Getting Fuzzy: Our First Trail 50k

As we embraced at church, Matt whispered the following into my ear: “You fucking asshole…”

Not your typical Sunday morning greeting, no.

What elicited Matt’s observation was his realization I initiated the hug just to dig my finger into his right quadricep where he ached the most. At least that’s where I guessed he hurt, having done a little jaunt with him the day before. Well, it wasn’t a jaunt exactly, and one could better describe the soreness in our legs as throbbing pain.

We took on the Fuzzy Fandango 50k, a 32-mile trail run through the hills of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest. With a starting line aiming us straight up the ski slope of Clear Fork Adventure Resort and more than 4,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Fuzzy took us eight hours, fourteen minutes, and change to complete. If you imagine running from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico while climbing up and down all 102 stories of the Empire State building nearly four times, that should give you a sense of the challenge we and 66 other runners paid to face on November 10, 2018. That also happens to be the first day we got snow this season as the temperature only climbed to a touch above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

If this sounds miserable to you, don’t stop reading. I tell you this not to alienate you, but to get you to understand that choosing to go through that pain and cold for all those hours while moving over that distance was one of the worst experiences of my life.

It sucked so much!

It was also transcendent.

Mohican-Memorial forest is one of my favorite places. At 4,525 acres, this preserved woodland in Ashland County would easily swallow up the nearby county seat; Ashland, Ohio. For whatever reason, upon hearing the word, ‘forest,’ my mind retrieves an image of a flat plain with trees. Probably because I grew up in the glaciated portion of Ohio.

Mohican is unglaciated, which means the topography rolls like a bowling ball with one flattened side. We’re not talking hills and valleys with whispering streams. Yeah, it’s got those, but it also has towering granite formations, drop-offs that’ll kill you, channels of water large enough to sweep you away, and an aid station where the guy handed me a shot of bourbon. It’s a wondrous place, and when we ran it, the forest floor was blanketed with newly-fallen leaves beneath trees still ablaze with color. In other areas, even as the scent of pine pricked your nose, your ears strained to pick up familiar sounds now dampened by the brown needles below and the green ones everywhere else. We passed boulders adorned with icicles and a waterfall plummeting more than two stories. I know, because I climbed the several flights of steps that took you from the base of the cascade to its pinnacle.

Laura, wife-for-life, wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy, but desired twins, so she would only have to experience pregnancy once. She knew the toll it would take on her body, that it would be one of the most difficult things she’d ever choose to do, and she was correct.

We did have two children, a girl and a boy, but they weren’t twins. Laura went through pregnancy twice to get what she wanted. As one incapable of sacrificing my life to allow another to gestate within, I can’t describe the discomfort, emotional trauma, and pain my wife went through to allow our children to live. I can communicate what I witnessed her face and what she shared with me, sometimes in tears. And it was hard, soul-wrenching, tearing pain. But then each time it was over, and she held this helpless, wailing, flailing life that needed her like no one else. And there was healing in the holding — all the pain forgotten in joy. Even ten years later, there’s nothing Laura wouldn’t do for Maggie. To keep Asher safe, Laura will fight anyone and anything to her dying breath.

No, I’m not comparing running an ultra-marathon to giving birth. Are you nuts?!? I’m just illustrating how going through pain and sacrificing for something you desire changes you, creating unbreakable bonds.

Think about your closest friends. Likely, you know them from work or school. Maybe you grew up with them. I challenge you to identify one friend with whom you did not go through some shit. Name someone you hold dear that did not see you through difficulty in your life.

Please. Allow me to go one step further. Identify someone you hold dear, your best friend or even the family member you love the most, and think about all the trauma the two of you faced together. Is it a significant amount? I bet so.

My best friends are the people with whom I run on a regular basis. When you spend hours at a time with someone on the trail, you end up sharing what’s going on in your life. Not only do you face the miles and the hills and the temperatures and the weather and the sleep deprivation together, you face the trouble you’re having at work. You share how you’re trying to fix the condo after the pipes backed up and sewage flooded your basement. You share trying to get your MFA while working full-time and how you’re not sure you’re going to make it. You ask if it’s normal to yell at your wife about weeding the flower beds then breaking down in tears. That is normal, right?

Running the Fuzzy Fandango 50k showed me I can do something most perceive as impossible, but I did it with my good friend, Matt, pictured above, who cussed me out in church. He’s my friend who’s seen me through all the moments I listed above along with innumerable others over the last five years.

Yeah, there were points in the race where we descended slopes like little kids, allowing gravity to pull us forward, arms windmilling, trying to step fast enough so we didn’t fall and giggling as our stomachs achieved weightlessness. There were other moments, though, where we hit a series of switchbacks ascending a slope we thought would never end. These weren’t amiable switchbacks either. They were the sort where you put your head down and dig into it like a kid trying to get through a plate of brussel sprouts, the only option being to keep trudging.

I could say I took up running nearly a decade ago because I hit my early thirties, and they hit me with a slowed metabolism. That was a motivating factor, but the SOLE reason I took up running was because my friend, Josh, challenged me to run a half-marathon with him. This hobby that’s now core to my identity started as a challenge from a friend with whom I still see multiple times a week to accumulate mileage.

Having spent the majority of my existence running from challenges, my pursuit of ultra-running makes little sense. Teenage me thought it quite clever to tell others I was “allergic to pain.” Afraid I wasn’t good enough to do them well, I always put off assignments until the last minute, making them that much more difficult. Despite this, I got good grades, graduating summa cum lauda and going on to earn two master’s degrees.

I’m good at running. It’s one of the few things in my life I no longer put off or avoid, and I keep elevating my goals, such as breaking a four hour marathon or choosing tougher races and longer distances. Maybe I’m still trying to prove to myself I am good enough. Maybe I enjoy doing my best when things get toughest. Maybe I only like to do what I’m good at, and I use running to avoid areas in which I think I’ll fail. You know what? Let’s go with Option D: All of the above.

Matt and I spent all day traversing the trail. Day dawned as they bussed us to the starting line, and dusk settled as we crossed the finish line. Our saving grace? The aid stations where volunteers greeted us with cheers and the smell of hot ramen noodles. They refilled our hydration packs and made us PB & J, grilled cheese sammiches, and quesadillas so fresh, they were too hot to eat. At one stop, I enjoyed a Gatorade slushy.

Crossing the finish line, friends offered celebratory beer and pats on the back. Inside the warm lodge, a stranger bought me a sticker featuring an illustration of the race’s mascot in red; a smiling, cartoon puffball with hand lifted in greeting and fairy wings. We ate warm chili heaped high with corn chips, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. I downed one beer while walking the ten steps to get my chili, then enjoyed another as I replenished my calories. Friends we’d just met, known for months, and acquired on the trail regaled each other with stories. I changed into warm clothes and headed back outside to join the impromptu finish line party gathered around a fire pit. We cheered the last of the runners then met up for dinner later that evening.

At one point along the course, Matt’s stomach turned sour, and he told me to go on ahead. I refused and slowed to match his pace, as we had agreed to run the Fuzzy together weeks before, so we walked several miles through the pines before arriving at the aid station with the grilled cheese. Both of us ate, and Matt bounced back, running through the finish.

Friends help see each other through the shit, and Lord willing, we’re going to face even more together, because moving forward with friends strengthens your heart, and the more confidence you gain through putting one foot in front of the other, the more of life you can face, heads held high.

Calf

This is me after completing a three-mile run. The smile’s there, because one week prior, I couldn’t play tag with my kids without my calf screaming. If you imagined a pre-pubescent Holstein lowing for all it’s worth, you’ve got the wrong idea. See, I strained the calf muscle in my left leg, and due to that injury, pain-free running eluded me a number of weeks. Cycling provided cardio and worked my legs without exacerbating the pain, but I only rode on weekends, reducing my exercise regimen from three or four times to just once per week.

I missed seeing my buddies on the weekday runs and sharing what’s been going on in our lives, missed the rush of endorphins that buoyed me into work, and missed how my stomach maintained its shape instead of increasing in diameter and oozing over my belt.

Back in February, I wrote of how depression and anxiety caused me to lose my appetite and drop pounds, but now I’m putting on weight. I tried one anti-depressant before switching it out for another one, but I no longer take any medication. I thought I was no good as a teacher and risked losing my job, losing my way. Then Mark, my counselor, reminded me of something essential.

“Jake, the majority of female clients come in for counseling when it’s something relational, but more often than not, men come in when it’s work-related.” He shared about a time when he thought his job was on the line and how through that he learned he had no control over whether or not he kept his job. Sure, one can do the best work possible, but if your employer decides to let you go despite that, you have to look elsewhere for work. Mark helped me realize I was beating myself up over something that laid outside of my control. He reminded me, “God’s the one who grants you favor with others. He’s the one who meets all your needs, so even if you lose your position at Centerburg, you’re going to be just fine.”

Others shared similar advice. Even our superintendent reassured me, “The chances of you losing your job are so small, it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Things didn’t change overnight. I’d deal with a student discipline issue one day and gag over the toilet the following morning, unsure I handled things correctly and worried I’d have to do it all over again that day. It took me a while to accept someone much higher up managed my career, but once I did, fear no longer held me captive, and I gained confidence throughout April and May.

As a result, my teaching improved, which in turn boosted my confidence. I felt more like myself and looked forward to seeing my students. Realizing it wasn’t my responsibility to keep my job shifted my trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward one. I know I have my position at Centerburg this next school year, and if God wants me to continue teaching there, I’ll find success. Yet if it’s time to move onto something else, I’ll have my résumé or curriculum vitae ready to go, and the right opportunity will present itself. No matter what direction my career takes, I trust God’s taking me where I’m meant to be, so ruminate on that.

The Compliment

Someone at work noticed I’ve been losing weight and mentioned it to me as I waited for him to finish up using the copier. “That’s great, dude. You look really good.”

“Thanks, man.” My colleague smiled on his way out the door, and I got things ready for my students, but my mouth formed a line firm as the lump of dread pulsing behind my sternum. Back when I loosened my belt and counted calories, this compliment would’ve made my day, but the only calories I’d been counting the previous few months formed the food for which I no longer had appetite.

Worry has the same mass and energy as a car battery. It sits in your stomach, filling all the empty and weighing you down, so eating becomes something you force yourself to do instead of something you savor doing. Meanwhile, worry’s terminals connect direct to your arms and legs, hands and feet, providing them the current to quiver and shake, move and bounce independent of thought, so that by day’s end, instead of spending time helping your children with their homework and tickling them on the carpet, you’ve retreated to the couch for yet another nap, because all the strength you had has been sapped away.

Life changed for me mid-January around my birthday. I got a Nintendo Switch and some new clothes, I’d grown a beard, and my first pair of eyeglasses arrived. I also went on antidepressants, and I no longer knew how to teach.

My entire life, people would watch me interact with kids and wonder at how I seemed to know just what they were thinking. More than a few compared me to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, noting an air of delight about me and how I could get little ones to follow me anywhere. I never could form a rat parade, though, and every time I leave town, none of the kids ever get sealed up within a mountain, so we’ll call that win-win.

The guidance counselor at school said I’m “one of the good ones, and we don’t want to lose you.” The children’s ministry director at church stated I have a gift and invited me to get more involved. Before that, the curriculum director showed me my students’ value-added data for the previous two years and how they weren’t making the necessary growth in my classroom. He volunteered to come alongside me to help increase my scores, mentioning that if they stayed low, the state would mandate he help me the following years, and that if things didn’t change within a year or two beyond that, I risked losing my job.

I thought I knew what I was doing. Students marched into my classroom with their heads held high, declaring, “I’m here to work hard and learn, Mr. Lees!” and the grades they earned evidenced that they were. Of course, some kids did their darndest to avoid working, but I could usually wheedle something out of them.

With my job on the line, though, I lost any confidence that I knew what I was doing. What I thought worked before obviously didn’t, so I scrapped that, leaving me to figure out the right material to teach and how to teach it. This too is the first year I have students who look through me. Some watched my floundering and despise me. Without my confidence, I allowed them to get away with things I wouldn’t otherwise, treating other students and myself with absolute contempt.

Perceiving this compounded failure, I lost hope. I wasn’t doing my job, I couldn’t get the kids to learn, and every time an instance or an interaction confirmed that, I took it as gospel. Never mind more than half my students still walk into my classroom every day, smile at me, and declare, “I’m here to work hard and learn!” I only believed the ones who treated me like shit.

Dread — that’s what Sunday evenings held — weekday mornings, too. Months after receiving the news about my scores, I no longer cared about keeping my job. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t handle it. Family and friends encouraged me to seek counseling, and I made another appointment with my doctor, because the anti-anxiety pills she’d prescribed just made me sleepy.

I even scheduled a meeting with the superintendent. The first year I got hired at school, he was hired on as principal, and I spent a lot of time in his office that first year getting advice, confessing my concerns, and discovering we shared the same boat. After hearing me tell about my struggles, my boss and friend affirmed my authority in the classroom, pinpointed that I needed to concentrate on walking in it, and encouraged me that the odds of me losing my job there were so small, the possibility wasn’t even worth considering. “Get ahold of the classroom management first, and your scores will follow.”

He also shared how in his early years of teaching, he faced a similar situation in his classroom, turned in his two-week notice, and walked away, because he lost his desire to teach, only returning to the field of education years later. “Jake, teaching is a high calling, and you need to figure out if the spark you had is still there, because without it, there’s no reason to be doing this job.”

I turned that over in my mind for more than a month afterwards.

I still don’t know whether this will be my last year as a school teacher, but I think that spark that got me started in this business still burns inside, because six weeks, three counseling sessions, eight sick days, and one switch from Lexapro to Prozac later, I have yet to update my resume.

Did I consider giving my two weeks notice and becoming a copywriter, working at McGraw-Hill, teaching at the college level, or even slinging beer at my favorite brewery? All of the above, but God only knows where my career path goes.

What I do know is that I’ll finish out the last 11 weeks of school, and in that time, I’ll decide what to teach, learning from the curriculum director better ways to not only discover what my students know but also ways to deliver the content they need to know, and as the antidepressants do their job improving my mood, they’ll enable me to do my job.

Sure, I still get to deal with students who view me as a pushover, but now that I no longer place my confidence in the work I’ve done in the past but in my God-given ability to do the work that’s in front of me, those kids will discover Mr. Lees is rooted to a firm foundation, and he’s not near as shaky or willing to take shit as he used to be.

Plus, they may notice he’s been packing on a pound or two.

Weekend Plans

You know that feeling you get when you’re working up the nerve to ask someone out? Where you can feel the clockwork in your brain gearing from one function to another while the blood pumps through your hands at such a rate, it seems you could click your chopsticks together to find a housefly pinched between them recalling each of the faces of his 500 children before he heads to that great trash heap in the sky? I’ve got that, the feeling of near panic mixed with equal parts trepidation and glee where the brain recognizes the body’s about to endure an ordeal and has initiated a shot of adrenaline.

Don’t get anxious. I’m not facing any danger…yet. I’ve just finished packing my bags for a weekend trip to Niagara with the wife and a few friends. No, we’re not having an intervention. No, I’m not crossing the border to disappear into the Canadian wilderness. My friends and I are going for a run. A 50K. Thirty-one miles. On foot. In one go.

I teach eighth-grade English, so I’m used to people looking at me with incredulity seasoned with pity, and when I’ve shared my weekend plans, people’s reactions seem all too familiar.

“You’re going to do what?”

“How far?”

“I could do that. In my car!”

“Are you ready?”

That last question is the most pertinent as well as the most difficult to answer. I’ve run marathons before, including a marathon-distance training run just a few weeks ago, and the 50K is only five miles further than that, but I don’t know if I’m ready or not. This weekend will see me start my first ultramarathon, but I’m not certain I’ll finish.

Have I trained harder for this than any race I’ve done prior?

Yes.

Have I been getting plenty of sleep and kept myself hydrated?

Yes.

Is there a pain in my right foot, and did I experience a twinge in my left calf on a run not too long ago, hearkening back to injuries I suffered fours years ago that put me on crutches?

Why, yes. That’s an oddly specific question. You’re very perceptive.

That’s what’s got me nervous. Have I pushed my body too far, and instead of building it up for this race, have I pushed it to the point where it’s going to crumble beneath me?

I don’t know; no one does.

There’s only one way to find out.

Fatherhood Factory

Lying across the room on his play mat, eight-month-old Asher groaned then coughed in threat of a full-on cry before I looked over to discover him on his stomach staring at me. Catching my attention, blue eyes fixed firmly on mine, he went silent, leaned his weight onto his right arm, lifted his left, and opened and closed his free hand, waving at me. I responded in kind, and a huge grin split his face before he returned to drooling on his toys. I don’t know what I did to earn that moment and cannot imagine a trial great enough to win the prize of my son waving and smiling at me. Children are mysteries, startling in their creativity and surprising in their development. The responsibility of caring for them is an everyday encounter with pure grace, the glowing material from which fatherhood is forged.

Finding my identity changed by this role as daddy, I began to wonder about the lessons I intentionally and unintentionally end up teaching my kids. I question whether or not I help build a character in them of which I can be proud or if I’ll one day find myself wincing at the things they say, the way they dress, the goals they pursue, or the company they keep. I’ve known friends whose fathers left abruptly, and I’ve encountered those whose daddies abused them in word and deed, devastating emotions and marring what could have been their greatest work. Whether I intend to or not, I base the way I treat my children upon the way Dad treated me, which he based on how his father treated him, continuing back, perhaps, through many generations.

 

What if fatherhood was a physical place one could visit, a factory one could tour to see how dads influence their children? There we could witness each successive generation of men instilling their knowledge and experience to the next while tracing our own forging, seeing how much of our father’s programming found its way into us.

I imagine entering the factory doors to reveal the tour guide standing in the foyer with hand extended, greeting me with: “Glad you could come out today. You’re a recent hire, aren’t you?”

“I am. I’ve been with the company a little over four years now.”

The two of us make small talk as he outfits me with a hard hat, safety glasses, and a sky blue overcoat identifying me as a visitor. The receptionist smiles sweetly behind her desk as I follow my guide down the hall and through the heavy metal doors opening onto a caution yellow catwalk overlooking the factory floor. The sheer enormity of the place strikes me dumb; huge machines monitored by thousands of workers produce so much clamor I clamp my hands over my ears to shut it out. Sheepishly, my companion points to the foam buds peeking out of his ears and taps the left pocket of my overcoat. Soon the overwhelming noise is reduced to a low hum as we begin the tour.

Fifty feet below me, the assembly lines begin. Fed by several conveyors extending through the walls along with a multitude of vents descending from the ceiling, a row of massive, two story metal monoliths stretches so far in either direction, there is no visible end to them. Glowing rivulets of molten grace stream slowly from within them down twisting channels, the raw ingredients shining in purity, ready to be shaped for use.

My guide stops at Viewing Station 1, and my gaze travels down to the factory floor to capture the seminal moment — the production process that sets this factory apart. The raw material, molded and cooled, has been shaped to form a baby boy. His father, Glenn, is there to hold him for the first time, his blue eyes locked onto his son, a wisp of beard clinging to his firm chin, his face young and smiling. This is the moment where a tender bond is formed only to be hardened further down the line. Heart in my throat, I continue the tour.

At the next station, Glenn’s farm-roughened hands pin on a cloth diaper as he coos quietly with his new-forged link. Down the line, he gets up in the night to quiet a cry he can’t explain, holding, rocking, singing to his child. The factory stills itself, straining to hear the song, but Glenn sings low, his bass notes flowing over his son and onto the floor to be swept up later.

My guide removes his earplugs to explain each assembly line is different. “Not every product is sung to by their father in the night. Each employee decides what work he will perform, what he will add to his son’s life.”

The cries still as Glenn continues to sing. The baby boy I imagine myself to have been yawns with his whole body, arms and legs cocked at disparate angles before he nestles his head into the crook of his father’s arm, twitching in dream before we move on.

 

At 34 years of age, I don’t remember my father caring for me in the night, but my brain is packed with memories of family gatherings, birthday parties, picnics at the park, and Dad making dinner for us on the grill. My father stood up for me if threatened, and I feared his anger, hiding upstairs whenever he and Mom raised their voices. I knew the comfort of his lap as he read to me before bed and the strength of his arms as he wrestled and tickled with me on the living room floor. He held me accountable for the decisions I made, encouraging me to read as much as I could, to never stop learning, and disciplined me when I shirked my duty of mowing the front lawn by making me rake up the entire yard’s clippings one hot July afternoon.

My mother characterizes Dad as “steadfast, kind, faithful, a man of great integrity. Concerned more for his family than for himself, a great Christian – he tries to do the best that he can. I love him very much. He loves us very much. He was very concerned about how you were raised and making sure that you and Chris were good, Christian people and had integrity in your own life, but loved Jesus more than anything else. He’s always saying how blessed we are because you two turned out so well not because of your accomplishments but because of who you are and your characters. He’s always telling me, ‘Honey, we’re so blessed.’”

I want to be able to say that about my own kids. When they’re grown and out of the house, I want to look back at the job I did with a full heart, thankful for the way Maggie and Asher turned out, but how do I emulate my father without being him? How do I access his work log from my imaginary factory to see exactly how many hours he invested in forging my character so I can be sure to do the same for my kids? And how do I know the investment he made in me and my sister beyond time spent? How do I recognize the type of parent he was? What percentage was encouragement, and how much of it was discipline? How many jokes did he tell, and how much praying for us did he do? How many times did he wipe my butt and dry my tears? How many bandages did he apply to my scraped knees and my hurt pride?

As I pose these questions, a pool of anxiety spreads like oil in my gut. There’s so much I don’t know about being a father. No physical record exists of the hours and type of work Glenn Lees did for me. All I have is who he is, the tenets of his beliefs, and the memories of how he cared for us, but I fear that won’t be enough.

 

Upon meeting Dad for the first time, strangers have to work hard to get him to talk to them, because like a boulder in a streambed, he allows conversations to flow about him while he remains steadfast and still. Dad’s afraid of being negatively noticed and hates change because he doesn’t want to make a mistake. Growing up, Dad retreated to protect himself as Uncle David was loud and domineering, but when they sit down together now, they talk for hours about the price of corn and other farming matters. If you bring up something that interests Dad, like the woodworking he does in the basement, the teardrop camping trailer he’s building in the garage, and the stories of God’s interventions in his life, he opens right up. To kick-start a conversation, inquire about the machinery he installs and repairs at the wastewater treatment plant or ask him what’s been going on in politics.

While Dad sits quiet, keeping his own company and pondering things internally, I talk through things to reason them out and strike up conversations with complete strangers despite Laura’s groans of protest. Because of this, Dad’s silence seems to hang in space between me and the answers I seek. If I want to know what he’s thinking or feeling, I ask Mom, the mediator between my father and I, a role she’s played for as long as I can remember, but I don’t want to have to go to Mom or guess what my father’s thinking anymore, nor do I want my inquiries rebuffed by him as trivial or too personal. I want him to speak to me about important matters. I want to know how he feels about being a grandfather and his mother’s declining health. I want to know how Grandpa’s accident affected him, but I’m afraid if I ask, all the pain of it will bubble up to the surface, hurting Dad all over again. There’s no bad blood between him and me, just a lifetime of little communication.

When approaching my wedding night with the level of excitement only a 26-year-old virgin can muster, I asked Dad if he had any advice to share. I wasn’t looking for him to provide step-by-step instructions; I just wanted to have my father speak to me heart-to-heart, to impart wisdom. His response? “You’ll figure it out.”

Thankfully, Laura and I did just that, but I feel as though I’ve had to figure out multiple life lessons minus Dad’s input, adding to my sense of isolation and increasing my nerdiness. Instead of his being a formula to help determine the unknowns of life, he himself is an unknown, a constant with fixed values, which I have to solve.

 

When faced with a situation that’s new, like transitioning to a different job or Grandpa falling off the roof of his grain bin, Dad retreats. He does what needs to be done, but does it as quickly as possible like the first time a kid has to remove a hook from a freshly caught fish. Witnessing my father’s reactions programmed me to allow tough situations to intimidate me. If he, my symbol of strength, balked at visiting his hospitalized father, who was I to handle it any differently? When under duress, Dad tends to sleep as an escape, while I find a new narrative in which to lose myself. Seeing Dad lacking confidence to handle life germinated in me the thought that I wasn’t up to the challenge either, exacerbating my procrastination.

I don’t know what it was like for Dad to lose his father to slipped footing, a gravel driveway 16 feet below, and a serious brain injury. Grandpa was never the same after he fell off the roof of the grain bin: blinded, bedridden, and capable only of short conversations where each reply ended in drawn out laughter. Dad claims his father died in 1988, the year of his accident, not when Grandpa actually passed away in 2002. Dad losing Grandpa is the elephant of which I avoid speaking even now 25 years after the fact. For so many years, Dad couldn’t speak of it without pain in his voice; maybe that’s what started my nightmares.

I know Dad’s silence and distance are part of who he is. I may not like those portions of his personality, but who doesn’t have flaws? God graced me with a father that loved me unconditionally, and Dad’s core, tempered by physical, emotional, and financial hardship, is resilient and worthy of trust. When he leaves his employment at the Fatherhood Factory, passing from this earth, I hope his work in me will be proven worthy and that I continue that work in my own children with only one caveat, that my kids will find me a ready conversation partner.

An Adult’s Letter to Saint Nick

Dear Santa,

As you’re aware, I am a 36-year-old man with a receding hairline, expanding waistline, two kids, as many mortgages, and no business whatsoever writing you this letter. First off, I don’t believe in you.

I eat the cookies and carrots my daughter leaves out. I ferry that infernal elf on the shelf from place to place each night. I even impersonated you the time the wife and I forgot to move that creepy little doll, texting everything was fine so our first-grader wouldn’t worry her little brother ruined Christmas by touching the naughtiness deterrent.

Look, I know you don’t deliver presents; that’s the realm of FedEx and UPS and the postal service. You’ve never made it magically snow on Christmas Eve; that only happens in the movies. You don’t hold eight tiny reindeer along with an entire race of elves captive to do your bidding; PETA and the UN would have been all over you like needles on a spruce tree decades ago.

You are nothing more than a once-historical Catholic saint mashed up with European pagan traditions Americanized, commercialized, and broadcast all over the world to such extent, you’re almost as well-known as Mickey Mouse. You, sir, are a myth; occupying the same plane of pretend-land as King Arthur, the Loch Ness monster, and economic stability.

That’s why I’m writing you this letter; I need something to believe in.

Taking my daughter to her school for Pancakes with Santa, I witnessed Magnolia’s giddiness when ushered into a strange man’s lap. Despite his fake beard and padding, our little girl was so overcome with awe, she couldn’t find the words when he inquired about her good behavior and desire for gifts. After their one-way conversation and obligatory picture, Maggie found her tongue and started wagging it nonstop, “I know he’s the real Santa because he asked what I wanted for Christmas, and when I couldn’t tell him, he said, ‘I’ll bet I know what you want: a tablet.’ And, Mom, that’s exactly what I want! It’s him; he knows!”

Maggie doesn’t question a reality where science meets magic, where those things we can’t see are just as important as those we do. Wonder is her worldview. Happenstance serves as teleological proof. Others may dismiss her as naive or simple, but I won’t begrudge my child’s instinctive faith. Disappointments haven’t worn her down, nor have people caused her callousness. She is an open book, coloring her pages with brilliant iridescence.

Santa, I want to see the world like my daughter does. I want to wonder at everyday occurrences and trust my future is an unwritten adventure. I’m tired of worrying what others think of me, of avoiding tough situations, and missing opportunities. I want to stop rehashing the past, overanalyzing the future, and ignoring the present.

Stress persists. As Maggie started first grade, my mother began a series of hospitalizations. She pulled a muscle in her back, for which they gave her medicine, but then she started throwing up, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. The throwing up threw off her salt levels, which affected her reasoning, so she ended up back in the hospital over something minor. They found a problem with her gallbladder, so they scheduled surgery. Then Mom’s fear of the surgery upset her stomach, which led to more throwing up and further problems with her salt levels. Afraid of throwing up, Mom avoided eating, which put her back in the hospital. They removed her gallbladder, chock-full of gallstones. Mom didn’t recover from the surgery as expected, experiencing sharp pain in her abdomen, so she went back to the hospital. They discovered a single gallstone blocking a valve and asked her not to eat in preparation of eliminating the interloper. Not eating threw her system out of whack, and her body temperature plummeted.

Thank God, Mom’s been fine for months, that is, until this week. Crazy what a stomach bug can do. She returned home from the hospital today, and we will celebrate Christmas at my parents’ house, but you can understand how whenever my sister contacts me, something inside catches in anticipation of more bad news. Experience changed me from a fresh-faced kid with a song on my lips and a spring in my step to a weathered coot mumbling to myself as I limp along.

All the skin cream in the world can’t transform who I am on the inside. It may erase fine lines and wrinkles, but it won’t wipe away the resentment I hold against those I envy. Beautiful, successful, confident, deft — perceiving these qualities in others elicits judgement in me. Because of my lack, I believe they’ll see me as inferior, so I sit in judgement first, hoping to waylay my exposure as less than worthy. Firing this first mental salvo feels harmless, but it negates my interactions with others, isolating.

Santa, I need a new heart. Mine’s two sizes too small. You may not exist, but someone out there does, and though cracked, I can be repaired.

Heed the cry of a man bent and broken. Stand me tall and set me straight. Restore my spirit of wonder. Exchange the stinginess for generosity, the judgement for love. I want to be Charlie Brown and Ralphie and George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge and Phil Davis and Clark W. Griswold all rolled into one.

All I want for Christmas is restoration. Is that too much to ask?

Enjoy the cookies,

Jake Lees

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hope

Looks like Vader left his mask on the floor again…

If I’ve told that Sith once, I’ve told him a thousand times to not leave his mask lying around. I get that he feels claustrophobic behind that thing, anybody would, but his asthma gets to be a real problem without that mask.

That’s it, I’m sending him to his pod!

My son knows who Darth Vader is. Asher is three years old, and he knows who Darth Vader is. Well, not really. Whenever he pushes the button on the side of the mask and James Earl Jones announces, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Asher laughs, repeating what he hears, “I find your face is dirty.”

My son isn’t the only one who has a thin grasp on Vader mythology. My cousin shared how his boys got into a debate at school over whether or not Darth Vader died, and Mark educated them by pulling up the climactic scene from Return of the Jedi where Vader laid down his life to save Luke. Mark and I joked about how he now has to further spoil the original trilogy for his sons by showing them the scene when Vader tells Luke, “I am your Father,” or when Luke realizes he’s Leia’s brother.

Having grown up sleeping on Star Wars bedsheets and playing with pretty much all the original action figures and playsets, Mark had to do something. He tried years ago to sit with his sons and watch Star Wars, but the boys were too young and had too much energy to make it through even the first film. As a teenager, Mark collected the toys that came out in connection to the prequels, and his entire family has pre-purchased around 20 tickets to see the Force Awakens together.

Tickets in hand, Mark’s inviting his three sons to experience a cultural milestone, and he doesn’t want them missing out on the full experience, so he plans on watching at least the original trilogy as a family in the next few weeks.

According to Deadline Hollywood, analysts project the Force Awakens will earn $185 – $210 million opening weekend alone, and scuttlebutt says Episode VII will break Avatar‘s $2.7 billion box office record.

What is it about Star Wars that has people clamoring to see the new movie?

It’s about hope.

Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope revitalized the sci-fi genre. Audiences were used to seeing dystopian futures on film such as prior years’ Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Westworld, Rollerball, and the Planet of the Apes series.

Watergate disenchanted the American public, breaking our faith in an infallible President. If we couldn’t believe our elected officials held our best interests, what future could we expect? So we wallowed in stories confirming our worst fears until Star Wars showed us something different: even the poorest orphan has the power to face down the unknown. Light will overcome darkness. We are not alone; the Force is with us.

There is hope.

We wanted to hear that story of hope again with Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, but were sadly disappointed to see computer-generated, digitally-shot stories about how the future was set in stone and things will go wrong despite the best efforts of the most powerful Jedi.

Especially after the Paris attacks and shootings in schools and ISIS and violence and murder and rape, we want to hear that it’s going to be okay. We want to have hope for the future. We want to place our faith in the fact that we are not alone in this world, that even the poorest orphan has the power to overcome the unknown. I want to know that I’m going to make it, that my uncle facing radiation and chemotherapy will be cured of his cancer. I want to know that my seven-year-old daughter will never be sexually assaulted. I want my marriage to last a lifetime and that friends will not leave me.

That’s too much pressure to put on one movie. Sure, the Force Awakens will utilize practical effects and be shot on film and J. J. Abrams proved with Star Trek that he can revitalize a space-faring series, showing us through lens flares that anything is possible, but one movie cannot guarantee anyone’s future. Only a self-sacrificing god can do that.

Look at Jesus, a poor man of questionable parentage, who shook the political and religious leaders of his day with selfless answers and self-sacrifice. He exercised power to heal the sick and raise the dead. He spent time with children and touched lepers. His greatest teachings were about humility and self-denial. He showed us how to love the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and betrayers. He laid down his life for his friends and took it back up again. He died so that we may live.

I put my hope in Jesus, knowing he has a plan for my life, and if my uncle dies of cancer or my daughter is assaulted, if my marriage falls apart or my friends abandon me, even if my worst fears come true, Jesus will not leave me desolate. He is ever-present; his Spirit lives in me, which means he can work through me in power. I prayed for the sick, and they were healed. I was laid off with no prospects and got a better job. I was so overwhelmed with fear, I couldn’t make it through a day at school, and now I teach school. I messed up my leg so badly, I couldn’t walk without crutches, and now I run faster and farther than I ever could before.

Do I plan on taking my family to see the Force Awakens? We wouldn’t miss it, especially since we’ve sat down and watched the original trilogy together. I hope it affirms the story that light overcomes darkness, that we are not alone. Darth Vader may have died, but he laid down his life so his son would live, and he continues to live on.

I have hope for the future.

The Dutch Kid

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Philip Wiegratz, 2005, (c) Warner brothers

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Philip Wiegratz, 2005, (c) Warner brothers

I almost named this post Finger in the Dike, then Pluggin’ the Dike sounded better but still seemed to convey the wrong idea. Anyway…

On with the post!

You remember that story they told us as children where this kid’s walking home from school, admiring the windmills of his native Holland until he notices a crack in the earthen dike? Knowing he stands below sea level and the failure of the dike spells deluge for all, this little scrapper takes action, plugging the hole with the one thing he’s got on hand: his finger. It’s only then that he realizes the consequences of his actions. Going to get help means inviting the ocean to come on in, so he stands there as his finger loses feeling and hopes someone wanders by. Eventually help comes, and the nation lauds the boy as a hero for his perseverance and selflessness. Good story. Inspirational.

I have a similar Dutch kid living in a corner of my brain. Think Augustus Gloop, but instead of that turtleneck, he’s rockin’ a pair of wooden clogs and a blue, pointed cap. When he’s not swaying back and forth in a hammock made from my grey matter and chomping on an oversized chocolate bar, he perseveres with trouble in mind.

My overactive imagination produces so much thought, I experience difficulty sorting each idea and storing them away for further use. Instead of a meticulous filing system, I imagine my brain contains a huge reservoir of thoughts swirling about, held at bay by a gargantuan dam. There’s a built-in sluice to direct these ideas, allowing them to flow naturally in the right direction.

Writing opens this gate for me, organizing my thoughts and relieving the internal pressure, but the Dutch kid gets in the way. When I need to open the sluice, he slams it shut, convincing me there are far more important things to do like laundry or scrolling through internet feeds, slack-jawed.

Over time, ideas build one on top of the other and the dam wall starts to creak. Dutch Kid throws his weight behind his efforts, pushing back against the dam and forcing one thought to surface, “There’s not enough time to write right now.” Convinced, I go on with life as though all is well, but the pressure continues to increase.

Days, weeks, and months go by. Running and sharing life with close friends helps me manage external stressors, but the metric tons of accumulated thought bear down on my shoulders, knotting them up. Just as the dam’s about to unleash all that pent-up creativity like a starved tiger let loose in a butcher shop, Dutch Kid finds the cracks in the dam wall and corks them with his chubby digits.

Why subject myself to this? I know Dutch Kid exists as a personification of my psyche copping excuses to my detriment. He prevents my writing, because practicing that art may cause me to dredge up the things I fear to face. A multitude of scuttled memories lays at rest in the aphotic zone of my memory, and a prior project exposing my middle school self and all his insecurity was no joke. During that time of growth, I was raw and anguished, my identity shaken.

Better for it now, I have to choose. Do I continue allowing the thoughts and ideas to amalgamate, further submerging memories I fear to face? Or do I go mano a mano with Dutch Kid, eliminate his position, and evict him from his hammock? With him absent, the dam would burst, releasing torrents of thought to thunder forth and reveal barnacle-encrusted memories. With my grey matter dripping, I’d have no choice but to write, sorting through what the flood uncovered, cleansing me.

“Dutch Kid! Stop fingering that! You and I gotta discuss a thing or two!”

Procrastination

I thought I was sick last night. The wife had just overcome a week-long bout with flu, and I experienced trouble eating.

If you know me, this is quite the red flag. When I sit down to eat, I don’t mess around. As others converse between bites, I take breaths. I can eat with chopsticks now because when we dated, the wife forced me to use them in hopes of slowing me down.

It didn’t work.

Aside from lessened appetite, I felt weak.

Tired.

Turns out, it wasn’t the flu, it was anxiety eating me up.

I do this thing when I don’t think I can complete a task successfully, I procrastinate in getting it done. If I fear failure, I’ll put off working on it. Trouble is, the more I put it off, the less time I give myself to complete it, and the more I feel I’ll fail, so I procrastinate further.

It’s this crazy cycle where I put off something to avoid failure, but in the doing, I invite failure all the more. “This seems difficult. Let’s give myself as little time as possible in which to complete it. That makes perfect sense.”

What’s worse is that in the meantime, I mentally berate myself for putting off the task. “You had this to do a month ago, idiot. Finish it.” I freeze myself with fear, avoiding doing a poor job and inviting failure all the more.

It’s been a long time since I manifested physical symptoms over a task I avoided, but here I was, suspecting the flu when I knew it was anxiety tying me up in knots, and denying it in further procrastination.

The worst (best?) part was, I finally faced my fear today, taking on the task I long avoided, and (as usual) it went much faster than I expected it would. Part of me celebrates this victory, finding out the task I long avoided was much easier than I expected it to be, while another part of me wants to beat myself up further for avoiding something so simple.

I’ve done this much of my life. How do I break the cycle?

Face. My. Fears.

That’s it. That’s all I have to do: face my fears. I believe in a God who defeated sin and death, who welcomes me into his presence where fear holds no power, so why do I keep on giving my old enemy authority over me when he no longer holds any power?

I know I’m not the only procrastinator out there, not the only perfectionist. There is hope. Things aren’t as difficult as you think they are. Face your fears. They’re mostly just vapors and mist. You are far more capable than you realize, and you don’t wage these battles alone. Confess your fears. Shine the light of day on them, and see how insignificant they really are.

I’m rooting for you.