We've got another great post today! Sit back, relax and enjoy this essay from the husband of Mommymita.
Paul drives a 15 - passenger van and lives in Ann Arbor, MI where he and his beautiful wife homeschool their adorable 7 children. By day he works for the Salt Lake City based investment firm Cottonwood Capital. More about them here http://mommymita.blogspot.com/
I circle a second time hoping to find a spot in the crowded lot. It’s always a tight fit at Whole Foods, but on this summer Saturday, with all these kids loaded into the 15-passenger van, it feels especially so.
I make wide, looping turns as I scan the aisles. The sight of our enormous white van seems to startle the incoming patrons. They jump out of the way, hopping up onto the relative safety of the curb, as if they’re escaping a small tidal wave, taking care to grip their little bundles of reusable grocery bags with both hands as they jump.
The 15-passenger van is a fine specialty car, a worthy member of society and a pillar of American commerce. It dutifully patrols our country’s roadways, from the international airports to the local churches, from the electrical contractor supply yards to the ski slopes. In the commercial realm it is appreciated and renowned for its utility. But owned by an individual, used exclusively for personal use, particularly in a Whole Foods parking lot, the 15-passenger van is a bold sociological statement.
A broad generalization, but nonetheless ironclad rule of thumb, is that the size of one’s family vehicle varies inversely with the educational attainment of the head of the household. University towns like ours are cluttered with small, bespectacled, PhD-toting men and women in Minis, Priuses, Volvos and Civics while the country roads teem with GED-wielding men and women hauling Grand Caravans, F-350 pickups, and tricked out Aerostars. It’s a safe bet that not one of my MBA classmates is driving what I’m driving. Or ever will.
I’m still not having any parking luck so I arc in a wider radius. “Please” I say out loud to no one in particular. Hoping for a spot has now become praying for a spot.
A middle-aged couple animatedly talk and gesticulate as they walk down the middle of an aisle of cars toward the store entrance. The woman, so engrossed in the conversation, does not see or hear me coming and only sidesteps the van when her husband tugs at her arm. The look on her face as I pass seems to be one of simultaneous fear and contempt. Fear of what, in a collision, my van could do to her body or that of her expensive little lump of precision German engineering. And contempt for what the 15-passenger van stands for, at least here, far from the commercial realm: earth-choking pollution and suspected right-leaning politics. I’ve seen this look before while piloting the van. Fear and contempt. I think I must know what it’s like to be an IRS agent.
Finally a little Honda vacates a spot between a pair of identical Subarus and I pull up and swing as wide as possible to improve my approach angle. I lean into the turn, as if I’m riding a bike instead of a 3-ton maxivan, summoning every bit of leverage I can as I cut the wheel to its limit. The entire chassis groans beneath me as the hulking mass of UAW-forged steel strains to wedge into the tiny space.
The laws of physics limit what I can do here in the crowded parking lot, and, like jamming a leftover pizza box haphazardly into the fridge, I’m content to set aside style points for the time being in order just to get it in there without any collateral damage, a nicked fender or a spilled carton of milk. It’s not pretty. I’m reluctant to back in and out multiple times – it will just call more attention to ourselves and make the onlookers even more nervous. My first crack gets the van to rest at an approximate 15° angle in the parking slot. Good enough. “Not only can’t he read,” the passersby will think, “but he can’t park either.” But it’s okay, I’m used to both.
Stepping out of the vehicle, I notice the two bikes standing up in the rack of the Subaru next to me are the carbon fiber type that together easily cost more than did the van (used with 50,000 miles). As I walk around the other side to facilitate unloading kids I notice that the same is true of the bikes above the passenger-side Subaru too. It’s hard to make a 6’6”, 300 lb. man with 7 kids who drives a 15-passenger van feel small, but, momentarily, these two observations do.
In fact the entire Whole Foods parking is like the showroom floor at REI. Most of the cars seem to be toting some kind of gear - bikes, kayaks, and the ubiquitous black and grey Yakima and Thule boxes. Life is full of possibilities I suppose, and the recreational possibilities here seem endless. The van is carrying its share of gear as well in the form of miscellaneous junk stuffed into the large cargo area – strollers, bikes, sleeping bags, swim noodles, extra shoes, and umbrellas. While I long ago gave up the dream of parking the van in the garage, I have recently come around to the idea of parking some of the garage in the van.
Inside the store the kids and I try our best to stick to the integrity of “the list”, but more often we veer off into the expensive, yet delicious, realm of impulse purchases. The bananas appear ripe, the apples too, and the local peaches look like they’re on sale. It’s getting close to that season, and if they are anything like the chin-drippingly juicy ones we had last year, we are definitely interested.
As we move in to probe the peaches a woman, about 45 I guess, looks at me and my cart and my kids with the same look as the lady in the parking lot moments before – she practically jumps out of the way of the kids as if they are carrying a deadly pathogen. She is impressively fit, and looks like she just walked out of an Athleta catalog. Quickly retracting her impeccably tanned and toned arms from the peach display, she glides away toward the safety of the vegetable counter joining three other similar-looking ladies inspecting the kale, spinach, and carrots.
The same story unfolds wherever else we go in the store. It’s nothing explicit, but I have a feeling that we’re being watched and perhaps even whispered about. It feels like going to school with an enormous zit on your nose – some stare, some look away in disgust – but everyone notices. Only true friends, and those that have shared the experience, can sit back and have a good-natured laugh.
The small, impossibly thin couple in front of the meat counter are trading reviews of their new yoga instructor and seem annoyed, if not violated, when the kids eagerly reach around them to get at a sample display of dried beef snacks. The smart-looking, rumpled, bearded man sighs deeply as he waits for me to cross through the dairy aisle, clearly perturbed by the 5 second delay my children cause him as they trail loosely behind my cart, smacking their lips eagerly on sample bits of Manchego cheese.
Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but it does feel like the world is becoming increasingly intolerant of families, particularly of big families. Though it’s sometimes hard and I often fail, I do my best not to judge the people around me. I try to be accepting – though not necessarily condoning – of the life choices of the people I see every day. I smile and nod as I go about, as if to say “hey brother, we’re all in this together.” The people in our town mean well after all. They volunteer for political campaigns, recycle their batteries, send birthday cards, donate to the Humane Society, trim their bushes, and tend their gardens. They do the little things that I never seem to have the time or energy to do. The little things that help hold our world together. Yet it feels like oftentimes these same people don’t have much patience for the little ones who will do the same, if not more, for the next generation.
We live in a society that is increasingly focused on instant bursts of measurable results. Human nature has perhaps always pulled us this way, but advances in technology and the increasingly artificial bubble in which most of us live have exacerbated the tendency. Long since decoupled from the necessities of directly providing the essentials for our families, we now have rededicated ourselves to the pursuit of the immediately measurable benchmarks: getting a promotion, earning a bonus, closing a sale, building a business, reducing our carbon footprint, racking up frequent flier status, acquiring a luxury car, bulking up the retirement account, finishing a race, climbing a mountain, or buying a second home someplace warm. We are actively engaged in pursuing the “good life”, or at least the kind extolled in so many catalogs and magazine clippings, and comparing our results with those around us.
We have laptops, iPhones, Blackberries and countless other devices to keep us tuned to the constant fluctuations of life around us and we wear watches and monitors that calculate every heartbeat, every calorie, every movement, every mile, every second. We don’t simply go out for a jog or a bike ride anymore. It’s all meticulously tracked, tabulated, and mapped. We all do it – last week I rode 12.2 miles with the kids and immediately posted our results on Facebook.
The technology is amazing and a great boon to our lifestyles, but perhaps it increasingly drives our most important decisions, about how we live and what we value. The metrics we most often use now to keep score in our lives have never been so concrete, so comparable, yet, somehow, simultaneously so abstract. The numbers appear instantly and then disappear just as fast, lost in a sea of competing numbers, prices, times, and amounts. Never have so many numbers meant so little.
Raising a family, of course, is just the opposite. The results cannot be measured or scored or mapped, at least not over a short period of time. As much as the world has tried to create a web of scorecards for those early years, there are few meaningful ones. And the job of parenting is, at its core, still a mostly anonymous one performed in the vacuum of our homes. It does not, like the sensational infidelities and peccadilloes of our celebrity icons, generate the headlines that sell papers and turn pages, even though, like those mishaps, it often happens during the seemingly oddest hours of the night.
Nor is there any technology or substitute to facilitate the real guts of the process. Yes, it’s wonderful to stream any one of seemingly thousands of Thomas the Tank Engine shows on Netflix at 3:00 a.m. to sooth an agitated child, or to save half a day by doing all our Christmas shopping on Amazon via iPhone in an airport. But the nuts and bolts, the blocking and tackling of good parenting - the dinner table discussions, the roadtrips, the hugs, the kisses, the encouragement, the discipline, the family projects, the faith promoting moments, and even the “birds and bees” discussions – is all done face-to-face, day-by-day, as it’s been done since the beginning of time. Our kids, like those fresh local peaches, need time and careful cultivation. With a good measure of both they’ll burst forth into the world, an explosion of sweetness and happiness, but without either they risk not reaching their full potential, left behind on the shelf, hardened and bitter. There is no way to circumvent the natural process.
Our families take years, decades, to fully ripen, and even then, after all that hard work, it will be hard to quantify and measure the harvest. Toiling long and hard at something immeasurable and obscure, is not something our culture today values much. Not when our minds have been trained to expect everything on demand. Now.
But as hard as it is to measure in the short run, raising a family produces by far the greatest impact of almost any other activity, either for good or for bad. I described it once to a friend who, with his spouse, was considering parenthood. “It’s the world’s greatest service project,” I offered, “and when it’s all said and done, you’ve left more than a finite thing – like a house or a pile of money – but something, a posterity, that is exponential, through the generations, in nature.”
Still today, to many, replacing ourselves with a generation of the same or better sensibilities is no longer seen as a virtue, but as a selfish vice. We are the ones that produce the waste: drive the gas-guzzlers, patronize the mass merchandisers, crowd the schools, and warm the planet. We give up much of ourselves – we sacrifice – to be loving, and hopefully effective parents, but the world largely gives us a scorning look, one that says “do you realize what kind of harm you are doing?”
The kids and I are nearing the end of our shopping errand. The cart is spilling over with groceries and the kids likewise are bursting with the sweet essence of plentiful store samples. We’ve looped back to the snack aisle because the kids insist they still need “something for the way home.” So caught up am I in thoughts about our family I practically collide with a smaller, bespectacled man, dressed neatly in a pressed shirt and pants. He doesn’t have much in his cart – a smattering of fruits, vegetables, and fish – enough for a dinner for two perhaps.
He smiles and immediately notices my son’s shirt. It’s from my Ivy League alma mater, and, it turns out, his also. He’s a professor at the university here, and though he is ten years my senior, we reminisce about the old campus days and talk of our respective careers since school. He notes that my kids are “exceptionally well-behaved” even as they buzz around the cart, orbiting me as if piloting little bumper cars, mostly without incident, but with an occasional thump and accompanying burst of laughter. After chatting amiably for several minutes the Professor and I end with a promise to stay in touch as we part ways. Down the aisle the kettle corn is on sale so I instruct the kids to grab the “two best looking bags” and our shopping is officially done.
As we exit the store it’s not hard to find the van again. It stands out like a sore thumb in the parking lot, looming over the little bunches of foreign compact cars, casting a lengthening shadow here in the last of the late summer evening sunshine. The poor thing looks uncomfortable, not unlike a small child pressed into his carseat, tires twisted awkwardly against the grain of the body, unable to communicate it verbally, but saying via body language: I’d rather be somewhere else.
The kids eagerly suggest a quick picnic on the way home. “Naw, guys,” I say dismissingly, “it’s getting late and we’ve got to get home, it’s bath night tonight” to an assortment of grumbles and groans.
“But Daddy, it’s a perfect night for a picnic,” the most outspoken protests.
“Maybe some other time” I say, resolutely looking off into the setting sun, mentally gearing up for the almost certain wrestling match with a wet toddler in the imaginary ring somewhere between the bath, his pajamas, and his bed.
As we approach the van I notice the Professor loading up a couple small bags of groceries into his shiny little Acura three spaces over. From his tucked in shirt, to the polish on his car, to the perfect symmetry of his parking, and the careful placement of his bags, everything about him seems so orderly. It all stands in stark contrast to the musty, crumbly disorganized chaos of garage junk that greets me as I open my own tailgate. When the Professor finishes loading he turns around and is surprised to see me there, the owner of this enormous van, working like a resolute townsperson laying sandbags along the river before the flood, pumping bag after bag of groceries into the despite-all-the-garage-junk-still-cavernous expanse of the van. I pause and look up from my unloading and, after a moment, the surprised expression on his face gives way to a pleasant smile.
Then he makes an entirely unexpected comment, one I have never heard before.
“Well, Paul, It looks like you have a nice place for all your gear in there,” he says as he gestures towards the van.
I stand there for a minute, nodding, and smiling back at the Professor as he enters his car and neatly whisks back out of his space. A nice place for all my gear, I think to myself as I wave and watch him zoom off toward his tidy home, clipped bushes, and well-tended garden, no one has ever said it that way.
Yes. This is our sport. This is our marathon. All this stuff - the vans, strollers, bikes, sleeping bags, groceries – it’s the gear we use to train every day. There are lots of ways to spend a lifetime, and we have chosen to spend ours dedicated to the most challenging, messiest, time-intensive sport of all. The one that makes us happiest – that of raising a family.
We’re sometimes cheered, often booed, but we are determined to give our neighbors what they most need even if they don’t realize it. We’ll give them something intimately, utterly quantifiable in the short run: a new generation of workers and taxpayer and consumers to buy their stocks and their homes so they can eventually retire and move to that second home in Arizona or Florida or St. Kitts. But we’ll also give them something even better: a generation of honest, compassionate, upright adults with amazing God-given gifts to share with the world, and the disposition to do so. And, if we do it right, their decisions will, in turn, ripple through the ensuing generations and even the eternities. The impact will be measured finally by a number: infinity.
As I step up into the van I look back at the kids. They are all obediently buckled in, maybe even a bit tired, and ready to get home for bathtime.
As I look at them I realize something else. Time is precious. This mortal life is measured. Every heartbeat, every second, every minute, every night is scored, recorded, tablulated in the Book of Life.
“Hey, guys, it’s a beautiful summer night,” I tell them as I carefully back the van out, “how about we go for a little picnic?”
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