Two Little Boys, Two Paths, Two-Fifths of a Century

I met my best friend Dave in kindergarten, when we were wee little guys. But I think it may have even been earlier than that.

Based on the timeline of when my family started attending Bible Baptist Church, it’s likely that little tiny Jeremy met little tiny Dave in Sunday School when we were both 3 years old. If that’s the case, then the two of us have now known each other for… drum roll please…


Four epic, memorable decades of being best buddies.

I mean, who stays friends for 40 years? It happens, sure, but it’s a blue-moon rarity.

Dave and I are those blue moons. And we didn’t just “grow up together.” We experienced every magnificent and mortifying chapter of adolescence, and beyond, at each other’s side. We were best friends through elementary, middle school, high school, and college. We shared in each other’s romantic joys and romantic devastations. And we continued having scattered adventures (and agonies) together well into our 20s.

Among those adventures/agonies is that Dave enlisted in the military, and he was deployed to Iraq. Post-Iraq, and during my road-tripping era, I visited him and his wife in various places they were stationed, including Washington (near Tacoma), California (near Monterey), Arizona (near Tucson), and Georgia (near Augusta).

Not everyone knows this about me, but I really got around back then. So much mileage on the ol’ Corolla.

[Since Dave might read this, I’ll say that my favorite random 20-something adventure with him was at Lake Superior, near Duluth, when he and his wife were traveling in a van with their legendary dog Chewy, and I was working at a canoe outfitter in the Boundary Waters near Canada. I’ll keep the memories private, but what a convergence. What a moment in time. Simply unforgettable.]

In our 30s, when I had moved to Colorado and Dave had moved to Georgia, our friendship was mostly just sporadic phone conversations — some happy and fun, and some sad and brow-furrowing. We lost track of each other entirely for 6 months here and a year there, in the fog of our increasingly complex lives.

But without fail, the moment I called Dave or we ran into each other back in Pennsylvania (while home for a visit), we picked up exactly where we left off.

Our 40 years together have been one long riveting conversation that starts and stops, sometimes for many months, but can never be derailed. No matter how long we’ve paused the conversation, it doesn’t take even one minute to hit play and shift right back into full best-buddy mode.

That is one of the marks of deep, enduring friendship.

There are many, many specific things I could tell you about Dave or the agonies (and adventures) we have shared. But I’ll keep those close to the vest. Partly in honor of Dave himself, who is a fairly private fellow — he chafes at Facebook and doesn’t put himself out there like his extroverted best friend. And partly because you likely don’t have 7-9 hours available right now to read our full unabridged saga.

But I’ll say this: I am deeply grateful that I happened to be born at the right place, at the right time, into the right family, so that I could cross paths with Dave in Sunday School, and later in Mrs. McGill’s kindergarten at Bible Baptist School, so that we could light a spark that would billow into a bonfire-level friendship.

Because here’s the thing: Dave is true blue. There are a lot people in this world who follow the crowd and play angles and craft narratives and run their ego up the flagpole on a daily basis so that everyone can salute.

And then, once in a great while, you’ll find a guy as unassuming and legitimately fascinating as Dave. If this happens, and if you’re lucky enough to become friends with that person, don’t let go.

Because Daves don’t grow on trees.

And if they did grow on trees, know what I’d do?

I would buy those trees, grow an orchard, and then give most of the Daves away (keeping one for myself as a backup in case I lose the real thing), so that others could experience the decades-long bond I was lucky enough to stumble into, and help build.

I’ll be sure to let you know if I find anything.

The Careening, Kaleidoscopic Adventure of Being an Extrovert

When I feel like myself, I can’t help but strike up a buoyant conversation with the guy who just sold me a slice of pizza. Or a random guy at the Turkey Trot. Or the woman sitting behind me and my kids in the IMAX theater.

(And these are just examples from the last 72 hours.)

On the spectrum of extroverted to introverted, I’m so far to the left side that I’m dangling off the edge, hanging onto the cliff with one hand — while asking anyone within earshot if they’ve seen any good movies lately.

I know, and admire, and greatly love, many introverts. I’m married to one of them. I’m best friends with another. Some of my most beloved musicians are introverts. In fact, I think my 4 favorite bands in the world all have introverted frontmen. I must be drawn to my inverse in some way.

I greatly respect people who can refrain from saying everything they’re thinking. I admire anyone who is quietly self-possessed and doesn’t worry about what others think. And I’m relieved that everyone in the world is not an extrovert. I would not enjoy living on a planet that was primarily populated by people with my penchant for prattling on and on. (Or for that matter, my annoying affinity for alliteration.)

But restraint and introversion are not where my soul usually leads me. I see the world as a staging ground for impromptu adventures, including the cheapest and most unpredictable adventure you can embark on — spontaneous conversation with friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

I get this trait from the DNA of both my dad (who chats up strangers with ease) and my mom (not an idle chit-chatter, but an avid wordsmith and sterling conversationalist). I combine my dear dad’s love of jovial small talk and my dear mom’s love of in-depth discussion.

When you’re willing to look any stranger in the eye and strike up a random conversation, the entire world opens up. No mundane transaction will ever be either mundane or transactional again. Every cashier payment, every bank deposit, every library checkout becomes a chance to learn a little more about your fellow nomads on an earth full of wanderers.

The first exchange I ever had with someone I knew was gay took place when I was 22 when I chatted up an 18-year-old woman named Sharelle in a New Mexico visitor’s center. Because I threw myself into the conversation like the extrovert I was, Sharelle opened up about being recently excommunicated from her family when she came out to them. Totally cut off by her parents. Unthinkable. And, I can only imagine, unbearable to experience.

It was a seminal encounter for me, hearing about the wrenching trauma that defined Sharelle’s young life. It moved me. It opened up my small world. I was changed.

Ever since I ventured out on my own after high school, when I have been awake and myself (which I periodically am not), I have savored being born an extrovert. A large majority of the formative experiences of my adult life would not have happened if I had been unwilling to leap off the ledge of myself into the arms of a new exchange or a new experience.

Extroversion, for me, is a wild adventure. It makes every day a kaleidoscope of color and light, refracted through the prism of a thousand different interactions with a thousand different fellow pilgrims on this planetary pilgrimage.

I want a chance to know as many people as I can with my one little life. All the introverts (if they’re willing to let me chat them up). All the extroverts (who are usually happy to chat).

People are, by nature, fascinating.

And I am, by nature, fascinated.

Sugar and Spice, Snips and Snails, and Other Silly Stuff

Gender norms are wildly overrated and fairly useless. You heard it here first! (Unless you heard it somewhere else first. In which case, dang it. I really wanted to be the one to break the story.)

Two experiences have led me to this ardent belief, or unbelief, about gender: Raising 2 kids, and existing in this world as myself.

I’m a guy who likes some so-called “guy things” — football! hard rock! scary movies! And in other ways, I’m the exact opposite of the traditional sitcom male — unsentimental as a husband and ineffectual as a dad — dull traits I wouldn’t want to have in a dozen lifetimes. I like talking about emotions and feeling emotions and listening to others’ emotions. Let’s just say that Ray Barone and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor baffle me.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about parenting.

My son is 6 and my daughter is 4. My wife and I have raised them with no gender-based constraints on who they are or how they act. They can like what they want to like. They can play with what they want to play with. And eventually, they can love who they want to love.

They can have Type A personalities, although they can’t be bossy. They can have Type B personalities, although they can’t be lazy. Their boy parts or their girl parts don’t dictate anything except how they go to the bathroom, and eventually, how they will procreate (if they decide that’s what they want to do).

So with the guard rails of traditional expectations removed, how are my kids living up to society’s “natural” gender templates thus far? How is “nature” doing?

Well, many would say that boys are supposed to be good at sports, love cars and trucks, act physically aggressive, and be emotionally stoic.

Meet our 6-year-old boy, Greyson. He doesn’t care about sports and has very little sporting agility, sweetly loves birds (though he did love cars and trucks back when he was 2), carries zero physical aggression in his tall, wiry body, and is sweet and sensitive, often even hypersensitive. He is also smart and wonderfully creative and asks great questions and laughs easily and is filled with wild, weird wonder. He’s positively delightful.

Meanwhile, some would say girls are supposed to be more ambivalent about sports, less interested in cars and trucks, more physically passive, very sensitive and nurturing, and be happy to defer or submit or follow the leader.

Meet our 4-year-old girl, Violet Skye. She loves soccer (and is naturally athletic), likes cars and trucks more than her brother, doesn’t have a passive bone in her tiny active body, is very sweet and nurturing with our cats but also 10 times more emotionally stoic and resilient than her brother, and has the budding leadership skills to make her a top candidate for the 2056 presidential election. She is also smart and wonderfully creative and hyper-observant and funny and is filled with bright, beaming, buoyant wonder. She’s positively delightful.

We’re 0 for 2, I guess! Nature has clearly failed us miserably.

But seriously. Why did we ever think that boys are all one broadly defined thing and girls are another broadly defined, entirely different thing? There are very notable biological differences, sure. And there are overall sociological trends that are well worth noting, although some of those are societally derived.

But the gender templates that we have created as a society are both weirdly binary and wildly unimaginative. Not to mention constricting to both little girls (who should be encouraged to lead just as much as boys) and to little boys (who should be encouraged to emote just as much as girls).

If I pushed my 6-year-old boy to act “boyish,” I would be doing him a disservice. Why should I insist that he take an interest in cars or dinosaurs or guns or mechanical engineering that, at this early age, I have no reason to believe he is inclined to enjoy or at which he seems to excel? I would be suppressing his natural, God-given Greyson-ness.

My boy loves birds, and other animals, and nature, and creating stream-of-consciousness stories and free-form poems. That is what he likes. And I love every scrap of that. Every scrap of him.

Similarly, if I pushed my 4-year-old girl to act “girly,” it would be a false move that I would regret. I would be insisting that she take an interest in — what exactly? — I’m not even clear in 2022 what the gender norm-ers think girls are supposed to act like.

I know what I was raised to think were Biblical gender roles. Do people still think that all girls should grow into women who, without exception, want to be mothers and never pursue a career outside the home? Even girls who would like to do both? Or even girls who would rather not be a mother?

And if I insisted that the fiery, exploding Roman candle that is my 4-year-old girl be meek, emotionally delicate, physically passive, embody “sugar and spice,” or have no specific career aspirations beyond motherhood (which yes, is absolutely noble too!), I would be squashing her natural, God-given, Violet-ness.

My girl adores soccer and books and building things and coloring things and Caspian (the cat) and Caspian (the band). She maintains a wild array of interests. And I love every scrap of that. Every scrap of her.

That girl is going places. And her brother is too, albeit to a very different destination.

I’m thrilled to watch them on their journeys. The sky’s the limit for both of them.

Although on second thought, Violet Skye often wears a NASA shirt and both she and her brother are interested in outer space.

So who knows? Maybe not even the sky is the limit.

Dreaming of Tigers and Piano Teeth (or, Long Live Live Music)

To watch reverently as a riveting under-the-radar rock band rattles the rafters of an offbeat small venue is one of the exquisite joys associated with being human.

It’s also a little costly, when you treat it as a destination hobby. And my wife Dani and I happen to be quite frugal, by choice and by necessity. We keep a close, watchful eye on every dollar we spend.

But when it comes to concerts, we blindfold ourselves. Some things are worth the money.

Take last weekend, for instance. We drove 7 hours round-trip to see 2 great bands. We spent $46 on tickets, $36 on gas, and $21 on tolls to enjoy 3½ hours in the basement of an old church with 75 people we didn’t know.

And it was worth every penny because of 2 great (and greatly underrated) bands named Dreamtigers (the blue-tinged pic below) and Pianos Become the Teeth (the red-tinged pic), who will henceforth be referred to as DT and PBTT.

The evening was a dizzying cocktail of joys and jams. Rather than a chronological retelling of events, here is a scattered pile of joy leaves that I’ve raked together for both pleasure and posterity. So huck yourself into the leaves like a kid in the backyard in early November!

  • The venue, Preserving Underground, was a charming old building. A Presbyterian-church-turned-Salvation-Army-turned-combination-record-store-and-basement-music-mecca. The edifice itself reminded me of every drafty old church building I ever visited in my youth… but with noticeably more hardcore and death metal albums for sale.
  • The man who owns the venue is A.J. Rassau, and since the record store was open all evening I went up and grilled him about its inception. He explained that he had started the music-store-slash-venue in a large garage when he was a teenager (!). Then years later, he bought the former church for $85,000, get this, one week before Covid arrived. Such ghastly timing. A.J. said that it got so bad during lockdown that his savings dwindled to $120 at one point. But now, from all appearances, the place is thriving. I also talked to A.J.’s amiably buoyant mother, Kathy, who sells concessions during each show, right downstairs from her son’s record store. She was thrilled at how thrilled I was to be at such a thrilling venue. Best. Family. Business. Ever.
  • Phil, the frontman of Caspian (my favorite band of all time, as well as my wife Dani’s) plays bass for DT on the side. He’s the biggest reason we know about that band, and the Caspian guys are friends with PBTT too. So both bands exist in the Caspian Cinematic Universe (or CCU), which I’d take over the MCU or the DCU any day of the week, and twice on this particular Friday.
  • The entirety of DT’s lineup are good people, to put it mildly. I chatted extensively with Jake (lead vocals, guitars, head songwriter) and gushed praise in the direction of both Aisha (stellar violin and backing vocals) and Joe (insane drums). I didn’t get a chance to talk to Andy (the other superb guitar). Which leaves Phil (towering bass). More on Phil later. Man is it thrilling to find out that a band you love consists of nothing but compelling people. Talent is cool, but being cool is even cooler. (And if you want to know what’s cooler than being cool, please consult Outkast.)
  • We bought a $20 T-shirt from the merch table to support DT. Because even more than buying concert tickets, buying merch is how you support low-to-mid-tier bands. Touring is not profitable anymore for bands like this, sadly, but it’s slightly more profitable if everyone buys a shirt or a vinyl. Heck, even a $5 coozie helps.
  • As mentioned earlier, the venue is a hardcore music palace and a former church. But it also happens to be an all-ages venue that ends every gig at 10pm, offers Beyond veggie burgers as it’s only non-snack option, and serves zero alcohol. Have you ever hard of an old church building that honors veganism, hardcore music, and sobriety? Yeah, me neither.
  • The lead singer of PBTT, Kyle Durfey, gave off Conor Oberst vibes at first. His stage presence was mesmerizing. It looked like he couldn’t decide between passionately kissing the mic or strangling it with the cord he had wrapped around his arms. And he sounds like… someone famous. I couldn’t put my finger on who. I mentioned this to someone and they leaned over and uttered a single word in my ear: Morrissey. And now I can’t un-hear it. Kyle Durfey is a new Morrissey for people who are tired of the real Morrissey. Or just for people who think the world needs 2 of ‘em.

But all of that wonderfulness — the venue, the live music, the merch table hobnobbing — doesn’t even measure up to the best part of the night. And that’s rubbing shoulders with Phil, the aforementioned side bassist for DT and the front man for the one and only Caspian. Throughout the night, I (and Dani) chatted with Phil numerous times, at the merch table and on the venue floor while watching the opening bands and running into each other near the bathroom-adjacent green room.

And at the end of the night, we stuck around long enough to swap notes for 20 minutes with Phil on a mostly quiet street in a steady drizzle, while band equipment was being packed into vans before the show hit the road for Chicago.

There’s a lot I could say about that chat, and my connection to Phil and all the Caspian guys. But I’ll save it for another day. Phil Jamieson is the kind of guy who deserves his own post.

So there you have a kaleidoscopic view of our epic Friday night in Pittsburgh. Yet another night for the ages, just like Dani’s night in Toronto, and my nights in Detroit and Philadelphia, and our 3 nights (on 2 separate trips) in Boston.

All of which were nights in the last 13 months.

All of which leaves only one thing to say.

Long live live music.

Cypress Trees, Spanish Moss, and A Big Blue Poop Bucket

To canoe through a bayou is to float into another world.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bayou up close; only on screen in movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Waterboy — which incidentally might be the two most divergent films ever made.

I always assumed the bayou only existed in the LA/MS/AL/FL corridor. The Deep South. But was it known (*cough*) by you (*LOUDER COUGH*) that there’s bayou all the way up in North Carolina?

I can verify it exists. Because that’s the watery portal, the mystic river if you will, that my college buddies and I canoed into last weekend.

For our annual autumnal alumni adventure this year, the 5 of us camped for 3 nights and canoed for 2 days down Roanoke River in northeast NC, near the Albemarle Sound. The first day of sun-saturated, 75-degree (!) November canoeing felt fairly traditional, similar to the PA and WV and VA rivers we’ve canoed in the past.

But the second day of canoeing found us floating into uncharted bayou-esque waters. (Uncharted for us; I’m pretty confident that the cartographers who designed our map had fully charted it. Otherwise we might still be trying to find our way out of the cypress maze described below.)

What made this landscape — no, waterscape — a visual singularity was the preponderance of cypress trees along the river banks. Trees with knobby “knees” poking up out of the water like gnarled witches’ fingers. Trees with wispy shocks of Spanish moss hanging loosely from their branches like funereal shawls. Trees that, with their oddly structured trunks, appeared to be wearing bellbottoms.

If you unexpectedly teleported and ended up next to a cypress tree, not otherwise knowing where you were, you would immediately feel in your bones that you’re not in a Union state. The Southernness of the place drips (or dangles) from its tree branches like, well, the aforementioned moss of the Spaniards.

Especially on the 2nd day when we floated into a legit bayou. Dry land gradually disappeared. There was nothing but cypress trees surrounded by low-lying swamp water.

Nowhere to hike.

Nowhere to build a campfire.

Nowhere to set up a tent.

But thanks to human ingenuity, there are well-crafted wooden “platform campsites” you can rent for the night. So the 5 of us paddled up The Devil’s Gut — possibly the most nefarious river name ever — up into the guts of the bayou.

That night, the 5 of us chowed down on steak [or in my case, black-bean burger] fajitas. We listened to Chris strum his carbon fiber guitar while crooning Americana songs with George. We chatted about everything from our kids (14 between us, but almost half belong to Matt) to our jobs (5 between us, spread much more evenly) to our college memories to a little history, with only a dash of politics, to the narrative complexities of Game of Thrones.

And we fell asleep, half under a just-in-case tarp roof and half under gleaming stars, while the 10,000-watt moon was reflected in the swamp like a pearl, submerged right in plain sight. Being good citizens, we opted to leave the pearl there rather than diving for it, so that others could continue to enjoy its brightness.

I had taken a brisk, better-than-caffeine dip in the Roanoke River the night before, when the water was deeper and we weren’t yet in the bayou. But I opted not to huck myself off the camping platform into the shallow waters of the swamp. For multiple reasons, really, including that I’m pretty sure that hundreds of people this year have peed off the edge of the platform. (And the 11-inch water seemed slightly less than ideal for diving too.)

And speaking of relieving oneself, I should finally get around to that poop bucket I keep teasing.

Since the wooden platform where we slept had zero dry land surrounding it, plumbing becomes a bit, uh, tricky. There was a small wooden outhouse of sorts on the corner of the square platform, complete with a toilet seat sitting loosely atop a white bucket.

But (1) it’s just a bucket, with a regular bucket bottom, and no room for stuff to go down further below, and (2) that “stuff” has to be packed out. And not in the white bucket, which has to stay in place for the next campers.

So what must be done is that each group of campers must bring their own bucket (preferably one with a very tightly-sealing lid!) in order to leave no trace. So we brought a big blue bucket from Lowe’s. And in the morning, Rodney and Matt, God bless their brave souls, took care of transferring the aforementioned stuff from the white bucket to the blue bucket, sealing it with a lid, and packing it into their canoe to head home.

(How they disposed of it from that point? That’s between them and God.)

And with that anticlimax, which may have turned a few stomachs, we reach the end of our annual canoeing saga. Another weekend for the ages.

So thanks, fellas.

Thanks for the sterling conversation.

Thanks for the bayou adventure.

Thanks for yet another epic convergence.

And to Chris, who planned the trip, as well as Rodney and Matt, for the other reasons mentioned above:

Thanks for taking care of shit.

A Wild, Watery Wilderness Rite of Passage

Halloween and Thanksgiving are fun, but my favorite autumn ritual takes place deep in the foliage-strewn wilderness.

It involves just as much good food (and snacks), but decidedly less indoor plumbing. No costumes are worn, and football games are not watched due to the conspicuous lack of cable television.

It includes no family, and neither of my brothers, but it does boast an abundance of brotherly camaraderie. Some years the ritual is carried out in my home state of Pennsylvania, other years it is staged in West Virginia, and this year it took place down in North Carolina.

Usually it involves 7 bearded fellows, 6 of whom hail from Messiah University (née College) — Nate, Josh, Chris, Rodney, Matt, George, and me. But this year the first 2 of those whiskery dudes were unavailable. One of them missed out because of the ongoing scourge of Covid, which can apparently be contracted even through a manly nest of facial hair.

So there were 5 of us in North Carolina for the annual ritual, along with 6 pounds of shrimp, 4 steaks, 2 canoes, 1 kayak, and 1 poop bucket. (More on that later.)

The ritual usually involves traversing from point A to point B in a remote rural watery wonderland, via non-motorized aquatic vehicles with names like “The S.S. POS” and “Delaware’s Revenge,” along with the notably less imposing “The Pea Pod.”

Now and then we build the ritual around hiking instead, including once when we camped at the top of Spruce Knob in West Virginia and on our first night were buffeted at 1:00am by crusty snow and wraith-sounding winds that threatened to rip the tops off our tents.

This year, on the other hand? Sunny and 75 degrees, despite the trip being later in the calendar than we’ve ever scheduled it. No snow, no wind, no wraiths, and very minimal hiking. Just 17 leisurely miles over 2+ days of paddling down the Roanoke River in my new favorite non-Union eastern state, North Carolina.

The fellas in our group hail from New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Our full slate of guys, this year’s absentees included, are fathers with 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 4, and 6 kids, respectively. Along with 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, and 1 spouse, respectively. (No polygamists in our ranks, at least for the time being.)

We came (to the Tar Heel State).

We saw (tons of cypress trees and speedboats).

We conquered (an easy, zero-rapids river).

And we conversed. Every waking hour included stimulating conversation about a wide array of subjects, all while canoeing and campfire-ing and eating like golden camping gods. Because when it comes to camp cuisine, even with our usual Michelin-rated chef missing in action this year, these guys don’t mess around. Chris and Rodney kept us nicely sated.

It was a river ride to remember. And 60 hours of college-buddy bonding that further fortified my recently resuscitated soul.

Camping is zen.

Friendship is life.

Ritual is important.

And nature is, without question, the best place on earth.

(Part 2 of 2, with more granular details including the aforementioned poop bucket, coming later this week.)

Ad-Free Kids in an Ad-Addled World

Advertisers, beware. You are not welcome in our living room.

Product placement, please dump your products in the basement.

Because here’s the thing, you gargantuan monolithic companies. In a world defined by commerce and commercialism, I have trained my kids to avoid your commercials at any cost. (Which incidentally reduces cost.)

As soon as an ad starts, Greyson and Violet either cover their eyes or turn around while I hit mute on the remote. Sometimes they even playfully “hide” between the couch and the recliner. And every time they do I am as proud as a peacock, whose peachicks happily resist consumerism with their un-faded and un-jaded plumage held high.

We don’t have cable, just streaming platforms, so very few commercials cross our eyeline in the first place. But when we started watching YouTube videos, I trained the kids to do the “see no evil” hands (without putting it into those words). This was back when they were 4 and 2, and two years later they’re still doing it like champs.

Sometimes I ask them, “What are commercials trying to do?” And they say, “Get us to buy stuff!” To which I say “Yep… but we already have plenty of stuff!”

And they totally get it. They’re our mini-me-minimalists.

One benefit of this anti-ad regimen is that the kids have absolutely no idea what toys are out there beyond the animals and puzzles and animals and Legos and animals and markers and animals and other toys, most of which are animal-based, that we have given them. (Oh, and did I mention they like… animals?)

Every new expensive plastic toy that is created by a toy company is a toy that my kids are blissfully unaware exists.

Another benefit of avoiding commercials is that I don’t have to worry about questionable content. If you don’t let your kids watch ads, you don’t have to worry about them seeing the latest ruthless political attack ad, or the trailer for the latest ruthless Halloween movie. (And I’m not entirely sure which is ruthless-er.)

I like resting in the knowledge that my kids will only watch Puffin Rock, or Bluey, or Tumble Leaf, or bird videos and musical instrument videos on YouTube. Only what we have selected for them (or in the case of Peppa Pig, what they have insisted on selecting).

Not what gigantic corporations have selected for their consumption, to solicit their consumption.

There’s not much that’s ad-free, for free, in this world of money-mad men.

But my unbranded children are. And thus they remain free.

So I’m sorry, empire of capitalism.

But my kids are not for sale.

Stop and Smell the Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks

It is well documented (by his proud documentarian dad) that our 6-year-old son is a budding ornithologist. An admirer of all things feathered. A wing-loving Wingert who once mowed down an entire category of avian-themed Double Jeopardy questions without flinching. When he was four years old.

Greyson is our bird boy. In the past, he has been similarly obsessed with Christmas carols, cars and trucks, Caspian songs, farm animals, big cats, and various other genres of land animals. But for the past year he has been transfixed (eagle-eyed, if you will) on every single bird that exists. Heck, he even makes up birds that don’t exist, as if 10,000 species isn’t quite enough for him.

The latest stage in Greyson’s feathered fixation is fascinating to me. Previously his interest was primarily in reading bird books, sorting endlessly through his bird cards and cut-outs, and watching YouTube bird videos. Other than observing our bird feeder through the dining room window, he mostly wanted to stare at images of birds, in books or on screens, and read facts about what they eat and where they live. His interest was largely academic and encyclopedic.

But as of last week, he wants to get up close with the real thing.

Which is both deeply delightful and… a little difficult.

Each time we have gone outside or to a park in the last week, Greyson has gravitated toward the trees and craned his neck up to search for birds. While Violet swings and slides at a playground, Greyson wanders away from us and birdwatches. And while we hike on the Appalachian Trail, Greyson meanders off the trail and stares up at the tree branches. Which means we don’t get very far.

It’s logistically tricky when you’re presiding over two children, one of whom wants to go-go-go and the other of whom wants to stay in one place. But so far, Violet has been patient and accommodating with her big brother. As for me?

Well, I admire him. That’s the first thing to say. I look up to anyone who specializes in something, who can distill the world into one central focus. I love that Greyson, for as long as he has been able to construct a sentence (and maybe even earlier than that), has drilled down into one subject at a time and gradually rendered himself an amateur expert in that subject.

And taking the time to appreciate nature on a granular level is such a good and pure intention. In my desire to get from point A to point B, and to get some exercise in the process, I can easily lose sight of that. So my birdwatching boy is slowing me down. And slowing down is good.

Our minds operate at constant warp-speed these days. Our attention pings from worry to worry, from distraction to distraction. Our eyes dart from one screen to another. We rarely sit quietly with our thoughts, or even just sit quietly focusing on one thing (that isn’t on a screen).

But Greyson doesn’t look at screens all that much. When he’s inside, and when he’s not occupied with his sister, he plays with toy birds, sorts through bird cards, pages through bird books, and writes out lists of birds.

When he’s outside, he is now bound and determined to search for and stare at any bird he can. He exhibits patience in waiting for a bird to appear, and when it does, he eagerly walks toward it in hopes of seeing it up close.

And these are countercultural acts in 2022. Being intentional, slowing down, focusing on one thing at a time, being ambivalent to screens, and noticing the natural world are all things that don’t come, well, natural to us these days. So God bless Greyson for embracing these practices.

God bless him for unintentionally being intentional.

But I would be remiss not to also point out that our 6-year-old is a compulsive fellow, and compulsions are not always easy to manage. When we’re outside and Greyson insists on bird watching and bird seeking but then it’s time to come home, it doesn’t go over well and he can sometimes go to pieces.

It’s not like fussing exactly. I am well acquainted with his fussing jags, when he’s petulant or obstinate. But this is more of a sadness. Like he’s heartbroken at missing out on seeing some of his beloved birds. It’s frustrating to manage, but also oddly endearing.

In any case, Greyson is not good at drawing boundaries around his avian hobby. Not even remotely. And I’m not always good at knowing how to manage the ensuing friction.

I don’t know if Greyson would be clinically categorized as OCD. But I do know that he’s obsessive, and I do know that he’s compulsive. I’m not convinced that calling it a disorder would be helpful, though. In my mind, we’re all obsessed with something. Some of us are just more compulsive about it than others.

And my boy is compulsive about — and compelled by — all God’s feathered creatures.

When I think about what 6-year-olds obsess over in 2022, be it video games or Disney shows or other interests that require staring glaze-eyed and slack-jawed at a screen, I am grateful.

Grateful that we lucked out and were gifted a son who somehow hearkens from a pre-screen era. An era where the natural world was more than enough to enchant and enamor us.

A natural world which has been graced, to Greyson’s delight, with 10,000 species of enchanting birds.

So many birds to watch! So little time to watch them.

But our bird boy is doing his best to see ’em all.

A Tale of Two Kitties

When the cost of food soars, there’s only one reasonable thing to do: Willingly take on multiple additional mouths to feed! So with that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the 5th and 6th members of our family, whose mouths we are quite happy to feed.

One is a handsome, slate-grey stray cat our friend took in but wasn’t able to keep. We have made him our own (though it’s been a bumpy road) and dubbed him Caspian.

The other is a gorgeous, also-slate-grey rescue cat we visited at the shelter and quickly fell in love with. We have made her our own too (down a road with notably fewer bumps) and dubbed her Moksha.

Caspian is a go-getter. Moksha is more of a stay-putter.

Why those names? Well, Caspian is the all-time favorite band of every single adult human being in our house, without exception. (And I think we’ve convinced the kids too.) They are a band that has written the heart-expanding soundtrack for my life since I turned 30.

Meanwhile, Moksha is the name of a jaw-dropping, soul-fortifying, 9-minute opus from one Caspian’s first albums.

We love this band so much that we didn’t even consider any cat name options that weren’t Caspian-derived. We also named our previous cat — a kitten we briefly adopted who didn’t work out — Ríoseco, which is the name of another of our favorite Caspian songs.

Naming cats after rock bands. It’s how we roll.

But how do these cats roll?

Well, Caspian is a bit of a handful. He never once met an instruction he liked (or felt remotely compelled to follow). His greatest ambition in life is to ascend to the highest surface in any given room, like he’s trying to level-up in some kind of vertically oriented video game. If he could transcend the ceiling, he’d do it in a heartbeat. His ethos appears to be: “There’s nowhere to go but up.” (It’s probably a good thing we don’t have an attic.)

Caspian wants to nestle inside every nook and creep into every cranny. Every time we open a door to the outside, he turns into Steve McQueen and plots his great escape. He doesn’t walk; he darts. If the cat adages are correct, then curiosity will, um, kill our beautiful boy within a year — despite his very generous allotment of slightly less than 10 lives. But I’m confident that his inquisitiveness won’t prove fatal.

He’s also very sweet when he curls up next to you on the couch while you watch The Haunting of Hill House (though he hasn’t displayed much interest in the show yet). And once he laid right on my chest, which I took as a the highest of compliments. Caspian’s a good guy, just wild at heart. Once a ragamuffin stray, always a ragamuffin stray. Heck, I used to be one of those. Maybe we can bond over our shared vagabond past.

Then there’s Moksha. She’s our sweetly serene, shy but self-possessed girl. We were never planning to have 2 cats, but we adopted her because we wanted our kids — especially Violet, cat lover extraordinaire — to have a cat who gladly accepted affection. And our girl is always happy to be petted. She is especially ravenous for under-the-chin scratches, which instantly activate her bass-heavy purring amplifier. (I think Jani, Caspian’s bass player, would be impressed.)

Moksha is a consummate napper, and Dani has concluded that she’s an emotional eater too. This has resulted in quick weight gain since we adopted her a month ago, due to her nibbling dry food every time there’s a disturbance of any kind. So we lovingly call her our “chunkamunk.”

She is a peaceful soul, and not a big talker. But her occasional meow (really a mew; she’s not really a fan of the letter O) is adorable enough to melt the hardest heart into blood pudding. Her love language is affection, and she often sleeps the entire night at the foot of our bed, nestled on the comforter.

When we brought Moksha into the house for the first time, we followed a rigorous protocol, laid out for us by a warm-hearted and intensely cat-savvy friend, for keeping the two cats separate to help ensure a successful transition. For nearly three weeks, Moksha stayed in our bedroom, Caspian had free rein of the rest of the house, and occasionally we would swap them out. Only at mealtime were they next to each other, on opposite sides of a door.

When we finally let them meet, it was a little dicey as they got to know each other. But they have quickly learned to coexist, play-fighting at times but in a way that (our cat-expert friend tells us) is normal and healthy. Caspian is the provocateur, and Moksha lets him know when she’s had enough.

Personal boundaries are important to establish, and so are boundaries of the felinal variety. Caspian and Moksha establish their red lines with paw swats and gentle bites. Good for them.

Greyson likes the cats. He gets along fine with them, but they don’t usually factor too much into his day. Violet, however? Our girl loooooves those cats. I have never met a 4-year-old more in tune with an animal than Violet is with these two.

She does everything you could possibly hope or expect from a child her age. She sweetly pets them. She gently chides them when they go somewhere they shouldn’t. She helps feed them (and would gladly do it all by herself if we let her).

She watches intently every time we clean a litter box. She talks to the cats, sometimes at a volume we can’t quite hear, because the conversation wasn’t meant for our ears. She’s connected to the cats and she takes responsibility for the cats and she has quickly become something of a cat connoisseur. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

The road to this point was a bit rocky over the last two months. We weren’t sure if we would keep Caspian after the first few weeks. He just seemed too wild, and too intent on getting out of the house. And when we brought Moksha home, we worries that they would not get along. That Caspian would antagonize Moksha, or be territorial.

But I’m so grateful we stuck it out until things leveled out, and that they have each other to play with.

It feels good to finally venture back into the world of pets, after many years of dog life (until our beloved Taz passed away right after Greyson was born) and one year of cat life (while the kids were very small). Three years later, it’s satisfying to have some furry feline friends for our kids to play with. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that we’ve quickly grown to love ’em too.

So… Greyson and Violet, meet Caspian and Moksha.

May you be the best of buddies as you grow up.

May you forge many happy memories.

And despite what the adage says…

May you all be ever curious.

Acorns and Embers

I managed to wake up before my cat the last few mornings. Which is no small feat, because that guy never hits the snooze button.

It’s been a while since I saw the dark side of the sunrise, and as a result I haven’t blogged in 4 months. This despite the fact that writing, for me, is an antidepressant. It’s free therapy. And the act of writing is pure alchemy. It is the single thing that most consistently and most viscerally makes me feel like myself.

In mid-summer, mental health drifted maddeningly out of my grasp once again, as did clarity and creativity and the physical ability to drag myself out of bed before the last possible minute. It is only in the last two weeks that I have felt a flicker of momentum.

July, August, and September were not momentum months for me. They were treading water, feeling adrift, keeping my head above the surface months. Despite an abundance of sunshine, it was not my brightest season.

I didn’t crashingly bottom out this time like I did in spring 2021, when the two ravenous wolves of anxiety and depression feasted mercilessly on my mind. When I could barely take my kids outside without feeling the weight of the world pressing down upon me. When insomnia ravaged my body and melancholia ravaged my mind.

After suffering with that affliction for a while last year, I sought help from a doctor. Despite being a thuddingly tone-deaf, bombastic fellow, the doctor gave me an antidepressant that effectively helped restore my baseline mental health 3 or 4 weeks later. That was a truly dark night of the soul, and emerging from it was one of the most triumphant emergences of my life.

This time around, in my current mental health downswing, I’ve been more functional. It’s felt more like a mental fog uneasily resting on my mind rather than a 2-ton anvil brutally squashing my heart. I’ve felt more flailing than flattened. More discombobulated than decimated. More down than out.

But regardless, it sucks to not feel like myself.

And I’m ready — months past ready — to move back into the light.

Which feels precarious to say in mid-October since the actual light is starting to fade, and I know what late fall and early winter can be like for me. December and January can be bruising months for my seasonally affected self.

All the more reason to tenaciously summon my will in autumn and gather acorns for winter.

All the more reason to wake up early, well before the kids do (and that darn cat), and start writing again.

All the more reason to, as Thomas said, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The light that glows in the golden autumn sky a little less each day.

And the light that still glows deep inside my weary soul.

Even if it’s just a spark. A flicker. A dull ember.

But an ember can be awakened.