Nothing Rhymes with Orange Julius

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…

Everything comes full circle.

The Improv Comedy Troupe in My Backpack

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?

Sign me up for improv.

A World of Pure Imagination

What do a mossy boulder, a messy minivan, and a massive (or miniature) jungle gym have in common?

Each of them is transformed, in the eyes of my young children, into something magical. Each is a blank canvas they can exuberantly fill with the vivid scribblings of their imaginations. Each is a relatively small space that expands in their wide-eyed perception to become its own world worth inhabiting, furnishing, and exploring. Sometimes even for an hour or more.

(Oh and also, the world they imagine is usually a house. I guess they just really like houses.)

What this means for me as a dad is that all I have to do to create a magical experience for my kids is to plop them in the minivan and drive them to a playground or to the boulder-strewn Appalachian Trail near our house.

Or if I want to save on gas now and then, I don’t even need to put the key in the ignition. They will sometimes directly ask me, “Can we play in the minivan?” So I just open the side doors and let them climb around inside, creating their own tiny world. The kingdom of Sienna, if you will.

The backseat of a minivan, the contours of a boulder, or the chutes and ladders of a jungle gym. For a child, these are mere portals to whichever corner of the multiverse they feel like visiting on a given day.

My kids are still just 6 and 4, so to some extent their sprawling imagination is simply a feature of their God-given software. Children are born hard-wired with the marvelous ability to transport themselves to envisioned worlds. In that way (and in many other ways), they’re way cooler than most adults.

My sense is that most kids gradually lose that imaginative instinct as they slowly morph into teenagers. But I like to think the decision by my wife and me to consistently limit their screen time will help our kids hold onto that curiosity and wonder for as long as possible.

For years, and even during the pandemic when I worked from home and we were all piled on top of each other, we were unwavering in keeping them to 20-30 total minutes of TV a day. Now it’s more like 40-60 minutes, which includes our post-dinner family viewing of Bluey or Max and Ruby or part of a nature documentary.

(Or sometimes a face-melting Caspian concert video since, as every good adolescent psychologist will tell you, rock music is crucial for proper cognitive development.)

The kids also don’t play with iPads or cell phones, other than to read tracklists and view album covers (“Can I see the picture?”) on Apple Music when we listen to music together.

I suspect this minimal screen exposure has helped to preserve the dynamic clarity of their imaginations. Our kids improvise freewheeling poems and stories, without an ounce of self-consciousness, that blow us away with their unencumbered creative sprawl. They are natural storytellers who are always crafting little narratives together and on their own.

I like to think their instinct for world-building would impress Peter Jackson and James Cameron. Well, Jackson at least. Cameron seems like he’d be pretty hard to impress.

It gives me great joy to hear their expressive little voices in the next room as they regale each other with wild (and sometimes nonsensical) scenarios. They’re like a 2-person improv group that takes whatever props are available, usually stuffed animals or little plastic pieces of furniture, and enacts goofy sketches for an audience of 4, or even 2. (Sometimes even 1 if their sibling isn’t around.)

I’m grateful to be an audience for their improv theatrics, often through eavesdropping from the next room so I don’t impinge on the spontaneity of the proceedings.

It’s a beautiful thing to behold. And it reminds me of a peculiar fellow named Willard Wilbur (better known as “Willy”), who once sang:

Come with me, and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination

I am deeply fortunate that as a parent, I live adjacent to that world. Sometimes the adult world starts to seem bleak or untethered, which has happened more times than I can count since my first child was born in 2016. (What a wearying 7-year stretch in American history, am I right?)

When I grow weary or bleary-eyed, I find it comforting to eavesdrop on, or escape into, that “world of pure imagination” which my kids can so instinctively conjure up.

A world as pure as their untainted hope.

As pure as their sweet innocence.

As pure as imagination itself.

A Walk in the Woods

My last few Januaries have been dark.

I mean, January is always physically dark. The sun drags its feet in the morning, showing up late on the world stage without so much as an apology. Then it quietly exits stage left before dinner is even served, like a socially anxious person ducking out of a party to go home and curl up in bed.

January is dark by definition, and by design. But the last few Januaries, for me, have been dark-dark. “Dark night of the soul” dark. Dark like that Netflix show, Dark. (Fortunately, neither of my children have wandered into time portals via a mysterious dark cave in the woods. And I’m very grateful for that.)

My mental health ebbs hard and flows hard. The highs are usually quite high, while the lows are sometimes quite low. And December-into-January is usually the lowest ebb tide of the year.

But this year, December felt quite good. And January has felt, while not quite as good, at least manageably alright. (Although this week has been a bit iffy.) Assuming the last few days have been an anomaly, I have a partial theory why, overall, I’ve felt a bit sturdier than usual.

On each of the past 6 weekends, starting in early December, I have made it a priority to take a 2-3 hour solo hike. This is in addition to the hikes I try to take each week with my kids which, as any fellow hiking parent will attest, is a whole different experience. Hiking with kids is much slower, much noisier, and much less of a recharge (while still being refreshing on a different level).

Solo hiking is a different beast altogether. A quiet, peacefully grazing, non-predatory beast. A beast of un-burdening.

I am quite lucky to live 5 miles, 8 miles, and 11 miles away from three different Appalachian Trail crossings. Easy access to one of the most epic, historic trails ever blazed is an ever-rewarding perk of my rural central Pennsylvania existence.

The mighty Appalachian is a well-maintained, nicely contoured, rock-encrusted, densely wooded trail. It’s a sprawling corridor that lends itself to solitude and self-reflection. Two things which are, for a parent of young children, distant and faintly remembered pleasures. Heck, I think the last time either Dani or I had an uninterrupted thought at home was in June 2016 shortly before Greyson was born. (To be fair, we might have had one or two of them in 2017 while he took a nap.)

So the act of getting away from home, away from work, away from kids who demand my attention, and away from computer screens that fragment my thoughts, is a vital weekly ritual. Sometimes the only place where I can still hear my own still small voice is in the still, vast, voiceless woods.

There is a reassuring rhythm to the feel of my own footsteps on the winter-hardened wooded ground. That connection to the earth which I always maintain, courtesy of gravity, but never quite notice until I’m placing one foot in front of another on a trail.

Unlike when I walk down the uniformly carpeted hallway at work or the sturdy hardwood floor at home, no two steps on the forest floor are alike. Each one must be individually calibrated to account for rocks, roots, and constantly shifting terrain, each adjustment of my soles made subconsciously in a matter of milliseconds. It requires focus, but not the kind that furrows your brow. It’s more of a Zen thing.

I don’t truly know if my weekly solo hiking escape is what has kept me afloat during the sun-scarce days of December and January. But I’ll keep it up regardless. Because as parents, and as human beings generally, we need to recharge in solitude. And we need rituals of self-care in order to preserve our mental health.

For me, solo hiking is self-care. And the woods is my rejuvenating day spa.

If my body was a phone, nature would be my charger. And usually in January, with less time alone outside, my body battery hovers around a 25% charge. Sometimes it drops below 10%, where you start getting that red warning symbol. But this January, on the whole, I’ve been closer to 50%.

Which means my cup, while it doesn’t runneth over, is half full.

And until spring fills it up again, I’ll take that.

Gifford Pinchot State Park, 12/9/22 (not on a solo hike, but it conveys the general vibe)

How to Violently Procure Three Grand a Year

I have found that money is tricky to get your hands on, and when there’s inflation it’s even trickier to hold onto.

I have also found that it very rarely trickles down to you on its own. In that way, it seems to defy gravity. If only it resembled a waterfall more than we were promised it did in the ‘80s! Heck, I’d even settle for a stream that trickles down a few extra dollars a day.

But we, the resourceful proletariat, have the power to slow our inflation-hemorrhaging budgets to a manageable trickle. So here are 3 ways you can violently seize $3,000 (of your own money) each year.

To be clear, I very strongly repudiate resorting to actual violence to procure or preserve your money. But I have employed violent rhetoric because it makes being frugal seem way cooler. (Sorry, Mom.)

When it comes to groceries, beat the system to a pulp.

There is a food chain of grocery stores. And in most regions, there is one grocery outlet that feeds off all the mainstream grocery chains by purchasing their excess inventory. It could be considered the alpha predator of the food chain — even though on first glance, it may appear to be the bottom feeder.

If you can find this alpha grocery store in your area, you’ll save so much money as to basically have a 2nd job. But it’s the kind you don’t have to log hours for! Which I happen to consider the best kind of 2nd job (or 1st for that matter).

In our area, it’s BB’s Amish Grocery Outlet. Their prices are so staggeringly low as to have forever ruined us for the Giants and Wegmanses, and even the Aldis, of the world. I mean, who sells a bag of high-end chips for 75 cents or a box of cereal for a buck-50?

Amish people, that’s who.

So thank you, Amish people. Keep doing your thing.

Money we save per year: $1,200

Kill your overpriced cell phone provider.

We used to pay Verizon a whopping $127 a month for 2 lines. Now we pay Ting just $42 a month. Which amount seems preferable to you? Personally, I’m a big fan of the latter. But hey, that’s just me.

The mobile carrier monoliths — like Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and others that pay celebrities millions of your dollars to plug their product — would love for you to think that $100 to $150 a month is a totally normal amount to pay for a cell phone plan (and that doesn’t even include the actual cell phone!).

But here’s the thing: It’s totally not normal. It’s highway robbery.

So don’t get robbed on the highway anymore. You deserve to keep that grand.

Money we save per year: $1,000

Kill your cable provider and play hard to get with the streaming platforms.

Traditional cable television is a giant, lumbering, nearly extinct woolly mammoth. And it’s the worst kind of woolly mammoth: The kind that charges you a hundred bucks a month to ride on its ancient back. In the era of streaming platforms galore, that exorbitant expense simply isn’t necessary anymore.

So kill your cable TV provider and just sign up for 2 or 3 (or heck, even 6) streaming platforms. Each one has an inventory as big as a small universe, so you’ll still have nearly infinite content to watch. But you’ll pay a mere 25% to 50% of what Xfinity or Verizon Fios or DirecTV charged you.

Then you can even take it a step further by toggling on-and-off with the streamers you can live without for part of the year. For instance, we subscribe to Netflix for 3-5 months a year, tops.

De-platform your streaming platform now and then. Don’t give them the luxury of brand loyalty. Toy with their emotions. Don’t be afraid to play hard to get.

I bet they’ll respect you more for it.

But even if not, at least you’ll have your self-respect.

(And I promise you’ll still have more to watch than you could binge in 8 lifetimes.)

Money we save per year: $800, admittedly a ballpark figure

So there’s three grand you can keep in your pocket.

What will you do with that three grand? Renovate your house? Get your loan or credit card paid off? Take one epic international family trip, or a few equally epic family road trips? Buy 2 tickets (or possibly just 1) to the Super Bowl?

You can pick a different thing every year!

Use your imagination.

A Treasury of Violeticisms & Greysonian Ruminations

For every 1 cute and/or strangely brilliant Greyson or Violet quote that I manage to record for posterity, there are 4 adorable profundities that give us a smile or a belly laugh but fall through the cracks, the specifics fading from memory. It’s a tall task to document the prolific output of our kids’ hyperverbal imagination while still living in the moment.

Nonetheless, I have combed through my Notes app to find some gems I managed to transcribe in the past 6 months. A delightfully disconnected pile of wonderful witticisms and weird wisdom.

Lately, Greyson’s quotable quotes tend to be oddly striking turns of phrase in the midst of stream-of-conscious poeticizing (other parts of which admittedly make very little sense). Whereas the Violeticisms are classic cute kid quotes. The kind that warm your heart with their sweet, goofy innocence.

Each of these little nuggets are witty or profound specifically because the kids had zero intention of aspiring to either quality.

Un-self-consciousness is a beautiful thing.

Violet, who hasn’t figured out pronouns yet: “Softy [a made-up cat] loves everything! Her loves herself and everyone everything in the world! And her loves the store named Kohl’s!”

Greyson, poeticizing:

When they migrate, they follow trails of dust.

And a little later:

Final world is walking behind us.

Violet: “I think Moksha [our cat] is the hungriest li’l girl ever in the whole wide world.”

Violet [about both of our cats]: “Her doesn’t really talk much! Like Caspian – Caspian talks a LOT!”

Me: “Why is Caspian such a rascal?”

Violet: “I don’t know…”

Me: “Should I ask him?”

Violet: “No, he can only meow and stuff!”

Greyson, poeticizing again:

Turtle in his favorite home

He has a shell that he can’t roam in

But he loves his favorite spot

Which is the pool he likes to go in

Me: “I will always hold your hand when we go across this busy road.”

Violet: “When we are grown-ups, can we go across the road on our own?”

Me: “Yes, definitely.”

Violet: “And we would have kids that couldn’t go across on their own!”

Me: *chokes on my own heart*

Greyson, who gets fairly minimal screen time, poeticizing again:

The screen is the water

that shows the reflection

of the trees and the sky

And also on the same subject:

The water

is like a refrain

that carries the words

Violet [looking at library DVDs]: “What’s the pig one?”

Me: “That’s a movie called Babe. It’s one of my favorite movies, but you guys aren’t quite old enough for it yet.”

Violet: “Are you big enough for it?”

Here is an album tracklist that Greyson made up, featuring 9 evocative (and oddly philosophical) song titles. The album, and the climactic final track, are called The Time Foretold. I can’t remember the band name, although I’d bet good money that it was ornithologically derived.

1. We Pierce Out the Window

2. Spaceness

3. We Were All Very True

4. Now I Am Right There (instrumental)

5. When Is It Going To Happen?

6. Some Are Making the Forests Gleam

7. We Are Coming to the Next World

8. All of Us

9. The Time Foretold

Violet: “My water is cold in my yummy yummy tummy!”

And once again, our ever-enthusiastic Violet, while we explored nature: “Look at all of these things out in the world that I’ve never seen before!”

Santa’s Not in the Chimney, the Elf’s Not on the Shelf

Our young kids don’t believe Santa is real. They’re not aware that The Polar Express exists. And they’ve never once spotted an Elf on our Shelves.

Does that make their parents roughly as bah-humbuggy as Scrooge, Harry and Marv, and mean ol’ Mr. Potter combined? Have we perhaps even, like a certain bright green mean one, stolen Christmas from our little Whos?

Every Santa-themed movie ever made would reply with a resounding: UM, YES. Here’s the thing, though. Our kids — despite our Grinchiest efforts! — have somehow, miraculously, managed to maintain their glistening sense of Christmas wonder.

They experience a careening level of joy when we go on our Christmas light drives. They are overjoyed to watch (from the window) as I turn on the Christmas lights, and they are overjoyed to watch (from a different window) as I turn them off before bedtime. They are legit thrilled to open their advent calendar door each morning, despite it merely revealing a tiny picture. I mean, who gets excited to see a 1-inch picture of a sled? What kind of innocence allows for that kind of simple wonder?

So I hope you won’t report us to the proper authorities for depriving our kids of a belief in Santa, or a belief in motion-capture Tom Hanks at the North Pole, or a belief that Elves engage in rampant Shelf-based mischief while we sleep.

As a kid I wasn’t taught that Santa was real, or that he would really visit our house. Nonetheless, I had a radiant sense of wonder at Christmastime. I didn’t need to imagine that a plump, red-suited fellow would smuggle gifts into our living room via chimney to feel that December was the most magical month of the year. Heck, our parents gave us gifts! And it wasn’t even our birthday! How cool is that? Plus, my mom did every single sweet, beautiful, creative thing in her power to make Christmas special for us. Santa Claus would have just been redundant.

So now that I’m a parent, why have I bypassed the Santa-is-real mythology? Well, here are my three main reasons. And keep in mind, I’m only speaking for myself. I’m no Ebenezer Scrooge, trying to keep you from celebrating Christmas with your family however you want to celebrate.

First, I’d rather not give my kids an illusion and then relieve them of that illusion when they’re older. The world will disillusion them enough without any of that coming from their mom and me. I’ve heard some people talk about how devastating it was for them to learn Santa wasn’t real. (Not everyone has this experience, of course; but some people do, which is enough for me.)

As a friend said on Twitter, teaching kids Santa is real “does nothing but make kids doubt what parents teach them while misattributing the kindness of gifts to some fake, detached figure.”

Which brings me to my second reason. I don’t tell my kids their Christmas presents were brought by Santa because I want them, in all areas of life, to convey gratitude to the appropriate source.

I wouldn’t want my kids to thank the Dinner Fairy for their dinner, rather than their mom who lovingly made their dinner with her two hands. Similarly, I don’t want them to thank the Christmas Fairy (i.e Kris Kringle) for their Christmas gifts, rather than their parents or their grandparents or neighbors or whoever lovingly picked out those gifts. Learning to say thank you to the right person is a building block of growing up. (And besides, their mom deserves ample credit for picking out fantastic gifts!)

My third reason, the third sacred cow I’ll tip over, is that I just never really thought the Santa Claus mythology was all that interesting. To me, the worst part of most Christmas movies is the part that literalizes every single detail of the Santa story. The actual logistics of Father Christmas fathering Christmas each year strikes me as just… not that compelling of a yarn.

Santa can be quite a fun idea if it’s a mystery just out of reach. An elusive figure that you never quite see directly; only the evidence of his exploits.

But Santa as a specific person with a specific crew of reindeer and a specific flight path around the world? It strains credibility (of course), but also just strains to be narratively compelling.

Now that I’ve scorched a few bridges (maybe including the one that goes “over the river” and takes you “through the woods to Grandmother’s house” on Christmas Day), let me add a caveat of sorts.

As far as raising kids go, curiosity is everything. Joy is everything. Wonder is everything.

If your kids derive joy and wonder from the Santa mythology, and if you have devised a viable escape route for when they get older, by all means enjoy those years of joy and wonder! I’m all for it. Anything that widens a child’s eyes with mystery and curiosity can be a beautiful thing.

But as for me, my Shelves will remain Elf-less. My chimney will remain Santa-less.

And I will happily watch Mr. Hanks go anywhere on earth, via any whimsical mode of transportation, other than the North Pole via The Polar Express.

Sorry, Tom. It’s just not my thing. But Merry Christmas to you and your lovely wife Rita.

And to you too, if you’re reading this! Celebrate the holidays however you see fit.

May your home be filled with comfort and joy, from the shelves to the chimney.

It’ll Change Your Life, I Swear

 “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.”

~ Natalie Portman, handing Zach Braff her headphones

For those of us who ardently believe in the immense power of music, hearing this line uttered on the big screen in 2004 was a moment.

A real kick in the, um, shins.

Because beyond friendship, family, and nature, there might be nothing on earth that shapes the contours of a human soul more than music. For me, it is the most potent art form. So much so that it has painted every vista I’ve discovered, and even blazed (or altered) the paths that have escorted me to those vistas.

Music has changed my life.

Every chapter of my story is built around the music I loved during that moment in time. And when I think of the defining moments that have comprised my 30s and early 40s, one band has delineated the trajectory of my personal saga more than any other.

That band is Caspian. An instrumental/art/hard rock 5-piece (formerly a 6-piece) from Beverly, Massachusetts. A band of brothers. Intrepid pioneers of a potent genre of music that has, perhaps to its ultimate benefit, never hit the mainstream.

A group of guys otherwise known, to me and quite a few others, as *clears throat portentously* the greatest band on planet Earth.

I discovered Caspian in 2009 when a random guy who I randomly (and briefly) worked with at a college newspaper near the Flatiron foothills in Boulder, Colorado not-so-randomly burned a few discs for me. One of which was The Four Trees by Caspian.

As soon as I laid ears on that album, I realized I had found something I’d long been looking for. Ever since I discovered music on my own, beyond the borrowed tastes that were pressed upon me by my high school friends or my youth pastor or my older brothers, I had been on a quest. From the age of 17 onward, I did everything I could to seek out and orchestrate a score for my life that was all my own.

But it wasn’t until I was 29 ½ and found Caspian’s early catalogue that I truly possessed the material to create the backbone of my motion picture soundtrack.

Caspian is well-loved (by its fans), but not well-known. It tends to be classified under the “post-rock” banner, a niche genre. And even for the nicheans themselves, the label itself has grown stale.

I mean, it’s dramatic instrumental rock. No vocals. But sometimes, there are vocals. And sometimes, it’s not rock. So what even is it? All I can say is: You know it when you hear it. Or more accurately: You feel it.

Having said that, Caspian has long since outgrown their prior classification. They started out as the most promising post-rock band since Mogwai, quickly evolved into the best post-rock band in the genre (in my admiration-addled view), and then just kept evolving way out beyond the property line of the genre’s backyard, into an expansive open range. Out into mountains and meadows of their own making.

After the stunning opening salvo of You Are the Conductor and The Four Trees, in 2009 they crafted their magnum opus, Tertia. All 3 albums contained blistering rock overlaid with aching beauty. Moments that twist your heart into knots, and moments that melt your face off your skull.

Caspian then released one of the most buoyant spring/summer albums ever (Waking Season), followed by one of the most mournful fall/winter albums ever (Dust and Disquiet), the latter of which represented the long, dark shadow of a tragic loss. The echo of an abyss, reverberating under a dark field.

Then, after a sabbatical of sorts, they reinvented the wheel with On Circles. Its 8 songs were entirely distinct from each other and from everything else they had ever written. One of them was the most layered and profound track that Caspian ever recorded, a song that is even more rewarding on its 50th listen. “Division Blues” quickly became my haunting anthem for this divisive, blues-inducing era.

To support their newest album, Caspian kicked off a truly epic North American tour, supported by some of their favorite bands. And then Covid decimated it with impunity, banishing Caspian and everyone else to a year and a half of shuttered tour dates, ravaged budgets, and forced hibernation.

The setback was brutal and the loss, to Caspian and to every other working-class musical artist, was incalculable.

But you can’t keep a good band down. And Caspian reemerged in late 2021 and 2022 to shred eardrums and make up for lost time. I saw them play 2 nights in Boston, 1 night in Detroit, and once had tickets to see them in Philadelphia but was myself decimated with impunity (and horrific timing) by Covid.

I have driven a long way, and would drive even longer, to see these guys on stage. These guys being, namely, Phil and Cal (the OG founding members, electrifying guitarists, and among the true-bluest and least ego-driven human beings I know), Jonny “Thrashburn” (a gentleman, a scholar, an artisan, and a badass guitarist), Jani (a masterful photographer and soft-spoken stick of dynamite rocking the monster bass riffs), and Justin (a musical craftsman and Renaissance man who pummels the skins with great ferocity). Former band members Chris, Joe, and Erin each live with the band in spirit too, expanding their mythology and making them somehow feel like an 8-piece.

I could try to describe what their music sounds like, or what it sparks in my soul, but I’m not sure that words are the best implements for such a task. Even though I’ve strung together over 1,000 of them here, it feels like I have 10,000 more left unstrung.

But to understand Caspian, as with all great music, you simply have to listen. (After all, as the maxim goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture.) Even though over 90% of Caspian’s songs have no lyrics, I’m not sure any band’s music has ever spoken to me so clearly.

Caspian is the band, above all others, that has shaped my life. Their music makes me want to be creative. It makes me feel alive. It makes me want to be a better human being.

It makes me want to headbang so hard that I briefly ascend to another plane of consciousness.

And on some level, Caspian’s music just… makes me.

There is Something Wrong With Me

This lyric has flitted around in the back of my head, haunting me since the first time I heard it 20 years ago.

It’s from “Radio Cure,” a Wilco song off their tectonic, melancholic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album. When I first heard Jeff Tweedy sing the line, I was mesmerized by its ominous declaration. But at that point, I couldn’t yet relate to the messy guts of its darkness.

Now I think I get it. I understand why a person would be convinced there is something wrong with him.

A caveat first, though: I don’t feel this way right now. Not today, not last week, not for the past 2 months. Not even a tiny bit. I feel as put-together as I have felt for a long while. I feel energetic, lucid, confident, and I am enjoying every facet of my life, even the mundane parts.

But that’s just the thing. That clear feeling is exactly why I’m mystified.

Because this crystal-clear, sunshine-infused version of me is only accessible to me for half of each year. Usually in the fall (it started in early October this year). And usually in the spring and early summer. The rest of the year, I struggle and I fade and I start to go dark — especially when the world itself goes dark in mid-December and January. Which always makes me think to myself, just as Jeff Tweedy achingly crooned:

There is…


wrong with me.

I don’t know what this ebb and flow is. I’m not a licensed therapist, and I don’t really have the money to pay one to try and find out. I didn’t fully experience the wild swings, or at least put any words to it, until 3 or 4 years ago. I remember some downer periods during my road-tripping 20s and my settling-down early 30s, but I always assumed they were experientially derived — like when I endured romantic setbacks or felt lonely out on the open road. I knew there were some depressive genes in my family, but I adamantly insisted (and hoped against hope) that they would never touch me.

Then the swings became more pronounced. The funked-up periods started lasting for a month or 2 (or 3) at a time.

And then I hit rock bottom in April 2021. A potent cocktail of mind-throttling anxiety and heart-flattening depression laid waste to my best laid plans and my buoyant personality. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t eat much. My body started to collapse in on itself. Work felt overwhelming, even as I desperately needed the distraction it provided from my slow-motion mental breakdown. I even had a hard time connecting with my kids, despite that being my single greatest joy in life.

I later used this blog to document that saga, in which I struggled mightily before finding profound relief with an SSRI prescription that gave me the serotonin my body so desperately lacked. That added serotonin has made everything better. In fact, for a while I thought it was my perfect silver bullet.

But it has not negated all the ups and downs. What it did quite effectively was raise my baseline so that I’m functional, and not quite flattened, even during my low points.

And that’s not nothing. But it’s not everything either.

So here I am on the cusp of the holiday season, and I know where my mind usually drifts in these darker December days.

This is the time of year when sickly-sweet, happiness-insistent holiday songs pummel us from every radio station and retail-store speaker. When the sun sets at an insultingly early time, making post-work nature recharging an impossibility. When the cold starts to creep into my bones (even though I know, deep down, that I prefer wide-awake-hyper-alert-cold to the wipe-me-out-wear-me-down-hot of summer).

I still feel wonderful right now, but I also feel wary of what’s ahead. And I will do anything in my mental, physical, and spiritual power to keep myself on the up and up. Rather than being down… or even down and out.

But if I’m honest, I have to admit that there is a strong likelihood that at some point later in December or in January I will find myself mumbling that Wilco line to myself once again.

I desperately want to be wrong about this prediction. I badly want to stave off the ruthless predations of melancholy when it hunts me down again. I want this winter to be different. I need it to be different.

I intend to take good care of myself. I am willing to increase my (currently quite minimal) SSRI dosage to give me a boost when needed. My wife just bought me a light therapy lamp that I plan to use as soon as the light in my soul starts to dim. And I will spend as much time outside as possible, as usual, to keep my mind afloat.

But only time will tell. Mental health is a bruising gauntlet. It’s a battle you fight with your primary sword hand tied behind your back. Depressiveness and seasonal affectiveness are real, and they’re real frustrating to experience year after year.

There is something wrong with me. I don’t quite know what it is, or how it first got its barbed meathooks in me.

So I will dig and I will scrape and I will claw to exhume what is right with me. And what is right in the world.

Because even though it doesn’t always seem like it, the world is enough.

And so am I.

My Top 10 Desert Island Discs

If I was stuck on a desert island, these are the discs I would want to be stuck with.

And yes… Discs! Long live compact discs. I still listen to them every day on the way to work. (Except for the ones that skip on every other track because I’ve listened to them 173 times. Those discs are especially sacred.)

#7 [four-way tie] Sixpence None the Richer ~ This Beautiful Mess (1995)

Reminds me of: High school, maybe 10th grade, when I finally discovered the fringes of Christian Contemporary Music, out beyond the SCCs and the MWSs of that world. This album made me realize it was okay to feel doubt. It validated so much that was latent in my mind and soul as a youth group kid. It marked the beginning of an important chapter in my journey.

Favorite song: “Within a Room Somewhere”

Most underrated song: “I Can’t Explain” (one of the most honest songs ever written for the CCM market)

#7 [four-way tie] Death Cab for Cutie ~ Transatlanticism (2003)

Reminds me of: Solo road-tripping in the fall of 2004, one of the most vivid and adventurous periods of my life. During that trip, I drove all the way from Visalia, CA to Tucson, AZ, an 8-hour jag, to see a Nada Surf concert. But I got there only to learn, Walley-World style, that Nada Surf had canceled due to a family situation. Death Cab was the headliner, and the people in line convinced me I would still love the concert. And boy howdy did I ever.

Favorite song: “Title and Registration”

Most underrated song: “Passenger Seat”

#7 [four-way tie] U2 ~ The Joshua Tree (1987)

Reminds me of: Driving around southwest Ohio in 1998-99, trying to find what I was looking for.

Favorite song: “Where the Streets Have No Name”

Most underrated song: “Mothers of the Disappeared”

#7 [four-way tie] Explosions in the Sky ~ The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place (2003)

Reminds me of: Every single time I ever watched Friday Night Lights, the movie or the TV series. And also Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I discovered the band that launched me into the cosmic wonders of the post-rock stratosphere.

Favorite song: “Your Hand in Mine”

Most underrated song: “The Only Moment We Were Alone”

#6 The Fire Theft ~ S/T (2003)

Reminds me of: The Yosemite area of California in the summer of 2004. It reminds me of my brothers from another mother, Tosh and Rain, for whom I played this album when we drove to the nearest swimming hole on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. It was the wildest and most picturesque summer I’ve ever experienced. The days were golden.

Favorite song: “Oceans Apart”

Most underrated song: “Sinatra”

#5 Hammock ~ Mysterium (2017)

Reminds me of: Driving to work in Harrisburg, mostly. 2017 was the best of times (Greyson had just turned 1!), and it was the worst of times (an unimaginably immoral man had just been elected). This album helped me process my vast array of feelings, happy and mad and profoundly grateful and profoundly confused and everything in between.

Favorite song: “This Is Not Enough (Epilogue)”

Most underrated song: “Remember Our Bewildered Son”

#4 Common Children ~ Delicate Fade (1997)

Reminds me of: The final year of high school into the first year of college. Lying on the roof of a car with my best buddy Dave looking at the starry night, sharing romantic heartbreak solidarity (after he had introduced me to this album earlier in the evening).

Favorite song: “Stains of Time

Most underrated songs: “Blue Raft” into “Storm Boy”

#3 Jimmy Eat World ~ Clarity (1999)

Reminds me of: Driving across the Harvey Taylor Bridge to hang out (and get bleary-eyed) with my friends in Harrisburg, back when I made questionable decisions about what to put in my body. I may have gotten faded, but the memories have not. And neither has the wall-to-wall appeal of this album, which is the definition of borderline-perfect. Or you could say: For me this is heaven.

Favorite song (besides “For Me This Is Heaven”): “Just Watch the Fireworks”

Most underrated song: “Goodbye Sky Harbor”

#2 Caspian ~ Tertia (2009)

Reminds me of: The Fort Collins area of Colorado. The first place (out of 9 places) that my wife and I ever lived, on Avocet Road. It was the staging ground for many wonderful things, including the purchase of my first Caspian disc. A disc, and a band, that legitimately changed my life.

Favorite song: “Sycamore” (this will be obvious to anyone who has heard the album)

Most underrated song: “Ghosts of the Garden City,” specifically the version from Live at the Larcom

#1 Sigur Rós ~ Takk (2005)

Reminds me of: The Yosemite area in California. And it reminds me of my friends Jeevan and Dana, who now live in New Zealand. I was with the 2 of them when I bought the album in Merced (near Yosemite) and then the 3 of us went out for Thai food while I stared ravenously at the cover and eagerly awaited my first listen. It far exceeded my greatest anticipation and has continued to do so for 17 years. A masterpiece to end all masterpieces.

Favorite song: “Glosoli”

Most underrated song: “Gong”

This was absurdly fun to write. Thank you for reading!