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The Joys and Pains of Monkey Business

November 22, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 22, 2017

One thing leads to another. Recent events in our family have reminded me of this basic truth.

Son Adam, now 8, and daughter Zoe, 11, have become big fans of the American Ninja Warrior television series. We don’t even have television service at our home and the Smart TV, which is oxymoronic in my opinion, is only on for weekend family movies. Still, they are hooked on a series that they have watched – maybe – a half-dozen times, mostly when visiting their grandparents.

On the show, contestants attempt to navigate a timed course of zany obstacles bearing names such as Salmon Ladder, Helix Hang and Floating Monkey Bars. The obstacles are suspended above a pool of water and most contestants end up wet when they lose their grip and come crashing down. Those who successfully complete the course within the allotted time advance to the next round, with hopes of reaching the finals in Las Vegas where the champion takes home a $1,000,000 prize.

Inspired by the high-level of athleticism demonstrated on the show, Zoe and Adam have been constructing American Ninja Warrior courses in our unfinished basement. In one configuration, Adam ascends one slippery, vertical, seven-foot, metal support post, grabs hold of the main horizontal, load bearing beam, one hand on each side, and swings back and forth, inching his way forward to the next metal support pole and back to the floor. A gymnastics mat is placed under this part of the course to protect falling contestants.

A low-profile, practice, balance beam, mini-trampoline, old couches, exercise equipment and lots of imagination are the remaining ingredients used by Zoe and Adam to create, test and recreate increasingly challenging courses.

But there is always room for improvement, and so when our young ninjas asked if I could build money bars along the ceiling of the basement, I figured there’s no harm in that. And so, for a total of $18 we purchased five 4’ lengths of 1” dowel rods and twenty hanging, metal brackets. Together we cut the dowels in half, used the screw gun to mount the brackets on the exposed ceiling joists, slipped the dowels in place, and then screwed the dowels to the ceiling for extra security.

Standing on the arm of the couch each took turns grabbing the first bar and swinging to the next. Within a week or two each was swinging all ten rungs across the basement, and back, mats and an old mattress lining the floor to protect from falls.

All the gripping and swinging produced not just callouses on Zoe’s and Adam’s hands, but tears in the skin too. We took care to clean and treat the wounds, and at our insistence, Zoe took a break so her hands could heal, Adam – not so much.

A few weeks later, Adam sprained a finger when he slipped and fell during an unrelated outdoor adventure, with his buddy Jasper and I. That evening we iced his hand a few times and all seemed well. The swelling returned the next day, and the next, so we took him to an orthopedic clinic to rule out a fracture. With a negative x-ray, significant swelling, absence of fever, and minimal pain, his condition was a bit of a mystery.

By the next evening his hand looked worse, with additional swelling and discoloration, so we promptly went to the local emergency room. Two hours later we were transferred to the regional trauma center where specialized care awaited.

A long night of visits by multiple care providers, tests and intravenous antibiotics ensued. By 4:00 a.m. we were moved from the emergency room to the pediatric wing. Adam was evaluated by an orthopedic doctor at 6:00 a.m. and a hand surgeon an hour later.

Early Sunday morning, my wife Lori at his side, Adam was wheeled away to be prepped for surgery. A 90-minute procedure followed during which a series of incisions on his left hand and right middle finger allowed for removal and drainage of pockets of raging infection.

By Tuesday afternoon, Adam – along with his exhausted parents, and concerned sister – were more than delighted that he was home. With two wrapped hands, daily cleaning and changing of bandages, three doses per day of atrocious tasting antibiotics, dependence on others for managing basic functions, limited activity, and weeks of healing ahead, Adam is showing progress each day and full recovery is expected.

Our best understanding is that two strands of basic, everyday bacteria entered his body through the monkey bar tears on his hands and festered unnoticed for some time, and that the fall and finger sprain coincidentally brought attention to the hidden infection.

The ordeal has been challenging – overwhelming and frightening at times – for all of us. Yet we feel so fortunate that Adam’s prognosis is great and the situation was not worse. We feel tremendous gratitude for access to excellent health care services and the wonderful support of neighbors and friends. And most of all, we – Adam, Zoe, Lori and I – relish the heightened tenderness we feel for each other in the wake of this intense and difficult experience.

As for the monkey bars and ninja course, we will be making upgrades, including fitted grip gloves to protect competitors’ hands. And with the pending medical bills, I hope one – or both – of them make it to the Vegas finals, because the million-dollar prize could come in handy.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


New school year brings learning challenges and opportunities

October 29, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 25, 2017

Settling into a new school year can be challenging. For daughter Zoe — who absolutely loves school — the challenge is eagerly awaiting the first day, when she returns to the familiar structure and rhythm of classroom learning, and all of the special events and activities that accompany her new grade. This year, as a 5th-grader, she and her peers will enjoy a series of capstone events, including a four-day, three-night ‘Nature’s Classroom’ trip, before heading off to middle school next year. Zoe glows each day and thoughtfully plans when and how to complete her homework and school projects.

Son Adam has a different experience. He grumpily awaits the first day of school, preferring to return to the comfort of last year’s classroom and teacher, rather than a new and unknown set of circumstances. For the first few weeks he reports a string of disappointments, including his dislike of new rules, elevated learning expectations, and missing friends who were placed in different classrooms than his.

Each fall, my wife, Lori, and I do our best to support Adam while he is adjusting in the early weeks of school. We listen to him, encourage him to express his feelings and stay involved in school activities to demonstrate our commitment to his learning. And, much to his credit, Adam thrives each year as a very social, engaged and caring learner.

Still, as a father and former high school teacher, I have concerns. Adam is young compared to his peers, making the cutoff date for his grade by only 14 days. Knowing that on average, boys lag girls in literacy development, by as much as 12 to 18 months according to some studies and teacher accounts, I worry that Adam’s resistance to reading will negatively impact his learning, for years to come.

So, I decided to do some reading myself, to learn more about the gendered literacy gap. In short, I learned there is strong consensus that a gender gap in literacy exists but that the cause is much debated.

Some researchers point to biology, arguing that differences in brain structure and chemistry explain the gender gap. For example, on average female brains have more connections between left and right hemispheres, which may support increased language processing. Boys, on the other hand, have higher levels of testosterone, fueling their need for physical movement over stationary activities such as reading.

I find these biology explanations interesting but insufficient, if not misleading, if only because they are often used to legitimize gender stereotypes rather than promote use of varied teaching methods to support varied learning styles.

Others point to a host of social conditions, including the fact that children’s exposure to reading and literacy activities is far more influenced by females — think Mom, preschool and elementary school teachers, and children’s librarian — than males, perhaps leaving boys with the impression that reading is not for them.

And, not too surprisingly, girls and women — including moms, teachers, librarians and the girls they inspire — are much more likely to purchase books than boys and men. So, publishers, who are in the business of selling books, reportedly promote publication of books that appeal to female buyers and readers, meaning many available books may be less appealing to boys and men.

I find these social explanations interesting, too, but still wonder how to best support Adam with developing what I hope will become his love of reading. Then, a few weeks into the new school year, I unexpectedly found myself in a fascinating conversation about reading — with Adam and his 4th-grade buddy and neighbor, Jasper.

They were lounging on our breezeway couch, eating snacks and chatting, when I decided to join them. I asked Jasper the same question I pose to Zoe and Adam each day, “What was a highlight from your school day?”

After a thoughtful pause, he answered, “Reading a really good book.” Knowing from his parents that Jasper’s relationship with reading is much like Adam’s, I further inquired.

“What book,” I asked.

“Jedi Academy,” and I read about 131 pages in a few days,” he proudly reported.

Adam responded, “I read 103 pages in my ‘Goosebumps’ book, and there are 356 books in the Goosebumps series!”

Jasper returned the volley, “We have the full series of ‘Magic Treehouse’ books at our house,” and then they both agreed that the newest release, “Knight of the Ninth Dragon,” is awesome.

Their literary enthusiasm was palpable so I asked, “What makes a book really good?”

“Graphic novels, where there is a mix of reading and comics,” Jasper responded. Adam said, “really interesting characters” are important. Jasper agreed then added, “I like hard cover books better than the floppy covered ones.”

Then they were off, riding their bikes up and down the street with the rest of the neighborhood clan, as I reflected on the surprising and delightful conversation.

My conclusion is that Adam — his buddy Jasper and their peers — are learning to read and developing genuine interest in books, at their own pace and in their own way. And, I reassured myself that rather than focusing on reading proficiency scores, I can best support Adam’s appetite for reading and all the learning it promotes, by helping him find materials that interest him, engaging him in conversations about reading, and letting him have the space he needs to learn and explore, on his terms.

And, as if to reassure me that I was on the right track, I recently found Adam alone, perched high in the privacy of our backyard tree — not reading, but with notebook and pencil in hand — writing a poem about natural objects he had just collected. He was eager to talk about it, and so was I.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

How a dad stays connected while traveling

September 29, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 27, 2017

Our family enjoys being together. From family breakfasts and dinners, to weekend activities, to summer camping adventures where we play hard and then sleep soundly, nestled in our cozy family tent, we greatly value time together. And even during times of tension we don’t like being apart, for too long.

Predictably, as our children Zoe and Adam age, recently turning 11 and 8 respectively, life seems to be physically pulling us apart, more often. After-school and weekend activities for Zoe and Adam seem to increasingly collide with each other — and their parents’ work schedules. While maintaining her family and professional roles, Lori is now a part-time doctoral student, too, and I have accepted an additional professional role, which includes occasional travel of nearly a week at a time.

As we each adjust to this new — and evolving — normal, the thought of my first six-day work trip has been stretching the strong emotional bonds our family has forged in these early years, with Zoe and Adam offering loud and heartfelt disapproval.

And while during the days leading up to my travels I offered Zoe and Adam extra doses of hugs, kisses and consoling words, I was less secure on the inside. My over-active mind churned with sadness, regret and fear at the thought of their upset, the single-parenting challenges that awaited Lori, and the certain truth that tragedy happens daily in this world.

I reassured myself about the relative safety of air travel and reminded myself that in addition to being amazingly resourceful, Lori will be surrounded by a supportive circle of neighbors and family while I am away. I also thought about one of the core lessons of the training I would be leading in the days ahead, the importance of inner connection to others.

The social service and mental health professionals who will be attending this training are charged with the responsibility of caring for children and families who have experienced higher rates of adversity and psychological trauma than most. As a consequence of neglect and abuse, these survivors often struggle to feel connected to caring others, especially when those caring others are not physically present. As a result, facing routine daily challenges, a modestly scary situation or uncertainty can produce feelings of loneliness, fear and desperation.

I am grateful that Zoe and Adam have so far been spared exposure to extreme adversity and trauma, and that the strong emotional bonds we have forged as a family in the early years bolster their ability to bounce back from upsets. Still, I believe they — like all children — can grow and thrive when their capacity to feel an inner connection to physically absent caring others is nurtured. So, I followed the example of my boss who shared with me a ritual he used when his children were young and he traveled for work.

At a local craft store I bought a box of mini, brightly colored blank stationary cards. In advance of my trip I secretly wrote notes to both Zoe and Adam, one for each day I would be traveling. I sealed each envelop with a decorative sticker and wrote their name and corresponding day of the week on each of the envelopes, six notes for each of them. In the early morning quiet, I placed Adam’s and Zoe’s colorful notes on plates at their places around the kitchen table, one for Lori, too. On the table I also left a sticky note with the words to a song I learned in a yoga class many years ago, and which I frequently sing to Adam and Zoe at bedtime, especially when they — or we — are needing a little extra love.

Hours later, while on layover at an airport in the next time zone, I called Lori’s number. Hearing the familiar ring of FaceTime on the family iPad, Zoe answered and soon we were beaming big smiles at each other. “Thanks for my note, Daddy,” were the first words she spoke.

It appears that this new family ritual was well received, that it did what I had hoped: The notes and lyrics were tangible extensions of my presence, reminders that I am with them even when we are not together and that they are loved.

And for me, it feels good to remember that I can always find new and creative ways to be the father I aspire to be, even when work takes me away from home.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Renewing a love of climbing with the family

September 2, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 29, 2017

I moved to Boulder, Colorado when I was 34, drawn to the mountains and a community. I was starting graduate school and seeking a fresh start.

Soon my days were filled with studying and outdoor adventure. While hiking, biking, trail running and backpacking ranked high on my list of favorite activities, rock climbing captivated me.

Sure, there was all the gear – the rope, hardware, harness, shoes, helmet — that initially was exciting. But the actual climbing outdoors on a rock formation was engrossing. Studying and feeling every variation in the surface of the rock, learning when to push and pull, gripping with fingers, wedging hands and feet, all in the service of countering gravity, had me fully present in the moment. The ideas, worries and daily happenings that often flooded my over-active mind disappeared. I felt mentally cleansed.

After completing school and returning to regular work, I met Lori, and for a time, amidst our many outdoor adventures, we enjoyed climbing together, enlivened by the experience. Then we married, started a family and more than 10-years passed without us climbing together.

But recently, we returned to Boulder, for a week’s vacation, with our children, Zoe and Adam, who are nearly 11 and 8 years old, respectively. For months leading up to our trip, we discussed and planned the many outdoor adventures that awaited us, including an introduction to rock climbing for the kids. They were thrilled!

Once in Boulder, we set about outfitting Zoe and Adam with basic climbing gear, which we funded through the sale of our family canoe that had sat unused in our backyard for three years. First, we visited an old haunt — a gear shop — where Zoe and Adam were each fitted for climbing harnesses. Next stop, a friend with a climbing accessory home business, who loaned us a rope and hardware and then allowed Zoe and Adam to each pick out a chalk bag, which climbers use to dust their finger tips for better grip. Last stop, a used equipment shop, where we found discounted climbing shoes for each.

The next day, we loaded our packs with gear, snacks and drinks, drove a short distance to a familiar trail, and hiked to a climbing area with beginner routes, where I could easily secure a rope.

In a short-time the kids were climbing, first Adam, then Zoe, then each a second time. And they were smiling – big smiles — brimming with a sense of accomplishment. And Lori and I were smiling, too — big smiles, brimming with pure joy.

A few days later we enjoyed a second climbing outing, offering Zoe and Adam an opportunity to build their confidence and feel inspired by the Colorado landscape. This time, I watched more closely when they were climbing, noticing how each intently studied the rock surface, moving their bodies with natural ease, and — it seemed to me – fully present with the experience.

And, once again, I felt captivated by the sport I had once loved.

Time will tell whether climbing becomes for Zoe and Adam what it once was for me — and for Lori and me — but for now, I’m simply relishing my renewed love of climbing as a family.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Cafe enriches father’s world, and community

July 31, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 26, 2017

I find refuge in small cafes. It started in my post-college years.

Quiet ones serving loose leaf jasmine tea, fresh baked goods and healthy light fare are most appealing, to me.

Rochambo Coffee and Teahouse in Milwaukee was where I graded papers for the high school social studies students I taught. At Bookend Café in Boulder, I completed most of my graduate studies in ecopsychology – and more importantly, met my wife, Lori, and later enjoyed burritos and giant chocolate chip cookies with our 2-year old daughter, Zoe, when Lori worked Saturday shifts at the hospital there. And I networked with strangers at Haymarket Café in Northampton, seeking work during the Great Recession.

Each was a place of connection, a space where the world slowed down, creativity flowed and possibilities emerged.

Six years ago, we moved to Florence, landing a few blocks from the village center, where, situated at the main intersection was Cup & Top Café.

For years, our family has visited the café for special lunch outings, where the menu offers peanut- and tree nut-free options for son, Adam, mac and cheese for Zoe, gluten-free fare for Lori — and loose leaf tea, for me.

In their younger years, the kids entertained themselves, mostly, in the play area where a slide, dress-up clothes, books and games awaited, while Lori and I would relish precious minutes of uninterrupted conversation.

Once, Zoe and I enjoyed a lunch date there, and I taught her how to play chess on the small square table that bears a painted checker board. Another time, Adam, still a toddler, and I, marveled through the front window as a fire truck parked in the middle of Main Street and extended its ladder up high to secure an enormous American flag for the Fourth of July.

As a father, I have always found a steady presence of caring adults, young and old, at the café offering a knowing glance, acknowledgement that parenting — at its best — is a team sport, played on a community field.

Founder and owner, Helen Kahn, a parent who is also president of the Northampton Soccer Club, clearly understood the value of community, when she founded Cup & Top more than 11 years ago.

But while the back room at Cup & Top has always been a family favorite, the front room has nourished my creative muse. When new to the area and seeking connection, I convened a father’s group, after hours, in the front room of the café, quarterly for nearly two years. The day after the first gathering, I sat near the front windows, journaling and sipping tea, when I first imagined writing a monthly fatherhood column.

I stepped outside with my cellphone and called the Gazette, and within minutes was pitching my idea to the editor. Since then, most of my columns have been written at the café, always a cup of tea at my side.

Over the past decade, Cup & Top has become a vital hub — a place to lunch with colleagues, meet with friends, host visitors, grab a cup of coffee, seek warmth during New England winters, chat about elections past and present, purchase locally crafted paintings, cards, books and CDs, and enjoy a fresh, locally sourced menu.

Together, our individual lives become a collective story — a community. Cup & Top has been one of the special places where this story is written. And, so, Helen’s decision to sell the cafe and make space for new adventures is both a loss and pause for celebration. It is also a moment of anticipation, as we wonder what the new owners will unveil when the cafe reopens as the Freckled Fox Cafe later this summer.

For now, I lift my cup of steaming jasmine tea to you — Helen Kahn — for creating and nurturing a space that enriched my life, my family — and our community.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Preventing sexual violence, by raising healthy boys

June 29, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 27, 2017

Thanks to the strong voices and courageous actions of our local middle school students, the opportunity for promoting a school climate that ensures a safe learning environment for all has gotten our attention. Now we need to follow up with action.

Last week, students at JFK Middle School in Northampton, MA peacefully protested — twice — asserting that sexual harassment is prevalent among their peers and that the response of school staff has been inadequate. According to a front-page story in the Gazette, one student said she reported to school officials that she had been sexually harassed by a group of boys and was told that this behavior was common for kids their age and that if she was uncomfortable returning to the class, she could sit in the library for a few days.

As a father to a daughter, who in two years will be a student at that school, and to a son who will be there two years later, I am disheartened — yet not surprised, sadly — at the thought that an adult in a position of power would normalize sexual harassment.

As a neighbor to children who currently attend this school, at least one of whom participated in the protest, I stand with them.

And, as the executive director of MERGE for Equality, a Florence-based nonprofit organization with a mission to engage people and communities in transforming masculinity to advance gender equality, I am emboldened by the determination of the protesting students.

Sexual harassment is a form of interpersonal violence that is offensive, unacceptable — and experienced by many school-age children.

A five-year study led by youth violence expert Dorothy Espelage, found that upwards of 43 percent of middle school students surveyed reported having experienced verbal sexual harassment, and 21 percent reported experiencing physical sexual harassment or assault. This includes unwanted sexually explicit notes, jokes, verbal comments, cyber messages and grabbing of body parts. Findings suggest that girls, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming youth, are more likely than boys to be sexually harassed.

Erin Prangley, of the American Association of University Women, asserts “many school cultures trivialize harassment, tolerate language that degrades women and leave unchallenged the misconception that masculinity means being superior and aggressive and femininity means being inferior and submissive.”

Emily Austin, executive director of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, a California-based nonprofit organization, stated “unaddressed sexual harassment and assault incidents in K-12 schools are the training ground for college sexual assaults,” which are occurring at epidemic levels.

It is offensive to excuse sexual harassment with the age-old adage “boys will be boys;” it is never excusable. Furthermore, reinforcing this dehumanizes boys and men, by suggesting that males are inherently violent. In fact, all boys — like all children — are born loving, caring and sensitive.

This has been evident to me as I’ve observed both my son and my daughter from the moments I first held each one.

Yet, sadly, we begin shaping gender differences in children before they are born, forcing social and cultural expectations on them.

For boys, that means learning and conforming to social norms that require physical strength, emotional stoicism, and social autonomy as evidence of manliness. As adults we reinforce this message through shame, by telling boys — even the very young — to “man up!”

And, in the classroom, on the playground, and in the locker room, boys who fail to fulfill these cultural expectations — boys who dare to be creative, sensitive, artistic, nurturing and caring — are subject to name-calling: fag, homo, queer, and, what the bullies intend as the ultimate put down, girl.

Sexual harassment is directly linked to homophobic insults, according to Espelage, whose research demonstrated that youths use such slurs to gain social standing over other students. Then, the youth who are victimized in this way are compelled to prove they are not gay or lesbian by sexually harassing peers of the opposite sex.

Recently MERGE for Equality convened its 4th Annual Healthy Men and Boys Summit. This year’s theme was, ‘Raising Emotionally and Socially Connected Boys.’ Keynote presenter and developmental psychologist, Dr. Niobe Way, who has studied the social and emotional lives of boys for nearly 30 years, and whose findings are consistent with Espelage’s research, encouraged those present to “notice and nurture resistance to harmful masculinity norms.”

The JFK Middle School students are giving us an opportunity to do that.

We can do it through compassion, by supporting and nurturing the caring side of boys and men; through accountability, by insisting that boys and men model respect through their words and behavior; and through partnership, by working together to change the way we socialize boys.

MERGE for Equality publicly invites youth and adults from the JFK Middle School community to join us in our recently launched Children’s Book Campaign. Over the next 12-months a diverse committee of educators and literacy specialists will help identify children’s books, which reflect themes of positive masculinity and gender equality. A guide will be offered to initiate discussions among adults and children. Distribution of books will target schools, libraries and settings that support children and will be based on available funding. Stories highlighting the use of these books will be collected and shared.

MERGE is prepared to join with the JFK community to identify a book and support conversations as early as this summer.

Learn more about the campaign by visiting: or contact us at

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Celebrating a birthday alone in the woods

May 24, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 23, 2017

Recently I enjoyed a day-long hike. It was a Friday, my 51st birthday, and I had cleared my work schedule in advance. As soon as Zoe and Adam, my 10- and 7-year-olds, rolled away on the morning school bus, I headed to the trailhead, about a 15-minute drive from home.

The absence of cars — and even better, people — at the parking area, brought a smile to my face. I enjoyed a couple of gulps from my water bottle before shouldering the small red pack, which contained a light windbreaker, food, first aid kit and basic emergency supplies.

The air was chilly, the sky cloudy. As the forest enveloped me, its many shades of green came into relief. Bird songs and leaves rustling in the breeze played like soft musical notes, set against a backdrop of profound silence.

Twenty minutes into my hike, I paused at a grand overlook, the place where on our family hikes the four of us break for water and snacks, mountain views stretching along the eastern horizon.

I continued on, passed the Beaver Pond and onto a section of the trail where Zoe’s and Adam’s legs have not ventured, to explore the unknown. Three hours out, three back — the trail offered me six hours of bliss and a precious reminder.

I watched a red tail hawk hunt, and a newt swim in a vernal pool. I was greeted by a porcupine, which twice turned its back toward me, before lumbering away. I saw fresh deer and moose tracks, scat of coyote and bear. It reminded me that the natural pace of life is different than the frenetic pace of my own, where my personal, family, work and community roles perpetually collide.

Time slowed during my hike, and after. I felt more spacious, that day, and throughout the following week. In this state, I remembered — once again — that my best humanness thrives under these conditions.

I am more open to ideas and suggestions. I say yes and maybe, more than no. I ask more questions, offer fewer answers. My mind feels fresh — less forgetful, confused and overwhelmed. The world appears full of possibility, and fewer obstacles.

A certain ease, at home and work, results. Though conflicts arise and challenges emerge, they are less unsettling. I function more as the husband, father, friend, colleague and neighbor that I want to be.

Running, meditation and writing — my regular practices — help balance and sustain me. But time alone in the woods is different, more enduring. So, while in recent years, a day-long hike is my special birthday ritual, I am thinking I need to celebrate my life, family and fatherhood — alone in the woods — far more often.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website