Do Less

We are driving. Actually, I am in the passenger seat. Avery is driving. But it’s been a symbiotic process for so long that I think of it as the two of us driving. Me giving directions, suggestions and warnings. Him being the receptacle of my driving wisdom. An avatar of my knowledge of roads and signs and traffic movements. He is less a driver than a puppet with very short strings attached to a wheel and a pedal and my mind. This is how it works when we drive. But this doesn’t work anymore. This dynamic is failing all across the spectrum with him. It’s unhealthy and stultifying and limiting to his growth as a driver and a human being. So, now I am trying to give Avery less directions, less suggestions and fewer reminders. I am trying to do less. And it is hardest thing I’ve ever done.

In the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the surfing instructor gives inscrutable directions to the novice about how to pop up on the surfboard to catch a wave. “You’re doing too much. Do less,” he tells him. He repeats the zen-like instruction “Do Less” so often the novice eventually just lies still on the surfboard in an effort to comply. “Not that much less,” the instructor says. The plight of the surfing student sort of explains how counterintuitive it feels to me to not be giving Avery so much oversight. I know it’s the right thing to do less. I know I should do a lot less until I am almost doing nothing at all in the way that training wheels eventually come off bicycles and parents guiding hands on steering wheels gradually release and the parent eventually is left behind in the distance as the small cyclist pedals madly away. But I can’t quite manage to make myself do enough less.

When we leave the house for a few days Avery manages to arise at a given hour and walk the dog and get to school and back and feed himself. He seems to exist as a fully realized independent person. Then I come back, and I remind him to do everything he did when I wasn’t there and I have to remind him several times. So, I can tell that I am the problem. In the vacuum of my absence, he asserts his independence and shows responsibility. In the presence of my parenting he regresses into a reluctant participant in life who must be prodded forward like a very old mule who wants to wade in a stream when you need it to go up a steep mountain. Absent any instruction from me, he sleeps until noon. Doesn’t shower. Lies still in the bed dreaming or props himself up into a half slouch just enough to watch videos on his computer.

The problem is vexing. I homeschooled him through high school. But now he’s enrolled in a community college and just received his own drivers license. He’s got to walk into his own walls the way we all do. He has to have the freedom to make his own mistakes and suffer and learn from them.  If I can just get out of his way. I know all that. But I’m having trouble subtracting myself from the equation. Doing less is harder than doing more. I’m going to have to try harder to do less. And keep on doing less until I barely do anything. 

It’s pretty scary.

Do Less

Find your inner ABBA

image  We arrived in Stockholm with our luggage missing in action on a rainy morning after a sleepless 8-hour transatlantic flight. A child one row to our right squealed and crawled up and down the aisles of the aircraft the entire flight. When we landed, he slumped in his mother’s arms. His energy was dissipated at last. A radical time difference between Dallas, Texas and Sweden had moved us through time as we moved through the air. We were seven hours into the future, and we didn’t like what we were seeing so far.

We lodged a complaint with Delta and KLM. Then we set about shopping for some clothes. Scandanavian people are not like us. They are built with bird-like legs. Mostly tall and willowy with blonde hair. Beautiful as a rule – as if they all belong in a commercial selling you soap or toothpaste. When I tried to fit into a pair of regular jeans in a Stockholm department store, it was like trying to slip into a wetsuit. I found a lone pair of relaxed fit blue jeans. They may as well have said Troll-size on them. I was glad for them because they fit even though they were button-fly jeans. Had Sweden not heard of the wonderful invention that is the zipper, I wondered. My wife Robyn bought some makeup she later claimed would burn her face and a few pieces of clothes. We were down several hundred kroner, but since the local currency felt and looked like Monopoly money fresh from the box, it didn’t hurt as much to spend it replacing our lost clothes that had abruptly decided to take a separate journey without us.

We climbed onto a Hop On Hop Off bus and the driver slowly inched forward through peak season summer traffic as rain fell. We were trying to make it through the day. When you are in a new country, you don’t want to miss anything. But I kept falling asleep because it was way past midnight in Dallas even though it was two in the afternoon in Sweden.

The next day was better. The sun came out,  and I figured out how to button shut the exotic Swedish relaxed button-fly jeans. We hopped on a small boat named the Dancing Queen to tour the ABBA museum. When you are sleep deprived and out of your time zone and element entirely wearing strange new jeans, you want something familiar. I am not the world’s biggest fan of ABBA. I used to hear all their songs growing up on the radio, but I never bought an ABBA album or saw them in concert. The museum was a heady plunge into the ABBA experience that bordered on more information about Sweden’s best known international pop group than you might ever want to know.

One rather disturbing thing in the ABBA museum was a very realistic 3D projection of the band that enabled you to join the band for a song in a concert. Your voices blended in with ABBA’s. I had no thought of participating in the startling performance, but I clapped after witnessing a couple gamely sing a song and try to dance along with the choreographed dance moves the eerie ghostly images of ABBA made beside them.

There were depictions of ABBA in every possible manner. Large puppet-like ABBA figures. Cardboard cutouts. A disturbing life size poster on a wall of the group around a set of telephones with a telephone on a stand in front of them. “If the phone rings, pick it up. It’s ABBA calling,” the placard in front said. I did not want the phone to ring and would have had no idea what to say if ABBA called while I was in the museum. I would have wondered how lonely and desperate their lives had become if they had called their museum while I was there. Surely they could find something more productive to do with their time.

I wondered through a maze of walls lined with their records. ABBA music played continuously as we made our way through the museum. Despite the overwhelming visuals, the music made the experience pleasant. ABBA was always just about a fun simple time. Their songs didn’t make you think or feel any deep emotions. No one ever fought or protested a war while listening to ABBA. You danced to ABBA or listened to it on the radio and promptly forgot about it.

ABBA consisted of two couples who got together and became a global musical phenomenon for their simple poppy songs. Then each couple divorced, and the band broke up. End of fairy tale. But there’s some innocence or remembrance of my own innocence that ABBA evokes. Whispers of a time when I rolled around in a roller rink on skates watching some teenagers gracefully skate backwards and others flail around the sides of the rink helplessly. I was never great on skates. I got to the point where I moved forward mostly in the direction I intended, but my skating was always tentative and overly careful like the steps of a baby giraffe who only just learned to walk the day before.

Our ten-day trip through Scandanavia got better after the ABBA museum. Maybe it got better because of ABBA. The songs and faces felt familiar when time itself was out of whack and my underwear was on a separate world tour. The ABBA museum was creepy, and I never need to go there again. But I liked it. Does that make any sense at all?



Find your inner ABBA

In fond memory of a rabid beaver

We were watching the local television news in the basement of my grandparents’ old home in Asheville when we learned of the rabid beaver attack at Beaver Lake. A lady had been stand-up paddle boarding on the lake when a rabid beaver bit her three times. The lady had to get a series of painful shots, and the beaver was killed. The newscast showed a sign someone had erected at the lake in memory of the beaver. I still have relatives who live in Asheville. I knew right away none of them had a part in erecting the memorial to the rabid beaver. I was also fairly certain all of them were safe since none of them would be a fair candidate to go stand up paddle boarding on Beaver Lake. Erecting a monument to a rabid beaver and stand up paddle boarding are new Asheville resident kinds of thing to do. An old Asheville resident would have been more likely to have been the one who shot the rabid beaver.

Since my aunt and I were up walking around Beaver Lake the next morning, it was only natural for me to look high and low for the memorial to the rabid beaver. I asked one woman who was walking by if she had seen it. She knew of the attack. She said when she told her husband about it the first thing he said was, “That poor beaver.” She added, “Of course, the bites did the woman no good at all.” I did not say anything, but it confirmed a suspicion I had that the couple were new Asheville residents. She was excited to learn about the beaver memorial being erected and said she would immediately post it to Facebook. Which was proof positive of her new Asheville pedigree.

My aunt and I proceeded on around the lake. She said she had been reading about beavers and learned they were really fast on land. “I thought they just hung out in the water and built dams,” I said. “No, they’re fast,” my aunt said. In addition to looking for the memorial to the rabid beaver, we now both felt a wary concern that any beaver killed might have been the wrong rabid beaver. Or if one rabid beaver were in the lake, might not another rabid beaver still be swimming around ready to spring from the lake and prove just how fast beavers can run on dry land?

Another passerby who lives part-time at the lake informed us that he’d heard gunshots last night. They must have been shooting at a rabid beaver, he said. I heard the same man tell another person that they had killed a beaver at the lake last night. His story had changed within a minute’s time. But I imagined he just liked to think the beaver was dead. What if a wounded, rabid beaver were now prowling the lake? My aunt and I proceeded around the lake, pondering that prospect. “I hope he got shot in the leg,” I told my aunt.

We never did find the rabid beaver memorial at Beaver Lake. One can only speculate that a cantankerous old Asheville resident spotted it and promptly destroyed it. Maybe that would only be fair since some of the old landmarks in Asheville that once were hubs of social life in days gone by have been torn down and paved over and repurposed.

We live in Texas now and just happened to be visiting in the aftermath of the rabid beaver attack, but we once lived in West Asheville close enough to the Asheville Motor Speedway that once hummed with activity like an angry bee hive on the weekends that I could hear the engines roaring and the booming voice of the track announcer without being able to distinguish any of the words. Something about not being able to quite make out what was being said always made me want to go there even though I have no particular interest in auto racing. I liked to imagine myself there having a great time, though I knew I’d never go.

The only time I did go was to cover one of its final weekends of the 1/3 mile race track’s operation for the local newspaper. The whole place smelled like motor oil and was even louder close up. Beer bottles littered the ground. The smell of the food from the concession stand made me nauseous. But kids ran around happily, and their parents told me what a shame it was that the speedway was being bought only to be destroyed. I tried to see it through their eyes. They clearly loved it, and it felt to them like the community was losing some part of its soul. The racetrack had been built in 1960 and lasted until 1999. The land where the track stood is now part of a spacious park that winds along the river with a permanent memorial to the racetrack.

Things disappear never to be fully replaced. That’s the way of the world.  I suppose you really have to enjoy them in the moment and cherish rabid beavers that bite people and loud, smelly race tracks while they are around.





In fond memory of a rabid beaver

Dallas in the morning

Most mornings I dodge a few early morning sprinklers whose streams of water reach like watery tendrils past the struggling lawns and onto the sidewalk and a couple of small standing puddles of water I worry may contain mosquitos carrying Zika or West Nile Virus  and tread up five blocks to a small urban park as the merciless Texas sun is just starting to sear the land before baking it for good and all, and I circle the half mile concrete track there at a slow trot trying hard to think of something constructive to say to the man I see there shambling faithfully around it every single dawn whose limbs jerk hard to make him list to port like a wayward boat tugged by a persistent and utterly malicious tide. Those legs and arms conspire against his every stride. Betray each footfall.  Yet he soldiers on around and around doggedly and never misses a day. We naturally come face to face with each other on the track each morning, as he always walks clockwise and I always walk counter-clockwise. Because we must. We cannot do otherwise. Don’t ask us to. I want to say something brilliantly supportive that doesn’t come across as patronizing. I want to applaud him somehow.  He’s more or less my hero. Words formed in my mouth this morning as we approached each other. It could have been just a simple “hello.” But he looked so fiercely focused on making his contrary limbs obey him, I just nodded. Tomorrow I will say something clear and distinct and human and establish a tiny budding relationship. Just acknowledge his presence and ongoing struggle as a fellow human on this earth. Something like “Hi.”

Who knows what may come of it?

Dallas in the morning

Friday Night Lights


The utter brutality and athletic grace of a big hit. The intricate patterns of a high school marching band at halftime with gleaming tubas and ornate uniforms. Cheerleaders flying through the air. A collective tremor running through the bleachers as fans pound their feet in the stands for their team. The drama of a fourth quarter comeback. Electricity in the air. A cowbell clanging when the home team scores. I missed all of it. It had been a while.

Since my son is being homeschooled this year, we don’t really have a high school football team to root for. I picked the closest school available tonight – Marshall High School in Falls Church. Northern Virginia is close to Washington, D.C., the inspiration for a few awfully bland nicknames in these parts. The Washington Senators were later renamed the equally bland Washington Nationals. (The Nats have overcome this by having elaborately costumed President’s races featuring Teddy Roosevelt, Washington and Lincoln during the Seventh Inning Stretch. It’s quite entertaining.) In any event, Falls Church is home to the Marshall High School Statesmen. Discovering that, I immediately pictured a rabid lawmaker frantically waving the Declaration of Independence around, sort of a Patrick Henry on steroids. Maybe he’d wear a wig like an English barrister. Yes. A brash, firebrand, early colonial statesman who could inspire his team to victory ….or to secede from England.


I felt let down when the actual mascot turned out to be a bald eagle. He had wings and a tail so long it dragged the ground. It reminded me more of a tail that would belong to a Flying Monkey from Oz. But that’s just being picky and ungrateful. For pacing the sideline throughout the game and making a few coordinated movements alongside the cheerleaders in a full bald eagle costume in 90-degree heat with high humidity, Marshall High School’s bald eagle mascot deserves a special award. Unlike the painted nude ladies who apparently now frequent Times Square in New York City, the bald eagle with the monkey-like tail managed to add visual excitement to the scene without causing a ruckus.

Continue reading “Friday Night Lights”

Friday Night Lights

The bear necessities of life

Whale tail in Sitka, Alaska.
Whale tail in Sitka, Alaska.

I am on a black sand beach on an Alaskan island. A bright orange bear whistle dangles from my neck. My wife Robyn is also sporting a bright orange bear whistle. Bright orange bear whistles go with exactly nothing we are wearing but are indispensable nonetheless. The small boat that dropped us off on the island is receding in the distance. Our guide explains that if we come across a bear we should blow the whistle. “Don’t run,” he says. “Running from a bear is like throwing a ball for a dog. It just makes them chase you. If you do run, please don’t run toward me,” he says. I imagine encountering a bear and blowing the whistle. The bear might be startled and run away from the sound. That could happen. But it’s a certainty that the eight other tourists on the beach will head in a direction opposite to the sound of the bear whistle.

We start wandering around on the beach. This is why we came here, to see things we wouldn’t see if we stayed put. Robyn picks up a few shells. I spot some prints in the sand. There are small precise prints from a deer. Another set of prints that look like a large squirrel. And a deeper impression of prints that look like something else. The guide confirms that I’m looking at deer prints, sea otter prints and bear prints. “He’s about 300 to 400 pounds. And those were made less than two days ago. I know because we had rain two days prior,” he explains. I manage not to blow my whistle.

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The bear necessities of life

Rodents of unusual size in Mexico

The plentiful Mexican Iguana Photo by Kevin Carter
The plentiful Mexican Iguana
Photo by Kevin Carter

This place is lousy with iguanas. The day I lose the rental car at the resort we’re staying at near Cancun, we drive around in a golf cart for thirty minutes visiting different parking lots. But every couple hundred feet the amiable attendant stops the cart. “Look, an iguana,” she says in perfect English. I guess she expects us to get out and take pictures. But we’ve seen plenty of iguanas by now. We just want to find the gold-colored Toyota minivan with all the pickup of a Hot Wheel powered by two triple A batteries we rented three days ago. It’s in one of these parking lots. I haven’t lost it. Robyn is quick to say, “My husband lost  our car,” when she seeks help from the parking attendant. “Misplaced, really,” I note defensively. So, we are rolling around parking lots in the golf cart, checking each one carefully. We approach the last lot on the list for the second time. “Look. It’s an iguana,” our driver says again, slowing to crawl. “Lovely,” we say. I know she wants us to be more excited about iguanas. We can’t see the appeal at the moment. We just want to spot our elusive gold-colored minivan, a species that seems all but extinct.

When we find the minivan, we all climb in grumpily and drive off to Playa del Carmen. Some of the more confusing Mexican road rules get abused slightly on the way. Alto means stop in Spanish. We did learn that. But Alto really seems to be more of a mild suggestion than a rule from what we can tell from watching other drivers. At a roundabout, we spot a sign that says Alto Total, which confirms that Alto essentially means “stop if you feel like stopping,” whereas Alto Total means “really think very seriously about stopping.” We find our way to a parking spot. Then we start trudging along the streets where every vendor calls out to us, each one more loudly and persistently than the last. “Keep your head down and your eyes ahead,” Robyn advises. “Don’t look them in the eye.” It’s awfully tough to see the sights in this manner. Once you have seen about one block of the shopping district, you know what’s coming on the next block. There’s a t-shirt store on this side. On the other side is a store that sells sandals and sunglasses. There’s a bar and a few restaurants over there. Some nifty wind-chimes and dream-catchers over here. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Don’t make eye contact.

We go into a store where a couple sit side by side on a bench with their feet immersed in water with small fish swimming around them. A sign explains in English that the fish are great at eating all the dead skin. This makes a certain amount of sense. Some fish are good at removing the impurities from the glass sides of a fish tank. When we get back to the resort, I try to describe the flesh-eating fish to Robyn’s uncle Paul. He’s from Texas, and he’s an avid fisherman. He knows fish. But the concept is strange to him. “Were they piranhas?” Paul asks. “Cause I’m not sticking my feet in with a bunch of piranhas.” I nod. “No, these fish eat the dead skin on the foot. Not the whole foot.”

Continue reading “Rodents of unusual size in Mexico”

Rodents of unusual size in Mexico