…to assume you had character to begin with.
Not a single one of you accepted my challenge. Not-a one. Your silence allowed my mind to wander. In hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t think through my challenge before I declared it. Of course you wouldn’t understand you had been attacked and defend yourself. You don’t have character. Character requires perseverance, and perseverance requires overcoming some sort of difficulty. No, not the difficulties you’re thinking you have overcome. Neither exasperatingly stuck-open selfie sticks, nor completely spelling out words live under this umbrella. I’m talking difficult. I’ll give you an example.
H-‘s Spring Break was last week. (To new readers, she’s my seven-year-old daughter.) The entire reason I moved to Denver was proximity to the mountains. I wanted to live near the ski-resorts and I wanted H- to grow up skiing. The opportunity finally arrived to take her skiing. In short, the ski-lessons turned out to be a bust. She didn’t know the other kids, and the instructors were very un-ski-instructory.
The proper bunny hill, however, was open for another hour after the lesson, so I took her to the line for the unthinkably slow-but-brief chair lift. Suddenly she had to go to the bathroom.
“Too bad,” I said.
See, I have a younger brother. Once, when we were about to ride the Power Tower at Cedar Point–last ride of the night–as we crept closer to the terrifically terrifying thrill ride and heard the screams, he suddenly had to go to the bathroom.
I also said, “Too bad,” to him back then.
I can only imagine the transition H- experienced as she went from fear of the unknown, to fear of heights, to fear of how to get off the lift. But I don’t have to imagine her relief as I firmly held onto her and we successfully dismounted without hiccup.
“Ready for this?” I queried, absolutely certain she wasn’t.
She soon fell.
I didn’t help her up and I felt like a jerk.
Luckily, ever since she was very young, upon her falling down, I’ve been asking her, “Why do we fall down, Bruce?” and she answers with, “To learn how to pick ourselves up.” (Thanks, Mr. Nolan.)
We maybe made three trips up and down the bunny hill before we called it quits. If she ever chose to fall because she got going too fast and decided to bail before things got ugly, I would help her up. If she fell because she was afraid, I ski’d to her and told her to get up. That was day one.
Day two, we started fresh. After more of the same, she began to fall less and eventually proposed an intriguing deal.
“Hey Daddy. I was thinking. If I can ski down this without falling, can I have a stuffy (her name for Beanie Boos)?”
“I’ll make that deal,” I confirmed, quickly adding, “But you can’t fall once. But you’ve got a deal. It doesn’t matter if it takes all day either. If by the end of today you have made it down one time without falling, you get the stuffy.”
“Not once. Got it. Can I have one for every time I don’t fall?”
“No. But,” I continued, eyeing the larger mountain to our left, “If you go with me on that chair lift, all the way to the top, and ski down the green with me, then no matter how many times you fall, I will get you a second one.”
“So two total?”
“Yes, H-. If you don’t fall on this short one, and you simply go with me on the long one, you will get two stuffies.”
She agreed and we eventually boarded the longer lift. She seemed in awe of how much longer it was. I’m sure she was not looking forward to skiing down the mountain.
This green run took me about thirty seconds to make it down if I didn’t stop.
My mother, H-, and I took one and a half hours. Well, that’s not true. After about an hour, my mother just left us, unable to believe my treatment of H-.
H- cried most of the way. She fell about every ten feet. Only rarely did I help her up. At one point some stranger lady began giving H- tips, I didn’t acknowledge her existence. Probably five minutes went by before hah-sah-tahn concluded it was best to leave.
Are you getting the picture? I was aware that I was coming off as literally employing every horrible parenting tool out of the tool-bag. To these people, I was the tool. But they were mistaken.
See, they thought I was trying to teach H- how to ski. Far from it. It’s possible H- may never really take to skiing like I want her to. Instead, I was teaching her to have character. (Something I’m especially glad I did, considering I have since learned that none of you have it.)
Again, an hour an a half later, the last thirty minutes of which my dad and mom spent actively debating my sanity, H- and I finally made it to the point where she could see the bottom. Naturally she fell at that point.
“Get up,” I said.
Then, totally surprising me (for what reason, I do not know–this was the skill I was teaching) I hear her say to herself, “Okay. There’s the bottom. You can do this.”
I had to look away lest she see my joy; better for her to harbor whatever kind of ill will little girls can have for their fathers at this moment.
During the late lunch she further surprised me by suggesting that she probably shouldn’t get the stuffy because it took so long.
“A deal’s a deal, H-.”
Then she asked if after we go together a few more times on the bunny hill if she could try going by herself–after we ride up together.
Overall, H- did not take to skiing like my younger brother did at her age. She doesn’t turn much.
But she has something you don’t. And she will not forget it.
PS – The conversation with my friend didn’t go well, or develop at all really. We met. I barely and playfully broached the topic, and he said, “I’ve already replied.” It reminded me that he definitely carries the fire. But it also made me sad. Because I love conversation.
H- slowly read, “United States of America.”
I took back the card and scanned for the line I intended her to read and be impressed by, and then reattempted my quest, this time with my finger as a guide for her eyes.
“Flight Instructor, H-. Flight Instructor. I can teach people how to fly.”
She was not impressed.
“Oh, look at this. These are the two guys who invented flight,” I said, showing her the back of the license.
She scanned it, displaying deep resolve to not feed my ego.
“Wait,” she finally said as I took it away. “Let me see it again.”
This time her eyes studied the images.
Her turn to impress, she dispassionately declared, “They look like the Wright brothers.”
“It’s called ergonomic,” he informed H-, taking a moment to verify that he believed the mug’s slightly twisted handle was in fact designed that way, and not just poorly made.
“I would rather call it a foal. Or, like, a stallion or parents.”
“What?” he asked, confused and trying to not lose focus on what he was reading while they ate their donuts. “Why would you call a coffee cup’s handle’s shape a horse?”
After taking a moment to recount the conversation in her head, she replied, “You said,” then she paused before continuing, “Wait, what did you call it?”
“Ergonomic-” he repeated mechanically.
“-Right,” she said, recognizing the big word this time. “Then I said, ‘I’d call it a foal’—I didn’t say a horse.”
“Right,” he confirmed, belaboring the word. “Then I asked you, ‘Why would you call it a foal?’” Then, deciding that H- was not going to let him off the hook easy, he refocused all his attention on their conversation and, for clarity, asked, “What is a foal anyhow?”
Eyes wide in disbelief, she answered with an impassioned yet restrained increase in volume, “A foal is a baby horse!”
“Okay, okay. I remember now. But you still haven’t told me why you would call it a foal?”
Seeing that her father did have a point and finally hearing his real question, she answered, “Because they’re cute!”
“It’s so hot, it melted butter!” H- exclaimed as we entered the car after the service.
He immediately and uncontrollably voiced aloud, “Why is there butter in the car?” While silence filled the air, he recounted the latest and most butter filled experiences of their past.
Sure, there was the camping trip to the mountains wherein they stopped at the convenience store to pick up the butter necessary for successful and tasty breakfasts which he forgot to pack–the convenience store who’s possibly-attractive-enough-to-turn-men’s-heads-nine-years-ago-in-high-school-blonde-haired clerk suggestively asked him, “Whaaaaaaa-tcha makin’?” as she rang up the butter-
(A suggestion that he might have accepted if first, he were younger, second, he was not presently reconsidering leaving his daughter alone in the car for so long, and third, he was less aware of divine commands against extramarital fornication with heathen women.)
-But no, he could distinctly picture that box of butter and its remaining three sticks in the door of the refrigerator at home.
The salacious and provocative memory addressed, he now returned to the warm car and continued his interrogation of H-, asking, “H-? Why is there butter in the car? What are you talking about?”
Unperturbed by the question, H- answered, “It’s just a little bit, here on the handle.”
Without turning to view the location, he asked, “Okay, but where did it come from?”
Then he remembered that her bagel was simply buttered–no schmear.
“H-. I still don’t understand,” he rejoined, “Why is there butter on the handle? Where did it come from?” he continued.
“It’s not a lot, daddy,” she said. “I just, you know, had a little extra butter on the bagel and used the napkin to wipe it off and put the napkin in the door handle.”
‘Okay,’ he thought to himself. ‘So we’ve got the origin of the situation explained. Now we need to discuss the how-and-why of the fact that butter does not quite possess the right attributes to base exclamatory remarks intended to indicate uncomfortable realities of life in a car without air conditioning.’
“Yeah, well next time, H-, just eat the butter. Okay?”
“Ah, what’s going on here?” he said, upon seeing the “Road Closed” signs ahead.
Our pair were on their way to their downtown church, and as often was the case, some Sunday mornings more people chose to use the city streets to communally run/walk in circles than travel to worship the LORD.
“Daddy, why don’t you use your phone?” H- suggested from the back seat.
In previous and similar situations H- must have noticed that her father fared better when he let the voice of his GPS keep him oriented to the church’s location as he attempted to navigate the detour.
“Well, H-, here’s the thing. I feel like one day I am going to really understand how to navigate downtown Denver,” he paused for effect. “And today, well, today just might be that day.”
He looked into the rear-view mirror and saw what can only be described as volumes of doubt.
Let me pause this tale to ask you, the reader, a question. How many words can a little girl’s look contain? By my count, at least fifty. For H-‘s look said, clearer than any voice can utter, “You think today is going to be that day, daddy? Of all days, you actually think the day you understand downtown Denver is today? When we’re already late? I cannot tell, daddy, if you’re joking or not? So I’m asking you directly, ‘Do you really think that day is today?'”
Suffice it to say, it wasn’t that day.
“Well where’s the hood?” he asked.
“The hood?” H- replied in kind.
“Which side is the hood facing?” he repeated.
The father-daughter duo were back in the tent from an early morning bathroom run. H- had really needed to go.
“Yeah, on good sleeping bags like yours they put a hood where your head goes for when it is super cold,” he explained.
With wide eyes and delicate hands she proceeded to maneuver the sleeping bag around until she thought it matched her father’s words.
“Good,” he confirmed. “Now get in like normal,” he suggested. “That’s right. Now-”
H- needed no further instruction. Once in, she pressed her head up against the top of the hood and pulled down on the sides, experiencing that sensation which must fall within the bounds of what more studied men call pure delight. Soon, no longer seen by H-, he observed that she had let the hood fall over her eyes all the way down to the tip of her nose. After she fiddled with the drawstring she carefully exposed her finger from within the bag once more, this time to touch her nostrils.
“What are you doing?” he inquired, chuckling to himself.
“What?” she feigned.
“Were you just checking to see if you could still breathe out of your nose?”
A pause–probably much longer for the girl in the dark.
If by ashamed you mean ‘to chuckle’, then “Yes” I am ashamed when I see your eyes notice all the piles as you enter my home.
Immediately to your right, you see what is quite possibly the most random pile. It consists of a bowling ball bag, winter gloves, hats, and ski goggles. You next notice a kitchen table and chairs that reorient the word ‘messy’. As you gather your bearings, you see that under the kitchen counter there is an overstuffed book shelf, upon which sit more books and beside which rest two stacks of even more books. Recoiling a bit, you scan left and conclude that there must be at least one child living here because there is a small chair surrounded by children’s books and a panda bear and a remote control car with two pony passengers. The 88-key electronic keyboard and its bench have items upon them, as does the adjacent Steinway B and the instructor’s stool. Somehow that piano’s bench is without pile.
(Before walking down the hallway you pretend not to notice one more bookshelf and end table too ceased their resistance long ago.)
If your visit surprised me, I may not have had a chance to close the bedroom doors. In my bedroom you won’t see a massive pile of clothes at the end of my bed, because it is under a king size comforter which H- recently managed to place on top.
(If she’s anything like me, carrying something that big and soft from her room to mine was probably a delightful chore.)
In disbelief as you roll your eyes, H-‘s room snags your attention. Though admittedly more pink-themed, her bedding is likewise piled on her bed, and at every spot where the walls meet the floor there are piles. They are either piles of books and papers, piles of junk, piles of stuffed animals, or they are piles of clothes. Piles, piles, piles.
Why? you wonder. Why so many piles? You speculate that surely one of the books has to include both teaching on the importance and the ‘how to’ of cleaning.
Well, you asked, so I’ll tell ya. For me, piles equal happiness. Here’s the mathematical proof. If I begin to clean my piles, I’ll eventually decide to clean H-‘s piles. Half-piles do not exist. It’s all or none. And therein lies the problem. You see, H- and I spend very little time together in this junked up home. But when we do, she behaves like a Tasmanian angel. Whether coloring books, stuffed animals, reading books, or dolls, she is constantly relocating everything as she plays inside. To suggest that she “put them away” as you might think, is not really an option she would understand. And I wouldn’t know how to answer her striving for obedience, though honestly inquisitive, response, “Where, Daddy?”
This entire situation is adorable to me. Just watching her play is endlessly fascinating. How is she determining what to play with and for how long? Does she get a thrill out of not having to “clean” like I do? I’ll never know.
Anyhow, the point is, when I’ve tried to clean these piles in the past, it’s unbearable. I cannot touch her toys without thinking of her and I cannot think of her without remembering, as strongly as fire remembers hot and as ice remembers cold, that she is not here. And I cannot think that, without being sad–very, very sad.
So I maintain piles and I maintain that piles equal happiness.
He listened as H- dryly read, “And what was my life like? The heat burned me in the daytime. And it was so cold at night that I froze. I couldn’t-”
“Hold up, H-,” he interrupted at last. “Remember how we are focusing on reading with gusto? This is a good place to put some gusto into how you read the story.”
Partly frustrated by his broken record, partly curious, H- watched her father. His eyes widened and as he drew in a breath, his head bent back as well. Then he snapped it forward, his open hand slapping his chest.
“And what was my life like?”
H- smiled, beginning to understand.
“The heat,” he continued, feigning to wipe sweat from his brow, “burned me in the daytime.”
H- couldn’t remove her eyes.
“And it was so cold,” he began, shivering.
They both laughed.
“Or maybe it’d be better like this,” he offered. He then looked at frost-bitten fingertips which he rubbed together furiously and blew hot breath upon.
Laughing, she joined him.
“No, you should have done-” she began; then she huddled over, shivered and said, “Brrr, I’m sooo c-c-cold. Let me pour some hot chocolate.”
His laughter almost scared her.
“I don’t think they had hot chocolate back then, H-. Remember Jacob and Laban lived a long, long time ago,” he corrected, chuckling. “But you’re getting the gusto right. Good job. Now let’s keep reading.”
H-, now seven, turned back to the sacred words and promptly struggled to locate where she left off.
“We’re looking for ‘chocolate’,” he proposed, unable to resist.
H- laughed with her voice, but her eyes seemed to say something else.
H- answered, “Officer Judy is from Zootopia.”
“Zootopia, eh? When were you watching that?”
“So you wake up early enough to watch movies before school when you’re at your mom’s?” I asked.
“I wake up when my alarm goes off.”
“What time does your alarm go off?”
“I go down stairs and eat breakfast and then I change clothes.”
“You change clothes downstairs? Why downstairs?”
“Well, my mom throws down my clothes, and then I put them on and watch tv until it’s time to go.”
“I see. Where is your mom while you are watching tv?”
“She’s upstairs with C-.”
“Oh,” I said, cutting myself off quickly. Unable to resist the pull to follow inquiry further, I rejoined with, “What is she doing with him?”
“I think they play with each other.”
“Hmm. What do you mean? Like play games? Maybe play video games?”
“No,” she held the note, “not video games.”
“I don’t think I understand, H-. What are they playing?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
As if Truth’s gateway, the rear-view mirror reflected that her searching eyes did not notice mine.
Finding no satisfaction, H- concluded, “More like wrestling, I think. I don’t have the word.”
But who can explain longing to my child?
The teardrop tries but fails,
For it carries many.
The silenced voice is unheard,
The pounding heart, muffled.
The knotted gut is unseen,
The lumped throat, concealed.
But who can explain longing to my child?
I could explain longing to my child,
But for it is not when I am with her.