Happy (Clever, Goofy, Heartwarming) Trails

Last weekend, Greyson and I hiked the sprawling Appalachian Trail. Well, not quite the whole thing. Just 0.8 miles out of 2,190. But let’s not quibble over details.

We hiked in a southbound direction, and I could almost smell Georgia from the point where we had to turn around and head home to eat breakfast. Maybe next time we’ll walk north and see if we have a better chance of making it to the other end. I think we’re a bit closer to Maine than Georgia, so as long as we walk a bit faster I think we can make it all the way to Mt. Katahdin. (But just to be safe, I’ll be sure to pack a lunch.)

Hiking with Greyson is one of the preeminent joys of my life. The one-on-one bonding time it offers is unlike anything else we do together. It gives me a chance to see my little guy explore the world in a tactile way, on his own terms. It gives the two of us uninterrupted time in which we can discuss anything that might come up (although for now I haven’t tackled anything too daunting). And it gives us fresh air to breathe and an endless supply of natural wonders to behold.


It also inspires a downright bounty of cute, curious, clever Greysonisms. I’d rather share these with the world than hoard them for myself, so I have scattered last weekend’s gems (at least the ones I was able to transcribe in the moment) throughout this post. I hope you smile at them as much as I did.

“I could bring the puffin along! He’s never been to the woods much.”

Greyson carries a stuffed animal along with him everywhere he goes, and lately it’s always a bird. On this day, he selected a puffin to be his hiking buddy. The last time we hiked, he picked a pelican. He sleeps with birds, he hikes with birds, he takes birds to Grandma’s house. He even takes birds with him when he sits on the potty. His favorite Portlandia sketch, without a doubt, would be “Put A Bird On It!” (But I think I’ll wait a few years to expose him to absurdist hipster comedy.)

I love Greyson’s precision in the way he discusses his animals and their habitats. He was excited to take his puffin hiking specifically because he knew that puffins don’t typically spend time in the woods. What a gift Greyson gave that arctic little fellow, showing him the lush wonders of the Appalachians! I like to imagine the puffin regaled all his stuffed friends with tales of his hiking adventures when he got home.


“I’m on top of a rock!…

I’m on top of a mossy green rock!…

I’m on top of a very big rock, underneath the starry sky!”

These were Greyson’s words when we were 1 minute into our hike — roughly 30, 60, and 90 feet up the trail. He stopped on every rock and proclaimed his whereabouts in an ecstatic state of nature-induced fervor.

For me, that last quote attains a kind of poetry. I like to think that William Wordsworth would have been proud. Or that Walt Whitman might have considered this to be Greyson’s sweetly “barbaric yawp.”

“That looks a little like Indiana! Not quite, but a little like it.”

“The rock looks like the washing machine, and the washing machine looks like New Mexico.”

Greyson is the master of seeing things in other things. More specifically, he sees animals, letters, numbers, and states in the rocks (and leaves, and sticks) he picks up while exploring nature. A year ago, while we visited Colorado, he spent over 2 hours straight picking up every little rock in my in-laws’ backyard and giving it a non-rock identity. He even came up with a rock for every letter of the alphabet, which required quite a vivid imagination in some cases. Ater all, have you ever seen a Q- or an X- or a Z-shaped rock?

On this particular hike, Greyson located rocks that genuinely looked a a little like Indiana and a little like New Mexico. And with the latter rock, he connected it back to our washing machine, which also genuinely looks a little like New Mexico.

Here’s the Indiana rock; see for yourself.


“This piece of lichen looks like the missing dog!”

At a tree near the trailhead, we saw a sign for a missing dog. Thirty minutes later, Greyson was examining some crispy lichen on a boulder. He pulled a piece off, studied it closely, and made the above declaration. And by golly, that lichen does look like a dog! Again, see for yourself.


One thing’s for sure: I look forward to staring up at the clouds with this boy for years to come. I’m sure he’ll see a firmament teeming with creatures on any given “cloudacious” day. (Greyson coined that word earlier this summer.)

“None of the stuff in that basement is for cats.”

At the top of the small mountain knob we ascended was one of the tactile wonders of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania: An unexpected boulder field you have to climb through like a jungle gym. I’m talking boulders the size of cars, or even houses. I made some kind of reference to Greyson about the spaces between the huge rocks looking like rooms of a house.



So he started ascribing different names to the “rooms” between the boulders — a kitchen, a bathroom, a “diaper changing bedroom” (since that’s what we call our guest bedroom), a living room. After he identified the basement, he said “None of the stuff in that basement is for cats.” Why, you might (and almost certainly will) ask?

Because stored in our basement, we have some cat items like a litter box and a kitty bed that our late, beloved Dommy used.

These are the kinds of mental connections that Greyson makes all the time. Which is why there is never anything approaching a dull moment in our house.

“He walked some of the time, but not all the time.”

When we got home from our hike, we told Danielle all about our adventures and I showed her the tiny dog-shaped lichen that I had gingerly held onto. She showered Greyson with effusive praise for his hiking prowess and his various nature discoveries.

Then she asked him how his puffin enjoyed the hike. Greyson’s response, shown above, nicely straddles the line between giving his puffin credit for hiking part of the way up a steep trail and also being honest about the puffin’s limitations on rocky mountainous terrain. I respect his honest assessment.


I present this final Greyson quote, which he sweetly uttered in the minivan on the ride home, without comment.

Like my son, it speaks for itself quite beautifully.

“I like hiking. I wish we could go hiking every day!”



Balls, Bubbles, Birds, and a Bucket

I faintly remember, like a faded image from a tiresome dream, my 5:00 work commute. Navigating rush hour traffic. Listening to NPR crisply recount the day’s political indignities. Clenching my teeth (and the steering wheel) at each slowdown and each stoplight, wanting so badly to be home with my little family.

These days, 5:00 looks a whole lot different. Every day, while Danielle makes dinner, I whisk the kids into the woods for some nature time. It’s my favorite highlight of the quarantine routine we’ve established over the past 4 months. Each of us gets exactly what we need by the late afternoon, especially on a weekday — wide open spaces for the kids, alone time with the kids for me, and actual alone time for Danielle (a nearly unimaginable concept for her). A win-win-win if there ever was one!

We are deeply fortunate to have a spacious wooded area directly across from our rural home, complete with a scenic 0.2-mile paved loop, a gazebo, and multiple park benches. Greyson and Violet adore every square inch of their utopian miniature forest filled with oak and pine trees. It’s adjacent to a park with pavilions and a playground located down the hill, where the kids sometimes enjoy swinging and sliding. But they’re just as happy staying under the cool canopy of the trees and making their own fun.

Greyson has an endearing level of affection for the scattered park benches where we station ourselves each day — and where he now has accumulated years’ worth of nature memories. We’ve given each one its own name — Pinecone Bench, Horseshoe Bench, Swamp Bench, and so on. His favorite one by a good margin is Gazebo Bench, due to its proximity to both a tree with a low branch (to sit his birds on!) and the titular gazebo (to sit himself in!).

The items we pack for our daily woods “trip” have changed a bit over time. In the spring, Greyson would bring about a dozen little animals that he would carefully arrange on benches, tree roots, and low branches. Now he’s primarily obsessed with avian creatures, so he brings a combination of small stuffed birds (Quinn the quail, Hummy the hummingbird, Patel the peacock) and cut-out, laminated birds that my mom lovingly crafted for him. He carries these birds in a small plastic orange bucket, occasionally spilling his feathered friends on the ground when he runs too fast or gets distracted by something in the woods. And little Violet clutches a stuffed bird of her own, perhaps wanting to emulate her big brother.


For the last few weeks I’ve also brought along bubbles to blow. Both kids enjoy watching the floating silvery orbs hang in the air, and Violet finds amusement in poking the ones that land softly in the grass. Greyson once said, “They look like fish! Or like round animals with no tail and no head!”

I’ve also recently started bringing a small rubber ball, about the size of a grapefruit, because it suddenly occurred to me that I derived a lot of fun as a kid from the simple act of rolling a ball down a path or hallway. This has proven to be a good addition to our repertoire since Greyson likes to kick the ball and Violet gets a kick out of watching me roll it down the walking path or throw it up onto the gazebo roof to see which side it will come down. I have dubbed this game “roofball.” (Patent pending.)

It’s fun to see Greyson show his first interest, however faint, in the sporting realm. We’ll see if it turns into anything, or if he stays singularly focused on nature and books. I’m thrilled either way. Meanwhile, Violet can throw like a softball star, and I’ve also learned that she can drag heavy branches around like a weightlifter! Clearly she is her mama’s tenacious daughter.

Greyson and Violet love to play together, but their styles of play are different. This can be seen clearly in the woods. Our ardent little zoologist wanders around in bird-based reveries, just as he does at home. He lists facts, makes up stories, and sometimes composes little songs about whatever birds (stuffed or laminated) he has brought along on a given day. This is how our nature boy plays. I’m glad he snaps out of his reveries long enough to laugh giddily at his sister’s shenanigans. Violet, meanwhile, likes to pick up big sticks, dig in the dirt, feel tree bark, examine mushrooms, stand on tree stumps, climb atop anything she can, and interact as closely as possible with nature. This is how our nature girl plays.

Greyson’s engagement with nature is more cerebral, while Violet’s is tactile. I love both of their approaches, which are notably divergent even though we’ve raised them identically. (Hey, it’s true after all! Every child is different! Nature supersedes nurture when it comes to identity!)

Spending 30-45 minutes before dinner in the woods with Greyson and Violet is the ideal way to pivot out of my work life and reenter my family life. (Although the line between the two is blissfully blurred these days.) I couldn’t ask for a more refreshing or convenient shady glade in which to luxuriate during the dog days of summer, or the dog hours of late afternoon. And I couldn’t ask for two more engaging and endearing nature buddies with whom to savor that luxury.

The two of them are more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Or, you know…

A bucket of birds.


In Praise of the 3-Day Weekend

In the hallowed religion of American capitalism, the 5-day work week is sacrosanct. The central tenet of its orthodoxy. The firm foundation that undergirds the towering cathedral of the U.S. market economy.

I’m not familiar with any significant national efforts to call the 5-day work week into question, and until my mid-30s I myself took it for granted as a drab, draining, practical necessity.

But for 10 glorious weeks every year, I get a glimpse of something better. Something more breathable. Something more human.

I work in academia, at a law school, where the slowness of the summer semester years ago prompted a campus-wide policy of 4-day summer work weeks. We work a few extra hours on Monday to Thursday, and in exchange we are blissfully unencumbered every Friday from early June to mid-August.

To some, it might seem like a small thing. After all, we’re still working the same number of hours each week. And it’s only 10 out of 52 Fridays a year.

But man do those Fridays feel good.

The difference between being away from work for 64 hours or for 88 hours is psychologically significant and physically noticeable. As anyone who has ever worked a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday job can attest, there are some weeks when you don’t truly feel mentally free of your job until Saturday afternoon. And the new work week often starts looming over your head by late Sunday afternoon. That gives you little more than 24 hours to truly relax, with your whole mind and body unburdened by the endless mouse marathon.

But what if I told you that we could add an extra 24 hours to that essential period of disconnection from the weekly grind? What if I told you that even after a rough work week that required half a day of decompression, you could feel like yourself again on Friday afternoon and then ride that feeling all the way to dinnertime on Sunday?

Many in the United States are so indoctrinated in the virtues of 9-to-5 capitalism that they can’t see any virtue outside of that rigid time frame. They don’t realize the extent to which our American way of life is less healthy and less family-oriented (and even less genuinely leisure-oriented) than many similarly affluent Western nations.

Just in the last 2 years, I noticed this contrast when my family visited Ottawa twice. My brothers observed it while traveling in Scandinavia a few years back. I witnessed it all 3 times I vacationed in Europe over the past 2 decades. These are places, generally speaking, where work and leisure seem to be valued equally. Where a healthy balance is achieved that often eludes us as Americans.

A nationwide shift to a default 4-day work week would publicly realign the priorities of our country. It would assert the importance of the family over the economy; of people over profit; of free time over the free market. It would give everyone an extra 8 hours (and really, an extra 24 hours) to spend with their partners, their children, their pets. To savor the company of our companions, both human and furry, who make work worth working — and life worth living.

This shift would be invaluable, even during a quarantine where many of us are already stationed at home. In fact, I would argue that it would be even more invaluable during a quarantine. Anything that brings us closer to the ones we love will make us stronger and more resistant to the viruses of modern life — apathy, disconnectedness, creeping despair. We are more susceptible to all of these infections during a pandemic, but a robust family life can help provide immunity.

I’m not telling you that the change to a 4-day work week would be logistically easy. I’m not even claiming that it would be equally profitable for businesses. I’m simply convinced that regardless of its effect on the rat race, it would be deeply beneficial to the human race.

And isn’t the outcome of that race, now more than ever, the one that should matter most?