Wednesday, January 30, 2013

We'd Make Great Pets

The dog squatted down and shit right there on the rug! Right there in front of us, as if on cue. By shear perfection of comedic timing, it was my most memorable moment as a pet owner.

We’d only had Hanna a couple weeks. She was a rescue whippet, twitchy and needy and nervous all the time. But in those first two weeks she’d been so good, so obedient. Then came a Sunday dinner at my parents and we brought Hanna along. I stood in the living room with my aunt explaining Hanna’s brilliance, how she never barked and never had an accident on the rug. And just as I was bragging on her – at that very moment, she (Hanna, not my aunt) squatted down and shit right there on the rug in front of us, looking up with a sorrowful apology in her eyes that would become so familiar in the years ahead.

Hanna, looking worried. Her standard expression.
Hanna only barked a few times in all the years we owned her. She slept 20 of the 24 hours in a day, followed you around like a shadow for 3 hours and 50 minutes of what was left, and in that final 10 minutes when you let her out to do her business, she rocketed around the yard like a bullet on crack.

In all my years as a pet owner, Hanna was our only dog. Ours has been a house with a succession of cats.

Rudy came to me when I was single, left by friends who were moving out west. His original name was Yoko, but when my ex-wife came into my life, she renamed him Rudy. He was a Siamese cat and smart as hell. Loved that cat.

Our first house in Noblesville was the big white Victorian the city tore down for the City Hall parking lot. We were so poor we pretty much turned off the heat at night. To stay warm, Rudy would slip under the covers up by the pillows, then burrow down to our feet. He’d get overheated and burrow back out after awhile. Sometime you’d wake in the night and find him curled around your head on the pillow.

One cold winter night Rudy was burrowing out and got the covers and my ex’s flannel nightgown mixed up, crawling up her gown without noticing. She woke with a frantic cat trapped against her chest, and so she was immediately frantic, unbuttoning the neck so he could get out.

I stayed home from work one day when my son Jack was 4 or 5 years old. During the morning we found Rudy had died where he often slept, curled up under my bed. He’d gone peacefully. I wrapped Rudy in an old blanket, dug a hole behind the garage and buried him, making a grave marker from a landscaping timber, spelling “Rudy” on it with a router. Jack watched all of this with fascination. When his older brother Cal got off the school bus, Jack led him to the grave and told him all about Rudy’s death and burial. Then he asked me if we could dig up Rudy so Cal could see.

Orion was our next cat and he was the baddest motherfucker to ever hunt the 1100 block alley between Maple & Cherry. He was a yellow-orange tabby with stunningly vibrant colors, had the heft of a smallish dog and looked like he’d been lifting weights. He always stayed near me and shared the couch each night when I relaxed with my gin and tonic. He roamed the neighborhood during the day but ran to the back door each night when I called his name.

Orion, being his bad self.
If I found him a block away and he followed me home, I’d ask him questions along the way. “How was your day, Mr. Cat?” “Meow,” he would respond, trotting along beside me. As long as I asked questions, he would meow in response.

And he was forever killing things. On a warm summer night when my daughter Sally was small, she heard a tiny, pathetic squealing in the back yard. She peered from the kitchen windows searching the yard. I went out to investigate and found Orion standing over a dying rabbit he was in the process of killing. I went back in and lied to Sally, “Orion saved us from a rat. He fought it in the back yard and thankfully Orion won.

And though Sally was our animal-lover and took to every creature she ever knew, Orion hated her. Perhaps he kept her at bay so she wouldn’t dress him up in doll clothes. Once as he sat upright on the kitchen bench, about eye-level to Sally, she came close and reached out her hand to him. He swatted hard at her palm and she ran to me calling, “Daddy, Orion just gave me a high-five!” How could I tell her he really wanted to scratch her eyes out? But she learned. Several times when she tried to approach him face to face he reared back with his right and coldcocked her upside the head with an open paw and bared claws. She’d come running to me in tears, stunned that an offer of kindness could result in such needless violence.

So Sally got a snuggable kitten named Nina, and though cute at first, Nina grew into the most disgusting cat I’ve ever known.

Nina was bullied by Orion. This kept her away from the food dish until he was done eating. So when Nina got her chance she gulped food in a desperate rush. Over-filled with food, she would soon vomit. She was on an unforgiving binge and purge cycle, so much so that even when Orion was outside and she could eat in leisure, she’d binge and purge anyway out of sheer force of habit.

But somehow she still managed to become morbidly obese: a waddling, gelatinous, furry ball with legs and a tiny head.

You know your cat is too fat when it can’t lick it’s own ass. Sometimes after she threw-up, she’d lie down and actually try to clean herself down there, perhaps to take the taste of vomit out of her mouth. She’d strain and struggle like a weakling trying to do a sit-up, but just couldn’t reach it.  This is the sort of thing that gets a pet owner like me thinking about a one-way trip to the vet.

But one day after being let out to play in the back yard, she just never came home.

And that of course is the hardest part about having pets: they die.

Orion eventually got sickly thin. Those muscular shoulders went bony. The sheen left his once brilliant coat, and he didn’t hurry in when I called him at bedtime. I got to picking him up in the back yard at night and carrying him inside. But he’d still meow back if I asked him a question. Returning home from a week’s vacation, the friend who was tending Orion said she hadn’t seen him at all the day before we returned. I found him laying on a step halfway up the basement stairs. He was alive, but too weak to go any further. It’s heartbreaking to see an old friend that way.

And that silent dog Hanna – the one that never barked? When her time came for a one-way trip to the vet, my ex-wife held her close while the vet administered the shot. As the drug pumped through her veins Hanna began to bark like she’d never barked before.

Which reveals another truth about these animals we bring into our lives. They know, see and understand things we hardly suspect. And wondering at that mystery is perhaps the heart of the beauty of the relationship we share with them. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


This is an excerpt from a much longer piece I wrote about my grandparents for the 2012 edition of the Polk Street Review. To read the full version, stop by The Wild bookstore on the courthouse square in Noblesville. The book is filled with short stories, poetry, photography and essays from Noblesville folks.

My grandparents, Alvie and Marguerite lived in Bluffton, the seat of Wells County, just south of Ft. Wayne. Their home was a three-bedroom ranch on Stodgill Road among a typical strip of ranch houses, the kind that sprung up on the edges of Midwestern towns after World War II, the kind with deep front lawns and no sidewalks. They’d had it built themselves. They paid for everything upfront, with Alvie meeting contractors and lumber company deliverymen, paying them on the spot with cash – money carefully saved from his career as a postal worker.

Their home had a lush lawn that Alvie tended with the professional determination of a golf course greens keeper. During childhood visits I often sat on his riding mower in the garage, pretending to drive or puzzling over the heavy roller the mower pulled around the yard to make the lawn as smooth as a floor laid with deep shag carpet.

One morning when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, Alvie took me to the bowling alley where his buddies met for coffee and a few frames. While he was in the restroom his retired friends enlisted me in a practical joke. They prepped me with the answer to a question. When Alvie returned, one of them asked, “Kurt, are you a Republican or a Democrat?” I responded as prompted, “Democrat.” I still recall the hoots of laughter and the scowl on Alvie’s face.

It was prophetic. I am a Democrat to this day.

My father told me once Alvie disliked FDR for the New Deal, for growing government and making people dependent upon it. When I pondered that as a young man, I figured it must have been easier to cast such judgments when you had a safe, government, Post Office job during the great depression.

I recall Alvie’s disapproval of comic books and wasting time and his narrowed eye and menacing growl when I said once I didn’t like the food served at dinner. I ate it.

He was raised in a German Apostolic farm family, the third youngest of fourteen children. Their rural community spoke a Swiss-German brogue. At church, men sat on one side of the aisle and women on the other. Once as a child he was so frustrated with having nothing of his own and no way to have fun, he stole a chicken from his own parents’ farm, sold it to a huckster wagon and bought something for himself alone. Alvie left school at sixteen as all the kids in his family did, but after a year away, convinced his parents to let him go back. He graduated high school in 1924, left the farm and moved to town, got a job at a gas station, bought a motorcycle, left the Apostolic church and became a Methodist.

As a child I tried to imagine him on a motorcycle, but the portly 60-something-year-old man with wire-framed glasses that I knew didn’t seem much like the motorcycle type. More like the type to disapprove of them.

But he wasn’t always a sour puss. There was ice cream after dinner at his urging. On occasions he’d rope a sheet of plywood to the back of the lawn tractor and pull us kids around the yard. At a Meyer family reunion in Bluffton he caught me reaching for a third Orange Crush from a galvanized feed trough filled with ice and bobbing soda pop bottles. He nodded and winked, “Aw, go ahead. Who’s counting?” Fishing with him in the tall grass along the Wabash at the end of Stogdill Road, I threw a rock in the water, lost my balance and fell in, or as Alvie put it, “You forgot to let go of the rock.”

He took me home, put me in the bathtub, and as he scrubbed the river mud from my hair made me promise not to tell Marguerite what had happened. “She might not let us fish anymore,” he worried.

When my father visited his parents on Stogdill Road in the years after he graduated college, sometimes Alvie would offer to show him something in the garage. Once there, Alvie pulled a bottle of Manischewitz wine from a workbench hiding place and they passed it back and forth.

For some-40 years Alvie had doggedly worked and methodically saved for retirement, but cruel- ly, by the time retirement arrived the tremors of Parkinson’s arrived with it. Still, he and Mar- guerite took a train trip across Mexico. It was the first of what they hoped would be many trips. With a gentle palsy in his hands and mild shuffle to his gait, he was an easy target. A pickpocket stole his wallet. Later, not feeling well and needing a doctor, they couldn’t find one. That helplessness scared Alvie out of traveling again, though he’d saved his whole life to do it.

He would later tell my father, “I should have spent more of my money along the way and enjoyed life, instead of saving it all for retirement.”

Alvie corresponded with doctors near Jacksonville, Florida where groundbreaking work was being done on Parkinson’s. He had two surgeries in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was sedated, but kept awake as doctors drilled a hole in his skull. They put a probe in his brain and moved it about, looking to touch a place that would still the tremors in his hands. It didn’t work.

In relentless steps the Parkinson’s stole his quality of life, the ability to function independently and perhaps even his will to live. As his condition worsened, he and Marguerite often took slow, plodding walks near the Stogdill Road house. She would steady and support him with her arm wrapped tightly around his. On one such walk he told her, “I wish I had two tickets to heaven.” Marguerite asked, “Why two?” He replied, “Because I don’t want to go alone.”

But he did go alone.

Parkinson’s drove Alvie into near silence and a wheelchair. The last time he spoke to me I was eleven years old. He was lying flat on his back on my parents’ bed where he’d been laid to nap during a holiday gathering. This was a time when he seldom spoke, and when he tried, I usually couldn’t understand him. But as I covered him with a blanket, he said in perfectly clear diction, “You’re a good boy, Kurt.”

I had so often recoiled at his repulsive infirmities, I felt unworthy of the compliment.

With his muscles so weak he sometimes choked on food. Marguerite would force her fingers into his mouth to clear his windpipe. Early one morning as she fed him, he began to choke, but this time clenched his teeth so she couldn’t get her fingers into his mouth.

And that’s how Alvie died; he choked to death in a wheelchair while Marguerite tried to save him.
I had never seen my father cry. But at Alvie’s funeral in the Bluffton Methodist Church, when the minister got to the part that reads, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” I heard a chilling wail of sorrow rise up and fill the sanctuary. It was my father. Seeing my dad cry, made me cry. But even though I was a young boy I understood I wasn’t crying for Alvie, because I didn’t fully understand what death meant. I was crying for my father.

My dad told me later, “Funerals are not for the dead. They’re for the living.”

Alvie in the 1920s.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reflecting Light

Leaving a sales training class at my company’s corporate offices I passed the open doorway to a friend’s office and decided to duck in and check on her. I wound my way through a maze of cubicles and found her on the phone. Radiant sunshine from a brilliant blue December sky washed through a window and into her workspace. She turned and smiled at me. Light reflected all around, sparkling off her necklace and earrings.

Heather hung up the phone.

When we speak we are usually comparing notes, so when I asked, “How’s it going?” she immediately described how things were going now that she moved back in with her husband. I was happy for her. She’s been seeking resolution in her marriage for a long time, and this felt like a step closer. No uncertainty reflected from her face. Only peace.

This comparing of notes began a year and a half ago on a summer evening. Both working late, we found ourselves on computers side by side in the office workroom. When the chitchat started we were acquaintances, but by conversation’s end we’d both shed a few tears at relating that we were separated from our spouses. Both of us were the ones who pulled the trigger, the ones who took action to confront marital unhappiness.

During two years of separation and impending divorce, I kept an ear open for others in this situation and learned so much comparing notes with them. Our experiences are so similar.

The first in a troubled marriage to reach the end of their rope suffers a unique kind of pain, a pain so black it radiates no colors, and so no one can seem to see it. They are often treated by in-laws as if they died, friends seldom call to offer support, their children seldom author loving, encouraging notes and texts, friends who don’t understand are quick with biting comments. Some are trying to punish them for upsetting their ordered world, but most often, it’s simply because it appears the one who left went to get something else, and so now must be happy.

From comparing notes, I know that’s almost never true. The pain it took to get to the end of that rope was kept hidden amid private hopes it would all work out. And when they reveal their own pain, transmitting pain to a spouse and often children, they get isolated, ignored and shunned when they need support the most. And that accumulated pain remains invisible to those around them. Only the pain caused to others by falling from the end of the rope is sympathized with.

Heather and I began having an occasional lunch and from time to time sent each other encouraging text messages. Without people like her who understood what I was going through, I wonder where my mental health would be right now.

At a big, drunken karaoke party this past summer Heather and I sang a duet together; “You’re The One That I Want,” from Grease. As we skipped off the stage I caught a glimpse of her estranged husband in the crowd, standing alone, jealous and hurting. In the months after, I sought him out wherever I found him – grocery store, local theater, downtown bar, and spoke to him so he could see I wasn’t a threat.

I have compared notes with so many people in the past two years.

At a bar a year ago, a friend approached me and nodded toward the corner, “See my friend Jenna over there? She’s leaving her husband and going through a tough time. I left that bar stool next to her empty for you. You’re in the thick of the same thing and you’re a Realtor. Maybe you can help her find a place to live and offer some words of comfort in the process.”

I did, and Jenna and I became good friends. The painful road I watched her walk took my breath away time and time again. She remains one of the most amazingly resilient people I know.

As a child, I saw a dog get hit by a car. It ran across our lawn violently thrashing about in agony. I often thought of that as I watched Jenna's husband appear at the bar that spring, fresh from the concussion of loss, causing one ugly scene after another, willfully thrashing about, reflecting misery off the fractured shards of his broken heart onto her . . . and me.

Back at Heather’s cubicle, she nodded gratefully toward an email open on the glowing screen. The brilliant sunlight reflected off tears welling-up in her eyes as she smiled. She sighs and takes a deep, ragged breath. “When we separated, my mother-in-law just stopped talking to me.” She quiets to a whisper, so overcome by emotion it’s all she can muster. “She had been one of my best friends ever. It was so hard to be shunned that way. But my husband recently asked her to communicate with me and she has, emailing me to ask about my new job.”

How typical Heather’s separation story is. Family members quickly circle the wagons around their child or sibling. And in doing so, without realizing, they’re withdrawing support from the very relationship they want to survive. This plants new resentments, adding to the conflict. When the relationship has fewer supporters, it’s less likely to survive.

But we’re the “perpetrators.” You’re not supposed to be on our side. You’re supposed to side with the “victim.” A life’s consumption of storybook, TV and film plot lines hardwires us to reflexively identify the perpetrators and victims, the antagonists and protagonists. That way we know who to side with. Maybe that’s why we perpetrators seek each other and find common threads of comforting light, emitted through shared circumstances.

“Misery loves company?” Maybe. It also heals in the iridescent sparkle of empathy.

In my years teaching photography, I always began by explaining to students that we don’t really see the objects around us. Instead our eyes perceive light reflecting off of them. If an object reflects all colors, we perceive white. If it absorbs all colors, we perceive black. And objects that reflect varying amounts of light we can perceive with all the colors of the rainbow.

We are all like that in life, reflecting peace, love, sadness, anger, loss. And like light, some of what we emit is absorbed by those around us and some bounces off others and reflects back to us. Sometimes we’re saddened by what doesn’t bounce back - what we loose in the blackness of others or what people can’t see in the blackness in us. And sometimes we don’t’ recognize the wavelengths we’re putting out and the colors that reflect back to us are painful to acknowledge.

Pragmatists call it, “just deserts.” Buddhists call it “karma.” Calvinists call it, “God’s will.”  Whatever you call it, it can’t be denied. We are all reflecting light. This reality screams at you when you reach the end of your marital rope.

My divorce was final on December 14th, but over Christmas I scanned through Facebook status updates and see several posts from Heather about the happy, healing Christmas she’s having back in her home with her husband and children. I can’t help but smile for her.

For a musical take on the subject, give Sam Phillips a listen:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Christmas With The Kenyans

“What would an African family especially appreciate?” I asked my friend Bryan. He smiled and led me through his liquor store to a bottle of Amarula, a chocolate-colored creamy liqueur he tells me is a bit like Bailey’s, made from the South African amarula fruit. There is the image of an elephant on the label and below that, a cluster of three amarulas. They look like lemons. 

Emily's house is in a modest subdivision just off State Road 37. It’s where she lives with her brother Allan. Once through the door I hand Emily the Amarula and am met by the smells of exotic foods and the sound of African pop music playing from a TV sound system. I knew there was a family gathering of sorts, but am astonished to realize I’ve been invited to her family’s Christmas gathering.

Emily grew up in Kenya, moved to Botswana when she was 14, lived in South Africa as well and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 16 after her parents won a Green Card Lottery. She’s an amazingly creative artist and small business owner. I met her at a monthly dinner circle in my neighborhood and she contributed a children’s story to a little literary journal I cofounded with a friend. She is slender and lovely, with high cheekbones, a broad, generous smile that laughs easily, signature gold and black eyeglasses and an ever-changing assortment of hairstyles. She’s the kind of friend so endearing that when she asks you to stop by and meet her family, you drop what you’re doing and go.

The kitchen is filled with activity and I’m introduced to Emily’s “mum,” Margaret. She’s grilling chapati flatbread in a skillet and extends her free, flour-covered hand to me. I meet to a broad assortment of Emily’s family, including her sister, Irene and brother, Allan.

There is stew in a crockpot, bowls of roasted meat, rice, and cooked cabbage on the kitchen island.

As I’m introduced to Emily’s father, George, he’s sitting on the couch syncing his iPhone and computer and ignoring a college football game projected from a large flat-panel TV. We hit it off right away. We talked about London in the 1980s, a decade when we both studied there, and about my work and his while we drink bottles of Rolling Rock.

George is an I.T. project manager for Wal-Mart in Bentonville Arkansas. He describes the details of right-on-time deliveries and the way his computer systems keep stores stocked but not overstocked.

I love conversations about philosophy, politics, and religion with people from backgrounds foreign to mine. We talk at length about the damage centuries of missionaries did to African culture. George explained how the transition worked in Kenya when blacks took over governing from the white minority. Before long we’re pleasantly debating the reconciliation process that succeeded in South Africa and failed tragically in Zimbabwe. I’m kind-of amazed at how much of that history I remember from my 3+ decades as a news junkie.

Family members continue to arrive and the house is filling with conversations, most in English but some melt from time to time into other languages I cannot place.

Emily, Irene, and their friend Mirri are gathered in the kitchen, laughing like schoolgirls, staring into an iPhone propped on the counter. I peer over their shoulders and am introduced to the African pop star, Meiway (prounced “may-way”). One of his music videos plays on the tiny screen. I ask them what he sings about and the girls burst into laughter. Irene says, “He sings about how he likes the shape of a woman,” and waves her hands in the air, drawing the outline of a cello.

(follow this link to listen to Meiway)

Emily pours me a glass of Amarula. It does taste like Baileys, but with carmel overtones. She tells me, “One day when I was living in South Africa, the teacher came into class and announced something in Setswana. My classmates began singing happily and drumming their desks. That is not my language so I didn’t understand the announcement. A friend explained that the elephants in the forests nearby had been eating the overripe and fermenting amarula fruit and essentially, getting drunk. We were sent home for our protection. My friend said as we left, ‘Do you want to get stepped on by a drunk elephant?’”

“I got sent home for heavy snow,” I laugh, “you got sent home for drunken elephants.”

Small children – all boys, run through the rooms playing and yelling and being scolded by parents. I note with interest that any adult disciplines any child, no matter whose child it is. I mention this to a parent and she smiles and nods knowingly, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Irene shows me the clothing she has been making and selling in the shop she and Emily opened in downtown Noblesville, Love’s Hangover; skirt wraps in Indian-inspired fabrics and colorful t-shirt with impressionistic images of the African continent sewn on them. (photo at left: me & Emily)

The food is served and I get my first taste of goat, in the goat stew and in roasted goat. It’s marvelous. There is Pilau (rice), Kachumbari salad, roasted chicken, and the chapatis bread. During dinner George and I talk about his family. He is a pro-business, pro-education man and that inspiration shows on his children. His son, Emily’s brother Dennis is a former I.T. specialist. “I told my son,” George says, “being an I.T. worker is like being a bus driver. Someone tells you where to drive and you drive there. But wouldn’t you rather be the man who hires the bus driver, tells him where to go, how many busses to buy, secures the gasoline?”

Dennis is no longer an I.T. worker. He went back to school and got his masters. He’s a financial analyst now.

This African family does not generally give Christmas gifts, but with sympathy for a new generation being raised in America with American customs, they decided on a simple gift exchange. They plotted everyone’s birth date on a calendar and then each person gives a gift to the person with the next birth date.

I’m feeling like an interloper, so as they begin their exchange I back quietly into the kitchen and watch the gift giving from the stove, sipping my Amarula. But soon Emily’s soft-spoken, lanky brother Allan appears before me with a bundle wrapped in the multi-colored Sunday newspaper comics. “This is for you,” he says. “We wanted you to have something.” Surprised, I gratefully unwrap the paper to reveal two hand-carved faces of an African man and woman.

My eyes follow the faces of this beautiful, welcoming family I’ve met today and peacefully acknowledge that of some 20 people here, I’m the only white person, and of the 15 or so adults, I’m one of only two born in America. There has never been a time in my life in this country when I’ve been in such a drastic racial and national-origin minority. And I’m in a typical house in a typical subdivision in Noblesville.  

And I love that it feels completely normal and that I feel so welcome. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

When We Hold Children

After a 6 month break, the Hoosier Contrarian is back at it. 

Chatting with a friend recently about child rearing, she mentioned the Harlow monkey studies from the 1960s. Baby monkeys were isolated from their mothers at birth and placed with two fake surrogate mothers, one made of wire that dispensed milk, and another snuggly doll made of soft cloth that gave no milk. Most monkeys spent their time with the soft mother, preferring comfort to food.

Snuggling is powerful, and where children are concerned, I think it's a 2-way street.

When we hold children we tell ourselves that we do it for them, but sometimes, and maybe more than we ever realize, we do it for ourselves. The nurturing comforts the parent, too.

My first child was colicky on a Biblical scale, going hours each evening for weeks wailing as if in agony. Often when he’d screamed himself to sleep, I held him with a desperation that is hard to describe - part exhaustion, part relief, but also comfort. Comfort from the fear that I wasn’t cut out to parent to a child with such unknowable needs, comfort in knowing we’d survived another day, and yes, nurturing comfort simply in having that sleeping baby laid across my chest.

Sometimes for the sake of mental health I needed to put that sleeping baby down, make myself a stiff drink, and just sit in darkened silence. But more often then not I held him close for a while as he slept. Not just for him, but for me, too.

There’s something primal about the feeling of that little heart beating against yours. Maybe it’s as simple as feeling, “I’ve been given this sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying job to do as a parent and at least in this moment everything is okay.”

But of course it’s not just that. It’s something more.

In the same conversation, my friend told me about a survey of single moms that showed they tend to sleep in the same bed with their children at a far, far higher rate than parents in families with both a mother and father. And not just small children, but those aged 5-10 years old. That simple fact raises fascinating questions. I think it’s a complicated subject, but it's fair to say that to some degree these moms are doing it for themselves. They’re lonely and doing a difficult job that can be overwhelming even with help from a spouse. With so much on your shoulders alone, with no one else having your back, knowing your little charge is close at hand brings peace of mind. But I think it's also about the adult's need for nurturing human contact. To be loved in return.

We all need affection and comfort, no matter what our age, and when it comes from a child it comes with innocent simplicity and no ulterior motives.

When my youngest, Sally was a tot I worked a grueling schedule that often consumed my patience and cluttered my headspace. Sometimes when I came home from work I gathered her up in my arms, put music on the stereo and danced in the living room with that little girl's arm wrapped around my neck. I suspect I got way more from it than she did.

And because of that hectic schedule, I wasn’t always as patient as I might have been. I raised three children and cannot count the times a child ran to be in my arms because they were stung by a bee, or fell off their bike, or was mistreated by a friend. They came to me for comfort, but sometimes I dispensed hugs like mundane doses of aspirin, “Yeah, yeah, I know you’re hurt and I’m sorry, now give me a hug and go play, I’ve got work to do.”

So yeah, it’s not all comfort and joy. I’ve been reminded of all of this as new children have appeared in my life.

I went camping with my friend Myra and her 4-year-old son, Paul this past summer. On the first night in a tent in the North Carolina mountains I fell asleep with Paul’s raspy breath humming between his mother and me. I awoke in the middle of the night to find him sleeping sideways, his head resting on Myra’s rear like a pillow and his feet rested on my backside like he was kicked back in a Lazy Boy.

I sat up to consider this sorry arrangement and his eyes suddenly opened. I said, “Dude, this ain’t gonna work,” gripped him under one arm, and gently straightened him out against his sleeping mom. He quickly drifted off to that mysterious sleep of childhood, the drug-like sleep most adults can only recapture with drugs.

The next day we biked around Asheville on a perfect sunny Saturday and pretty much wore ourselves out exploring the city and hauling Paul behind us in a 2-wheeled carrier. On a late afternoon tour of the city in an open-air trolley, Paul fell asleep on Myra’s lap. Coming down a hill near the entrance to the Biltmore she rested her head on the wooden windowsill, her hand cradling her sleeping son’s head. I sensed in that moment it wasn’t just him recharging his batteries, she too was finding a sliver of peace at the end of a stressful day spent tending a busy child in an unfamiliar city. The 4-year-old dervish was at rest and his mother was absorbing peace and comfort from it happening against her chest as the sites of the mountain town flew by.

Often now when I visit their house for dinner, I bring a pile of children’s books to read to Paul. In truth I brought the books to help his mother, so I could distract Paul when she’s stressed and cooking, but eventually found he and I enjoy the time spent snuggled together on the couch reading. Again, I’m not sure who gets more out of it, him or me.

On a Saturday a couple weeks before Christmas I kept Paul and his 6-year-old cousin Luella while Myra and her sister worked. I set up a little workshop in the garage and we built 2 birdhouses as Christmas gifts for them to give their moms. My oldest, Cal, that former colicky baby, now 24, helped out.

Later, I settled them in front of the movie Ponyo and I tried to nap on the couch. As I started to fade, Luella appeared beside me and asked, “Is it okay if I lay down on top of you?” “Sure,” I lied. She climbed up and stretched out, lounging on me like I was a couch cushion, and went on watching the movie. I tried, pointlessly to drift back to sleep with a squirmy child lying on top of me. Eventually Luella poked my ribs with a finger. “Hey,” she said, “you’re really snuggly.”

“I get that a lot.” I grumbled back.

My own girl, Sally had just turned 18. Been a long time since that little girl and I held each other, dancing. It was a good reminder to open my eyes, stay awake and enjoy the movie with Luella and Paul. When a child wants to hold you close, you really ought to have a pretty damn good reason not to go along.

True, when we hold children, we’re sometimes not doing it for them, but for ourselves. And that’s perfectly normal, and perfectly right.