Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Joys of Parenting

You know, it's a mixed bag to have a creative child. Today, after I sent ten-year old Sarah to timeout for refusing to help clean the basement, she retaliated by rolling out the big guns: "I will NOT pay your rest home bills."

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Clamshell Boat

One day in early spring, I found myself knee-deep in the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., fishing for shad. The fish weren’t biting, so my attention wandered. Suddenly, my eye caught something on the water not far from me: a small clamshell, like one of thousands I’d seen along the shores of the river, but different in one important respect—it was floating. I have no idea how it got that way, whether a gust of wind had tipped a dry shell onto the water or, less likely, a small child upstream had carefully placed it on the surface film: would it, could it … yes! Whatever the reason, there it was, riding concave side-down, like a little round boat.

The water pressed right up to the shell’s edge, but not over, and it seemed that the smallest thing—another gust of wind or a drop of water—would send it to the bottom, but, for as long as I stood transfixed, nothing upset that delicate balance, and the little clamshell boat sailed off, spinning a few times in the eddy behind my feet, and then away down river towards the open sea.

To the casual observer, the tidal Potomac may seem an unlikely place for miracles. It’s a bit dog-eared, not so much loved to death as ignored—ignored in the sense that most of the millions who live within the wide watershed that drains through that gorge just west of Washington haven’t the faintest idea what’s there, nor do they seem to care, as evidenced by the flotsam and jetsam along the river’s shores: tennis balls, bottles, cans; even toilet seats and shopping carts; and hundreds upon hundreds of plastic bags, caught in the tree tops during frequent floods and now fluttering in the breeze like so many profane copies of Tibetan prayer flags.

And yet, plastic bags aside, there is something miraculous, something almost divine, about that great green corridor that cuts through the heart of the Nation’s Capitol. Certainly, there was a hymn in the air that morning: the soft glow of morning sun on the cliffs. The mutter of cormorants. An osprey launching itself into the wind from its perch high above the river.

There was something miraculous, too, in my fishing for shad. For millennia, millions of shad—American and Hickory—pushed their way from the open ocean and into the Chesapeake Bay each Spring, then up the rivers and streams, where they first hatched, to spawn the next generation of shad. These days those great runs of shad, which sustained Native Americans and spawned local festivals among the American Colonists each Spring, are sadly diminished. Many streams that once saw hundreds of thousands of shad now see few, if any.

Fortunately, in response to sustained restoration efforts involving the States of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the shad have started to return, signalling again, as they have for millenia, the return of Spring.

It's all rather miraculous, isn't it--the light light on the water, the return of the shad, and the clamshell boat, sailing off on its improbable voyage with only me to watch it.

As the French theologian Blaise Pascal once observed, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." They frighten me too, even as they fill me with awe and wonder.

Our knowledge of the universe continues to expand, and astronomers identify new planets all the time—raising the hope that somewhere, way out there beyond time and memory, there may be other worlds like this one. Even so, the mind-boggling distances and probabilities only confirm the miracle of this particular planet: this green earth—our home—spinning its way, like a little clamshell boat, down a river of stars.

(Photo courtesy of waferkitty on Flickr; available at

Monday, February 23, 2009

Class Dismissed

When we lived in Maryland, we loved "snow days"--those unexpected school closings that accompanied the slightest hint of winter weather.

But imagine if school was closed not just for a day or two, but forever? What if it was closed to girls, but remained open for boys? What if the local elementary school was blown up by people who feared the corrupting influence of education? What if you and your children knew that they might walk off to school and never come back, or wind up in a hospital after having acid thrown in their face? What if you knew that your children, no matter how much they wanted it, could never receive an education?

All that seems inconceivable here in America, which, even in tough economic times, remains a country of enormous wealth and opportunity--a myriad blessings we take for granted, like public schools.

But that nightmare is a reality for many children and families in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. I can recall few news clips as sobering as the following short film documentary from the New York Times that I stumbled acroos this morning: .

(Warning: video contains violent and disturbing images; photo courtesy of adibmuhammad on Flickr, available at:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Good Neighbors

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall …”
Robert Frost

We live in a good neighborhood. I feel qualified to say that because we’ve lived in all kinds of neighborhoods over the years, and this one stands out for the way people look out for each other.

We get a lot of snow here in the winter, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, and that means pushing around a lot of snow over the course of a single winter. Lately it’s become a kind of race to see who gets out there first. If you’re too slow, the neighbors are likely to beat you to it.

You’d think that would provide a powerful incentive to put off going out, but in reality it works the opposite way: I try to run outside as quick as I can to avoid the embarrassment of having my neighbors shovel the walks of this perfectly able-bodied thirty-something. (Okay, my neighbors feel sorry for me because I’m too cheap to buy a snow blower, but it’s still embarrassing.) Despite my best efforts, however, the neighbors routinely beat me to it. Last month it was Paul Dowding, last week, Randy Ford, then Taalon Huber.

Yesterday, I got out real quick, but had shoveled for just a few minutes before Dan Wight stopped by in his pickup with a big bladed shovel on the front. In two runs and about 30 seconds, he’d cleared 90% of our driveway. So, me and five year-old Mary, my self-appointed snow shovel assistant, headed over to the neighbors, figuring that we better play it forward in the spirit of grateful neighborliness.

After shoveling for a few minutes, Mary looked up at me. “We’re looking for the good, Daddy!” she exclaimed, parroting a family motto, “Helping people is fun.”

(Photo courtesy of MNKiteman on Flickr; this and other snow shoveling art available at:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Compliment Night

As a family, we pray together every night before bed. Last summer, when I asked a friend for any good parenting tips, he described something called "compliment night." Here's how it works: when it's your turn to pray, everyone in the family gives you a compliment first.

We thought it was a great idea, and so we decided to try it out. It has worked beautifully. If your kids are anything like ours, they will invariably start to complain about it being "their turn" for prayer. Though some relish it, all our kids, at one point or another, have chafed at it, but not since we instituted compliment night.

The kids just eat it up, and can't wait for it to be "their" night to pray. Tonight, five year-old Mary beamed for five minutes straight as we went around the circle. Although it becomes a bit of a challenge to come up with something new to say, we counter that by looking for specific examples of good things that person has done on that particular day. That kind of positive reinforcement has had a powerful effect.

Parenting is tough. We get things wrong. We screw up. We institute "programs" and "projects" that don't stick. So it's nice to occasionally get one right: compliment night, a seriously good idea.

(Photo retrieved through a Yahoo image search and identified from the following link: It's a bad link, though, so I can't be sure of the source. Such a great photo, though, that I had to share.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Martha Stewart Exclusive Tip

Have you ever been to a fine restaurant where they serve the butter in a porcelain ramekin, and it's been pushed down and smoothed across the top--the kind of butter perfection one feels guilty disturbing with a knife? (In the photo at left, the butter isn't quite as smooth as what I'm envisioning.)

Well, some friends of ours used to frequent a relative's house for Sunday dinner, and the butter dish always looked just like that. They were really impressed that the hostess went to that kind of trouble ... until the day they caught the family dog with its paws up on the counter, licking the butter.

True story. Eat your heart out, Martha.

(Photo courtesy of lesleyk on Flickr; available at:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

When J.B.S. Haldane, a well-known British geneticist and evolutionary biologist of the last century, was pressed by a clergyman to explain what could be inferred about the Creator from his study of creation, Haldane is said to have replied, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

While historians debate whether Haldane actually said that, no one disputes whether the statement is true. Simply put, God must love beetles. Though species estimates vary widely, science has identified and described some 370,000 species of beetles—accounting for roughly a fifth of all living organisms and a fourth of all animals. That means more types of beetles than types of plants. Incredible.

To cite another example, Smithsonian entomologist Terry Erwin has collected some 25,000 species of beetles from a single study site in the rainforest of Central America, with some 80% of those species previously unknown to science.

Why would the good Lord pay so much attention to beetles? I’ll add that to a growing list of life’s imponderables. Regardless of the answer, you’ve got to admit: beetles are cool. I’ve stumbled across them in all shapes, sizes, and colors, from little ones an iridescent orange and green, to assassin beetles mottled white and neon blue, to great black horned things that push along the ground like miniature tanks.

Several years ago, I used a 10x jeweler’s loop to watch a ladybug devour an aphid. Think lady bugs are cute? It looked like a fat guy tucking into a watermelon on a hot summer day.

Yep, beetles are cool.

(Photo courtesy of Natalini Butterflies and Moths; available at: Other sources: Arthur Evans and Charles Bellamy, An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, University of California Press 2000, website at; Morgan Simmons, Entomologist brings tropical studies to local conference: Biodiversity in Smokies pales in comparison to that in Amazon (December 3, 2008), Knoxville News Sentinel, available at

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Intimations of Mortality

I’ve always loved Wordsworth, and his "Intimations of Immortality" remains one of my favorite poems ("Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting …"), but I’ve been thinking of late more about the mortality side of things. A growing consciousness of that mortality seems to define this particular season of life.

A few years back, I penned the following haiku:

40th birthday --
the leaves just beginning
to change color

I wasn’t 40 at the time, and my birthday’s in spring, but, even at 35, I felt keenly the first hints of my own mortality: the inexorable movement of time, physical decline, the inevitability of death and loss. I feel it even more keenly know. The foot I injured two years ago still pains me. My blood pressure’s up and my blood sugar too high. My sideburns are shot through with gray. Our children move and mature at lightning speed—no matter how hard we try to hold onto them.

But this all sounds rather grim and melancholy, and I’m neither. We’ve been encouraging our children recently to "look for the good," to take a "glass half full" view of life. With that perspective in mind I’m encouraged to think that, if my luck is only about break even, I still have some 35-40 years left on this planet, and that’s a lot of mileage, and plenty of time to learn, and do, and see; to love and laugh and "suck the marrow" out of life, as Thoreau would say.

If I’m in the mid-summer of life, I’m certainly sorry that spring is forever behind me, and the fireflies will soon stop winking in the trees and the honeysuckle won’t smell quite so sweet, but Autumn promises its own beauties and adventures, and winter too, cold and clear, with time and space for peace and contemplation.

In the words of the Nissan TV commercial, "Life’s a journey, enjoy the ride."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Slow Children at Play

I've been amused by this and other failures in punctuation recently. The one I saw today was "No trespassing violators will be prosecuted."

One that you may (or may not) find amusing depending on your political persuasion can be found off the George Washington Memorial Parkway just outside of Washington, D.C. We used to pass it all the time, though I never bothered to take a picture. Although punctuation isn't the issue there, it reads simply: "George Bush Center for Intelligence."

(Photo courtesy of Danny McL on Flickr; available at We've seen lots of these; the funniest occur where, as here, there is no obvious visual break between "slow" and "children.")