On the Families We Want

There’s an urban legend that Ernest Hemingway once won a bet among fellow authors over whether he could write a six-word story.  As the story goes, he won the bet by passing around the table a napkin upon which he wrote: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” No proof exists to substantiate the tale and it’s almost certainly completely untrue, but it entices, in part, because the six words evoke such a strong reaction in the audience.  We don’t know if the infant in the story died or never came to be at all, but the pain and anguish are universal.

More than three years into our adoption wait, I frequently think of Hemingway’s story, especially as I walk past the nursery or contemplate buying baby baubles. Every adoptive parent struggles with the wait and fears that it won’t happen. Most stories end happily, but the very real possibility that some don’t is the sad fact that makes Hemingway’s story so potent.

As I wonder when my son will arrive, it’s uncomfortable to consider the bad luck my family has encountered when it comes to meeting sons. My great-great-great-great grandfather, John Hargis, was murdered by pirates while on a trading cruise down the Ohio River on October 17, 1838. Eight months after his death, his twelfth and last child was born, John Arnold Hargis, my great-great-great grandfather.  History would repeat itself two generations later in 1904, when my great-grandfather, James Arnold Hargis, was born one day after his father, James A. Hargis, died. Hence, I’m exercising, eating healthy, and avoiding pirates.

I wonder if my great-great-great-great grandfather would find it fascinating that, 179 years after his murder at the hands (and hooks?) of pirates, his great-great-great-great grandsons met for the first time in a small restaurant in Huntsville, Alabama. I imagine he’d still be pretty upset at the whole pirate-murder thing, but he might find some solace in two strands of the family tree coming together.

When I met my cousin Ryan for lunch over Labor Day weekend, it wasn’t actually the first time we had ever met, but it was the first time I had seen him in over thirty years. I had vague recollections of meeting him when we were both very young, and so, meeting as 40-ish men, I think it counts as a first meeting. Now, we sat at a table next to each other, significant others in tow, sharing nothing but a common ancestry and a meal.

Over the next two hours, we covered travel, work, obscure movies, and our hopes for our children, including those present and those hoped for. I had a fantastic time; I think we all did. And I hope we get together again soon. Ryan’s wonderful girlfriend Lindsay said she could see the family resemblance in our eyes. I’m not sure I saw that, but it was enough for me to enjoy the feeling of growing my family. Hubby and I still wait patiently but eagerly for our little bundle of joy to bounce along, but the prospect of a new cousin with interests in common is pretty awesome too.

The sad vendor of Hemingway’s story didn’t get the family he or she wanted, or so it appears. And none of us do. It’s just not guaranteed; life isn’t fair. That said, moments like my Labor Day lunch remind me that family can be, to some extent, what we make it. That’s a hopeful thought and something to build on. Just stay away from the pirates.

On My Tiny House

I want to live in a tiny house.

It’s all very clear to me. Our house would be maybe 400 square feet big — a functioning kitchen, a pint-size bathroom with a composting commode and shower constructed of a watering can and old barrel, a living room/study/family room/entryway/mudroom/utility closet combo, and a set of authentic-looking canning jars placed just-so on the window ledge with lids open enough to capture all of our dreams. Life would be rambling from one vista to the next, our little love nest in tow. Home anywhere and everywhere.

This is all a vicious lie.

Sort of.

I watch HGTV in amazement as couple after couple (often with a brood of children and litter of animals) “tour” these tiny homes, squealing with delight at the abundant kitchen cabinetry doubling as sock drawers and dryer vents. As these lovers of less twirl (they can’t really walk) in their potential abode, they coo over the loft beds and appreciate the exercise they’ll get climbing the ladder into them every night. Admittedly, the necessary chamber pots can be decorative. I marvel at their excitement as they realize that they can be in four rooms at once, that privacy has been totally destroyed, and that every waking moment can now be shared, intimately, with those they love.

My sarcasm hides the truth: I’m a little envious. I’m envious that these tiny home buyers appear to have decoupled themselves successfully from the materialism pervasive in American life. I’m challenged that these tiny home buyers seem to be motivated by a different (higher?) set of priorities. And I’m given pause by their capacity to buck the system, to challenge that “bigger is better,” to give action to their ideals. Few admit to being materialistic, but even fewer actually live a life oriented away from “stuff.”

I’m sure not every tiny house buyer is a paragon of virtue. A certain slice of these buyers just likes the novelty, no doubt, and, within a year or two, super-sizes up to a McMansion. Nevertheless, my visceral reaction to their housing choice is certainly a testament to the power of the cultural message of buying bigger, buying better. Sure, it’s fair to find such miniature abodes simply not practical for most, but, as a challenge to our assumptions of what we need and what is important in life, tiny houses sure do loom large.

On A Ferry Master, Revisited

[Note: I was happy with the first version of “On a Ferry Master,” but I felt like there was a missing quatrain. I’ve added the middle quatrain, and edited the poem to more strictly adhere to a 10/10/10/12 syllable count in the quatrains. But for line 12, the opening foot of each line is a trochaic foot, but, for the other feet, I followed my ear. The quatrains follow an a/a/b/b rhyme scheme.]


Tawny, brawny arms inked with grime and black,
loading his boat he swings them front and back,
leading cars like heavy Holstein cattle,
patting the steel heifers as they park and rattle.

Bouncing ‘tween banks his doddering ferry –
doubting drivers’ faiths whispered and carried –
Master mans a hoary helm armed for kills,
fated but to now cruise round the same pygmy hill.

Temporary shepherd cross choppy water,
tending his ferrous flock his lone bother.
Master charges a small two-axle toll,
but breathing exhaust ’tis the cost to his weathered soul.

On a Chorus of Frogs

Last week, the heavens opened up and sheets of rain crashed about our house for hours on end. The torrent was such that the idea of the entire tri-state region beckoning the storm with an effective group rain dance could not be ruled out. So plentiful was the moisture in the air that walking along the sidewalk would have been more akin to a swim. You get the point, it was rainy.

During a relative lull in the downpour, I stood at the kitchen sink when a frog’s ribbit echoed through the kitchen so loudly that I startled myself motionless. Understanding that I was not in a bog, I ruled out frogs at my feet, but, upon closer listening, I deduced that the infringing croaks originated right outside our kitchen window. Moreover, as I crept closer to the window, honing in on the amphibious squawk, I realized that it was not a ribbit solo but, rather, a chorus of frogs outside my window. I dashed out to the front porch into the soupy night and was greeted by the rumble of thunder, the splatter of heavy rain, and an anuran ensemble. I spotted one of the singers near our bushes; compared to their powerful croaks, these toads were tiny. I couldn’t understand how such tiny bodies produced such booming, echoing croaks! I laughed at the preternatural spectacle of the moment, and, as I stood on the porch listening to the storm and to the show, I also thought back to 1983.

In 1983, or thereabouts, my family took a trip to St. Louis, Missouri. I remember precious little from the trip, but, with clarity, I recall three things: going up in the Gateway Arch, swimming in our hotel pool, and Dad becoming upset that neither my sister nor I showed much interest in the botanical gardens. His frustration aside, I suppose we weren’t unusual for seven- and four-year-olds. No matter how beautiful the blooms, most kids just aren’t going to go wild at the prospect of flowers, trees, and bushes.

My ambivalence to nature remained strong throughout my childhood. I was not opposed to being outdoors if it meant playing sports or perhaps earning some spending money by mowing a lawn or two, but I certainly didn’t feel the call of the great outdoors. Camping seemed unnecessarily uncomfortable, and gardening or planting flowers involved getting dirty. I didn’t see the appeal, yet there was Dad, working in the yard, planting flowers and bushes. I always recognized that our home had one of the prettiest yards on the block; I just couldn’t work up any interest of my own beyond appreciating the final product. Mother Nature and I were not close.

I’m slowly changing, though, and our move to a more rural exurb of the DC area has hastened that change. My early morning commutes are often greeted by a bubbling red sun as it peaks over the horizon, and the deer and fox are so plentiful as to create hazards on the roads. Woodpeckers, hawks, and groundhogs are not uncommon running partners as I stroll through my tiny new hometown, and the simple stretch of fields, farms, barns, and trees on my daily drives invite a slower contemplation of all that is not concrete, steel, and plastic.

I am not ready to quit my job, live off the land, and sew my own clothes. I won’t give away my laptop or stop enjoying my satellite radio. That said, promoting Mother Nature from background extra to recurring guest star in my daily life has been a healthy counter-weight to my workdays spent e-mailing, instant messaging, and otherwise staring at a computer screen, as well as my nights blogging, Netflixing, and texting. I can’t fight the creep of technology in our lives, and I don’t even want to. But, I am more than happy to acknowledge that, as I get a little older, the natural world becomes a much greater source of peace, happiness, and wonder for me. I’m old enough to appreciate that gardens, or even a tiny flower bed, take work; to contemplate the awesome natural forces that make canyons, waterfalls, or small frogs; and to consider my tiny existence in a galaxy and universe literally full of natural wonder.

And so I stood on my porch listening to the chorus of frogs, thinking about how things change, and counting the amazingly ordinary, natural beauty that populates our lives. And, next month, when I take my parents to my favorite botanical garden, I will, in part, consider it payback for Dad’s ill-fated visit thirty-four years ago. I promise not to complain.

On The Certainty I Need

Hubby is busy planning our fall vacation to California, picking the best places in Los Angeles and San Diego to visit. In addition to spending time with family, including meeting our precious new niece, we’ll relax at Disneyland and check in at the adoption agency for the latest update on our own adoption efforts. Beyond that, I have no idea what we will do, but I’m leaving the rest to him. Turning over our trip planning to my husband has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Sure, I’ve taken some amazing trips because of it, but, more importantly, I haven’t gotten my way.

Left to my own devices, there is exactly zero percent chance I would have traveled to Guatemala or Peru, or to Sedona, Arizona, or to Cape May, New Jersey, or even to the Brandywine Valley. Had those destinations crossed my mind, I would have acknowledged their interesting nature, and skated right on past. Having to compromise, though, resulted in a litany of incredible experiences, from the salt flats of Peru to the hotel nestled among volcanoes in Guatemala, from the classic boardwalk of Cape May to the red rock cliffs of Sedona. I found myself in awe of the beauty and uniqueness of each stop. The unexpected nature of my enjoyment often heightened the adventure. With every trip, I grew to understand that experiences outside my comfort zone reaped far greater rewards than those inside it.

Openness to new things is a type of flexibility,  and I fear our culture’s “progress” can, at times, stifle our flexibility. Our technology renders our daily lives more controlled, less unpredictable. Drive without our GPS and cell phones? No way.  Skip a text message and actually call someone on the phone, risking a demanding interpersonal exchange? No thanks. It’s all around us; the conveniences, the efficiencies, the progress. Along the way, we have greater control and greater knowledge, but fewer surprises and fewer incentives to wing it. Why risk a random restaurant when its Yelp review is so readily available? After all, if the meal is bad, we may not eat again for something like six whole hours.

So much of adult life — done right — is about planning and minimizing risk. We save for retirement; we guard our health and vitality via diet and exercise; and we order our lives by ideals of right and wrong to, in part, maximize the social contract by which we live together. And so, at times, it doesn’t feel natural to “go along for the ride,” to let someone else choose, to choose the unknown and risk our precious time, control, and independence. Nevertheless, the unexpected can bring unmatched rewards, a loosening of narrow boundaries, and an exposure to ideas and beauty that we otherwise would not anticipate. A solid sense of self is key to maturity, but too much rigidity and inflexibility and our lives become constrained, hemmed in by nothing more than our unwillingness to live a bigger, broader, richer life.

I’m rather fond of the admonition to not live the same year eighty times and call it a life. I am, admittedly, a creature of habit and enjoy my comforts, but I’ve also learned the great joy in trying something new, even if it’s a little scary, a little out of my comfort zone. And, so, in a few weeks, I’ll head off on vacation not quite certain of anything other than it will be wonderful, and that’s just about all the certainty I need.

On Accepting the Challenge

A mile into my four-mile run, another runner turned onto the road, a few hundred feet in front of me.

It was a gorgeous summer day, I’d finished my chores, and I was ready to enjoy a leisurely run through the pastoral landscape of our new hometown. When we lived in the District, my runs generally consisted of six half-mile circles through our townhouse development. It was monotonous, but safe and predictable. Since our move to a lovely, rural exurb, I’ve enjoyed more rambling runs through small neighborhoods, along country roads, and around the small downtown haunts. While running has always been a chore I’ve only half-heartedly embraced, I’ve recently found myself actually enjoying it. I’m still slow as Christmas, but at least I have a smile on my face. Or at least a smiling grimace.

I don’t know why it all changed on this day. It could have been the fast tempo of the music playing on my iPod. It could have been the great night’s sleep I’d had. Or it could have been the natural competitive juices that have made me a slightly above average Clue and Battleship board game player. Whatever the reason, as the other runner entered my field of vision, it was obvious to me that the alternating flash of the runner’s heels was a not-so-subtle rebuke of my running style and speed. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and I accepted the challenge. I would overtake this new-found adversary, and my Saucony running shoes would leave nothing but a trail of tears and a cloud of dust in my victorious wake.

I picked up the pace, the cadence of my footfalls perfectly in synch with the pop song currently blasting in my ears. I turned up the volume. Shoulders back, foot kick crisp, breathing controlled. I was picking up speed, and the other runner was looming larger in my vision with every step. It was one of those steps, as my foot kicked perfectly in advance of a balanced heel strike, that I realized I was actually wearing my old running shoes. The realization of inferior equipment — worn soles, diminished heel support — would have affected a lesser runner. Not me. Not this day. The challenge had been accepted, and, as I had recently reminded myself, I believed in the mantra that there are no shortcuts to excellence. This day wasn’t about the equipment, it was about the man. And, with that, I persisted.

It wasn’t long — perhaps a few more pop songs, a dash past the local Subway and McDonalds — before my adversary nemesis was right in front of me. It wasn’t difficult to pick up my speed, and smoothly pass on the left. I didn’t glance over, I didn’t acknowledge. Rather, I just let my running do the talking. I left it all on the sidewalk, so to speak. Had my manhood been tested? My mettle? Yes. The point wasn’t the fact that I succeeded in overtaking and leaving my nemesis in the dust; rather, it was that I accepted the challenge to do so in the first place.

Now, Negative Nancys out there would point out that my nemesis was a heavily pregnant woman in her early 30s wearing knee braces on both legs. But I’m not a Negative Nancy. I’m also a firm believer in gender equality, and I’m not about to insinuate that, somehow, someway, I had any advantage. I’m not going to disrespect her like that. Besides, winners don’t make excuses. And I’m a winner.

On A Ferry Master

Tawny, brawny arms inked with grime and black,
loading his boat he swings them front and back.
The ferry master ushers his cars like Holstein cattle,
patting the steel heifers as they park and rattle.

A temporary shepherd across a stretch of choppy water,
tending his ferrous flock is his only earthly bother.
For his protection he hoards the paltry two-axle toll,
while breathing exhaust is the charge to his weathered soul.