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Welcome to The Fatherhood Journey

September 10, 2014

Welcome to The Fatherhood Journey

John EngelFatherhood is a sacred journey, filled with mystery and adventure.

Reflecting on the milestones and transitions of the journey helps me create meaning from these experiences, empowering me as a father. Through ‘The Fatherhood Journey’ I offer my writings as a means to promote private and public conversations about fatherhood – to explore the mystery and celebrate the adventure – conversations that too often remain unspoken.

These writings reflect my deepest gratitude for the precious gift of children, marriage, family, parenthood and community.

I dedicate these writings to my loving wife, Lori, and our children Zoe and Adam, whose collective presence has changed my life in the most amazing ways, and to all who experience the journey of fatherhood.

With gratitude,

John

Another father and son fishing tale

July 17, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 13, 2021

We bought a canoe, again. It’s been a few years since we sold our first one, after it sat upside down in the backyard, witness to the changing seasons, a refuge for spiders and chipmunks. It was a green 15-foot fiberglass two-seater.

Our Adam was barely out of diapers and Zoe a kindergartner when we first paddled as a family. The kids would reach their hands over-board, dragging their fingers through the cool waters of New England lakes and the salty Long Island Sound, sunscreen smeared on arms and cheeks, a stash of snacks and water bottles nearby.

But as the kids aged, they grew restless with sitting on the floor of the canoe, preferring instead to paddle themselves in small kayaks. So, we were heartened when a dad with two young children hauled away our first canoe, a surprise birthday gift for his wife, knowing of the happy adventures that awaited their family.

When Adam got hooked on fishing a couple of years ago, however, he and I started dreaming of buying an old canoe that we could customize into the ultimate fishing vessel. So, on a recent Saturday morning we drove to a road side lot with a yard full of merchandize, including a half-dozen used canoes. A 15-foot aluminum Grumman, identical to the one in which I earned my canoeing merit badge at Boy Scout camp, caught my eye. When we learned the asking price was $900 we shrugged our shoulders and headed home.

Earlier that same morning, Adam, now a rising seventh grader, who knows a good deal when he sees one, found a used canoe on Craigslist for $300. When he called and confirmed it was still available, he learned it came with paddles, seat cushions, life jackets, seat backs, anchor and trolling motor — and the owners were looking to sell a collection of fishing gear and tackle, too. We loaded the car with tie-down ropes, headed to the ATM and set the GPS for our destination.

On the drive I carefully set expectations for Adam, noting that if the canoe was too heavy for me to lift onto the roof of the car by myself it would be an unrealistic purchase. After we arrived and decided to purchase a couple of the fishing poles and some miscellaneous tackle, the sellers, a kindly retired couple who had fished together for decades, asked us, “What about the canoe?”

The boat hung from the garage ceiling, aged but exceptionally well-maintained. I shared my concern about moving it myself and the grandmotherly figure said, “Well, didn’t I tell you about the rack that comes with it?” I slid the base of the rack into our trailer hitch, the arm reaching upward, topped off with a swiveling T-bar. I was able to lift the stern of the canoe and set it upside down across the bar. Moving to the other end, I lifted up the bow and spun it around to the front of the vehicle as the stern pivoted on the T-bar. With the canoe resting on four foam blocks on the roof, we tied it down and drove away.

The next morning after enjoying Father’s Day breakfast, our family loaded the car and headed to a state park in Vermont, where we had paddled together many years ago. After enjoying a picnic lunch and hike, Lori stayed ashore with our dog Luna, big sister Zoe, a rising 9th grader, enjoyed her new standup paddle board and Adam and I headed across the lake in the canoe.

In the still waters of a cove, we lifted our paddles as the canoe drifted toward shore. We dropped anchor just before reaching a bed of lily pads, near a submerged tree whose weathered branches sprouted above water line. Without words Adam rigged his line, then confidently cast again and again, searching for a hungry Bass and aging before my eyes.

Eventually he turned to me, suggesting we try a new spot. I agreed and in a flash Adam stood up, turned around and leaned over to grab the anchor line. Before I could say a word, the canoe tipped and we both went head first overboard. We quickly found the bottom, then stood in the shallows, laughing uncontrollably. I said, “Hey buddy, I forgot to tell you that it’s never a good idea to stand up in a canoe,” which led us into another round of hysterics.

Fortunately, the canoe had stayed upright, our gear safe and dry. I steadied it as Adam climbed aboard and then slid myself in as he leaned hard to the other side. We continued to humor ourselves as we paddled away, well aware that the journey had just begun.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Muddling through Post-COVID Recovery

June 4, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 4, 2021

And then, the pandemic ended. At least it’s beginning to feel that way here in the U.S. While many continue to suffer and grieve tremendous loss, rising vaccination rates, lower rates of COVID illness and death, return to social engagement and signs of economic-rebound kindle hope for the coming year and beyond.

And yet, I feel more sluggish — mentally, emotionally and physically — than any point in the prior year. My daily activities are unchanged — I’m still working, exercising, tending to household projects and spending lots of quality time with family — but they’re generally less fulfilling and require more effort. I’m not depressed, I’ve been there before, and this is different — I’m still hopeful and optimistic. Rather, I’m going through the motions of an otherwise great life, struggling to restore my sense of motivation and momentum.

Apparently I’m not alone, according to a recent article by organizational psychologist Adam Grant. This state of being that many of us are feeling lands somewhere on a spectrum between depression and flourishing — where a sense of stagnation and emptiness dull our motivation and focus. Grant, and others, call it languishing.

Early in the pandemic and until fairly recently too, I, like most, have been highly focused on the threat of COVID and ways to protect myself, family and community. Now, as the threat subsides, I’m feeling depleted — languished.

I’ve been reminding myself that all feelings are temporary. In their fullness, sadness, anger, happiness, joy and even languishing all give way to other feelings, a life lesson I first began to appreciate many years ago. At that time, I had just gone through a lengthy and intense period of upheaval in my personal and family life, and was struggling to find the motivation to finish my final thesis project for graduate school. 

Hard as I tried, pushing through was not working. I was stuck. After weeks of struggling, one day I decided to simply lay down on my futon couch and get nothing done for the rest of the day. I remember thinking what seemed at the time a rather unthinkable thought — I’ll lay on the couch for days, maybe an entire week, and do nothing. 

So, I laid down, without anything to read, nothing to listen to, nothing to do but just lay on the futon (that was long before smartphones). After about two hours my energy and mood had shifted. I returned to my writing and made modest progress and over the course of the following weeks I returned to the futon when feeling stuck, and experienced similar results.

It was a simple lesson, one which countered the erroneous and harmful messages I had received for years to just do it, push harder, more is better. These messages are hard wired, a default response, not just for me but for American culture too. 

As we begin to recover from the pandemic, there are early signs that we are returning to this state of being, one where we strive at work and home, producing benefit but peril too.

So for now, as I languish I remind myself that these feelings will end, but not by force. Rather, the task as I see it, is to merely muddle through a period of post-COVID recovery. It’s an opportunity to feel a muted sense of excitement about our post-pandemic lives, to accept that motivation is lagging, to acknowledge that accomplishments currently require extra effort — and to remember that sometimes simply laying on the couch is a great cure for what ails us.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Celebrating Return to In-Person School

May 1, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 29, 2021

School is more popular than ever. Old school, that is — when kids, staff and teachers inhabited the same building.

Each day was a buzz of activity where students navigated hallways, traveled up and down stairs, ran about in gymnasiums and on playgrounds, ate and laughed in loud cacophonous lunchrooms and engaged in live, face-to-face conversations.

Those schools, however imperfect, were thriving ecosystems of academic learning, emotional development and social interaction.

While many returned to a new version of this old school experience months ago, our middle schoolers Zoe and Adam, along with most of their peers, are finally returning to a full in-person schedule. When class schedules were posted online the weekend before this long-awaited reset, Zoe and Adam were most concerned about learning whether they would be in classes with their friends — just like the old days.

Both have maintained connections to their peers this past year, though far fewer in number than in normal times and mostly in one-to-one interactions, occasionally a group of three, and almost always outdoors. Zoe has continued gymnastics team with practice three times a week and Adam attended an outdoor wilderness survival camp on Wednesdays through fall and winter. So, by each having some friend contact and one special activity — more than many kids have had access to — they’ve been fortunate to experience some normalcy in their out-of-school lives.

Still, at age 11 and 14, respectively, they both long for the daily presence of their friends and teachers, and the social connection that is not only at the core of the in-person school experience but also central to healthy child development.

Academic learning loss is a real and unfortunate byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one that disproportionately impacts children and families that have fewer resources. But just as important as acknowledging and remediating learning loss, it will be essential to support kids in this new phase of the pandemic — reconnecting.

In an online article titled, “Good News: Your Brain Will Adapt to Post-COVID Life,” a neuroscientist who studies the impact of stress on the human brain is cited. In short, she posits that the brain fog that kids and adults alike have been experiencing during the pandemic is a product of the stress resulting from increased isolation and loneliness, disruption of routines and persistent screen time, among other factors.

The researcher, Kim Hellemans, suggests that “there’s [also] going to be a reverse culture shock when we re-enter society, some of us will bounce back right away and others will need additional support.” 

I have a fairly introverted personality (a tendency shared by about 25% of Americans). We introverts best maintain our personal energy through ample amounts of alone time and being in environments with low stimulation. For some, therefore, readjusting to high-stimulation school environments — students and teachers — will result in being more tired and overwhelmed, at least initially.

This will be accompanied by a decrease in sleep as kids, at least our Zoe and Adam, will be setting their alarms 30 minutes earlier than was necessary for remote learning, while at the same time increased sport and social activities will push bedtimes later.

All of this will be happening at the same time that students and teachers engage in the third start of school since September, where schedules, assignments and expectations are changing once again, for the remaining two months of school.

My wife, Lori, and I share both the excitement and reservation expressed by our kids as they prepare for the return to full-time school. Mostly, though, we welcome the opportunity for them to experience the social and emotional connection that they crave and that propels them in their learning and life journey.

I’ll sincerely miss seeing Zoe and Adam throughout the day — connecting over snacks or lunch, checking in on their classes and homework, and hearing muffled sounds of their presence through the ceiling of our basement office. I will also enjoy the solitude of working from home, with the only the sound of our dog Luna gently snoring in the background.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Family finds new outdoor adventure – geocaching

March 28, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 25, 2021

Our family loves to play together outdoors. Camping, hiking, running, biking, swimming, cross-country skiing, walking on the beach (especially at low tide), and gardening are some of the many ways we stay physically active, connected to each other and in touch with the natural world. Now, thanks to our son Adam, we’ve added geocaching to our list of outdoor activities.

Geocaching, according to the official website at geocaching.com, is branded as the “world’s largest treasure hunt.” Containers (also known as caches) of differing size, from small tubes the size of my finger to large boxes the size of a bread box, are hidden in publicly accessible locations. Clues (sometimes including picture images), along with latitude and longitude coordinates, are used to locate each object. Inside each container there is a scroll of paper to sign and date and sometimes small knick-knacks to trade. 

After successfully locating a cache (he now has 73 finds), Adam records it on the app, adding a smiley face to his personalized map. With millions of treasures scattered throughout the world, the possibilities are endless.

The origin of geocaching, I recently learned, dates back to May 2000. At that time the Global Positioning System (GPS) was an integral part of our national defense infrastructure (and still is), and through an act issued by President Clinton, GPS was made readily accessible to the public. In short, the GPS systems is a series of satellites that allow devices (such as handheld GPS devices and now smartphones, too) to navigate with high accuracy the Earth’s grid of latitude and longitude coordinates that were first developed by astronomers centuries ago. 

A creative minded computer programmer decided to test the accuracy of the newly unveiled GPS system by hiding a container in the woods to see if others, using only GPS coordinates, could located the hidden treasure, and thus a new hobby was born.

So, as the icy grip of New England winter recently began to ease, Adam downloaded the free Geocaching app to his smart phone, and began venturing by foot and bike to discover dozens of nearby caches. Within a couple of weeks, he was hooked and decided to use money he earned shoveling snow to upgrade to a premium membership for a mere $30 per year.

On the first full day of spring, Adam charted a course, packed some gear and he and I headed out on bikes to locate some new treasures. On our 11-mile journey we traveled along paved bike paths, two wooded trails, through three parks and refueled at a burrito stand, while adding 12 smiley faces to Adam’s map. 

We experienced new places, including a memorial site for two Irish immigrants wrongly convicted and executed in 1806. We also visited many familiar places where we previously ventured without any awareness of the nearby hidden objects. A few caches proved too difficult to find and Adam posted a comment on the app, in hopes that other adventures would share additional clues so that we can return and try our luck, again. 

In addition to the physical exercise, the excitement of navigating, basic map reading, and solving clues made for a genuinely fun adventure. Adam has been geocaching with his mama, Lori, too, we’ve geocached on a couple of family hikes, and we are already planning adventures at planned summer destinations, including our annual Vermont camping trip, and family visits in Connecticut and Illinois. For added fun, Adam and I created and hid a small cache in our neighborhood and have started salvaging containers for future caches, too.

As our middle schoolers (Adam and big sister Zoe) age, develop new interests and venture father from home, geocaching is a welcome way to keep us connected as a family and enjoying outdoors adventures together.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

COVID pandemic elevates importance of mental health

February 27, 2021

March 11, 2021 will mark the one year anniversary since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. By that date, in the U.S. along, approximately 30 million will have contracted the virus, the lingering effects of the disease will still be afflicting millions, and more than 500,000 will have perished. This magnitude of impact on human physical health and mortality is difficult to fully comprehend, too much to bear – numbing, especially knowing this will continue for many more months, or longer.

There, too, are reasons for optimism. Advancements in COVID-19 detection and treatment techniques are promising and ongoing. The ability to mitigate disease spread through hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing is empowering. And, of course, effectiveness of first generation vaccines is beyond encouraging. While we have yet to end the pandemic, applying all of these tools will help make our collective success more than possible.

But, this is only part of the story. Behind the physical illness lies the silent manifestation of the pandemic in the form of chronic stress, depression, anxiety and trauma – mental illness. 

While our physical health is currently threatened by social beliefs that deny the seriousness (or even the existence) of COVID-19 not to mention the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and vaccination, our mental health is undermined by pervasive social stigma toward mental illness. Such stigma includes negative attitudes about those struggling with mental illness – seeing depression, anxiety and other conditions as personal short-comings or character flaws, not as forms of illness such as diabetes, coronary artery disease or cancer. 

Stigma also leads to discrimination in work, school and social settings. Health insurance companies often provide greater coverage for treatment of physical conditions than for mental health services. And, perhaps most damaging, stigma often means that even among family and close friends, acknowledging, discussing and seeking support for mental health challenges is often taboo. In the social isolation that results, many self-medicate through unhealthy use of food, caffine, alcohol, drugs and other harmful behaviors.

In my own experience, including during the pandemic, a mix of regular self-care, connection with caring others, healthy physical exercise, and mindfulness practice are essential and bare minimum steps to maintaining my mental well-being. Still, I sometimes see a counselor and consider doing so an important part of my commitment to maintaining good mental health, and by extension, my ability to be the kind of father and husband I aspire to be. 

Taking my mental health seriously is a work in progress and a journey I did not begin until I was nearly 30 years of age. The social stigma I held toward mental illness prevented me from seeking support earlier in my life. Only in the depths of my own suffering did I decide it was important to invest in my mental well-being by seeking support from others.

Now, years later, I am hopeful that from the depths of our COVID despair, we might increasingly give ourselves permission to personally and publicly recognize when we are mentally unwell. With such increased awareness in the prevalence of mental illness, we might then be better equipped to encourage ourselves and others to tend to mental well-being. 

My resistance to seeking support from a counselor has mostly, though not entirely, faded. I remind myself that there is no shame in seeking support from a caring and skilled counselor – just like calling on a mechanic, financial planner, plumber, tax accountant, doctor or dentist. As a father, I’m hopeful that for my middle schoolers – daughter Zoe and son Adam – my willingness to speak openly about the importance of mental health, including both my personal efforts and my willingness to seek support from others, will normalize their own sense of mental well-being. 

I’m also grateful that public messaging about mental health has become more commonplace in recent years, as Adam and I have come to appreciate through the simple pleasure of listening to reruns of the radio show Car Talk. The show, which aired from 1977 to 2012 and is still available from an NPR app, was hosted by brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, known also as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.” Each episode includes car owners with woeful tales of malfunctioning cars who seek sagely advice from the brothers.

I’ve always loved the show, in part for the mechanical remedies doled out by the hosts but even more so for their sense of humor and infectious laughter. Surprisingly, Adam loves the show too and together we belly-laugh through episodes while running errands or working on home renovations. This past year we noticed the arrival of a new advertisement on the show, one that Adam, without any prompting, began to parrot:  “BetterHelp is a truly affordable online counseling service. Whether its depression, anxiety or trauma, BetterHelp will help you get rid of what stands in the way of your happiness. Learn more at BetterHelp.com.” 

I can’t speak for the quality of BetterHelp, but I can say that the message is priceless when it comes to helping normalize the importance of mental health and seeking support, a hopeful sign for our difficult times.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Father finds hope in the dark

January 29, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 29, 2021

Friday evening finally arrived. I closed my computer and stepped out of our basement office, eager for a run. During this weekly ritual my mind notes achievements, mulls missed opportunities and files unfinished business for Monday, leaving me relaxed and ready to enjoy the weekend.

Just a week before, with a strained calf muscle nagging me, I had missed my run and entered the three-day weekend feeling physically and emotionally drained by a litany of forces. Too many Zoom calls had left my brain taxed. A robocall brought disappointment, announcing another delay for our middle schoolers, Adam and Zoe, to return to in-person classes. The recent political violence at the U.S. Capitol, and anticipation of more to come, was anxiety provoking. Continued rise of COVID infections and deaths was beyond disheartening. It was more than I wanted to confront, but not something I could easily dismiss. Darkness prevailed that weekend.

But by Tuesday my mind, body and spirit had been partially restored by a few slow days, minimal screen time, family connection, an inspiring movie (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), and a nap or two. It was also the day before the Presidential Inauguration, and the mere anticipation further lifted my spirits. 

The next day, as our family circled around a live-stream of the ceremony, emotion unexpectedly swelled in me, as we witnessed the historical quadrennial event. With daughter Zoe (who will be eligible to vote in the next Presidential election) at our side, watching Kamala Harris becoming the first female U.S. Vice President offered a moment of shared hope. The poised and moving delivery of ‘The Hill We Climb’ by poet Amanda Gorman, laid bare our nation’s collective pain and the healing opportunities within our grasp.

President Biden (who just the prior evening led a moving memorial honoring the 400,000 Americans, and their loved ones, who have died from COVID) offered refreshing words and sentiments of truth, humility and compassion. As tears streamed down my cheeks, I heard evidence of a man who has grieved deeply and openly and who has through times of great personal and public hardship developed a vast reservoir of fortitude and strength.

And while I will not fully agree with all the policies of our new president, Congressional paralysis and dysfunction will surely persist, millions of Americans are mourning the end of the Trump presidency, the pandemic is far from over, the economy is still hemorrhaging, and much racial healing is needed, my heartfelt sense is that President Biden will lead by way of a moral compass and purpose, not Twitter adulation. And, that’s a great start!

So, as I stepped out the door for my Friday run, buoyed by post-inauguration hope, my body quickly warmed in the winter air, arms and legs fluid in form, heart and lungs oxygenating my muscles. I noticed that despite the late hour, daylight was not fully extinguished, a welcome reminder of Spring’s certain return. My mind processed the events of recent days, recognizing that only a week ago I was feeling not just overwhelm, but worse – a greatly diminished sense of hope. The persistent and elevated state of stress and uncertainty of 2020 had accumulated, clouding my vision from the goodness that can be found each day. 

That Friday, I ran farther than usual, not wanting the experience to end. On the return leg of my out-and-back route, on a trail threading through naked hardwood trees, I was momentarily mystified by a mysterious light in the sky. Smiling to myself, I realized it was the waxing moon, burning brightly through the gray, clouded sky, casting light on the path that lay ahead. 

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Remembering that gratitude is a choice

January 1, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December, 30, 2020

Much has changed since January 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic blindsided us in March, unleashing devastating impacts on the mortality, physical health, mental well-being and economic security of millions. We enter 2021 with a better understanding of how to confront the virus through mask wearing, social distancing, a variety of medical treatments and new vaccines that are reportedly 95% effective. Still, we are living in difficult times where increased levels of uncertainty, hypervigilance and anxiety have become the new normal. 

To cope with these challenges, our family has found it more important than ever to practice gratitude. Pausing to share that for which we are grateful is a family habit we have cultivated over the years. Over evening meals, at weeks-end, during holidays and birthdays, and as we celebrate the close of one year and set intentions for the next, we affirm the goodness we have experienced, however big or small. Generally, these sentiments are easily and genuinely expressed, other times require extra commitment and effort, including these past months when hardship has been especially prevalent. 

During these challenging times I’ve been drawn to, and heartened by, a growing conversation about the benefits of gratitude as reflected in a variety of magazines, books, blog posts, and podcasts. One  particular book that now sits next to my workstation, is The Gratitude Project:  How the science of thankfulness can rewire our brains for resilience, optimism, and the greater good. The book includes a host of short chapters written by a diverse collection of authors and sorted into sections such as, The Impact of Gratitude, How to Be Grateful, How to Be a Grateful Family and How to Foster Gratefulness Around You.

The big take-away for me is to remember that gratitude is a choice, one that is always available to us, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The authors cite a growing collection of studies revealing that the more we choose gratitude, the more we experience a range of benefits, including increased happiness, life satisfaction and other positive emotions. Regular expressions of gratitude, it is reported, also provide relief to those struggling with anxiety and depression, improves the quality of our relationships with loved ones, coworkers and neighbors, and can even lead to greater success with achieving goals.

One particular expression of gratitude is to first affirm there is goodness in the world, including the benefits and gifts that one has received, and, second, to attribute that goodness to another person or higher power. I find this format especially useful in connecting my own experience to the actions of others, as I reflect on that for which I am grateful in 2020.

First, with fewer sports and social gatherings, combined with more online school and working from home, we share many more meals together as a family. I’m especially grateful that our 14 and 11 year old Zoe and Adam are becoming proud and accomplished cooks and bakers, too, making our meals more a group experience.

I’m grateful for the joy our family has experienced from adopting a family dog and I’m especially grateful that my wife, Lori, persisted with her desire to welcome a puppy into our family, even after years of me opposing the idea.

I’m grateful that as a family we have been even more physically active outdoors than usual. I appreciate that we have worked together to prioritize more walks, hikes, backyard meals, and even a two week camping trip, when closures and travel restrictions limited other options.

And I’m grateful for the reminder that the simple act of expressing genuine gratitude, especially in the face of so much hardship, helps the world look a bit brighter. It’s a silver lining from 2020 worth remembering throughout the coming year.

For more resources on gratitude, visit the Greater Good Society at greatergood.berkeley.edu.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Father and family welcome adopted puppy

December 8, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 1, 2020

I finally agreed to a family dog. For years I’ve been firm that our home would remain dog-free. I have a dog allergy, after all, though it is mild in comparison to my dust mite and mold allergies.

I’ve suffered dog bites from three different dogs over the years, though in each instance the dog was off-leash and the owner lacked voice control. I grew up with a family dog, three of them over the years (though not the same three that bit me). Ours were trained to serve as hunting and guard dogs, kept in place with stern voice and punishment.

So, when my wife Lori, who grew up with a much loved family dog, Lolly, and our Zoe and Adam, expressed again and again a desire to have a cute and cuddly family dog I was uneasy about the idea. The more I thought about it, the more I simply did not want an additional responsibility, in this case a living creature that would surely disrupt the precarious balance of everyday family life — not just for a weekend but likely for the next 10 years, or longer! 

Over time, however, I witnessed my family warmly and joyfully interact with dogs in our friendship and family circles. With Zoe and Adam, now 14 and 11 (growing older by the minute) they both seem eager and ready to embrace important roles caring for a dog. And, with the profound social isolation imposed by COVID-19 and related restrictions, my heart warmed to the idea that a family dog could be a welcome source of joy and connection within our family.

We considered purchasing a puppy from a reputable breeder but the $2,500 price tag was not in our budget. We were generally aware that many, many puppies and dogs need a loving home. So, with recommendations from a number of experienced friends, we began the adoption process.

After completing online applications of 50-60 questions each, for a number of agencies, we were finally approved by an agency in Connecticut. During an incredibly thorough one-hour screening interview we learned that there are, on average, hundreds of eager applicants for each adoptable puppy. Nonetheless, a short time later, we received notice of an adoption event where approved applicants could visit with available puppies and dogs.

So, on a Sunday afternoon we piled into the family car with great and guarded anticipation. When we arrived at the center, there were at least 30 cars lining the street and a long line of mask-wearing, socially-distancing, and dog-desiring families. Some had been pre-approved to make appointments with specific adoptees and so by the time it was our turn the puppies were no longer available.

There was, however, a 1-year-old pup (apparently they’re puppies for two years) that drew our attention. After a brief screening and courting process (think canine-people speed-dating) adoption was approved and we drove off with our new family dog, who promptly fell asleep on Adam’s lap in the back seat.

One week into our new adventure we’re still adjusting to new routines and challenges. The great news is that our new arrival, who we named Luna, sleeps soundly all night long in her doggy crate. Admittedly the idea of a crate seemed a bit strange to me, but I was convinced when we read, and heard from experienced dog folks, that dogs are denning animals and generally feel safer and calmer in a crate. Crating also prevents a dog from roaming the house and getting into trouble while families are sleeping, making it a win-win solution.

Luna also sits by the back door whenever she needs to go outside to find a special spot in the yard to relieve herself, and so far we’ve only had two small indoor accidents to clean up.

Everyone enjoys evening snuggle-time with lots of petting, belly rubs and naps on the futon, where Luna humors us with her tendency to sleep deeply and snore loudly.

And, our first attempts at socializing Luna with other dogs during our neighborhood walks has been fairly successful. She seems to crave the connection with other dogs and loves to rough it up a bit, in a friendly way, and we’ve gladly been learning tips from our fellow dog walkers, too.

We were told in the initial screening process that transitioning an adopted pup into a new home would take lots of time, patience and love. Ultimately we know very little about Luna’s first year of life, other than the fact that she ended up in an adoption center in Mississippi and was later trucked to Connecticut where we met her. At the very least she has endured at least one separation from a caregiver and based on some of her behaviors she may have been weaned too early from her mother.

The later possibility is one explanation for her particularly challenging habit of biting us when she seems scared or wanting our attention. The biting has been more than typical puppy nipping and has left us concerned. The adoption agency is offering support and guidance and we started working with a local veteran dog trainer who is a fabulous resource. We’re seeing improvement and remain hopeful that with enough training and love little Luna will be a part of our family for years to come.

In the meantime, adding a dog to our family has been both joyful and stressful, and in that way, just another leg on the fatherhood journey.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Election Offers Family a Teachable Moment

October 28, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on October 27, 2020

The upcoming presidential election looms large. The resurgent COVID-19 pandemic presents a universal threat to human health and well-being. Our daily lives have been dramatically altered by the presence of the virus for the past eight months, and likely for many months, perhaps years, to come.

For my wife, Lori, and I, the stakes are higher than any election in our lifetimes, so it has been a steady topic of conversation in our home. Somewhat to my surprise, our Zoe and Adam, now 14 and 11, insisted on watching the recent debates and town hall meetings, must-see live entertainment, according to Zoe.

With their mama a front-line health care worker, their daily frustration with online schooling, cancellation of most out-of-school activities and persistent limitations on family and friend visits, they too, are acutely focused on the candidate’s views and proposed solutions for ending the pandemic. As a parent, I appreciate the teachable moment presented by these circumstances.

So, circled around the kitchen table for a recent Saturday supper, I presented a mini-version of the Great Cake Lecture, a lesson I offered many years ago as a high school government teacher, to classrooms full of inspired and uninspired students alike. The topic of the lesson is one of the core functions of government, the fair distribution of resources, a philosophical exercise known as distributive justice.

I engaged my young students by pointing to the 9-inch round cake sitting in the center of the table (actually it was a homemade gluten-free pumpkin cornbread that Lori had made) and ask, “What would be the fairest way of sharing (or distributing) this cake?”

Adam quickly asserted, without raising his hand (perhaps evidence of the lasting impact of online schooling where actual hand raising has become obsolete) that the cake should be cut into four equal pieces, one for each of us.

“Well done,” I said, pointing out that he had offered an egalitarian solution where the most important value is equality, such that decisions are aimed at ensuring equal access to resources and outcomes.

I then asked, “What if the cake was not gluten-free (Lori is gluten intolerant), would it make sense to give everyone an equal size piece of cake?

Adam shot back, “Is that a rhetorical question?” before bursting into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, Zoe nearly choked while laughing with a mouthful of food, her face turned bright red.

Decorum in my in-person classroom was in great jeopardy so I pressed the pace of the lesson, moving straight to the heart of the matter.

“If this cake represented a limited supply of an effective COVID vaccine, what would be a fair way of distributing it?” Adam — again, without raising his hand — blurted, “Does the vaccine really work or is that just what Donald Trump said,” demonstrating that he had been paying attention during the VP debate, when candidate Kamala Harris delivered a rousing point on this very subject.

Zoe chimed in with her analysis, positing that “the vaccine should be given to those most at-risk, like the elderly, children, immune compromised and health care workers,” offering her parents further indication that her penchant for health, rules and catastrophizing could lead to a career in public health.

“Excellent point, Zoe,” I remarked, noting that her response reflected a more utilitarian perspective, where resources are distributed in a way that aims to maximize their usefulness (utility).

I knew that if I did not wrap up the lesson before they finished eating, there would be little hope of keeping them engaged, so I launched into the third and final key concept of the lesson, by asking, “Since there is a limited supply of the vaccine (how far can one stretch a small pan of cornbread, after all?) what if the government simply sold the vaccine to the highest bidder?”

They both quickly arrived at the conclusion that this would be unfair. Challenging them a bit, I said, “Well, if I have money that I worked hard to earn or if I have really good health insurance, shouldn’t I have the right to get the vaccine?” Unsure if Adam’s lack of a quick response was an indication of interest in his dinner or lecture fatigue, I broadened the context with a comparison. “Would it be fair for the government to require that everyone wear a mask when in a public, in order to limit the spread of the virus,” I inquired.

After some back and forth, I offered that another way to decide how resources are distributed and used aims to maximize individual freedom (liberty), explaining that some feel strongly that mask wearing (or not) is an individual right and not the role of government to decide. As for explaining an individual’s right to buy the vaccine (especially for those with greater means), I made a strategic decision to defer discussion of Adam Smith and the invisible hand of a free market economy for another day.

Once class was dismissed, Lori and I deepened our conversation, venting our frustrations with the impotent national leadership and anemic coronavirus response. It’s evident to both of us that at our best, Americans have historically demonstrated the capacity — through great difficulty and contention — to balance the often competing values of equality, utility and liberty. At our worst — arguably our present situation — Americans have used these value differences to pit ourselves against each other, in the name of right and wrong, us versus them and Democrats versus Republicans.

This impulse grows strongest when fear predominates, as it does now — fear of sickness, death, economic ruin and loss of normalcy resulting from the COVID pandemic. It is only human that such fear activates our basic survival instincts of fight, flight and freeze. We see examples of flight and freeze response by those who withdraw from public life or are so terrified that they seek to close themselves off in a protective bubble.

But while those responses are understandable, we need cohesive leadership and collective commitment to fight — together — to end the pandemic. Victory will come in the form of adequate supplies of PPE for all front-line workers, ample rapid testing kits, plentiful trace testing, broad mask wearing and social distancing, strategically distributed ventilators, continued development of cutting-edge medications, and, in time, an effective vaccine.

But this victory requires that we first have a leader who is courageous enough to truthfully acknowledge the full threat of the pandemic and then to set about creating a shared vision (not sow seeds of division), to meet our present challenge with our collective best.

Faced with the teachable moment of a lifetime, may we sense and seize this moment for good, on Election Day and beyond.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Weathering the Pandemic as a Family

September 23, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 23, 2020

COVID-19 continues to significantly reshape our daily lives. Mid-September marked the 6-month point since the World Health Organization declared – on March 11, 2020 – the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. The virus has caused nearly 200,000 deaths in the U.S., and projections for the coming months are beyond grim. The virus has fundamentally changed the social, cultural, economic, political and spiritual aspects of our daily lives in ways that most of us have never experienced.

In our personal and professional lives we increasingly cling to technology to keep us connected but since a Google search on “Zoom fatigue” produces more than 28 million results, it seems fair to say that technology alone is not the elixir for what currently ails us.

The need to individually and collectively adjust to our dire situation, including the seemingly never ending uncertainty about the future, has left us feeling that our lives are on hold. We steel ourselves and our families for what may come, while we anxiously await herd immunity and an effective vaccine, not to mention decisive leadership and a coherent national strategy aimed at achieving effective public health and economic solutions. 

While COVID-19 has heightened anxiety about our present and future lives, it has also presented a profound moment in which we can identify, and recommit ourselves to, the simple and meaningful activities that enrich our daily lives. As a family we recently leaned into this mindset while circled around the kitchen table, nourishing ourselves with homemade curried, potato-leek soup and warm bread, as the autumn equinox approached.

Zoe and Adam had both finished the first week of online middle school, only three short days, and were mentally preparing themselves for the first full week of Zoom-based learning. As their parents, Lori and I had been strategizing how best to support them this fall. We’d also been doing our best to support each other and find the strength to continue serving others through our professional roles.  

We started our family conversation by agreeing that we have fared well, individually and as a family, these past 6-months. Zoe rated the overall experience a 7 or 8, though Adam abstained from voting as he shoved another chunk of buttered bread into his mouth. Lori and I expressed gratitude for our gainful employment and our family’s health. 

Next, we discussed the strategies we used to maintain our well-being during these challenging and stressful times. Staying connected with friends and family, virtually and in-person, was at the top of our list. Second we noted that lots of outdoor time and physical activity was essential. This included many family walks, Zoe and Lori running together a few times each week, Adam tearing up and rebuilding forts and a mountain bike course in the backyard, and I trained for and completed a (virtual) triathlon. We sustained ourselves with lots of home-cooked, healthy food, including produce from our gardens and fruit trees, and a steady flow of Zoe’s baked treats and smoothie bowls!

Finally, we focused on what we could do to best maintain our well-being during the next 6-months. In general, we agreed we would continue with the daily and weekly routines that have become our new normal. Additionally, we noted that having at least one special activity or goal to bring us hope and joy for the days ahead was really important. Zoe is excited to have recently restarted team gymnastics for the first time since March and Adam just began a 10-week outdoor wilderness survival program that meets one day per week. Lori is delighted to be playing her guitar, often through Zoom with her father and brother Dan, and enjoying working from home part of the week where she can more readily help support Zoe and Adam with school. I’m inspired to continue my regular physical exercise, both because it makes me feel good and because it is an essential antidote to the largely sedentary and virtual nature of my work.

Mostly, though, I look forward to continuing to be active and connected as a family, in the best ways we can, despite the uncertainty and stress of these times. It’s the one thing we can control and the one thing that keeps us grateful for today and hopeful for tomorrow.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.