Skip to content

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

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.

Family finds way to thrive in uncertainty

August 28, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 2020

We finally did it. After years of aspiring to extend our annual weeklong summer camping trip into a two-week respite from our day-to-day lives, we succeeded!

Our vision was formally set in motion the morning after Labor Day 2019 when I logged onto a website to compete for a coveted site at our beloved Grand Isle State Park in Vermont. By 9:10 a.m. we had secured a two-week reservation at our second most favorite site. I printed the confirmation email and tacked it on the cork board in our kitchen where for months it fueled enthusiasm and anticipation for what would certainly be the highlight of our 2020 calendar.

Along with daughter Zoe, nearly 14, and son Adam, now 11, my wife Lori and I have connected with the air, land and water of the Lake Champlain Islands for seven of the past eight years. It is a place where morning tea is sipped while watching the sun rise over the lake, where moon light shimmers on the water during evening swims, and a chorus of crickets and katydids floods our tent after nightfall. In the spaces between, we paddle, hike, fish, swim, and skip stones, worn smooth by the endless churn of waves, until our arms hang tired from their sockets. We nourish our bodies and souls with simple meals, campfire conversations and deep sleep.

In March 2020, six months after making our camp reservation, COVID-19 was rising, adding additional complication, stress and anxiety to our daily lives. In the following months, anticipatory talk of our two-week planned adventure helped us weather the unpleasantness and mounting uncertainty of life in a global pandemic.

As the trip grew near, Adam and I sorted and reorganized gear in the garage, making a list of items we needed to secure before our departure. Zoe and Lori carefully planned meals and procured ingredients to sustain our active bodies while away.

Two weeks before our planned departure, COVID-19 levels in our home county – after weeks of steady decline – spiked more than 60%. In short, Vermont’s travel restrictions required that we quarantine at home for two weeks before travel, an impossibility given Lori’s health care job. I carefully culled websites and called the campground hoping to identify a loop hole in the restrictions, to no avail.

Initially immobilized by anger and despair – how could this happen, after years of envisioning this trip! – we resolved to create the best alternative plan we could muster. By the following morning we had secured a campsite for two weeks in the eastern Adirondacks on the New York shores of Lake Champlain, a few miles across the water from Grand Isle.

To be sure, it was not the trip we originally planned, as the campsite lacked the privacy and quietness to which we have grown accustom, at times leaving us irritable and sad about the loss of our preferred site. Still, we consider ourselves fortunate to have had a new, different and in many ways amazing experience.

The list of highlights is long, with many lasting memories. Adam and I, twice ripped it up on nearby mountain biking trails. We all swam, floated on inner tubes and leisured on the sandy shores where the Ausable River recharges the lake with rain and snow melt from the Adirondack high peaks.

We marveled at a frog, the size of a grapefruit, as it hopped through our camp, and lay spell bound on the beach watching a meteor shower while waves lapped near our feet. We relished an overnight trip and hotel stay in Lake Placid where we visited former Olympic venues and played in Mirror Lake – swimming, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding.

We even weathered, in good spirits, an 18-hour rain delivered by Tropical Storm Isais. And, on our 15th wedding anniversary, Lori and I sipped our morning tea as the sun rose over the sparkling lake.

In truth, the details of the trip – both the one we originally planned and the one we ended up experiencing – were simply different versions of the same vision. In this enduring vision, we plan a family trip in a special place where we can be active outdoors and reconnect to ourselves and each other. The vision is about honoring what we as a family find meaningful and restorative.

Two weeks of vacation is a luxury unavailable to many and exercised by even fewer. Traveling during a pandemic is not without risk, especially at a campground with 120 sites and only a handful of public toilet and shower facilities. And tenting in a tropical storm is not advisable. But while these challenges conspired to derail our plans, we remained flexible, put passion ahead of fear and together held fiercely to the sacredness of our family vision.

And, come Sept. 1st, I’ll be online to reserve a prime campsite at Grand Isle for August 2021!

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

 

Students, schools can lead us out of pandemic

July 22, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 22, 2020

In the sizzling July heat, students, parents and teachers are trying their best to focus on summer. Longer days, later bedtimes, bike rides, swimming and ice cream remain simple pleasures available to most. But as COVID-19 rages, imposing closures and limitations on many normal summer activities, there is growing anxiety about what lays ahead for the coming school year.

To calm myself, I’ve been cherishing images of our Adam and Zoe on the first day of school, years past. One of my favorites is when Adam started kindergarten and Zoe second grade, both wearing clothes that showed their summer tan, backpacks and big smiles as they strolled down the alley to the big yellow school bus. Now, rising sixth and eighth graders, they, along with my wife Lori and I, anxiously await word from city officials about whether school will be fully in-person, fully online or a mix of both.

With many unknowns and no perfect solution, the decision is not easy. So, I’ve been reading, thinking and talking with others to help sort out my own thoughts about how as parents we can best support Zoe and Adam, whatever the outcome.

To state the obvious, a full in-person return to school — the normal and generally desired circumstance — is fraught with understandable concern about increased COVID exposure and transmission for students and teachers, and by extension their friends and families. In short, return to normal school could both perpetuate and accelerate the pandemic.

While online schooling from home most certainly guarantees better COVID prevention, a three-and-a-half month dose last spring made painfully clear that this approach comes with limitations.

In our home, while both Lori and I were fortunate to still have our jobs, it meant that we were unavailable to support Adam and Zoe with their school work in ways, and to the degree, we would have preferred. In single-parent households as well as households where those earning lower wages are working two or more jobs — with unpredictable hours, shift changes and limited (or no) access to sick time and family leave — it’s simply not possible for students to receive adequate parental support with school work.

Additionally, some students lack access to the devices and reliable internet service that are essential for effective home schooling. Combine with the lack of direct instruction and feedback, online schooling diminishes the prospect of learning for many, especially for those who benefit from special support and accommodations made possible by skilled educators.

As I struggle with the dilemma of whether to support in-person or online schooling, I’m generally leaning toward a hybrid model, with a mix of in-person and online learning. While not without trade-offs and certainly requiring lots of effort by school officials to overcome myriad logistical challenges, I believe this is a worthy solution in communities, such as ours, where COVID has stabilized or trended downward.

For me, at least at the moment, the deciding factor is the social benefits of in-person schooling. Humans are social beings, we learn, grow and thrive in relationship with others. The weeks or months of relative social isolation that many or most children will likely experience with home schooling is not beneficial to their developing minds and bodies.

In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the results will in many ways be detrimental. This, coupled with the understanding that, in general, the virus is not impacting children as severely as adults and children are not as likely to transmit COVID to others, the AAP is recommending that students return to school this fall.

But for me, there is an even more compelling benefit to students attending at least some school this fall. Schools are places where healthy norms can be established and reinforced, for the benefit of students, families and the broader community. Examples include the racial integration of schools and the annual requirement for a physical exam with the administration of vaccinations to thwart infections childhood diseases.

Public health experts have learned, the hard way, that changing people’s beliefs generally does not produce a change in people’s behavior. So, we can try all we want to convince people that social distancing and mask wearing are two of the best strategies for reducing COVID infections and deaths, but people are going to believe what they want to believe.

The good news, however, is that people are more likely to change their behavior when they realize that others are doing so. Again, people are social and want to belong, and they don’t want to be left out or become social outcasts.

Examples include wearing of seat belts, smoking cessation and decreases in rates of drunk driving. Each required that individuals change their behavior, regardless of their beliefs, and ultimately, the determining factor was that it became less socially acceptable to continue engaging in these unhealthy behaviors.

So, in the absence of coherent national leadership and probably many months before a vaccine is available, we need a new strategy. By working together with families, students and schools can make social distancing and mask wearing a more well-established norm, motivating behavior change and flattening the COVID curve in the process.

Along with hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, disinfecting high-touch surfaces and monitoring health daily, a campaign to make social distancing and mask wearing cool — and non-compliance uncool — is a strategy that students and schools can champion. While I’m not without concern, I’m confident that Zoe, Adam and their peers are up to the challenge and fully capable of playing a critical role in leading a culture change that will serve and protect us for years to come.

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

Race talk, for white parents

June 24, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, June 24, 2020

I remember the first time I used the “N” word. I was 5, maybe 6, living in the suburbs of Chicago, in the early 1970s.

I hurled the word at my best friend, George, who was white, telling him his new pair of boots were “N” stompers. While I didn’t fully understand the meaning of what I said, I was demonstrating the ease with which racism is learned by young children. The blunt force of my words ignited a screaming match between us, before George tearfully ran inside and I walked down the alley that connected our homes, feeling confused, as I recall. When I walked in the door, my mother was on the phone with George’s mother, though I don’t recall what, if anything, happened next.

I remember another time I used the “N” word. I was in fifth grade and with a sense of pride I huddled with my friends in the classroom, and with lowered voice told a painfully racist joke, one I had heard in our kitchen, while my father and his close friend were drinking beer and laughing.

I don’t recall speaking the “N” word after fifth grade, though perhaps I did. But I’m certain, despite my growing understanding that the word was hateful and inappropriate, that I did not confront my white peers or any adults when they used the word. Neither did I speak out or take action the many times I directly and indirectly witnessed racism.

In eighth grade, I remember receiving a phone call from two school friends, it was after dinner, cold and dark outside. They wanted me to meet them at the convenience store, a block from my home. When I arrived, they gave me a wrapped Christmas present, inside was a T-shirt with some nice phrase, which I don’t recall, printed on the front. Maria, who was African American, thanked me for being her lab partner in our science class, then apologized that they had not simply come to my home, explaining that she did not know if she would be welcome. I didn’t understand her concern at the time, but remember making the connection when sometime later I was told, by my father, “Don’t you ever bring a ‘N’ girl home,” a demand I suspect he received as a teenager.

In ninth grade, I remember sitting on the gymnasium bleachers at the high school I attended. Our Wild Cats were hosting an out-of-town team in a varsity basketball game. Every player on our team was white and every player on the other team was Black. Near the end of the game, an older boy from our town, who had been sitting with us and had left, returned, his breath smelling of alcohol, his hands cold and bloodied, a tire iron stuffed in his green army fatigue jacket. He bragged, and the newspaper later confirmed, that he had smashed every window in the school bus that would soon drive the opposing team 50 miles back to their school on the south side of Chicago, that late winter night.

In college, one evening after dinner, returning to our apartment after our evening meal, our roommate, who was a native of Sierra Leone, West Africa – and Black – was the subject of racial slurs shouted by local teens from a passing car.

After college, as a community organizer for the Boy Scouts in many sections of Chicago’s southwest side, an African American family had their porch fire bombed the first night they slept in their new home, in a predominately white neighborhood. In a separate incident, police officers picked up two Black teens who were merely walking along a busy street at night; after detaining them, the officers forced them out of the car in the middle of an all-white neighborhood. A gang of teens was waiting, leaving the Black boys so badly beaten that they were transported to the hospital by ambulance.

Throughout the country, we have recently been reminded that silence is compliance, when it comes to racism. We – as white people – often take comfort in the belief that we are not racist, pointing to the fact that we don’t use the “N” word, tell racist jokes, smash windows, burn porches, or beat Black teenagers. But we also don’t speak up, at least not enough – maybe never – about the persistent racism that lives within our families, circle of friends, workplaces and communities, and the ways in which our individual and collective silence perpetuates racism.

We all have racial bias, it’s part of the human condition. Researchers have demonstrated that this begins around age 4 or 5, about the age when I spoke my first racist words.  So as Father’s Day approached this year, our nation erupting and deeply divided in an ongoing racism pandemic, I inwardly searched, wondering how – as a father – I can meaningfully contribute to the dismantling of racism. After watching the video of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer, and then a video of his 6-year-old daughter, Gianna, speaking about how she misses her father, I found myself wondering what I would say to Gianna – as a wite person, as a father – about her father’s death and about white people.

Then I realized that the more important question is: What will I say to my daughter Zoe and son Adam, about George – not George Floyd, though we discussed his death too – but about my friend, and the hurtful words I said to him.

To start the conversation, my wife, Lori, and I circled around our kitchen table with Zoe and Adam and watched a video titled, “Black Parents Explain How to Deal with the Police,” which is available on YouTube. The 5-minute video makes it clear that the “race talk” Black parents have with their children – about surviving while being black – is a painful experience white parents are spared.

Later, I told Zoe and Adam about my friend, the racism I have witnessed, the ways my words and actions have been racist, and the ways I remained silent – as a child and adult. Releasing those closely guarded secrets, and the shame buried deep within, allows me to be more honest – with myself, family and community – about ways that I have been part of the problem and about how I, too, can be a more intentional part of the solution. I believe this is the kind of “race talk” that all white fathers and mothers must have, as first steps on the long road to ending racism. And I believe that as white parents, it’s our duty to make this part of George Floyd’s legacy and the living legacy of his daughter Gianna.

Resources for white parents: 

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

 

A truckload of goodness in difficult times 

May 27, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, May 27, 2020

For three months, COVID-19 has dominated our daily lives. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders and other precautions have fundamentally altered the way we shop, worship, learn, work and relate to each other.

Persistent fear about the virus, anxiety fueled by so many uncertainties and the cumulative impact of our collective worry is simply overwhelming — a condition that is likely to continue for the indefinite future.

While, so far, our family has remained virus free and adapted fairly well to the new normal, our physically active and socially engaged son, Adam, has grown especially restless. The absence of daily bike rides to and from school, fifth grade shenanigans with his classmates, and a season of lacrosse, coupled with long mornings completing school assignments at the computer in our living room, have resulted in considerable angst — for him and his parents.

With return to school unlikely until fall and a summer without the usual day camp experiences — my wife, Lori, and I decided we needed to find a creative solution that would make life a bit more bearable for Adam, and by extension our entire family.

So, we ordered a dump truck load of dirt. Technically, it was loam — a soil with roughly equal proportions of sand, silt and clay — with rocks and sticks conveniently removed. And, actually, it was Adam’s idea. Months ago, before COVID, he informed us what he wanted for his birthday.

“And what do you plan to do with a big truckload of dirt,” we had asked him. (Actually, he was simply trying to solve a vexing problem, of his own making, and recognized, to his credit, that he needed some help).

“I want to build more mountain bike jumps in the backyard but I need more dirt and I can’t dig any more holes in the yard to get the dirt because then there won’t be enough room to ride around and go over the jumps,” he exclaimed.

He had it all figured out, and by sharing his grand vision six months ahead of his birthday, he was clearly hoping we might spring for an early birthday gift, as we have occasionally done in the past.

So, on a warm, sunny Thursday, after Adam and big sister Zoe had finished their school assignments and lunch, I lured them out to the front porch, before I needed to return to our basement office for an afternoon of conference calls. “Come sit with me in the sunshine while I finish eating,” I said.

Zoe, eager for conversation, joined me, and I let her in on the surprise, before Adam reluctantly joined us. Zoe and I sat on the concrete step, the bright pink blossoms on our peach tree, drawing our attention. Adam, seated on his bike, his left foot planted in the grass, feigned interest. I heard the truck, not yet in sight, down shift as the driver prepared to turn onto our street, and I said to Adam, “what’s that sound?”

He looked at me inquisitively, then we all heard the engine rev as the loaded truck accelerated in our direction. Adam turned to his right just as the truck rolled into full view, the mound of loam visible above the edge of the truck’s bed. His bike hit the ground as he jumped off and began dancing with excitement.

In minutes, with the truck backed into the drive, the whir of hydraulics lifted the bed, and 8 cubic yards of loam slid to the pavement. An online calculator found with a Google search, confirmed that roughly 20,000 pounds of earth needed to be moved to our backyard before we could pull the car into the garage once again. By the end of Sunday, Adam and his neighborhood friend — and backyard-mountain-bike-course-designing-and-riding-partner — Auggie, had used a wheel barrel and two shovels to move a third of the pile.

A week later, after I too contributed significant sweat equity, we marked the celebratory moment when the two of them loaded the wheel barrel the final time, before sweeping the drive clean.

So far, the boys have filled all of the holes in the backyard, made their existing jumps and berms bigger, added additional jumps, and put a reserve pile along the back fence (for future improvements), just as Adam had envisioned. Additionally, we backfilled the entire stretch of house and garage wall in the backyard, creating additional pitch for drainage and raised ground for plantings.

Zoe, Lori and I painted the exposed cinderblock wall a lovely shade of green and soon we plan to replace the decaying wooden fence panels that enclose the yard.

The project has been a big win for all of us. Adam’s spirits have lifted, knowing that after finishing his school work each morning, a backyard wonder awaits. He is grateful too, as evidenced when he shared with Lori and I, “Since the dirt probably cost a lot it should count for both my graduation (from elementary school) and birthday present.”

Collectively, we also enhanced our modest outdoor living space, creating an oasis where we can shelter as a family from the COVID storm. And we have demonstrated that a combination of creativity and purpose can serve as a (truck) load of goodness in difficult times.

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