Recipe for a 4-Course Weekend That (Almost) Costs $0.00

Herein are listed the ingredients for a 4-day summer weekend that I can vouch for as satisfying, affordable, and good for your (mental) health.

Please note that depending on your family’s dietary preferences and what you have available in your local cupboards, you may have to modify these ingredients to adapt the menu to your needs. Cooking is infinitely subjective, and this recipe should not be taking as universally prescriptive.

The important thing is to eat well, drink lots of water (see below), and be merry.

Especially since tomorrow we will not die.

1. Take a solo hike.

Before you do a dozen things with your kids, give them a kiss and abandon them for a few hours. Go take a hike by yourself. Be alone with your thoughts in the great outdoors. Marinate in the solitude of nature.

It will remind you that you are not only a parent, but also an individual. An adult with regular adult thoughts. A human being who has an identity beyond raising smaller human beings. A person who is, once in a very great while, permitted to listen to a full album or podcast without any interruptions.

I know, I know, it’s a slippery slope to narcissism and neglect. So once you firmly establish your individuality to yourself, crank the Harry Chapin on your way home and go hang out with the cat in the cradle and the silver spoon for the rest of the weekend.

2. Take a duet, trio, or quartet hike.

The only thing that’s as satisfying as hiking alone is hiking with nature-loving children. (Although fair warning: It’s considerably less quiet for some reason. And point B is considerably more elusive.)

So grab those kids, plop ‘em in their car seats, and take ‘em to the nearest trailhead. If they’re like my kids, their favorite thing will be pretending that each boulder they see is a house they want to live in, pointing out where each room of the house is and which houses lack a kitchen or even (yikes) a toilet. But I’m guessing that might be a specific quirk of my specific children.

In any case, nature is endlessly entertaining. Way better than TV. And there’s no breaking news! And no Viagra commercials!

3. Go to places without admissions fees.

On that note, the two places in society that may be the most antithetical to commercialism are libraries and parks. Especially in a state like Pennsylvania, where state parks have free admission. So keep your wallet safely ensconced in your pocket and visit these quiet bastions of serenity and simplicity. Your depleted checking account, and your oft-depleted soul, will thank you.

(In a perfect world, your kids will too. But my kids aren’t very good at showing gratitude. So in lieu of that, I just warmly thank myself. To which myself chirps, “You’re quite welcome!” Whatever works.)

4. Find a free outdoor David Bowie tribute concert.

To be clear, it doesn’t need to be David Bowie. Or outdoor. Or even free, for that matter. (It does have to be a concert, though. If it’s not a concert, then you’re simply going too far afield from the recipe at hand. I’m sorry, but it’s my list.)

Having said that, I recommend the above combination if you can somehow pull it off. Because as I learned last weekend, David Bowie songs are the perfect combination of music that is: (1) appealing to parents born in the 1980s, (2) fun for kids born in the 2010s, and (3) conducive to a family dance party in the grass on a mild summer evening while the sun sets at a local park. And it’s especially great if they wrap up their set with “Under Pressure.”

Rest in peace, David Bowie. (And you too, Freddie Mercury.)

5. Go to my parents’ house.

This one might be a little tough to pull off since most people reading this will not live within easy driving distance of my parents. But even if it necessitates a long drive, or a multi-day road trip, it will be well worth the gas money. Because my parents are awesome.

They’re so awesome that my kids get huge grins on their faces when they hear we’re going to “Grandma’s house.” (Sorry to cut you out of the mortgage agreement, Dad.) They know that whether they have an itinerary or just have 5 hours of unstructured play time, they’ll have a blast at that house, a house which is their favorite house of all the houses.

So head over to my parent’s place. Just be sure to call first to make sure they’re at home.

6. Pay a visit to the Sweetest Place on Earth.™

This might seem like a repeat of #5, but in this case I’m talking about Hersheypark. The catch is, it costs a lot of money. Between the $57 tickets (even for 3-year-olds somehow) and the $25 parking, you’ll drop $250 for a family of 4 even before you factor in gas, $11 burgers, and plush Hershey’s Kiss dolls for the kids.

However, if you’re lucky enough to know several gracious souls who warmly offer your family free tickets, the day trip will become exponentially more affordable. (Thank you, kind benefactors!)

Then you can spend 5 hours watching your kids delightedly hop from ride to ride — little cars, little helicopters, little space shuttles, a little pirate ship, and not-at-all-little bees. All while giant rollercoasters tower above you, filled with screaming adults who aren’t lucky enough to have small, wonderstruck kids. I felt bad for all those sad souls. (I assume that’s why they were screaming. Sheer despair at being stuck on those boring rollercoasters.)

7. Pat your wallet and be grateful for simple, mostly-free pleasures.

As you drive home from your final adventure of the 4-day weekend, think back on how much fun you had, and how little money you spent. And be grateful that despite the pervasive grip of commerce over nearly every aspect of modern life, there are still plenty of ways to beat the system and have fun with your children on a shoestring budget.

Because even without free “Hersheypark happy” tickets or easy access to Don and Anita Wingert’s happy house, the world is a place full of books, and games, and parks, and libraries, and hiking trails, and free concerts.

And happy ways to spend your next weekend (without spending all your money).

The Land of Fire & Ice (& Rock)

I’ve never been to Iceland, and I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to venture that far east. (I mean, I might take the kids halfway across the Atlantic sometime. But it just costs too much right now to cross the entire pond.)

However, I’ve been 50 yards away from 4 Icelandic guys on 3 separate occasions. And on the basis of the music I heard them create, I can breathlessly vouch for the heart-crushing beauty and magic of that place.

On each of those occasions, I sat in rapt, jaw-dropped, heart-stopped wonder as Sigur Rós somehow managed to both obliterate my eardrums and lull me into a peaceful trance. It’s that fusion of face-melting rock and somnolent ambience that defines the Sigur Rós vibe.

Their songs are guitar-smashing lullabies.

The first time I saw them was in February 2006 at an opera house in Denver.

Then I saw them in June 2008 at Bonnaroo, a music festival on a gigantic patch of sweltering, often muddy Tennessee farmland. Which I’d say is pretty much the exact opposite of an opera house.

Then 14 years later, earlier this month, I saw them at another opera house in Philadelphia.

I’m not much of an opera guy. But listening to Jonsi, the lead singer of Sigur Rós, sing his heart out at the highest, most glass-shattering register imaginable, in an opera house setting? I’ll sign up for that until the fat opera lady sings. (Or in this case, the wiry, gay, 1-eyed Icelandic rock guy.)

The first time I saw Sigur Rós, I was in the late stages of the bad-decision chapter of my life, in which I relied on alcohol and unprescribed drugs to manufacture good feelings. That night I was under a particular influence (which will remain unnamed), and it blanketed the concert experience in a syrupy haze.

While I was fully blown away by the show, I specifically recall being sharply disappointed in myself afterward that I hadn’t trusted the music itself to be the unparalleled natural high I already knew it to be. And that was, if I recall correctly, the final night that I put myself under that particular influence. A year later, I gave up booze as well.

So I guess you could say the intoxicating music of Sigur Rós helped me start the process of sobering up.

Then two summers later, I saw them play at Bonnaroo, where the oddly juxtaposed headliners that year were Pearl Jam, Jack Johnson, Kanye West, Widespread Panic, Metallica, and Chris Rock (who, quite disappointingly, did not play instruments or sing at all).

The bands I was most excited to see were the lower-billed My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie, The Swell Season, Rogue Wave, and Ben Folds. My happiest musical surprise was seeing the legendary B.B. King, who had to remain seated while he sang the blues, just 7 years before he would pass away.

But my #1 priority, especially after my 2006 experience, was seeing Sigur Rós. And true to form, they blew the roof off the giant tent under which I sat on the grass with some newfound friends I had just made.

I hadn’t yet totally given up occasional recreational drug use in the spring of 2008, but for some reason I was staunchly convinced that I wanted to experience Bonnaroo 100% sober. Despite that not being standard practice at a music festival. And it was, perhaps not surprisingly to those of us who have embraced sobriety, 100% worth it. I made friends and felt as (naturally) high as a kite for the entire 4-day extravaganza. And the Sigur Rós show was my highest high.

Now fast forward 14 years. I hadn’t listened to the band quite as much during my 30s, partly because I became obsessed with post-rock and partly because Sigur Rós’ musical output wasn’t quite as euphoric (or prolific), with the noted exception of 2012’s jaw-dropping Valtari.

Jonsi did solo albums that bookended the decade in 2010 and 2020, and the full band did some one-off experiments including a sleep album and scoring a 24-hour road trip circumnavigating the island they call home. But they didn’t release any traditional, and fully new, studio albums after 2013. Nonetheless, I was happy to keep the #3 spot warm for Sigur Rós in my all-time favorite band list, behind Caspian and Hammock, the other two bands that have crafted the soundtrack of my adult life.

Then there I was, suddenly 42, emerging from a Covid cocoon that kept me from seeing any live shows for the better part of 2 years. And as part of a wild flurry of 2022 “comeback” concerts, I finally managed to catch up with my Icelandic muses at a Philadelphia opera house called The Met.

It was my first time seeing them in a lifetime and a half — okay, a decade and a half. It was a densely packed time for me during which I fell in love and got married and moved cross-country and bought a house and watched my wife lovingly (and without pain meds!) deliver the two most beautiful children I’ve ever seen.

Then 6 years later, earlier this month, I witnessed my 3rd Sigur Rós show with my dear friend Nate. I met him 22 years ago, just one year before I discovered the band through the soundtrack of the Cruise-and-Cruz starring Vanilla Sky. (Thanks, Cameron Crowe! I owe you bigtime.) And once again, Sigur Rós blew the roof off. Let me tell you, these guys have had to pay for a lot of destroyed roofs.

I was thrilled to hear my guys play for a whopping 2 hours and 45 minutes. And I was even more thrilled that a preponderance of that time, 15 out of 21 songs, was spent revisiting their first 4 albums, including Takk — which means “thanks” — one of the most fully formed albums I’ve ever heard. There was a particular focus on ( ), their pristinely punctuated 3rd album that was released exactly 20 years ago. (Maybe I love it partly because, as you might have noticed, I’m a sucker for parentheses.)

Between Jonsi’s staggeringly pure vocals — and his signature use of a cello bow on an electric guitar — to Kjartan’s radiant piano to Georg’s imposing bass to the restrained but anchoring percussion elements (plus the string section provided by Amiina, a 4-woman band who used to tour with them and record with them in studio), the live sound created by Sigur Rós is enormous.

It’s tall, and it’s wide, and it’s deep, and it’s vast.

It’s also as mysterious and mesmerizing (and occasionally menacing) as the land of fire and ice from which they hail.

So thanks for the memories, gentlemen. Or should I say…


111 Hours of Giddy, Glistening, Gas-Guzzling, Guitar-Grinding Pandemonium

Chapter I: Hours 1-6

It all started with my oldest friend in the world showing up on my doorstep last Friday morning, sporting a Pink Floyd shirt and a newly epic beard. This happy event set in motion a 5-day weekend for the ages. One which Pink Floyd would have heartily endorsed.

I’ve known Dave for 37 years, since we were kindergarteners at Bible Baptist School. We shared nearly every formative adolescent experience until our paths diverged at 22, and we criss-crossed for years after that. Then we saw each other maybe once a year for the past decade and a half, but we chatted sporadically across the miles. We both made many mistakes when we were 22ish that we tried hard to rectify by the time we were 32ish. And now we’re 42ish, doing our best to live our best lives.

It’s always been true that no matter how long it’s been since I’ve seen Dave, we will easily and naturally pick up right where we left off. We never have to warm up to each other. Because the fire of our friendship will always be warm, crackling like campfire logs in the wooded dusk along the Appalachian Trail (100 miles of which we once hiked together in a week, coming within 100 yards of getting crushed by a falling tree at one point).

So last Friday, I savored a morning with Dave. We did nothing but talk. Walk and talk, and sit on a bench and talk, and walk and talk some more. Oh, and we ate a bagel. While talking. In 6 hours, we probably managed to get 37% caught up. Which felt amazing after not seeing each other since last spring.

It was the most epic conversation I’ve had with anyone in a few years.

And yet it was not even in the top 3 most epic things I did last weekend.

That’s the kind of 5-day dopamine extravaganza I just had.

Chapter II: Hours 7-36

After Dave left, I packed my stuff and embarked on a “Daddy Kid Camping” (also known as DKC) trip with the kids. This is an annual event spearheaded by my Messiah College buddies, but it was my inaugural DKC year due to the kids being too young, and Covid being too prevalent, in the last few years.

I was reasonably confident the kids would love DKC, and they sure did. They loved camping in a tent (like we often do in our backyard), they loved playing at the playground, they loved walking around the campsite barefoot, they loved taking a hike, the loved climbing around on a vast boulder field, and they (well, mostly Vi) loved the water at the swimming pool. And to my great delight, Vi said several times: “I love campin’!”

Most of the other kids were older, from 7 to 15, and gallivanted around the woods having Tom Sawyer-esque adventures and joy-riding with one of the dads on our rented golf cart. My kids being younger, they opted to stay close to me. Very close. In fact, I could barely walk over to get something from the minivan without one or both of my kids shadowing my every move. It was good to walk a mile in Dani’s shoes (or Crocs in my case), since she gets shadowed nearly every moment of every day while I’m at work. Let’s just say the camping trip was not the least exhausting thing I’ve ever done.

But the 3 of us had a blast and a half in the woods. And by the time we got home on Saturday night, I felt like I had already experienced an entire weekend of good times and great conversations — with Dave, with my college buddies, and with Greyson and Violet too.

And yet, the fun had only just begun. The weekend promised to be a rager, as the kids would say.

(Not my kids, mind you. They don’t know about ragers yet.)

Chapter III: Hours 37-59

Once we got home, I put the kids to bed since Dani was in Toronto getting her beautiful face melted off at a Caspian show. (Oh, did I fail to mention that my wife hopped the border that morning to see her favorite band, which is also my favorite band? A band that is low-level famous for melting people’s faces off? That tiny detail must have slipped my mind. My bad.)

So while Dani was in a Caspian-induced trance in Canada’s largest city, I was playing Caspian’s mellow songs on my phone to lull my small kids into the trance of sleep after their unusually eventful day.

When I woke up 8 hours later on Sunday morning, I read the kids a few books and left them in the capable hands of my parents. Then I pointed my car in the direction of Motown and sped off to bravely embrace the same face-melting fate as Dani had endured the night before.

I drove, mostly barefoot, through the lush and contoured (and drearily Trump-monument-speckled) landscape of western Pennsylvania while listening to Sigur Ros and Caspian and feeling pretty close to invincible. So invincible, in fact, that I got on the wrong highway while sing/humming along to Icelandic rock and set myself back by a full 45 minutes and $9 of gas. But it didn’t faze me. Because nothing could faze me that day. And here’s another reason why I was unfaze-able.

Phil from Caspian messaged me while I was on my unintended detour and said simply:

“Darkfield or Fire Made Flesh?”

For the record (so to speak), those are song titles. And Phil, the frontman for my favorite band on the planet, was asking me — this guy right here! — to pick one of the songs for their set list that night.

That is a thing which happened. Not in my fevered imagination, but in reality. And in addition to 70 bucks’ worth of gas and a million bucks’ worth of enthusiasm, that is what propelled me from Appalachia to Motown.

It’s an honor I won’t soon forget.

Before pulling into Detroit, I met up with my buddy Jonathan in Toledo, whom I had never met before but with whom I’ve enjoyed being social media pen pals for 3 years. We drove the last 90 minutes together and savored some sterling conversation. Social media may be a dumpster fire at times, but it also a place where connection is eminently possible. And becoming friends with Jonathan, a poet and philosopher and deeply sensitive soul, is proof of that. He’s a good man with a big heart, and it was a privilege to share my 9th Caspian experience with him.

It’s a fun added bonus that Jonathan happens to love all 3 of my favorite bands: Caspian, Hammock, and Sigur Ros. He even wore a Hammock shirt to the Caspian show (while I wore my Caspian shirt, spurning the lame advice of the “don’t be that guy” guy played by Jeremy Piven in PCU).

After all, when it comes to overthinking what shirt you wear to a concert?

Don’t be that guy.

Chapter IV: Hours 60-79

How do I love attending thee shows of Caspian? Let me count the ways. And then let me give up counting, because it’s too daunting of a task.

A Caspian live show is my mecca, and driving 8-9 hours for the experience is my pilgrimage. (Sorry to co-opt those words, but it truly does feel religious on some level. Or at least spiritual.)

But even before Caspian took the stage, a few things happened that set the stage for an epic night. First, I met all 4 members of Man Mountain, the Michigan-based instrumental rock band that opened for Caspian on one night only of this tour. Man Mountain is currently one of my top 10 bands, despite only having 1½ albums under their belts. Their music is pristinely composed, achingly earnest, and wonderfully heavy at times. I met Jake first, and then brothers Mike and David, and then Bryan, and all 4 of them immediately felt like my buddies. They were openly grateful for my fandom and impressed at how far I drove for Caspian, whom they also love.

I also met multiple people near the stage while we waited between sets, as I often seem to do. It’s one of the decided perks of being an extrovert. Jonathan and I chatted with our fellow fans, including about Hammock and Sigur Ros (the band I was slated to see a few days later).

But mostly we all gushed about Caspian, the guests of honor. Since they were the reason we had all converged in Ferndale, a working-class, bombed-out Detroit suburb.

And their 10-song set was the bomb. I guess you could say their engine was firing on all Pistons.

(As a hardcore fan of the Bad Boys during my entire adolescence and 20s, I’d be remiss not to make that joke.)

Listening to Caspian jam while pressed up against the stage is, quite simply, my happy place. And my lucid place. And my physically liberated, headbanging, no-longer-overthinking place. The experience of listening to them play live combines the communal joy of a sonically immersive worship service with the private clarity of a panoramic mountaintop epiphany. Admiring their sheer talent and watching their sheer joy, while in the company of a few hundred fellow admirers (who are basking in that same joy) is an experience of sheer connectedness.

On guitar, Cal is a soulful, impeccable technician and Jonny is a kinetic, virtuosic performer. Jani anchors the wrecking crew with his monster-fuzz bass riffs (incidentally living out my dream career). Justin pounds the skins with relentless fire and fury. And Phil, the soft-spoken leader of this band of brothers, always thrills and throttles and throws down with the best of ‘em.

There were times when I thought Phil’s Jazzmaster might impale me as he and I were both headbanging within 4 feet of each other. Heck, it might have been an honor to get in a minor collision with that Fender. But the guys made optimal use of their minimal real estate on that small stage, and they carefully spared the necks of us front-row bangers as they mashed and pummeled us all into happy oblivion.

To briefly get a bit more granular, “Arcs of Command” and “The Raven” and “Collapser” and “Fire Made Flesh” — the one I hand-selected! — each created a punishing wall of sound. “Nagoya” was a shimmering prologue, and a happy surprise since it’s a new-ish song that has never been recorded in studio. “Division Blues” is always a visceral thrill since it’s an underrated, time-signature-shifting gem and also my anthem for the bruising Covid era. (Plus, Phil said from the stage “this is for our boy Jeremy”! For the second time in 9 months. What a feeling!)

“Malacoda” was an unexpected throwback to my favorite Caspian album, 2009’s Tertia, a song that for me evokes Colorado. A simpler time in both my life and the world in general. Meanwhile, the perennial set closer “Castles High, Marble Bright” radiated joy and longing as every Caspian song — even the most blistering scorchers — somehow manage to do. (“Flowers of Light” and “Gone in Bloom and Bough” exude that same buoyant hopefulness too. There, I managed to mention all 10 songs they played!)

At the end of Caspian’s set, while the crowd was ovationing (ovating?) wildly, Phil gave me one of those bro-shakes — like a vertical hand clasp — from stage. Yet another honor to add to my list. It meant a lot to me to know that it meant a lot to them that I drove 9 hours to see them play. They are as grateful and down-to-earth as rock bands come.

Afterward I soaked up every fragment of conversation I could, from the Man Mountain guys (again); to Mirza, the Arms & Sleepers guy who also opened for Caspian; to Jonny from Caspian, who was decompressing outside.

And then, with a guitar-induced buzz in our ears, Jonathan and I drove back to Toledo and bid farewell. Happily exhausted, I crashed for 4 hours in the tilted-back driver’s seat of my Caliber in a Target parking lot, just like I loved to do in my free-wheeling, road-tripping, shoestring-budgeting 20s. I slept until the sun dawned on western Ohio.

It was, in the end, a night to end all nights.

Chapter V: Hours 80-111

But then there was another night to end all nights, 2 nights later. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this one shorter.

After getting home and enjoying a good night of sleep (in a bed, not a car) and taking Greyson and Vi on a hike (on White Rocks Trail), I abandoned them once again (sorry, kids!) and drove to Philadelphia on a Tuesday afternoon. I met up with my college buddy Nate, whom I’ve known and loved for 22 years. We grabbed some delectable Malaysian food (props to Penang), managed to find free parking rather than using the $50 lot most people were stuck with (way to know the city, Nate!) and headed to an opera house called The Met to have our minds blown by Sigur Ros.

Suffice it to say that the show was a hyper-generous 165 minutes in length, and every one of those minutes was transfixing. No one stages a soul-exhuming sound-and-light show quite like Jonsi, Georg, and Kjartan, the preeminent purveyors (along with Bjork, that is) of Icelandic musical magic.

It’s also fun when you expect a show to be 90 minutes, and then 85 minutes into it, the stage goes dark. And you think “Ah man, it’s almost over.” But then a word appears on the screen above the stage.


It was only halftime! I got double what I expected, including most of my favorite songs in the second half. So that made it even more thrilling than it already would have been.

I savored the time with my buddy Nate, one of the truest, bluest guys I’ve ever met. I’m honored to known him and to have over 2 decades of epic memories with him, from concerts to canoeing trips to campouts. (And I’m grateful he drove us to the Sigur Ros show since city driving gives me anxiety, and since I never would have found free nearby parking in 3 hours of white-knuckle searching.)

At the show, Nate and I also met up and enjoyed chatting with a nice guy named Mike who, just like Jonathan, I only knew through social media. Maybe that realm isn’t quite the unredeemable dumpster fire we’ve made it out to be.

As far as 21-song Sigur Ros setlists go, this was the best possible one.

And as for Tuesday nights (not usually exciting), this was the best possible one.

And as for 5-day stretches, this ranked very high. After all, I had…

2 heart-bolstering convergences with long-lost best friends.

2 soul-inflating concerts featuring my favorite rock bands on earth.

1 camping trip with 2 wonderstruck, wide-eyed, wild-place-loving children.

And between Dani and me, about $250 worth of gas-guzzling road-trips.

That last thing wasn’t quite as fun. But you know what it very much was?




I Love You Just the Way You Are

Parenting is a schizophrenic series of moments.

In our worst moments, those flustered frazzled furious ones, we can delude ourselves into wishing our children were different. If only she didn’t have such an intractable will. If only he didn’t fall to pieces over such tiny things. If only they were as well-behaved as it seems like other people’s kids are.

But in our better moments, we know better. When I am my most lucid self, I am convinced beyond words, beyond logic, beyond pragmatism, that I would never want my children to be different. That in fact, I would be deeply depressed if they magically morphed into perfectly adjusted, perfectly well-behaved, fundamentally altered people.

The other day, this realization wrapped itself around my heart like a warm embrace.

My family of 4 was at a state park on Memorial Day weekend, just after a fun family convergence with my oldest brother, his family, and our parents. Everyone else had left following a picnic and an Appalachian Trail hike. I wanted to get the kids in the creek to play before we headed home. I’ve been trying to find occasions to play in the water since our 5-year-old has been up and down lately in his willingness to get wet.

The previous weekend, at a different state park, we enjoyed a memorable, sun-kissed afternoon at a lake beach. We built a sand castle with a moat, we waded into the lake, and our idiosyncratic Greyson surprised us by embracing both the sand and the semi-murky water with open (sunscreen-slathered) arms. Which felt like progress.

But on this day, Greyson wasn’t nearly as amenable. He waded tentatively into the creek for a minute, but then he balked and got a bit agitated, insisting on being held. Once he decides he doesn’t want to do a thing, there’s usually nothing we can do to persuade him otherwise. Maybe it was the slightly colder water, or the movement of the mild creek rapids nearby. It’s hard to say since, just like some adults (but unlike his dad), he’s not usually good at clearly communicating his feelings and fears.

I was in one of my aforementioned better moments, thankfully. The beauty of the state park, the pleasant enjoyment of our family meet-up, and my overall recent clarity made it easy on this particular day for me to gladly pick up my boy and hold him while I waded further into the creek. I briefly tried to dip his feet into the water again, but he wasn’t into it. He clung tightly to me. I was happy to let it go.

And in that moment, while holding my tall and wiry little boy, I was overcome with an intense surge of parental love. And I said to Greyson with great feeling, “Do you know something, buddy? I love you so much, just the way you are. I would never want you to be any different.”

Uttering those words aloud made their glistening truth even more real. And it meant the world to be able to say it right into his ear, with his head resting on my shoulder and his little arms wrapped around my neck. The words that I hope he can vividly remember me saying for as long as he lives. I whispered them like an incantation. Like a sacred oath. Like a reminder for both of our beating hearts.

That our loved ones, be they our kids or our spouses or our friends, don’t have to modify themselves to qualify for our love.

That in fact, love is nothing at all unless it’s unconditional.

And besides, how many more years (or even months) will my 5-going-on-6-year-old gladly let me pick him up? As every parent knows deep down, the cat’s in that cradle. Little Boy Blue, the man in the moon, and Harry Chapin knew what was up.

All we have as human beings are these holy, fleeting moments.

And all we have as parents are our children.

Just the way they are.