Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Real Mt. Everest

Today began with deep sea diving and ended with a trek up Mt. Everest--and all without leaving the comfort of our pajamas. Earlier in the week, Tyler and I had taken the train to Hull (residence of famed abolitionist William Wilberforce) to go through the subatarium, The Deep. While there, we saw sharks, jelly fish, blue lobsters the size of Arizona, and wolf-eels.

(The wolf-eels were hands down the absolute most remarkable. They lurk, usually, on the sea floor and crunch crab shells for food. They're gentle giants, though. And they mate for life. When the mother births eggs, she wraps her 2-meter long body around the eggs to protect them. Then, the father wraps his body around the mother to protect her and the eggs.)

Since our visit to Hull, we've been exploring the deep sea worlds of our carpet (layered with a thick blue blanket on top, along with fish masquerading as bath toys). Today, we stood atop the couch, science goggles covering faces, and invisible air tanks on our backs, and leapt into the wonders of the ocean.

Roger Priddy's Fabulous Atlas for Kids
Later, after looking through a fabulous picture-book atlas by Roger Priddy, Tyler became fascinated with Mt. Everest. Some of his friends at school are from Nepal, and Tyler immediately began what would become the days; refrain.

"Daddy, can we go to Nepal and climb Mt. Everest right now?"

"Well, to get to Mt. Everest, we have to buy place tickets, and pack our bags, and then ride our bikes to the train station, and then get a train to the airport, and then fly to Nepal--so that will tale a loooooong time!"

"Well, let's start packing our bags then, Daddy!"

I thought for a bit and then said, "Hey, let's climb Mt. Everest in our imaginations--just like deep sea diving. Come on!"

We robed ourselves in winter coats and grabbed ice picks that looked an awful lot like tree branches. Still wearing pajamas (ahem, snowsuits), we pulled our sub-zero goretex boots on and made the long trek to the Nepal at the bottom of Lesley Avenue. We hiked through the treacherous pricker bushes (ahem, ice cliffs) and narrowly escaped the pokey broken branches (AVALANCHES!) until we finally made it to the peak.

I looked at Tyler with wide eyes and a big smile. "We made it, son!"

Tyler half-smiled, then looked back at me. "Okay, but Daddy." And there was something in that Daddy that was the seed of a deeper longing. Something far more expansive. Something far more challenging. Something far more...


"Since we already did the pretend mt. Everest, can we go home and pack our bags and ride our bikes to the train station and take a train to the airplane station and take a airplane to THE REAL MT. EVEREST?"

"Well, see, the REAL MT. EVEREST is so so so far away that we need to plan way ahead."

"Daddy, what does plan way ahead mean?"

"Plan way ahead means we have to think about it a lot, and have oxygen tanks, and real ice picks, and super big boots, and super big coats."

"But Daddy, I am not very big yet, so super big boots will go over my belly button!"

Our day progressed, and we managed to make it back down the other end of the street from Nepal to our kitchen. We ate a lunch of salad, mangoes, and wheat bread and butter. After lunch, Tyler looked up at me with a half-smile.

"Daddy, now that we ate SO MUCH FOOD, can we please please please go to the REAL MT. EVEREST?"

Tyler pushed his chair back form the table, jumped down, and proceeded to show me an array of varying skills and abilities.

"See, Daddy, I am SO STRONG and I have SO MUCH ENERGY because I can jump and run and even reach up almost to the top of the sky."

After discussing the difficulty of getting to the REAL MT, EVEREST at two o' clock on a Thursday afternoon to climb it, well, that afternoon, we decided to do some research. I showed Tyler the gear people wear when they hike Everest, and we printed out a picture of the mammoth mountain so that Tyler could gaze longingly at the towering beauty as it gazed back at him from his wall.

Before we hung up the picture, Tyler asked me if I could write something on it for him.

"Sure, my man, what shall I write?"

The REAL Mt. Everest

The picture now rests proudly on Tyler's wall, right above his bed. Tyler now sleeps soundly.

However silly and ignorant Tyler's desire to climb the tallest mountain in the world, it strikes me now that we all need a dose of that kind of silliness and ignorance. There's a beautiful line from the film Amazing Grace, based on the life of William Wilberforce, when a close friend, William Pitt, announces to Wilberforce that he wants to become prime minister. Wilberforce chuckles and says, "No one our age has ever taken power." To which Pitt responds, "Which is why we're too young to realize that some things are impossible."

Ah! To hold onto that innocence which still doesn't realize that some things are impossible. I think this kind of  holding-on is, possibly, the only real ally of authentic barrier breaking. When we're at the threshold between innocence and experience, we often make the mistake of thinking that to enter one is to leave the premises of the other.

Maybe not. Maybe there's a way to move forward into experience and learning and growth and reality without totally relinquishing the dreams of youth that maturity often associates with impossibility.

Jen and I often remark to one another that if we knew, in advance, what these three years in England would entail, we would have been hard pressed to make the same choice again. Would we really have given up everything and come across the pond literally broke if we didn't think a big pot of gold was soon waiting for us. (A few months at most, surely!)

Probably not. But then we would have missed the greatest adventure of our lives. We would have missed riding bikes in the pitch black night with tiny lights clipped on front and behind, Tyler riding in a bike trailer. We would have missed pulling our wheeled luggage the two miles back and forth to the grocery store to go shopping. We would have missed seeing that even without money, the greatest joy we have ever experienced is still possible. We would have missed feeling totally broken inside, and then waking up the next morning to find that what broke the night before was only the shell, and not the seed inside.

Will Tyler and I wake up tomorrow and book a flight to Nepal?

Maybe we'll put that particular dream on hold a few decades. But in the meantime, I hope to never be a father that says it's impossible. I want to be the kind of man who looks into the bright eyes of his son and says--unequivocally--you ever hike THE REAL MT. EVEREST and I'll be at your side.

Friday, February 15, 2013

One True Thing from My Dad, Harry Wilson Reynolds, III: A Spark Always Exists

Dad and Grandson Tyler
It's a fitting time to share One True Thing from my father, since being a paperboy has been recently on my mind. When I got that first paper route as a ten-year old, I remember one of the all-time highs of doing the thing (rivaling even the obscene amounts of candy-purchasing-power I now possessed) was Saturday morning breakfasts with my father. Instead of taking my bike around, as I did from Monday though Friday, on Saturday morning my dad would tell me to hop in his tiny 1982 Ford Escort, baby blue, and off we'd go. He would help me deliver the papers and when we were finished, we'd drive over to A.C. Peterson's Diner on the border of Hartford and Windsor, Connecticut.


Dad Snowblowing Nemo!
That word deserves its own paragraph because that's what my father and I built our relationship on. Pancakes. We would sit at A.C. Peterson's and eat mountains of pancakes with a huge ball of fresh butter in the middle and pure maple syrup streaming down the sides like avalanches off Everest. My dad would plunge a fork into his own thick stack and--bam!--literally a full quarter of the stack would disappear into his mouth. I still don't know how he managed to do it. He'd ask me about school, about writing, about what I thought of life. And each time his fork would plunge in I'd watch with a massive smile, waiting to see what correlation of syrup and butter and pancake would make the journey to his mouth.

On Sundays, throughout my childhood, my dad would cook his own pancakes in our home kitchen. He was a fixture by the stove--and as each of my four brothers and I would wake, and my mother, and when my grandparents arrived, my dad would stare out with wild, wonderful eyes and ask, "How many!"

Indeed, it was more a call to arms than a verifiable question.

What I appreciate most about my dad is his relentless enthusiasm for life. He's had to face some walls that I can't even imagine trying to scale, but every day he has woken up and tried to pass on to his five boys a sense of the wonder of life--the fact that we can hug one another, laugh with one another, noogie one another, fart (constantly) in front of one another, listen to one another, love one another.

When I was in high school, I did a creative writing project whereby I wrote 50 poems and then revised them and collected them into a small poetry book, called Eggs, Sunnyside Up. My dad read the thing and then, one Saturday afternoon, drive me into Hartford and brought me out for a cup of coffee at a place called Zuzu's, where we sat up in the loft and I tried to get used to the flavor of coffee while he told me how proud he was of me. Then he brought me to a print shop and together we chose a cover, font, style, size and he paid for thirty copies of the book to be printed up.

Dad and His Five Boys During a Camping Reunion Trip
Many years ago, during my first year of being a high school English teacher, there came a point where I just felt like I had nothing left. I had a stack of essays to grade and I'd already put them off long enough. Now it was Sunday, and I had promised--promised!--my students that I would have them back on Monday no matter what. The problem was, this particular Sunday I could barely get out of bed, let alone conceive of grading 26 five-page essays.

My father drove thirty miles to meet me at a local coffee shop--Lasalle's--and sat with me for five hours as I relentlessly graded the things. Everytime I looked up at him with weary eyes that said--I can't do this job, let alone grade these essays--my dad would walk over to the free refill station and grab me another cup of joe, then place it in front of me. "Come on, Lukie-babes, you got this. Yes! Caffeine it! I put extra cinnamon in there, Luke--you got this!"

Dad and Tyler and I in Summer 2010
And, as often happens when my father comes out with his phrases that arise from his deep enthusiasm for life, I had to smile. My father must have gotten me about twelve cups of coffee that day (and pancakes were a part of the meeting earlier, to be sure). And he made sure to sit across from me until I finished.

In this life, we all face walls that we wish we didn't have to. We all come up against circumstances that we wish we could change. My father has faced a lot of those. But he's always chosen to keep going at it--to keep pouring another cup of coffee and look for a way to find some enthusiasm (or at least invent some strange new phraseology). That's the big lesson I hold onto from my father: don't quit, and while you're not quitting, drink a heck of a lot of coffee and pile your pancakes high.

Without further rambling from me, One True Thing--poetry style--from my dad.

A Spark Always Exists
By Harry Wilson Reynolds, III

Once, when the first snow came,
I saw with wonder
The small tracks.
Sprinkled across the ground,
Like small jewels cast aside,
By a thoughtless Giant.
As I grew
I saw only muddy tracks,
The need to shovel paths,
Jobs to be done,
And the ever insistent song of belonging.
As my step grew slow,
My mind churned unceasingly:
Things that had gotten away,
Magic that had died,
Names of things that I could not remember.
Dead light
Bathed me daily,
Whispering the lost song of life,
Stealing my last gasp.
The promise of redemption,
Just out of reach,
Haunts my every thought.
The journey continues
Along a familiar path,
Worn low by replicated desires,
Demon friends that encourage,
Sameness that blankets the night.
Somewhere in that maelstrom
A spark of me exists,
To be blown to life
Amid the rubble of life's hardness,
It's disappointment,
It's stolen expectations. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nonsense of That Sort

There's a beautiful line in George Eliot's Middlemarch where Caleb Garth is responding to the notion that people in town will criticize him if he makes a certain decision--not because of the quality of the decision, but because of how it will seem to others. And Caleb says in beautifully potent words: "Life is a sad tale if it is to be decided by nonsense of that sort."

It strikes me how important these words are when we consider the choices we make: what hopes do we have for our decisions? So much of our culture has become entrenched in results-oriented, data-driven decision making. Nowhere is this seen as clearly as in the consistent battles over school reform. With major foundations and corporations sponsoring bottom-line oriented reforms, teachers are becoming more and more like stock brokers: here's the raw material; make us a return. And the returns are so often tied exclusively to standardized test score results. 

As adults, our lives are consistent with this ethos. The standardized tests are still plentiful, though we call them by other names. We talk of how much money we make, achievements we garner, resume-builders we can claim, honors we've been awarded. These things are all helpful and can be such beautiful gifts, but when we value them first and foremost we set a dangerous precedent: we start making decisions based on the chances that these kinds of results can be achieved. 

The question is: what if they can't or aren't?

Are actions in our lives any less courageous or important or beautiful or inspiring or true if they are not results-oriented?

Parker Palmer talks about the need for faithfulness over effectiveness in this recent interview in The Sun. He says: 

"We need to change our calculus about what makes an action worth taking and get past our obsession with results. Being effective is important, of course. I write books because I want to have an impact. But if the only way we judge an action is by its effectiveness, we will take on smaller and smaller tasks, because they're the only kind with which we are sure we can get results. I'm not giving up on effectiveness, but it has to be secondary to faithfulness...And when people are faithful to a task, they often become more effective as it as well." 

The values we want to live by aren't corroborated by results. They are corroborated by the faithfulness with which we continue to live by them. Courage, kindness, grace, boldness, hope, and love aren't data-driven and they aren't dependent on results. They are values that can guide the way we teach, parent, write, and interact with others. The more we get used to thriving on value-rich interactions and pursuits, the more we can say with Caleb Garth that we don't care about what other people think--we don't care about "nonsense of that sort." 

When I was still in elementary school at John F. Kennedy in Windsor, CT, my oldest brother Christopher worked at the local grocery store, Geissler's. Chris was in high school, and this was his first job. My mom would often bring me and my brother Michael into the store to buy groceries just so we could go through Christopher's line and visit him. I loved doing this. Often, another man who worked at Geissler's was near Chris. His name was John, and he had emigrated from China with his wife, Elizabeth. 

In China, John has been a professor of Mathematics. But in America, he bagged groceries. 

One evening, after Chris had worked at Geissler's for a few months, he told us that John and his wife were coming over to the house for dinner, as they wanted to cook an authentically Chinese meal for us. That night ended up being one of the all-time highlights of my elementary school years. Seriously. John and his wife glowed with fun and excitement as they explained to us what they were doing in the kitchen. My whole family watched them, laughed with them, and just loved being around them and hearing stories of their lives.

Over two decades later, John's face is so clearly in my mind. The man's smile could power Manhattan. His exuberance  knew no boundaries, and his kindness as a man and joy as a teacher was so beautifully on display. I've been thinking of John an awful lot in light of this journey. As an elementary school kid I saw John as one of the happiest people I had ever met in my young life.

Now, as a man, I am sure that John went through great doubts--and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he and Elizabeth struggled to make ends meet, or that John perhaps mourned the loss of his vocation and status as a Professor when eh came to America and exchanged it to be a grocery bagger. And yet John's life is no less beautiful or inspiring to me now than it was when I was a kid. John's smile is no less real or poignant because I have grown and seen some of the hard truths life so generously gives us. 

Instead, John's work in the world strikes me as even more profound. The impact he had on me as a young kid was to plant a seed which grew up inside my heart to say, essentially, who we are isn't tied to the results we achieve or the amount of money we make. Who we are is tied to the way we care for others--the love we give and receive

Sometimes I fight with this seed and its growth. Sometimes, I dang well want to take clippers and prune the thing way, WAY back. Sometimes--YES!--I want to chop the whole thing down.

But then it flowers. Little buds appear on the growth of what was once a seed, and when these buds open up they confirm what John first showed me long ago, what Parker Palmer talks about above, and what Caleb Garth scoffs about. What keeps us warm on cold nights aren't the results we've accomplished or the test scores we've garnered. It's the love we share. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I Have Those Exact Shoes. For Real! (And a Cover Reveal)

At the end of last week, I felt a giddy excitement when our editor at Chicago Review Press, Lisa Reardon, sent an e-mail attachment my way with the cover of Break These Rules. Out on September 1, 2013, the book includes essays from authors I deeply admire and who inspire me (and a whole heck of a lot of other readers).

Besides the joy of seeing a project that my remarkable agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, ushered into existence, I was also happily surprised to find that the yellow shoes on the cover of the book are the same yellow shoes I own.


Two years ago, one of our neighbors here in York gave me a pair of yellow shoes that would satisfy the Fulford Indoor Bowls Club regulations. I had been bowling in hiking boots--something that dismayed the elderly men and women with whom I bowl every Thursday night. The indoor mats don't take kindly to those high rubber ridges. I was in need of flat shoes with no money to purchase flat shoes.

Introduce the yellow gifts of love! My neighbor had heard of the predicament and one evening knocked on our door. When I opened, she stood there holding the exact same yellow shoes you see on the cover of Break These Rules.


Now I just need to find some fabulous-looking argyle socks to complete the wardrobe.

In the meantime: the essays in this book are essays I wish I had when I was a teenager. They are essays about dressing to match who you are rather than dressing to match who everyone else is. They are essays about being male or female less in the Hollywood, strict code-of-conduct way and more in the freedom-expanding way. They are essays about moving money way down on the priority list, giving the need to "be cool" a vacation, and both speaking boldly and also allowing quietness to be powerful. These essays explore the strict notions of status-quo living that so many teenagers (and, ahem, adults) constantly face.

Break These Rules is a book that arises out of needs I saw in myself as a teenager--and, yes, as an adult--and needs I saw and see in my students. Sometimes, we only learn to explore new possibilities when others share their explorations with us. Poet Theodore Roethke famously wrote, "I learn by going where I have to go." In Break These Rules, 35 authors bravely and vulnerably shared where's they've gone and what they've learned by breaking the rules of a status-quo society.

My hope is that these essays will show teenagers and adults alike that there are other ways of being oneself in the world; there are ways to be courageous and kind and beautiful and bold that don't involve doing things the way they've always been done.

All of the royalties from this project are being given to the Children's Defense Fund.

Here are the awesome authors who have kindly and bravely shared their rule-breaking adventures and admonishments within the book:

Kathy Erskine, Sara Zarr, Josh Berk, Carl Deuker, Francisco X. Stork, Matthew Quick, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Leslie Connor, Wendy Mass, Carol Lynch Williams, Gary D. Schmidt, A.S. King, Neesha Meminger, Lisa Schroeder, Mike Jung, Anna Staniszewski, Jen Nielsen, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Jennifer Ziegler, Brian Yansky, Chris Barton, Tara Lazar, Natalie Dias Lorenzi, Jennifer Reynolds, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Mitali Perkins, Margo Rabb, Lisa Burstein, Rob Buyea, Chris Lynch, Pat Schmatz, Sayantani DasGupta, Tamara Ellis Smith, and Thanhha Lai.