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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


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

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


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

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, 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

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


COVID crisis, time to protect selves and serve others

April 23, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating significant hardship for many, some more than others. So far, our family has fared well.

We are all healthy and none of our immediate family members or friends have experienced COVID symptoms. For now, my wife Lori and I are both still working and the recent government check we received sits in an emergency savings account. We live in a community where we have plentiful access to outdoor spaces where we can safely walk, run, bike and hike, helping our bodies remain active and minds calm.

We have not been without stress and anxiety, though, as we consider the exposure risk when Lori treats patients at the clinic where she works. Though they are managing fairly well, our children Adam and Zoe, as is true for their peers, are missing their routines, friends, school and after-school activities and remain pensive about future uncertainties. I have been adapting by starting my work days in the basement home office as early as 6 a.m. This allows me time needed to complete my daily work, support Adam with his home schooling, go for walks with Zoe and Adam at lunch time and keep the household functioning when Lori is at work.

So far, the new conditions of daily life — in our home, and for nearly all of our friends and family — merely produce mild or moderate discomfort. We have even experienced some notable benefits during the COVID lockdown, such as more quality time together as a family, the absence of what is normally a frantic weekly schedule, enjoying both creating and eating healthy home cooked meals together, and more conversation (virtually) with distant friends and family.

But we need not look far to see that others are experiencing tremendous hardship. The rising numbers of COVID-presumed infections, confirmed cases and deaths in our community, nation and world is an obvious, horrifying reality. And while the top priority is to shore up one’s personal and family well-being (first put on our own oxygen masks, as advised during air travel), in times of crisis there exists great opportunity to be of service to others, especially those who are uniquely vulnerable and more greatly impacted.

In this spirit, we have identified three local organizations that are heroically working to meet the needs of others — those experiencing food shortages, domestic violence and strain from serving on the front lines as health care workers — and donated funds to support each cause.

As Andrew Moorehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusettsrecently reminded us, challenges faced by many of us to access our favorite foods and stock pile for an uncertain future pale compared to those who, in the best of times, struggle to feed their families. Now more than ever, food banks are a life line for the increasing numbers of those facing hunger, a number sure to climb given 22 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in recent weeks. Those wanting to help can donate, volunteer or advocate by visiting

Marianne Winters, executive director of Safe Passage, recently reminded us that social isolation is commonplace for those experiencing domestic and intimate partner violence. Stay-at-home orders can mean survivors are stuck at home with an abuser, leaving the survivor more susceptible to physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse. These same stay-at-home orders can reduce access to treatment, safety and support after abuse, leading to untreated injuries and psychological trauma, unwanted pregnancies, and lack of access to money for basic needs. Those wanting to help can donate, volunteer or advocate by visiting

Local resident Lisa Oram wanted to support frontline health care workers — show they some love — for their tireless efforts during the COVID crisis. Many are working extraordinarily long hours, risking exposure to COVID through direct patient care, and emotionally wrought with the task of treating an increasing number of cases despite real resource limitations. Beyond the doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and other care providers, many more are ensuring that facilities and materials are sanitized, operating around-the-clock laundry service and developing and implementing management practices and policies in an ever-changing and high-stress environment.

With help from her husband, Steve Brown (who happens to be my boss), Lisa cooked up a plan to raise money from friends and pay local restaurants (who are also facing great hardship and shut down from loss of business) to provide lunches and dinners to staff at our local hospital, Cooley Dickinson. Those wanting to contribute can donate or volunteer to pick up and deliver food by visiting

Of course, there are many other ways to be of service, including calls and care packages for those who live alone, offers to purchase and deliver groceries, virtual tutoring and story time for children whose parents are working or ill, and ordering a take-out meal once a week to support a local restaurant, to name a few.

As we all continue to practice hand-washing, physical distancing and stay-at-home precautions, we can also seize — especially those of us faring well — unique opportunities to be of service to others. While no one of us can bring an end to the pandemic, each one of us can make a difference in the lives of others, in the best of times and in a crisis, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Holding onto hope during a global pandemic

March 25, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette March 25, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is all-consuming. Reports of the number of COVID-19 cases, the number of confirmed deaths and predictions of worsening conditions are terrifying. The widespread closures of schools, businesses and places of public accommodation are alarming. The short- and long-term economic impact is incomprehensible.

As the severity of our human predicament has become more apparent, I have found myself bogged down, emotionally drained and buzzing with persistent anxiousness. Starting, let alone completing, daily activities at home and work require extra effort, additional concentration and feel less fulfilling. And, as a father and husband, waves of panic blindside me with worse-case thoughts about how our family might be impacted in the coming weeks and months.

Sometimes I actively resist the full weight of my despair. This short-term tactic allows me to muddle through the task at hand, distracting myself with busyness. Other times I allow myself to feel the depth of this dark place, acknowledging the dire nature of the situation, and remembering that I am not my feelings and that feelings are temporary. This well-worn strategy, I have found, can bring a sense of emotional relief in difficult times.

But persistent despair, I believe, leads to a path of hopelessness and a world where fear and pessimism crowd out the greater possibilities that lay within each and all of us. As we adapt to this new coronavirus reality, it is essential that we hold on to hope. Whereas hopelessness leaves us powerless and disconnected from others, hope requires that we desire a better future and believe that it is possible.

Hope is not self-sustaining, it requires human connection. Today my hope might inspire others. Tomorrow when I am struggling, another’s hope can lift my spirits. We must hold onto hope for those who are currently unable, and in doing so, strengthen our own resolve. Leaning into hopes’ promise, I have been asking myself what are the practices that help me and our family feel hopeful, especially in time of great crisis.

Staying physically active helps us all feel more energized, less stressed and generally more positive. Our middle schooler Zoe does gymnastics workouts in our unfinished basement, fifth grader Adam enjoys the mountain bike jumps he built in our backyard, and Lori and I take turns doing workouts in the basement on a stationary bike. We’ve also been enjoying more walks and rides along the bike path near our home and weekend hikes in neighboring forests.

Maintaining simple rituals provides structure and predictability to our schedules. Friday night we make homemade pizza, celebrate highlights from our week, and then snuggle in the living room for a movie. Sunday evening we map the week ahead on the large white-board that hangs on our kitchen wall, including a calendar of activities, dinner menu, and a new addition — daily home school schedules for each Zoe and Adam.

Preparing our gardens keeps us grounded in the present moment. So, recently we pruned and fertilized our peach and apple trees, covered the hoops that line the garden in our side yard with plastic to warm the soil, and planted kale, chard and mixed greens, just as we do every spring.

Connecting with others helps us remember that we are not alone. We have initiated more phone and FaceTime conversations, and less text and email messaging, with far away friends and family. We’ve enjoyed walks and bike rides with neighbors, while maintaining a safe distance. At work, Lori and I have experienced meaningful conversations with colleagues and clients, who are also trying to make sense of these challenging times.

And in the evening, when others are in bed, I calm my racing mind and fidgeting body with yoga and meditation, leaving me restored, less reactive, more open to others — and ready for another day.

Hope will not bring an end to the coronavirus, nor prevent the great hardship we are just beginning to endure. Hand washing and social distancing are essential to keeping us healthy and curbing the spread of the virus. But with our clean hands, we must hold on to hope, and in our families, neighborhoods and communities, we must dedicate ourselves to engaging in practices that instill hope. For there are seeds of hope within each one of us, but hope is a garden we must tend together.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Fatherhood Journey celebrates 100

February 27, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on February 26, 2020

This is the 100th edition of the Fatherhood Journey. In the fall of 2011, without a plan or much expectation, I wrote my first column. At the time, Lori and I had been married six years, with our daughter Zoe, 5, and son Adam, 2.

I was mostly an at-home father by day, and simply thought adding a father’s voice — about fatherhood and family — to the Gazette would complement a number of columns regularly written by mothers. Inwardly, I hoped that publicly sharing reflections on my own experience might promote more public and private conversations about fatherhood.

Two years prior, we had relocated to Northampton from Boulder, Colorado, returning to Lori’s New England family roots and satisfying our urge for adventure. It was the height of the Great Recession and we had both been laid off from professional roles that were fulfilling and reasonably-paid. When we arrived, Lori was very pregnant, we lacked local friends and family, and we were jobless.

While Lori, as a skilled physical therapist, had plentiful job opportunities, my varied professional experience made finding work more challenging. So, a few months after Adam was born, Lori returned to part-time work at a local clinic. I picked up work as a consultant, which, fortunately, I was able to do at night from a closet at the top of the stairs to our apartment, a quiet and welcome refuge barely big enough for two book shelves and a desk.

By day I was Daddy, pushing Zoe and Adam to town in a double stroller, seeking adventure, meeting other parents and kids at the local parenting center, and experiencing the full range of emotions — from pure joy, to utter insanity — that comes from parenting young children.

It was in this context — the milieu of my daily life — where my aspiration to be an engaged father and loving husband stretched me — often to the breaking point — beyond the person I was, to the person I was becoming, again and again. The Fatherhood Journey, somewhat unwittingly, came to be a chronicle of this experience where, through a mix of raw emotions and curated accounts, (omitting some details in an effort to maintain family privacy), I reflected on fatherhood and the precious life lessons it offered me.

Ninety-nine columns later, Lori and I are approaching 15 years of marriage, each with full-time careers; Zoe and Adam are 13 and 10 years old respectively. Recently rereading the columns, many aloud as a form of family story-telling, generated much laughter, appreciation and a gentle reminder that life is a rich blend of love and daily struggle, celebration and hardship, death and renewal.

Collectively, these columns illustrate that fatherhood is multidimensional, too; that being father to Zoe and Adam has led me to rethink, reimagine, and sometimes reaffirm my understanding of the personal, familial, social, cultural, political and economic layers of my life.

Above all, though, this series of monthly reflections reveals that fatherhood is a practice — a spiritual practice — one that I do each day, every day, sometimes well, other times not so much. The practice is anchored in the belief that I matter to Zoe and Adam. What I do and say, and don’t do and don’t say, directly impacts them, now and long after my final breath.

The practice is often mundane, sometimes mysterious and always sacred. The practice is both fundamentally simple and yet so very difficult. And, the practice — at each stage of the journey — has proven sweeter and more meaning-filled than I ever imagined.

For all of this — the great gift of fatherhood — I am grateful to Zoe and Adam, who through their very being inspire me to continue growing as a father, and to Lori, my partner in parenting and life, with whom I have the joy of navigating this crazy adventure — the fatherhood journey.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website His column has moved to the Opinion page starting this month, and will appear on the fourth Wednesday and online at

Father reclaims sacred space with new digital boundaries

January 16, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 15, 2020

Life is busy. Just ask anyone and they will reflexively tell you just how busy they are. In fact, many people will tell you how busy they are even if you don’t ask. The busier the better, so it seems; as if being busy is a marker of success. I suspect Americans are among the busiest humans on the planet. I’ve also read in many sources that Americans have some of the highest rates of stress and insomnia, too.

While I live a fairly privileged life, with basic needs readily fulfilled, stress and insomnia have long been my companions. In many ways I practice a healthy lifestyle — well balanced diet, regular exercise, daily meditation and positive connection with family and co-workers. I also live in a relatively safe community, where the threat of violence or discord is low.

Despite all these benefits, it seems that my nervous system is consistently drained and often reaches a state of overload, resulting in stress and disrupted sleep — neither of which produce my best parenting.

So, in a quest to improve my general well-being and fathering, I did some reflecting. Quickly I came to the realization that the most notable exception — to my busyness, stress and sleeplessness — is our annual family camping trip on the shores of Lake Champlain, Vermont. During that week, we settle into a rhythm of physical activities such as biking, hiking, fishing, skipping stones, reading, star gazing and campfires. My stress melts away and I enjoy my best sleep of the year.

But there’s one other important detail. During that week I fully unplug, turning off my (smart?) phone and storing it in the glove box of our car. Of course, being on vacation I also take a break from my computer, which stays at home. Without these devices, I feel liberated and my nervous system is much happier.

When at home, I seem to be using one or both devices most waking hours of the day. I use Google Calendar to organize my work and family schedules, in coordination with the work and family schedules of my colleagues. I meet with co-workers and clients on virtual conference calls. I communicate with colleagues and family through text, email and calls. I confirm travel arrangements, medical appointments and party invitations through online portals. I use GPS to navigate while driving, listen to podcasts when exercising at the YMCA, and have experimented with meditation apps to calm myself in the evening. I learn through webinars, manage projects for virtual teams with virtual tools, and store files in the cloud. I shop, bank, order library books and renew my automobile registration as well as my driver’s license online. All this and I don’t even use social media or television; I consider myself a modest tech user!

Granted, oodles of phone and computer-based activities are beneficial, time saving and kind of cool, it’s just that collectively the digital deluge is totally over-whelming.

While I’m certainly not the first father — or human — to notice that the increasing and incessant volume (pun intended) of phone and computer time in the course of our days is sucking the life out of us — to the detriment of our physical and mental well-being and relationships — I’ve reached a personal tipping point.

So, I started thinking about how I might decrease the busyness in my life through regular, self-administered doses of unplugged time. After kvetching to a counselor about my stress and insomnia, she suggested I consider the practice of keeping Sabbath. This led me to reading “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,” authored by Wayne Muller, published in 1999 and even more relevant today than when first released.

Muller writes of Sabbath as a spiritual practice — shared, in similar though differing forms, by Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others — where designated sacred time for rest, reflection and quality connection to self and others helps ensure a life where work and rest are in balance.

One Jewish practice, I learned, is the use of a Sabbath box. At the start of Sabbath — sundown on Fridays, for example — symbols of work, such as keys, wallet, phone and pen, are placed in a box to make way for reflection, prayer, shared meal and celebration.

This simple, yet profound, practice reminded me of placing my cell phone in the glove box during vacation, and inspired me to create new boundaries with my digital devices, in an effort to restore some balance to my life.

I now have my work email turned off on my phone, most of the time; occasionally turning it on when away from my desk, and otherwise reserving work email for when I’m at my computer. Additionally, I recently started turning off my phone at the end of work on Friday and placing it in a desk drawer (a type of Sabbath box), just before celebrating the week’s end during our Friday family dinner. Sometimes I leave the phone turned off for part or all of the weekend, which has spilled over to week nights when I also park the phone in the desk, helping me disrupt the habit of mindlessly reading news feeds. I’m also more intentional about scheduling a block of time on the weekend — and not at night — when I work on computer related household tasks such as online banking and coordinating family schedules, so that my brain is able to enjoy digital free space most of the weekend.

As I have been making these changes I have certainly felt the urge to reach for the phone or laptop, but have replaced that urge with a commitment to engage more with our rapidly aging kids, Zoe and Adam, and my wife Lori. I’ve noticed feeling more connected to the three of them and to an increase in meaningful conversations, at the dinner table, in the car and just whenever.

In the big picture, less digital time might not seem significant but, so far, it seems to be having a positive impact by offering me a bit more breathing space in my day, more connection with family, a bit less stress and — hopefully — better sleep in 2020.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website