Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Celebrating My Mentor

Lynda Mullaly Hunt--the fabulous author of the upcoming novel One for the Murphys (Nancy Paulsen Books, May 2012)--included an essay I wrote about my mentor, Mr. John Robinson, on her blog Mentor Mondays. Check it out here.

Monday, January 30, 2012


Jennifer and I first watched the film, Dinner with Friends, four years ago, when we were living in Flagstaff. No one had told us about it--we just saw the cover and we both thought Dennis Quaid was kind of a neat guy. The kind of actor you think would be your friend if he ever got to really know you. And hey, the movie was based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning play.

Must be good.

But after two hours of watching with our jaws hanging off the bottom halves of our faces, we knew it was beyond good. Better than great, even. It was into that realm of Stuff-You-See-That-Speaks-Beneath-the-Seeable, and yet it doesn't make a whole lot of pretenses about doing so.

There's a scene at the end of the film where Dennis Quaid's wife, played by Andie MacDowell, asks him how they can keep a marriage going: How can two people continue to love one another amidst the battles that daily life confronts them with--everything from the tiny tussles to the most massive hardships? How does love survive and grow and withstand it all?

Dennis Quaid (in that Quaidish way only he has) thinks for a moment and then says, Uh-oh.

And what happens next is mythic.


Profoundly moving in a life-altering, universe-shaking kind of way.

What happens next is more complex than any algorithm, more true than any time-tested theory, more authentic than any super-authentic quote from a human being / fount of wisdom.

He tickles her. This husband answers such a profoundly poignant question with a tickle.

Because, actually, that's how love survives.

Lately, Tyler has been using the word actually a lot. And when I write a lot, what I actually mean is all the time. And when I write all the time, what I actually mean is in every single sentence he utters.

"Tyler, do you want to have some juice cool dude?"

"Actually, Daddy, I would like to have some juice AND a cheese stick!"

Or this:

"Hey T-Man, do you want to play with the Gruffalo?"

"Actually, Mommy, I think I want to play with the castle."

And when I contemplate Tyler's usage of the word actually, I've got to admit that I'm kind of inspired myself.

See, WB Yeats wrote this incredible poem about love, entitled "When You Are Old," and in the poem, there's a middle stanza that articulates a vision of love unlike anything the synapses in my mind have ever before encountered. Yeats claims that love isn't seeing someone's "glad grace" or "beauty" and loving them for it. Instead, it's seeing someone's "pilgrim soul" and someone's "sorrows."

Actually loving is about seeing the authentic person--the self that is yearning to grow and change and journey forward. Love is about seeing someone's sorrow, and loving them not in spite of it, but rather because of it.

So tickling one's wife in the face of an insurmountable question is an act of love which Yeats might watch and get giddily gleeful about. It's the thing in motion--the truth in practice. It's the saying and doing what you actually mean rather than settling for a generality or a mixed-truth.

Yeats might see that scene from Dinner with Friends and nod his head.

Then, if he bent down to say hello to Tyler, the great poet himself might grin and say, "Actually, poetry that doesn't become life isn't poetry at all."

To which Tyler would say (respectfully), "Actually, Mr. Yeats, I would like to play with my Gruffalo now and drink some juice."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dance Party (and Stashes of Peanuts, Becoming Content)

Jen started it.

(And for that, I'm immeasurably thankful.) It was one night when she realized that music hadn't been a very prominent part of our lives lately. Without a stereo system or CD player, we hadn't been as quick or keen to open up the laptop and insert CDs into it.

But after Christmas, when some friends gifted us with a CD player, we went bonkers.


Jen pulled out the Forest Gump soundtrack CDs, and she flipped until "Turn, Turn, Turn" by the Byrds was on. Tyler and I listened, watched as the music thumped through our kitchen, and then, the three of us joined in. Arms flailing, bodies turning (and turning and turning), mouths singing the words with the letting-go kind of glee.

It is interesting to note what improves or enhances what.

For instance, take an elephant. If that elephant has a large stash of peanuts which he can madly devour, but you tell that elephant that you have seven more stashes waiting for him if he'll leave the current stash of peanuts and follow you to the seven more, he'll probably tell you, "Dude, knock it off. You're whacked. I am thoroughly enjoying my current stash of peanuts. Take your other seven stashes and go bother some other elephant."

In other words, he'll be content. Happy with gorging his trunk on the present peanuts available in plenty.

For a long time--more months than I would care to admit--I looked at this England adventure as a growing season, yes, but as a growing season that would unfailingly involve those beautiful pinnacles of success and perhaps some cha-ching. I imagined the England journey as a letting go of all our American possessions, living by faith, loving by faith the new vocations Jennifer and I were each stepping into, and then kind of having everything fall into place.

All the tangibles, see.

But the the tangibles didn't fall into place. All the material stuff got, well, thinner, less, more stretched. And as the months ticked past, I tried to remind myself of the lesson we had hoped to learn: it's not about the stuff. Not about the success, the praise, the kitchen appliances, the various pairs of jeans, the massive home library of books. And consciously, I got the message.

After ten months of lean living, I got the message.

Sure did.

Except I didn't. I mentally got it, but my heart wasn't in it.

And then we hit month 14 of our adventure. And the thin living suddenly felt....full. Fat. The not-having-much-stuff felt so incredibly like this uncanny generous heaping-over portion of stuff that I began to look at it all and say, "Dude. DUDE! There is a whole load of stuff here."

Walking everywhere became less about not having a car and more about having legs.

Holy crap! Legs. TWO of them. They move back and forth--they do what I tell them to do--go where I tell them to go! HOLY CRAP!

And then came the dance parties. Now that we're on month 16, the dance parties have taken off, see. It's not just "Turn, Turn, Turn" anymore. It's "Come On, Eileen," and "Rock around the Clock," and especially "Eye of the Tiger." And Tyler knows all the words. And Jen knows all the words.

And I know all the words.

And our arms flail and our bodies lunge and our eyebrows rise. And the guy telling us that there are SEVEN stashes of peanuts elsewhere suddenly seems kind of puny and a little bit sad. And I am thinking, Dude, this is one amazing stash of peanuts right here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


It was a remarkable day in the city with Tyler. Going to visit DIG! and watching Tyler use his trowel to unearth ancient artifacts from the Romans, Vikings, and then the Victorians. Onward to Pret for a cup of coffee (me) and a VOLCANO smoothie (Tyler). Then the public library--the greatest and most sacred place of any city.

After five hours in the center, Tyler sat in his stroller and we began the forty minute walk home: content father, content son.

And then the words.

"Daddy, I have to do some poops."

I conduct some immediate calculations: 24 minutes from the city; 16 minutes from home.

I look around, hopeful eyes. Cars everywhere, the sidewalk we're on, and a small aisle of grass separating us from them. Dig a hole? But as soon as my mind even tries to go there, I realize that my daddyhood does not ever want to include in its memory the picture of my three-year old son crouching while a steady stream of cars flood past.

So I run.

Tyler hangs on to his stroller, gripping as we hop over bumps and curbs, take turns, swerve.

"Daddy, my poops are saying, Tyler, we are coming out of you!"

"Tyler, can you tell your poops, No, you cannot come out of me yet, Poops! Hold on for seven more minutes?"

Tyler is quiet. I run.

"Daddy, my poops said, No, we cannot wait. We are coming out RIGHT NOW!"

Passers-by hear the poop-impersonation-voices of my son and I and then eye us suspiciously. I smile at them widely, as if welcoming them into our little saga. And they smile back. They do.

But then I run faster.

We turn the corner onto Broadway, run two more minutes, then onto Lesley Avenue. The back door. I carry Tyler up the stairs, laughing, Tyler holding it in, and we make it to the toilet.

A bit late.

It's my first run in about five months. And it feels great.

Tyler's face heaves with relief. And all I can think is, this is the life I want.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Most Beautiful Morning of My Life

It began with--of all things--sleeping in. Tucking my head deeper into the pillow after checking my cell phone and its mocking numbers, "4:42" didn't apply to me this morning.

See: tag-teaming. It's the approach Jennifer and I finally realized would lead to an exponential increase in sanity with the early wake-ups. So we've been going back and forth for a couple of months now. One morning I rise at five and do stories about the Gruffalo and the mouse and the cow and the panda bear with Tyler; next morning, Jen assumes Gruffalo-central.

But the most beautiful morning of my life occurred a few weeks ago, when I got out of bed around eight to the sound of swishy-swashy, swishy-swashy, swishy-swashy. After realizing that I had not been transplanted into Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury's beautiful We're Going on a Bear Hunt, I snuck out of bed and walked down the stairs.

Slowly. Ears perked.

Again, the sounds came: swishy-swashy, swishy-swashy. And then this: "Ah! You be a monkey and I will be a lion Mommy!"

Then, super fast swishy-swashy-swishy-swashy-swishy-swashy.


I entered the kitchen to find Jennifer and Tyler running, roaring, laughing through what must have been a galaxy of plastic grocery store bags. A universe of them. Every grocery bag we had ever used and save in our last sixteen months in York.

Jennifer's face was drawn wide, her mouth letting the giggles fly with reckless abandon. Tyler's face mirrored Mommy's. Together, the two of them--indeed--had ceased to be Mommy and Tyler. Instead, they were inhabiting a jungle of wild grocery bags--a jungle kitchen where anything was possible.

I stood in the doorway watching the two of them, and it was one of the moments that I wanting to continue endlessly. I wanted to freeze it and yet draw it out at the same time.

Billy Collins has a beautiful poem entitled, "This Much I Do Remember." In it, he describes a simple moment in which he looks across, over the fruit bowl, at the woman he loves, and he realizes that as she is talking, it's a moment he wishes he could mint and carry around as a coin in his pocket.

My poetic prowess doesn't hold a candle to Collins, but watching Jennifer and Tyler, I could say with the poet, "Word up, Billy. I know exactly what you mean."

And I carry that morning in the pocket of my soul--I reach in and listen to it jingle. The most beautiful coin I keep.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Synthesis (Or, 4:30am; Revision; Shaving)

When I taught Freshmen Composition at Northern Arizona University, I loved the Synthesis Essay. Teaching the Synthesis Essay was like letting my hands sit under a waterfall of endlessly flowing, gentle, warm, slightly-sudsy, lavender-smelling water.

Consider: synthesis is all about taking one thing and adding it to another and then saying, huh, check out what happened when we did that. But synthesis doesn't stop there. Synthesis--like a true champion--goes the extra round, It says, let's add a third thing and see what that does to the combination of the first two.

Synthesis then amazes even itself by saying (sometimes) let's add a fourth thing. Or a fifth. Or--gasp--a sixth. And in the process of adding all these new entities, the property we began with changes entirely, takes on new meaning, new symbolism, new smell.

Now that Tyler is in the midst of a nap, after waking at 4:30 this morning, and I have a large mug of strong fair-trade Sidamo beside me, I'm in the mood for Synthesis. I turn to Synthesis like you might turn to a good friend and put your arm around his shoulders, then stick your index finger inside of his inner ear, wiggle it around. When he turns to you and says, Dude! I asked you not to do that, like, seven times already! You respond, with that knowing smile, Ah! Yes! But those other seven times, I was using a different finger, so I have not used any of those other fingers in this most recent inner-ear wiggling. It's a new finger!

So: sleep-deprived and ready for the great nature of our friend Synthesis, let's begin.

Synthesis: Thanks for that introduction, Luke.

Me: You are welcome, Synthesis. It's nice to have you here in our kitchen. Would you like a cup of coffee?

Synthesis: Don't mock me. You know I have no throat. Or intestines.

Me: (Nodding gravely and with respect.)

Synthesis: So. You asked me here to do some work for you. What are we using me for today?

Me: Three events. Small events, really. First, waking up at 4:30 am. Second, the nature and act of revision. Third, Shaving.

Synthesis: Okay. Just three?

Me: Yes.

Synthesis: Okay. Easy as making a Jell-O mold with no artificial flavoring and adding some finely chopped, then ground, walnuts to the top in the shape of very tiny hearts. Then, applying a thin layer of peanuts--also finely chopped and ground--on top of those walnuts--just to say, hey, Walnuts, it's not always about you. Learn to play the FOUNDATIONAL role too, not just the role of glory. Haven't you ever heard that moving line from "Eye of the Tiger": you trade your passion for glory? Walnuts, you are seriously in danger of doing so.

Walnuts: Hey, I wasn't bothering anybody. I don't want to be a part of this whole Synthesis thing. Just let me go back to sleep.

Me: If I can't sleep, nobody gets to sleep.

Walnuts: Tyler is sleeping.

Me: I meant, nobody in this kitchen gets to sleep.

Walnuts: (Nods knowingly, respecting the authority of the master-of-the-kitchen-at-this-moment.)

Synthesis: Okay, here we go. Waking up at 4:30 is hard. I'm not going to lie, Luke. It's tough stuff. Your body craves more sleep. You count the four hours of rest you've gotten, and your mind rightly declares: No. No, I will not move forward in this state. And if that were all there was to it, your mind would win the day. Game over. But to your mind's declaration, you add Revision. You add the powerful truths so beautifully expressed here, in this blog by children's author Pat Zietlow Miller.

And you realize that the actual waking up at 4:30 am this morning isn't the whole story. It's only one piece of the story. One chapter. The cool thing is, you get to revise it. Even as the day goes on, you get to revise why you woke at 4:30. You get to revise the time you'll go to sleep tonight in order to get a more human quota of hours. 4:30 isn't the final word. It's only a scene from the picture book of your life, buddy.

And then we add Shaving. Yes. How I wish I could shave! But I cannot. I have no throat, after all. And no cheeks. But Luke, you consider the ways in which your three-year old son helps you hold the bottom of the razor, watching in amazement as the hair falls from your stubble-beard and leaves your face looking clean, fresh, exhausted. You watch your sons eyes. You listen to him say, "I do not have a beard so I do not shave. But when I get big like you I will shave too." And you realize that the wake-up doesn't feel as hard. That the revision starts to feel possible, exciting even. The Shaving marries those first two activities and creates a third, entirely feasible, reality: life is about balance. Some mornings, you will wake and feel exhausted. Some mornings, you will wake and feel ready to do one-hundred jumps on the trampoline of your soul. Other mornings, it's an in-between mixture.

But you take what has happened--the 4:30 wake ups of your life--you add the possibility of revision, and you lather a thick layer of shaving cream all over that and say, Yes, there are going to be moments of such startling joy and mundane delight that the balance of it all will somehow work itself out.

And then you go on living the rest of your day. Including me, of course, in everything you do.

Me: Thank you Synthesis. Really. I appreciate your words very much.

Synthesis: I know.

Me: Yes. Are you sure you wouldn't like some coffee?

Synthesis: Mock me once, shame on me. Mock me twice, shame on--wait a minute, we can add those two instances of your mocking me and...

Walnuts: I feel like I'm invisible, like no one ever really SEES me, you know?

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Call to Creativity

Albert Einstein once claimed that "Imagination is more important than knowledge." If you've ever had the deep sense that multiple choice questions, standardized test scores, and an array of rubricalismic tools do little to inspire and authentically grow students, then we've got a lot in common.

A Call to Creativity helps teachers to practically use creative and imaginative writing assignments and reading strategies  in the English classroom while also helping students to produce rigorous and skillful writing. The cover has just been finished, and the book will be available from Teachers College Press at the beginning of next month.