And neither can my fellow Northeasterners, or my friends in eastern Canada.
As a result of wildfires hundreds of miles north in Quebec, the AQI is deep into the triple digits. The eastern sky was a dull, murky pink this morning. An acrid smell of smoke hangs in the air. And we are being advised to stay indoors or mask while outdoors.
(On a side note, where have I heard those stay-at-home instructions before? They seem familiar somehow, but my memory is a bit, um, hazy.)
Wildfires are scary, to say the least. And the resulting dull, dirty air which often spreads across multiple states or provinces is scary in a secondary way. Increasing wildfires are one of many bellwethers of climate change. And that is a hard topic to fully understand, as well as a hard topic to discuss.
Which is why I’ll skip over the outdoor haze and touch on a different kind of inner haze.
My mental health ebbs (hard) and flows (just as hard), usually in oddly almost-precise 3-month increments. January through March was a downswing for me this year. My usual winter funk. But then April/May was almost the exact opposite. Like, clarity as far as the eye can see. It’s a marvelous thing to experience, especially after feeling low-level asphyxiated with mental murk.
But now that we’re into June and I’m still clicking on all mental cylinders, somehow even gaining speed as I go, a nagging thought pops into my mind: Do I only have one lucid month left? Will July knock me back down? It’s hard to say. And even harder to ultimately control, sadly.
But what I know is this: My mind is heavily blanketed with haze each time I’m on a downswing.
That haze makes it hard for my mind to breathe. It makes it hard to see the brightness of the sun or the vastness of the sky. And to fully strain the metaphor, it makes me feel I need to put on a mask to protect myself. Which walls me off from the world.
The haze chokes off my creativity, my self-confidence, my ability to laugh, and even my empathy.
Mental haze sucks. Clarity is one of the central things that makes life fun and meaningful. Lack of clarity makes all good things seem impossible. Or at least much, much less possible.
But despite the murky view out the glass of my actual windows today, “I can see clearly now.” My lucid phase continues in full force. The windows of my soul are Windex-level clean. My eyes are wide and my heart is filled with hope. Or as a certain coach named Taylor once said:
“Clear eyes, full hearts… can’t lose.”
Here’s to hoping my winning streak lasts a bit longer than usual.
Or at least that I can take my eventual losses in stride.
And that I can leave all my masks in the drawer.
Thank you for reading! Feel free to find me on Substack (“Movies, Music, and My Mental Health”). Click here to read one of my recent mental health-themed posts. I greatly appreciate your time, your interest, and your solidarity!
I’ve been a dad for 7 years. A deeply engaged one who considers fatherhood my vocation. A dad blogger who has logged close to a hundred thousand words about the experience of parenting.
All of which makes me an expert in precisely nothing. Not one single solitary thing.
Because expertise does not exist in the parenting world. This isn’t algebra. It’s not aeronautics. It’s not avian zoology (an area in which my 6-year-old actually is an expert).
It’s raising small human beings so they can become healthy, loving, emotionally intelligent larger human beings. There is no manual explaining how to do that, although the last half-century of New York Times bestseller lists would claim otherwise — to lucrative effect.
In parenting, there is simply what you are attempting to learn about your little ones, and about yourself, based on what you have observed so far, and building off the mistakes you have made. These lessons (or moments of light, or mini-epiphanies) apply to your own kids, and may or may not apply to others’.
Two years from now, or even two weeks from now, you might even decide one of the lessons you learned doesn’t actually apply to your kids. That it was an optical illusion created by a faulty perception, possibly stemming from your ego or some untested presupposition.
Everything is in flux. Everything is up for discussion. Every easy assumption should be interrogated.
But most of all, everything is based on the distinct souls of each of your children.
Kids are not generic templates. They are not generational trends. They are not carbon copies of us, as much as we might sometimes want them to be (and other times be glad they aren’t). And they are not carbon copies of their siblings either. Not even close.
All children, each of them individually, miraculously emerged from the divine ether of the universe. Each of them a miracle of existence. Each of them designed to be designers of their own moral, emotional, and vocational destinies. We as parents are here to creatively and gently guide them in that direction.
Emphasis on gentle. The autonomous human will is not the enemy. Our kids’ desire to make their own choices and have a say in their own existence is not a bad thing but a vital one, as it turns out. And gradually coming to that conclusion has maybe been the most liberating part of being a dad.
I grew up believing that kids, including my own kid self, were on earth to comply and comport with all existing power structures, from parents to school to the church to the government. To subordinate their will. To “trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” (IYKYK, as the kids say.)
While that might lead to a straight-and-narrow kid, like I was all the way through high school, it’s a myopic and unhealthy child-raising ethos. My adrift 19-to-26-year-old self represents a solid Exhibit A for the case that keeping kids too fixated on the straight and narrow can inadvertently lead them to the crooked and wide.
But here’s the thing: My parents were, and are, simply extraordinary. The salt of God’s green unsalted earth. Two of the gentlest, loving-est, most non-ego-driven humans I’ve ever met.
The Best with a capital B.
So as a kid, while I was at home, these unchallenged obedience messages came to me in the framework of love, never abuse. I can only imagine how they might have affected my young self if not accompanied by that kind of warmth, or if conveyed with force and a desire for power that my mild-tempered parents never even remotely had.
All you have to do is watch the shocking new Shiny Happy People series (about the Duggar family and Bill Gothard, streaming on Amazon Prime) to see that a forceful, power-based parental approach is the reality that many children experience. The outcomes of which are both scary and sad.
Children are not on earth to have their will subordinated. Each human being, adult and children alike, has moral and emotional autonomy. To me, this seems baked into the design of the universe and the design of our own souls.
And I’m still convinced that design comes from a Designer of humans who doesn’t need — and surely doesn’t want — those humans to be automatons.
I don’t want my children to be robotically obedient.
I don’t want them to become a mini version of me, or of their mom.
I don’t want them to ever fear me, the lover and protector of their tiny souls.
I want them to feel safe enough to discover themselves.
I want to gently help them learn the value of boundaries.
And I want them to know they’re loved unconditionally.
The other morning, I told my groggy son “You are a very special boy. Don’t you ever forget that, okay?” And the way he sweetly said in a up-down sing-song-y voice “I… won’t” made me feel like a million bucks.
I hope, maybe even against hope, that he will never forget that truth. Not when he’s 13, not when he’s 23, and not even when he’s 43 like I am now.
I may be no expert on parenting.
But I know that my goal as a dad is to convey that 1 truth daily.
And I hope these 2 hold onto that truth as they walk into the future.
Thank you so much for reading! I would be honored if you subscribed to my Substack (Movies, Music, & My Mental Health) so you can get all my posts right away. It’s still free for now, but I might monetize both (largely identical) platforms at some point for the sake of my family budget. I’m grateful for your time and interest!
Last weekend, I had three days off. I got zero things done on my to-do list.
And it was one of the most productive weekends I’ve had in months.
Here’s a breezy rundown of a freewheeling weekend itinerary that I largely improvised as I went along. Hope you enjoy the ride! I know I certainly did.
Tobias [does not put me in a] Funke
We started the weekend by getting caught up with some lions, giraffes, sloths, ostriches, gibbons, tigers, alligators, and capybaras we like to visit a few times each year. Plus two brand-new hyenas that weren’t laughing, but definitely seemed like they were smiling. I’ve got to say, being near Greyson and Violet has that effect on me too.
Our favorite wildlife park, Lake Tobias, gives our kids as much pure joy as Hersheypark. The weather was sensational, the family vibes were serene, and most of the animals seemed like they were in a pretty good mood despite their captivity. But, um, I could be projecting on that last point. It was a sun-kissed, blissed-out Friday and gave the long weekend some immediate momentum.
(Side note: That heading was an Arrested Development reference. If you figured that out already, then good Gob.)
Next-Door, Next-Level Neighbors
As usual, the kids bounced with their next-door neighbor buddies on a trampoline a few times during the weekend. It’s our neighbors’ trampoline, not ours, but we should probably pay them a monthly subscription fee. I’m not going to bring it up, though. I want to keep riding this gravy train.
I took delight in taking the kids to watch our 9-year-old neighbor play in her soccer championship. We’ve loved her and her brother since they moved in next door, right after we bought our house in 2015. And it was a delight to see our friend in action —helping her team win 2-0! — and to show our own little 4-year-old soccer girl what soccer will look like for her in half a decade. (Players spaced out around the field! Everyone knowing where the edge of that field is! A goalie tending the net!)
You know what’s also a delight? Having next-door neighbors we love and trust. People with similar values and parental approaches, who will look out for our kids (while we look out for theirs). It takes a village, and we enjoy the company and the camaraderie of our fellow villagers.
Parks, and Also Recreation
Over the course of the weekend, and in my ongoing quest to show my kids every park in southeastern Pennsylvania, I took them to parks #70 and #71 on a list I’ve been compiling on my iPhone since early 2021. We also revisited park #9 on that list for maybe the 13th time.
One of the new ones we visited ended up having an underwhelming playground, but you know who remained fully whelmed? Greyson and Violet. They’re the most unjaded park critics I’ve ever met. Two thumbs up, time and again! Their appreciation for simple pleasures inspires me.
At another park, we brought our swim trunks and waded in the shallow water at what we have dubbed “Caspian Cove.” (We name everything after our favorite band.) I enjoyed multiple spirited conversations with other people who were enjoying the same hideaway; more on those chats later. After cavorting for 40 minutes or so, Greyson slipped on a slimy rock and fell all the way into the water for the first time ever, which threw my sweetly sensitive boy for quite a loop. But I helped him bounce back, and the day was quickly salvaged. No harm, no foul.
We are, to put it mildly, obsessed with parks. Or more accurately, I am obsessed with parks and have managed to pass that obsession along to my kids.
The Extra Version of Me
Anyone who knows me knows I’m an extrovert. Mental health ebbs throws me for a loop in this realm, but even when I’m funked up, at heart I’m still someone who craves connection, who wants to see and be seen. And when I’m myself, I savor a good conversation like a sommelier savors a fine pinot noir. So here is a bird’s eye view of some of the chats I found my way into last weekend.
I talked to a woman from Maryland who’s a hardcore backpacker and climber. She just won a 1-in-100 backcountry lottery to camp in the highly coveted, highly protected “Enchantments” section of the Cascades this summer in Washington state.
My kind of person.
I talked to a man and woman at the aforementioned “Caspian cove” who I thought were 25-28 years old and dating. It turned out they had 5 kids (!) including an 18-year-old (!), yet are still 5 years younger than me (!). They are only able to grab some together time once a week, so where do they go for their weekly respite? A tiny wooded cove at a state park. So I say again:
My kind of people.
I talked to a Hispanic woman at a park who was lovingly setting up a party at a pavilion. The party was for her 8th grade daughter and her friends who had just graduated from middle school. She was warm and jovial, and I saw that she had laminated inspirational quotes to put on the tablecloth-adorned picnic tables. (My favorites were by Winston Churchill and Dr. Seuss.) I warmly wished her well and she warmly exhorted me to enjoy my kids being young. And so one last time I’ll say…
My kind of person.
And those were just 3 of my exchanges last weekend! There were others. There are always others. The world is bursting at the seams with spirited conversations waiting to be had, if only we can muster the spirit to have them.
I’m deeply grateful to be filled with that spirit at the present moment. A spirit that happily haunted two straight idyllic weekends.
Weekends I spent mostly away from the confines of my home.
My ingredients for a perfect weekend include: Fresh air, the woods, hiking, a tasty IPA and a S’more around a crackling campfire, freewheeling conversation with my kids, camaraderie with good friends, wading in cold water, sleeping with snuggly children in a tent, and maybe a few camp-stove-grilled pancakes if I can pull it off.
By this metric, last weekend was utopian. It checked every box. Including camp pancakes from a box.
Each spring for the last decade, my college buddies (Messiah class of ’02!) have embarked on a 2-night Daddy-Kid Camping trip, or DKC for short. I only started coming to DKC last year, once my kids were old enough to pull it off. They were 5 and 3 then, and we stayed 1 night. This year they’re 6 and 4, and we opted in for the whole 2-night odyssey.
Our college buddy crew embraces this annual paternal tradition for 3 main reasons. First, we are capable and engaged dads as opposed to ineffectual and detached sitcom archetypes, the kind of men who would say they’re “watching” or “babysitting” their own children. (Helpful hint: Don’t do that.) The prospect of single-dadding for 48 hours is exciting to us, not daunting.
Second, we love the heck out of nature and camping, and we would do anything to instill this love in our kids. Speaking for myself, that’s a load-bearing pillar of my parental ethos.
Third, as anyone who camps or hikes knows, all food tastes better when eaten in the woods. And it doesn’t hurt that a few of my buddies are bona fide camp chefs. They’re like Gordon Ramsay, without the deranged verbal abuse.
This year, 8 dads and 16 kids made the trek. The kids ranged from 3 to 16 years old, so my own kids were in the youngest tier. And since they need my attention and help on a near-constant basis, I had my work cut out for me. But that’s my kind of work, and I’m cut out for it — especially when my mental health is sturdy, as it is at the moment.
The site for our annual weekend retreat is Blue Rocks Family Campground, a sprawling wooded wonderland that boasts multiple playgrounds, multiple creeks, a good-sized pool, a huge sandbox, a snack bar, a pond with a fountain, hiking trails, and probably close to 100 campsites spread out over 100+ acres.
Which means it’s our very own Hundred Acre Wood! But I didn’t spot any melancholy donkeys, bouncing tigers, or type-A rabbits. And at no point during the weekend did an affable, shirt-wearing bear ask me for a pawful of the honey I ate for breakfast. Oh bother.
Best of all, the campground is built around one of the largest boulder fields I’ve ever seen, which functions as its own natural playground. My kids played happily at the edges of the boulder field, hyper-imaginatively as always. I could live with the fact that they chose not to venture out farther like the older kids. That will be a boulder adventure for another year, when they’re a bit bolder (and more coordinated).
DKC weekend is largely freeform, with the older kids roaming around the campground, coming and going at will, while the dads tended to the campfire, set up and cleaned up after each meal, and leaned into the casual camaraderie we’ve enjoyed since our college years nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Given the staggered ages of our families, most of the other dads didn’t have to tend to their kids as much as I and one other dad did. I was glad for the close contact with my kids, though, and one of the guys with older kids remarked that he missed the days when his kids still needed his help. Those dads have more freedom and relaxation on these trips, but less face time with their independent kids. I have more face time with my dependent kids, but less freedom or relaxation.
Everything in life is a trade-off. The trick is to lean into the good side of the ledger.
The one orchestrated activity each year is a very rocky, 2-mile group hike up to Pulpit Rock, an expansive vista. Or at least I hear it’s expansive. The pictures are certainly nice! But my two nature lovers and I haven’t made it to the end yet.
Last year, we were waylaid by a meltdown that kept us from going farther than about 2/3 of a mile, and this year we were prevented from getting to the 1-mile point by… you guessed it, another meltdown. Which turned into a double meltdown. Every parent’s bad dream come true.
But I felt good about staying calm and handling it adeptly, which is not always the case. I’ll leave the meltdown details to your imagination. Just picture Three Mile Island. Now picture it happening twice at the same time. (But with no radiation. And it blew over in 5 minutes. And it caused zero long-term damage.)
So the hike part of the weekend was a challenge, despite my kids being seasoned hikers. I’m just glad we made it a little farther up the trail this year than last year. Baby steps, right? I’m wagering that we’ll make it all the way to Pulpit Rock by the time the kids are 8 and 6. Or at least while I’m still in my 40s.
The kids also climbed around on a playground… and delightedly cavorted in the tent… and played in a giant sandbox… and we all waded in a cold creek. And we tried to keep up (in a golf cart!) with the bigger kids as they ran around doing an impromptu campground-wide scavenger hunt cleverly organized by one of the dads.
That’s right, a golf cart. At this place, groups can rent them for optimal campground mobility. This allows campers to quickly get around the 100-Acre Wood, since we don’t have Tigger’s tail-bouncing ability or Owl’s wings. So numerous times over the weekend, my little Piglet and Roo snuggled next to me as I drove a golf cart over the “bumpety” dirt roads (Violet’s word) en route to various campground destinations.
At first, Violet didn’t like the golf cart experience but Greyson loved it, defying each of their personalities entirely (Violet is fairly fearless, Greyson is sensory-sensitive). But she quickly warmed up to it and came to love the bumpety excitement. Violet, snuggled in the middle, steadied Greyson with her hand on his leg. And I wrapped my non-steering wheel arm around both of them. I’m pretty sure we didn’t follow the 5 mph campground speed limit very assiduously. But some rules were made to be broken.
We also rode a fire truck! How random is that? Every Saturday at 3:00 during peak camping season, a local fire truck comes to Blue Rocks and puts on its siren, a kind of siren song to lure all the kid campers to the loading spot. Ranger Sue, the kind and capable queen bee of the campground, helps each kid climb into the fire truck with their parents.
My kids had missed this chance last year and they were thrilled this year to loop around the huge campground on a real-life fire truck. Their favorite part was when we drove past our own campsite. “That’s where our tent is!!”
Ahh, the beauty of simplicity. And my kids have it in spades.
So there you have my idea (and my kids’ idea) of a perfect weekend. A weekend which began with us almost, just-about getting rear-ended 2 miles away from our house because the car in front of me slowed down for a wild turkey.
But the turkey emerged unscathed. As did our back bumper. As did my kids’ sweet little necks. As did our hopes for a happy weekend.
A weekend for the books. A weekend for the ages.
A weekend that made me grateful to be in the world.
And grateful to be able to show my kids the wonders of that world.
The ultimate act of rebellion in a consumption-based society is frugal simplicity. And I am nothing if not a simple, frugal guy who likes to rebel against the soulless dictates of capitalism. I derive exquisite satisfaction from beating the system (preferably to a pulp).
It’s been nearly 7 years now since we starting being a 1-paycheck household. My wife has been working her tail off at home with no monetary compensation since our son was born, and my income is manageable (depending on who’s doing the managing) but decidedly modest. With 2 kids and 1 mortgage, each paycheck needs to go a long way. Despite these seemingly long odds, though, and in this harrowing post-Covid inflation economy, we’re financially stable and are comfortably maintaining our nest egg and retirement savings.
So how do we pull it off? After all, the American hive isn’t exactly built for the benefit of the worker bees. In this era of creeping kleptocracy, the rich queen bees are getting even richer and the rest of us drones are being squeezed tight. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a life of anxiety and credit card debt.
Below, you will find more than $5,000 of annual savings that we have happily carved out of our family budget for the sake of making our simple little life economically viable. Without taking these actions, we would slowly hemorrhage money until our nest egg eventually collapsed. But by making these simply choices, none of which impede our enjoyment of life in the slightest, we have made ourselves financially solvent.
This, my friends, is how you beat a system that’s coldly engineered to beat you.
This is how you stay afloat in an economy that’s bound and determined to hold you underwater, gasping for breath.
This is how you (or at least we) get by.
1. Politely tell your cable provider to shove it.
In a world of infinite streaming content, overpriced cable packages will be obsolete within a decade. So hasten the demise (or more likely, strategic restructuring) of those dreaded cable providers — and save yourself a boatload of cash — by canceling your cable bill!
In my experience, 2 or 3 streaming platforms are more than sufficient to mentally overwhelm you with viewing options. Who needs an additional 500 TV channels to turn that mild anxiety into a full-blown nervous breakdown? Plus, as an added bonus, streaming platforms don’t have commercials! So you’ll never have to listen to a Liberty Mutual jingle again.
What we do: For most of the year, we subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime. Now and then, we swap out Netflix for Apple TV+ or HBO Max. Either way, we pay a fraction of the price of a cable package and get all the viewing we could possibly find time for — times 1,000, let’s be honest.
What we save: $2,000 per year ($30/month compared to $200/month)
2. Break up (over the phone!) with your phone carrier.
It’s common knowledge that both cable and cell phone providers are the bane of our 21st century existence. Calling Comcast or Verizon for customer service is the modern equivalent of getting a root canal — a procedure which, ironically, is now not all that torturous by comparison. So why do we put up with the Verizons and Sprints of the world? Because we think we’re stuck with them.
Well, I have some news for you. News which surprised me when I learned it myself a few years ago. There are “little guy” phone carriers that can save you a ton of hassle and a ton of money. They’re not commonly known; you just have to dig a little. And by doing so, you can extricate an overpriced cell phone carrier from your life like the rotting cavity it is.
What we do: We ditched Verizon 3 years ago for Ting, a charmingly low-key Canadian carrier with consistently responsive, warmly affable customer service. Ting somehow utilizes Sprint’s network, but without Sprint’s exorbitant costs. If Sprint and Verizon are sharks — and they are — a company like Ting is a friendly remora. So rid your life of sharks and find yourself a nice remora.
What we save: $950 per year ($48/month compared to $127/month for 2 lines)
3. Hug an Amish person.
Wait, let me be more specific. You’ll first need to find a specific Amish person. One who manages one of the 5 sensationally cheap BB’s Grocery Outlets located in southeast Pennsylvania.
And then hug that Amish person. Because he’s about to (in a manner of speaking) stuff a bunch of cash in your wallet.
The first time we visited BB’s and saw the prices, our eyes probably bugged out of our heads like Looney Tunes characters. $3 for olive oil. $2 for high-end cat food. $1.50 for cereal. 50 cents for a box of tea. 25 cents for yogurt. I’ve never seen anything like it. BB’s has utterly ruined us for Giant and Weis, whose prices are double, triple, quadruple, even quintuple what you’ll find at their unassuming Amish competitor. Plus, the inventory is different every week. So you never know what you might find on any given visit. I could gush about this place for days, but here’s my simple pitch: If you like to keep your money, shop at BB’s.
What We Do: For 5 years now, we’ve been making one monthly 45-minute grocery run to BB’s. The gas money we spend to drive there is paid off after walking down just one aisle — and sometimes sooner than that. Plus, we get genuinely giddy each time we go. That’s how good it feels to save money. It almost feels like BB’s is depositing money directly into our children’s 529 accounts! Awfully thoughtful of them.
What We Save: $1,200 to $1,800 per year (It’s hard to pin this number down, but we spend $200/month at BB’s on food that would cost much, much more than that at any other grocery store.)
4. Instead of amusement parks, amuse yourself at a park.
Don’t get me wrong. Amusement parks are awesome. They amuse me to pieces. But if you want to get outside for some fun in the sun and streamline your budget, then get to know your local parks, state parks, and National Parks. Your kids will thank you — both now and when they’re old enough to realize how invaluable parks are — and you’ll thank yourself too. After all, outdoor amusement is the cheapest (and deepest) amusement there is.
What We Do: Visit local parks regularly. 3 or 4 times a week, even! It’s pretty easy since we live 100 yards from one. And I’ve taken the kids to 68 different parks (state, township, municipal, and otherwise) in the last 2.5 years. Plus, when the kids get old enough to take cross-country family trips, we will resume plundering the National Parks for all they’re worth, as we did when it was just the 2 of us.
What We Save: This is hard to quantify, but our typical outdoor weekend activities cost us less than $10. Sometimes they even cost us less than 10 cents!
5. Find random little ways to beat the system.
As you might have gathered by now, I greatly relish beating the system and sticking it to the man. At least when the man tries to charge me more than he should. Here’s a goofy example that only works for us because of our proximity to my parents.
When our rural trash pick-up service suddenly ratcheted up its prices to $33/month (from $23), I quickly hatched a plan. With my parents’ blessing, every Thursday morning on my way to work I would drop off our trash and recycling at their house. By adding our disposables to the rarely-full bins on their curb, we could kick our overpriced trash company to the curb.
I don’t take kindly to price gouging — in this case the result of a rural monopoly — so this was a very satisfying act of rebellion. Plus, I now get to briefly catch up with my parents during the week! Maybe even mooch a Keurig off my sweet mom and regale her with something cute the kids said last night. Win-win-win.
What We Do: See above.
What We Save: $400 per year ($0/month compared to $33/month)
These are just a few of the most notable ways we make our low-income little life work. We find all sorts of corners to cut in the pursuit of the dream — or at least our own particular one.
The dream of a life where I can be fully present with my family every single minute that our 9-to-5 work culture will possibly allow, by working a sane amount of hours and never having to bring my work home with me.
The dream of a life where the 4 of us live simply. Live happily. And despite the relative smallness of my paycheck, live large.
In April I emerged from a 3-month hibernation, groggy and grateful to be awake.
But instead of being asleep during my dormant period, like the sensible black bears that live in the forest west of our Pennsylvania house, I was sleepwalking all winter. I fulfilled all my basic functions at home and at work. I didn’t fail anyone who relies on me.
Nonetheless, my mind was in a turgid, torpid funk. Just as Phoebe Bridgers and The National recently sang with aching profundity: “Your mind is not your friend. It takes you by the hand, and leads you nowhere.”
My mental health used to be pretty consistent. I remember some down moments in my 20s and my early 30s, but from year to year I generally flowed. Here in my 40s, for six months each year, I ebb.
Ebbing sucks. Ebbing is not for the faint of heart. At its darkest, ebbing barely feels like existing.
But for those of us who are seasonally affected (that season usually being winter and part of summer for me), ebbing is something we must endure. Hopefully with the help of good music, good friends, sweet children, SSRIs, therapy lamps, therapy pets, or actual therapy. Maybe even all of the above.
I’ve written extensively about what the ebb feels like. The sleepwalking portion of my year. My deep, dark, dormant hibernation self. But what functions do I regain when I awaken? Here are a few that I’ve been delighted to reconnect with during my current April/May emergence.
Numerous times in the last week, I have buckled over with laughter watching Ryan George videos on YouTube. Or even better, listening to my kids regale each other with impromptu stories and random goofballery. And it struck me that when I’m not myself, I rarely belly-laugh or even belly-chuckle. It’s an unsettling thing to find no levity in your soul. To stumble into zero laughs in a given week. Which is why it feels oddly profound to, one month later, laugh so hard that your abdomen aches.
So thanks, mental health upswing. And thanks to my hilarious kids. (And you too, Ryan.)
The Ability to Engage with Small Humans
Communicating with young kids is an art form, as well as a chore at times. The ability to do it with any degree of patience or deep engagement requires considerable energy and clarity. So when I’m in a funk, it can be pretty exhausting to stay on the same frequency as my wildly careening, hyper-verbal, attention-demanding 4- and 6-year-old.
But my emergent, awake self is reasonably good at it. So when I take my kids on a 5-hour outing to a few parks, I can savor their rat-a-tat chatter in the car and at the playground and on a hiking trail rather than grinding my teeth at the relentless verbosity — and sporadic sheer gibberish — of it all.
I can instead be present in the moment. (The loud, sometimes even shrill moment.)
A Voracious Appetite for Music
When I’m funked out, I can grow ambivalent to music and waste my 90-minute round trip commute hate-listening to, as The National once called it, “venom radio.” Which is bonkers because music is my lifeblood and has been since I was a kid.
So when I awaken back into myself, like a ravenous bear stumbling out of his cave in March, my appetite becomes insatiable. I find myself piling 4 or 5 CDs (remember those?) into my backpack every two days for the drive to work. I revisit beloved bands from each chapter of my life and find new meaning in all the songs I’ve ever loved.
Music signals my mental health upswings, and it provides a stirring soundtrack for each emergence. Music makes me feel human (again).
In my shadow days, I forget how to properly take care of myself. Not in the realm of hygiene or sleep, mind you. I remain clean and reasonably rested. But I lose the instinct for self-care. I’m not as inclined to do things that make myself feel loved.
(Loved by me, to be clear, a love which no matter what anyone tells you is a vital love to nurture. After all, Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” wouldn’t make any sense if we weren’t supposed to love the guy in the mirror!)
But when I return to myself, I remember to take care of that self once again. Which can be anything from ingesting great music to snuggling with a cat to “touching grass” with my kids to (imagine this if you will!) letting myself not read all the bad news there is to read.
Self-care is vital. But I can only access that fact, or that ability, when I’m awake.
When I’m down, I can’t make even basic decisions without belaboring them and overthinking every angle. But when I’m up, I follow my gut and act confidently.
Like the decision to keep this section short and sweet, for instance.
Or the decision to end this blog post without a formal conclusion.
When you sign your pre-K daughter up for soccer, and you’re an optimist, you have a picture in your mind of how it will go.
You imagine this being the perfect outlet for her sporty, sparkplug personality. You envision her making friends and influencing people. (Well, the first one at least.) And you get your hopes up way too high. Or at least I do.
But as all parents and all optimists know, how you picture a thing going and how it actually plays out are wildly, sometimes comically, divergent.
When Violet’s soccer practices started, things got off to an inauspicious start. For the first 2 weeks, she dribbled the ball around the field with vim and vigor, a smile plastered on her face, with promising footwork that would have made Pele proud…
Right up until the moment when practice actually started, that is.
Then our tiny girl with the enormous personality just clammed up. She insisted that one of us hover behind her, helicopter-style, while the team huddled for instructions.
She timidly kicked the ball during Sharks & Minnows, a game where the minnows need to navigate the length of the field. When one of the sharks approached my little minnow, she simply turned around and kicked her ball toward the least shark-infested areas of the grassy field. And then she kept kicking the ball, right off the field, flagrantly disregarding the spray-painted boundaries.
Or she would just cower on the sideline with her ball, a furrowed brow entrenched on her tiny forehead. She managed to filibuster most of the second half of practice. And she did this more than once.
So the first few weeks made us wearily suspect we had made a mistake by signing her up. Ninety bucks down the drain, along with my high hopes. After two weeks, I felt pretty demoralized.
But then week 3 came along and things started looking up. Violet ran up and down the field with gusto during each scrimmage! Albeit while going full deer-in-the-headlights anytime the ball actually got close to her. But she was moving, so we were relieved to be moving in the right direction. 2 steps back, 3 steps forward! As far as I’m concerned, those 3 steps were leaps and bounds.
Which brings us to the first day of week 4. We assumed Violet would be riding high from the previous week’s progress, which we had gone out of our way to warmly and resoundingly affirm.
But instead, in a plot twist no would suspect (other than every single parent who has ever existed), she instead had an epic meltdown at home, said “I don’t like soccer!” and refused to go to practice. I was at work when this happened, but I gather the tantrum was a doozy. Which makes sense because in every conceivable way, from goofy joy to fiery temper flare-ups to warm and nurturing kindness, our Violet is a doozy.
So make that 2 steps back, 3 steps forward… and 4 steps back. There is a fine line between progress and regress, and parenting is a precarious high-wire balancing act along that wobbly wire.
Which brings us to Week #4, Day #2, Practice #8. We approached this evening with fear and trembling (okay, maybe just a momentary shudder) after the disaster that was Practice #7. But it’s always darkest before the dawn.
And when it re-dawned on our little girl that she does indeed love soccer, it brought quite a Violet-hued sunrise.
That night, and in both practices on the following week, our sparkplug of a girl plugged along with a spark in her step. She followed the ball tirelessly up and down the field. She got her foot on that ball numerous times during each scrimmage, displaying some snazzy footwork with her bright pink cleats. She listened to the coach without prompting. She looked over and beamed at her proud parents on the sidelines.
And in her most recent scrimmage, Violet Skye did something we would have thought unthinkable in the first two weeks, or on the night when she boycotted practice. She managed to snag… wait for it…
A hat trick! There were no goalies in this scrimmage, but that’s immaterial. My daughter netted 3 goals! I was, as you can imagine, beside myself. Beaming right along with my little sunbeam on the soccer field.
Like all great sagas, it was the best of times. And it was the worst of times.
For a few weeks, our girl was a shrinking violet.
And for one night, she was more of a Venus flytrap.
But then our tiny flower came into full bloom, like the sweet and radiant Violet she is.
The great American indoor mall is a lumbering architectural dinosaur. An unwieldy beast that has been hit by the meteor that is the Internet and is slowly becoming an amber-encased fossil of a simpler (but decidedly less convenient) era.
As a kid, malls enchanted me. As an adult, I still find them enchanting but also oddly melancholy. My happy boyhood memories of visiting Capital City Mall with my mom, combined with so many of them falling into disrepair in the 21st century, has given malls a nostalgic, warmly faded appeal for me.
Maybe that’s why Starcourt Mall from Stranger Things was such a cultural touchpoint. It’s a vividly remembered place that feels frozen in the 1990s, and is being lost to the ravages — and renovations — of time. Extinction feels imminent.
But luckily for my nostalgic self, malls do still exist. And due to the quarantine era, as well as our increasingly online shopping habits, my young children have somehow never knowingly been inside an indoor mall. (Our 6-year-old son did go with us a few times when he was too young to remember.)
So on Friday after work, since the wind was too jagged to take the kids outside, I followed a random impulse and took them to the Capital City Mall, that relic of my childhood, for a field trip of sorts. I didn’t want to buy anything; I just wanted to give them a new sensory experience.
I didn’t know what Greyson and Violet would think or whether the trip would be a dud. But it was a delight. Largely because the kids are so naturally filled with delight.
The most delightful part is that they were so content with the mere experience, they didn’t once ask me to buy them anything. Even when we walked past the toy section of Macy’s and saw shelves full of items branded with Peppa Pig, a show they enjoy for some reason that lies somewhere beyond the realm of my adult understanding.
Their lack of consumerist greed made my fatherly heart swell with pride. On the drive over, I had given them my usual talk (“Do we need to buy more stuff?” “No.” “Right! And why not?” “Because we have plenty of stuff already!”) and it sure seemed to pay off. I like to think my grandparents, who sadly never got to meet Greyson or Violet, would have been proud.
As we strolled down the mall’s central corridor, I had my 6-year-old son read the names of each store aloud and I told the kids what items that store sold. I mumbled something about gifts when we shuffled quickly past Spencer’s. The kids and I both made note of the disproportionate number of stores that sold shoes (a whopping 7 I think) as well as candles (do we really need 2 in the same mall?). They didn’t ask what it was that Victoria was keeping Secret, which I appreciated.
Strangely enough, the thing that exhilarated my kids the most was the sight of every bench or cushioned chair in the middle of the mall walkway. Each time they saw a sitting area, they ran over to clamber onto the benches and conjure up some pretend scenario in their minds.
They have both been oddly obsessed with furniture lately, and they wanted to know if the mall had beds and dressers and ovens and refrigerators like a house does. I explained to them that no one lives or sleeps at the mall. Although when we did see one bed in Macy’s right before we left, they were pretty thrilled. (They’re easily thrilled, which is one of their most endearing qualities.)
I walked them through the food court and explained what kind of food was sold by each tiny restaurant. They were intrigued by the sign for the shut-down Saladworks being reversed, and I told them that most people must not want to eat salad when they go to the mall. Violet was still talking about that backward sign after we got home. You never know what will make an impression.
When we got to Dick’s Sporting Goods, I called an audible and decided to give the kids a whirlwind sports education. So I did my best to explain each sport, demonstrating the use of a baseball glove and a lacrosse stick, and letting them hold each kind of ball. Then at the putting green, the kids grabbed $80 putters and each of them 13-putted from 6 feet away. So it would appear Tiger Woods and Jordan Speith don’t need to watch their backs quite yet.
During our entire mall visit, at this mecca (or former mecca) of consumerism, I spent a grand total of $1.00. And it wasn’t even for something the kids asked for. I saw those vibrating chairs they have in the middle of the mall, near the cell phone case kiosks. And I couldn’t resist letting Greyson and Violet take a ride.
So I had them snuggle up next to each other on one of the chairs. I built up the suspense a little. I watched their eyes get wide with excitement. I inserted a dollar bill.
And I watched with pleasure as they experienced a 3-minute back massage. (Which was really a head massage for Violet because she’s so short.) “It feels bumpity!” she cried giddily. Truly a dollar well spent.
Once we returned to our starting point, they joyously ran circles around the open, blandly empty carpeted area where Santa sets up shop every December. Just ran and ran. Because again, it simply doesn’t take much to make them happy. And that is one of the happiest, simplest joys of my life.
So I would like to say to the fading malls of America: Thanks for the memories. From 1985 to 2023, you’ve given me an enchanting indoor escape. Back in the days when wide-eyed little Jeremy held his mom’s hand. And now in the days when I hold the tiny hands of my own wide-eyed wonders.
Because just like the kids happily plinking and plonking their golf ball all the way around that little putting green until it finally dropped into the hole…
Every day I’ve gone to work for the past few years, I’ve had stowaways in my backpack.
One day it’s a duck and a tiger. The next day it’s a pelican and a giraffe. Yesterday it was a lynx and a unicorn. A different odd couple each morning.
Stuffed animals, stuffed into my backpack with love by my animal-loving children.
At first, it was just one animal, selected by my then-3-year-old boy. Then when my little girl got a little older, she joined in the fun. Ever since, it’s been a pair of animals each day, marching 2 by 2 into their Jansport ark. Kind of like in the story of Noah, but without all the catastrophic flash flooding and wanton obliteration of humanity. (Which is good because my morning commute is challenging enough as it is.)
When my bird-loving Greyson first started sending a stuffed bird with me each morning, I used it simply as a desk mascot. I would set the meadowlark or mockingbird near my keyboard as a little morale boost, so that I would have a reminder of my little boy all day long.
Then one day, I decided to make a video on my lunch break. I took the stuffed animal into an empty classroom of the law school where I work, gave it a goofy little voice (nothing remotely Pixar-caliber, I assure you), and used my iPhone to film the animal conveying a message to the kids. Probably something about missing them, and hoping they were being good for Mama, and telling them about helping me at work. Then I texted it to my wife to show both kids (including Violet, who was 1).
Well, let’s just say it went over quite well. The kids were tickled. And as a result, I have made videos for Greyson and Violet almost every work day for several years.
Some days I do it out of playful joy, and some days I do it out of sheer, wearying contractual obligation. I just can’t bear to endure the disappointed looks on my kids’ faces if I miss a day.
I’ve come to realize that my ability to spark a good idea for these videos on a given week is a kind of bellwether for my mental health. When I am up, when I feel myself, I easily think of all sorts of goofy and creative premises for my little stuffed animal sketches.
I’ve filmed the animals on benches, behind blinds, up in trees, stacked on top of each other, and in various nooks and crannies around campus. I’ve had the animals write messages on a whiteboard with dry erase markers. I’ve used my water bottle as a prop in multiple different ways. I’ve done an Abbott and Costello style routine.
But when I am down, when I don’t feel myself, it takes all my mental power to conjure up an idea for a sketch. And that idea is usually a blah, recycled one. My improv skills are thwarted by a deadening mental block, so the video is slapdash and uninspired.
At least it’s uninspired in my eyes. The kids never seem to notice or judge these gradations in my performance. They are the most generous audience any sketch comedy troupe, stuffed or human, has ever performed for. They smile or laugh at just about any cheesy, strained joke I put into my videos. When I get home from work and ask them about it, they regale me with a wide-eyed plot synopsis of what happened in that day’s sketch.
Their appreciation is a beautiful, pristine thing. Even when my mental health is not.
And so I will keep churning out a video each day, even on the days when I have no ideas left. Because those videos, clever or not, inspired or not, are the lifeline connecting me to my kids in the middle of every workday.
Reminding me of why I go to work. Reminding me of the simple value of creativity. Reminding me to not take myself too seriously.
And hopefully reminding my kids how deeply they’re loved.
After all, I feel self-conscious and sometimes downright ridiculous when I improvise a goofy conversation between a stuffed cat and a stuffed cardinal. And I am not inclined to make myself feel self-conscious for just anyone.
But for those two beautiful, beaming, bright-eyed children?