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Posts Tagged ‘Parenthood’

When my family was much smaller and younger, we lived in a small Pacific Northwest logging community called Quilcene.  Now, one might read and so pronounce that name in a plain straightforward fashion like “kwil – seen.”  However, like almost all dialects of the English-speakers language, there are hidden sounds only the locals know about.  This is a sure fire way to identify outsiders (i.e. “people from not around here”).

Small Blue Boat Reflection in Port Townsend Harbor

Small Blue Boat Reflection

The local populace pronounces it “kwila-seen.”  It is the shibboleth (or is that sibboleth?) of the local dialect.   Fortunately, no one is killed over such a goof.  I believe the sound is correct and reflects the American Indian languages of the area (e.g. the Quilayutes).  It, after all, also being the name of the local tribe that used to inhabit the area.  (The Quil-a-cenes were later absorbed into surrounding tribes, most notably to the south on the Hood Canal in the Skokomish tribe.)  Unfortunately, some early English speaker’s attempt to Anglicize the word missed the short “a” and so we are stuck with Quilcene, which is much better than what the original American-European settlers of the area wanted to call it:  South Burlap.

Into this small community, my family settled.  My oldest son, Gareth, was a new-born.  A couple of years later, Cara, our oldest daughter was born at home.  Four years after, our youngest daughter, Julian, was born at home there too.  The locals quickly educated us on the correct pronunciation of the word.  This, along with learning that everybody was related to everybody else, was one of the most important lessons to learn in this small community.

Almost everyone in this community earned their living from the logging industry.  Those that didn’t were employed in some seafood related industry.  Oyster farms still do a thriving business there to this day.  Logging, however, will probably never be what it once was 25 and more years ago.  Our neighbor Bob was one of those hard-working loggers.

Bob was known for delivering firewood for many years around the Quilcene, Brinnon, Dabob areas.  He made a living doing the hard work of pulling out old trees, cutting them, splitting the cuts, and delivering it.  Most people relied upon wood heat to get through the cold, damp winters of Washington State.  “Bob the Woodman” was their main source for good dry wood.  Success at that allowed him to branch out into selective logging and clearing lots for people building homes along the curves of the Quilcene and Dabob bays.

Bob was a good neighbor.  Our properties joined one another on seven acres of wooded property.  Red Cedars and Douglas Fir inhabited most of the property.  This made a perfect play ground for my oldest two kids.  Of course, as conscientious parents, we were always careful to keep our eyes upon our kids.  Our oldest son had a habit of running off and disappearing from our presence.  This made us a little more paranoid than normal parents, if there are such things.

Seagull Reflection

Seagull Reflection

Despite our best vigilance, however, our son had a habit of wandering off.  This led to his getting into all sorts of mischief even before the age of five.  There was the time he showed up two blocks away across Highway 101 in his diaper standing in front of the local gas station.  There were the two separate occasions he discovered bald-faced hornets nests.  On the first occasion, he poked it with a stick.  He and his sister got stung.  On the second occasion, having learned from the first one not to poke it with sticks, he threw rocks at the nest.  He and his sister got stung.

As you can imagine, his penchant for exploration and getting himself into trouble only expanded as he grew older.  This explains his mother’s premature grey, his fathers premature baldness, and the slight twitch in the corner of both our right eyes.  Nature or nurture, whatever the cause, gets started awful early.  Too early in my book.  I think kids should be born educated and ready for the work force.  It would eliminate a lot of social problems.  Alas, but I’m not the Creator.  Good thing too, probably.  Giving birth to college kids would be incredibly painful for mothers.  And, how would you explain nursing?  “Come here, sweetheart!  It’s time for your lunch.”  “Aw, mom!  You’re embarrassing me.”

One of the advantages of raising your kids in a rural setting is that they learn so much by just being outdoors.  It truly is an amazing experience and opportunity.  I feel sorry for kids who grow up in the city and don’t know their way around a good wooded patch of ground.  My kids spent countless hours examining nature.  They learned a lot.

One time, my wife caught our oldest son, at about three years of age, exploring the biosphere of the upper canopy of the trees about 30 feet off the ground in his rubber boots.  He learned that, if he didn’t break his neck carefully descending the tree, his mother would kill him.  Another time, I taught my son about heat transference through convection with a steel burn barrel by telling him, “Don’t touch the barrel, it’s really hot”.  Then, he immediately tested my hypothesis by touching the barrel and getting a nasty blister on his hand.  Then, there was the time I took him to explore the mud flats of Quilcene Bay at low tide.  We were having the time of our lives seeing all kinds of tidal land creatures: hermit crabs, worms, clams, snails, and plant life.  About two-hundred yards from shore I suddenly realized he was barefoot.

“What happened to your boots?” I demanded to know.

“There way back there,” he pointed.

“Where?”

“Back there,” he kept pointing.

“How did they come off?”

“The mud took them off.”

I picked him up.  He still had his socks on but now they were as black as the mud of the bay and hung thick and wet about a foot down from his feet.  I held him out away from me as his socks swayed in the wind.

“Come on,” I said.  “Let’s go get your boots.  I think we’re done for the day.”

I reached down and pulled off his socks and then tucked him under my arm, carrying him like a sack of potatoes.  The extra weight made the mud pull on my boots too.  This was as much a father’s education as a son’s.

I looked down at him.  He was watching the ground pass underneath us.  “Did you have fun?” I queried.

“Yes,” he replied.  “I like the worms the best.”  He turned his head toward me and smiled.

“Of course,” I said and smiled back.

We found his boots stuck in stride just as he had left them.  The thought to stop and retrieve them or to put them back on again never seemed to occur to him.  I suppose he was too fascinated with the bugs and creatures and keeping up with his dad.

The problem with growing up in a rural setting is that property boundaries can sometimes be fuzzy.  Locals know one another and cross each others property almost at will.  Those really familiar with each other don’t even bother knocking on one another’s door.  They just let themselves in and yell, “Hello!?”  That’s country living for you.

This was difficult for my kids to learn also.  Our neighbor Bob had all kinds of fun equipment for a young boy to play on.  Gareth particularly liked the heavy equipment that would appear from time to time on Bob’s property.  He was always amazed at their size and imagined in his little mind what they could do.  One of his favorite pieces of Bob’s equipment was a skidder.  This is used by loggers to move logs around.  However, it doesn’t move anything when it’s batteries are dead because a 4 or 5 year-old boy was playing on it and pushing buttons.  It takes a long time to charge a skidder’s batteries back up.  Plus, it is not something Bob appreciated discovering when heading for the woods at 4 or 5 in the morning.

Broken Sand Dollar

Broken Sand Dollar

Bob had incredible patience with our son. I only heard him yell across our properties a few times, “Gareth!!”  By then, Gareth was almost always already home after we discovered that he had wandered off yet once again.  This let us know that our son had probably gotten into something.

As a logger, Bob had access to small seedling trees that were used to replant clear-cut areas.  Bob had a stretch of property on the opposite away from us that he decided to replant.  Good naturedly, Bob invited Gareth along to show him how trees were planted.  If they are not planted properly, they will die and the tree and one’s labor will be lost.  One must have a proper depth to the hole to make sure and get the full root system in the ground.  You don’t want any exposed root area.  Then, one covers up the roots.  However, the tap root needs to be as straight as possible, so a short, small tug is given on the tree when it is buried to help ensure this.

When investing in the life of the child, I believe it is important to give them, as much as is reasonable possible, exposure to many different things.  Who knows what will “take” in their little hearts and minds that causes them to decide to become a mechanic, doctor, nurse, plumber, lawyer, carpenter, or even forester.  Who knows the potential within the heart and mind of a child?

At the same time, who truly knows what is going on in those spaces?  When Bob returned from the woods the next day, he discovered that my son had pulled out all 100+ trees that he had planted with him.  Did they need to be recounted?  Did they need an “extra pull” to make sure they were straight?  Did they simply need to be removed because their place only appeared to be temporary?  We will never know, I suppose.  That’s a lesson we’ll never learn.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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The Guilted Parent

Life offers us very few guarantees. We would like to thing, for instance, that all our efforts at our career would guarantee us success and wealth.  Or, that the time we invest in spiritual pursuits would insure us against troubles and pain in this life.  Or, that the investments we put into the lives of our children would promise us perfect kids who become perfect adults and in return raise perfect grand kids.  But there are no guarantees.

The problem lies in our constant search for those guarantees. We want a secret formula: put this into your life or your kids and this will be the result.  We want magic talismans: quote this Bible verse, pray this prayer, do these spiritual things and this will be what you see.  So, we run from book to book, conference to conference, in an effort to find the magic bullet that will kill our fears about the future.  While self-education and awareness is wonderful, there is no formula, talisman or bullet that will guarantee us against failure and disappointment.

No where is this more evident than in the frantic efforts of many Christian parents. Believing that a child enters the world tabula rasa (with a clean slate) upon which the parent can determine the outcome of a child, these parents go through all sorts of spiritual and mental contortions to do so.  The problem arises when a child does not “turn out” as expected.  This places a considerable amount of guilt upon the parent (and sometimes the child as well).  The rest of the Christian community looks upon the wayward or prodigal child and blames the parent for doing something wrong or not doing something right.  There is not a lot of grace or mercy available for parent and child.

It is faulty think that says the parent can always produce the child. It is a lie that guilts a parenting into believing that good “christian” parenting will produce godly children.   There are instances that we are all aware of where even under the best parenting and spiritual guidance a child has self-determined to go his or her own way completely contrary to how they were raised.  At the same time, there are plenty of instances where a child has come through and come out of a background that is filled with all kinds of social and spiritual problems and obstacles to be a success materially and spiritually.  This defies the psychological determinism that plagues so much of our Christian philosophy and theology about parenting and families.

It is the lie of psychological – or spiritual, in this case – determinism that has produced all the Christian formulas and programs available today. They each offer their own guarantees to raising successful kids as if child-rearing and child-training were a trouble-free, risk free endeavor.  In a B.F. Skinner-like approach, a Christian parent can produce godly children as if they were planting a garden or training a family pet.  One only needs to throw in a few well-placed Bible verses.

Thus, Christendom has produced the guilted parent; an impossible weight of legalism towards the parent-child relationship. It is as if the Bible was a parenting manual filled with formulas and spiritual laws that, if carefully followed just right, would produce guaranteed outcomes.  Thus, if the child did not turn out “right,” then it can only mean that the parent screwed up somewhere and did not follow exactly the prescribed formula or spiritual law.  The guilted parent syndrome is not helped by the “testimonies” of successful and winning parents who have raised obedient, respectful, compliant children who live faithful Christian lives with no missteps or disappointments.

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I have known parents who have carefully read and faithfully followed all the advice of Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Yet, despite all their frantic and careful studies, they had a child(ren) who seemed determined to live a life completely opposite of their parents’ values and lifestyle.  I have other friends who systematically followed all of the rules from Growing Families International and their Growing Kids God’s Way curriculum with seeming success, until one of their children did not seem to respond to their carefully crafted efforts.  Both of these parents were at a loss and suffered under a load of guilt and shame for the outcome of their kids.

It is interesting to note that even in Scripture, some of the most successful people of God were followed by ungodly children. At the same time, some of the most wicked characters in the Bible produced righteous children who did incredible things for God.  Finally, if one were to measure God’s success as a successful heavenly Father based upon the actions and activities of all of his children, by the measurement of the material commonly marketed to Christian parents today, he would be a failure!

This has been our experience within my family. My wife, Kelly, and I are well-educated (both with Masters Degrees).  We have read the books, watched the videos and listened to the speakers.  Despite having our home full of books and constantly reading to our children, we have two children out of our four who had a very hard time learning to read and so don’t like to read.  Imagine this from a child who has a father with a personal library that numbers over 3,000 volumes.  Doesn’t make sense according to the formula we were given about helping our children become “readers.”

We also have always been involved in church, spiritual pursuits and openly talked about spiritual things with our children. We read the Bible, prayed around the dinner table, regularly included prayer for missionaries and surrounded our lives with very spiritual people.  We have not done this perfectly, but we have done it to the best of our capability and knowledge we had at the time.  Nevertheless, we have one child who has chosen to live a lifestyle with a set of values that are completely contrary to how he was raised.  Again, this doesn’t make any sense according to what we have been told all these years.

As with so much of our modern Christianity, and much of humankind’s approach to God in general, we have reduced life with God to a formula rather than faith. Like the legalistic religious rulers of Jesus’ day, we have made our own set of laws about parenting that are too heavy for many to bear.  We leave those who are not able to perform according to these rule and regulations outside “the ark of safety” to drown in their guilt and shame.  But Jesus came to introduce a different way.

Living according to these “Christian parenting laws” only proves our failure. The apostle Paul reminds us that “the Law brings death” – and that can apply to just about any spiritual law or legalistic religious system.  Only faith in what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection can bring life to parents who have children who are spiritually and morally wayward.

  • It is a faith that believes that his grace is sufficient for all our sin and their sin.
  • It is a faith to believe that the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ is still able to work in their lives and return them to the heavenly Father’s household of faith.
  • It is faith that believes that God graceful and merciful intervention can make up for all of my – or anyone’s – parental mistakes and short-comings.
  • It is faith that believes that the spiritual seeds that were planted at one time in a child’s heart will one day mature into a harvest of righteousness despite what fruit or weeds might be apparent there now.
  • It is faith that believes that God’s love as heavenly Father is greater and more abundant than my earthly parental love.
  • It is faith that believes that God accepts me even as a mistake-ridden and faulty parent to my children.
  • It is faith that believes that just as God’s unconditional love accepts and embraces me; it will also accept and embrace my child no matter where they may be on their own spiritual journey.
  • It is faith that believes that the same God who is our righteous and holy judge is also our merciful and loving counselor.

It is time to set the guilted parent free. It is time to replace formulas with faith.  It is time to reject psychological and spiritual determinism with a trust in God’s power to do what we ourselves cannot guarantee; which is children who worship and serve him.  Let the guilted parent be set free.

These thoughts came about as I finished reading “The Myth of the Perfect Parent” by Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today (January 2010, Vol. 54, No. 1).  There is a follow-up interview with Donald Ratcliff by Katelyn Beaty that the reader may want to see.  Some of the terminology and ideas that are in my Blog came from Leslie Fields article.  Follow the link to see the complete article.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Truck Stop Jesus

One would have expected a different plan to introduce an important person; even if that person was a baby.  Historically, after all, royal births were always accompanied by fanfare and celebration.  Every important dignitary in the world is notified and invited to the event.  When the savior of the world arrived little more than 2,000 years ago, maybe someone made a mistake and got the address wrong.  Not only that, but they forgot to get reservations.  The young couple was left out in the cold to give birth to their child among animals and all that accompanies animals posted in a barn.  These would not be the first sights and sounds that I would have wanted any of my children to have as their first experience in this world.  Jesus’ birth was so radically different than the antiseptic world we live in today.  It leaves the modern individual amazed he survived his first year.

The irony and mystery of Jesus’ birth is that it was planned ahead of time to take place just the way it unfolded.  Prophets hundreds of years before had already laid out how this baby boy was going to come into the world.  The details they left for others to figure out, who were some of the wisest people on earth by the way, did not include royal privilege, birth in a capital city or any of the other things that would normally accompany the birth of someone important.  There was no golden spoon privilege for this messianic figure.

Imagine a modern day set of new parents caught far away from any hospital, family or friends when the expectant baby decides to come into the world.  Not only that, but now the birthing plan, carefully prepared hospital bag for mother and baby and new born baby clothes are all forgotten.  The fact of the matter is that even for 1st century Joseph and Mary the conditions of the birth of their child were far less than desirable.  Any parent of any socio-economic class at any time in history would have hoped for better.

Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.  Bethlehem, the city of ancient king David’s origin, was not an important city on the world map 2,000 years ago.  It still is not in today’s political or economic world.  It was more like a modern day truck stop on the way to a major city – Jerusalem.  Today it is a walled-up small city that survives on the arrival of tourists who come to ogle the supposed site of Jesus’ birth.  It is a battle-scarred town divided by deep religious factions that only seems to know peace once a year.  In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was not prominent.  Its history was more storied than its present.

Bethlehem was a place that served the more impressive city of Jerusalem to the north.  Its trade in sheep, wool and grains provided for the needs of the much bigger and more important metropolis.  Bethlehem was a place one passed through on the way to Jerusalem.  It was rarely, if ever, a destination city.  On the trade route from Egypt, it served as a resting place for the traders.  The surrounding hills provided pasture for the sheep that were used in the temple sacrifices or kitchens of Jerusalem.  Bethlehem, “the house of bread”, also had rich fields surrounding it that provided the wheat and barley for Jerusalem’s bakeries and kitchens.

Like a modern day truck stop, then, traffic was always flowing in and out and through with goods on the way to the more important city of Jerusalem.  At the time of the census, when Joseph had to report to his ancestor’s hometown, Bethlehem, the already bustling city was packed.  The only space available was the equivalent of a small garage where some vehicles of transportation were parked.  Unfortunately, these eco-friendly vehicles would also leave their exhaust all over the floor of the place.

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Truck stops are never pretty places.  As much as I appreciate the Flying-J Travel Plazas, Pilot Travel Centers and TravelCenters of America, they are not places I ever intend to stay very long.   I am always just passing through.  On top of it, I would definitely not ever have dreamed of having a child at one of those places.  Perhaps it is for the purpose of avoiding having children at truck stops that doctors now discourage women from traveling during their final couple weeks of pregnancy.

Jerusalem was the capital city; the city of commerce and politics; the center of religion and learning.  Everything and anything important that happened took place in Jerusalem.  In the United States, it would be the equivalent of New York or Los Angeles.  In Europe, it would be the Paris or London.  In Asia, it would be the Tokyo or Beijing.  Anyone who wanted to be anybody made their way to Jerusalem, bought property, and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful.  Perhaps God did not get updated about conditions in Palestine during 1st century B.C./A.D.  I suspect, however, that he had a different plan and procedure than the one derived and practiced by humans since their arrival.

The birth of a messiah and savior would have been much more pronounced if I had been calling the shots.  Everyone on earth would have known that “God-in-the-flesh” had shown up on the scene to straighten out the crookedness of humankind’s ways.  It surely would not have been left up to a few foreign wisemen and local low-class shepherds to welcome the arrival of the most important figure in human history.  But then, I am not God.  This is not my creation.  It is not my story.  Plus, I suspect that God’s ways are directly counter intuitive to most of our human ways.

As it is, God might as well come in disguise. I mean, who among us would be apt to recognize his arrival today anymore than his contemporaries did then?  His economic class, education and means of arrival did not shout “God’s here!” in neon letters that is for sure.  Besides the angelic proclamation to lowly shepherds, no birth announcement cards were sent out.  Likewise, most scholars and religious leaders did not get the cryptic prophetic message left hundreds of years before by various writers of the Old Testament.  So, in a sense, when God sent a savior, he did it on the sly.

So, the most important birth of the most important human was scripted ahead of time to take place in obscurity – a couple of low socio-economic status and a shed on the back side of a truck stop served as the main characters and the setting.  As the story continues, things do not get any better.  Soon the couple was on the run from the law, spent a few years as illegal immigrants in a foreign country and only returned to their own home town years later.  The messiah grew up in obscurity and learned the family business.

This amazing story of truck stop Jesus violates our highest sensibilities of what we believe God is like.  We like to picture him in a Cathedral with mighty stone pillars and statutes, rich woods and tapestries, and lofty music.  I think, rather, that given Jesus’ birth record he would be just as out of place there as he would be at a Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales.  After all, we like our deities to remain “high and lifted up” – far above the corruption of lower class humanity.  We would rather have the name of our deity pronounced in the more lofty open throated English “Gawd” than the too familiar buddy-buddy name of Jesus.  Somehow, a god who would prefer blue-grass music to Mozart and Beethoven just does not meet our criteria for divinity.

I suspect that if we were to have to look for Jesus’ arrival today that we would be better off looking for him at a truck stop.  His neighbors are more likely to be migrant workers and trailer park inhabitants than a gated suburban community.  I suspect that his address would more likely be under a bridge, overpass or homeless shelter than in a 2,000 square foot house.  He would be more acquainted with the living conditions of foreigners in our land than the economic well-to-do and socially established.  As a religious reformer, his audience would more likely be among the illiterate and poorly educated working class than among the highly respected theologians and seminarians of our day.  His calloused carpenter hands would shake more gnarled and calloused hands than manicured ones.

In short, most of us might have a hard time relating to this truck stop birth of Jesus.  I suspect, however, that it is all part of God’s redemption scheme.  For those of us who think we are better off than others, we will need to get down on Jesus’ level and humble ourselves to accept him and his mission to the least, the last and the lost of this world.  To those among this latter group, he raises their vision, empowers their future and invites them to participate in his redemption story.  So, the next time you have a chance to stop in your travels at a truck stop, just think to yourself, “Maybe Jesus is here.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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The youngest of our children is a precocious boy. We did nothing to make him that way.  He just came from heaven that way.  As a family, we are learning to deal with it – with him.  This makes life more than interesting on more than one occasion.  On top of that, it has allowed me to learn some great lessons as a father.

His name is Colin. Pronounced like “callin’ home the cows,” not “colon.”  He hates being called a body part, especially the colon, and has no knowledge of former Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Plus, he has the honor of having two middle names after his grandfathers Charles Stalnaker and Clyde Needham: Colin Charles-Clyde.  Perhaps his nomenclature played upon his early psyche to produce the character in him, but I rather believe God was in a rip-snorting sense of humor the day he came to us on January 15th of 1996.

One particular time in my fatherhood formation involved his duty to pick up dog duty.  We have never owned a dog or cat because of his allergies and asthma.  However, we were renting a house from some friends and offered to watch their dog while they were away for a year.  A parent should always know that there is bound to be adventure when you mix one Doberman-Labrador dog with a 9-year old boy.  Our desire to help our friends muffled our parental warning system apparently.

Of course, as is always the case in any family’s acquisition of a new puppy or kitty, 0ur children were excited to finally have a real pet.  Up until this time, the only pets they had known were a series of short-lived rats and one Siberian dwarf-hamster.  Having a pet larger than a desert plate was a thrill for them.  Cleaning up after something that created poop larger than soy beans was to be another matter entirely.

My youngest soon became “the poop buster”.  Any time the backyard where we kept the dog needed policing of dog waste, he was called upon for his assistance.  I would jokingly call, “Who ya’ gonna’ call?”  And he would smile and answer, “The poop buster!”  This worked well for quite sometime.  But, admittedly, dog poop patrol does get old.

Here lies the advantage of living in the upper Midwest.  A dog owner has a 6 month reprieve from picking up dog crap in the yard.  We lived in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where the Red River Valley descends into temperatures rivaling eastern Siberia in the winter.  It is flat as a table top.  The wind hardly ever stops blowing.  The snow that accumulates is of the freeze dried variety.  And the temperature is almost always below Zero Fahrenheit thanks to the valley’s ability to suck the air right down from the North Pole.

Thus, in the winter months, the family canine pet is only allowed out very briefly to do its business in the backyard snow bank.  Without any prodding by the pet owner, the half frozen pet scrambles back into the house as soon as the deed is done.  Our Doberman-Labrador mixed dog was short haired and had a disdain for the snow and cold that rivaled my wife’s.  When it hit -30 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, one almost had to pick up the dog and throw it outside to get it to go and do its latrine duty.  This must be done before every bodily orifice is frozen shut.  Then the pet must be allowed in to thaw and the procedure tried all over again.

The plus side to this for the pet owner is that no sane person will bother with the gastronomic remains of the pet until the Spring thaw, which would not be until March or April.  Until then, the owner can be completely satisfied to know that everything will remain where it is in its freeze dried condition until more moderate climates return.  Meanwhile, the pet piles will accumulate under layers of snow.  Any lemony patches of snow will soon enough be covered by blankets of white.  The effect is that the pet owner need not look out at a back yard littered with dog duty.  Nature has performed a wonderful service by covering up the dirty deeds in brilliant white.  It is, however, simply amazing how much one pooch can poop over the course of a winter.

Colin and Ron at Neskowin Beach, Oregon

Colin and Ron at Neskowin Beach, Oregon ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

When Spring did arrive for our family, we were surprised at the amount of dog doo left on the ground once the snow retreated.  One could barely make it out the back patio door and off of the deck.  It took careful tip-toeing to make it around in the backyard.  One miss-step and the consequence was an aromatic disaster as well as denial of re-entry back into the house.  Crossing our backyard was like trying to cross the Korean demilitarized zone littered with its land mines.  Nearly impossible.  According to my wife, if you stepped on one, you were on your own until it wore off or you thoroughly cleaned it off.  Meals could be pushed out the back patio door for you.

Finally, the inevitable day came where the job of thoroughly cleaning the back yard was necessary.  The yard needed its first mowing.  I will admit that it did occur to me that perhaps the mower would be a good way of picking up all that crap.  Upon further reflection, however, sanity returned and I decided that my lawn mower and that many poop mounds was not a good combination.  So, I called to my youngest son, “Who ya’ gonna’ call?”  “The poop buster!”, came the reply, though admittedly not with a lot of enthusiasm.  Seems pet care was starting to where on all of our family.

I recruited him and his sister, Juliann, to help me clean up the dog messes in the backyard.  We worked hard at it.  We had the proper store-bought pooper-scooper instruments and made great headway real fast.  When it was almost finished, I left them to complete the job while I went to get the mower ready.  Now, any parent knows that unsupervised children rarely accomplish anything on their own except for getting into trouble.  I, apparently, forgot this momentarily when I left them alone.

Frustrated at how slow the job was going, Colin complained to his sister that there had to be an easier way to do this job.  She suggested to him that, since they were mostly freeze dried from the winter, it would be easier to just pick them up with his fingers and put them in the bucket.  This bit of pure logic struck him as obvious.  However, somewhere in the recesses of his small developing mind a voice must have whispered a message of doubt.  Or, maybe it was just the “eww” factor.  So, he abandoned the pooper-scooper for a stick he found and attempted to roll the Almond Joy sized doggy chunks into a position to get them in the plastic bag lined bucket he was using.  The inefficiency of this method did not go unnoticed by my brilliant child.

Soon he abandoned the stick idea and bravely went with his sister’s ingenious idea of using his fingers.  Lo’ and behold!  Such speed and efficiency.  This could change pet and pet owner relationships forever!  Or, it could get you into a bit of trouble with your mother.

I returned to the back yard after spending some time getting the mower out and ready.  I was surprised to see the wonderful progress my two youngest children had made.  As I congratulated them and cheered them on to the finish, I noticed the odd way (apparently for older brains, anyway, it was odd) that my son was picking up the dog logs.  Curiosity got the better of me and stupidly I asked, “Colin, what are you doing?”

Rather testily he replied, “I’m picking up dog poop like you told me, Dad.”

Assuming he missed the real point behind my question, I asked more directly, “I see that, but why are you using your fingers to pick it up?”

“Juliann told me to.  It’s easier this way,” he replied as if I couldn’t see the brilliant conclusion he and his sister had come to on their own.  However, a glance over at Juliann revealed to me that she was still using the pooper-scooper.  I looked back at him and smiled.

“He is my son,” I thought.  “I’m going to have fun with this,” and returned to the house to find his mother.

I found my wife, Kelly, perched comfortable on the couch with a book and cup of hot tea.  To get her attention, I asked her, “What are you doing?”  After twenty-plus years of marriage she knows this game and gave the usual reply, “Painting the ceiling.”

I asked, “Did you tell Colin that picking up dog crap with his fingers would make the job easier?”  (I know.  I was baiting her.  I’m a bad, bad husband.)

“No!”, she replied, somewhat offended that I would even think such a thing of her.

I said, “Well, that’s what your son is doing out there…picking up dog poop with his fingers.”  I then disappeared into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee and watch the events unfold in the backyard out the kitchen window.

Entering the kitchen, I heard behind me my wife exclaim, “What?!”  And before she was even outside where my son could hear her she started calling Colin’s name.  Very loudly.

To understand what happens next, one must understand my wife’s aversion to any animal waste of any sort.  She cannot tolerate it on any molecular level.  This is why our rat and hamster cages were weekly cleaned and thoroughly disinfected with professional cleaners.  Soap and water was never enough.  I, on the other hand, grew up with a menagerie of animals – dogs, cats, pigs, goats, ducks, chickens – and animal manure was something healthy people just lived with around them.  It boosts the immune system.  That’s why farmers and ranchers live such long lives.  Everyone knows this except my precious wife.

Kelly has a natural gag reflex when it comes to the smell of freshly trod upon dog poop. The hint of the smell will send her running into the house and lighting every scented candle we have available.  So, you can only imagine her reaction to finding out that our prized youngest son, our last son, was violating every code of cleanliness according to my wife.  She would have to do something fast before he would be relegated to a life of going about claiming, “Unclean!  Unclean!  Beware, I’m unclean!”

Once she reached the patio deck she had my son’s attention and probably the neighbors’ also.  “You get right in here, young man!  This instant!  What do you think you are doing?  You don’t pick up dog poop with your fingers!”  She said this as if it was a matter that everyone would understand.  But, alas, my son gets his intelligence from his father not his mother.

Colin protested, “But Juliann said to.  It’s easier and faster that way.”  He was obviously dumbfounded by his mother’s lack of understanding the profound logic of his actions.  “I only pick up the dry ones with my fingers, not the juicy ones”, he protested.

“Eww!  Gross!  I don’t care what your sister told you!” she declared.  “That stuff is filthy and will give you diseases.  Get in the bathroom right away!  And take off your shoes!”

Once in the bathroom, our son was made to wash his hands with hand soap and then Pine-scented Lysol several times.  Judged thoroughly clean and safe once again, his mother warned him to be careful about how he handled animal excrement.  He was sent out with the yellow rubbers gloves she uses to clean the bathrooms.  I returned with him to the backyard where he, Juliann, and I soon completed the task.  I then went to bring the mower around to the backyard and instructed the two of them to get our collections into the garbage cans on the other side of the house.

This should be the end of the story. It is not.  I had more lessons as a father to learn that day; instructions in Fatherhood 101 that I apparently had missed with my first three children.  I didn’t know that I didn’t know so much as a father.  But I am learning something new every time one of my kids gets up in the morning.  It’s truly amazing how much there is to learn in one’s short lifespan as a parent.

We had used plastic bags to line the buckets that we used to collect our doggy stool samples.  All that was left was to tie up the tops of the bags and take them to the garbage bin at the side of the house.  Meanwhile, I pushed the mower to the backyard.  Before starting it, I returned to the kitchen to get another cup of coffee to have with me when I took breaks from mowing.  While in the kitchen, I heard a large “Thud!” on the rooftop and then what sounded like pine cones dribbling down to the gutters.  I quickly returned to the backyard deck.

“What was that?!” I exclaimed to my two youngest children staring up onto the roof.

“Dog poop,” came the reply.  It was said as if I had missed something so obvious that I must be daft.

“What?!” I asked but not really asking.  It came more from an inability to process the information I was just given.  Older brains, it turns out, are less able to manage such simple data points.

“What did you two do?” I queried.

“I didn’t do anything,” Juliann said.  “Colin tried to throw the bag of dog poop over the house.”

“Why?!” I asked.  Again, this was not a question.  My old, wrinkly brain was just not able to process what I was just told.  I looked at Colin.  Probably from his point of view, it was one of those slack mouthed, dumbfounded stares that parents give when their brains are short-circuiting from trying to figure our their children’s behavior.

His answer was simply, “I didn’t want to walk all of these bags around the house.  So, I thought I would just throw them over the house to the garbage can.  The first one didn’t get very far.”

I looked at him. I looked at the size of the bags.  I looked at his scrawny arms.  I looked at the height of our roof.  I looked up into the sky.  I looked back at him.  Obviously, I was missing something.  Or, God was getting back at me for the fun I had at my wife’s expense earlier.

Stating the obvious loudly enough for our next door neighbors to hear, I said, “You can’t throw them over the house!  For the love of Pete, just carry them around to the garbage can.  NOW!”

He and Juliann scurried off with a few bags and I grabbed a few and followed them.  I wanted to ensure that no more monkey business ensued between the backyard and the 30-yard trek to the side of the house where the garbage can sat unreached by the moon shot over our house.  I then returned with Colin to the back yard where I boosted him up on the roof from our deck to clean up the mess he had made.

Looking sternly at him, I told him, “You pick up up every one of those dog biscuits!  Do you hear me?  I don’t want them clogging up the downspouts the next time it rains!  You get every one.  Now, here’s another bag to replace the one that broke.   Try and pick up the broken bag so that you don’t spill any more doggy do’s out of it….That’s it…now, pick up the rest scattered on the roof and in the gutters.  And don’t miss any!”

As I stepped back to get a better view of him, my young precocious son asked, “But what am I going to pick them up with?”

I smiled and said, “Use your fingers!”

I’m sure I learned some valuable lessons from my son that day.  It’s just that, for the life of me, I don’t know what they are.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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