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.

Chattanooga, here I come!

If you asked the me from 2008 if he would ever express the words: “I’m excited about running the Raccoon Mountain Marathon tomorrow. Actually, giddy would better define my current mood,” he’d have looked at you like your face began to bubble, but much has transpired since then.

Six days ago, I was up at 4 am–usual for a Saturday–getting my run in so as to not miss any family time. Not only are weekend runs good for building my serotonin levels, releasing endorphins, and testing the limits of my cardiovascular system, they also provide the opportunity to catch up with friends. This particular morning, five of us hit the trail together, which was quite a large group considering the temperature hovered around 25° F. (Look, I know our behavior is atypical, but when one finds friends who stick closer than brothers, you make sacrifices to spend time together.)

Since I signed up for a 50k in May, my training plan called for eight miles that morning, and when my buddies, surprised at the reduced mileage, asked what I would be running the next weekend, I surprised all of us by responding, “I’m running 26.2 miles next week.”

“Woah, a full marathon?”

“That’s what my plan calls for.”

Normally, I don’t check my calendar more than a week in advance, but for whatever reason, that day I knew what the following week held.

Then Dave asked the fateful question: “Well, are you going to run a race that weekend?”

You see, I have the equipment, fortitude, and route knowledge necessary to run a marathon all by my lonesome. I can simply step out my front door, do the distance, and be back in time for breakfast, but as a number of miles had already flown beneath our feet, a dangerous cocktail of serotonin, endorphins, and caffeine flowed through my system, and I wondered if anyone had put together a nearby marathon and scheduled it for the following week.

Alas, a quick Google search revealed no one had. Mid-March tends to be too chilly in the Midwest to warrant many marathons, but I found quite a few in Southern climes, particularly Texas.

The closest one I found meant a six-hour trip to a small town in Illinois where I could look forward to a five-mile-and-change course that looped out from a junior high school. Running that same course five times through a small town held little appeal, so I scrolled on.

What? A trail marathon? On a mountain? How far away is Chattanooga? Seven hours? I can drive that! Let’s see, it’s $100 to register, not bad for a week before the race. It’s near a campground. Let’s see what kinds of accommodations they offer… Ah, I’ll probably do better finding a cheap hotel. Looks like I can book a room at Red Roof Inn for a hundred bucks. I wonder if the wife would go for it?

All of this happened over breakfast following the eight-mile run. Then I actually checked the race website for nearby accommodations only to discover a hostel existed in downtown Chattanooga offering bunks for $35 per night. Sold! I just turned my $200 weekend adventure into a $135 weekend adventure.

Apparently my enthusiasm was infectious, because the wife approved just as long as I paid for it out of my personal funds. Agreeing to these conditions, I quickly registered for the race and booked my bunk.

I packed my bag last night after small group and stowed it in the car so I wouldn’t forget it in the morning and spent today at work smiling at my students and humming songs to myself. I made it to Chattanooga just ten minutes shy of eight hours, having made a single stop in Cincinnati for dinner and gas. I checked into the hostel, visited a local brewery, and stopped at the bar next to the hostel to sample some Kentucky bourbon one can’t get in Columbus. It’s almost 2 am now, but I wanted to share this with you before falling asleep reading Kerouac’s masterpiece, On the Road.

My last blog post surprised many people. Apparently, when I’m dealing with anxiety and depression, I tend to put on a happy face. So I just wanted to let you all know that once again, life is good, and I’m enjoying it.

Please don’t worry; I’ll let you know how the remainder of my weekend goes. Wish me luck!

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.

Responding to the Mass Shooting in Vegas

At least 50 dead with over 500 injured? What possesses someone to check into a hotel, arsenal in tow, and fire into a crowd from an upper story window? Hearing about this atrocity feels like a gut punch, rocking us back on our heels to leave us on hands and knees, desperate to breathe normally again.

It hurts, but we’re going to be okay… We can do this… Just breathe… Take it slow. Together we’re going to get through this.

Yes, there’s a lot to deal with right now, and we’ve been through enough loss already without somebody deliberately firing assault rifles at a crowd. It’s one thing when a hurricane devastates several communities before another decimates entire islands, but when someone in the shadow of all the rest sprays bullets at innocents, you can’t help but struggle for purchase: What happened? Why would anybody do that? How bad is it? Oh, my God! Why is this happening? What are we going to do about it?

Some answers we’ll find, while others will elude us. Meanwhile, social media erupts with outrage and backbiting. People scream about gun control and the NRA, while others argue about why this man is not being called a terrorist. We want fixes for a problem we know exists but feel has no solution: How do you stop evil?

You overcome evil with good.

How does one counteract greed? With generosity. How do you stop injustice? By acting justly. Stealing is undone by restoration, and hate cannot stand in the presence of love. Fear loses its power in the face of courage, and there is no room for contention in the hearts of peacemakers. Yes, we humans have a huge capacity for doing wrong; we’ve seen it for centuries, but we have just as much capacity for doing good.

Open your hands to the poor and needy. Look for the helpers and join them in their work. Stand with those who mourn. Comfort the lonely and afflicted. Donate your time and money to efforts that drive the darkness away.

Turning strangers into friends may not absolutely solve the problem of evil, but it will stunt its growth, enriching the lives of others in the process. We see how misshapen this broken world has become, so let’s participate in the work of healing we all so desperately need.

What Have They Done?

Let’s talk about the terrible.

Upon meeting someone, one of my go-to questions is, “What’s your favorite movie?” If my potential new friend doesn’t freeze, overwhelmed with the more than 500,000 choices in existence, based on their answer, I can get a pretty good feel for who they are.

The person who picks Gone with the Wind differs greatly from the one selecting Zombie Strippers. Does this mean one becomes my bestie while I kick the other to the curb? Certainly not! Might I have to work a bit harder to connect with one compared to the other? Most definitely, but I won’t hold their choice of Gone with the Wind against them. Sure, Scarlett is a terribly selfish person, and the movie drags on forever with a rare reprieve of her throwing up after eating radishes, and you’re like, “Yeah, doofus, you deserve that!” But I won’t split hairs.

Gone with the Wind is considered a cinematic classic, but I want the time back I spent watching it. My wife loves Castaway, but beyond the use of the line, “I have made fire,” it mostly gets a meh from me. I’ve never seen the Godfather series or Heat, but I love This is Spinal Tap and Stranger than Fiction. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are incredible, and I adore It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Art speaks to people, and discovering which specific piece speaks to someone reveals much about that person. Paintings aren’t widely distributed, and music is so accessible, when someone shares a favorite musician, my typical response is, “Who?”

That’s why movies are so great. Yeah, the market’s saturated with them, but because of their length and distribution, it limits our choices, which means we as a culture have a common vocabulary. Most everyone has Amazon Prime or Netflix, and even after traveling across the country, I found people looking forward to the latest release in the Fast and Furious series just like others back home.

For the most part, critics and audiences agree on which movies are worth seeing, and over time, certain movies will ascend the ladder of opinion to become considered classics. Therefore, if culture decides which movies are good, what about terrible movies? I’m not talking about cinematic masterpieces I just don’t understand. I’m talking about the ones critics rake over the coals or that bomb at the box office but are still loved years later — cult classics.

All over the country, fans dress up and fill theaters to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room year after year, reveling in all the aspects one would normally cite for making them bad movies, whether it be poor acting, terrible dialogue, low production value, etc.

Watching them, one’s brain struggles to comprehend how something so awful in so many ways actually exists. They’re so bad, these trash movies take on a mythic quality, because surviving suffering appeals to us. Eating spicy food or sucking sour candy is an unpleasant experience, yet we breed spicier peppers and up the levels of sourness because people can’t help themselves. These car accidents of cinema fascinate us with their mangled scripts, and we wonder if the careers of those involved made it out alive, but we drive away with a sense of relief knowing we weren’t involved.

You know how in the Producers, Bialystock and Bloom set out to put on the worst play ever, a guaranteed flop, so they can raise too much money for it and when it fails, profit? To that end, they do everything they can to ensure the awfulness of their endeavor, but it all backfires when instead of them creating a tragedy, audiences perceive it as a comedy, loving it. That audience’s reaction is the phenomena I’m talking about with these films. Not many set out to make terrible movies, Johnny Depp notwithstanding; however, terrible movies keep showing up in theaters. Did you see the Emoji Movie? Neither did I.

Terrible movies abound so much so that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, experiences where the audience watches a terrible movie but laughs all the way through because of the comedic commentary dubbed over the film’s soundtrack, are popular enough to provide their creators a good living. Sharknado (You know the movie where sharks get carried by a tornado up onto land so no one is safe?) has produced four sequels. Four! People can’t get enough, and neither can I.

Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Dark Tower in theaters with friends knowing reviews weren’t good. In both cases, the critics were correct, but I enjoyed these movies flaws and all. John Carter ranks up there as one of my favorite bad movies, and I don’t even know why I love it.

My all time favorite terrible movie, though, is Flash Gordon. Yeah, the one with a ridiculous plot, terrible acting, weird choices in costuming and set decoration, bird men, Timothy Dalton, and an ending still left unresolved nearly 40 years later all set to a soundtrack provided by Queen.

Network execs showed that movie on broadcast television throughout my childhood often enough I fell in love with it. Some random Saturday afternoon, my father or I would be flipping through our five channels, there it would be, and there our flipping would stop. I love it even though I never saw the beginning until getting the movie on Blu-Ray a few years back.

Dare I say it? Along with reruns of the original Star Trek and multiple viewings of the Star Wars movies, Flash Gordon helped form my entertainment palate, God help me; I’m a sucker for sci-fi.

There you have it. All this to confess I love a terrible film. Yes, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen Flash Gordon. Yes, I’ll probably watch it again soon. How could I not?

I’ll even bet there’s a terrible movie out there you love. You know, the one you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this.

Do me a favor and watch it again.

Revel in it like you do when a stench assails your nostrils, almost causing you to retch, but then you take a second whiff to give yourself a bit of a thrill.

Better yet, watch that terrible movie with someone you love who has yet to see it. Show them who you are, scars and all.

“Hi, I’m Jake. I love Flash Gordon. What’s you favorite terrible movie?”

Gooooooooaaaaaaaaallllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!

Normally, this would be the point where I mention blowing the dust off my keyboard since I haven’t updated my blog since April. Thing is, I don’t have to do that as I spent the last month working on a fiction piece as well as transcribing interviews from our trip to Arizona over spring break, which resulted in about 10,000 words. Excuse me while I stand on my chair and celebrate with my own hearty congratulations.

Ooh, bad idea. The desk chair rotates as well as rolls. Lemme get down before I brain myself.

Thing is, I can’t take the credit for accomplishing what amounts to a monster level of writing for me. Ask any of the professors from my MFA, and they’ll tell you there’s no way Jake accomplished that much work by himself. I didn’t; I stole an idea.

Every month, there’s this very nice lady who creates an event in Facebook where the invitees post mileage and other fitness goals for themselves then provide posts, documenting their progress in achieving these goals. Because those who participate in the group are wonderfully generous themselves, whenever anyone posts, they get flooded with positive support along with a modicum of ornery banter.

In addition to the support I receive from this crew, I also gleaned ideas such as running twice in a day, setting a mileage goal for cycling, and adding whole body exercise routines to my repertoire, things I wouldn’t consider myself, which results in me feeling better and being far more confident than I ever have before.

So I stole this idea of doing a monthly mileage challenge on Facebook and created a monthly writing challenge after discovering one of my fellow runners is also a fellow writer with a similar need for accountability. I set it up, invited other writers, and set a goal of writing 25 hours in June.

Which I did.

After skipping a bunch of days.

You see, I figured I could write for an hour each day. (We were less than a week into June when I created the challenge.)

I found it was harder to carve the time out than I first assumed.

Which meant I had to up my daily production.

Forcing myself to write for two hours and forty-five minutes some days.

Which sucked.

And because I created this group challenge, there was no way I was going to miss my goal, so I kept at it.

And I learned something. Three things, actually.

  1. I learned that setting a goal and sharing that goal along with progress made in achieving it with others working toward similar goals nets you many cheerleaders.
  2. I learned that slacking off early makes more work for you in the end.
  3. I learned that spending time doing something important not only creates progress, it also reveals the person I want to be more often.

So if there’s something out there you want to do, procrastinating will get you nowhere. I should know.

Set a goal, share it with others pursuing similar goals, and root each other on till the end. You might not cross the finish line first, but you will move further down the road.

Pen/sword

If asked about their favorite Star Wars movie, most would say Empire Strikes Back, because Hans Solo is a badass. When shit goes sideways, and Leia confesses her love, he responds, “I know.” But for me, Return of the Jedi is superior. Many hate the Ewoks, but I delight in the heroism they show when overcoming blaster-wielding stormtroopers with not much more than rocks and sticks. When you add in the speeder-bike chase on top of that? Mama mia!

What’s true of the original Star Wars trilogy holds true of the other trilogy in which Harrison Ford starred. Where most say Raiders of the Lost Ark reigns supreme for its iconic opening scene as well as the face-melting ending, I have to confess that for me Last Crusade trumps the other two. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t count.) Many moments in Last Crusade elicit giggles and gasps from me despite numerous viewings, but there’s only one reason it’s my favorite Indiana Jones anything. The scene that makes the movie for me, where Indy sets out to rescue his father, Henry, and his father’s friend, Marcus Brody, is special not because Indy takes on a tank with nothing more than a horse and a rock. What sets it apart is the moment when Henry, fighting for control of the tank, uses a pen to squirt ink into the eyes of his attacker, and Marcus, ever the academic, pauses to point out, “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword.” My mother explained to ten-year-old me Marcus’ line was more than just a nod to how Henry defeated the Nazi; it possessed deeper meaning. To this day, at 38 years of age, I’m still realizing the significance of the metonymic adage (Thanks, Wikipedia!), the pen is mightier than the sword.

As a middle school English teacher and husband, I know firsthand the power words possess. Just this month, one of my students threatened others via social media and is my student no longer, finishing out the year at an alternative school. The other week, I placed my wife, Laura, in a situation where in jest, a friend threw out the word ‘stupid,’ opening up a wound in Laura stemming back to childhood when her mother, frustrated when she felt Laura took too long to answer, demanded, “What’s the matter with you; are you stupid or something?” Realizing how upset Laura was, I helped resolve the issue and in so doing was reminded that while calling Laura ‘asshole’ will make her laugh, calling anyone ‘stupid’ in Laura’s presence will deconstruct her calm like dynamite razing a skyscraper.

Words can devastate, but unlike an explosive, words can also restore, building others up and healing psychological wounds. Mentors who birthed the greatest positive effects in me all produced growth through words of encouragement.

Flaming with pleasure, my face refused to lift to meet the eyes of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, as she told me that in over thirty years of teaching, I was her favorite student. Hearing these words marked the first time an adult who wasn’t family helped determine my value, and over subsequent years, Mrs. Mann insisted on reiterating my worth again and again, much to my embarrassment and great delight.

The victim of bullies and inept in social interaction, the high school me viewed himself a good student and well-loved at home but felt few in the wider world would call him ‘friend,’ a self-fulfilling prophesy reinforced through seclusion. My one saving grace and the first place I experienced community with others my age, our church’s youth group allowed me to thrive in my faith, functioning as a forum where I could ask all the difficult questions I wanted and still express myself as the adolescent I was. That was the first place anyone called me ‘cool,’ a descriptor I thought reserved for those with the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right amount of money in their back pocket — three things I did not possess. Our pastor, Matt White, looked straight at me with a big smile and said, “Jake, you’re cool.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘You’re cool,’ Jake.” I can’t recall if Matt went on to explain, or if he left the compliment where it was, clapped me on the shoulder, grabbed some snacks, and headed back to the circle of teenagers. Shocked anyone would view me that way, I found it difficult staying upright. Even though Matt meant what he said, my brain refused to comprehend, but as the time he invested in us stretched from months to years, the more comfortable I became, and the more I grew into the person Matt perceived. As life continued, many others came alongside, saw something worthwhile, and named it. Their life-giving words empowered me to thrive, and because of that, I have the opportunity to encourage others and help them grow.

Traditions tell that words possess enough power to alter the physical world. The Ancient Egyptian creation myth holds that Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen, produced the gods and other things once he uttered the ideas developed within his heart. The Torah says God spoke all of creation into existence. He conceived it, uttered it, and it was. Because Wiccans believe in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe, it’s encouraged that spells should have verbal components, and when Jesus healed people or cast out demons, all it usually took was a word or two to transform the lives of the victimized. Though some words spoken affect great change, most of what is said drifts away like snow before a gale.

We are leaky vessels, only capable of holding so much, and much of what we do grasp ends up dribbling from between our fingers. Some spoken words we can’t contain; others just don’t penetrate as we are occupied by other matters. We forget and move on.

Where spoken words are wild and free, ideas incarnate flying forth on wings of expression, the written word matures, condensed ideas diced and blended together to create new experience. The written word endures. Even though it often exists as no more than stains on paper or bits of data uploaded to a server; it sets the course for culture as citizens consume it, evaluate it, ruminate on it, digest it, develop from it, and produce new written work springing from the old. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The written word moves and breathes, cutting to our very cores and changing us. That’s why the pen is mightier than the sword. Where the sword of war alters culture, bringing death and destruction, the pen develops and disseminates ideas, enabling civilization to thrive. If no one had written the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, America would never have been established, nor would it have long endured.

So I write, wielding my pen/sword as best I can. My words may not reach many, nor may they be as clever as others’ or as beautiful, but I live my life, making mistakes and learning from them. I have stories to tell and ideas to share. That’s why I’m traveling to Arizona for spring break. I go to gather stories of the cult my grandfather helped establish 50 years ago, to speak with those who left the church and those who still cling to the decades-old promises as dusty and empty as the bomb shelters below them. I go to discover why my grandfather left his family and to uncover the kind of life he led apart from us. By putting pen to paper, I hope to close the void my grandfather left in my life, and through the means of my healing, perhaps others will find healing as well. No matter the pain, I draw the sword of contention from my side and exchange it for the pen of understanding to write the best part of my life’s trilogy, a feat worthy of Harrison Ford armed with a rock.

Trials and Errors

I just finished reading Run the World by Becky Wade, a former collegiate runner who in her first marathon, beat out the rest of the women in a touch over 2 hrs and 38 mins, launching her professional career.

What’s her secret? How’d she do it?

Concocting a plan to travel the world, Becky visited star-producing countries that shatter speed and endurance records to run with their elite, averaging 75-mile weeks and learning their dietary and cultural practices.

That’s the elevator pitch.

How’d she really do it? She worked for it. Earned it. Struggled. Fought for it. Deprived herself. Sacrificed. She tried herself. Found out of what she was capable.

I teach middle schoolers, and there’s a divide yawning between my kids who succeed and those who fail: their willingness to jump. This week, I assigned a certain number of lessons students had to pass in order to net the full credit, and the ones who did were the ones who failed and tried again and failed and learned from their mistakes and passed. The ones who earned none of the credit were students who failed the first lesson or two and stopped.

Thing is, I am those students who failed, and I’m not just talking academics here. I’m talking about any moment where one can risk or not, whether it’s sports, social situations, or even dealing with spirituality. Spending much of my life afraid of change, I took few risks, which stunted my growth and limited my options. At 25, I weighed about 165 soaking wet and worked a full-time job to which I commuted from my parent’s house. I couldn’t afford to move out, because I had yet to save up for a car.

At any instant where growth can occur, there has to be momentum, forward progress. To learn to swim, one has to let go of the ladder. To be a parent, one has to bear responsibility; producing a child is not enough. To succeed, one has to fail, and one can’t fail if they don’t jump, letting go of whatever makes them feel safe, propelling themselves into a space where guts move independent of the rest of the body, and landing well or falling. We don’t leap forward because we’re afraid to fall.

Within a year, I bought a car and moved out on my own, taking a flying leap.

I read Becky Wade’s book because I’m a runner; I’ve fallen too many times to count. I’ve sustained injuries and frozen extremities. The reason I keep running is because it propels me forward; I get to explore my physical and mental limits. I learn what works in various situations because I risk running with ever-changing variables, whether that’s weather, distance, surface, time of day, location, or even physical condition. Because every run changes, I have to change with it, causing growth. Change causes growth.

It’s January 6th, and I have yet to make any resolutions. Well, time to change that. Because I want to continue developing mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially; I resolve to embrace change. Expect to see more frequent blog entries; look for announcements about my memoir and the novel I’m writing; anticipate my teaching a new class; and prepare yourself for such minor adventures as new friendships, improvements to the house, and a trip or two.

If there’s something you know you need to do, but you’ve been afraid to do it, do it. Risk failing/falling, and if you do, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, assess your injuries, and try again.

Apple

My son asked for a snack, an everyday happenstance not worthy of blogging, but this time when I gave him permission, he asked for a piece of candy. Also, not out of the ordinary. For whatever reason, I told him, “No, buddy, how about something healthy?”

Not only did Asher understand my flippant answer, he responded with excitement. The boy, at four years of age, went to the refrigerator, pulled out an apple, and asked me to cut it up for him. This is the kid who, up to a few months ago, would eat nothing but protein and carbs. I have never been more eager to remove the flesh of an apple from its core.

I too am an apple, at least that’s what my family calls me, for not too long ago, Asher overheard his mother using her special term of endearment for me, which he interpreted as a source of cider. In reality, her pet name marked me as a source of bullshit. Now due to Asher’s mistake, when Laura refers to me as “Apple,” it’s not because I’m so sweet, it’s because I’m a jerk.

Despite the new appellation, my flesh is not easily divided from my core. I mean, you could, but the knife would have to be super-sharp and my juices would literally go everywhere. Figuratively, I get stuck when trying to write about my grandfather, for his story is the story of my family, and my understanding of family history contains the seeds from which my identity grew, so every time I try to write about my grandfather, it feels like a knife slicing too close to my core.

I’ve got wounds inside that need healed. Anger seethes within as I consider the pain my grandfather’s abandonment inflicted upon my aunts and uncles. I bleed, and writing is the iodine that’ll prevent festering, but I know it’ll hurt, so I continue leaking onto the carpet. Meanwhile years go by, and I’ve made no headway either on paper or with becoming whole.

I am an apple. Holding back on the writing means I’m not becoming the husband Laura needs me to be, and I’m not the father my kids deserve. The reason I don’t write is because I’m selfish.

Not only will I be healed through the telling of why my grandfather left his family and what became because of it, others who grew up in the cult my grandfather helped create may find solace as well. Geez, Apple, get to work.

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.