"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
--Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
Moro Rock and then hiked the harrowing two miles around the huge dome-shaped granite to the top.
So, what to do on Black Friday? Going to the movies the day after Thanksgiving was scrapped by our family, and the Mama didn't want us sitting around on our duffs all day, and I didn’t want to be hanging around in stores or malls (although we did make our annual post crazy-crush morning Walmart run -- no judging, please), so my idea this instead was to go to Grant Grove and the General Grant tree, named the "Nation's Christmas Tree" in the 1920s by President Calvin Coolidge. It’s also honored as a living national shrine in memory of Americans lost during wars by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I hadn't been there for decades, the last time my sister and I going with our grandparents. At that time they lived in the very small mountain community of Dunlap, just west of Kings Canyon National Park where Grant Grove is located.
We had gone to my sister's house for Thanksgiving again, but the day after she had to work on Black Friday, so it was just going to be the four of us. I mapped the way to the mountains on the computer and then my phone; there were two ways to get there, one a little faster than the other.
"We should go the faster way, Sweetie," the Mama said. "It's still going to be almost an hour and a half to get there."
I shook my head. "No, I want to go the way I know. It won't take that much longer."
The Mama shifted uncomfortably in her seat and looked out her window. I knew she wanted to go the shorter way; she always wants to go the shorter way.
"Okay," she said.
"Do we have enough gas?" I asked, now not sure about the drive. "There aren't any gas stations in the parks."
"The gauge says we've got enough miles left in the tank. Let's go for it."
"Right on, Mama."
“Are we there yet?” the girls asked.
Thirty minutes later we inched along the long line of cars to enter the park. Obviously, we weren't the only ones with the idea to head to the hills.
Our first stop was at Hospital Rock, a place I had been too many times over the years. But I was itching to get to the General Grant tree. I wanted to see the Nation’s Christmas tree. I had to see it. Be in its historic and emotive presence with my family by my side. But not in the snow. Because we’re not snow people. (Thankfully it was a balmy 65 degrees.) And then take a picture of it. Share the love on Instagram and Facebook. I felt like Clark Griswold on an obsessive mission to see America’s Merry friggin’ Christmas tree, and I wanted to get there now.
“Let’s hurry up, girls. Daddy wants to go see America’s Christmas tree.”
“No, we’re going to make stops along the way if we’re going this way,” the Mama said. “Especially now that the girls can get their Junior Ranger badges.”
“But I want to see America’s Christmas tree.”
“Yes, we get it, Sweetie. Do they even decorate the tree?”
I thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. Although it’s really pretty in the snow. Which we’ll never see, because we don’t do the snow.”
“Right. So, relax.”
“We’ll get there,” the Mama added.
“Yep, it’ll be a fun family adventure,” I said.
And as long as we get to that friggin’ tree, I thought.
Onward and upward we went – into Giant Forest, the smells of the high sierra coming in through the open windows, then past Moro Rock (the girls and I weren’t up for the heights of the hike), the General Sherman tree, Lodgepole, and finally a late lunch at the Wusachi Lodge. The thing you forget when you don’t drive in the mountains a lot is that it takes a lot longer to go from point A to point B – and the winding road can take its toll, which is why the Mama always has to drive on winding roads because she gets carsick. The girls must have her genes on that one because they were getting a little carsick, so the Mama emptied two plastic shops for vomiting just in case during one of our stops.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen and we made it to lunch. By that time the girls had finished their Junior Ranger workbooks, but we had to get to the Kings Canyon Visitor Center at Grant Grove Village by 4:00 PM for them to get their badges, and it was already after 3:00.
“We don’t have much time,” I said, knowing it would be close.
“It’s all right,” the Mama said. “If we make it, we make it. If not, then the girls will be fine. Completing the workbooks was fun enough for them and everything they saw.”
“Yep, a fun family adventure.”
“Exactly. We would have never done this otherwise.”
I winked. “I know, I haven’t been this way for decades. Not since my grandparents took my sister and me. And I get to see America’s Christmas tree!”
And then we were there with miles and miles to spare – making it in time to get the girls’ Junior Ranger badges and traverse our final loop hike to the General Grant tree, right as the sun was going down behind the mountains to fall into the sea where we live.
“Worth every minute,” I said.
“Yes, it was,” the Mama said.
“Did you have fun girls?”
“Yes,” they each answered, and then continued keeping each other company in the backseat.
As we drove back down into the foggy, smoggy Central Valley at sunset, I realized yet again what I’ve known for years: that even the road well-traveled, whether in our distant past or today's now, can make all the difference in this crazy-crush world. It's a matter of perspective, of seeing things again for the first time and with fresh nuance. These magical new experiences then imprint one after the other upon our cyclical consciousness. Many become lyrical and melodic, powerful memories that transcend time and stream on-demand like our favorite songs, anytime we want them, and anytime we need them.
As we drove deeper into the Great Valley dusk, my family holiday memories played all at once.
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Sunday, November 19, 2017
The Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) was delivering a Kidpower workshop that morning and our daughters and me had just finished a packed morning of soccer and the grocery store.
After unloading the groceries, I filled a bucket with soap and water and a new scrubbing sponge intent on cleaning up the graffiti. Before I went outside with the bucket, I told my daughters what I was going to do.
"Girls, I'm going to clean off the poll out front, okay?"
"Why?" Beatrice asked.
"Because someone painted on it when they shouldn't have. It's called graffiti and I want to clean it up."
"Okay," Beatrice said. Bryce was too engrossed in her iPad to comment.
"That's very helpful of you, Dad," Bea added.
I smiled. "Why, thank you, Bea."
It was a glorious day outside, a warm fall day bathed in cerulean blue sky. Heavenly even, like a day from the Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep comedy Defending Your Life, where everyday was 72 degrees, there were all-you-can-eat buffets where you'd never gain weight, bowling alleys, comedy clubs and more. When in fact, this was purgatory in the movie, the weigh station to heaven and hell.
I conjured the silly 1991 rom-com because the world had become more violently absurd than ever. A bizzaro pre-apocalyptic world where the super heroes aren't so super anymore, much less heroes. A disrespectful world where others deface and tag in the name of marking property that'll never be theirs. A wag-the-dog world teetering on the edge of civil wars where fake news is real and real news is fake. A world full of splintered agendas and raging biases where our leaders compromise principles and laws and bastardized religion for partisan short-term gains. A world where the worst inside all of us is celebrated because an angry few feel they've been legitimately oppressed as others had truly been for hundreds of years. And a world where violence against women and sexual assault are compartmentalized, rationalized and diminished in the face of overwhelming bittersweet awareness.
All this swirled inside me while I scrubbed the blue tag off the pole. Except that it wasn't coming off. At all. I even scraped at it with a putty knife and nothing. I started sweating and decided to try window cleaner on it. Still nothing. We didn't have anything else stronger, so I stood helpless starting at the pole. A neighbor drove by and then stopped in front of our driveway.
She asked what was going on and I explained the graffiti and that I couldn't get it off. She said they had some stronger "goo off" stuff back at the house and that I could use it. A few minutes after she drove away, another two neighbors were walking back from the nearby farmer's market. They too had some stronger "goo off" stuff and went to retrieve it.
Once I applied the stuff with steel wool the blue tag came right off. Like magic. After that I helped our neighbor remove more graffiti from a one-way sign on our street.
When the Mama got home from her workshop, I told her about the blue tag I found and that I cleaned it off.
"Thank you, Sweetie," she said.
"I only just noticed it this morning. How long had it been there on the pole?" I asked, already knowing the answer.
"For at least I week. I was going to tell you about it."
A week, I thought. It could've been months for all I knew.
I know there will be more graffiti tags on streetlight poles and one-way signs. And I know we'll always be able to clean them off. But it's gotten harder to take the high road beyond the graffiti when the low road is so riddled with trolls and power predators these days.
When I shared that sentiment online a few days before the blue tag cleaning, a friend of mine answered:
Stay positive Kevin, people love that about you.
I smiled as I thought about it. I am positive most of the time. I am hopeful most of the time. But I'm even more thankful for the fact that there are many of us who are willing to take the high road, to remain positive, to make a difference regardless of our differences by taking action for the better however incremental or big, to ultimately prevent further social injustice and the literal moral unmooring of America.
I'm thankful for my wife who inspires me daily to brave the hope and put it in action, and my daughters as well who fuel my hope for the future. And I'm thankful for family and friends who inspire the same, that there is light and love and so many more of us willing to embody them both.
Right on and amen. Bring on that high road, please. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
Sunday, November 12, 2017
"Dad, why didn't you take me out earlier! I'm really tired!"
She panted after every other word. Her face glowed red. Her hair was wet and matted to her forehead and the sides of her face.
"Great job, Beatrice," I said. "You are being aggressive and going after that ball!"
"But I'm tired!"
I patted her on the back. "I know, so take a break and drink some water. You're doing awesome."
"Thank you," she said. Then she was past it, eating fresh strawberries, the last halftime snack of our final game.
In the next moment, one of the team parents approached me. Her daughter was sick and had already thrown up twice on our sidelines. But that's not why she came over to talk.
"You know, you should tell the girls they can help our goalie and not just stand around and watch," she said.
I took a "zen" beat inside my head before I spoke. This wasn't an unreasonable request; she had the best intentions. In fact, the parents of all our players were really good all season, one of whom was my assistant coach, another one who also helped, and a few others who had soccer experience and made great suggestions throughout the season.
But I took a "zen" beat because it had been a long season. Sure, we weren't supposed to keep score, this is recreational soccer, and I had stopped keeping score early on when we lost every game by a significant number of goals. Game after game. Week after week. For someone who grew up highly competitive -- me -- and coming off of a winning season last year, it had been a long season this year. And yet I tried to keep my head up, because even with this last game, there was always a next time.
I put my hand on the parent's shoulder. "I understand. I do. I just want them to score for the first time in this final game. Or just pass consistently to one another. Or just dribble and drive the ball down the field. Or just kick the ball straight and farther than five yards. You know, those little things."
She smiled at my mild sarcasm and attempt at humor. "I know, but they really could help their goalie out so they don't keep getting the score run up on them."
"Got it. Thank you," I said.
"Coach, you just stepped in the throw up," one of the other players pointed out to me.
I looked down.
Maybe it was me. My job as coach for a U10 recreational team was to help them learn some soccer skills and some teamwork, regardless of having boys or girls, and in this case, it was my third year coaching our oldest daughter and an all-girl teams. But from the first practice to this very last game, it felt like some of the girls just didn't really want to play soccer. That they only wanted to goof off with each other instead. That's okay. They're kids.
Maybe it was me. There had been a lot of work travel this season for me and I missed some practices and one of our games. And then there was my hospitalization and disruptive infection that scared the bejesus out of me and the Mama (what I affectionately call my wife).
Maybe it was me, because as the season went on, it got tougher to inspire myself, much less the girls. Are they getting any of this? I thought again and again. After each game the Mama countered my fuming by encouraging me to keep encouraging them. I had the same conversations with my coaches and they encouraged me to stay positive and stay the course.
"They are playing better today, Coach," my assistant coach said.
"Yep," I said. "They are."
That's the thing -- positive improvements aren't always evident -- they are more subtle than that, like the incremental slow-growth of a coral reef. One minute there's nothing but barren shallows, and then 10,000 minutes later there's a layer of lovely colors that are alive and well.
And in the final game, there were all the lovely colors:
- Better dribbling for some.
- Better change-of-direction and ball control for others.
- Better passing to teammates for others.
- Better aggressive going after the ball for many of them.
- Even better defense helping the goalie keep the ball away from our goal.
And while the number of shots we got at the opponents' goal were again few and far between, there were those who played hard and seemed inspired to do so, had the "fire" as my assistant coach put it, like they really wanted to play well, individually and together, encouraging each other to keep going, even for the few who didn't want to.
Yes, it had been a long season, and besides being her coach and her dad, I was especially proud of our oldest, Beatrice, as she had truly improved over this last season (and the two seasons before this one). She wanted to play, liked to play, went after the ball and got it done. She even wanted to practice kicking the ball around in the backyard, and before this last game asked to play in the winter recreational league. I never thought I'd see that happen.
After the last game we had a team party, and as we were all leaving, one of my other players walked up to me and game me a hug.
"Thank you, Coach," she said.
I hugged her back and said, "No, thank you."
One after another most of the girls thanked me. One even wrote me a nice note. Maybe in the end it wasn't me; it was most of us together. And that should make us all feel like winners.