Hills to climb

One of the parallels to life I draw from bicycling is the struggle of climbing a hill.

Not that I am a cyclist. More than a decade ago, a 20-mile ride on my bike was pretty much a daily thing. I was in college; I lived in the coastal planes of the Carolinas. My day wasn’t complete without one.

Twelve years, 45 pounds later and a bunch of greasy Southern food later, I have started to ride again, but now I live in a much hillier region of the South, farther inland than in college. So when I leave the house on evenings these days, I’m carrying the emotional baggage of a full-time job, a five-person household and awe that increased humidity can make 91 degrees feel even hotter than it actually is.

The hills suck.

A lot.

I RODE MORE THAN 20 miles one night last week. It resulted in a terrible leg cramp that recurred off and on throughout the following work day, trouble getting out of bed and a series of snide remarks from Hollie about how long I stranded her with the kids. I’ve since kept it to 10 miles per night, as these rides take about 45 minutes.

(There was once a day in my life in which I rode 100 miles. Unbelieveable.)

In all fairness to myself, 10 miles in western South Carolina is equivalent to 20 miles in Wilmington, North Carolina. No doubt. Eastern NC is just flat; it only requires time to maintain the same pace, effort and energy for 20 miles. While my region of SC isn’t the Rocky Mountains, it is more challenging than that.

I’m doing this fitness challenge through my work. Participants will post on the company’s social media page what he or she does for workouts. I posted one recently and said I’ll never do it again because it felt all uphill toward the end of the ride, after I was already tired. A colleague commented she could never ride uphill and I responded with my approach:

“I don’t look at the top of the hill. I just focus on a spot about 10 yards in front of me and try to find a rhythm. It’s over before I know it.”

THAT IS SIMILAR to approaches in life. We all face hills we must climb, but climb them we must. But if we remain focused on the task instead of agonizing over how long it takes to reach the top of the hill, we’ll be there before we know it. Life is about steps to the top of the hill; it is not about the top of the hill itself.

One advantage to being much fatter since I rode in college is the speed I naturally gain going down these hills. I don’t even have to pedal and I’m moving quicker than when I weighted 45 pounds less. That part is great. It, too, is similar to life: if you can endure the climb, the reward is great.

But is it worth the struggle? Do we bother climbing this hill or do we go around it? What if the ride down the hill isn’t nearly as long as the climb?

These are calculated risks we all must take. Maybe all we do is climb and never reach a plateau or descent. Perhaps we would have been better off not going in that direction.

Or maybe – just maybe – it will be everything we hoped for and more.

One thing is certain: we will never know if we take that side road.

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An hour in my past

Since I moved to South Carolina eight years ago, I have had a crush on Abbeville.

It is a town with storied history. Just beyond the center of the tiny downtown lining a quarter-mile circle of jagged, uneven brick pavers is a tree-spotted hill where in 1860, men met to plan what would become the first move of the American Civil War – South Carolina’s secession from the Union. It was on May 2, 1865, in the front parlor of what is now known as the Burt-Stark Mansion – on the other side of the town circle of brick – that Jefferson Davis officially acknowledged the dissolution of the Confederate government, in the last official cabinet meeting.

Abbeville is known as “the birthplace and deathbed of the Confederacy.”

As a native of a Northern state, it continues to be difficult for me to view what happened on Secession Hill as much more than treason. I do not support the efforts made by the men whose lives are commemorated on the Confederate monuments in the middle of the town circle, but I respect their courage, resilience and willingness to fight for their cause.

While I still get chills of respect when I see these places, this is not why I like Abbeville.

I like Abbeville – simply – because it reminds me of my hometown of Portville, NY. It isn’t the people and it isn’t the size. It’s definitely not the weather. As a kid, we would go to nearby Olean, NY, when we needed something other than gas and milk. When I moved to South Carolina, I lived in Greenwood … and that was like Olean – too big, too busy, too loud. Abbeville, meanwhile, is about the same length of time away from Greenwood as Portville is from Olean.

It was this proximity combined with my appreciation for towns with a couple of gas stations and places with history that led me to finally move my family to Abbeville two years ago … a decision among the best of my life.

SO I’VE DONE MY SHARE of exploring of this town. I’ve taken my children to the historical landmarks. I’ve visited the mass grave of the Long Cane Massacre. I’ve stopped on the road and felt sad in front of the home where a family had a day-long standoff and shootout with law enforcement a decade ago over the government moving to take some of their land to build a highway; two deputies were killed in this and they named the highway to Greenwood after them. I’ve patronized nearly every locally-owned business at some point or another. I’ve met really nice people and have successfully avoided some.

But I never knew the hills of Abbeville until tonight. 

I drive home and go up and down hills. I take my daughter to school and go up and down hills. I stop at the same gas station for Mountain Dew on my way to work each day and go up and down hills.

I never noticed them while driving.

Tonight, though, on my bicycle during a 10-mile loop from my house outside of town, through town, then back to the outskirts, I discovered these hills. In fact, I felt every contour, every bump, every break in the pavement. I was cloaked by the wind generated by the pumping of my own legs attached to pedals. My wrists ached from squeezing the brake levers as I went down the steep hills, still too unfamiliar with the roadscape to allow myself to hit the 30 mph mark. Sweat poured down my back as I climbed their counterparts.

Perhaps the greatest part, though, was the memories it conjured of my days as a regular cyclist. In all of the Carolina towns in which I’ve lived since college – about a half-dozen – cycling triggered an intimate relationship that festered into my time in the car. I used to look at bumps and craters on the shoulders of roads when I was in the car – imperfections and deteriorations I’d have never noticed had I never felt them on a bike. Tonight I felt the same, except with those in the town in which I hope to die someday.

I’m finally starting to know my home.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” – Hemingway

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Tumultuous

Here’s the thing about daughters: they grow up.

Like a rope lowering a bucket of wet sand down a well, you can only slow it down.

Trying to stop it will only bring frustration.

So you’re along for the ride. It’s like steering a canoe when you’re used to driving a car; you only really guide it.

THE LAST WEEK has been tumultuous for me with my daughter. She is 12. I am 186. I had a work function that put me out of town for three days, near the last place we lived in North Carolina. After the function, I drove out to this town and had lunch at a restaurant I used to frequent with my daughter, back when it was only my daughter and me.

I wish they had done some renovations to the place in the eight years since we last ate there.

Since they hadn’t, the same floor mats caught the same glass doors at the same entrance. The same wooden booths decorated the same perimeter of the same buffet area. The terrazzo floor was the same. The wait staff still stood near the kitchen watching for patrons needing drink refills. The pulled pork was equally excellent to the way it tasted eight years ago.

As I ate, I kept looking at one booth in particular: the same I always sat in with my little girl. I could see her with my mind, eating a child-size potion of food off an adult-size plate. She never made it through one trip to the buffet’s worth because she was always chattering. Then she’d sneak up to the dessert side of the buffet and I’d pretend I didn’t notice … until she re-emerged with a bowl of banana pudding. She always ate the Nilla wafers first.

My daughter was always dressed in cotton dresses, handmade and sold by grandmas and aunts at vendor stands of weekend festivals in nearby towns. At that time, I was afraid to say I enjoyed buying clothes for a little girl, but I did. That was our thing. I didn’t really have any money those days: driving to La Grange for the Garden Spot festival or New Bern for MumFest just so we could walk around was our favorite thing. I’d see a ladybug dress with pink bows on the shoulder straps or she’d see a yellow daffodil dress and I could not resist. She probably had two dozen dresses like this.

I WAS WITH a respected colleague while eating at this restaurant as I remembered all of these things. He’s become a close friend and we’re constantly passing humor back and forth when we’re together, but I was kind of quiet that day. I just kept looking at that booth where I used to sit with my daughter.

Today I have a son and nearly a wife. We own a home on beautiful farm land in rural South Carolina. I have advanced significantly in my career and finances aren’t really a conversation anymore.

But en route to this plateau, which I always thought eight years ago was where I needed to be, my daughter stopped wearing dresses with ladybugs. She still chatters, but it’s about her looks: her hair, her tan, her makeup … and I’ve been concerned lately she’s fallen into society’s trap that makes females believe that’s all that matters. I can’t just talk about nice things anymore: I have a responsibility to remind her she has responsibilities now. Lately, my conversations with her have been only “why didn’t you turn in that assignment” or “you need to help more around the house.”

Sometimes I pray she will snap out of this so I can go back to having only pleasant conversations with her again. 

Oftentimes I wonder if her being the center of my world for so long when she was small conditioned her to think she is the center of the entire world.

All-the-time I hope she grows into a strong, confident, independent woman.

I made it home late and my daughter had been sleeping on this school night for about an hour when I finally made it to her bedroom. She immediately snapped out of bed and said, “Daddy! You’re home!” She wrapped her arms around me with sincerity I hadn’t felt from her in quite some time – the same sense of genuine I always felt when she hugged me as a 4-year-old. For that moment, I knew that beneath this self-searching she does every day now, irritation with me for trying to teach her responsibility and general self-consciousness dictating her personality, she was still my daughter.

And I believed that no matter how disappointing this stage of parenting may sometimes (often) be, she is still the little girl in a ladybug dress at King’s restaurant.

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Let me go get my son

The best part of the day for me is picking up my 3-year-old son from daycare. It’s something I’ve waited for since I got to work.

Sentimental as it may seem, I carry him on my shoulder each morning down the long hallway to his classroom toward the back of this one-story building. With every step, he clings tighter to me. I feel his curly hair on the side of his neck. I listen to him breath as I walk.

He knows what’s coming. We are a pitiful collection of seconds away from me opening the door to his room, squatting down and placing his feet on the ground.

He always looks up at me like everything just came crashing down. 

“Okay, Kalob,” I’ll usually say. “You need to hang up your backpack and go see your friends.”

Thirty percent of the time, this is effective; he’ll do as he’s told without hesitation. Twenty percent of the time he just has a meltdown on the floor – kicking and screaming until the teacher comes over to hold him while I quickly walk out more frustrated by his stubbornness than anything. Fifty percent of the time, though, he will look up at me, curl his bottom lip and his eyes will start to fill with tears. Then he’ll struggle to say “okay, Daddy” and take his bag where it needs to be.

The routine that happens fifty percent of the time is the worst. I know in that moment he’s learning to force himself to let go of someone he loves. 

As hard as it is on him, it can’t be nearly as bad as it is on me. I walk out of the room and down the hall, looking straight ahead without acknowledging other daycare personnel and children in and around the rooms we walked past 60 seconds earlier. It feels like I’m doing something wrong.

I HEAR ALL OF these theories on parenting from caregivers, parents and friends with children his age. I was once told “if you spoil a child, you spoil the world” in reference to my struggle to give my children (this also happened when I was going through the same thing with my now-12-year-old daughter) the recommended proportion of boundaries, discipline and love.

They’re all true. I did most of these things for my daughter and, although it was a tall task back then, she seems to be turning out wonderful.

But I wonder – almost daily – when I get in the car and resume my commute to work what it would be like to do nothing except shower your child with love. My son, for instance, can be extremely affectionate. There are times I believe he would sit in my recliner for hours with me, just rubbing the back of my hand as he looks at it, resting his head on my side and saying “I love you” without being asked.

The world does not work this way. The world is not a larger version of our fathers’ shoulders on which to rest our heads. There will be struggles, there will be rejections, there will be people who do not love us. We don’t always get our way, so teaching children early on to have discipline, understanding and patience is important.

THIS IS WHY I live for the minute I am free from my work to pick up my son from daycare. I don’t have to be strong when he sees me open his classroom door and comes running up to me. I can hug him. I can hold him. I can pick him up and let him rest his chin on my shoulder as his warm hair that kind of smells like spit touches my cheek. I can carry him all the way down that long hall, out to the car, put him in his seat, give him a kiss and say, “I love you – how was your day?”

Nothing can stop me from doing this.

“Let me go get my son,” I will tell people at my work who’ve stopped in my office for last-second things that will “only take a minute.”

My time with work is through. Each additional minute I spend with work is 60 seconds I’ll never get back with my son, who will never be 3 years and however-many-days-it’s-been-since-his-birthday-old again.

I do not live for minutes at my job. I live for moments with my children.

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Coaching privilege

12308598_1199849450045151_5716931136273174639_nI wonder if he lives with a collection of souls in his mind.

I wonder if he even knows the number he has touched.

The quantity he has molded.

The lives he has changed.

How can a person even focus on leading a football team knowing this shaping and twisting – this building of men – is really what he’s doing?

I OFTEN THINK of my old football coach. Not in a “I wonder what he’s doing today” sort of way … but in a debt of gratitude manner.

  • When the day has been long and my 3-year-old son doesn’t want to cooperate getting around for bed, I think of him
  • When the chance to cut a corner at work comes along and I don’t take it, I think of him
  • When I used to ride bicycle seriously – for like 50 miles at a time – and thought about taking a break but didn’t because I knew pushing myself would bring the greatest benefit to my health, I think of him
  • The night I was asked if I wanted to raise my daughter instead of her estranged mother and I didn’t really know how to be a parent but didn’t hesitate to say I would because I knew it was the right thing to do … I thought of him

Lessons I learned from him have stayed with me since the day they became part of me. Over the years, I’ve applied them. They’ve guided me in decisions. They’ve motivated me. They’ve inspired.

I STILL APPLY TODAY his guidance in football, track and high school. What I did not know at the time was these were lessons for life.

“Do what’s right, be on time and treat other people with respect.”

That is what I’ve told my 12-year-old daughter and she recites to me today. That is what I will tell my 3-year-old son when the time is right.

I read in the paper back home he’s added a fourth to this – do your best – since I left and that’s okay. He taught me “what was right” included doing “your best,” so I do not feel deprived of this amendment.

The world really does start at 6 o’clock in the morning.

When you want to quit, don’t chyou quit!

Be teachable.

I WAS AVERAGE at football at best. I was a starter on defense and made some plays, but I didn’t make any all-star leagues or have any pipe dreams about playing pro or even playing in college at any level.

I did this thing where I always seemed no more than 75 percent engaged at practice but always showed up on game day. We used to watch film after a game and there was usually at least one play where Coach would hit pause to point out I was the only player following technique or replay a clip to show how I’d pursued a running back on the other side of the field until I ran him down.

“That is 100 percent effort,” he said one time, kind of embarrassing me.

Everyone was kind of surprised because it was a far cry from the effort I was known for at practice, but it was a privilege to be on that field when it was game day. He taught us that, too, and it was something that always stuck with me.

“Not everyone can play football,” he’d say. “There are plenty who wish they could be where you are right now.”

I did not know at the time it would be a metaphor for the rest of my life.

  • It was a privilege to attend college – so I took care of my business
  • It is a privilege to have my job – so I do my best at it
  • It is a privilege to have my family – so I give them all I’ve got
  • It is a privilege to be alive – so I live each day like it is the gift that it is

WHEN I READ Gary Swetland is retiring from coaching, I couldn’t help but feel the story failed to highlight his greatest accomplishment while roaming the sidelines Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

Sure, his teams were successful. Yes, it sounds like he set the next coach up for success with a good group of players.

But what about what he did for the husbands, fathers and men he molded from boys? There were decades worth of them, probably numbering in the hundreds. 

He may have never won a state championship. He might still talk about “the best team” he ever had. But in my opinion, there could be no greater coach in the game of life than this man.

I appreciate more each day the time I had with him.

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Old Christmas trees

christmas-tree-dry-211x300I can’t remember how it feels to squeeze into a rusty hand-me-down Jeep among friends I’d probably die for.

I do not recall how it feels to cheer its four bald tires toward gaining enough traction to climb an unplowed hill in Western New York beyond the “county maintenance ends here sign” in early January. We hoped it would reach the summit; we prayed we could make it safely down the other side without sliding into the forest.

And when we did, the lights of the big city – and its 18,000 residents – awaited us. There, we would find old Christmas tree after old Christmas tree by curbs in front of homes, waiting for city workers to pick up and take them to the dump. Some still had tinsel. A few still had lights. Most had only a 100 or so needles barely staying attached.

All were perfect for tying to the hitch of the Jeep and being dragged down the streets.

I also don’t know why this was so humorous to us. It was stupid, really, I say now as an adult. A multitude of bad things could have happened: we could have been pulled over and had to explain it before still getting fined, we could have hit a parked car with them and got caught, a car coming up quickly behind us might not have seen them and been sent into a fiery crash when it swerved to avoid the trees. People could have died!

But we laughed and laughed and laughed every time we’d pull up to a house with a tree out by the curb, run out of the Jeep, grab it and tie it to the train of trees we’d already accumulated. It wasn’t really stealing, right? No one wanted these old trees a week after Christmas. We were doing them a favor.

“All right guys, I think that’s all she can take,” Corey said, referring to the Jeep’s struggle to navigate the streets packed with snow atop a sheet of ice. We had about a dozen.

Suddenly, it occurred to all of us there was no way we were dragging this cargo back over the hill. Would we just leave them somewhere, victims of another night with nothing better to do because we didn’t have beer?

“Jake’s house,” Corey said. “Let’s drop them off there.”

Speaking of things I cannot fathom today, why this made perfect sense 18 years ago is one of them. Our friend Jake’s house was just outside of the city. That meant we’d have to drag them through busy neighborhoods and side streets for probably three miles, hoping we didn’t see a cop and putting our faith in Corey to navigate the makeshift train that was almost as long as a tractor-trailer but more difficult to control since metal trailers don’t twist and bend like a 30-foot snake.

But Jake’s mom was pretty high strung. Imagining her reaction the whole way there was almost as enjoyable as hearing the next day how it actually occurred. This explained why it was necessary to do this.

We could not resist this reward.

We arrived with our precious cargo one of the greatest rides of my life later. We stared out the rear window with every turn. We looked far down side streets for other headlights to avoid. We stayed aware of our location because we knew every inch of the city and had to keep in mind the nearest dark parking lot in which we could quickly pull if trouble came our way.

Somehow, when we arrived at Jake’s house, we were able to unhook every old Christmas tree – in terrible shape by now – and stand each one-by-one in the plowed snowbank along the perimeter of the driveway without anyone coming out to see what we were doing. If all went well the next morning, Jake would laugh, his dad would say “what the Hell” and his mom would tell his dad to get those the Hell out of there before calling Corey’s mom to complain. We would not tell Corey’s mom what we did, as her lack of explanation for Jake’s mom would add to our delight.

I don’t know what happened to those days – days when dragging old Christmas trees behind an old Jeep in an old town were all I needed to live a life fulfilled. I never would have believed it at the time, but one year later I would move away. Two years later, we’d only be together twice a year. Four years later, I’d be a father. Eight years later, I would own a home. Twelve years later, I’d barely know any of them anymore. Fifteen years later, one of our football coaches would pass away. Seventeen years later, our head football coach would give up coaching football.

Eighteen years later, I would be 50 years older.

And all of this would just be something I fondly – but sadly – recall when the house goes quiet on a Monday night.

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Smelling with eyes

People say the Bradford Pear Tree smells like fish. I’ve been cutting grass and mistaken their scent for wild mushrooms after they’ve been mowed.

Both are actually compliments compared to claims this tree smells like woman parts that haven’t been washed or have recently – very recently – been “used.”

PROBABLY THE THIRD comparison is most accurate. It would be used regularly if more people spent time with flappers and bus station skanks. The uptight folks just say it’s inappropriate, however true it may be.

“Ah, you know spring has arrived when the aroma of an unkempt whore fills the air.”

That will turn some heads. Surely, it is inappropriate for schools, church, work and 65 percent of remaining social circles. Plus it would be redundant, since whores typically are unkempt. But I digress …

THESE TREES TRIGGER nothing but happy thoughts in me – and that is no reflection of my social life. Is it an awful smell? Sure. But I associate it with my favorite time of the year.

Let’s be honest, though: the appearance of these trees is of postcard-caliber beauty. They decorate streets in town, spot yards out of town and line driveways in both places. They are constantly pruned like an old bitty’s hair just after a trip to the salon.

After daffodils, they are the first flowers to open in the new year.

When their petals fall to the ground, they look like snow – fresh, innocent and pure. Quite the opposite of comparisons conjured by their aroma.

LIFE IS SIMILAR TO these trees, from what I see. One must smell them with their eyes. There are bad things about good people; there are good things about bad. We welcome disappointment when we hold out for perfection.

Our jobs. Our relationships. Our families. Our house, our car, our pets … the list of things that will never be perfect also never ends.

Sometimes we must smell with our eyes. Taste with our ears. We have to look with our hands, sing with our thoughts and appreciate with our hearts.

ONE CAN BE IN the presence of a Bradford Pear tree and note only its smell. Or one can associate this scent with the coming of spring – the resilience of this tree to think only of blossoming while the rest of the natural world stayed preoccupied by the cold. Its thoughts were warm while others’ were frozen. For this, it deserves appreciation. For this, it should give hope to any man who smells with his eyes.

For our perception is how we measure beauty.

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