Our Week with Kia Sorento: Road Trip Memories

I received a 2016 Kia Sorento SXL AWD on loan to drive and review for a week, courtesy of Drive Shop and Kia. Here are my thoughts.

The timing of the loan was ideal. What better way to really get the feel for a family car like the 2016 Kia Sorento than to drive that car hundreds of miles for a Memorial Day weekend excursion?

Kia Sorento

We made a lot of road trip memories during our week with a 2016 Kia Sorento.

We piled in on Friday afternoon and headed for Gulf County, a five-hour drive north of our home in the Tampa Bay area. A magnificent beach house awaited on Cape San Blas.

Our loaner Sorento had a 2.0-liter turbo gas direct injection, four-cylinder engine; independent front and rear suspension; and full-time all-wheel drive with lockable center differential.

Um … what?

I’m no car expert. I drive them, and I pay attention to things like how comfortable the seats are, how good the gas mileage is and how much space there is for packing. Our Sorento passed those tests with ease.

There also was the Kid Test, though. Would the boys like it?

Short answer: They loved it. The Sirius/XM radio was a huge hit — Kids Place Live became, in just that one week, an all-time favorite. They were fascinated by the navigation display and paid close attention to our progress on the real-time map. There was plenty of room in the back for them to be comfortable during our long drives up to and back from the Panhandle.

I can sum up the experience simply: By the time our loan period ended, the Sorento felt like our car. It took us to a place where we made wonderful memories, and we will always associate our family’s first trip to Cape San Blas with the car we came in.

I wasn’t asked to do this, and it isn’t associated with Kia or Drive Shop at all, but I felt compelled to commemorate our experience with the Sorento in video form. Forgive its sappiness. It’s not an actual commercial, just a genuine expression of how a family trip can bridge generations, and how lifelong memories are made on the road.

We Will Always Go Back to Gulf County, Florida

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This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Visit Gulf County for IZEA. All opinions are 100% mine.

Sunset at Cape San Blas …

The boys leap in sync over the lips of low waves that bubble off the Gulf of Mexico. Peals of laughter drift up the beach and skip across the soft sand to fall lightly upon the dune grass.

Here and there across the sand, quiet islands of humanity stir under portable cabanas. The light of the setting sun angles in and illuminates the glowing row of blue and yellow and orange and red and sand-colored houses that stand sentinel along the ridge.

She spots dolphins off shore. An occasional dorsal fin cuts a languid, westward arc above the smooth surface of the water. The boys leap the ambitious waves and sprint with the dolphins along the shoreline, racing the setting sun to the horizon, laughing as the sky transitions from bright blue to dark blue to purple and orange and finally to red-gold.

I watch the boys and my wife and the dolphins and the golden sky, and I resolve: We will always come back to this place. We will always come back to Gulf County, Florida.

__________________________

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At Water’s Edge, Cape San Blas.

It was a sponsored trip, one of those rare and wonderful opportunities online writers are fortunate enough to receive every now and then. This one came via an out-of-the-blue email from a generous agency looking for a writing dad who could bring his family to this secluded place in the Florida Panhandle for a weekend in May.

Yes, I said. Absolutely, I added. We’ll go. We had been almost everywhere else in Florida, but never to Gulf County. It was time to remedy that.

Where. It is on the Gulf Coast, southwest of Tallahassee, east of Panama City. Its only population center is Port St. Joe, home of the 2014 Florida Class A state high school football champion Port St. Joe Sharks. The county consists of forest, marshland, gulf coastline and the scallop-rich St. Joseph Bay.

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The path over the dune from At Water’s Edge, Cape San Blas.

Getting there. From our home near Tampa, Gulf County and Port St. Joe are a five-and-a-half-hour drive north, through little Florida towns stuck in time – Spring Hill, Homosassa, Chiefland, Fanning Springs (at the Suwannee River), Cross City, Perry. Then west through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, along the edge of the Apalachicola National Forest, past Sopchoppy, Carrabelle and down Highway 98 where it hugs Apalachicola Bay.

Where to stay. We left on Friday afternoon and at 9 p.m. we pulled in at Cape San Blas, where we picked up our key and welcome packet from the after-hours check-in bin at Coastal Joe Vacation Rentals.

Our beach house was huge and yellow, like the mid-afternoon sun. It’s called At Water’s Edge, because that’s where it is – on the edge of the gulf, tucked behind the dune on Cape San Blas. There are five bedrooms and four bathrooms. There is a private pool, a wood deck in the back, and a wood porch that stretches the length of the eastern side of the house.

You can watch the sun rise over St. Joseph Bay from that porch. Later, you can sit on the other side of the house and watch the sun go down over the gulf.

There is a private path over the dune that opens onto a beach of white sand and gentle waves. It’s a place for sunsets, where dolphins dance with laughing children. When we left late Monday morning, it still was guarded by a mighty sand fortress of our design – not even the overnight tide had penetrated its walls.

I imagine that when we reminisce about this trip to Gulf County, we will think first of the house. Not because it was spectacular, comfortable and huge. It was all of those things, certainly.

What we’ll remember, I imagine, is the time we spent together at that house on the beach, in the pool, or sitting around playing cards or doing nothing. That, in the end, truly was what set this trip apart for me – the rare chance for the four of us to simply be together in a place where the cares and worries and schedules that waited back home could not intrude.

Everything else fell away for a long weekend, and it was just our family and the house at Cape San Blas.

What to do. We had only one scheduled activity pulled from the extensive and detailed Gulf County Adventure Guide: an eco-tour of the St. Joseph Bay by kayak, with Dan VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost as our guide. The sun shined bright and the sky was blue on Saturday morning, but a strong wind blew from the south and east and made the going tougher than usual on the water for four novices like us.

Still, our younger son took to it like a natural. The next day, he asked if we could kayak across the entire length of the bay. By the end of our guided tour, our older son was able to handle Dan’s sleek, pro-style craft on his own.

Dan, a former teacher who founded Happy Ours in 2000 with his wife, Debbie, taught us how to tell the difference between a St. Joseph Bay whelk shell and a conch shell. Dan also explained why male horseshoe crabs latch on to female horseshoe crabs in the water (yes, it’s related to procreation, but there’s more to it that we did not know).

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Dan VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak introduces us to a King’s Crown Conch.

He also asked us one at a time if we knew why a bald eagle is called that. None of us knew, but I won’t spoil it – it’s much more fun to hear it from Dan himself.

We saw starfish and hermit crabs and, as we drifted along a little saltwater channel, Dan regaled us with the unfortunate history of the original town of St. Joseph. We learned that at one time, the forerunner to the current Port St. Joe was the largest population center in the territory of Florida, and the state’s first constitution was signed there in 1838.

Events in old St. Joseph took several disastrous turns after that, but the misfortune of Florida’s early white settlers helped make Gulf County and the St. Joseph Aquatic Preserve what it is today – a pristine, secluded destination where “real” Florida flourishes still.

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We found a starfish in St. Joseph Bay.

Back on land, Dan introduced us to his seven chicken friends – his “girls” flock quickly to him when he calls, and that delighted the boys no end. We bid Dan and Debbie goodbye, and promised to see them again on our next visit.

Saturday evening, we enjoyed a tasty supper at the Sunset Coastal Grill in Port St. Joe before heading back to At Water’s Edge to swim in the pool, to hunt for unusual seashells, and to watch the sun set.

Sunday, we explored the 2,516-acre St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which takes up the outer tip of Cape San Blas. It was another windy, warm day, perfect for hugging the shoreline of St. Joseph Bay along the sandy Bayview Scenic Trail there at the park.

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Everywhere we looked at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, we found natural beauty.

We then made the 20-minute drive around to Port St. Joe, where we let our curiosity guide us to the base of the Cape San Blas light. It was moved to its current location at George Core Park on the Port St. Joe waterfront from the cape in 2014, along with two former lighthouse keeper residences.

There was so much more we could have done. We had the chance to ride horses on the beach, something we’ll definitely do next time. We also could have taken a shuttle out to St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge, a no brainer for a future visit.

Instead, we were drawn back to At Water’s Edge, where we ate hotdogs and chips for lunch and whiled away the afternoon by alternating between building sandcastles on the beach and cooling off in the pool.

At sunset, our collective sense of relaxation began to metamorphose into memory as we bathed in light refracted endlessly by airborne salt crystals and sea foam. We were lulled by the lapping low waves into believing it would never end.

And you know? It won’t end. It didn’t end when we drove away from Cape San Blas on Monday morning, and it didn’t end when we pulled safely into our driveway back home on Monday afternoon.

This was not how the story ends. It was how it began.

I know this, because we are resolved: We will go back. We will always go back to Gulf County, Florida.

 

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The Doofus Dad Stereotype is Still a Thing, Unfortunately

Our older son is at a Friday night birthday party in the next neighborhood up the road. Our younger son requested a viewing of Frozen.

My wife, their mother, is – as of this writing – stuck on an airplane that is runway-bound while it waits out a nasty Central Florida thunderstorm. She is on her way to Cape Cod for a brief family visit, a weekend with her sister and mom.

That means it’s … it’s … just me and the (gasp!) boys. Oh, my God. What am I … what am I supposed to do? What’s … where’s … I …

Help! HELLLPPPP! I’M A DAD ON MY OWN WITH MY KIDS FOR THE WHOLE WEEKEND! I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO!!!!

THEY’RE GONNA DIIIIEEEEEEE!!!!! AHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

HELLLLPPPPPPP!!!!!!

Yeah, right.

I got this.

Just like millions of dads all over the world would have it if their parenting partner went out of town for a weekend or longer. This is part of the deal. We cover for each other – when I’m out of town, she’s fine. And vice-versa.

If this is starting to sound familiar, that means you are probably one of the very, very small handful of people who used to read this journal in its infancy.

My goodness. I just checked the date of the last time I wrote a post proclaiming that “I got this.” It was May 16, 2012 – almost three years ago to the day.

Here’s a sample from that post, When Mom Travels for Work … It’s Cool:

“When Mom leaves, the boys and I miss her. A lot. She’s absolutely the straw that stirs. Over the long term, we’d be lost without her. (Ugh. I almost deleted that sentence, because it’s too painful to even contemplate.)

But listen … we’re fine. The boys get fed. They get bathed. They receive my attention. They get hugged and rough-housed with and loved. The only real adjustment is I get up a half-hour earlier so I can take my shower and get dressed before they wake up.

I don’t need Mom to leave me a check list. I already know how to call their pediatrician, if necessary. I know how to feed them, and dress them, and bathe them, and read a bed-time story to them. I know how to take care of them. They’re my kids. Of course I know how to take care of them. I’m fortunate in that I have an incredible partner, and there’s no way I’ll ever take what she does and who she is for granted. We need her, and even though that doesn’t change when she goes on the road, we’re fine for a while.”

Was that me, trying to make myself out to be some kind of special snowflake dad who is so much better at this than the rest of you? Hell, no. It was me refuting the antiquated notion that dads are imbeciles who are helpless without someone there to hold their hands when their parenting partners are not around.

A writer for Babble, Lori Garcia, expressed that same sentiment. Not three years ago. Yesterday.

Here is Lori’s salient point:

“Dads, I love y’all, but I’m not falling all over myself because you acted like a parent. You’re capable. You’re intelligent. You’re great at it. And you do it all the damn time.”

Hell, yes! We’ve made it! No longer must engaged, loving, competent dads be considered helpless buffoons in the absence of their partners!

This is great! This is …

Um.

I spent a good portion of this evening taking the losing side of an argument that I honestly believed was settled a while ago. After all, hadn’t I written about it three years ago? Hadn’t a lot of people?

Weren’t big brands taking notice that the tired, old doofus dad trope was done and dusted? Hadn’t Dove Men+Care raised the bar for everyone? Hadn’t we decided as a society that dads can (and should) Lean In, too?

Yes! We are beyond it! Aren’t we?

Here’s what I wrote in a good conversation with a group of less-naïve dads on Facebook. I reference the Babble story mentioned and linked above:

“I guess I’m as confused as Lori about why it would be (still) the majority opinion that if one parenting partner takes off for a while, the other parenting partner would melt into a puddle of confusion and despair about bath time and bed time or whatever. Yes, there are ‘red state’ ways of thinking about the family dynamic, but I want to believe that the old, tired way of thinking about these things is being overtaken by more enlightened ideas. At least in theory, if not in actual everyday, everywhere practice. No?”

No.

As I naively tried to argue in favor of progress, a fellow dad posted this ridiculous commercial from AT&T in the same private group: Piece of Cake. Basically, it’s a dad who is left at home alone with the kids and is so inept that only a magical AT&T app that controls everything in the house helps the husband and kids survive the mom’s absence.

It’s the first big-brand commercial I’ve seen in a while that relied on the doofus dad as the primary conceit. And listen – I am aware there are dads who are doofuses. I am aware that everyone forgets things and takes shortcuts and needs a little help every now and then with the kids and with life in general.

I also am aware that in our insular group of fathers who write and interact on social media – the Dad 2.0 Summit crew, City Dads and many others – we do not necessarily fall within the cultural perception of the usual. Maybe it just seems to me like it’s no big deal for dads to be “left alone” with the kids for a while because of the company I keep.

I’d like to think it’s beyond that, though. I’d like to think there has been progress. I’d like to think that it’s “normal” for a dad to be able to pick up his kids at the bus stop on an afternoon, drop off his older son at a birthday party, watch Frozen with his younger son, and plan a fun, productive weekend while his wife was enjoying a wonderful weekend with her mom and sister.

I’d like to think that. Until there are no more commercials like that silly AT&T nonsense above, I’m afraid my fellow fathers are right.

We still have a lot of work to do.

Free-Range Parenting: Knowing When to Let Go

Free-Range Parenting

I asked our 9-year-old son if he thought he and his 6-year-old brother were old enough to walk the mile between our home and the neighborhood community pool without me or Mom.

He shook his head “no” before I finished the question.

“Maybe in one more year,” he said. “But right now … it’s a mile.”

He paused to marvel at the magnitude of the word, the vast distance it represents for a third grader, the incomprehensible here-to-thereness of it.

“There’s so much chance of bad stuff happening along the way,” he continued. “Like, what if there’s a snake or something?”

Yes. Exactly.

What if the mean streets of our suburban Central Florida neighborhood were over-run by an army of hungry Burmese pythons, on the hunt for new meat after eating all the rabbits and deer in the Everglades?

Or something?

Something like aggressive, stinging fire ants, which can swarm up a small child’s leg in an instant and inflict dozens of painful wounds.

Something like reckless high school-age kids tearing around the neighborhood like idiots on modified, rocket-propelled golf carts.

Something like a careless driver flying along far too fast to see two little boys alone crossing the road.

Something like open bodies of water – retaining ponds, drainage creeks and golf course lakes.

Free Range Parenting

Actual alligator sunning itself near the sidewalk connecting our house and the community pool. It looked hungry to me.

Something like the alligators that frequent those bodies of water. (Seriously. They’re everywhere. See photo.)

Something like a bad person looking for an unprotected kid to take.

Something like an over-zealous “good Samaritan” watchdog poised to place a panicky phone call to an over-zealous law enforcement agency that stands ready to over-zealously protect the children of the world from parents who have the gall to allow their kids to walk alone on a public sidewalk less than a mile from home.

It’s a jungle out there, right?

No. No, it’s not. Not here.

It’s a pleasant, 15-minute stroll, with broad sidewalks attended by shade trees the whole way. Wide strips of low-cut St. Augustine grass form a green, well-tended barrier between the walkways and the occasional passing minivan.

It’s a nice neighborhood. It’s a safe neighborhood. It’s the kind of place where friends respond gladly to neighbors in need. Crime is low.

This is home.

Yet, even in this idyllic setting, danger lurks behind every swaying palm tree. The seemingly tranquil stretch between our driveway and poolside actually is a battle scape.

In my mind, at least.

Listen, we trust our sons. They have proven worthy of that trust time and again. They are growing up well and confident.

But they’re kids, and we’re parents. They don’t yet possess the capacity to deal with crises — or even minor conflict — without adult supervision. It’s our job as their parents to help them learn those skills, and part of learning means failing at it. We understand that, but we’re not going to be irresponsible about it, either.

So, when they play outside, they must do so within shouting distance of the front or back doors. If they plan to go inside at someone else’s house, they must let us know where they’ll be and for how long.

When they want to go swimming, we take them to the pool. One day soon they’ll ride their bikes or walk that mile alone, but not yet.

Does a cautious approach make us helicopter parents? Are we over-protective? Too risk-averse for the healthy emotional development of our sons?

No. We aren’t over-protective. We are risk-averse, admittedly, but who in his right mind is risk-agreeable when it comes to their own kids? We aren’t Free-Range parents, either.

We are, simply, parents.

My wife and I are doing everything we can to prepare our kids to live life well. We also are doing everything we can to make sure they enjoy a happy childhood, and we’re in no hurry for that to end.

Confession: My greatest fear is that something catastrophic will happen to one of my sons, and I won’t be there to help them.

I’m not paralyzed by this fear. I don’t sit in the dark and rock back and forth, contemplating the horrific potential of the havoc rendered by the forces of darkness.

But the fear is there. I can’t deny it. It might not be rational, especially when you consider the statistics behind this recent Washington Post headline: There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

Still, I want to protect them. I need to protect them. It’s more than a sense of responsibility or duty. The compulsion is visceral. It’s fierce. It’s real, and it’s not going anywhere soon – if ever.

This urge to shelter them from the harshness of the world is something I’ll have to work through as a father. As they grow, so too will I.

Part of being a parent is learning when and how to let go. It’s gradual, sometimes imperceptible, but eventually – they let go of their need for reassurance. They no longer feel the urge to look over their shoulders and make sure we’re still there. They let go and move on, alone in the world but ready for what comes.

When that happens, I’ll have to be ready to let go, too.

Not yet, though. Not just yet.

Maybe in one more year. But right now … it’s a mile too far.

Free Range Parenting

One day, he won’t look back to make sure I’m there. I need to be ready for that day. I’m glad it’s not here yet, though.

High Anxiety: the Price of Parental Expectations in Youth Sports?

An Ithaca College study published this month in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology confirms again that we, as parents, have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.

This is especially true, according to the study, for parents of kids aged 6-18 who participate in competitive swimming, tennis, gymnastics, bowling, wrestling, cross country and indoor track. Probably baseball, soccer, football, basketball and hockey, too, but they haven’t gotten around to observing team sports, so they don’t yet have a gauge on how stupid we are when our kids play those.

What egregious parenting gaff has been revealed now? How are we damaging our kids who play individual (and probably team) sports?

We place expectations upon our children. And that, apparently, is bad.

To be clear: I agree to an extent, but reject the notion that expectations are to be avoided in youth sports. I’ll explain why in a minute.

According to the study, parental expectations in youth sports are bad because the more ambitious the expectations, the greater the level of anxiety (pregame jitters) exhibited by the kid athletes. Similarly, the more parents wanted their kids to out-perform the other kids – in other words, the more the parents cared about who won – the less a kid was able to concentrate during the competition.

The reverse was true, too. The study found that the more ambitious the kids’ goals were, the higher the levels of anxiety experienced by the parents.

Hey, that’s fair. If we’re going to mess with our kids’ minds, they have every right to mess with ours right back.

Look, I’m all for managing expectations. I’m all for maintaining an even keel, especially when it comes to my kids and sports.

We enrolled our kids in YMCA soccer for years. Every player got a trophy. There were no standings. The score was kept informally, and no one knew (or cared) who the champion was at the end of the season.

There are parents and academics who believe that kind of athletic competition is a waste of time, that it defeats what they consider the purpose of kids participating in competitive sports. Their idea of meaningful participation in youth sports is that learning how to win a game at a young age can prepare their children to “win at life” as adults.

I wrote about my objection to that way of thinking about youth competitions in 2013 – After School Activities: Just Let Kids Be Kids. The bottom line for me was that the skills required to win a youth athletic competition only very loosely translate to the skills necessary to succeed in any profession except professional athlete and maybe coach.

Perhaps a kid can learn social skills as part of a team, but excelling on a field of play at age 8 is not a predictor of a corner office with a Fortune 500 company.

Still, now that our older son is well into his first season of competitive baseball, you’re darn right I have expectations. These expectations are fundamental. They are not negotiable.

  • I expect him to learn how to catch, throw, run, slide and swing a bat well enough that he won’t get hurt during the course of a game.
  • I expect him to pay attention to his coaches during practice, and that he’ll listen to me when we’re playing catch in the back yard.
  • I expect him to treat his teammates and his opponents with respect.
  • I expect him to learn the rules of the game, and I expect him to remember what he is supposed to be doing at all times on the baseball field – and if he doesn’t remember, I expect him to ask his coaches or more-experienced teammates.
  • I expect him to finish his homework before week-day practices and week-night games.
  • I expect him to have fun.

Now, I understand what the Ithaca report meant to condemn. There are parents who take sports too seriously, who live and die with every moment on the court, in the pool, on the mat or on the field. If pushed too far, that can be tough or even impossible for a kid to handle emotionally, and it’s not a good way to teach. It’s certainly no fun for anyone.

What I’m not wild about with this study is that it attempts to caution parents that any expectation has the potential to heighten the level of anxiety for a kid athlete. Furthermore, this is automatically assumed to be a bad thing.

I submit that parents should set reasonable expectations regarding a child’s participation in youth sports. Those expectations should be explained clearly and parents should be sure that their kid understands exactly how to live up to the expectations.

My expectations are reasonable, but I also acknowledge that trying to live up to all of those – including the part about having fun – might present a challenge for my sons. So be it. Growth happens when we confront our anxieties. We either overcome them or succumb to them. Either way, we learn.

Give a kid goals and watch him or her excel.

And that’s part of the job as parents, to present challenges for our kids to overcome. Overcoming those challenges might not put them on the path to a career as a high-powered executive, but it will help them learn how rewarding it can be to live up to – and sometimes exceed – expectations.

 

 

 

 

Broken Places

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”A Farewell to Arms

We are broken in unseen places.

We are broken by divorce. We are broken when we lose a dream career because of a poor economy. We are broken by a heart attack. We are broken when we live the nightmare of fearing for the life of one of our children. We are broken slowly, callously, by impersonal office jobs. We are broken by cancer.

Even as we break, the sinews and ligaments of love and leisure hold the center.

I am broken, but I am intact because of my wife, my kids, my parents, my extended family, my friends, occasional professional success. I have been broken but not defeated, because even as the bits and pieces of me dangled precariously and threatened to fall away along the path, I found reasons to smile.

I found I could still experience happiness.

Happy is not a condition. It is a moment of forgetfulness or a flash of remembrance.

I was able to forget, or to remember, during my wedding with Beth, on our honeymoon to Las Vegas, on our 10th anniversary trip to New York City, when our sons were born, when I was chosen to read an entry from my online journal at Dad 2.0 Summit, during all the many days of enjoyment and abandon at Walt Disney World and other places where reality was paved over and I could remember or forget. These countless moments and experiences lifted my spirit and, for a time, seemed to mend the broken places.

Seemed to.

Once broken, we stay broken. Wrapped in a thick blanket of inertia, scarred and scared, yet awake and aware, I was unable to stop but unwilling to move. The broken places are not stronger. They are merely broken.

This only ends one way. Remember the rest of Hemingway’s quote from Farewell: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these things it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

I am in no special hurry and must therefore find a way to function. I live with the knowledge of the broken places. They mount and swirl together as a swift current in a strong, cold river that gashes a drear desert. If I give in, I can drift along on that current and let it take me where it will, no will of my own. But I choose to choose my response. I can remember to forget, or forget to remember. I know I can do that, because I still can smile.

We can’t fix the broken places. So we need to know: How much can one person endure? That’s the question. Do we possess an infinite capacity to endure break after break after break, winding on endlessly into that desert? I am afraid I do not, but the evidence is incomplete.

Where are the unseen places? What do they look like?

I see a bridge, a stone passage through and over time, a safe thoroughfare imperiled on all sides by vagaries comedic and tragic. The bridge has crumbled and fallen in on itself in places. Where the stones are collapsed, the bridge veers in new directions. Crossing, thwarted by each new chasm, I leap along on wings of forgetfulness and remembrance, catching the current of love and leisure, pursuer and pursued. I land and peer along the narrow path ahead. I see only a straight road, but it is an illusion and I know that now. Inevitably, my gaze is drawn backward, where I look upon a labyrinth of my own unconscious design, a life in parts, a bridge broken but on the whole, not bad. I move on.

Where will I break again? Will I be ready and able to leap across the next chasm? Will the current slacken as I lament the broken places and fall, fall, finally and forever?

Yes. The world breaks everyone. Afterward, there are broken places but we move on. We meet new, better friends and lifelong companions. We find more fulfilling careers. We improve our diet, take our meds and promise to exercise. We relish every moment we have with our dear children and never – never – take their laughter and strength for granted. We vow to find our place in this world. We meet illness with treatment and optimism and if we are healed we cherish our good fortune and move on.

We make the leap across the unseen chasm. We turn into the current. We remember or we forget. We smile. We move on.

How to Adopt a Kitten

One sunny day in January 1996, we decided to adopt a kitten. We drove to the Humane Society of Pinellas County to pick one out.

We found a litter of six tabby kittens just out of foster care, a furry, mewling mass squirming around their recumbent mother in a covered, elevated outdoor pen. The kittens were 10 weeks old. Our eyes and hearts picked out a brown and white longhaired female with pretty yellow eyes and a calm disposition.

Before we could adopt our kitten, we needed cat supplies. So, we left the kittens and drove to the nearest pet store to buy a litter box, food, a water dish and cat toys. We were gone for 45 minutes.

How to Adopt a Kitten

Murphy the cat, circa 1997. He was a loving, devoted companion for nearly two decades. Soon, we’ll find a new kitten. But not quite yet.

When we came back, our longhaired kitten was gone – adopted out from under us. The only kitten left in the pen was a shorthaired, silver-and-black tiger-striped male with bright green eyes, a lively demeanor and white tips on his front paws. The humane society volunteer who had fostered him and his littermates said it looked as if he had dipped his paws in milk.

The attendant opened the pen. The kitten climbed my arm and perched on my shoulder, where he sat and observed while I filled out the paperwork.

We put him in the carrier. He meowed the whole way home. We named him Murphy and marveled as he grew from sprightly kitten to warm, loving, devoted friend.

Nineteen years later, on Feb. 12 of this year, I wrote this update on Facebook:

“He joined our family in 1996, a shelter kitten who climbed onto my shoulder for comfort the first time I met him. He has been my companion through 19 years of seismic life change. I named him Murphy, after my favorite baseball player. He is weak now, legs gone, head and tail limp. He made it through the night, so we’ll take him to the vet today to see if anything can be done. Beth and the boys are sad, and so am I. But what a cat – a true friend. He’s had a long, happy life. Two decades of pure love.”

By 9:10 a.m. that morning, he was gone. It was time. We cried and mourned as a family, just as we had when we lost Luna at Christmastime in 2012. The boys had only ever known a world with Murphy in it. Our older sonwants to be a veterinarian, a career goal attributable, in part, to the love he felt – still feels – for that dear cat.

Murphy’s absence is not quite real yet to me. I’m still a bit confused in the middle of the night when I shuffle into our bathroom in the dark and I don’t have to worry about stepping in the litter box. I still am careful not to roll over too abruptly in bed, because I don’t want to unsettle the devoted old cat who purred the night away in the crook of my arm.

But listen: This is not a sad post. Murphy lived a long life and was loved every second of it. He is loved still. He was sweet and dumb and devoted and oh, so lovable. We rejoice in his memory.

And soon … we’re going to adopt another kitten.

We just have to make sure we find the right one.

Our Next Kitten: Candidates

How does one go about that these days? How do you adopt a kitten?

It starts with an impulse.

Before Murphy came to the end, we already were talking about what would come next. My wife is allergic to cats, but she began to campaign for a kitten months before we became a no-pet household.

We Should Adopt a Kitten

It starts with an impulse.

Let me be clear: My wife is allergic to cats, but she wants another one.

She endured 11-plus years of cats under her roof, in her bed, under her feet. Murphy and Luna destroyed our floors with their claws and by other means. Before we replaced the carpet, we waged battle for years against the stubborn redolence of concentrated uric acid (also known as residual dried cat piss).

Her sneeze attacks are sudden and wall-shaking – the sneezes come in rapid-fire bunches and persist until Benadryl works its way into her bloodstream.

Despite this, she wants another cat, and soon. If not for the fact that I insisted we spend a respectful amount of time mourning the absence of my dear feline companion, we already would have a new cat in the family. She and the boys were that eager, but they understood I needed time.

Why does my wife want a cat?

“I like having something alive when I come into the house,” she said. “And I think it’ll bring joy, which is really the only reason that matters.”

OK, then.

We’ll adopt a kitten.

It will happen in the next few weeks, after our younger son’s cast comes off his broken left arm. We’re looking at late April.

Potential parenting fail alert: I might have promised him on the day he broke his arm that he can name our family’s new kitten. His choices so far – Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers or Murphy Junior.

Yeah … we might not be sticking to the letter of the law with that particular promise. I think it’ll be a family decision, with our younger son leading the discussion. That’s a fair interpretation.

(I am not spending the next two decades with a Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers.)

We have some ideas already about the kind of cat we want to join our family. The candidates:

How to Adopt a Kitten

Candidate No. 1.

How to Adopt a Kitten

Candidate No. 2.

How to Adopt a Kitten

Candidate No. 3.

How to Adopt a Kitten

Candidate No. 4.

What You Need to Know About Adopting a Kitten

Upon reflection, we’ll go with none of the above.

And we won’t go into this on a whim, as I did in 1996 with Murphy. Back then, I lacked the perspective required to envision the day two decades later when I would have to say that tearful goodbye to a companion who had shared nearly half my life.

Now, armed with the knowledge that the kitten we adopt next month could very well be cuddled in his or her feline dotage by our grandchildren, we will prepare accordingly and choose carefully.

I’ve read advice from reputable sources, including the ASPCA and Purina. Before we bring home a new kitten, we will:

  • Budget for monthly expenses: food, litter, litter bags, industrial-strength cleaner
  • Budget for annual (and emergency) veterinary bills
  • Prepare the house to absorb the inevitable damage and to combat the inevitable smells and dander
  • Explain to the boys about the responsibility of pet ownership and the opportunity to save an animal’s life by adopting from a shelter
  • Determine whether we want to declaw our new kitten in order to avoid the kind of destruction wrought by our clawed kitties in the past
  • Stock up on Benadryl for the allergies
  • Research places near us that provide cat adoption services
  • Clear time on the schedule for the next few months to nurture our new kitten and help him/her become acclimated to our home

Most important, we’ll explain to the boys that our new kitten is not a replacement for Murphy and Luna. The love and appreciation we feel for our departed companions will always be with us. If anything, as we get to know our new family member, I imagine our memories of Murphy and Luna will grow vivid – the way Murphy would leap and spin with a mid-air cartwheel as he tried to apprehend a bouncing rubber ball; Luna’s propensity to sit up on her hind legs, like a meerkat, and bat relentlessly at a proffered cat treat.

We so look forward to welcoming our new feline friend. Kids and pets – what’s better?

In the coming weeks, I’ll share the story of our family’s new addition. I hope you enjoy the journey, and I welcome any kitten adoption advice you have to offer.

 

Oren Miller: He Has Shown Me How to Live

Give Foward

Oren Miller has made me a better person and a better father. He is my brother. I will always tell his story.

We want context at the end. We want order, or some sense of purpose. We want it to matter. We want to tell our stories, and we want them to make sense.

It helps with the pain. It helps with the sadness. It helps to remind us that the reason we cry is because once, we were oh, so glad.

We have been glad to know Oren Miller. We have been proud to call him friend, to call him brother.

We all have stories to tell.

We have stories to tell about Oren Miller.

Today, and for the past few months, these stories have been nourished with tears. We knew it was bad, then worse, and now we are at the end and we want context. We want to add our patch to the quilt of Oren’s life, or his digital life, I suppose.

We were brothers, Oren and I. As his brother, as we come to the end, I am compelled to tell my story. This is right. This is good. Will it make sense? I don’t know. But my pain demands it. My tears require it.

It matters.

My story of Oren is about hope. It’s about the human capacity to shape the world for good.

It matters, all right.

We found out the worst of bad news before Father’s Day – lung cancer had spread to his brain. Nothing could stop it. We set out to help Oren’s family in a small, but meaningful way.

We came together to raise money for a dream trip, a vacation for a lifetime. We figured $5,000 ought to do it. Disney, maybe. Someplace nice before treatment began. Someplace Oren and Beth and their beautiful son and daughter could go and laugh and love and just be, if only for a while.

Our brother Brent Almond posted the online fundraiser on the crowd-funding site, Giveforward.com, at the suggestion of another brother, Jim Higley. These are remarkable human beings. These are my brothers. Oren’s brothers.

Brent posted it late on a Thursday night, the Thursday before Father’s Day, with no fanfare or social media promotion. By mid-morning Friday, the goal had been eclipsed and the total pledged was approaching $10,000.

Eventually, it would surpass $35,000. That was the power of this brotherhood, the power of a group of creative fathers from around the world whose primary connection was a Facebook group started by an unassuming, quiet, Israeli-born Marylander named Oren Miller.

“So crazy, it just might work.”

That is the group’s tagline. It started with about 30 fathers in December 2012. I was among them.

As of this writing, there are 1,047 members from nearly every state in the U.S., nearly every continent on the planet.

There are stay-at-home dads, single dads, old dads, young dads, married dads, divorced dads, gay dads, granddads. There are dads who draw, dads who paint, dads who create video, dads who make crazy lunches, dads who take photos, dads who write and dads who sing.

There are conservative dads, liberal dads, black dads, Asian dads, white dads, and dads of just about every ethnic and religious persuasion you can imagine. We fight and cry, love and learn from one another.

Once a year, we get together at Dad 2.0 Summit. That’s where I met Oren in person for the first time, in Houston. I can’t believe that was only two years ago.

He and I had exchanged excited messages about how we were going to try to expand the Facebook group while we were in Houston. Could we reach 100 members? Who did we want to ask?

Anyone and everyone. That’s who. All were invited.

Are you a dad? Do you have a blog?

You’re in.

One thing, though: “Don’t be a dick.”

It’s Oren’s only real rule for the group. Pretty reasonable, if you ask me.

Now, two years after he wondered if we could reach triple digits in the group, a scholarship fund bearing his name enables some of his brothers to go to Dad 2.0 every year. Six bloggers were awarded the scholarship this time around. It is a powerful, permanent testament to what he means to our community.

And so, the group of brothers who came together out of that initial experiment rose up when Oren needed us and raised tens of thousands of dollars for his family. I wish it could be more. It should be more. Please help make it more by donating here: Give Back to Oren.

One day this past summer, Whit Honea and I were talking on the phone about Oren and the group and how sad it was that Oren had cancer but what an incredible thing it was to see the group come together for that cause with such effect.

If we could do that for one of our own, looking inward, we thought, why couldn’t that energy and spirit be turned outward? Why couldn’t we band together, brothers from around the world, and try to make good things happen everywhere?

And so, thanks to Oren Miller and his loving brothers and all of those who contributed to the fundraiser, Dads 4 Change was born.

All we want to do at Dads 4 Change is make the world a better place, to help our kids develop an appreciation for volunteerism and giving, to model good citizenship for them and hope they carry that message into the future. That’s all.

That’s Oren’s legacy for me. It also is a legacy of community, which is peace. In peace, our best selves emerge. Just don’t be a dick.

Context? Purpose? Order. There is none. What is happening is too sad and pointless, as meaningful as a flower, as full of purpose as a single raindrop, as random as a stalk of wheat in the breeze.

But he has shown me how to live. He has shown us all the meaning of grace and dignity. Outwardly, his humor has remained intact and as sharp as ever. He is Oren. Then, as now, my brother.

There is no context for this. There sure as hell is no purpose. It does matter, though. Oren Miller made me a better person, a better father. That matters. And I will always tell that story. Always.

Oren Miller

Oren Miller (far right) with some of our brothers at Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans, January 2014. Also pictured (L to R): Aaron Gouveia, John Willey, Fred Goodall, Vincent Daly.

I’ll leave you with this: a dancing chihuahua. I saw it first on Oren’s blog, a Blogger and a Father, and it was one of his favorites. I smile every time I see it. So does Oren. I hope you will, too.

happy dance

Nerf Guns and Nonsense

My older son peered through the blinds into our back yard, but made no move to join his friends.

His homework was finished and he was free to play until supper time. Yet, the Monday afternoon soccer game went on without him.

“Aren’t you going outside?” I said.

He turned away from the sliding glass door and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Not today. I just don’t want to.”

Strange. He loves to play outside. I knew why this time was different.

“Is it because of the Nerf gun thing?” I said.

He nodded.

“A little bit,” he said.

He turned back to the sliding glass door and peered out at his friends playing soccer in our back yard. He wanted to be out there playing, too. Instead, he watched from the cover of the blinds.

_________________________

The Nerf gun thing. In our neighborhood, Nerf foam dart gun battles rage almost daily. There are Nerf assault rifles, Nerf sniper rifles, Nerf blasters, Nerf cross bows, Nerf cannons. The neighborhood lawns are littered with discharged and forgotten Nerf darts.

I don’t like Nerf foam dart guns. I don’t like guns, period. I don’t like watching kids pretend to shoot each other. I worry that they might become inured to violence, and I worry that a blue or orange Nerf dart might strike one of my kids or a neighbor kid in the eye and cause permanent damage.

Naturally, our kids have about a half-dozen Nerf guns.

We allow them to participate in these neighborhood foam dart battles, with the stipulation that they wear the protective goggles that came with one of their Nerf gun sets and that they don’t aim the Nerf guns at other kids’ heads.

The Nerf gun thing that kept my son inside peering through the blinds instead of running around outside on the brown winter grass had its origins in a bicycle race over the weekend. A race my son lost to two other kids, both of whom are older, bigger, stronger and faster than my third grader.

Before that bike race around the block, one of the older kids – a good kid, a kid we know – announced that the race loser would be subjected to an undefended barrage of Nerf darts shot at him point-blank by the other two race participants.

In essence: a Nerf gun firing squad.

Our son told us Sunday night about his scheduled next-day “punishment” for losing the bike race. His mom and I told him there would be no Nerf gun firing squad. He would have to tell the other kids it’s not going to happen.

We left it at that, but we both woke up thinking about it the next morning. My wife called me on her way to work and we talked about it.

Was this a case of bullying behavior? Was it just “kids being kids?” How can parents tell the difference? What should we do about it?

In the moment, shortly after he informed us about the kid-manufactured consequences of losing that bike race, we told our son to stand up to the other boys if they tried to get him to “take his punishment.”

But were we sure he knew how to do that?

My wife and I decided that it wasn’t a case of repetitive bullying behavior, based on what we know about the kids involved and our son’s relationship with them. These kids are a grade or two ahead of our son, but we know them. They’re generally nice kids, not mean-spirited, and our son enjoys their company.

Still, it’s not easy to say no to friends. We wanted to make sure our son was equipped with the words he needed to gracefully minimize a potential conflict and prevent a potential long-term rift with his buddies. She and I talked about it and, together, made a plan of action we could suggest to him if it came up.

_________________________

Back at the blinds, our son was of two minds as he peered out: He longed to go out outside and play, but did not want to be shot at with Nerf dart guns.

I said, “You can go outside if you want to. Those guys might not even remember the bike race. But if they do, and they say something to you, do you know what to do?”

He nodded and said, “Yeah, come back inside.”

His expression told me he wouldn’t be happy with that outcome, so I was glad his mother and I had come up with a suggestion.

“Well, sure, you could do that,” I said. “Or you could look right at them and say, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to stand here and let you shoot me with Nerf guns. Let’s just play soccer.’”

Then I said, “Let me know if that doesn’t work.”

He thought about it for a few seconds, then reached for his fleece pullover.

“OK,” he said. “I’m going outside.”

I resisted the temptation to watch him through the blinds. I’m not against keeping a close eye on my kids, but this was one time I felt like he needed some space. I figured if he needed me, he’d come get me.

An hour later, he came in for supper. I asked him as casually as I could if the Nerf gun thing had come up. He said it had.

“Oh?” I said. “And what happened?”

“I told them it was just nonsense and to keep playing soccer,” he said.

I smiled and repeated, “Nonsense?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I forgot the other word you told me, but I like nonsense better, anyway.”

I told him I liked it better, too, and asked how his friends had taken it.

“We just started playing soccer again,” he said.

I told him I was proud of him.

I liked that he was not intimidated by his older friends into going along with a bad idea.

I liked that he found the fortitude to face his apprehension.

I liked that he accepted – and improved upon – the plan of action his mother and I devised to help him.

I loved that our son learned something about his own strength of will. And, even though he lost that bike race, he defeated his own uncertainty and managed a difficult situation with words and with grace.

 

My 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot

Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know about newly elected Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson. The tall left-hander had a losing record against three teams in his distinguished career.

The Yankees (6-8) were one. The Mets (6-7) were another.

The third?

The … um … Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The Big Unit, one of the 10 best pitchers ever, winner of five Cy Young Awards, the all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings (10.6) … that guy went 3-5 with a 5.43 ERA in 11 starts against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from 1998-2006. The Rays averaged 97 losses during that time span, which happened also to be a time when I covered the team for the Tampa Tribune.

OK, here’s why I bring up the fact that Johnson – as deserving a first-ballot Hall of Famer as you’ll find – was generally pretty bad against the Rays, especially after going 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA in three starts against Tampa Bay’s inaugural team in ‘98. I bring it up to illustrate the point that baseball statistics are only useful and revelatory in the proper context.

Also, to remind you that all baseball players are fallible.

Very good baseball players make us forgive their failures. Great players make us forgive and forget their failures. Hall of Famers make us remember and celebrate their triumphs.

Does it matter, really, that one of the greatest pitchers ever struggled mightily against one of the worst teams of the 1990s and 2000s? Not today.

Today, we remember the glare, the intimidation, the menacing mound presence, the mullet. Today, we remember why he was called the Big Unit.

Today, Randy Johnson is an elected Hall of Famer, along with contemporaries Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.

Today, we remember and celebrate their triumphs, ever mindful that none of them were even close to perfect, yet knowing that, for a time, they were the best of the best at what they did.

This was my seventh year participating as a voter in baseball’s Hall of Fame balloting. I earned that privilege as a member of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America from 1999-2009, and I currently hold honorary member status.

I take the privilege seriously. Every year I evaluate the new candidates and re-evaluate the holdover candidates, even the players I voted for previously. There are no automatic selections on my ballot, ever.

That said, once I have decided that I consider a player a Hall of Famer, I vote for him. It never has made sense to me to leave a deserving player off my ballot because he hasn’t waited “long enough.”

No Barry Bonds. No Roger Clemens. No Mark McGwire. No Sammy Sosa. As players, they excelled. They put up the numbers and won the awards. They fall short for me because of the character/integrity/sportsmanship clause in the voting rules.

My thoughts on voting (or not voting) for candidates suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs (PED) are documented here: This Game’s Fun, OK? Baseball’s Hall of Fame Conundrum.

My ballot from last year can be found here: My 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot.

Further thoughts about the clause that stipulates voters must take into account sportsmanship, integrity and character during the voting process can be found here: If Only Integrity, Sportsmanship and Character Did Not Count in Hall of Fame Voting.

And here are the players I voted for this year:

Voters are allowed to select a maximum of 10 candidates. As you can see, I voted for nine, including six holdovers from last year’s ballot: Bagwell, Biggio, Edgar, McGriff, Piazza and Smith.

At some point in their careers, the three first-year candidates I selected arguably could be considered the best pitchers in their respective leagues. That statement is not likely to brook much argument when it comes to Pedro and Johnson, but it also applies to Smoltz, who from 1995-1999 was as dominant as any starting pitcher in the game.

A quick word about my borderline players: Mike Mussina, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. I strongly re-evaluated their candidacies this year, particularly Mussina. I thought this might be the year that I deviated from my philosophy of deciding that if a player is a Hall of Famer, there is no reason for him to wait.

I gave all three a lot of consideration, and concluded once more that while all three were clearly great players, they didn’t quite make the Hall of Fame cut for me. There was no one, glaring reason why not for any of them.

Rather, as I considered their candidacies again – frankly, as I looked hard for reasons to include them – I could not convince myself that they were Hall of Fame caliber. I reserve the right to be wrong in my assessment (I didn’t vote for Barry Larkin or Andre Dawson, after all). I’m sure they’ll all draw the requisite votes to carry them over to next year’s ballot, and I will begin the evaluation process anew.

For now, though, I’m as satisfied as I can be that the nine players I selected deserved my vote. I look forward to next year, when the first-year candidates will include Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman.

I also hope that the voting process can continue to move toward clarity. I hate that the character/integrity/sportsmanship rule means we, as voters, must act as moral arbiters for baseball’s highest honor after an era when the game itself was tainted by steroids.

But that’s part of it, and I consider it an obligation to participate as well as I can, to conduct the research as thoroughly as possible and to present my conclusions with the utmost respect for the players and the game. I’ll continue to do so as long as they’ll have me.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube video of one of the best All-Star Game moments ever: the Big Unit  striking out terrified Phillies first baseman John Kruk.