Moment of Surrender

There is a magical thing called a nap drive. If you’ve ever had a sleep-resistant small child, you might be familiar with its strange and wondrous spell.

A nap drive is a simple concept: You buckle your tired child into a car seat and drive (and drive and drive, if needed) until your child falls asleep. You drive aimlessly and, if you want to be economical, you drive slowly. Since there is no physical destination that needs to be reached, nap driving doesn’t feel like any other form of driving. There’s something zen about it. What’s the point of having a Point B anyway? Just slowly loop your way from Point A right back to Point A. Embrace the quarantine ethos. Home is where the heart is anyway.

Going places is for suckers.

Soundtrack selection is crucial to any good nap drive. The music can’t be bombastic or dissonant. Drums should be avoided as much as possible. But you don’t have to listen to Raffi on infinite repeat either. The ideal is to find music that both appeals to the parent in the driver seat and soothes the baby in the car seat. Introspective serenity is my vibe of choice for these drives. And for me, no one does introspection or serenity better than an ambient band named Hammock.

This week I savored the distinct pleasures of both a sunny nap drive (bright, vivid, extroverted, peaceful) and a rainy nap drive (drab, reflective, introverted, just as peaceful), and each day I chose the Hammock album that was most conducive to that day’s weather palate. If you don’t yet know the joy of discovering optimal weather/music pairings, then I feel sorry for you. Truly, I do.

I’m fortunate to live in a quiet rural area. There’s a soul-settling, heart-fortifying joy in driving slowly down empty backroads, past horses and cows and sheep and new baby lambs and protective dogs. No places to go, no people to see. Zero billboards. No big box stores. Just languid and newly verdant farmland as far as the eye can see. My own private Mayberry. (Or my own private countryside just outside Mayberry, to be exact.)

But the highest beauty of a nap drive is the nap-taker herself: Our sweet, spunky, wide-eyed, 18-month-old girl, who has a hard time slowing down enough from her living room adventures to willingly surrender to sleep. But for some reason, when I buckle her into in the car seat and start the ignition, she can zonk out within a matter of minutes. Sometimes as little as 40 or 50 seconds. Who knew that the hum of the minivan was the ultimate cure for insomnia?

Catching glimpses of Violet’s sleepy little face in the rearview mirror is pure fatherly delight. Watching as her tiny eyelids start to droop, then bounce back open to gaze up at the sky once more, then sag under the weight of her exhaustion, her long eyelashes at last coming to rest on her smooth rosy cheeks after a jam-packed morning of revelry.

That’s the exquisite joy of taking a nap drive with my tiny napping co-pilot. In this age of roiling stress and uncertainty, I wish I could share this tiny delight with everyone.

But hopefully in some tiny way, I just did.


The Rapidly Expanding Margins of Society

For a few years after college, I lived out in the margins. I rumbled around North America in my maroon ’91 Toyota Corolla, trying to split the difference between Jack Kerouac and Chris McCandless, and taking odd seasonal jobs when I was strapped for cash. I slept in cheap hostels and visited friends and family scattered around the country (and beautiful British Columbia). I ate cheap, makeshift, non-perishable “meals” out of the trunk of my car.

Sometimes to save money, I slept in my car for weeks on end. I slept at rest stops, remote pullouts, and Walmart parking lots. I remember waking up in my car on a morning so cold that the inside of my windshield was covered with a thin layer of ice. I remember being so foolish as to pop a sleeping pill 30 minutes before getting to my rest stop of choice, just so that once I finally pulled over I wouldn’t have to toss and turn in the cold darkness as I drifted off to sleep in the folded-down driver’s seat. I remember, 15 minutes later, my eyes getting heavy behind the wheel as I nervously scanned the side of the road for pullouts.

And I remember — or in some cases don’t remember — the alcohol and the drug use.

I’m deeply fortunate that I made it through the first half of my 20s in one piece. I’m truly, endlessly grateful that I managed to live long enough to find the love of my life, followed 7 years later by the two other pint-sized loves of my life.

And I can’t even begin to picture what it would have been like if a pandemic had ripped through every corner of this country while I floated around on its margins. I balk to imagine it.

I had minimal savings, no job for 7 months a year, no health insurance (this was before Obamacare and its protection for those 26 and younger), and all of my necessary worldly possessions fit comfortably in my Corolla. I would have been significantly unequipped for a quarantine — can you shelter in place in a compact car? — and significantly exposed as I drifted along the highways and backroads of the United States.

This was also the last chapter of my life before I owned a cell phone, so I would have likely learned about the pandemic while checking my email at a public library. I can only venture a guess as to how agonizing that moment of alarmed realization would have been, as I instinctively scanned the library in Forks, Washington or Missoula, Montana or Kelowna, British Columbia for a familiar face to share my panic with.

I would have of course found no such thing. I was in a wilderness of the unknown. I would have likely called my mom, and she would have likely — or much more than likely — begged me to come home. And I would have then likely driven 3,000 miles to Mechanicsburg with fear in my heart every time I stopped the car. Fear that I would come in contact with the wrong person, or that my car wouldn’t start again and I wouldn’t be able to get the help I need because of the new social distancing edict.

I had no safety net. And millions of people right now are in a similar position, out on the margins of society. Many are transients like I was, unemployed or homeless or drifting around in search of adventure. Those people are vulnerable in a way that’s hard to overstate.

And there are even more — tens of millions, I’d imagine — who are gainfully employed and now have either had their hours reduced to zero, been fully laid off, or still have hours to work but are thus exposed every day to the general public. Any one of those situations would be destabilizing at best and terrifying at worst.

I can sit here and tell you for the 5th time how warmly grateful I am that I am now able to work remotely, or wax eloquently for the 500th time about how lucky I feel having Danielle and the kids. But that feels so out of touch right now. What about those millions of people who are now at the mercy, both financially and physically, of this ravenous pandemic and its endlessly convoluted aftermath?

In a matter of one week, the margins of society have vastly expanded. The margins now encompass a panoramic array of people in a wide array of different kinds of situations. And it should certainly go without saying, but no one deserves to be in that position. Not low-wage workers (i.e. the backbone of a consumer-based society). Not the uninsured. Not the unemployed. Not those who are substance-dependent. Not the homeless.

And not young guys who frequently make bad decisions and are living out of their Toyota Corolla because they read Into the Wild and On the Road and decided to splice the two together.

No one.

We need to somehow find a way, as individuals and as families and as a collective nation-family, to protect the margin dwellers in our midst. Because one thing is certain.

There are exponentially more of them right now than there were just last weekend. The margins are wide and getting wider.

And we will have to think and act like a village if we want to get all of us through this unprecedented crisis in one piece.

Because those margin dwellers? You know who they are? They are not them.

They are us.


How Strange, Innocence

“This is something you’ll tell your future kids all about.”

We’ve all heard this sentence uttered about any number of singular human events, from epic snowstorms to epic travel nightmares; from hurricanes to earthquakes; from unprecedented elections to unprecedented wars.

The phrase nicely conveys the comfort of eventual distance. No matter what trial or tragedy befalls us in this moment, there will almost certainly come a future moment when we can look back at that setback and turn it into an eye-popping, jaw-dropping tale of intrigue — rather than the heart-clenching, gut-wrenching event that we experienced in real time.

You can utter this sentiment to those who haven’t yet had kids but plan to do so. But it also applies to those, like Danielle and me, whose kids are too young to have even the faintest conception of the events that are currently unfolding. With only minor re-wording, I can say to my wife: “This is something we’ll tell our kids all about in the future.”

It’s an odd and awe-inspiring thing to live in the presence of small creatures who do not yet know about human suffering. Tiny humans who are unacquainted with the ravages of nature or the ravages of mankind. Children who don’t know the meaning of the word “virus” or “quarantine.” Including a 3-year-old who, if I mentioned a “pandemic,” would likely smile playfully and say, “That sounds like a panda! They live in China!”

To quote an album title from Explosions in the Sky, one of my favorite bands:

How strange, innocence.

The 4 of us are largely quarantined at this point. We will not be doing any non-essential errands, other than visiting Grandma and Grandpa now and then. But the kids aren’t yet aware of this, and they don’t have even a trace of an idea of the health crisis that is rapidly unfolding around the world right now. Someday we will tell them all about it. But I am grateful that day will not come this year, or next year, or the year after that.

As Greyson’s and Violet’s parents, it is our sacred duty to not only love and protect them, but also to absorb the weight of all this uncertainty and terror into our own somewhat shell-shocked minds. We do this so that they don’t yet need to absorb any of it. So that they can experience early childhood as it was meant to be experienced — carefree and unencumbered.

Parents of school-age children do not have this luxury, of course. And I ache for every mom and dad who has to conjure up for their 6- or 10- or 14-year old child a calm, lucid, panic-resistant explanation of why the world looks and feels so different right now. To be sure, Danielle and I will have to endure that burden about future tumultuous events once our kids are older.

After all, given a long enough span — at least 18 years in most cases — the wheel of parenting fortune lands on almost every possible outcome. Our time will come.

Innocence is, for better and for worse, made to be lost. (Eventually.)

But for now, we are carving out a safe space for our children that is filled with wonder, saturated with joy, and resistant to the news. We are giving them a vision of the world that is expansive and vibrant.

Or to quote another album title from the band I mentioned earlier, we are teaching them this basic sentiment:

The earth is not a cold, dead place.

I will do everything in my power to help my children grow up embracing this evergreen sentiment, deep in the soil of their bones. And I will do everything in my power to keep embracing it myself, no matter what the ultimate ravages of this virus prove to be.

I may not have known it 4 years ago, but this is precisely what I signed up for.

And these are the 3 people I want next to me in a quarantine.

Even though 2 of them have no idea it’s happening.

And that’s 1 comfort I still have.


The Contagion of Hope

Contagions come in many forms. Most of them are not airborne, and they can’t be addressed by vaccine or quarantine.

Panic is a contagion. Ignorance is too. Despair. Apathy. Cruelty. All of these can function as insidious viruses that are transmitted from one to person to another if left unchecked and unchallenged. Their spread is streamlined and expedited by fear.

Fear is like a steroid that compromises the immune system of our souls, rendering us susceptible to all the most debilitating bugs that plague our species.

In a sense, fear is the most destructive virus of all. It spreads like wildfire, scorching our sense of humanity and empathy, rendering us blistered and bleary-eyed. Fear has the capacity to destroy us, or more accurately, to help us destroy ourselves.

But there is another contagion more powerful than all of these. It’s a revolution that is rarely televised. It doesn’t drive ratings. It doesn’t sell products. It doesn’t consolidate power. It’s a contagion that fortifies both our individual and collective strength. It helps render us immune to the virulent strains of panic, ignorance, despair, apathy, cruelty, and fear.

It’s the contagion of hope. We can all inoculate ourselves with it on a regular basis. And we need it right now more than we’ve needed it in a while.

“There are no passengers on spaceship Earth.

We are all crew.”

~ Marshall McLuhan

The hope I’m referring to is a kind of unwavering optimism that imparts a confident sense of purpose. This hope is based on different things for each of us, depending on our philosophical framework. But every one of us, from the deeply pious to the deeply skeptical, has the distinct capacity for hopefulness.

And just as inexorably as viruses and vitriol and all vile contagions spread, hope spreads too. Even without handshakes and hugs, when those basic social norms falls out of favor for a time, hope can be readily transmitted from person to person. It can be conveyed through unbroken eye contact, a warm tone of voice, and thoughtful sentiments uttered with care.

Hope is transmitted through empathy. Hope is transmitted through humans exhibiting humanity.

We are not wired for inertia. We are not wired to give up. We are not wired to resign ourselves to oblivion. And we are certainly not wired to disconnect ourselves from each other in a mad, fevered embrace of self-preservation.

We are wired for interconnectedness. And momentum. And purpose. We are wired for hope.

And hope may be the most contagious strain of all.


Richer Than Bloomberg

When you have two children under 4, a date is about as easy to come by as a clean house, a full anecdote relayed between adults without interruption, or a dodo sighting in the backyard.

But Danielle and I are spotting dodos left and right lately. We may have broken our post-parental personal record by enjoying 3 dates in the span of 5 weeks! We’re clearly out of control. Someone might want to check on our kids.

Let me be clear from the start: My parents are to be credited for this epic accomplishment. Their free, top-shelf babysitting services are what have made this a financially viable option for our shoestring selves. Moving 1,800 miles east 6 years ago has paid off generous dividends, injecting love, joy, and emotional capital into our family ledger. You truly can’t put a price tag on the warm, tender love of emotionally invested grandparents. There’s no dollar amount for that.

But you can put a bright red tag on the act of dropping your kids off at their house so you can gallivant around town like carefree newlyweds. At the going babysitting rate, that’s worth 40 or 50 bucks, easy.

So off we’ve gallivanted. To the movie theater (1917!), to a bookstore (Barnes & Noble!), to restaurants (Harvest! Masala Bistro!), to a hockey game (the Hershey Bears!). Each one of our expenses was offset by coupons, gift cards, and special discounts. Because that’s how we roll. We are the cheapest date around, and we savor every cheap second.

How was the company, you may ask? Thanks for (maybe) asking!

I can imagine a scenario in which a married couple who has been together for a decade goes on a date and realizes — with a knot in their stomach — that they don’t have all that much left to talk about, other than their kids, in the absence of their kids. I can envision that scenario and I warmly empathize with the sadness and loneliness it would stir up.

But it is with gratitude in my heart that I tell you I’ve never had that knotty, sinking feeling. Every time Danielle and I are alone, I am struck once again by my singularly enviable position. I am one decade deep into a lifetime (minus 29 years) spent with my soulmate and my best friend. Not to mention one of the most high-quality people I’ve ever met. What could be better than that?

Sometimes I think about the dating advice I’ll give Greyson and Violet down the road (way, way down the road) when they’re old enough to consider linking their fates with another human being. I’m deeply grateful that I’ll be in a position to tell them from my experience what they should look for — rather than trying to awkwardly explain from my experience what they should avoid.

I’ll convey the enormous importance of finding someone who shares the same core values — personal, parental, planetary, and hopefully political too. I’ll convey how vital it is to join forces with someone who is smart and empathetic. Someone who loves the outdoors as much as they do (and boy do they ever love it). Someone who prizes integrity. Someone who deeply values them.

But when I think about my recent dates with Danielle, it becomes clear that something else belongs right next to all these crucial values. Something our children witness firsthand, and directly participate in, on a daily basis.

A collaborative sense of humor. An appreciation of belly laughter. A desire to poke fun at oneself with giddy delight. A willingness to spin goofy gold out of the straight straw of life. And, speaking for myself at least, a playful propensity for punnery that makes every conversation a jungle gym of words.

Danielle and I have a ridiculous amount of fun together. And I count that as one of the biggest reasons our marriage has been successful. All the other stuff is deep and solemn and meaningful, but it’s our overlapping sense of humor that infuses each day with helium. Remember that scene in Mary Poppins where everyone laughs so hard that they float up to the ceiling? On our better days — and we have more than our share of them — that’s what it feels like in our house.

And that’s a big reason why each of our bargain dates feel so rich with playful joy. [With the notable exception of watching the emotionally brutal 1917. There was not a drop of mirth on that scorched earth.] Money can’t buy happiness, it can’t buy love, and it also can’t buy rib-tickling, torso-constricting merriment.

So these are the broad strokes of what I will tell Greyson and Violet about true love when they’re old enough to hear it. Find someone who is warm-hearted. Find someone who is honest. Find someone who loves nature and animals and books.

And find someone who makes you laugh yourself silly.

If you can thread that needle, then all your cheap dates — whether you’re in the first year of college or the first year of your 40s — will feel positively lavish. And the rest of your life will too. You know why?

Because you’ll be richer than a billionaire.