Video te iam, nisi

My 11-year-old son just used Google Translate to make the joke that the motto on our family crest should be the Latin for “I see your point, but…”

Pilotless DRONE, SIR?

This baby’s got range. Early on in the video you’ll see that it shoots both London AND France.

Stay for the sweet-ass clubhouse landing.

Them Thar Hills

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The beauty of the Ozarks is nigh on to cubist. It is angle and protrusion, knot and jag. The Ozarks are a broken nose that didn't set quite straight, a tombstone worn illegible, a lover's lips blessing a c-section scar. Theirs is the beauty of use and meaning and scrabbling for a life lived hard.

When the fall comes, the trees go to the bone and the woods are a wake of tottering, knee-walking drunks swaying to a hiss and rattle danse macabre under a corpsewhite sky. Everything is contrast and vacancy.

But in the spring and summer, the hills will rain their life down on you. They will pack it in your nostrils, rub it into your eyes, grind out a shotgun-wedding waltz on the legs of crickets and the bellies of cicadas until you can hear the heat. The hills will not allow you to forget that life only comes in a surge of mess and scent and howling, that sweat is sometimes a wedding ring and walking is often climbing. They welcome you, and they dare you.

I left the Ozarks 16 years ago, but my heart is still buried in their clay, stained orange and still beating, somewhere deep in a bootlegger's cave.

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Christmas 2017

It’s that time again. Here’s my ramblings for another season. Delivered on time, for a change.

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Dear Everyone,

It was Josh who gave me my first Nalgene bottle. Part of a care package he gave me before leaving for upstate New York and the Night’s Watch about one point five decades ago. I covered it with stickers and drank water from it. Fifteen or so years went by. Then I went camping.

Jack's Webelos den leader had planned a cold weather camping trip up in the Boston Mountains in early December. Weather originally looked to dip slightly below freezing, which we'd done before with no trouble.

The trees had gone to the bone weeks before we made camp. The wind was a gossip. We were down in a hollow and out of the worst of the breeze, but the sun left us to heap on clothes and hug the fire. We watched the night scratch and rattle its way down toward 20°, well below what we’d camped in before.

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The boy and I'd planned to string ourselves up in fancy hammock tents, but insulation is always a concern when you're dangling above ground. He asked if maybe he could go sleep in Alex's tent instead? Yes, of course, buddy. If you can't find me in the morning, go check the bench by the showers in the bathroom, okay?

Later that night I got him down and eventually debated myself away from the fire and over to my tent. I had a bunch of blankets, a sub-freezing sleeping bag, a fire-engine-red union suit and a whole lot of worry. Then some random neuron fired and I recalled Josh's Nalgene.

He'd extolled its many features and benefits in the attached note. "Once I was camping in cold weather," he wrote. "Before bed, I boiled some water, poured it in my bottle, wrapped a shirt around it and stuffed it in the bottom of my sleeping bag."

Aha.

Friends, I am here to spread the good news. My toes warmed instantly. I lay there, cozy as could be, and recited a very long gratitude list as I listened to the coyotes summon the moon.

I am grateful for my mummy bag.

I am grateful for my blankets.

I am grateful for my hat.

I am grateful for the lee side of the mountain.

I am grateful for the woman I watched playing with wolves yesterday.

I am grateful for the pot of veggie chili I had for supper.

I am grateful that I am packed into this nylon tube and suspended amid nature's annual death rattle, Dutch-ovening myself because of the chili, with no cell service.

I am grateful for a plastic bottle. A plastic bottle that has warmed me three times: Once when it was given, once when I recalled the gift and its attached advice, once with my toes nestled up against it.

I woke not long after dawn to a well-frosted tent. I made coffee. I dried and packed my gear. I came home. I kissed my wife and daughter and dog. I showered and shaved my head and eased myself back into civilization clothing and civilization eating and civilization life.

Checking out like this is a sheer luxury, I know that. But it helped. It helped with my fear and worry and frustration. But it wasn’t checking out that did it. It was yet again being dragged into the world of others.

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Watching the kids pointedly not swearing while rassling tent poles. Letting my boy show me every natural shelter outcropping he'd scouted out (three of them in total). Gathering with four other men and our children around a fire and sharing our stories. We communed in the death that is December, we passed candy and cocoa and opinions, and our species again seemed possible. Certainly worth fighting for.

I am grateful for this boy. For these friends. For this life. This life in which I got so damn lucky that I almost feel ashamed.

It's been too long since we’ve gathered around you. We need to get together. We need to remind each other. Maybe we'll cast our stories out into the cold, see what thaws.

My coat still smells of fire. I haven't washed it. I know I have to. But not yet.

Achievement Unlocked:

In the last five days, I have:

  • Driven 650 miles
  • Made and blind-baked four pie crusts
  • Roasted and braised a turkey
  • Made sides and gravy for 16
  • Reserved enough broth to make turkey gravy salted caramels (YES I WILL, MOTHER FUCKERS)
  • Waited to hear if my nephew has a brain tumor (he doesn’t, hell yes)
  • Hosted family overnight
  • Run a frankly absurd number of dishwasher loads
  • Hand-washed all the family china
  • Done an introvert-month’s worth of socializing
  • Invented the unit of measurement known as the introvert-month
  • Eaten enough carbs that I feel Confession is warranted, despite my Protestant-bordering-on-Unitarian leanings
  • Made my father-in-law cry

Every inch worth it. Tomorrow, I return to work, so that I may rest.

Good boy

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We found out today that Mugsy has heartworms. It was supposed to be a quick run for immunizations before we leave town to go visit my parents for Labor Day weekend. A sentence from the vet rather changed the tone of my day and the next couple hundred days to come.

I am restraining the urge to get sloppy here. I have written about what he means to us before, so I won't retread that here. Suffice it to say that my mind is currently churning on the topics of fragility and emotional need.

This goddamn dog that I almost didn't want to adopt because I would have preferred a rescue who was house trained, yet here I am prepared to burn your house down to save his life.

We'll soldier through. But today is for spoiling him (more).

Christmas 2016

Dear Everyone,

We got a dog this year. Most of you know we got a dog this year, and half of you are expecting me to say "we got a dog", so guess what, I don't want to disappoint: We got a dog.

He is small, bearded, not-un-Morgan-Freemanish in appearance, if not demeanor. He does not have the bearing of a person who might narrate a jailbreak or try to keep Brad Pitt from opening a box. He prefers a bouncier insouciance and general love of eating poop, two things Morgan Freeman is not known for.

Mugsy has upended things in the best way possible. He forces me out for exercise at least once daily. He demands that we take time to play, that we remember to lay hands on each other as much as we can. And he's a walking object lesson in the fragility of our circumstances.

Let me explain. Yesterday, my son asked me if I thought he would make a difference in the world. "Sure", I said. "Any time you touch a life, you make a difference in the world." I knew what he meant, but I wanted to make him push toward his real question, which was this: Will I be important?

That's an echoing hallway of a question. So I pointed to Mugsy, and I told my son a story he already knew, the story of a bearded baby pup who wandered a graveyard looking for food. Covered in bug bites, gut full of parasites. Someone saw him there, a woman saw him. A woman who cared.

That woman took him home and cleaned him up and fed him and took pictures of him with a ball and a sombrero. She put those pictures on a rescue website. I found those pictures. I texted them to my wife with a photoshopped speech bubble that said "i love u jennifer" in tiny letters, knowing that this was the most reprehensible kind of manipulation. And only because all of those things happened, because that manipulation worked, we brought him home.

"That dog", I said to my son, "lives better than half the people in the world now. Because somebody cared." Then, because everyone loves dad lectures, I pushed on.

I reminded him of Mr. MIchael, his Cubmaster. Mr. Michael got into an argument with a friend on Facebook over Syrian refugees, an argument that led him to get on a plane and fly to Greece. There he met children who had seen their parents beheaded. He raised money to build them a school. Now he's trying to get their camp better sanitation.

People stand on the sidelines and lob lazy criticisms at him for doing this. They want him to stop, but he keeps at it. Because he cares.

That, I said to my son. That is what making a difference means. You pull a puppy out of a culvert. You feed a kid. You touch a life, and you change a life. You change a life, and you hope that that change will be fruitful and multiply. No one will erect a statue of you for this. But many will bear witness to you.

I've tried to tell my children that Important is a pretty coat and Useful is what we reach for when we need to be warm, but I know how well I would have listened to that at their age. Why should they listen to me? I barely do. So I touch their lives, and I hope. Sometimes we parents cling to that.

And then there's that dog. The bug bites are gone, the gut situation mostly rectified. He's gotten comfortable with leaving exuberant chaos in his wake like so many crayon-studded dog flops, as if his own usefulness is to remind us that the current moment is all we have in this world. That the only question worth worrying over is this: What can I do today?

We joke about how lucky that stupid dog is, how well he landed. I've called him Little Arfin' Annie. But I'll tell you a thing: that little dude pulled a third-act Grinch on our respective heart sizes, so he's earned his place. He's a living reminder that there are plenty of others out there, others on four legs and two who haven't had a kind lady happen across whatever cemetery they're foraging in. We can't give them all sombreros, but we can keep our eyes open for opportunities.

We can ask: What can I do today? When we find out, the answer transforms us.

There's a song I can't let my kids hear until they're a bit older. It's full of cussin', which I enjoy. I listen to it at least once a week, and it ends like this:

There is no chosen one
No destiny
No fate
There's no such thing as magic
There is no light at the end of this tunnel
So it's a good thing we brought matches

We got a lot of matches around our place. More than we need. If you need a few, or even just a word, I'll repeat what I told you last year.

We are here.

I want to tell my son

I want to tell my son that the world will let him coast on charm and a reputation for being smart, if he is content to let it do so. I want to tell him that he will despise himself if he does. I want to tell him that ideas are cheap, and everything is born in a tide of shit and amniotic fluid and tears and quivering muscle.

I want to tell him this, but first I need to check my favorites.

I want to tell my daughter

I want to tell my daughter that she can skip the social anxiety and go straight to the Girl Who Gives Zero Fucks that I know. I want to tell her that if she does that, people will lay their coats in her path.

I want to tell her this, but I've only figured out how to do it myself in print.