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Parents create new ritual, for connection

August 29, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, September 28, 2019

As parents, finding time to connect with each other is challenging. With our children, Zoe and Adam, rising 7th and 5th graders, it seems that my wife, Lori, and I spent more quality time together — alone, just the two of us — in the first three years of our relationship, than in the nearly 13 years since the birth of our Zoe.

We know we’re not alone. For many, the parenting journey in our highly-mobile culture where parents with young children, ours included, are geographically distant from family support systems where cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents can support each other in the important, daily work of raising children.

And so, for many, child care gaps are filled with a mosaic of paid support, in the form of baby sitters and nannies, as well as after-school, school vacation and summer camp programs, all adding to the cost of running a household. In the bustle of this lifestyle, Lori and I have worked hard, and struggled, to maintain quality connection, often too drained by the workday, ever-present commitment to Zoe and Adam, basic household operations and steadfast commitment to individual health and well-being.

Along the way, our sense of quality-time has evolved. Now, 15-minutes sipping morning tea on the breezeway before the kids awake, a quick trip to the YMCA to share a single lane to swim laps, and a 30-minute after dinner walk on the bike path serve as essential moments for being together — for connecting, sharing and listening to each other, without interruption.

While these moments of connection help sustain our relationship, we have yearned for longer periods of time, a full day or weekend, to enjoy our favorite outdoor activities, explore a new place, and simply be together as a couple. And while we have enjoyed a half-day or day together on a few occasions — even a weekend for our 10th wedding anniversary — extended time together has been a relatively unfulfilled aspiration.

So recently we decided to take a weekend trip together, while Zoe and Adam enjoyed time with their Granny and Pops, Lori’s parents, who during the summer months live less than two hours from our home. The trip was to visit Lori’s brother and family, in Charleston, South Carolina — to which a direct flight was non-existent, the heat index was over 100 degrees, and the woods and waterways around their home were inhabited by rattle snakes and alligators, two of my least favorite creatures.

But we were on a mission, determined to create a new ritual — a getaway weekend around the time of our August wedding anniversary — something we can plan and look forward to each year. So, we focused on the positive; and it was fun! We enjoyed rare time with Lori’s brother and family, tasty cuisine, uninterrupted adult conversation, and local sites, including Charleston College (where Lori’s brother and sister-in-law teach), an amazing 400-year-old Oak tree, and the only commercial Tea growing operation in the United States, which, as daily tea drinkers, we found especially interesting.

Throughout our trip we missed Zoe and Adam, and tearful FaceTime calls made it obvious that they missed us, too. Still, we believe that nurturing our relationship — day to day and with occasional trips — is essential to not only sustaining our relationship, but to thriving as a family too. So, while our family of four most enjoys being together — at home and for adventures — Lori and I are already creating a list of possibilities for next year’s getaway weekend, for just the two of us, where the weather is moderate, without snakes and gators.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Enjoying family vacations, and post-vacations too

July 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 24, 2019

Family vacations can be wonderful. Of course, there’s no guarantee, but time away from home and daily routines can foster closer connection, a sense of adventure and a refreshed outlook on life. Vacations can also be exhausting – including planning, packing, travel time, adjusting to new settings and returning to regular schedules after the trip.

Fortunately, as our kids, Zoe and Adam, (almost 13 and 10, respectively) have aged, our family vacations have been more wonderful and less exhausting, though our quest for adventure often produces some of both. Our recent four-day weekend at the family beach house, near the Connecticut shore on the Long Island Sound, offered a welcome balance that has often eluded us during our get-aways.

Amidst the warm sunny skies, cool evenings and great beach conditions, the highlights, for me, included a number of family one-on-one moments.

Lori and I enjoyed an early morning paddle (in kayaks), with the water calm and conversation easy; our bodies were refreshed by the exertion, our souls nurtured by the connection. Zoe and I walked to the lighthouse, where we sat alone, watching boats navigate in and out of the harbor, talking about features of the shoreline and fishing. I waded out to the sandbar with Adam, at low-tide, where I watched him skim board, together noticing snails, seagulls and the setting sun. And, I enjoyed a solo paddle – one-on-one time with myself – tracing the same route Lori and I followed; my mind’s inner dialogue rich and random as I traversed choppy seas.

For all the simplicity and slow pace of the weekend, though, back at work on Monday morning my brain was moving slowly, very slowly. I struggled to regain the momentum I had before our trip. After a mid-day run and lunch I was still low-energy. Instead of caffinating myself or forcing myself to work, I lay down on the floor of my office, on my back, and relaxed for a few minutes, before returning to an afternoon of computer work and phone calls. For the rest of the day, my mind and body were still moving at a slower rate than before our travels, not slow-motion, but rather a very calm, thoughtful pace.

The next day, Tuesday, while leading a team meeting at work, missed deadlines and disappointing progress on a major project left me irritated. Instead of blurting statements that likely would have been hurtful to others and counter-productive to our team’s efforts, I was able to able to voice my frustration in a clear and reasonable manner, which, in turn, created space for others to share their disappointments as well and, ultimately, a renewed focus on next steps.

At home on Wednesday, I made an unpopular decision, that led to great disappoint for one of our children, whose name is withheld upon request. I was confident in my decision, listened carefully to the repeated objections, and was able to remain calm until the situation was resolved, which took less time and energy than usual, for both of us.

So, while it was the ideal mix of rest, activity and connection with others that led to a wonderful vacation, it was a decidedly gentle return that has, so far, helped ensure a wonderful post-vacation too. And while this is more reminder than revelation, I am inspired to think carefully about the post-vacation that will follow our annual family camping trip in late August. I am envisioning a recovery day, or two, at home, so we can land, unpack and prepare for a smooth return to work and school. And, I’ve already scheduled a 30-minute post-vacation rest, during my lunch break, on the first day back in the office.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


A Father’s Fishing Tale

June 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 26, 2019

I remember when my father brought home my first fishing pole, an offering that led to my earliest and fondest memories of both wild spaces and my father. The casing on the reel was a deep red and the pole was white, with thread matching the color of the reel wrapped around it, holding in place the eyelets, through which the fishing line extended.

Tied to the end of the line was a rubber weight, which I cast across the front lawn of my childhood home hundreds of times, reeling it back in while pretending it was a big one. Weeks went by and I recall asking my father, again and again, “When can we go fishing?” One evening after dinner he surprised me and we ventured to a local forest preserve where we briefly dipped our lines, catching more mosquito bites than fish. But brief as it was, the quiet time at the lake, the ease of connection with my father felt reassuring.

It was the first of many fishing tales for the two of us. Others were set in the sleepy backwaters of the Mississippi River where we cast our lines for crappies and stripers, while bald eagles soared, whitetail deer meandered and turtles sunned themselves. My father wistfully refers to this era as the golden years; the joy and sadness I hear in his voice when he speaks of those times is palpable, for me too.

After years of summer trips to the river, which started when I was an infant, my father launched a charter fishing business on Lake Michigan, off the shores of Illinois and Wisconsin, when I was 10-years old. For a couple of summers, I worked as his first mate, piloting the boat when he was working the fishing lines and swabbing the deck after the customers went home. Other times, with family or friends, we enjoyed the excitement of catching big fish — coho salmon, lake trout, brown trout and rainbow trout — some weighing as much as 20 pounds, or more.

But the lake is big, stretching 360 miles long and 90 miles wide at points, and with that comes wind, cold, fog, rain, violent storms and for some — including me — sea sickness. So, while my father was drawn to the lake each spring and summer, I gradually spent less time fishing, and less time with him, too.

Decades passed, and I became a father, first to Zoe and then Adam. As they aged, my father yearned for them to catch a fish on his boat, but I was reluctant, especially since Zoe and my wife, Lori, are prone to motion sickness, too.

This year, with Zoe and Adam fast-approaching 13 and 10 respectively, I was finally ready for us to attempt a fishing adventure on the big lake. But, after more than four decades as captain of his own ship; earning a living through long, hard hours and playing a central role in the fishing tales of countless others, he sold the boat and retired, months before we arrived for our annual visit.

At first, I was saddened at the thought that Zoe and Adam would not have the experience of fishing on Grandpa’s big boat, though I felt some relief, too. Instead, we planned a trip to a small, quiet lake less than an hour’s drive from my childhood home. Traveling through towns with names like Sandwich and Big Rock, where livestock outnumber people, we arrived with great anticipation for our fishing adventure.

Under cloudy but dry skies, the four of us floated peacefully on a pontoon boat. For three hours, we cast our lines and watched our bobbers while snacking on a cooler full of food. Zoe and Adam took turns steering the boat, and they practiced dropping and pulling up the anchors as we ventured to different locations near the lake’s shoreline, in search of hungry fish. They grabbed minnows from a bucket and nightcrawlers from a small plastic container, which we used to bait our hooks. Thankfully, they each caught a fish, Adam a 12-inch smallmouth bass and Zoe a 10-inch muskie, their faces radiating pure joy.

I suspect the adventure will provide a lasting memory for Zoe and Adam, a fishing tale with their father and Grandpa, and in this way, it will serve as one of my fondest fishing tales, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

A father’s reflections on an AA meeting

May 24, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette May 21, 2019

I recently attended an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting. I had been invited by a friend who was being recognized for 28 years of sobriety. I felt honored by the invitation and humbled by the experience.

When I arrived on the second floor of a former elementary school, the room was filled with approximately 60 people, seated in three concentric circles of folding chairs, a tall coffee dispenser and cups positioned by the door.

My friend, seated across the room, nodded with a smile at my presence, and I unfolded a chair that was passed to me by a woman who had entered the room just before me. Those present were taking turns sharing personal reflections about the significance of a passage that had apparently been read before my arrival, and their challenges and triumphs with a life committed to sobriety.

While I had never attended an AA meeting before, I was familiar with the purpose, practices and fellowship of AA, and the 12-Steps, or principles, of daily practice pursued by those who attend AA meetings. My understanding of AA is partly informed by my direct experience with Al-Anon, a fellowship for people who are concerned about and affected by someone with a drinking problem, which I attended a few times, nearly 25 years ago.

Now, as a father to Zoe and Adam, fast approaching 13 and 10 years of age, I am mindful of the impact of alcohol on both those who choose to drink and their family members, especially children. My wife Lori and I enjoy a glass of wine before dinner most weekends, and we openly share with Zoe and Adam that enjoying an adult drink is one way to celebrate the week’s end or a special event, as they often witness during summer gatherings at the family beach house. We also openly discuss the effect of alcohol on one’s body, the reason to limit consumption and the importance of not driving while under the influence of alcohol.

While recently attending an AA Meeting reaffirmed my commitment to both responsible drinking and parenting, I also began to think more deeply about what I had witnessed.

The gathering served as a safe space for those committed to the 12-Steps, a set of spiritual principles whose daily practice helps resist the compulsion to drink alcohol and, in turn, leads to a happier and fuller life. The first step reads, “We admitted we are powerless over alcohol-that our lives have become unmanageable,” and serves as the starting point in AA for the road to sobriety.

It was the combination of spiritual practice and fellowship, in particular, that left me reflecting on family and fatherhood. Lori, Zoe, Adam and I have identified a set of family values — Health, Kindness, Friendship, Love and Respect (oneself, others and Earth), which are written on the whiteboard hanging on our kitchen wall. We occasionally weave discussion of these values into conversations at mealtime and we lift up these values through other rituals and practices throughout the year. These practices include Friday Family Night when we pause to celebrate the week, enjoy a meal and watch an inspiring movie. We recently started Family Meeting Night on Sunday evenings, where we preview the week ahead during supper.

Inspired by the commitment I witnessed at the AA meeting, I am newly appreciating the importance of our own family rituals and the opportunity for us to deepen family conversations about our values, spiritual beliefs and the triumphs and challenges of navigating daily life.

So as I honor my friend’s 28 years of sobriety — and all those who strive to become, and remain, sober — I am also grateful for his invitation and for the positive influence the experience will have for me and our family.

For more resources about AA, visit and for Al-Anon visit

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Admiring a son’s love of digging

April 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 24, 2019

Digging a hole is fun. For our son, Adam, the bigger the hole, the better. This is perhaps more true today than when he proudly dug his first hole at the beach when he was just 2-years-old.

Hole digging, then and now, has also been a source of conflict for Adam. On that sunny day at the beach, when he first demonstrated his great enthusiasm for digging, he and his big sister, Zoe, clashed. As soon as he finished, she audaciously jumped into his hole. “No, my hole, my hole, my hole,” he screamed.

At home in our yard, each spring when the ground softens, Adam’s zest for digging reemerges. A plot in the front yard, encircled with curved cinder blocks, where a flowering shrub once bloomed, became the center of Adam’s shoveling in his early years. A collection of toy trucks, bulldozers, and other earth moving devices were prominent features in Adam’s circle.

His hole was in plain view — on a one-block, dead-end street — where up to a dozen and a half kids range freely. At times, Adam and his hole became a spectacle, perhaps for no other reason than the fact that other parents on the street, rather sensibly, seemed to disallow front yard hole digging.

Adam, the youngest kid of the clan, beamed at the positive attention. But when other kids inevitably wanted to jump into his hole, push dirt back into his hole or throw objects into his hole, his territorial instincts flared.

So it went, each spring Adam loved digging a hole in the front yard, and conflict would soon follow. Eventually, the novelty of the hole would subside, for Adam and the other kids, and by Memorial Day, each year, we would plant flowers in the plot. Peace would return, until the next spring.

A few years ago, when his hole digging had produced unbearable frustration and tears, Adam successfully helped my wife Lori and I understand that digging a hole meant something special to him. He deeply wanted to have his own space to dig, where he could occasionally invite others to join him, but could also just be by himself, without the need to defend his turf, or self.

Adam and I filled the front yard hole for the last time, under the watchful and bewildered gaze of his peers. Then, we easily agreed on a place in the backyard, where, surrounded by a fence, Adam was free to dig privately and peacefully. And dig he did.

Each year since, his hole has become bigger. This year, fast-approaching age 10, he stretched himself on the ground, arms fully beyond his head, marking the four corners of a 5-foot-by-5-foot square. Using a full-sized spade, he dug the perimeter one afternoon, piling the earth to the side. Over the course of 3 weeks, he ventured to the backyard to dig, often after school, sometimes before, and always on the weekend. The spring rains halted operations from time to time, but mostly they just made his shoes and clothes muddy as he continued to dig, undeterred.

At times he was joined by his friends, who either watched and chatted or, as the hole became deeper, assisted by pulling up loads of earth using a rope Adam had tied to a bucket. Occasionally, excitement would spike when a large rock was found, requiring all manner of engineering skills to extract the find. When getting out of the hole became a challenge, Adam tied a rope to the adjacent fence and dropped it in for a hand-line, toeing his way up the wall using footholds he etched with the back of the shovel.

By the opening weekend of April school vacation week, the hole was complete, having reached a maximum depth of 4-feet, which Lori and I imposed to guard against the risk of a cave, as there is no telling how deep Adam would dig otherwise.

Much to my amusement, following a raucous but amicable couple hours of scootering, skateboarding and capture the flag in the street and front yards of our neighborhood, Adam and a handful of kids converged in our backyard. Soon they began taking turns running across the yard and jumping into the hole, which was much safer than when Adam, days before, had placed a mini-trampoline next to the hole so that he could bound over it. Still, a sprained ankle, or worse, seemed inevitable. I bided my time, as the group gravitated toward relatively safe play. Throughout the afternoon they returned to the hole — jumping in and climbing out, throwing balls in and out, digging, chatting and laughing — lots of laughing.

Adam seems as proud of his latest hole as he was with his first at the beach so many years ago. And, for countless hours, he has found peace, quietly digging alone. But today, Adam freely shared his hole, and it served as a great source of community. He seemed content, never outwardly demonstrating a need to defend his hole, feeling, it appeared, to relish the connection more than the hole itself.

Later, as the evening rains approached, I gazed at the backyard. The hole and mounds of surrounding earth occupied a 10-foot-by-10-foot section of our modestly sized yard. I smiled at the realization that the spot in the yard will probably remain bare until after Adam heads off to college. But then, Lori and I are less interested in grass than we are in growing healthy, active kids — and community.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Food service, waste management – one father’s mantra

March 28, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette March 26, 2019

Spring has arrived, again. Sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of jasmine tea as pink hues reached upward from the horizon and the sun peeked through our window, I witnessed this annual truth.

Here in New England, as I imagine is so in other northern climes, our response is muted, knowing, from experience, that spring’s early days are tentative, the prospect of additional snow and ice more likely than not.

Still, for me, the arrival and end of each season offer an opportunity — a moment to look inward, asking myself — what do I endeavor?

As a father to Zoe and Adam, fast approaching 13 and 10, and a husband to their mother, Lori, for almost 14 years, life has revealed that answers to this question is both elusive and evolving.

Early on, I fathered with the zeal of a mountain climber and distance runner, yearning and enduring as I raced toward the summit and finish line of my own making. While the pace was both exhilarating and exhausting, I never quite reached my destinations. I was on a mission, seeking to prove to myself, no doubt others as well, that I could father in just the right way — any day, anytime and anywhere.

This approach helped me maintain my focused devotion to family. It has also proved limiting, a lesson I have slowly come to accept. The day-to-day experience of fatherhood, marriage and work — of life — have ground me down, softening my edges as running water patiently and skillfully turns jagged rock into smooth stone.

But now, fatherhood — especially as Zoe and Adam seemingly defy the laws of physics by aging more rapidly than Lori and I do — has become more about mantra than mission. Aspirations of notable status in my one wild and precious life have been subsumed by a more humbling calling –  food service and waste management.

The well-known Zen Buddhist proverb, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,” for centuries has intoned that to become successful at anything one must tend to the basics, and after achieving success one must still tend to the basics. The message is that how we do one thing (the simple things) is how we do everything (all the rest).

Enlightenment aside, I do hold high expectations of myself — as a father, and in general. It has been particularly useful, therefore, to realize and consistently remind myself, that success comes from, and is sustained by, tending to the basic elements that nurture our family — food service, waste management.

Of course, some days things fall apart for our family. One kid has the stomach flu, the other has a friend conflict. The toilet is clogged, the pantry is bare, the trash can is overflowing, the laundry is piling up, the car needs new breaks and work deadlines abound. In these moments, it’s grounding to remember that my role as a father includes tending to the essentials – food service, waste management.

And while Lori and I work effectively as a team, together tending to our family’s basic needs, food service, waste management — like chop wood, carry water — is simple in concept but difficult in practice.

Still, this mantra has come to repetitiously guide the daily meditation of my fatherhood experience. And so, as the earth softens, green life reemerges and birdsongs abound once more, I continue to endeavor, ever so gratefully, for success in my highest calling — fatherhood — through food service and waste management.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Solving a cube comes full circle

February 27, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette February 27, 2019

It started with a gift. It was not the biggest package under the tree, but, in time, perhaps one that brought the most joy — and frustration.

As our son, Adam, peeled back the wrapping paper, a smile filled his face and he triumphantly thrust the object upward, arm fully stretched, “A Rubik’s Cube,” he declared.

Later that day, after the gifts had been opened; the homemade pancakes, locally crafted maple syrup and seasoned turkey sausage had been consumed; and we had returned from a hike, Adam began to play with his cube.

Each face of the six-sided object included three rows, each with three small squares. At the start, the nine small squares on each face are a uniform color — red, blue, green, yellow, orange and white. As Adam twisted and turned the vertical columns and horizontal rows — up, down, left, right — the Basic 3 x 3 Cube transformed into a random mix of colors all-around.

Adam was instantly intrigued by the mystery of the cube, seeking to understand how it could be manipulated back to its original form. It did not take long for his eight-year-old mind to reach a level of frustration and defeat that I recall experiencing as a teenager, when the cube craze emerged in the U.S. during the 1980s.

Word of Adam’s gift, along with his joy and mounting frustration, reached my father-in-law, Ken, when we video conferenced from our living room in Massachusetts to their home in Florida. Seeing the cube in Adam’s hands rekindled Ken’s interest in the mind-bending puzzle, recounting how he, too, had been captured by its allure years ago.

When our family traveled to Florida in February, Ken, affectionately known to Adam and big sister, Zoe, as Poppy, encouraged Adam to bring his new toy. Poppy had bought his own cube in anticipation of our visit and, according to Granny, had become obsessed with solving it.

So, shortly after our arrival, Poppy sat with Adam and showed him written formulas and patterns — algorithms — he retrieved from the internet that are used to solve the cube. This methodical approach suited Poppy, who in the 1950s was first schooled in electronics and electrical engineering while serving in the U.S. Navy, aboard one of the first nuclear submarines.

The Beginner’s Cube Sequence includes a series of nine formulas, which are written as strings of letters, including — F (front), U (up), R (right), B (back), L (left) and D (down). Each letter by itself represents a 90-degree clockwise turn and a letter followed by an apostrophe means a 90-degree-counter-clockwise turn.

The first of nine algorithms read:  U’ L’ U L U F U’ F’, whereby one holds the cube in the left hand, puts the right hand in the top corner and proceeds — up counter-clockwise, left counter-clockwise, up clockwise, left clockwise, up clockwise, forward clockwise, up counter-clockwise and forward counter-clockwise. In step two, while holding the cube horizontally, complete the second formula: F R U R’ U’ F. After completing all nine formulas, without any mistakes, the cube is solved, back to six faces of uniform color.

Adam quickly grew frustrated as he attempted to practice the algorithms. My own mind struggled to grasp the mathematical sequencing, too, and I quickly concluded that despite Poppy’s best intentions, Adam was not quite ready for such sophisticated methods. By the end of the trip, however, while Adam had not solved the cube, he was increasingly able to memorize and apply the patterned moves, with lots of patient coaching from Poppy, which was a gift in itself.

Back home, Adam continued to follow the written formulas, occasionally seeking additional coaching during weekly video conference calls, and within a couple months was victorious in his quest to solve the cube. After some weeks and a number of successes, the cube sat on Adam’s desk collecting dust, until summer when he and Poppy reengaged their growing love of cubing at the family beach house in Connecticut. Adam became more proficient, but come fall the cube, once again, sat unused in his room.

A year after receiving the gift, Adam reportedly bored during the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, returned to his cube. Resourcefully, he used the family iPad to find the formulas he had lost, writing them down in his notebook and proceeding to find and view YouTube videos about solving the cube.

This time, success came more quickly and easily and, inspired by videos of international competitions he found online, Adam began to time his efforts in what is referred to as speedcubing, where the world record for solving the Basic 3 x 3 is 4.22 seconds! Soon, what initially had taken Adam months, he could routinely accomplish in under two minutes.

With the money he earned shoveling snow for a neighbor, Adam logged onto Amazon and bought a set of speedcubes, which are designed to spin quickly; it was a four-pack with 2 x 2, 3 x 3, 4 x 4, and 5 x 5 cubes. More YouTube videos and new algorithms furthered Adam’s cubing obsession. Then, in a very sweet gesture, Adam logged onto Amazon and purchased a 2 x 2 speed cube and had it sent to Florida so that he can teach Poppy how to speedcube during our next visit.

I am fond of saying to Zoe and Adam that there is always more than one way to solve a problem or a puzzle. In this case, one gift led to another, and another, showing that for Adam and his Poppy, a circle — the circle of giving — is the best way to solve a cube.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Father’s intention to practice more kindness

December 31, 2018

A father’s intention to practice more kindness

Recently, a Kindness Calendar arrived in my inbox. It was Thanksgiving weekend, when conversations in our home were about family and gratitude. I printed the one-page calendar, noting that each day of the month was a simple, suggested act of kindness, printed in a colorful square.

“December 1: Encourage more kindness. Share this calendar with others,” appeared in a red square. So, I taped the calendar to the bottom edge of the world map, which hangs on the wall in full view from our kitchen table. I mentioned the calendar during dinner and invited us, individually and as a family, to consider doing some of the listed actions.

Coincidentally, we had already planned a family act of kindness, which aligned with the second (green) square.

December 2:  Support a charity, cause or campaign you really care about. Gathered around our table, enjoying bowls of steaming, homemade, potato soup, daughter Zoe reflected, with enthusiasm, that we were two for two because we had participated in the 5K Hot Chocolate Run that morning – an annual fundraising event that raises awareness about the need to end domestic violence and relationship abuse.

Early successes helped build momentum and without much effort we were on the path to many acts of kindness that month, including Zoe leaving positive notes for others to find, and younger brother Adam offering spontaneous hugs to family members. My wife, Lori, and I were delighted with the rippling kindness.

Along the way I was inspired to learn more and visited the website of the organization that produced the calendar, The site includes calendars, classes and additional resources, including a two-minute video entitled ‘The Science of Kindness.’

I learned that kindness is considered an interpersonal skill that, not surprisingly, is developed through practice. Kindness – the quality of being friendly, considerate and generous – is linked to greater life satisfaction and lower stress. In short, being kind feels good and releases chemicals within the body that promote calmness, happiness, healing and lower blood pressure – for the person who acts with kindness, the person to whom kindness is offered and to people who witness an act of kindness.

All that goodness can result from simply engaging in one daily, random act of kindness! While this is compelling reason to engage in serial acts of kindness, I admit there are times when I am just not in the mood and don’t want to be bothered with acting kindly. It’s not that I ever want to be mean-spirited or disinterested, I just have my kindness button on pause, I rationalize.

This left me wondering, though, “What gets in the way of my desire to act kindly towards others, especially those I love most, as well as strangers and those whom I find challenging?” Feeling tired or stressed, are the usual culprits, yet I know I am capable of being kind when I experience those feelings.

Doing a bit more reading, a revelation awaited me in an article entitled, “A Kinder World Begins with YOU.” One message of the article is that it’s much easier to act kindly toward someone when we regularly act kindly toward ourselves, and conversely, when we rarely act with kindness toward ourselves it is more difficult to act kindly toward others. The wisdom encoded in this belief produced an Aha! Moment, for me – a moment when, despite the obvious ad profound nature of the message, and the fact that I am sure I have heard this before – I began to understand and accept the idea at a much deeper level.

The answer to my original question about what gets in the way of acting kindly toward others is really nested in the question of what gets in the way of me acting kindly toward myself. While I have some initial thoughts, that’s a question that warrants much more consideration.

In the meantime, our family continues to be inspired by the Kindness Calendar. Even Santa (actually it was Mrs. Claus) supported our family efforts by slipping into each Christmas stocking a tiny tin labeled Be Kind, which includes 18 cards with a prompt for an act of kindness.

Heading into the New Year, I decided to make kindness my central theme for 2019, when I will endeavor to frequently exercise my kindness muscles, including being more kind to myself so that I can be more kind to others. I’m feeling optimistic that the ripple effect of kindness in our family will spark more kindness for others too. Imagine the possibilities…including bumper stickers, too, which read:  Make America (more) Kind Again.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Celebrating Halloween in Frightening Times

November 14, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Halloween is my favorite holiday. As a kid I probably would have ranked Santa above jack-o-lanterns, but, as an adult, and especially as a father, I have come to newly, appreciate the significance of this autumnal celebration.

For daughter Zoe and son Adam, now 12 and 9 years of age, talk of Halloween starts in September, just as they settle into the rhythm of school schedules. This year they unpacked boxes of decorations in the basement art studio and secretly planned upgrades for their spooky front-yard scape. Reflecting their growing maturity, they assured my wife, Lori, and me, that putting up Halloween decorations before October 1st was excessive, though quickly realizing that date was a Monday, they decided September 30 was a reasonable alternative.

Adam’s circular, front-yard, flower garden became a creepy graveyard, where dying marigolds were replaced with handmade tombstones, a skeleton figure and sunken shovel. Giant spider webs of fine, silk-like thread material stretched over shrubs and porch railings. A scarecrow — old clothes stuffed with dry leaves from the sugar maples lining the southern edge of our yard — sat in a lawn chair, a straw hat perched on its basketball head. Strings of orange lights outlined the front window and breezeway and, eventually, two carved pumpkins were added to the steps, welcoming visitors at our front door.

Their timely efforts and boundless energy left a full month to create costumes. Zoe decided to be a peacock. She made a shawl from a piece of fabric, to which she hot-glued colorful feathers; cut cardboard wings from a box, which she painted purple, sprinkled with glitter and attached elastic bands for looping around her biceps; and repurposed a feathery mardi gra mask, a relic from Lori’s past, adding both a festive and nostalgic flair to her aesthetically pleasing attire.

Adam’s outfit reflected a decidedly ghoulish motif. He upgraded the full-body skeleton costume he wore last year, by wearing carefully ripped old clothing over the skeleton features and drippling fake blood on the exposed bones and skull-mask. I thwarted his initial plans to add a store-bought, fake battle axe, intoning that it might terrify the preschoolers and kindergartners at his school’s Halloween parade. We settled on a walking staff with a tiny skull mounted on top, a compromise that leaned more to his favor than mine.

A week before the big day, Zoe and Adam confidently shared, with Lori and me, upgrades to their trick-or-treating route, announcing, matter-of-factly, they would be traveling without us this year. That Lori and I would even consider approving their plan, says much about the nature of our neighborhood and community — and my growing appreciation for Halloween.

Roughly one-block from our home, along the main thorough fare that runs through our village, sits a small community park. Each Halloween many hundreds of costumed people of all ages gather, share laughter, snap photos and delight in the scene, more festive than macabre. After nightfall, at the family-friendly hour of 6:00 p.m., local police temporarily close the main street, and a rag shag parade meanders four blocks to the civic center, smiling onlookers lining the route. Eventually the crowd spills into the surrounding neighborhoods where porch lit homes and troves of treats await.

The child in me loves the sense of joy that Halloween brings to children and adults alike, and I’m inspired by Adam’s and Zoe’s creativity and initiative.

For me though, Halloween has come to offer a broader, social narrative, too. When children confidently navigate neighborhoods, march up porch stairs, pound on doors and ring bells, project their voices in a reciprocal exchange — tricks for treats — with strangers, they are actively experiencing and creating a sense of community. And, when adults and children join together, wearing silly or spooky costumes, and stroll through the village center, it’s a joy-filled, intergenerational act of reclaiming public spaces to foster safety and community connection.

In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, first published in 2000 and updated in 2012, acclaimed sociologist Robert Putnam observed that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from friends, neighbors and their communities. The book’s title is derived from Putnam’s observation that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased over the years, the number of Americans who participate in bowling leagues — and a long list of other forms of community and civic engagement — has dramatically declined.

Putnam’s insights seem frightfully accurate in our current, politically divisive and perilous times. Still, I am heartened that while nationally we are bowling alone, in our local communities — ours and no doubt many others — we are not trick-or-treating alone. It’s a small but promising sign, and a reminder that creating safe and connected communities is the trick to ensuring the treat we call democracy.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Broken Car – Opportunity to Strengthen Community

November 14, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Thursday, October 25, 2018

Inevitably, when I travel for work, something at home breaks. So, in preparation for a recent trip, I proposed a new family agreement. If something breaks and requires my attention when I’m away — unless it’s an emergency — I don’t want to hear about it when I walk in the door; the next morning is soon enough.

Of course, something broke while I was away — and it was an emergency, or at least in urgent need of repair. Actually, the break started an hour before I departed for my trip. While returning home from delivering son Adam to soccer practice, a loud noise erupted from under the car I was driving, the older, but generally reliable, of our two family-vehicles.

It sounded as if I had hit an object on the road and that the object ricocheted up, hitting the bottom of the car, so I hoped. But the road was clear and glancing in the rearview window confirmed the absence of any debris.

At home, I wiggled part way under the front end of the vehicle to grab hold of different parts, testing to see if anything was loose. Standing, I grabbed with both hands under the front fender and pulled up and down. Then I pushed down on the fender, repeatedly rocking the car. Though I could not identify any obvious problem, I had an uneasy feeling about the situation.

It was too late to rent a car and first thing in the morning I was due to start leading a three-day professional training more than 100 miles from home — not something I could reschedule. So, since my wife Lori would only need to make short trips in town while I was away, I headed off in our newer vehicle, leaving the suspect car at home.

The next day, back in my hotel room and before leaving for dinner, I called to check-in with Adam and big sister Zoe about their day. During the call, my wife Lori arrived home and shared that while returning from work a loud noise exploded from under the front end of the car and the steering immediately started pulling to the right.

We decided the vehicle was unsafe to drive and began problem solving how Lori — who works full time and is a graduate student — would navigate life with two kids, and no car while I was away. She and the kids focused on scheduling rides and I focused on fixing the car.

Immediately, Adam, distraught about missing open house at his school that night, sprang into action and asked a neighbor for support. They gladly agreed to fit Lori, Zoe and Adam — along with their family of four — into their mini-van, to and from the school event.

For the next two days, Lori patched together rides to and from work with a colleague and neighbor. Friends with whom we often carpool for gymnastics practice did double duty, ensuring that Zoe and her friend, made it to and from the YMCA.

Zoe, who generally commutes to middle school by bike, rode with a neighbor on the day when heavy rain would have made for a challenging ride, and Adam routinely made use of the school bus, that stops less than one block from our home, to get to and from his elementary school.

From afar, I downloaded an app from our insurance carrier and scheduled a tow-truck to take the disabled vehicle from our driveway to a preferred repair shop. Fortunately, the cost of the tow was covered by our insurance and the driver, who called me to confirm details when he arrived at our home, was timely, friendly and helpful.

From my hotel room, I placed an early morning call to our trusted, long-time mechanic, who promptly made room in the schedule for our car. Hours later I had a message that the car needed struts and springs replaced and that the parts were already ordered. It was not an inexpensive repair, but still better than a new car payment. The car was repaired and, thanks to another neighbor who drove Lori to the repair shop, was back home before my return.

When I walked in the door, there were lots of hugs and kisses. And, just as I had requested, there was no mention of anything that needed to be fixed. Instead, at supper, we raised our glasses and toasted the sweetness of community, and the wonderful support of friends, neighbors and local businesses.

As Lori and I reflected on the experience, we observed that it’s often much easier to offer support than to ask for it. We speculated that if we were more comfortable seeking support from others that perhaps they would more readily reach out to us in times of need, too.

So, I have proposed a new family agreement. When things break — ours or our neighbor’s, whether or not I am traveling — let’s consider it an opportunity to strengthen community connections, and not merely a problem to fix. And while that’s not exactly a new idea, it’s a welcome reminder when I travel for work, or any time.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website