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Listening to night sounds, and more

September 30, 2018

Listening to night-sounds, and more

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Recently our family enjoyed our week-long end-of-summer tradition: camping along the shores of Lake Champlain.

The Adirondack Mountains tower to the west, to the east rise the Green Mountains, and the lake stretches north, crossing the Canadian border into Quebec.

In this place — now sacred to our family — at the shore’s edge, around the campfire and under the cover of sugar maples, red oaks and white pines, there is space and time for my wife, Lori, and me to notice and appreciate the ways in which our daughter, Zoe, and son, Adam, have matured since our last visit.

So after rushing to wrap up work details, jamming loads of gear into the car, driving four hours, setting up camp and then starting to relax, we were all excited to crawl into our family tent, where we each lay silently reading, as the coals from our first campfire of the trip grew dim. One by one headlamps switched off, as tiredness gave way to sleep — for the others — while I lay listening to the night sounds.

The sounds seemed to grow louder as I listened, almost overwhelmingly so. I noticed the steady buzz was really an uninterrupted cacophony of discrete sounds. I was certain some sounds were crickets, emitting chirps by rubbing a hind leg and wing together. I later learned that katydids, also called tree crickets, which play their song by rubbing wings together, were also members of this nocturnal ensemble. Together, these tiny creatures created a pulsing rhythm comprised of high and low pitches, and a whirling and winding that would crescendo, then start anew, endlessly, throughout the night.

How many crickets and katydids inhabit the woods surrounding our tent, I wondered. How distant does the sound of a single cricket, and a chorus, travel? How long does a cricket chirp — do they tire and take a break while others sing, or do they all continuously chirp until morning’s light? I wondered, too, what the sounds meant: what were the inhabitants of these woods speaking — and hearing — each night?

The nightly practice of listening and wondering attuned my hearing to other sounds as well. Each evening, as Adam and I strolled to and from the campground’s showers, his inner thoughts spilled into the cool, quiet air.

“Why is campground toilet paper so thin,” he mused one night, which led to a conversation about the seemingly unrelated topics of economics and wiping, as we strolled back to our tent.

“Can you snort?” he rhetorically asked, on another evening’s walk. Without pausing, he continued, as if he had rehearsed a demonstration speech for school. “I have three snorts. A short – snort! A long – s n o r t! And a loud – SNORT!! I can make music.” And, he did.

Each cloudless night, amidst a string of other topics, we noticed the night sky, too. Adam wondered aloud about the stars, planets and the glow of the waxing, nearly full moon, revealing mysteries of his richly, developing mind and curiosity.

My listening — to Adam and the crickets — deepened during our week in the woods, bringing me closer to my surroundings, family and myself. And with Adam now 9 years-old (as of 12:40 p.m. on the day we drove to the campground!) and Zoe nearing 12, my wife Lori and I realize the importance of preserving this — and other — family rituals, cherishing the special moments, close connection and life insights they afford.

So, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, on the first business day of September, I logged onto the campground website and, with much surprise and delight, successfully reserved our favorite camp site for August 2019. At dinner that night, we all lifted our glasses in celebratory toast! And later, after the others were asleep, in the darkness of night I padded to the kitchen sink for a glass of water. Through the open window I heard the chorus of night sounds, reminding me to listen.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Babysitter training – for leadership development and gender equality

August 26, 2018

To be published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 29, 2018

I recently attended a babysitter training class. The day-long course, offered by the American Red Cross – on a Saturday – convened in an unassuming building located in an industrial park. Truthfully, my daughter Zoe, soon to be 12, attended the class. I sat in the lobby, at the unoccupied reception desk, working on my laptop to finish a couple of pressing work projects.

When I was 12 there was never mention of babysitting as an income earning activity, for me – or for any of the boys I knew. Rather, I mowed lawns and did other manual labor to make a few bucks and learn something about the world of work.

So, I was curious to see what might be offered in a babysitter training course aimed at 11-16 year-old youth. Throughout the day I chatted with the class instructors, peeked through the window of the classroom door a couple of times and checked in with Zoe during breaks and lunch. I also paged through the Babysitter’s Training handbook Zoe received.

I was especially surprised and delighted by two elements of the training. First, the topics covered in the class not only included basic care for infants and children, age appropriate activities, first aid and safety protocols, but professionalism, growing your own business, and leadership, too. In fact, the first section of the handbook is titled, A Guide to Leadership. The section includes information about how to be a leader and highlights key leadership skills, such as respecting diversity, communication, motivation and decision making. This section ends with an overview of child abuse and neglect, including definitions, examples and steps to follow when abuse is suspected.

Second, I was impressed by the inclusive approach reflected in the curriculum and its delivery. The main instructional video featured two teenagers, an African American girl and a Caucasian boy. The two teens were equally involved in communicating important training messages, for example the boy demonstrated how to spoon feed a baby and the girl demonstrated bottle feeding. Two instructions lead the class, one female, a highly regarded trainer according to office staff, and the other male, an early childhood educator with a master’s degree in child development.

And yet, all 19 participants in the training class were girls. Not a single boy! While I was not surprised, I was disappointed. I asked the instructors if boys ever took the class and they assured me they did. Though when I pressed for more details I learned that for approximately every 100 class participants only 1 or 2 boys attend the class.

I left thinking that the American Red Cross has done a fabulous job creating a class that promotes a form of leadership that values caretaking, nurturing, safety, and diversity – a form of leadership in short supply in many sectors, and at many levels, of American society. That very few boys take the class – or work as babysitters – is such a missed opportunity.

To me, encouraging boys to receive training in childcare and to work as babysitters, when young, could promote a host of positive outcomes, including more men working in caregiving fields, such as early education, nursing, and elder care, to name a few. In turn, more children would observe and experience the inherent caregiving and nurturing capacities of men – qualities that are generally dismissed, devalued or displaced by conventional and outdated ideas that men can only be strong, tough and assertive.

Such a shift might also result in more men feeling comfortable and competent as nurturing and engaged fathers, something I struggled with when I became a father at age 40, having had very little experience with child care and caregiver roles.

And when more fathers equally share care taking roles and responsibilities with women – tasks that are traditionally more heavily shouldered by women – children might come to experience a new normal – boys having equal interest in babysitting.

I am delighted that Zoe is developing her leadership and caregiving capacities, and I’m excited that she is motivated to seek out opportunities to serve families and their children as a child care provider, earning a few dollars in the process.

And, I am equally committed to promoting the idea that Adam, and other boys, take a babysitting class and work as babysitters. It’s not that I am interested in boys displacing girls from babysitting jobs. Rather, I believe the benefits of having all children develop caring and nurturing leadership capacities is what we need more of – in our families, communities and beyond.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Father harvests sweet lesson from a peach tree

August 1, 2018

An edited version of a column published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 25, 2018

Six-years ago we planted fruit trees. Two apple and one reliant peach, a variety hardy enough to endure New England winters. Each was semi-dwarf, meaning less than full size at maturity, so as not to over crowd our small front yard, nor tower over our single-story home.

The trees were part of a vision, long in the making, which my wife Lori and I held. We imagined a simple home, nested in a small community, where we would raise kids, grow food and connect with our neighbors.

I vividly recall the day we planted the trees. I carefully marked and dug the holes, mixing in organic fertilizer and compost. Our son Adam, age 3, proudly helped position the middle tree, a Concord apple, which was at least double his height, pushing the soil in place and patting it firm. The neighbor boy, Jasper, his father Jerome at his side, placed a Gala apple tree in the hole closest to their house, and at the edge of our yard. Finally, daughter Zoe, age 6, with Lori supporting, gleefully planted the peach tree.

For years we nurtured these trees – fertilizing, watering and pruning them, supporting their growth and helping them thrive.

The apple trees have produced some fruit, though never abundantly, and most years the squirrels and insects consume more than we do. The peach tree, however, has many times produced 400-500 peaches in a single season, plenty for us and the squirrels.

But growing fruit is fickle business, so I was recently reminded. It was early, morning dew still glistening on the grass, I hastily left the house for work, pitched my bag in the car and climbed into the driver’s seat. Glancing right as I put the key in the ignition, I gasped at the site of the peach tree. The main stem, the trunk, had snapped in half and the top six feet of the tree hung down to the ground, at least two hundred peaches clinging to its branches.

A few days before, I had noticed the tree was a bit top heavy and leaning toward the street. I had climbed a step ladder, wrapped a piece of cloth around the trunk, and then a rope around the cloth, and pulling the rope firmly I anchored the other end around a fence post I have driven into the ground. The tree stood straight, mostly, though I suspected that the increasing weight of the growing peaches would put additional strain on the trunk and branches.

Late winter, before the buds on the tree emerged, was the ideal time to prune the tree, strategically cutting branches back and removing smaller or unhealthy limbs, which likely would have prevented the over-growth that led to the tragic break. But late winter, and then early spring, I continually found other ways to occupy my time, whenever I thought about the fruit trees. Pruning just never made it to the top of my to-do list.

So, as I pulled out of the driveway, I wondered if vigorous pruning late this autumn, after the leaves have fallen and the first frost has visited, would save our tree for years to come. This thought was eclipsed by worry that my pruning neglect meant our family would no longer enjoy an annual yield of juicy peaches.

When I returned home that evening sadness lingered, and I began to realize the important symbolism of the broken tree. These past years, while the peach tree flourished, so too did other parts of my life, including commitments to family, community – and especially work. While I cannot undo harm to the tree, I vowed to carefully trim unnecessary parts of my life – before they break – in order to save the parts that matter most.

So while the tree will yield fewer peaches this year (and perhaps beyond), harvesting this important life lesson offers enduring sweetness.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Father reflects on daughter’s early years

June 29, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 27, 2018

Our eldest, daughter, Zoe, has always loved school. She finds comfort in the learning, structure, and rhythm of the experience. When at home, starting at age 3 and for many years after, Zoe fashioned her own classroom, where she recreated daily lessons and activities.

At age 9, Zoe informed my wife, Lori, and I, that she would one day attend college in Vermont and then become a teacher.

As Lori, younger brother, Adam, and I — sitting on hard plastic chairs, lined in neat rows along the hardwood floor of the room where Zoe ate more than 1,000 lunches — watched her stride across the stage to accept her certificate of promotion from fifth grade, I had some moments of reflection.

Zoe was tall, beaming and at-ease. I felt a sense of joy and pride that she had navigated with grace so many opportunities and challenges during these early years. I remembered the untimely death of a teacher who skillfully stretched Zoe’s intellect and self-confidence, annual science fairs, dealing with the news of school shootings, lockdown drills, monthly community meetings, standardized testing, gardening and friendships.

And, I recalled how supporting Zoe through each of these experiences — and more — stretched my understanding of fatherhood, appreciating that together, as a family, we grew along with her.

I also tearfully recognized the end of her elementary years as further evidence that time moves in one direction, leaving in its wake memories that fade, and my helpless wish to keep her, and Adam, youngsters forever.

It was the principal’s closing words that brought me back to the present. “Remember to be yourself and be nice,” he instructed. For Zoe and her peers, it was a fitting and final lesson, and a poignant reminder for the adults in the room, too.

For me, the sum and sequence of these seven words offers a creative tension, where all of us — young and old — are challenged by both discovering and being one’s self, and by responding to the world’s desperate need for more niceness.

In this way, I appreciate that Zoe has been part of a learning community where she and her peers have been offered a protective space to glimpse these life lessons.

As Zoe stepped off the bus, which she affectionately calls a giant cheese block, for approximately the 2,000th time, Lori and I were waiting, silently remembering each last day of school in the preceding five years. We welcomed her with hugs and kisses.

At home, she eagerly shared her yearbook, with its many memorable photos, signatures from friends and teachers, and her stated hope that 20 years hence, in the year 2038, she will be a second-grade teacher.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Father learns from missed opportunity

May 24, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 23, 2018

A blond, wavy haired boy appeared. He was half the age and stature of my 8-year-old son, Adam, who stood next to me, contentedly licking a blue raspberry ice pop, his tongue turning bluer by the minute.

We were waiting for big sister, Zoe, and my wife, Lori, to exit the athletic complex where Zoe had just finished competing in a regional gymnastics meet. Zoe had done very well. We were all excited, and ready for the long drive home.

An ice cream truck was parked nearby, a handwritten sign on poster board read, FREE Ice Cream Treats – Donations for today’s gymnastics meet welcome!

The little boy’s cries pierced through the ice cream truck music as a tall, muscular man, who I assumed to be his father, repeatedly batted the boy’s head, forcefully directing him toward the door leading to the gymnastics meet, while a slightly older child quietly followed.

The boy, sobbing and resistant, was repeatedly subjected to harsh, mean words from his father. “Get over here!” “Stop it!” “Don’t even think about it, you’re not getting any ice cream. You don’t deserve it!” as they passed the truck. “Oh, look, the ice cream is free, too bad you can’t have any!” the man seethed, as he pushed the boy through the door.

Adam and I watched in silence. I contemplated saying something — injecting a non-threatening statement that would momentarily disrupt the man’s behavior.

Once in an airport terminal, I noticed a 20-something man verbally berating a woman, who was around his age, violently gesturing and escalating his tirade while she stood quietly and visibly shaken. I approached and with projected voice said, “Hey, do you have the time?” The man stopped, startled at my presence, fumbled for his phone and told me the time. “Thanks, I don’t want to miss my flight,” I said, and then I stood in close proximity to them, sipping my tea and waiting to board my flight, noticing the calming influence of my brief words and presence.

Another time, I merely moved closer to a man yelling at a child and stayed close and visible, as the father calmed, shifting from anger to concern.

But as I watched the man at the gymnastics meet being rough with the boy, I froze. The man appeared on the edge of rage and I feared that my words, however well-intentioned, might lead to greater harm. I also suspect I was extra cautious because Adam was at my side.

Regardless, I feel haunted by the missed opportunity to alleviate the suffering I witnessed. Granted, and all parents, myself very much included, are human, and our days and lives are fraught with moments where our best qualities are overshadowed by harmful expressions of our insecurities, limitations and best intentions gone awry.

And, to be fair, this may have been a rare moment for these people, and the circumstances preceding and following may have painted a very different picture than the one I observed, though I am skeptical.

Concerned about the impact of the incident on Adam, I engaged my son in conversation with questions such as, “What do you think the little boy was feeling?” “What do you think the father was feeling?” and “What do you think would be helpful.” I also made it clear that the man’s words and behavior toward the child were unacceptable.

But the regret that lingered for me is that despite my well-intentioned conversation with Adam, what he saw from me was inaction.

Vowing to learn from the situation, I turned to a friend and colleague, who also happens to be a father, and skilled clinical psychologist and educator. He reminded me that using language of empathy and avoiding language of shame and blame, is more effective — and safer — when attempting to connect with someone, especially someone who is emotional and could easily become enraged.

Then, over lunch, we brainstormed possible statements I could have used in that situation including: “I feel for you, parenting is a tough job,” “Kids can be tough to manage sometimes,” or “It’s hard to go inside for a gymnastics meet on such a warm, sunny day.” These statements aim for making positive, human connection, and, hopefully, offer a non-threatening disruption to the behavior, rather than inciting a defensive reaction with the many statements I wanted to make, such as: “Hey man, knock it off!” “Leave the kid alone!” or “Do I need to call the police?”

I find that acting with both intention and skill in a charged situation can be challenging, especially when the events are troubling but not extreme. Had the man’s behavior further escalated or become more physically abusive, I would likely have called the police.

Still, I’m optimistic that in the future I’ll feel more prepared to act in ways that might help defuse a difficult situation, and that I’ll continue trusting my instincts when a situation may be unsafe. Just as importantly, I’m ready to share with Adam my reflections, including how I struggled to respond in that situation, how I reached out to someone else for support and what I am prepared to do differently next time. When I do, I suspect I’ll learn something from Adam, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

School science fair promotes learning, community and more

April 25, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 27, 2018

Our family recently attended the annual science fair at Leeds Elementary School. This year’s event, our sixth and daughter Zoe’s last, offered a moment for reflection on what has become a highlight in both the school and our family’s calendar.

When Zoe was in kindergarten we recently had built a coop and acquired a brood of backyard chickens. Fittingly, her science experiment featured eggs. Egg Floating, was the title of the experiment, where the concept of density was illustrated by an egg sinking in a jar of fresh water, a second egg floating on the surface of a jar of salt water, and a third egg suspended mid-jar in a solution of less concentrated salt water. My wife, Lori, and I glowed as proud parents; Zoe beamed with enthusiasm, and 3-year old brother, Adam, marveled at the big kids and the carnival of experiments in the school cafeteria.

Zoe’s science fair resume grew to include Liquid Rainbow, Carnation Transpiration, Cabbage Chemistry, Chocolate Asphalt and the Science of Slime, some solo efforts, others with a friend.

Brother Adam started his science fair career with the ever-popular Erupting Volcano experiment, which required a sundry of ingredients, such as chicken wire, plaster of Paris, paint, baking soda, food coloring, water — and lots of rags for cleaning up the lava! Building on a theme, as an aspiring geologist, Adam has added Science of Saturn, Science of Fossils and Rock Tumbling to his growing portfolio.

Over the years, Zoe and Adam each have become more self-directed with topic selection, generating ideas for materials, and completing the project in a timely manner. Of course, lessons along the way have included the challenge of starting the project too late, especially the project poster, which includes lots of words, spelling — and white out. This year, Zoe and Adam started early, spreading the project over the span of a few weekends, and to everyone’s credit both projects were completed — without any tears or yelling.

In addition to all the preparation, including schlepping everything to and from school on the day of the fair, my favorite part of the learning experience is watching Zoe, Adam and their peers explain their respective projects to adult members of the school community. The confidence, sense of pride and self-worth that results from an adult listening to a child, asking probing questions and recognizing the child’s efforts is priceless.

Together, the budding scientists and caring adults, comprise a thriving, learning community where curiosity, the pursuit of scientific understanding and love of learning are on full display.

For our family, the event has become an important ritual, too, honoring the important learning and development of these formative years — and celebrating, as each year we enjoy dinner at our favorite pizzeria before heading to the evening fair.

But this year, the ritual marks a new transition, too, for soon Zoe will enter middle school, leaving behind her years at Leeds, the daily school bus rides, a wonderful community of teachers – and the science fair.

Zoe is thrilled about the coming adventure, and so are her parents, mostly. For years Lori and I have light-heartedly wished we could keep Zoe and Adam little, forever — ages 5 and 8 would be sweet. Now we would settle for 8 and 11.

But grow they will, and so all the more important that we honor each milestone, each precious, passing moment — one experiment, one project poster, one science fair — and one pizza dinner at a time.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Spring Break – time for fun, and rest, too

April 25, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 25, 2018

I busily wrapped up a morning of work at my office, which started before 7 a.m., then raced to pick up my daughter, Zoe, and my son, Adam, from their elementary school. They had just finished lunch and were seated in the office, eagerly awaiting my arrival. We jetted home, to meet my wife, Lori, and shove our packed bags into the car, before heading to the airport, bound for Chicago for the front-end of the kids’ spring break.

The drive and flight time offered respite from the busy day, and a welcome transition to the frantic pace ahead. From the moment we arrived at our base camp, the home of my dear friend, whose companionship dates back to sixth grade, we packed our nights and days with fun-filled adventures, and navigated frenetic, metropolitan traffic, in our rental car, to enjoy coveted time with friends and family.  We left without regret, satisfied with our choices, fulfilled with a sense of fun and purpose – and ready to rest!

Back home, as Lori and I returned to work, and Zoe and Adam settled into the second half of their spring break, I noticed the familiar post-trip malaise. Fatigue, irritability and restlessness abounded, evidence that personal space and unstructured time were in short-supply. The pattern is similar to what often unfolds at our home on Thursday evenings, when the accumulation of school, work and daily life crescendo in a cacophony of upsets, for kids and adults alike.

This observation, that the daily pace of activity and structured time, when left unchecked, often threatens personal health and well-being, is one that I have long considered. As a teenager and young adult, I filled my days and nights with endless activity, distracting myself as I struggled to feel comfortable in my own skin, especially at rest. My body rebelled, producing episodes of recurring illness and emotional distress, even a period of depression — and desperately seeking a change in lifestyle.

As a father, I’m mindful of those life lessons. I also notice the distressing levels of insomnia, anxiety, depression and dis-ease experienced by children (starting young), and parents, whose lives are often highly-structured. School alone, including arrival and return, makes for a 35-hour work week. With after-school activities, organized sports, homework and weekend schedules, there seems little time for rest and recovery.

In this way, I have come to understand my role as a father to be as much about supporting the natural inclinations of Zoe and Adam, and preserving the time and space required to simply be themselves — on their own terms — as preparing them to successfully compete in the fast lane.

On the final weekend of spring break, when Lori was immersed in her end-of-semester graduate studies, I found myself promoting the idea of an outing, one that would take Zoe, Adam and me away from the house for the afternoon. I sensed resistance and paused to consider the number of hours — or minutes — in the course of their spring break that they were afforded time to make their own choices about what to do, or not do.

I yielded to their interests, taking time to write. They frolicked about, worked on their backyard fort, roamed the neighborhood, returned to make a strawberry slushy and then headed outside for hours of spontaneous play with neighbors. They seemed happy.

A friend of mine once said that making music is as much about learning how to occupy the spaces between notes, as learning to play the notes themselves.

While I’m not a musician, as a father, I have come to believe that in our family, learning to appreciate the spaces between activities is just as important as the activities themselves.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website