The Arts Amid A Pandemic

There is a well-known, nearly cliché, story that most of us remember from history class. Like most over-told tales, there is a reason for its repetition in our lexicon. We over-use examples when they speak to a large number of people, are easily palatable, or represent the rare gem of a perfect analogy. The factoid I’m thinking about today – and have been for the last weeks – is about the Titanic. Not the fictitious Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet story, but the tales that came from the actual Titanic sinking. Namely: that every member of the band perished because they chose to keep playing music instead of getting into lifeboats.

Most of you have heard that fact. I’m probably not surprising or educating anyone with this sliver of history. It’s a piece of information that conjures appreciation and respect in all types of people, even the most ardent slash-the-Arts-budget individual. Yet somehow, in our culture and so many others, this story seems like an anomaly, the exception about the Arts rather than the rule. Creative people are rarely portrayed as the heroes who sacrifice. We are not the ones rushing into burning buildings or performing surgeries or squinting into telescopes for years trying to find that elusive cure. Instead, we are seen as the frivolous ones. We matter and are appreciated, but only during midsummer outdoor concerts or Friday night date night at the movies. We are our culture’s entertainment, the jesters who keep them preoccupied. And we share a significant – if not majority – portion of the blame for this stereotype because we have played directly into it.

Whatever our creative pursuit, most of us aren’t performing Mozart on a cello as the waters literally rise up our feet.

These weird and strange days have brought opportunity to change that. As we continue to watch our world devolve into panicked toilet paper purchases and lonely isolation, the Arts have a unique platform to bring the same comfort and ease to people as those heroic musicians. And its already happening.

Famous musicians are streaming Live concerts from their living rooms. Art galleries are offering digital tours. Writers are starting virtual book clubs. Mostly free of charge, all giving the stir-crazy public a distraction.

But is it just a distraction?

Artists believe that we have something to say. And everyone is going to need something a little different from us as these next few weeks unfold. Some will need encouragement, inspiration and motivation. Some will need comfort. Others will need something a little stronger – a metaphoric shot of whiskey as they bravely face the virus infecting their body or another night shift at the hospital. All of these things are in our disposal to offer. And all of them matter in ways that are far more tangible today than they were yesterday.

This is my hope for our world as we move through the coronavirus pandemic: that we would come out the other side finally understanding the full value of creativity.

Because herein lies our most neglected message: the Arts were never about a specific art form. It’s not a debate about whether pop music is better than country or whether there is more depth in an abstract painting than a sculpture or whether your local theater should sensor a certain number of swear words.

The Arts are about exercising the creative channels of the brain, in both the performer and consumer. And while debates about your High School musical truly are trivial, the value of a mind that thinks outside the box is a necessity in every single field, especially today.

As I watch social media and the news, I am both heartbroken and encouraged to see parents wobbly attempting to adjust to a life of remote work and full childcare responsibility. They are baking and playing music and buying books. They are inventing new board games when their children get literally bored by the old ones. They are being creative. But mostly, they are desperately seeking. They are following other creative profiles and begging the broader internet world for suggestions.

This is our time to rise up, artists. This is our time to use our talents as a service. To promote an exchange of ideas. To offer calm into the chaos. To give dormant minds and bodies new exercise. And lest we forget that this pandemic is still a real danger, and not just about people cooped up in their houses, it is our opportunity to create something of true comfort and depth for someone who may be in pain or may not live through this ordeal.

But bear no illusions: this will cost us. It may not cost a literal life, unless you are exposing yourself to an infected population (please don’t, as you’ll be contributing the virus’ spread!). But it will mean significant sacrifices of time and finances.

This is something that non-artists probably don’t understand. Our culture grasps the depressing realities for our local businesses and the far-reaching consequences this quarantine is going to have on our economy. But it’s not just retail who is feeling the sting. The Arts run on events. The majority of money made by those in creative fields is through events. When concerts are cancelled and book tours suspended and gallery openings postponed, artists lose the primary chunk of their yearly income and have significant portions of their marketing strategy upended. To replace those with services to help the public, most of which are free, puts artists in difficult positions.

But everyone is in a difficult position right now; its all the same ship. And out of every industry, artists are used to using ingenuity to create alternative income streams. We have a lot we can teach our neighbors about practical things like that, too.

We live in a society that hasn’t practiced creativity very well. We have our regular work flow and very rarely think outside the box. Businesses that now have to go virtual are run by people who don’t know how to make that transition. Parents who haven’t used Algebra in 30 years now have to teach it to their adolescent children. A world that literally runs on the 9-to-5 schedule now has to balance work and family 24/7. None of these are specifically “artistic” things, but all are going to require creative solutions from people whose brains have not been well-groomed to practice life this way. We can help with that.

This is our time, artists. Our time to finally prove that music isn’t just entertainment and painting isn’t just inspiration.

I hope we are willing to make the sacrifice and do the service. And I hope when this pandemic is over, society will come out of it with a new priority for ensuring the next generation is better prepared. Not only when it comes to health and flexible business models. But also in the ways we use art to prepare our children for whatever crisis they will inevitably have to face, by molding them to have a deeper understanding of creativity and a looser dependency on rules, models and boxes.

The One I Didn’t Write

A few years ago, my husband was in a minor fender-bender that totaled his car. He was unharmed and the car was old, so truth be told, the accident was actually a relief. It finally gave us the excuse to upgrade to a truck.

I always intended to write something sentimental when the day finally came to bid that car farewell. It was such a big part of our early life together – the most romantic memories of our relationship are somehow connected to that little two-door Honda Civic.

But when the ordeal finally happened, I was silent. My husband and I had had a big fight. Not that day. Not even that week. It had actually been quite a long time since the fateful argument. But as we all know, arguments are rated on a scale. Some end within minutes. Others take years – not before forgiveness (hopefully), but before everyday moments stop making the irreversible decisions so obvious, a consistent reminder of what was said, as if your life were on some cruel time loop.

When it came time to eulogize the car that had taken us on our first date and driven us from the wedding chapel, I wasn’t really in a place to take a romantic stroll down memory lane.

Life continued and was mostly good. In vulnerable moments, the same argument popped out of dormancy. But eventually, time always makes the needle move, and we were forced around a bend that at least kinda-sorta resembled moving on and letting go.

John and I switched garages last summer. We have two single-stalls in our rural yard and didn’t properly think through which one should be “His” vs “Hers” when we first bought the property. If we’d fully anticipated the amount of work switching would be, we may have decided to just be content. As it was, our yard spent an embarrassing number of days looking like a tornado dump site as we emptied both buildings in order to rearrange.

Like so many middle-class folks, John’s garage isn’t really about protecting his vehicle. Instead, he uses it as a wood shop. Even after we’d finished moving all his equipment over, it took him nearly another month to get fully organized and set up. When it comes to his beloved shop, John is pickier than a homemaker with a Pinterest account.

I have to admit, it looks pretty cool. His squat rack and freeweights are tucked in the back corner. Mismatched, homemade workbenches run along one wall. The opposite wall is lined with his large standing tools – saws, a surface planer, and the like. In the center of the floor, his lathe sits like a kitchen island. Extra wood is stacked in the rafters, with clamps and assorted hooks hanging down for easy access. He’s decorated – if I dare call it that – with old, sentimental items – what this great Miranda Lambert songs affectionately calls “old sh!t.” There are broadswords he made at the age of 12 that he and his brother used to fight with. A boxy, 1970s panasonic radio that once sat in his grandpa’s shop. A cleaned deer skull from a recent successful hunting season. A copper-plate print of a half-mechanical man that his brother made him while in art school. And tacked on the wall above one workbench are the old license plates from his first car – the same one he drove when I met him. The one I never got to fully say goodbye to.

I go out to John’s sanctuary fairly often. Our chest freezer is out there, so sometimes it’s just to grab a pound of beef or frozen pizza. Other times, I wait for our son to fall asleep, then head out with a coat and baby monitor to sit in a chair and watch John work. The meditative scraping of a blade against wood provides a relaxing backdrop. Sometimes we talk, other times I just listen to the intellectual voices of whatever latest podcast has his attention. Each time I go out there, though, those old license plates wink down at me from their lofty perch.

There are so many moments where that Honda Civic was in the background. Its headlights had a front row seat to some of my most cherished memories. Mining those memories would have made for a great essay. So now those license plates make me think of missed opportunities instead of road trips and make-out sessions.

I tried to go back and write an essay about his car anyway. Better late than never, right? The problem is, I have never been very good at re-do’s. Once the inspiration is gone – or the timing has been missed – I never experience it the same way again. John and I are similar-yet-different in that regard. We are both decisive people, but with opposite attitudes. John is an optimist. He makes each choice assuming everything will work out in the end. Mistakes happen, but not without opportunity to correct. Then there is me, who sees little gain in taking a second pass on ground that’s already been plowed.

Lately, John and I have been discussing disappointments and failed goals. What decisions have we made over the last few years that got in the way of previous expectations? Truth is, we lost a lot more from our “Big Fight” (and the many other arguments that happen in marriage) than a sappy blog post that only my Facebook friends would have read, anyway. And it’s not only about fighting; it isn’t just negative choices that come with a cost. Where would be today if we’d taken This Job vs. That One? If we’d had kids at an alternate time? Bought a different house? It can be overwhelming if you dissect your life with too high a magnification.

After examining our past dreams, there are some we decided to pull from the rubble and others that we’ve grown beyond anyway. We are trying to have an attitude that reflects the best parts of our respective personalities. To not write anything off just because it didn’t happen how we originally imaged. To treat life with the hope and freedom that comes from writing in pencil. But to also be people sober-minded enough to feel the weight of each decision. To allow ourselves to feel consequences and make sacrifices so we can fully appreciate the end result.

The Honda Civic was a good car. Perhaps not as safe as a 4-wheel-drive or as comfortable as anything even slightly bigger. But that is what made the memories so entertaining. It would have been fun to write about the adventures in that car, but I don’t want to resurrect that particular idea. Perhaps moribund, I actually like feeling its ghost hover in my computer screen. I will go back and hit “re-do” on other, more important things; with those, I will let go of my propensity to wallow and try take a few pages from my husband’s playbook. But this missed moment is mine to ponder and regret and use as a cautious metaphor.

Losing Sleep

A few weeks ago, I woke from a fog, as dramatic as a Hollywood scene – comatose patient thrust into sitting position as she gasps a desperate lungful of air.

Until that moment, I hadn’t fully acknowledged how asleep I was. I can’t remember the last time I felt fully awake. I don’t just mean a literal tiredness. It’s true that between a sleepless baby and uncomfortable pregnancy, I haven’t had a complete, full night’s rest in nearly two years. That’s not what this is about. If I’m being honest, I have walked around with a distance in my eyes for much longer than that.

What finally nudged me out of my own head wasn’t anything dramatic. It was simply a glimpse of my previous self on a time-hop share on Facebook. Compelled by the memory, I began scrolling through my page from the last couple years of college. What I saw surprised me. It was like reading someone else’s feed. Did you know that I used to be funny? (And slightly spacey?)

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 4.49.21 PM

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 4.54.53 PM

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 4.51.45 PM

Far from witty anecdotes of life’s details, my social media reads much differently now: quiet. unoriginal. cautious. An embarrassingly perfect mirror of my life.

I can’t remember the last time I did something worth telling people about. I have run out of words, of things to say – I mean, unless you want to hear how many times the self-checkout computer at Walmart insisted there were unknown items in my bagging area. When I find a way to make that entertaining, you’ll be the first to read it here.

It’s a mystery, really, because I have had a few notable accomplishments. To name only the most recent: bought my first house, remodeled (past tense? ha! remodeling a house…), had a baby. Where were all my clever reflections detailing those situations? It’s shameful how quickly our life starts to seem average simply because it’s ours.

I’m in the awful in-between section of life. The middle. Beginnings are amazing. The youthful excitement and anticipation, the ease with which all your yet-unchallenged assumptions get to boast and grow. And endings? Nothing compares to that sense of accomplishment. The idea of finishing – and finishing well – is a virtue incomparable, providing direction and satisfaction. But between those glorious bookends is the normal section of life, with its confusion and sludge and uphillness. It’s exhausting. Overwhelming. Intimidating. It’s so much easier to go silent than to enjoy. To not return phone calls or cook a balanced meal or pay bills in a timely manner or get eye-level with your baby for an uninterrupted half hour. To let all the should haves pile up til the mound is so high you actually do have to ignore it because time is too limited for you to sort through that much regret.

It’s so much easier to not write. Because opening that document on your laptop would mean facing how little you have completed and how much longer you will have to slog through this unexciting stage.

Am I the only one who experiences this? I doubt it. Perhaps it is just my limited perspective, but it seems to me our whole world has been half asleep the last several years. No one feels fully engaged anymore.

I am trying to do better. To take cheesy pictures and bake bread and write something – even just two sentences – every day. Most of all, to be okay if my life and my words are not profound every time because perfectionism is the enemy of progress.

Sharing about my life – whether it is through social media or blogging or some other platform – has always been difficult for me. I struggle with that elusive line between showing gratitude and bragging. So, again, it is easier sometimes to just back off than do the hard work of finding balance. But truth is, as much of a bad rap as social media gets, I am actually at my healthiest – mentally, spiritually, creatively – when I Share and Post and Like with regularity. It’s not because social media has any special power. It’s not because the harm of comparison and adulation isn’t a very real issue on such platforms. It’s because I can use it in a way that provides accountability. When I share the exciting moments in my life online with others, it means I have first been aware enough to notice what moments in my life are noteworthy. I make myself stop and have gratitude when it would be easier to let busyness and boredom distract me.

If there were truly nothing to share, it would be time to make some serious life changes. But that isn’t usually the problem. There is always something to share, but we don’t always have eyes to see it. Life has seasons, so I don’t doubt that fog and rote-ness will overtake me again someday. But for as long as I can manage, I’m going to make an effort to keep my eyes open.

Bonding

My son was born at 10:21 a.m. on a bright August Sunday. Eleven hours of labor with a failed epidural made for a quick – albeit intense and overwhelming – night, with puke dripping from my face, clothing, and hospital sheets during every couple of contractions. Then, he arrived.

7 lbs, 3 oz. 18 inches. A cone head so sharp you could prick your finger on it. His velvet skin was wrinkled as an old man, with a receding halo of soft blonde hair to match. A complete lack of chin left his bottom lip to quiver so rapidly that each cry had a distinct vibrato. He seemed a foreign-looking alien creature, yet somehow familiar.

I didn’t sleep at all for the first 48 hours. Everyone told me I should. Guests kindly left quickly so I “could get some rest.” Nurses recommended the age-old “sleep when the baby sleeps.” But hormones and adrenaline make impossible bedfellows.

IMG_2958

Every two hours, I strained against my stitches and limped from the hospital bed to Frankie’s nearby bassinet for his feeding. He didn’t nurse well those early weeks (a story for another day), but after each successful struggle, I would simply hold him, look at him, and admire each miraculous feature on my new baby. He slept almost exclusively during that stage, but instead of joining him in rest, I stared at his sleeping form with a perverted intensity that is only appropriate if you are a parent. After the first few back-and-forth trips to his bassinet, I realized it was a waste of my tender body’s energy to pretend we were both going to bed. So I just propped myself up in the hospital bed and held his slumbering body against my chest for two nights and two-and-a-half days straight.

I’ve gotten a little more sleep these last six weeks, bits and pieces snagged here and there, seamed together to create something resembling a healthy amount. But I am still constantly holding him. Staring at him. Marveling that his eyes, mouth and fists somehow all know how to open and close on their own. Reveling that this expressive, fast-growing little human is actually mine. Sometimes, I confess, I pick him up not because he is crying and needs me, but because my arms feel empty without him.

When Frankie is fussing, I always lose the ‘you take him; no, you take him’ argument with my husband because I never actually say ‘no.’ Part of my willingness, I confess, is because it usually means the other person has to cook supper; I’d hold a crying baby over cooking any day. But the other part is my willingness – perhaps eagerness – to tackle any chore so long as it is a tangible problem I can try fix.

The anxious anticipation of pregnancy was difficult for me. I remember the hours spent sitting on the nursery floor, quietly angry that I couldn’t yet hold my baby…at only six or so months along! I do not do well in moments of in-between – of discussion, delay, fermenting, saving, or waiting. I like to just do the work. Make executive decisions. Roll up my shirt sleeves. I honestly think I would have stretched my un-medicated 11 hours into a week if it would have cut gestation by even half!

So now that he is finally here, I try not to resent a single moment. I enjoy wearing the problem-solving, detective hat of motherhood: every ear-shattering, angry scream; every pitiful, droopy-lipped pout; every slow development as muscles and cognition grow; every interrupted or never-begun task halted by diaper changes, feeding, or general fussiness. I have learned to set down my personal productivity and place him in my arms, instead.

IMG_3312Now that he has started raising his head, holding Frankie has become much more dangerous and involved than when he was first born. No longer does he lie limp and prone however I place him. Rather, he pushes himself up and flails his little body around to try see whatever fancies his curiosity, moving in blind trust that my hand will catch his floppy head when the neck muscles give out after only seconds. Then he screams in anger, as if it were somehow my fault that he is not yet stronger and more able.

Usually, Frankie looks beyond my shoulder, out to the side, or straight up at the ceiling. But every once in awhile, on rare occasions, he tips his round head back, long neck stretched like an accordion, and stares straight at my face – choosing, out of everything in his vast, new world, to see his mama. Those literal seconds he has before face-planting into my chest, he gives to me. After the untold hours I have spent staring at and studying my son, finally he returns the favor and studies me back. And in that moment, I feel that I’ve been given the greatest honor – like the novel I’ve yet to write just won a Pulitzer. So I kiss his little round mouth with enough gusto to give the poor kid an Oedipus complex, squeeze my arms around him, and hold him for several hours more.

Prudence

Writers are usually emotional people. They’re a type of artist, so like all creative people, they live with full imaginations and deep personal investment. I tell everyone that I’m the most practical artist I’ve ever met. I don’t get worked up about most things and can generally allow most of life to slide off my back.

But every once in awhile something happens to remind me that this claim only works when comparing myself to other artists. As soon as I measure myself against the general public, I lose all bragging rights to common sense pragmatism. I am, it would seem, an artist, too.

John and I thought we were buying our first house this week. It’s a big life step. And honestly, not our first attempt at home ownership. It’s been a long year-and-change of searching, finding a place we love, attempting to put in a bid, and having it all fall through.

But this place felt different. It felt familiar, somehow. Fated. Very close to what I’d been picturing in my head for years. It was a bit of a Fixer Upper, but that only endeared me more to it.

Maybe it was the artist in me. Maybe the woman. Maybe an unfair mix of both. But almost immediately my mind took over ownership. Before we’d even signed a single paper, I’d replaced the kitchen floor twice, and packed each of the extra bedrooms with multiple children. My claws sank in deep before I even knew what I was holding onto.

The bank approved a loan. The sellers agreed to our price. We signed enough papers to get carpel tunnel. And then, while waiting for the final rounds of approval, we had fun. We researched DIY websites. Strolled through Home Depot, marking prices. Planned a giant party with everyone we’ve ever met invited. This was the farthest we’d ever gotten in the home-buying process, so this time it was surely real.

And then we brought in the home inspector.

At first I resisted the man’s negativity. It’s his job to find flaws; that doesn’t make this house particularly bad. But as he went through room by room detailing costly safety hazards, that practical Emily started fighting for her voice again. First I simply re-budgeted – the kitchen can have cheap linoleum and I can kill off a few children.

Truthfully, I have often made decisions that were impractical and said ‘yes’ to my artistic nature. I got a degree in something as useless as English. I got married at 21, agreeing to marry a man I hadn’t known for even a full year yet. Then John and I moved to New York with a duffel bag of clothes and an air mattress in the trunk, clutching a meager sum in the un-cashable form of banker’s checks. I will loudly proclaim that it can be wonderfully brave to do the foolish thing; it has filled my life with adventure and story.

But I’m also a farm kid. I have a DNA weathered by millennia of gamblers who bet on the fickle risk of reaping from the earth. Who instinctively plan for unexpected elements. Who understand big loss and big reward. Who’s practiced discernment is as much a part of them as the smudged dirt that permanently stains their fingerprints.

So I understand that sometimes you gotta know when to fold your hand. To realize that even if everyone is watching your first jump off the high dive, there’s no shame in backing from the edge and going down the way you came.

“This job can be really hard,” the inspector admitted as he watched our faces grow more discouraged. “I often feel like I’m coming in and crushing people’s dreams.”

I nearly offered to pay him extra for being both honest and kind – a disappearing trait in today’s politically-charged atmosphere.

John and I spent some time thinking and researching. Trying to determine what we really, truly wanted deep down. And then trying to determine if what we wanted to do and what we should do were at odds. And finally, because I am the most practical artist I’ve ever met, I erased the mental picture I’d been curating, called my husband at work and said, “How would you feel about just walking away?”

This house had felt like mine, but it didn’t belong to me. It was meant for someone older. Someone with more life experience to put into fixing it, who had deeper pockets and fewer restrictions than First Time Home Buyer Loans regulate.

My yin and yang will probably always fight. And the artistic side will often win. Not because she should, but because she is spoiled and pouts, so it’s just easier to give in to her. She hasn’t lost very often these past few years, so when she does, she sits around moping and feeling her sorrow and writing exaggerated blog posts in her pajamas. It’s annoying, especially to my pragmatic side who has the responsibility of picking her up and shaking sense into her.

But pragmatism needs to win. Because her victory gives my whole self a sense of pride. She’s the one who grounds me and connects me back to my roots. She won’t allow the apple to roll so far from the tree that it can’t be sheltered from the rain. And it’s her influence that gives my artistic side a more unique voice in a world that is making far too many emotionally-driven decisions.

Which is all to simply say, it’s okay. In fact, it’s great. There’s sorrow but it’s mixed with intense relief, both at dodging a 30-year headache and knowing that I haven’t completely lost the ability to make decisions that are wise. The roots still hold, thank God.

Strawberries

If I were a better writer, this would have been written by now. I wouldn’t look at the calendar, realize a month has nearly gone by, and be content writing old news. I value stories enough to want to share them and immortalize them, but am far from that clichéd image of the tired writer plucking words out in the middle of the night or pushing off work and family obligations because, you know, personal writing deadlines are important, too.

Nope. I’m Midwestern: somehow both busy and lazy simultaneously. And every once in awhile I remember, “Oh that’s right. I blog, don’t I?” So I reach back into the mental file for a story. Usually I can disguise it pretty well, make readers believe it happened yesterday, that my fingers pounded it out so fast they bled. But when the story is about Valentine’s Day and the stores are currently selling St. Patrick’s items, such deception isn’t fooling the most blonde among us.

I don’t really like Valentine’s Day. I know I’m in the one category that should: the happily and healthy married. And I do think that love is worth celebrating. But my eye rolling and mumblings of “fake holiday invented by greeting card companies to make money” rival any crotchety man – a la Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec or Luke Danes from Gilmore Girls.

So suffice it to say, we didn’t go out on Valentine’s Day. As I had told a friend the day before: Valentine’s Day is the one day to not go out; go out on a random, quiet Wednesday instead, then you can get the restaurant to yourself. We did celebrate, but minimally. I made John a nice supper; he bought me flowers. We were just finishing our meal, the fake holiday coming to an end for one more year, when John asked, “Do you remember our first Valentine’s?”

It wasn’t meant as a loaded question. He was planning to reference something obscure. But suddenly I did remember our first Valentine’s and looked at him in horror. And then he suddenly remembered, too.

See, we do have a Valentine’s Day tradition. Every year John makes me a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries. It’s not original, perhaps, but it is something simple we’ve worked hard to cultivate. The strawberries are not a surprise gift. I’ll remind him or even pick up the ingredients myself some years. But we have always made the effort to do it.

This tradition has provided us with many comical memories and sweet moments. It started that first Valentine’s Day, when we were barely a couple and still unsure what the dating rules were. We were in college and had no money for something fancy anyway, even if we had felt comfortable going out together. And we were too young to buy wine or champagne. So John showed up at my dorm door holding a plate of chocolate covered strawberries that he’d personally hand-dipped in the crappy little kitchen in his own dorm. We ate them sitting at my desk in Dahl Hall.

And since then, chocolate covered strawberries are the only part of Valentine’s Day I’ve ever felt attached to. We’ve improved the tradition each time after several valuable lessons: Use actual dipping chocolate, not almond bark or chocolate chips. Don’t even try white chocolate, cause it’s gross. Let them harden on parchment, not a plate, or you’ll need a chisel to get them off.

But this year, we didn’t make strawberries. Somehow both of us had forgotten. John looked out our window, into the darkness, and asked, “Well, what do you want to do about it this late?”

And of course, I said, “Go pick up the ingredients at a store. Walmart, at least, will be open if nothing else. We can salvage this!”

See, I may be a crotchety old man about certain concepts, but when it comes to the personal, I am full sentimental girl. (I mean, c’mon, I do blog…) “John, a tradition isn’t a tradition unless you do it every year!” I said. “It’s not something you did a few times once. If we don’t make them this year, then we’re done. It’s not an actual tradition anymore!”

I’m not sure if he agreed with my extreme reasoning, but he went uptown to get our ingredients anyway. We successfully salvaged our strawberry tradition for another year. And it meant more than the generous bouquet of flowers delivered to my door that morning or the incredible salmon fillets I made for supper. We ate those strawberries, reminisced, and laughed at ourselves.

I certainly saw the humor in the whole thing, but also felt a tinge of guilt. It’s a pretty poor tradition if both of us found it so forgettable. Apparently I am as bad at sentimental details as I am at writing regularly. But we got a good laugh and another story out of the ordeal. And I figure, if you’re gonna forget something important, it may as well be tied to Valentine’s Day. It’s not like we forgot a Christmas tradition. It’s only Valentine’s Day…

IMG_1452

Opie

My husband doesn’t like children. It’s not that he hates them. He’s just one of those guys who is more comfortable with adult conversation. As he’ll readily confess, “I didn’t like being around kids when I was a kid. And I definitely don’t understand them better now.”

But I have a theory about children: I think they are drawn to the very people who dislike them most. Isn’t every good young adult story about the precocious kid who softens the heart of the old geezer yelling at him to be quiet? Not that John would ever be a yelling old man. I mean, I hope he isn’t that bad. Then again, one time after I recounted a funny experience that happened in the church nursery, John solemnly responded, “You realize you just described my personal version of hell, right?”

But despite his dislike, I have seen more than one young boy attempt to draw John out of his Adults Only comfort zone. Many people have heard the story that happened shortly after we moved into our current house. John tilled up a garden spot for me in the backyard. Unbeknownst to us, a visiting boy sat in his treehouse for over an hour, just watching my husband work. When John finally finished what turned out to be a harder job than anticipated, the little boy shouted down at him, “Hey mister, why’d that take you so long? That took you hours and hours!”

Cute, right? But if the kid was trying for Opie Taylor, he needs to get in line for the Mayberry Auditions. Another young boy has been riding his bike around our block lately. To be honest, I haven’t seen him. But I don’t get outside as much as I should — unlike John, who converted our one-stall garage into a workshop and spends most evenings out there. Apparently, Bicycle Kid stopped by our open garage once to ask John to go on a bike ride with him. Just out of the blue like that. My poor, socially-awkward-around-kids husband then had to mumble, “Uhhhh. No….. Sorry.”

When I first found out, I was upset. “You should have gone with the kid!” I said. But then I realized that riding around with a minor you don’t know might be a lawsuit waiting to happen. It’s okay, though, because Bicycle Kid didn’t give up. He came back last night just as John was finishing up a project. The kid parked his bike and watched as John cleaned and swept up all the sawdust chips from the garage floor. Apparently he chatted a bit and attempted to lift a few of the free weights in the corner. The kid asked if John had any work he could be hired for, because apparently he’s riding around town trying to earn some spending money. He’s saving up to buy some tools.

Poor John was done working and didn’t have anything he could give Bicycle Kid to do. But then he did something pretty brilliant. “You know, I have a lot of extra tools and multiple sets. Why don’t you take a look and see if I’ve got something you want to try. You can just have it.”

Can you imagine being 10 years old, and having the cool stranger down the block — the man you’ve heard pounding away all summer — whip open his big red tool chest and tell you to take your pick? That’s gotta be better than Christmas!

John said Bicycle Kid was actually pretty quiet about the whole thing, but he picked out a socket set, including the wrench.

Methinks he’ll come back yet again.

When it was all done, John came into the house with a very confused expression and recounted it to me. “Well, that was the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said.

But I was over the moon with pride. “Do you realize what you just did?” I asked. “That kid probably has a life of lame babysitters — teenage girls who make him watch dumb movies like Barnie or Frozen or something. You gave him free tools! Babe, you just became that little boy’s hero!”

I’ll probably never get him to volunteer in the church nursery, but I think he understands kids a whole lot more than he realizes.

Our garage, aka John's workshop.
Our garage, aka John’s workshop.