knock softly — don’t rap

Snakes were a bit of a stretch for me. But one thing I always wanted for my boys was for them to develop interests and passions – even if I didn’t innately share them. That’s how I started learning about snakes with Oldest Son when he was 7 or 8, then picking out a “pet” snake, then buying live insects and even mice to feed our various snake friends over the years.

BMX was another chapter. Some weekends I found myself driving three hours for two 45-second bike races around the track before handing out whatever food I’d thrown in the cooler and then pointing the car back home. Sometimes I grumbled, but mostly I was thankful my sons had something they were excited about.

Perhaps I have a selective memory, but I mostly remember loving being a part of it all with them.

Connecting with the boys via their passions is more challenging now. I’m not invited in as much as I used to be. Ask Youngest Son — he certainly doesn’t want me anywhere near while he and his friends are building a ski jump or hucking their meat and filming it in the terrain park at the local ski hill.

Middle Son loves hip-hop. Rap. What I’d hoped was a passing interest has withstood the passing years. He writes lyrics and lays them down over recorded tracks in his room. If you’re lucky, a friend, his brother maybe, you might be invited to listen. (A few years ago he did write me a really sweet birthday rap.)

Mostly though, I’ve hoped he’d find other genres for using his beautiful voice and talent for writing lyrics. Too much violence and brokenness in hip-hop, I worry. Too much negativity and mistreatment of women.

I’ve hinted at these things with him, careful not to close a door between us. He’s occasionally responded by playing rap music for me he thinks I’ll like. He tells me the story behind the artist, how much the person has struggled and overcome.

But…but, you’re a white middle-class boy from Bozeman, I think to myself. Please don’t ever think you have to be anyone but who you are.

And so, he spends hours and hours in his room alone, writing, recording, mostly being very private. There is no place for me to drive him for training, no tribe here for him to collaborate with.

A month ago I asked him if he would watch a PBS Independent Lens special about rap with me. I thought it would be a safe way for us to talk and share more about what he loves, but Homeboy turned me down.

Then last weekend I went to the library. I checked out some books on hip-hop, along with a video called “Where You From” about rural hip-hop artists – two of whom are from Montana. I hid the books, realizing my efforts were starting to smell desperate, then tentatively asked Middle Son if he wanted to watch the video with me during a Saturday afternoon slush storm.

He agreed, and we both got caught up in the stories of three young men, each expressing themselves through rap. We didn’t talk much and I didn’t force it. When the movie was over we watched the extra scenes and then sat there as the credits rolled. “Thanks for watching that with me,” Middle Son finally said before returning to his room. No deep conversations or shared insights, but it felt like enough.

It made me wonder, is parenting teenage boys all about lowering expectations and wants, or is it about hearing more in “Thank you for watching that with me”?


desperately seeking southern utah (in montana)

Heart Mountain, near Cody, WY.To fully escape winter this time of year, one needs to be willing to spend about 11 hours from Bozeman in a car. Even then I’ve woken up to three inches of snow outside my tent in Zion National Park. (A friend recently reminded me from the front lines of Hawaii that it doesn’t snow there.)

So with only three days off work for “spring break” I was determined but stumped as to where we were going to find a little bit of southern Utah nearby – just a little warmer and drier, please. Makoshika State Park? The Terry Badlands?

We decided they were a bit too far, and with how weird the weather has been this winter who knows how much warmer and drier than our backyard (which currently sports a two-foot-tall drift of snow). We settled on the Bighorn Canyon area — where neither of us have ever been despite the fact that it’s only 3 ½ hours southeast of us — tempting fate by bringing camping gear and mountain bikes.

Turns out we had the place completely to ourselves. The boys are now to the age where we no longer force them to join us on every outing, so “we” was Shawn, me and Angus, who was understandably enthusiastic about the whole camping idea.

We spent the first two days biking dirt roads to get to old abandoned ranches, peeking inside of decaying cabins and imagining what it must have been like to survive a Montana winter in those dark, cold shelters.

We did a bit of hiking as well, glad that it was still cold enough for rattlesnakes to be cuddled up in their dens.


Oh yes. And there was this:

The Bighorn Canyon is Montana’s Grand Canyon, which is to say, it’s something to see. Combined with the fact that we went long periods of time without seeing another soul, I felt mighty small in all of that bigness.

When we looped home we decided to drive through Cody, WY and stay a night. But before we hit Cody we stopped at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which tells the story of the internment camp that was there in the 1940s.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor our government rounded up around 14,000 Japanese, most of them Japanese-American citizens, allowed them to pack one suitcase, and shipped them to the middle of nowhere with this view of Heart Mountain. (Thousands more were sent to other internment camps.)

Photos: U.S. National Archives

Perhaps one of the most disturbing ironies I learned was that while our government was willing to deny the Japanese their rights as citizens, many of the young men at the camp received draft notices to fight in WWII. Those who refused on principle were sent to prison. Others willingly fought for the country that considered their mothers and sisters too dangerous to be allowed to live beyond the confines of barbed wire.

Three years later, after the war ended, thousands of Japanese left this dry, lonely place just as suddenly as they’d arrived, and the third largest “city” in WY was disbanded. They were given $25 and a ticket to wherever they chose to begin rebuilding their lives again.


on staying together for a long time 

Me and my guy, a little over seven years ago, celebrating my dad's 60th birthday.

Shawn and I met nine years ago this weekend.

“We look so young!” we say whenever we look back on photos of our first years together, as if we’re one of those notable couples celebrating our 50th anniversary.

And yet, there is that sweetness of sticking by each other that has lended some depth, grounded in finally being able to look back a bit now.

The emotional: Processing both our divorces and leaving them (mostly) behind. Raising three boys together.  Saying goodbye to friends and family who’ve died.  Career changes. Realizing we’re going to get old, we need to work hard and save more than ever for our retirement together.

The physical: His “little belly” after knee surgery. My increasing brown spots and scales. (I showed the scaly skin to my mom and she said, “Oh! Those are just barnacles. Like on a boat. You get them as you get older…” Lovely.) My thyroid medication. His love of sweets. Our faces -- not so young and fresh; tired-looking even after a good night’s sleep. My broken tooth (this week). Like that.

I warn him stuff’s only gonna get worse. I’m going to get uglier I say, testing him. Menopause is coming. Here’s a warning I just read in a magazine the other day: “Painful Sex after Menopause Isn’t Sexy.” It offers a pill you can take for tired, dried-out vagina. There are pills for the awfulness that awaits him too.

Can you hold my hand, I mean to ask him after too much of all this.

I’m feeling scared.

Must we prepare to fight this aging thing so? Maybe instead of taking pills after our bodies change we should just resign ourselves to cuddling the shit out of each other. That wouldn't be so bad. Isn’t that why retirees golf and learn to play bridge? Little less time on their bad backs?

The other day I read an insightful essay about being in your 40s, and liked the author’s view on soul mates:

“There are no soul mates. Not in the traditional sense, at least. In my 20s someone told me that each person has not one but 30 soul mates walking the earth. (“Yes,” said a colleague, when I informed him of this, “and I’m trying to sleep with all of them.”) In fact, “soul mate” isn’t a pre-existing condition. It’s an earned title. They’re made over time.

The truth of this is finally becoming more real for me. The best romances are enduring friendships that hold onto a little spark and a love of spooning, even as the flesh disappoints and decays.  It seems like a sustainable expectation over the long haul.

END NOTE: What's your definition of a "soul mate"? Have you updated it over time?


instructions for a bad day

When the boys were little and we had a bad day – those days when their little bodies and minds couldn’t make reality conform to their needs and so resorted to hitting, biting, screaming or whatever else they could do to release frustration – there was always finally that sweet collapse into sleep. I could sneak into their rooms, both of us exhausted, and pull their sweaty hair back from a tear-swollen face and feel grateful that when they woke we would have a fresh start.

It’s not so simple now. Not so easy to take my big boys in my arms anymore and reconnect after a bad day.

This past month has kicked my ass.

Five weeks ago I got sick the day before starting my new job. The bug stayed with me and I tried to ignore it, even when it sent out a flashing red beacon on my face in the form of a cold sore or left me hacking in the office restroom until I thought I was going to puke.

Then two weeks ago Middle Son announced he was Done With School. He’s never liked school, never felt like it was a place that fit for him, so that wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise is that as a junior, he felt fully prepared to drop out and get his GED. 

“Get your GED – then what?! Shawn and I yelled. “Do you have any idea what a mistake this is – how much you’re narrowing your options?”

And of course, between the stress of settling in at a new job and wondering if I haven’t been doing enough or the right things as a parent to have arrived at this point with Middle Son, I got sicker.

Shawn pleaded with me to go to the doctor, which I refused since my health insurance plan hasn’t kicked in yet. I would get better on my own, I was sure.

Then we met with Middle Son’s counselor, who agreed with Middle Son that a GED wasn't a bad idea.

Then we spent several nights after work and school in fiery discussions, until Middle Son said he needed a break, that his brain couldn’t process any more of this talk about his life and future.

I lost my voice, and was left with just a rasp and a near-empty tank of emotional reserves.

I finally dragged myself to the doctor over a lunch hour, got antibiotics, and am coughing less each day. Middle Son agreed to stay in school and continue trying to make it through for now. And I have a tentative sense of relief, now that I’m not fighting with reality as much anymore.

Yesterday Middle Son was napping on the couch. I slid next to him with my laptop. When he was little we’d read Alexander and the Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day after a rough patch. But he’s too big for that now, and I had just discovered this beautiful little video I posted up top, Instructions for a Bad Day, by Shane Koyczan, a spoken word artist from Canada.

Middle Son listened quietly as he woke up, then reached over and gave me a long squeeze, and I exhaled.


learning to share

Two things hit me every January: A sense of winter-related restlessness only cured by putting a trip or something else fun on the calendar and a bit of New Years-inspired introspection. Are my beliefs in keeping with my actions? Do I need to make some changes? Stop doing something? Start doing something?

Oy. Why go there?

But I do, every year.

One thing agitating me for a while now is the disconnect between my desire to help others with less than me and the clamp on my wallet (and time) when it comes to actually putting that compassion to work. I don’t believe we were all born with equal opportunities to make something of ourselves in this world. I hit the jackpot being born into my family, which has allowed me some pretty awesome opportunities in life.

And so, sometime, when I have more time and the boys have grown up, I will volunteer, I’ve told myself. Sometime, when I have more money, I’ll share it with people who didn’t win the middle-class American family lottery like me.

But when exactly will I decide I’m financially secure enough to give some of my earnings away? I suspect no matter how much my 401k or savings account increases, that day will never come. Am I just greedy, or what exactly is behind this desire to give, followed by an unwillingness to actually follow through?

So anyway, here’s my 2014 plan to out-sleuth my inner money-hoarding a-hole. I’m not signing up to wield a hammer for Habitat for Humanity or driving Meals on Wheels. That won’t work for me right now.

Instead, I’m pouring wine and beer for a cause.

You might recall that I was picking up bartending shifts at a local theater while looking for a job these past few months, working for a base wage + tips. It’s a fun job, only three or four hours a shift, with control over how many/which shifts I sign up for. 

Shawn assumed I would quit bartending when I got my new job, but then it hit me: I could continue picking up an evening bartending shift every month, and donate the money. The job is fun, and the money is “extra,” rather than requiring the little princess to part with any of her new-found full-time paycheck. (Mine! All mine!)

I just worked my first donated shift, and made $80. It added a whole new spark to my interaction with customers and was a different thrill to see the tip jar fill. And it’s fun to research where to send these monthly gifts.

Anyway, my plan is small, but already I feel this sense of relief. Of alignment.  Of being a little tiny bit less of an asshole.