She hates it because it’s clear to her that asking for money means she hasn’t planned properly, and she sees it as a failure on her part, but she gritted her teeth, and picked up the phone, and made a call she didn’t want to make.

That I got just as I was leaving church.

“Love Your Kids…”

So I listened on the phone for a bit, and she explained with that adrenaline fueled desperation sound in her voice that I’ve heard from myself how she was in a place she didn’t want to be and how hard it was for her to be making that call.  I realized the rest of this conversation would be better done face to face, so I went over to her house, and we talked.

On the way I found myself thinking about this whole “Love your kids” thing – and finances, and how parents often find themselves helping their kids through things that they themselves have gone through – it’s that “circle of life” thing… and it took me back a few years to when I was in Grad school…

…where the lessons we learned weren’t all in the classroom.

It was grad school for photojournalism – back in the days of film, when a digital camera cost $10,000.00, and our evening routine was being either in the darkroom or the computer lab.  In this case, it was the computer lab, where we were working on stories for our projects, or layouts, or whatever.  We’d stay there till it closed – usually around 11:00, and for those of us who’d had dinner, 11:00 was pretty late, and we were pretty hungry by then.

Someone actually mentioned this. More specifically, they mentioned that they were hungry for pizza.

We were grad students.

None of us had enough money to buy a pizza.

All of us together, however, did.

Next thing we heard was “Anybody wanna go in on a pizza?”

And it turned out that $2.50 would do a nice job of getting a couple of slices of pizza, which would be enough to make it until the lab closed and we had to leave.

I didn’t have cash, so I wrote a check out for the $2.50, and in 30 minutes or less, God’s own gift to college students, a pepperoni pizza was delivered.

It couldn’t have disappeared faster without a swarm of locusts of Biblical proportions.

And… it was gone.

Or so I thought.

See – it turns out that in a college town, overdrawing your account is considered a slightly worse thing than in a standard, everyday town.  And a certain pizza place that used to deliver in 30 minutes or less categorically refused to put up with that, so no matter what happened, if your check bounced, it went to collections faster than a – well, a pizza delivery driver on commission…

Now financial institutions work wonders with money you don’t have.  In this case, the bank charged me $15.00 for bouncing a check for $2.50.  The collection agency thought they’d jump in, too, and charged me another $15.00.

And they sent me mail to prove it.

I – um – didn’t see that envelope until I got another one in the mail, telling me that they’d be happy to continue charging me another $15.00 a month…

…for the privilege of sending me notes asking for another $15.00 a month…

At this point, that incredible pepperoni pizza – correction, those two slices of pepperoni pizza – had cost me $47.50.

Long story short, once I figured out my finances, I realized I was in what some have described as “deep kimchee”, and I needed help.  My student loan had not come in as expected, so I was living right on the financial edge, and those two slices of pizza had thrown me over it.  I knew I needed help, but to ask for it required an admission that I hadn’t taken care of things like I should.  In the end, I had to make a telephone call to my grandmother, who had lived through the depression, correction – lived through THE Depression, the one in 1929 – not this recession we’ve just gone through, and in her mind, the way you lived was simple:

Use it up.

Wear it out.

Make it do…

…or do without.

You did not waste money.

Period.

So calling her and asking her to help bail me out of this was one of the hardest calls I ever had to make.  She didn’t seem to think that spending money like that was particularly wise (I agreed) – but she sent me some money that helped me get through until that delayed student loan of mine finally came through.

And I thought about all this as I was heading over to visit my daughter, who had actually done something far less silly, but had the same feelings about calling me and asking for money as I did in calling my grandma.

I wanted to make sure that my daughter understood that this kind of stuff happens, people aren’t perfect, and I didn’t want to do anything silly to try to pretend I’m perfect, because I know I’m not.  When I was telling her this story of my past, along the lines of “When I was your age…” she asked, being between jobs, “Does it ever get better?”

I tried to tell her that it does, but at that moment, had to focus my thoughts on the ATM machine – which, for some reason, wasn’t giving me any money out of my checking account…

I tried savings.

Same thing…

This is weird – I know there’s enough money there…

Eventually I found that the card was linked to the wrong account and transferred some to the right place, but what got me about the whole thing was that there really was less money there in the account than I thought.

And it wasn’t there because an automatic payment of mine had gone out that I’d forgotten about.

Which was why we were here in the first place, one generation later.

When I told her that – she just laughed and laughed.

Things do get better – if you’re saving money – you have some stashed away that you can help your kids with.

And somewhere in all of this, I knew that this was one of my chances to “Love My Kids”

And I’m glad I was able to be there for her.

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My son has informed me that “to be old and wise, you first have to be young and stupid” – and with that in mind, we’ll start with a story – it’s from my childhood, when I, like most of us, was young and stupid.

Speaking of my son, as he was growing up, I told him “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories, in hopes that he wouldn’t do those things.  Now it’s said that tragedy plus time equals comedy, and when hearing these stories of my stupidity in my childhood, he would usually laugh at the tragedy I’d survived, mostly of my own doing. And somewhere in the story there’d be a lesson, and he’d remember it.  Now since I was telling him the stories, it must have meant I’d survived, but still, stupid is stupid.

So, in this case, I was about 16 or so, and I was building a diorama – a model of a burned out, destroyed building that a model tank would be positioned as crashing through.  It involved a bit of plaster, a few small pieces of plywood, and a whole bunch of little wood scraps and such – oh, and the model.  I was trying to make it look like the building had burned, and needed that black smoky look to come out of the windows.

Black… Smoky… the kind of smoke that comes from… oh, what is that yellow/orange stuff?…

Fire, yeah… that’s where smoke comes from…

(insert ominous music here)

Now, was I doing this on a desk?

No…

(that would have been smart, and I wouldn’t have this story to be telling you)

…a modeling table?

No…

(that would have been smarter, as I’d have a place to put all the bits and pieces and let glue dry)

…someplace where I could safely light a match or candle and let the smoke do its thing?

No…

(that would have been smartest, as – well – lighting matches… teenagers… in the house… need I say more?)

I was doing it on the carpet in my room.

Oh wait.  It gets better.

See, I was trying to get a smokey effect…

A match would have been good.

A candle would have been great.

But for some reason, which I must attribute to my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, I decided that they weren’t quite good enough and decided to use a highway flare instead of a match.

Oh, just go back and read that again, you know you need to…

Yes, a highway flare...

Upstairs.

In the house.

Over the carpet.

Well – it’s not so much that I really wanted to use the highway flare, but I had it in my hand, and had the cap off, and was idly wondering how much force it would take to get a spark – oh heck – like that would go over as an excuse…

Right…

…did you know that once lit, highway flares are, um, extremely hard to put out?

…and they drip red hot stuff when they’re burning?

…that melts carpets?

Ummmyeah…

Doing the “Olympic torch” run through the house to get it outside just wasn’t going to happen.  I mean, there’s that red hot stuff dripping, In this case, it was a carpet, but if I were running (and who can’t imagine running through the house with a flare like an Olympic torch, the crowds cheering, the – no wait – that was just SO not happening…)  And that red hot stuff would have been dripping on my shoulder, and that would have been, oh, bad… yeah, we’ll just call it bad…  (keeping in mind of course that dripping red hot burning stuff onto a carpet really isn’t on the “good” side of the spectrum).

The more I think about it, the more I realize we’re so far past the border between dumb and stupid that you can’t even see it in the rear view mirror.   I’d had some plaster powder there for the diorama I was making – and out of pure instinct I shoved the flare into that – which, to my delight and surprise, put it out. But the thing that got me, I still can’t believe it to this day, was that mom smelled the smoke, came in, and wondered what was going on.  And my guilty conscience went ballistic trying to defend itself.   Understand, this is a teenage mind going off here – but here was my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® reasoning:

I argued:

Just because you smell smoke, and

just because you walk into the room that you can barely see through because of that smoke, and

just because I’m the only one in it,and

you came in through the only door, and

just because I’m sitting there on the floor, with a hot flare sitting beside me and a smoking hole in the carpet, you think I DID IT?”

We pause, reverently, hands over hearts for a moment, as the parents out there realize they’ve heard some variation of this before, both from their own mouths and from their children’s…

“Uh… Yeah…  As a matter of fact, I do think you did do it.”

My mom, bless her, realized that she was not arguing with logic in the slightest, she was arguing with a guilty conscience and emotion, and no amount of logic was going to make it through that.

I have no idea why I was defending myself so much at that time – but I was.  I’m sure I would have said that someone else was using my fingers and put my fingerprints on it had it gotten to that… Dumb, dumb, dumb…

Speaking of fingerprints…

…fast forward about 25 years – I was in my darkroom developing film for a client, and had some hanging up to dry.  My daughter came down, eating some chicken.  I put two and two together and said, “Don’t touch the film.” I then turned back to the enlarger.  Something made me turn around.

One of the strips of film was moving.

The one with some greasy fingerprints that hadn’t been there a moment before.

There was also a very guilty looking 8 year old.

“Didn’t I tell you to not touch it?”

“I didn’t!”

“I can see your fingerprints right there!”

“It wasn’t me”

We’re the only two in the darkroom!”

And then…

It dawned on me…

I started thinking about fingerprints and realized that I wasn’t the only one who had a stranglehold on denial, and that my son’s comment from earlier was right…

To be old and wise, you have to be young and stupid first…

I just didn’t know it would be hereditary…

My son has informed me that “to be old and wise, you first have to be young and stupid” – and with that in mind, we’ll start with a story –it’s from my childhood, when I, like most of us, was young and stupid.

Speaking of my son, as he was growing up, I told him “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories, in hopes that he wouldn’t do those things.  Now it’s said that tragedy plus time equals comedy, and when hearing these stories of my stupidity in my childhood, he would usually laugh at the tragedy I’d survived, mostly of my own doing. And somewhere in the story there’d be a lesson, and he’d remember it.  Now since I was telling him the stories, it must have meant I’d survived, but still, stupid is stupid.

So, in this case, I was about 16 or so, and I was building a diorama – a model of a burned out, destroyed building that a model tank would be positioned as crashing through.  It involved a bit of plaster, a few small pieces of plywood, and a whole bunch of little wood scraps and such – oh, and the model.  I must have been trying to make it look like the building had burned, and needed that black smoky look to come out of the windows.

Black… Smoky… the kind of smoke that comes from… oh, what is that yellow/orange stuff?…

Fire, yeah… that’s where smoke comes from…

(insert ominous music here)

Now, was I doing this on a desk?

No…

(that would have been smart, and I wouldn’t have this story to be telling you)

…a modeling table?

No…

(that would have been smarter, as I’d have a place to put all the bits and pieces and let glue dry)

…someplace where I could safely light a match or candle and let the smoke do its thing?

No…

(that would have been smartest, as – well – lighting matches… teenagers… in the house… need I say more?)

I was doing it on the carpet in my room.

Oh wait.  It gets better.

See, a match would have been good.

A candle would have been great.

But for some reason, which I must attribute to my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, I decided that they weren’t quite good enough and decided to use a highway flare.

Upstairs.

In the house.

Over the carpet.

Well – it’s not so much that I really wanted to use the highway flare, but I had it in my hand, and had the cap off, and was idly wondering how much force it would take to get a spark – oh heck – like that would go over as an excuse… Right…

…did you know that once lit, highway flares are, um, extremely hard to put out?

…and they drip red hot stuff when they’re burning?

…that melts carpets?

Ummmyeah…

Doing the “Olympic torch” run through the house to get it outside just wasn’t going to happen.  I mean, there’s that red hot stuff dripping, In this case, it was a carpet, but if I were running (and who can’t imagine running through the house with a flare like an Olympic torch? – but that red hot stuff would have been dripping on my shoulder, and that would have been, oh, bad… yeah, we’ll just call it bad…  (keeping in mind of course that dripping red hot burning stuff onto a carpet really isn’t on the “good” side of the spectrum).

The more I think about it, the more I realize we’re so far past the border between dumb and stupid that you can’t even see it in the rear view mirror.   I’d had some plaster powder there for the diorama I was making – and I shoved the flare into that – which, surprisingly enough put it out. But the thing that got me, I still can’t believe it to this day, was that mom came in and wondered what was going on.  And my guilty conscience went ballistic trying to defend myself.   Understand, this is a teenage mind going off here – but here was my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® reasoning:

I argued:

Just because you smell smoke, and

just because you walk into the room that you can barely see through because of that smoke, and

just because I’m the only one in it, and you came in through the only door, and

just because I’m sitting there on the floor, with a hot flare sitting beside me and a smoldering hole in the carpet, you think I DID IT?”

We pause, reverently, hands over hearts for a moment, as the parents out there realize they’ve heard some variation of this before, both from their own mouths and from their children’s…

“Uh… Yeah…  As a matter of fact, I do think you did do it.”

My mom, bless her, realized that she was not arguing with logic in the slightest, she was arguing with a guilty conscience and emotion, and no amount of logic was going to make it through that.

I have no idea why I was defending myself so much at that time – but I was.  I’m sure I would have said that someone else was using my fingers and put my fingerprints on it had it gotten to that… Dumb, dumb, dumb…

Speaking of fingerprints…

…fast forward about 25 years – I was in my darkroom developing film for a client, and had some hanging up to dry.  My daughter came down, eating some chicken.  I put two and two together and said, “Don’t touch the film.” I then turned back to the enlarger.  Something made me turn around and there were some greasy fingerprints on one of the strips of film that hadn’t been there a moment before.  There was also a very guilty looking 8 year old.

“Didn’t I tell you to not touch it?”

“I didn’t!”

“I can see your fingerprints right there!”

“It wasn’t me”

We’re the only two in the darkroom!”

And then…

It dawned on me…

I started thinking about fingerprints and realized that I wasn’t the only one who had a stranglehold on denial, and that my son was right…

To be old and wise, you have to be young and stupid first…

I just didn’t know it would be hereditary…


I suppose I have to rate this one PG or something – just so you’ve got some warning…

When our son was little we taught him the typical songs you’d teach your kid here in America – you know, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” …  “You are my Sunshine”, and of course, the ever popular children’s song, “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m okay”…. (okay, I didn’t teach him all of that one)

But I also taught him some of the songs he would have learned had he grown up where I grew up, in Germany.  Specifically Southern Germany.  More specifically, the “Swabian” part of Germany.

The sense of humor over there is so matter of fact… And it’s old.  Some of the folk songs have their basis in events that may have happened hundreds of years earlier, and that sense of humor is often dry to the point of being dusty.

Also, some of these songs come from the same culture that brought you Grimm’s Fairy Tales…

The original ones, not the Disneyfied ones.

So one of the songs I taught my son was about a fellow getting a ride on a train.

With his wife.

And a goat.

Now before I describe the song to you – you really have to hear it. (click on the word ‘song’ back there). If you don’t understand German – don’t worry – the people singing are singing just like we all did, with joy and gusto.  You might be wondering why by the time we’re done, but… Well, that’s one of the things that might be lost in the translation – which I’ll be doing my best to do, as it were, below – you just need to hear what the song sounds like first.

The one you just heard, if you listened, starts off pretty fast.  The way we used to sing it, we’d start out slow and speed up – like a steam locomotive of the time would – then get faster – and then there’s this refrain, “Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala”, – and then the last two lines of the previous verse are repeated.  It’s also sung in the dialect of southern Germany – which, where I grew up, is kind of like a gentle southern drawl.  (and the one you just heard is definitely authentic) I mean – speaking “Hochdeutsch” (high German – the formal stuff) – you could try to say “I love you” and end up sounding like a cat, hacking up a hairball – so the southern dialect, the Schwäbisch – or “Swabian” dialect – is gentle, laid back, and saying the same thing sounds like a hug.

Needless to say, there’s a difference between hugs and hairballs, so I’ll do my best to translate here.  Note: the dialect is phonetic – so what you see below might not be translatable in, say, Google or other online translation services.

The first verse just tells the story of the first train that went all the way from southern to northern Germany.  This section of track, the “Schwäbische Eisebahn” was a tremendous source of pride in that part of the country when it was built, and the song, as I understand it, almost became a sort of regional “national anthem”.

Auf d’r schwäbsche Eisebahne gibt’s gar viele Haltstatione,

On the Swabian railroad track, there are lots of train stations
Schtuegart, Ulm und Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach!

Stuttgart, Ulm and Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach (several of the major stops on the line)

Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,

Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,

Schtuegart, Ulm und Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach!

Stuttgart, Ulm and Biberach, Mekkebeure, Durlesbach

It was a tremendously fun song to sing – I’d sung it growing up – so it was a given that I’d be teaching it to my son as he was growing up.

And then my wife asked the most innocent, and simultaneously impossible question she could ask:

“So what’s it mean?”

Auf d’r Schwäbsche Eisebahne wollt amol a Bäurle fahre,

On the swabian railroad, a farmer once wanted to take a trip
Goht am Schalter, lüpft d’r Hut. “Oi Bilettle, seid so guat!”

He went to the ticket agent, tips his hat, and asks, “One ticket, if you please”
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,

Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
geht am Schalter, lüpft d’r Hut. “Oi Bilettle, seid so gut !”

…went to the ticket agent/machine, tips his hat, and asks, “One ticket, if you please”

“Well, it’s about this farmer… “

“Okay…”

“…and his wife…”

“okaaay…”

“…aaaaand this goat…”

(Long, LONG pause as I try to figure out how to translate this part that up until that moment had been funny, but now that I tried to translate it into something someone born and raised here in America would understand, I realized that it would absolutely, positively, without a doubt, lose something in the translation…  Just how much was to be determined…)

Einen Bock hat er gekaufet und daß er ihm nit entlaufet,

He bought himself this billy goat, and so it wouldn’t walk off
Bindet ihn d’r guete Ma, an den hintere Wage na.

The good man tied him to the back of the last car in the train.

(unsaid, implied, or left for you to guess is that he was doing

this while loading the rest of his stuff onto the train)
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
bindet ihn d’r guete Ma an den hintere Wage na.

“Well, the farmer ties the goat to the back of the train to keep it from wandering off.”

“Okay…. And?”

This is where it got hard…

“Well… what isn’t actually stated is that he forgets the goat.”

“What – the goat runs off?”

“Well, not exactly…”

“What do you mean, not exactly?”

“Well, the goat’s tied to the back of the train.”

“And the train LEAVES?”

Wie des Zügle wieder staut, der Bauer nach sei´m Böckle schaut

When the train started up again, the farmer went to check on the goat.

(the version I used to sing had a couple of verses before this one where the farmer sits down next to his wife, lights up his pipe, and has a smoke, and it’s at the next stop that he makes the discovery below)
Find’t er bloss Kopf und Soil an dem hintre Wagetoil.

And finds nothing but the rope and the goat’s head still tied to the last car in the train.
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Find’t er bloss Kopf und Soil an dem hintre Wagetoil.

“Ummm…  Yeah…”

The reputation of an entire culture was on my shoulders as I tried to explain that tying a goat to the back of a train that was about to head down the tracks a tad faster than said goat could run could be seen as rather amusing when looked at the right angle, you know, like the farmer went to town every week on the train, and every week he did the same thing – only this week he did something different, out of the ordinary, not routine… He bought a goat.  He thought about it long enough to tie it to the back of the train so it wouldn’t run off as he was loading his other purchases into the train – and, as we often do, he then went on autopilot once he was on the train and the whistle blew. (how many coffee cups, diaper bags, wallets, or dare I say it, loaded child seats, have you seen on the roof of a moving car?)

Of course, trying to find out exactly what angle in all this would be amusing was the challenge…

‘s packt d’r Baure a Baurezore, er nimmt d’r Geißbock bei die Ohre,

The farmer (in frustration) grabs the goat by the ears
Schmeißt er, was er schmeiße ka, dem Konduktör an ‘n Ranza na.

And throws what he can throw (namely what’s left of the goat) as hard as he can throw it at the conductor

(essentially blaming him for not keeping track of the goat, so to speak)
Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala,
Schmeißt er, was er schmeiße ka, dem Konduktör an ‘n Ranza na.

And while I’m happily singing “Trulla, trulla, trullala, trulla, trulla, trullala” with my son, clapping with him and smiling, the dawning realization in my wife’s mind changed the look of shock on her face into a look of absolute horror.

She was thinking of the song from the goat’s point of view, which, in Germany, especially in agricultural Germany, you really didn’t do much… I mean yes, some of the farm animals kind of became pets, but for the most part, goats were livestock, and farmers managed them.  Livestock lived long enough to either produce or become food. It was pretty simple, pretty straight forward, and pretty practical.

But here in America – especially here in America in an area where you don’t see livestock in much more than a petting zoo – you tend to think of those warm fuzzy little goat like things a little differently, and you might tend to see the whole story from their point of view.

“He left the goat tied to the back of the train, the goat tried to keep up with the train, and – and…”

I had to fill the silence with something…

“Well, yeah…”

“And they wrote a SONG about it?”

“And it’s a HAPPY song?”

“Well, um.  Not for the goat…”

Sigh…

Trulla, trulla, trullala…

🙂


Have you ever taught your kid how to ride a bike? I was
thinking about that the other day, and realized that it never ends…
The thing about learning how to ride a bike – or teaching your kids
how to – is you first start them off in a stroller – you’ve got
full control, they’re just along for the ride, they don’t even know
that you’re pushing, they just know they get plopped into the
stroller and show up someplace else. Next thing you know, you’re
pulling them in a wagon, or a sled – and they become aware of what
you’re doing, and what it takes to move you around. Eventually, as
with all children, they want to do it themselves, so you buy or
borrow a tricycle for them, and they can move around on their
own. It’s at this point that the story changes, because
you’re no longer in control. Soon they’ll see bigger kids riding
two wheelers, and they’ll want to do the same thing, so you get
them a two wheeler – of course, with training wheels. And the
transition continues. Remember how they’d ride with the wheels all
the way down? – and then after awhile you’d sit there rounding off
the nuts with the wrong sized wrench, adjusting them so they’d be a
little higher – so they’d still have the safety of the training
wheels, but would be able to balance a little on their own?
Each kid learns at a speed all their own, and each kid learns at a
speed that’s best for them.

20140105-233109.jpg

A dad I saw out on a walk who clearly got it.

But what happens on your end is that you help them as long as you can.

You teach them to ride a bike, and then you hold on to the saddle, steadying them, helping to keep them from falling until you can feel in your hand that
they’re not wobbling.

You hold onto the saddle until you feel their pedaling is smoother and steadier. You hold onto the saddle until they’re pedaling faster than you can run.

And you know that if you continue to hold onto the saddle at this point, they can’t ride their bike.

You will, quite literally, be holding them back.

And you realize in a split second, that you have to let go.

You have to let them go.

And to do that, you have to loosen your grip.

Your world changes in that next split second, as you let go of the
saddle.

In that one moment, everything changes.

By letting go, you’ve said to them “I trust you”

By letting go, you’ve said, “You’re in charge now”

By letting go, you’ve said, “I love you, and will be here to help, but you’re the one riding now. Your success is up to you.”

Learning to Ride

Michael, working on success.

If you hang on – your child will only be able to ride as fast as you can run – and that simply isn’t fast enough.

I’ve talked to several dads who taught their kids to ride bikes – and as I did, they all instinctively held their right hand down as if they were holding onto a saddle as they told their stories.

They knew.

They knew the ride would be wobbly at first. That there would be falls, and Band-aids, and trips to the emergency room. There always are as your child starts to understand this new-found independence.

But in that first moment, that moment you loosened your grip, in the split second that you actually let go of the saddle, you relinquished control over them – you gave that control to them. And the control is everything…

You’re letting them choose to succeed or fail. You’re giving
them the freedom to win or lose. You, as you come to a stop
after running alongside them, panting, see the distance between you
grow as they ride forward with the excitement of youth. And
suddenly – their whole life flashes before your eyes as you realize
that you’ve done this before – but you didn’t know you were doing
it. You’ve celebrated their “firsts” – whether it was the
first time, as a baby, they rolled over…

I remember that day with my son very
well, used to be he’d simply stay where I put him. Then one
day, I’d put him in the middle of the bed, and he rolled over, and
off the bed onto the floor. He let me know about the impact
at the top of his lungs…

– Or that first owie…

I remember when we had the little “child proof” (hah!) gate across
the front door – from the living room to the front steps, and he
was having so much fun bouncing and pulling on it that I didn’t get
a chance to stop him before he fell out, and down the steps.
His head hit one of the steps and within seconds he looked almost
exactly like Worf from Star Trek. He cried so hard, and it hurt his head so bad, almost as much as it hurt my heart as I was holding him.

– Do you remember their first step?

– Or their first word?

– Or their first bite of “real” food?

You realize, as the thoughts drift through your mind, that inside every one of those “firsts” trumpeting in through the front door, there was a quiet
“last” packing up its bags, and shutting the back door quietly
behind it as it left.

You find yourself startled – “Would I have done something different if I’d known this was the last…” whatever it was… If you’d known it was the last bottle you’d ever give them, the last baby food you’d ever do the airplane thing into the hangar with that we all do as parents, or the last diaper you changed on them.

Would you change anything?

Would you do anything different if you knew when their last night at home would be? The last time you saw them? Maybe it’s best we don’t know – because if we did, we’d be paying attention to that back door, when the front
one’s important, too… The thing is, this cycle repeats itself all
through their lives.

Do you remember their first day of kindergarten?

The elementary school our son went to kindergarten at had a “tea and cookies” get together for parents of kindergartners – it was accompanied by large amounts of Kleenex – as it was an entire herd of parents
standing there realizing they’d let go of that particular saddle –
and they didn’t know what to do with their hands anymore. The
Kleenex solved that problem

What about their first time spending the night someplace else, when you
weren’t the one to tuck them in?

I remember saying prayers with my
daughter every night, and for many years, the last voice my son
heard at night and the first one he heard in the morning was
mine.

As a parent of youngsters, you often find yourself
actively wanting this – you just want some peace and quiet
sometimes – and what often happens is this:

It is quiet… Too quiet…

There’s no one skateboarding down the stairs.

There’s no one screaming about who’s hitting who.

There’s no one stomping through the living room like the bass section of a marching band of elephants.

You realize, about then, that you’re definitely not a single person anymore, you realize you’re not just a married couple – but you’re married – with kids – and you’ve become a family. And without that part of the family – something just
feels out of balance, and it only comes back into balance when the
kids come crashing through the door again. The exhaustion
comes right in with them, but so does the joy of having them back.
Do you remember them getting their driver’s license? Heck, do
you remember what it felt like to get in the passenger’s seat on
their first drive?

With our daughter – driving wasn’t so hard, but parking was. I
remember how hard she was trying to learn how to parallel park.
She’d tried and tried and tried – and it just didn’t work…
Out of frustration, she said, “This is impossible!”

And I, being the Ever Helpful Dad, said, “Here, let me show you.” She got out, I got in the driver’s seat, pulled up beside the car she was trying to park behind in her little $800.00 Mazda, put it in reverse, hit the gas,
flipped the wheel hard right, then hard left, then hit the brake,
and put it in park.

“See? It’s easy!”

She wasn’t convinced… At all.

And for years she would figure out ways to park without doing the parallel
parking thing – until she got it, in her own time.

One day, a few cars later, and – actually it was father’s day a year or so ago, she came up and said, “I would have brought you a card – but I have something better.” And then she told me that she’d paid off the car she’d
bought – all by herself. “I just wanted to thank you –
because without what you taught me about money – I wouldn’t have
been able to pay this off.”

Wow.

No card could have been better than that.

In spite of the fact that she’d been living away from home for several years at that time, I felt I could let go of that particular saddle with a little more grace right then… With all of the challenges a young adult has in these times, she’s doing well.

The first time I let our son drive, we took my old Saab out onto an old country road. It’s a 4 speed on the column. I pulled over, said, “Okay, your turn” and got out – we did a Chinese fire drill, and the next thing I
knew, after his stunned look of “You’re kidding, really?!”, he’d gotten us started – no bucking or stalling the car with its clutch that needs replacing. I was stunned. We were up in third at about 35 mph and I was still in shock, “Michael, that was incredible!” and Michael, ever the understated one, said, “Well, what did you expect? I’ve been watching you drive this thing for 16 years…”

That sentence alone is worth another story, and my mind was scrambled there for a while as I tried to handle the overload of that simple statement…

I taught him and I didn’t even realize it?

What does that mean – what else have I taught him without realizing it?

I taught him stuff I wanted him to know without realizing it – what have I taught him that I’d rather he not know?

Do I need to go back and try to undo things?

What would I undo?

How would I find out?

… all while helping him learn the
intricacies of driving a 40 year old car with a tricky clutch and a
freewheeling transmission.

What about their first date? –

Not the one where you drove them, but the one where they drove
themselves, do you remember waving goodbye as they left? Do
you remember wondering what kind of stuff they were up to? (only
because of the “stuff” you got into when you were their age) – and
speaking of “stuff – didn’t it scare the – uh – “stuff” out of you?
One of the hardest things/times that a lot of parents have gone
through in the last week or so, is that first day of school after
high school – when you all pile into the car and take your young
one “off to college.” Your kid is just looking forward to
being on his or her own, where you look at dorm rooms that seem
way, way smaller than what you remember, and there’s so much more
stuff in them now.

My first dorm room had a desk, a bed that folded into a couch thing, and a
closet for my roommate and me. I brought in a 30 pound Remington
Noiseless
typewriter (yes, this was back in the days before word processors, but not by much, and yes, it was old then…)
I remember that all the parents looked like foreigners. The day I
moved in, I saw they all had puffy eyes that they wouldn’t
acknowledge, the dads were sweating from carrying so much stuff up
the stairs to the right floor, and the moms were flitting about all
trying to do that one last thing to make things perfect before
they’d have to admit that it was time to let someone pry
their fingers from that saddle.

That ride back home from college – from dropping your first or last or
any kid off can be very, very quiet. It might be the first time the back seat of the car’s been empty in years. It is hard to get used to.

And it takes time.

I remember one child who moved out with just a few
hours warning to a city several hours away. The mom was not
expecting it, nor was she ready for it. I remember taking a
photo of that moment, when they hugged goodbye and both tried to
smile for the camera – the daughter’s eyes bright, looking forward
to a new and exciting future, while the mom was desperately trying
to hold back tears, standing there, essentially looking at her
hand, the one that up until moments before had been holding on to a
saddle – one that had just been pulled out of her hand, when she
herself wasn’t ready to let it go.

It is hard to get used to.

What about their first “real” relationship?  The one where
you can just feel the wobbling of that particular bicycle, you can
feel the unsteadiness – you just KNOW, deep in your heart, that
this just isn’t the right person for your child, and yet, you have to let go of that saddle…

Sometimes you have to let them fall, or they won’t know how to keep from
falling.

Knowing when to do that is one of the hardest things to do as a parent.

How would they react to having you interfere? How would you have reacted had your parents told you “she’s not the right one for you” – or “he’s not the right one for you”? – so you walk that razor’s edge of knowing what to say, but
not when to say it – or knowing the right time to say
something, but having no idea what to say…

What about the breakup of that first relationship? The one you find out about long after the fact – when you get what starts out to be an innocuous sounding
telephone call, but over time, the truth comes out, and you know
that they’re hurting in ways they don’t even have words for, in
ways you’ve hurt before, and your heart just aches for them.  You understand a bit of it – but you can’t actually say that, now’s not the time.

You want to grab the saddle again, you want to rip it from the bike and use it to whack the crap out of the person who did this to your kid.

But you don’t.

You get the “Band-aids” – sometimes – this takes the form of a “care package from home” – Sometimes it’s sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, or
coffee, or a beer. Sometimes it’s going for a walk or a drive.

It’s astonishing the kinds of things that you hear when you just take your kid out for a drive. But most often, the thing that’s most important is just taking the time to listen to your kid think their way through a problem to a solution, and what’s crucial is they need to know you’re listening to them, and you’re available to do it. No cell phones, no blackberries, no iPhones…

Your kid needs to feel your hand on the saddle right then until they’re steadier, and when they’re ready, they’ll start pedaling again, and it will be time for you to let go.

Again.

This, as you may have guessed, will repeat itself through your life, throughout their lives.

You will find, over the years, that they “ride their bike” in circles around you.

The bike will change, whether it’s their first date, or their first job, or their first day after being let go from that job, or whatever. They will ride by and in one way or another, say what they said when they were little, “Look at
me! Look what I can do!”

And your job is to do exactly what you did when they were little.

You cheer them on.

You encourage them.

You show them you love them.

And they’ll ride away, with the sound of those cheers ringing in
their ears, knowing you’ll be there, in spirit if not in body. —

This has been a pretty hard note for me to write, because as you might have guessed, some of what you just read came from personal experience, and as I was writing it, I realized, that as I’m working on letting go of the various saddles my kids are on – that things are coming around full circle, and that my mom is doing the same thing with me. It’s part of life, but it’s hard. As I was writing this – I found my thoughts going back to 10 years ago, when my dad had a massive stroke, he was in ICU for a very long time, and in a nursing home for a while afterwards. It became very clear that as much as we wanted him to be with us, that the time we were able to share with him was coming to a close. I wrote him a note – and in that nursing home room in Tacoma, on a warm late August afternoon in 2000, I read it to him. What was neat, if you can say that, in a situation like this, is that we could tell he was still in there – he just couldn’t communicate out very well. We adjusted the ventilator that was breathing for him so he could talk a little, and I remember his last words to me, “Tom, I love you, and I’m proud of you.” He died two months later. Mom was with him at the end, they’d both fallen asleep, and dad died in his sleep beside her. As I was writing the eulogy, my sister had this image…

…the image she came away with was
this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been
sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on
the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed,
suddenly could see her.

The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.

His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.

His heart didn’t struggle.

His feet weren’t cold.

We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.

But as I thought of it later, I realized that in that moment in August, he’d done what all parents eventually do…

He’d let go of the saddle, one last time.

I miss you, dad…

So. (deep breath)

Run with your kids while you have them.

Love your kids while you can.

Hug them as often as you can.

Teach them how to ride a bike – but know that someday, you’ll
have to let go of that saddle, and when you do, remember what your
job is:

You let them go.

You love them.

And then you cheer them on.

Because while they’re riding away as fast as they can, and while
you’re standing there, the bittersweet realization of what just
happened slowly dawning on you, they need to know you’re still
there.

Take care, folks…

Letting go of the saddle…

Have you ever taught your kid how to ride a
bike?

I was thinking about
that the other day, and realized that it never ends…

The thing about learning how to ride a
bike – or teaching your kids how to – is you first start them off
in a stroller – you’ve got full control, they’re just along for the
ride, they don’t even know that you’re pushing, they just know they
get plopped into the stroller and show up someplace else.

Next thing you know, you’re pulling them
in a wagon, or a sled – and they become aware of what you’re doing,
and what it takes to move you around.

Eventually, as with all children, they want to
do it themselves, so you buy or borrow a tricycle for them, and
they can move around on their own. It’s at this point that
the story changes, because you’re no longer in control.

Soon they’ll see bigger kids riding two
wheelers, and they’ll want to do the same thing, so you get them a
two wheeler – of course, with training wheels.

And the transition continues.

Remember how they’d ride with the wheels all
the way down? – and then you’d sit there with a wrench, adjusting
them so they’d be a little higher – so they’d still have the safety
of the training wheels, but would be able to balance a little on
their own? Each kid learns at a speed all their own, and each
kid learns at a speed that’s best for them.

But what happens on your end is that you help
them as long as you can. – you teach them to ride a bike, and then
you hold on to the saddle, steadying them, helping to keep them
from falling until you can feel in your hand that they’re not
wobbling.

You hold onto the
saddle until you feel their pedaling is smoother and
steadier.

You hold onto the
saddle until they’re pedaling faster than you can run.

And you know that if you continue to
hold onto the saddle at this point, they can’t ride their
bike. You will, quite literally, be holding them
back.

And you realize in a
split second, that you have to let go.

And you loosen your grip.

Your world changes in that next split second,
and you let go of the saddle.

In that moment, everything changes.

By letting go, you’ve said to them “I
trust you”

By letting go,
you’ve said, “You’re in charge now”

By letting go, you’ve said, “I love you, and
will be here to help, but you’re the one riding now. Your
success is up to you.”

If you
hang on – your child will only be able to ride as fast as you can
run – and that simply isn’t fast enough.

I’ve talked to several dads who taught their
kids to ride bikes – and they all instinctively held their right
hand down as if they were holding onto a saddle.

They knew.

They knew the ride would be wobbly at
first. That there would be falls, and Bandaids, and trips to
the emergency room. There always are as your child starts to
understand this newfound independence.

But in that first moment, that moment you
loosened your grip, in the split second that you actually let go of
the saddle, you relinquished control over them – you gave that
control to them. And the control is everything… You’re
letting them choose to succeed or fail. You’re giving them
the freedom to win or lose. You, as you come to a stop after
running alongside them, panting, see the distance between you grow
as they ride forward with the excitement of youth.

And suddenly – their whole life flashes before
your eyes, and you realize that you’ve done this before – but you
didn’t know you were doing it. You’ve watched them do a
“first” – whether it was the first time, as a baby, they rolled
over…

I remember that day with my son very
well, used to be he’d simply stay where I put him. Then one
day, I’d put him in the middle of the bed, and he rolled over, and
off the bed onto the floor. He let me know about the impact
at the top of his lungs…

Or that first
owie…

I remember when we had the little
“child proof” (hah!) gate across the front door – from the living
room to the front steps, and he was having so much fun bouncing and
pulling on it that I didn’t get a chance to stop him before he fell
out, and down the steps. His head hit one of the steps and
within seconds he looked almost exactly like Worf from
Star Trek. He cried so hard, and it hurt so bad.

Or their first step, or a
first word, or their first bite of “real” food.

You realize, as
the thoughts drift through your mind, that inside every one of
those “firsts” trumpeting in through the front door, there was a
quiet “last” packing up its bags, and shutting the back door
quietly behind it as it left.

You find yourself startled – “Would
I have done something different if I’d known this was the
last…”whatever it was… If you’d known it was the last bottle you’d
ever give them, the last baby food you’d ever do the airplane thing
into the hangar with that we all do as parents, or the last diaper
you changed on them.

Would you change anything?

Would you do
anything different if you knew when their last night at home would
be? The last time you saw them?

Maybe it’s best we
don’t know – because if we did, we’d be paying attention to that
back door, when the front one’s important, too…

The thing is, that
repeats itself all through their lives.

Do you remember their first day of
kindergarten?

The elementary school our son went to
kindergarten at had a “tea and cookies” get together for parents of
kindergartners – it was accompanied by large amounts of Kleenex –
as it was an entire herd of parents standing there realizing they’d
let go of that particular saddle – and they didn’t know what to do
with their hands anymore.

What
about their first time spending the night someplace else, when
you weren’t the one to tuck them in?

I remember
saying prayers with my daughter every night, and for a long time,
the last voice my son heard at night and the first one he heard in
the morning was mine.

As a
parent of youngsters, you often find yourself actively wanting this
– you just want some peace and quiet sometimes – and what often
happens is this:

It is
quiet…

Too quiet…

There’s no
one skateboarding down the stairs.

There’s no one
screaming about who’s hitting who.

There’s no one
stomping through the living room like the bass section of a
marching band of elephants.

You realize, about then, that you’re
definitely not a single person anymore, you realize you’re not just
a married couple – but you’re married – with kids – and you’ve
become a family. And without that part of the family –
something just feels out of balance, and it only comes back into
balance when the kids come crashing through the door again.
The exhaustion comes right in with them, but so does the joy of
having them back.

Do you
remember them getting their driver’s license? Heck, do you
remember what it felt like to get in the passenger’s seat on their
first drive?

With our daughter – driving wasn’t so
hard, but parking was. I remember how hard she was trying to
learn how to parallel park. She’d tried and tried and tried – and
it just didn’t work… Out of frustration, she said, “This is
impossible!”

And I, being the Ever Helpful Dad,
said, “Here, let me show you.” She got out, I got in the
driver’s seat, pulled up beside the car she was trying to park
behind in her little $800.00 Mazda, put it in reverse, hit the gas,
flipped the wheel hard right, then hard left, then hit the brake,
and put it in park.

“See? It’s easy!”

She wasn’t
convinced… At all.

And for years she would figure out
ways to park without doing the parallel parking thing – until she
got it, in her own time.

One day, a few cars later, and –
actually it was father’s day a year or so ago, she came up and
said, “I would have brought you a card – but I have something
better.” And then she told me that she’d paid off the car she’d
bought – all by herself. “I just wanted to thank you –
because without what you taught me about money – I wouldn’t have
been able to pay this off.”

Wow.

No card could
have been better than that.

In spite of the fact that she’d been
living away from home for several years at that time, I felt I
could let go of that particular saddle with a little more grace
right then… With all of the challenges a young adult has in
these times, she’s doing well.

The first time I let our son drive, we
took my old Saab out onto an old country road. It’s a 4 speed
on the column. I pulled over, said, “Okay, your turn” and got
out – we did a Chinese fire drill, and the next thing I knew, after
his stunned look of “You’re kidding, really?!”, he’d gotten us
started – no bucking or stalling the car with its clutch that needs
replacing. I was stunned. We were up in third at about
35 mph and I was still in shock, “Michael, that was incredible!”
and Michael, ever the understated one, said, “Well, what did you
expect? I’ve been watching you drive this thing for 16
years…”

That sentence alone is worth another
story, and my mind was scrambled there for a while as I tried to
handle the overload of that simple statement…

I taught him and I
didn’t even realize it?

What does that mean –
what else have I taught him without realizing it?

I taught him stuff
I wanted him to know without realizing it – what have I taught him
that I’d rather he not know?

Do I need to go back and try to undo
things?

What would I undo?

How would I find
out?

… while also helping him learn the
intricacies of driving a 40 year old car with a tricky clutch and a
freewheeling transmission.

What about their first date? – not the one
where you drove them, but the one where they drove themselves, do
you remember waving goodbye as they left? Do you remember
wondering what kind of stuff they were up to? (only because of the
“stuff” you got into when you were their age) – and speaking of
“stuff – didn’t it scare the – uh – “stuff” out of you?

One of the hardest things/times that a
lot of parents have gone through in the last week or so, is that
first day of school after high school – when you all pile into the
car and go “off to college.” Your kid is just looking forward to
being on his or her own, where you look at dorm rooms that seem
way, way smaller than what you remember, and there’s so much more
stuff in them now.

My first dorm room had a desk, a bed
that folded into a couch thing, and a closet for my roommate and
me. I brought in a 30 pound Remington
Noiseless
typewriter (yes, this was back in the days
before word processors, but not by much, and yes, it was old then…)
I remember that all the parents looked like foreigners. The day I
moved in, I saw they all had puffy eyes that they wouldn’t
acknowledge, the dads were sweating from carrying so much stuff up
the stairs to the right floor, and the moms were flitting about –
all trying to do that one last thing to make things perfect before
they’d have to admit that it was time to let someone pry their
fingers from that saddle.

That
ride back home from college – from dropping your first or last or
any kid off can be very, very quiet. It might be the first
time the back seat of the car’s been empty in years.

It is hard to get used to.

And it takes time. I remember one
child who moved out with just a few hours warning to a city several
hours away. The mom was not expecting it, nor was she ready
for it. I remember taking a photo of that moment, when they
hugged goodbye and both tried to smile for the camera – the
daughter’s eyes bright, looking forward to a new and exciting
future, while the mom was desperately trying to hold back tears,
standing there, essentially looking at her hand, the one that up
until moments before had been holding on to a saddle – one that had
just been pulled out of her hand, when she herself wasn’t ready to
let it go.

It is hard to get
used to.

What about their
first “real” relationship? The one where you can just feel the
wobbling of that particular bicycle, you can feel the unsteadiness
– you just KNOW, deep in your heart, that this isn’t the right
person for your child, and yet, you have to let go of that
saddle… How would they react to having you interfere? How
would you have reacted had your parents told you “she’s not the
right one for you” – or “he’s not the right one for you”? – so you
walk that razor’s edge of knowing what to say, but not when to say
it – or knowing the right time to say something, but having
no idea what to say…

What
about the breakup of that first relationship? The one you find out
about long after the fact – when you get what starts out to be an
innocuous sounding telephone call, but over time, the truth comes
out, and you know that they’re hurting in ways they don’t even have
words for, in ways you’ve hurt before, and your heart just aches
for them. You understand a bit of it – but you can’t actually
say that, now’s not the time. You want to grab the saddle
again, you want to rip it from the bike and use it to whack the
crap out of the person who did this to your kid.

But you don’t.

You get the “Bandaids” – sometimes – this
takes the form of a “care package from home” – sometimes it’s
sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, or coffee, or a
beer. Sometimes it’s going for a walk or a drive. It’s
astonishing the kinds of things that you hear when you just take
your kid out for a drive. But most often, the thing that’s
most important is just taking the time to listen to your kid think
their way through a problem, and what’s crucial is they need to
know you’re listening to them, and you’re available to do
it.

No cell phones, no
blackberries, no iphones… Your kid needs to feel your hand on
the saddle right then until they’re steadier, and when they’re
ready, they’ll start pedaling again, and it will be time for you to
let go.

Again.

This, as you may have guessed, will repeat
itself through your life, throughout their lives. You will
find, over the years, that they “ride their bike” in circles around
you. The bike will change, whether it’s their first date, or
their first job, or their first day after being let go from that
job, or whatever. They will ride by and in one way or
another, say what they said when they were little, “Look at
me! Look what I can do!”

And your job is to do exactly
what you did when they were little.

You cheer them on.

You encourage them.

You show them you love them.

And they’ll ride away, with the sound of those
cheers ringing in their ears, knowing you’ll be there, in spirit if
not in body.

This has been a pretty hard note for me
to write, because as you might have guessed, some of what you just
read came from personal experience, and as I was writing it, I
realized, that as I’m working on letting go of the various saddles
my kids are on – that things are coming around full circle, and
that my mom is doing the same thing. It’s part of life, but
it’s hard.

As I was writing
this – I found my thoughts going back to 10 years ago, when my dad
had a massive stroke, he was in ICU for a very long time, and in a
nursing home for a while afterwards. It became very clear
that as much as we wanted him to be with us, that his time here was
coming to a close.

I wrote him
a note – and in that nursing home room in Tacoma, on a warm August
afternoon in 2000, I read it to him.

What was neat, if you can say that, in a
situation like this, is that we could tell he was still in there –
he just couldn’t communicate very well. We adjusted the
ventilator that was breathing for him so he could talk a little,
and I remember his last words to me, “Tom, I love you, and I’m
proud of you.”

He died two
months later. Mom was with him at the end, they’d both fallen
asleep, and dad died in his sleep beside her, and as I was writing
the eulogy, my sister had this image…

…the image she came away with was
this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been
sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on
the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed,
suddenly could see her.

The machine wasn’t breathing for
him anymore.

His mind was clear, not muddled by
a stroke.

His heart didn’t
struggle.

His feet weren’t
cold.

We imagine he looked around, saw
the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his
beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for
better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in
health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his
wife to be with his Lord.

But as I thought of it later, I realized that
in that moment in August, he’d done what all parents eventually
do…

He’d let go of the saddle,
one last time.

I miss you,
dad.

So. (deep breath)

Run with your kids while you have
them.

Love your kids while you
can.

Hug them as often as you
can.

Teach them how to ride a
bike – but know that someday, you’ll have to let go of that saddle,
and when you do, remember what your job is: You let them go, you
love them, and then you cheer them on. Because while they’re
riding away as fast as they can, and while you’re standing there,
the bittersweet realization of what just happened slowly dawning on
you, they need to know you’re there.

Take care, folks…


So for those of you who’ve read some of my stories – especially those who have read the stories in the category of “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little.” – understand that as my son was growing up I would tell him these kinds of stories – honestly, as bedtime stories – because they made him laugh, and I did it in large part because I didn’t want him thinking that I was perfect in any way – I wanted him to understand that I was human, and could (and did) screw up.

He liked (and still likes) these stories because generally something (bad/amusing/result of a stupid decision/peer pressure) happens in them that allows him to see the benefit of others mistakes, without having to make them on his own…

In fact, when he was little, he asked me in all honesty, after I’d told him quite a few of these stories, “Papa? When I grow up, will I make mistakes too? Or have you made them all?”

How on earth do you answer a question like that? “Well, Michael, you live in a different time, I’m sure you will make creative, new, and exciting mistakes that I would never have dreamed of…”

That satisfied him.

Now that he’s older, and capable of making some of those bigger mistakes all by himself, he’s thinking of these stories in a different light…  After I told him one story, he looked at me, mouth agape, having heard as complete and utter stupidity what I was simply relaying as history, (think about that) – and said, “How did you get old enough to breed?”

Hearing that from your kid is a little mind bending…

And I thought I had a dull childhood…

He’s also told me that if he does something stupid, I can’t complain, because it’s clear that I’ve done stupider things.  In fact, he says that the following story shows just how high I set the stupidity bar – and he would have an awful lot of trouble coming close to that.

So from time to time when he was little, he would ask me to tell him some of his favorite stories, and, given that yesterday (as I write this) was the 33rd anniversary of this story, I thought I’d share.

So one day he asked, “Papa, can you tell me the story about you and your friend Paul?”

Well, there’s only ONE story about my friend Paul and me.

It involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.

Actually, in that order.

First some background…

I grew up in Roy, Washington, a small speed trap – er, town – south of Tacoma that’s surrounded on three sides by Fort Lewis, the local Army Base.  One of the benefits for a boy growing up there was that you got to see lots of military hardware all the time, because it drove, flew, or traveled in a parabolic arc right past the house. (you’ll get it, just keep reading)

This, to put it succinctly, was cool.

I’ve learned I’m the only person I know who thought a .30 caliber machine gun being fired or cannons going off are peaceful sounds.  But, that’s what I grew up with, and hearing them meant that all was right in the world.

The cannons and machine guns got to the point of being background noise, which meant unless we were listening for it, we didn’t really notice it.  You’d hear this “Thump” in the distance, (the cannon, or mortar, had been fired, north of town) and about 22 seconds later, from the firing range, west of town, you’d hear a muffled, “BOOM!” as the shell hit and exploded.  On especially quiet days you could actually hear the shell as it flew, making kind of a whistling “shewwewewewewew” sound as it flew by in that parabolic arc that cannon shells fly in…

It was pretty predictable, and the one thing we could count on was that the Army didn’t shoot on Sundays, so we had one day where things were relatively quiet, and though I didn’t mind the sounds of the Army, the silence was nice.

As one of my instructors in college said, “You will see this material again.”

They also shot at night, and to light things up, they shot up flares, which came down on parachutes.

One of the things we did for fun was to go out on the firing range (where the targets are – think about that one for a moment) and gather up the parachutes and other things we found as souvenirs.  We’d tie the parachutes to the backs of our bicycles to use as drag chutes to slow us down after careening down “school hill”…

This was far more than “slightly” illegal, as we had to pass at least two signs saying:

“KEEP OUT!  Artillery Impact Area”.

The signs are official now - used to be stencilled onto a 4 x 8

The signs are official now – used to be stenciled onto a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood

There was some, shall we say, ‘evidence’ of cannon shells hitting, like holes the size of houses, so they really didn’t want you gathering ‘souvenirs’.  You did have to be smart as to what you took.  Getting parachutes was safe, getting cannon shell duds wasn’t.  There was a fellow who found a dud out there that had been sitting there for a number of years, the explosive getting unstable for the whole time… He took it home where it apparently dried out, and took out half of his house.

His parents weren’t pleased.

But this isn’t his story…

Paul and I went out there, he doing the driving because I didn’t have a driver’s license and me wanting to show off a little by showing this friend something he hadn’t seen before.

He read the first warning sign and stopped the car cold.

“What do you mean “Artillery Impact Area?  I’m not going in there!”

Understand – I’d lived out there – driven past signs liked that that said “Small Arms Impact Area: Keep Out” (when you read that sign, do you think of bullets? Or little arms with little fingers falling out of the sky?)  We’d drive past the hand grenade range, and see all sorts of things so often we just didn’t think about them.

But Paul had never seen that sign, and wasn’t moving the car an inch.

“But Paul, they don’t shoot on Sundays, don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine!”

After awhile, he took his foot off the brake, and we drove past it.

Sometime later there was the second one, and Paul skidded to a stop again, his eyes darting back and forth between the sign and me, trying to decide which was crazier.  Images of hundreds of pounds of high explosives hurtling toward him at 500 miles an hour were going through his head and I was telling him to keep driving…

“Really, they DON’T shoot on Sundays.”

We went further, and found five of these things the Army calls “Ducks” – which are huge crosses between trucks and boats.  I’ve never seen this kind before or since.  They’re not the kind you see used for tourism, and the closest I’ve come is this.  But they were basically huge bare aluminum boats about 40 feet long, with what seemed like 4 – 6 foot tires on them, so they could be driven on land or in the water.  And they’d been driven there quite recently, since the grass was still flat from their tire tracks.  Somehow they’d been knocked over onto their sides, the hulls near the back had been cut through with a blowtorch, the pans and crankshafts had been taken out of the engines so no one could drive them away…

Hmmm…

We went to the other side, and found a very large black number 3 painted on it.  From where we were, we could see the other four, each with a number painted on it.

We were on the edge of a rather large plain, with a tree line visible about a mile away or so, so we felt pretty safe, feeling we’d see someone before they saw us.

We climbed up into the cab of the thing and saw all these cool instruments on the dashboard.  We were members of an otherwise reputable search and rescue organization and decided we could get instruments for a communications truck our unit was making, so we set on removing them with the large variety of specialized disassembly instruments we had available to us.

We learned that it’s quite difficult to do precision disassembly on an armored instrument panel when your precision disassembly tools are of the igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary varieties.

We moved on.

One of the engine parts they’d left was the cover of the air filter, which was a large, round, bright red fiberglass thing that looked like an oversized Frisbee (I suppose I should put an ® here for their lawyers)

Since we’d had less than sterling success with the instruments, we spent some time tossing the air filter cover around.  I mean, it was a nice, warm August afternoon, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the bees were buzzing, and –

“Thump”

– and there was a thump in the distance.

No problem, I heard this sound every day.

But somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I recognized that sound was what is technically known as “a bad thing”.

I mean, let’s see if we can figure this out:

We’re out there on the artillery impact range.

On this duck that’s got a HUGE number painted on it.

This would indicate that we are standing on a target.

Not near a target.

On a target.

That has just been fired on.

By a cannon.

It took just about 20 seconds to come to this conclusion.

The Screaming/Howling/OncomingFreightTrain sound of a real cannon shell as it comes in on the position you’re standing on is simply not describable.  I’ve seen “Private Ryan”, and “Band of Brothers” and a few other films – and the sounds you hear in war movies, while they try, don’t come close to reproducing the sound accurately.  The sounds you hear in movie theatres also aren’t accompanied by a tree getting vaporized about 75 feet away.

I turned to tell Paul to look at that tree, but he was gone.

In fact, he was halfway to the car by then.

Joining him seemed like an exceptionally good idea at the time.

We’d parked at this little ‘y’ intersection on a dirt road, about 100 yards south of the Ducks, and I got there just after he’d done one of those U-turns you only see on “Dukes of Hazzard” – which is hard to do in a Pinto, but Paul seemed to have enough adrenaline going through his system to overcome this limitation in the car.

This adrenaline seemed to have Paul functioning at hyperspeed, and the car, Pinto or not was rapidly approaching its version of the same thing.

To do this in a Pinto station wagon on a weaving, hilly dirt road isn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do, but since our actions were initially unencumbered by the thought process, now didn’t seem to be a particularly important time to change that.

We came to this hill, went up, and, had we been traveling at a sane speed, would have gone down and around the curve to the left on the other side.

However, sanity absolutely not being part of the picture, the car didn’t quite get airborne, but it came awfully close, to the point where the wheels were about as useful to the car as opposable thumbs are to fish…

As the road (and world) turned, and while Paul hit the brakes and turned the steering wheel hard left, the car, pondering the ramifications of fish and opposable thumbs, went straight ahead into a dirt embankment, which stopped it in ways that the brakes couldn’t have.

Ever.

Now some things to note about driving a station wagon at high speed on a dirt road.

  • It pulls a large cloud of dust behind it, so the cloud is, for the first little bit, traveling at roughly the same speed as the car. Since it was a hot August afternoon, we had the windows wide open, the front ones rolled down, the back ones, hinged at the front, were flipped open at the back.
  • Now this cloud that was following the car didn’t have the benefit of dirt embankments to stop it, so when we stopped, the windows acted like large scoops as the cloud continued rapidly ahead and enveloped the car, coming in through the windows and covering us from head to toe.

We were fine, the car however, needed some help, We had to wait until we could see, at which point I jumped out and pulled the fender to unhook it from where it was jammed up against the right front tire. I hopped in, Paul started the dust cloud and the Pinto up again, and only stopped after we were past the second sign, what had been the first one on the way in.

We got out of the car, hearts still thumping at what I remember as being one of the machine gun ranges (which wasn’t being used… Really!) , and as we got out and tried to calm down a little bit on that warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon, we heard nothing but Elvis Presley’s music on the radio.  Turned out, the previous Wednesday, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley had gone to the great Tabloid in the sky…

After awhile, we slowly drove back home, and Paul, to my knowledge, never mentioned it to anyone.

There are two corollaries to this story:

20 years later, a group of us (which included Paul and me) from this “otherwise reputable Search and rescue organization” managed to get together from the four corners of the globe and met together at a restaurant to catch up on things.

I got there late, and as I stood there in the doorway trying to find the group, Paul saw me, the first words out of his mouth after 20 years, which I heard all the way at the door, were, “Well Hello there MISTER ‘They don’t shoot on Sundays’!”

Seems he hadn’t forgotten, and I – well, I think this one will take some time to live down.

Number two:  I told this story to a friend who’d retired as a colonel in the army, and he started laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a stroke.  I was actually quite worried about him.

It turns out that he (having had experience as a soldier) was thinking of the other end of this little exchange.

See, just because they didn’t shoot on Sundays doesn’t mean they weren’t out there.

Just because I couldn’t see them didn’t mean they couldn’t see me (this is why the Army has whole schools developed to teach the art of camouflage).

So imagine a couple of bored soldiers, could have been ROTC cadets, could have been National Guard on their one weekend a month, I don’t know – but imagine those few bored soldiers on a warm summer Sunday afternoon whose job it was to watch these five fresh targets they’d seen delivered and had to wait until Monday before they could blow them to smithereens.

And while they were looking through their rangefinders, they saw a small car dragging a cloud of dust along where it shouldn’t be – not quite into their sights, but awfully close…

I can just see it as one of them nudges the other one, “Hey, Jim!  Look at this!”

I mean, two obvious civilians (us) throwing this bright red thing (the air filter cover) back and forth and up into the air wasn’t really the best way to keep people from seeing us…

And by then, not only were we in their sights, we were practically dancing on their targets…  Well, climbing all over them and beating on things with rocks – heh – we were rocking out…  (sorry)

I have to wonder how many trigger fingers got real itchy all of a sudden…

They needed to let us know we’d been seen, and it had to be done very soon so it was absolutely, positively, unmistakably clear who, actually was boss out there.

I would love to have heard the conversation that went back and forth between them and their commanding officer, and finally, someone decided to get our attention by “firing a shot across the bow”.

We didn’t actually hear it (we were thrashing the Pinto on that dirt road) but I can imagine them laughing their heads off as we saw the shell hit and the panic that followed.

It would be fun to find these soldiers sometime to hear their side of the story.

///

Michael really likes it when I tell this story, and when I get done telling it, he (after he’s done laughing) looks at me, shakes his head, and says, “Papa, you made a bad decision in going past that sign…”

–and I wonder, does this mean he’s going to do what the signs in his life say and try to stay safe?

Or is he going to go past them in hopes of coming up with weird stories to tell his little boy when he has one?

Hmmm…

==

Note: I originally wrote this story as a note to my mom and dad when he was 7.  He’s now 19, and when I told him yesterday, “Hey, 33 years ago yesterday…” – he finished the sentence for me, “…was a day of extremely high caliber stupidity…”  He didn’t realize the bad pun until I started groaning.

So…

If I ever catch him doing something stupid, I know I’ll hear back, “You’re out there on a LIVE artillery range, DANCING ON THE FREAKING TARGETS, and you’re worried that I’M going to do something stupid?”

Well… yeah… I am…

I do hope I’ve set the bar too high for him to ever reach the levels of dancing on targets on an artillery firing range… but Lordy, I know stupidity of that magnitude is definitely possible.

Sigh…


Saltwater State Park, Federal Way, Washington, 1989 or so…

Learning to skate.

We had a family tradition to come to this park on Father’s day, and it was always a nice spot to look for people just having fun.

In this case, I was working for a newspaper in Tacoma, and was shooting what we called “feature” shots, and found myself drawn to that park.

I saw a father teaching his daughter how to roller skate – with these huge hurking skates that just really didn’t do much more than make noise, but by golly, they were skates, and she wanted to try them, so try them they did.

I talked with the dad for a little bit, asking if it was okay if I shoot, and when he said yes, I walked across the parking lot and started shooting with my 300 – that way I wouldn’t interfere with what was happening, and the pictures were more spontaneous.

I knew, just knew she was going to fall – and was just waiting when she did, just like her dad was – and we both caught her at the same time.

The thing that got me about this shot was that there isn’t any evidence of fear in her eyes at all, there is just trust.  “Daddy’s going to be there for me, and I’m going to be okay.”

Look again – does she see her father?  No – there’s nothing she can see – it’s all trust – believing that he’ll do what he said he would do.

I’ve learned a couple of really important things from that image,

  1. That trust is a very valuable thing.  Knowing that “Daddy’s going to be there…” is an amazing thing – both from our earthly fathers – daddies – to our Heavenly Father.  If you know – really know that your Father is going to be there, you will have trust – and therefore, no fear.
  2. I also learned that daddies taking the time to take their little girls to the park is just way, way past cool.

Knowing Daddy's arms are there makes all the difference.


Have you heard the story of the prodigal son?

It’s in Luke 15:11-32.

Read it – then read verse 20 again.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

Why did he do that?

Let me tell you a story that might help you understand.

One day I got home before my son did, and for the first time in a long time, I would be able to make him an after school snack, and just sit with him while he ate and talked about his day.

I stood at the window, waiting, watching, remembering.

This was my son, the one I’d fed from a bottle.

The one I’d changed thousands of diapers on.

The one I’d burped and who’d burped on me.
My son.

The one whose first steps I saw.

The one I’d played with and loved and taught to ride a bike.

The one whose skinned knees I cleaned and bandaged.

My son.

He was the one I’d seen grow as a cub scout, as a young soccer player, soon to be a football player, and later on, an Eagle Scout.

My son.

And while looking out the window, waiting for him, I slowly began to understand what verse 20 means.

I stood there – yearning for a chance to share some time with him, and suddenly I understood why the father of the prodigal son “saw him while he was a long way off”.

He couldn’t see him from “a long way off” unless he was actively watching for him.

And as I was standing there, it was as if thousands of years vanished in a kinship as two fathers stood, waiting for their sons. The sons they loved – we loved, and cherished, and wanted the best for. I could feel him, and almost see him standing there, next to me, the prodigal son’s father.

And I wondered…

How long had he been doing that?

How many days had he stood there, watching, waiting, hoping?

The father didn’t know all the son had done while he was gone – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had returned. That – that was worth celebrating!

He couldn’t slaughter the fatted calf unless he had one! That meant, in all that watching and waiting, he was expecting the best! He was expecting his son to come home.

He slaughtered the fatted calf to celebrate his son’s return.

I fixed an after school snack for my hungry boy.

And I understood, as I sat there, with my son, chatting about his day, why the prodigal son’s father stood there and watched for his.

He loved him. He cherished him. He wanted what was best for him. He wanted – he wanted to spend time with him.

And I realized that there are times when we go off on our merry way – wandering through the fields of pigs in our lives (verse 16) – that our Father is standing on His front porch, watching, waiting, pacing…

Waiting for us to come home so He can slaughter the fatted calf for a celebration….

…or sit at the kitchen table after school and share a baloney sandwich with us.


After a wonderfully busy Saturday that made me want to spend Sunday being comatose, Michael (my six year old) came up to me, with far more energy than children should be allowed to have on a Sunday afternoon, and said, “I want to go treasure hunting.”

“…and just where do you want to do this?” said I (trying to maintain my important job of holding one end of the couch down)

“In the back yard. You draw the map.”

— Now let’s see if we can follow the logic here…

“I draw the map, put an “x-marks” on it somewhere, and we dig there and we find treasure?”

“Yes, we find treasure there.”

“So what if I put an “x-marks” over here?, will we find treasure?”

“Uh huh.”

“So if I draw a bunch of maps, each with an “x-marks” in a different place, we’ll find treasure all over the place, right?”

“Right.”

I could feel my hold on the couch slipping…

“So even without a map, there would be treasure anywhere we dig under the back yard…”

I drew a map.

I had him go out and measure off paces, from the gate, to the sandbox, to the slide, to the fence, and as he came back each time, we made one more measurement on the map.

We went out, got our digging tools, and started pacing. We ended up in the shade by the fence in the back yard, in a spot where he’d dug many times before, and started digging.

He dug a bit, then I dug, and we chatted about life, how things were going, the boat ride we’d taken Saturday (where he’d actually driven the boat). Since it was hot, we decided to put some water into the hole, so many trips with buckets later, we had it full.

I asked him if he wanted to take his shoes off.

He knew what that meant, and with a big smile he took his shoes and socks off and stuck his little feet into the muddy water.

I joined him a couple of minutes later (having gotten a couple more buckets of water in the meantime)

So we sat there, our feet invisible under the surface, talking, giggling about how icky our feet were, what mom would say if she saw us, why there were pine needles growing out of our toes, stuff like that…

And I realized something…the time we were spending together on a warm, lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon, was wonderful.

Michael was right.

There was treasure in our back yard, anywhere we dug.

Because the treasure wasn’t gold or silver…

…it was time.


“Yes… Caffeine headaches are SOOO much worse than your coffee”

 — My daughter, who works at Starbucks, when she came over this morning and I offered to make her a cup.

(I’ve been known to make coffee that spoons would stand up in for a couple of seconds before they melted)

Sigh…

: )


Plumbing.

The bane of the homeowner.

A few years ago, I learned that you can’t call the landlord, or the property manager, or your folks. Unless you want to pay the price of a plumber, the job’s yours.

We learned in our house that very small things can cause very large problems.

It all started with the kitchen sink, which has one of those little screens to keep the crud from going down the drain.

Well sometimes it’s easier to flush the crud down the drain than it is to try to pick it out of the screen thing, so I’ve learned that jabbing it with a fork and then giving a good twist means the screen will pop up, the crud will go down, and there will be peace in the world.

There is, naturally, a warning to go along with this, that being that you don’t want things to go down the drain that the screen was meant to trap… So you have to be careful. Twice I had to take the drain apart when a fork or a spoon went down there.

But forks and spoons have built in safety features. They’re straight, and the trap under the sink isn’t, so they stay.

Now imagine, if you will, that you’re running low on dish washing liquid, and to do the dishes you’ve taken the top off the bottle to pour water in and get all the dishwashing liquid out.

Imagine, if you will, that after the dishes were done, the drain seemed to drain a lot slower…

So I figure, hey, there’s something stuck in there… So I pull out the plunger and go at it like I was trying to win a butter churning contest.

No luck.

I pull the drain apart.

Can’t find anything.

I run the snake down.

Nothing.

I put the sink back together and try it again.

Still slow. I mean, if you left it there overnight, it would drain out, but otherwise it would start off fine and then act like it had hit a brick wall, well, more like a rubber wall, because it would go down, stop, and then start slowly coming back up again, almost like an echo.

Hmmmm…

Then the bathroom sink started draining really slow.

So I took that apart…

…and ran the snake down…

— and nothing…

Okay, I’d spent about 8 hours of a weekend under kitchen and bathroom sinks, ripping plumbing out and getting absolutely nowhere.

So I did the ever popular male thing, if it doesn’t work, get a bigger hammer.

I attached a hose to the sink downstairs.

I ran it up to the kitchen sink, and had my 7 year old son Michael go downstairs, with the instructions, “Turn it on when I thump once on the floor, turn it off when I thump twice.”

So Michael the Helper trotted downstairs, all full of pride that he was helping solve this Major Household Problem.

I wrapped a towel around the end of the hose to make a seal, rammed it down the kitchen drain, and then thumped on the floor.

The hose gurgled, and hissed, and burped, and wiggled around as the water came up, and then like a cannon blasted water down

the drain.

I didn’t hear or feel anything give way, I didn’t hear or feel any kind of a plug, or for that matter resistance…

So I thought I’d fixed it.

I thumped twice, and the water stopped.

I pulled the hose out and water started coming back up, like that echo I’d seen earlier, only this time it was much bigger…

Hmmm…

I rammed the hose down again, and thumped…

… and the water started again…

And I kept at it until I heard this little voice from downstairs, “Papa-a-a-a-a? How come the ceiling is dripping?”

Uh – oh…

It was at this point that I instinctively knew what had happened.

The pipes were set up like a T, with the kitchen on the right side and the bathroom on the left side. Whatever was plugging things up was down on the vertical part of the T, and in essence, that one thing was plugging both drains.

You will see this material again.

I ran downstairs, and yes indeed, the ceiling was dripping, right from where the bathroom was.

I ran upstairs, and into the bathroom.

Or what had been the bathroom…

See, when I’d blasted the water down the kitchen sink and it couldn’t go anywhere, Mount Vesuvius erupted in the bathroom sink, cleaning all the crud in the drain on the way out and distributing it evenly all over the bathroom, and of course what didn’t stay in the bathroom went downstairs.

Oh good…

So now the bathroom sink’s full of brown crud, that echo effect has the kitchen sink in the same condition, and I obviously haven’t come anywhere near solving the problem, I’ve only made it worse…

But at least this time I know where the problem is, right?

Right.

So I go downstairs where Michael was, stepped around where the ceiling was still dripping, looked up and saw that there was a cleanout plug on the pipe that had to have the problem.

So I got this huge wrench and reefed on it.

No dice.

Bigger hammer time. (I’m a guy, remember?)

So I put a pipe on the end of the wrench and tried to do a chinup on it.

Of course that’s when it broke loose.

So I got back up on the chair, carefully, and started loosening it to take it all the way off to see where the problem was. Just to be safe, I got a bucket to catch any water that might dribble out. 

While I was loosening it, Michael, who’d gone upstairs, came down, and Alyssa, 12, came over to see what was going on.

The next part happened in slow motion.

As I was unscrewing the last little bit, the water (and black, unmentionable, icky crud) from the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, and all the pipes in between finally found a place to go.

My face happened to be about 4 inches from that spot.

My eyes, ears, nose, and throat were filled with water so black it was opaque. In the background, through the gurgling, I heard the the sound of two children laughing like only children can laugh.

They still talk about it, and the stains in the shirt are still there.

Oh, and I found the lid to the dishwashing liquid.

Tom Roush

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