Our Little House

As long as I am talking about parenting, it would be shoddy of me not to cast a little more light on the tenets of what fatherhood means to me, especially at this time of year. Of course tenets is too strong a word for any manner of parenting, which should be flexible and give with the priorities of the moment and the needs of the whole and not center on one individual, but just imagine if every father funneled each decision they’d ever made with a mind toward the sustainability of their children’s future how much kinder and gentler the world would be. And precisely because of this and because any attempt on my part to break practice down into theory rings of both lecture and boredom, I do this at the risk of highlighting my own shortcomings, of which there are many, especially related to parenting and family. But with diabetes in the family picture now our understanding of how actions today affect what happens tomorrow takes even greater meaning. This is not drilling for dinosaur bones we’re talking about, but life and death.

Some of what I learned about being a father came from my own father, an often cantankerous yet warm-hearted man who over his life taught me little in terms of parenting but whose example of hard work and resilience I carry with me always. Because he had few close male friends, or none anyway that he brought around the house, I seldom had other real life men to watch and learn from and one day imitate in my own decision-making as a father. There were coaches and father’s of friends of mine, but not any I ever really watched with an eye toward their principles on parenting; and the most influential teachers I had were women not men, which contributed to my parental make up in very substantial ways.

But this is about being a father, not a parent. So as a boy my patriarchal design and aspirations were influenced by other, less-actual factors. I would love to say that more came from books, than from television or the movies, but I grew with the onset of televised drama and sitcom, so there is probably more Charles Ingalls in me than Atticus Finch; more Cliff Huxtable than King Lear. Fortunately, fatherhood evolves (or we might all still be stuck driving horse-drawn buggies to work, the demise of which is about dinosaur bones, incidentally), and through periods of soul-searching, I find myself occasionally reinforcing or reinventing what being a dad means to me. With Lia’s diagnosis late last year came one of those rising-within-you moments.

With diabetes, there has been fear, worry and frustration. There have been obstacles to overcome, difficult new things to learn, aggravating changes to our day to day lives. But also there has been opportunity. The chance to become closer, kinder, to appreciate more one another; to become stronger, more confident, more determined; to live in each moment. It’s not easy. There are myriad times where it seems endlessly impossible. Where the risk and the cost challenge the theory that all hardship can be overcome with attitude, that less is more, that newer is not better, that to be happy and healthy you don’t have to become a millionaire. That the best things in life are not bought, but given freely.

Diabetes opposes simplicity. There is not just food to consider. You do not just exercise. There is no such thing as just another cookie, or lap around the park, or physical exam. Life is more difficult. It requires harder work, greater attention to things that might normally go unnoticed. The reward of course is worth it. As Geppetto once said to his little once-wooden boy: You’re alive!

But to quote another famous father when his daughter became ill and he was told by a minister that this was chosen by God for some special purpose. Charles said: Tomorrow, I have to tell my daughter that she’s going blind. What shall I tell her is that special purpose?

Being a father is wonderful. It would be wonderful too if raising children was only about teaching them right from wrong, how to be a good citizen, set a good example and point them in the right direction and then step back and cheer them on. It is not that and has never been that for all of time. Being a good father, like being a good mother, evades definition. It is more than words. It is the action of adapting and changing to fit the situation, for himself, but always with the greater good of the family in mind. It is about safety and security and providing and about making this life as hospitable as possible for all. Though it was probably a mother life form in search of a better existence that led her brood out of the first gloopy seas, it was a dad that tamed the jungle and helped make the land a home. It wasn’t easy then and is made only easier now because of their and our other ancestors’ enterprise and ingenuity. And that is what fatherhood means to me.

A Dedication

After the last of the kids started school and we were both working for someone else the money was abundant and so too was the impulse to have the things that money could buy. If you let it money can spoil a perfectly good thing, such as happiness and peace of mind. Some have it backwards, that you cannot be happy or have peace of mind without money, but on those occasions it is the money talking, not the people, and so you can only hope they turn it around before it does all of their thinking for them.

But the idea of both of us earning an income was new to us and for the first time in our lives we could consider making some significant changes: A bigger house. A better car. Nicer furniture. A well-funded retirement. The list of possibilities was long and the obstacles seemed small and insignificant. It was just money after all and with Franca planning to re-enter the workforce after an eight year hiatus to raise children we saw ourselves, finally, having more of it.

Before that time though when we did not have those choices or the pressures that come with them we were happy still and made time for the things we loved, such as writing and the outdoors and spending an active time together. During the week, before I would head off to my workday as a director of supply chain for a major company well known for its skin and personal care products, I would wake at four in the morning and come downstairs in the dark and pour myself a cup of coffee and sit down at my desk and spend the next two hours alone writing. It was a wonderfully quiet and still time of the night and there was little else to do but write, so I learned through the discipline of doing the same thing every day how to focus on the words and the telling of the story and nothing else. For fifteen years this was how I wrote: two novels, a few short stories and several creative non-fiction pieces. In darkness, quiet, solitude. This was the terrain of my apprenticeship and though it was often frustrating to stop to get ready for work, I left my desk knowing that no matter what happened the rest of the day I had pursued my passion.

On weekends I would do the same, but afterwards we would do things together, especially in the spring and fall when the weather in the southeast is the nicest and we might go camping or for a hike or visit with family. We shopped for the things we needed, not for what others owned or what we may have thought for ourselves that we wanted, and in so doing learned to live in sync with our means. This was important because as Franca and I contemplated the opportunities that presented themselves with the possibility of two incomes, we were not accustomed to even wanting to spend great amounts of money on unnecessary things, like new cars (I write this, of course, as two of ours sit in a shop for repairs). As long as we could afford the things we needed, we were fine.

Nonetheless, the mood as Franca prepared to re-enter the workforce was upbeat, I won’t lie. We both were, as I mentioned, thinking of the changes two incomes would have in our lives and for our children. Then something happened that changed everything.

Franca was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, and because she loved the story and the writing she was moved to learn a bit about the author’s history. Afterwards she came to me and told me of his frustrations first with law school, then journalism and eventually even his fiction writing. Then one day, while he and his family were en route to Acapulco on vacation, inspiration struck and he stopped and turned the car around and went back to his home and put his wife in charge of the family and he wrote, crafting for the next eighteen months the mythical world of Macando around which One Hundred Years of Solitude was centered. When he finished they had sold the car, pawned many of the household items they owned, gone greatly in debt, and in García Márquez’s case, was mentally and physically spent. But he was happy.

I listened to her and I thought about it for the next three days and then sat down with Franca and said that, if I was to become a good writer, I needed to do what García Márquez had done. I needed to remove the obstacles and focus on writing. I had spent all those years toiling at four in the morning, developing the diligence, the discipline, learning how to write, then leaving them two hours later and going off to work, for what? A bigger house. A better car. Nicer Furniture. Those things weren’t important to me, writing was. More importantly, they weren’t important to Franca either and she agreed and for the next year and a half, part of which we were both employed, we set aside thoughts of spending and tucked as much as we could away to provide in the future for our family. Then in the spring, on April 13th, 2007, exactly three years ago today, I left my job and became a full time writer.

Following this dream, I’ll admit, has had it’s share of downside with the upside. I’ve not published a book, though I was recognized with an Arts Council Grant for the opening chapter. Some of the reserves we set aside have been used to pay for costly unseen emergencies, but we have not had to sell any cars or pawn appliances. I am home more with the children, but presence sometimes incites participation and I find it difficult to write when there are more exciting things to do, like jump on the trampoline or ride bikes. Finally, there is the usual constant barrage of commercialism telling us we need new things, better things, more and more stuff. Mostly though, we have all learned how to do with a bit less and none of us are generally bothered by it.

There are moments though when not having more freedom financially causes me to second guess my decision. Lia’s diagnosis with diabetes is one of those. I worry about our ability to give her what she needs. I worry that we will not be able to afford the newest technology, the best treatment, the most effective care. And I worry that the stories I wanted to write about and which inspired me to leave my job are not worthy anymore of attention. Reality now occupies me; it, more than imagination, primes my writing.

So it is that Without Envy is my story too, one that has been in the works for much longer than any archive or calendar can give credit to, but one I won’t ever regret. It has been a wonderful experience and though in a way I have Gabo to thank, I know the great writer would understand if instead my dedication read: To Franca, of course.

War on Sugar

When it was just the five of us and no diabetes it was the desire Franca and I had of eating healthier foods, produced more sustainably and responsibly, that drove us to declare war on sugar. It started, as many such conflicts do, as a simple disagreement over turf: our wanting food that was good for us versus sugar’s monopolistic saturation of the food industry. At the same time we were moving ourselves toward living more simply and off resources found closer to home and of the land, a rule of order that ensured our place as a steadfast enemy of industry. And finally, I was on a quest personally to lower my cholesterol without the use of prescription drugs. I had nothing against proven pharmaceuticals, but I felt if I could achieve the same results through modifications to my diet, I would be a better person for it. Plus, I hated the experience of having to take a pill everyday for the rest of my life. Now, of course, with insulin-dependent diabetes a part of our day to day lives, I feel ridiculous having even complained.

But such as the way things were back then, we chose Valentine’s Day, a symbolic gesture of our seriousness, as our date of revolt. Our strategy went like this: We would for a period of two weeks eliminate processed sugar from everything we ate. Everything. No cereal. No soda. No packaged snacks. No granola bars, no yogurt, no tasty coffee cookies.

Sugar was a worthy adversary, however, and an information-gathering, reconnaissance trip to the grocery forced us to add to the Do Not Eat watch list. Peanut butter, tomato sauce, chicken stock — yes, chicken stock, canned soups, canned beans, canned just-about-anything, crackers, chips, ketchup. This last one, especially, caused our family some heartache as our oldest daughter, Krista, was an addicted user, even dragging green beans through a pool of the red stuff in order to wash them down. Learning of ketchup’s betrayal, she immediately deserted and waged her own war against us as a full-time dissenter.

And so it went, with us rooting sugar out of concealment and it’s clever hiding places, banishing it from our cupboards and refrigerator shelves, and finding a more suitable, or in some case, no, replacement. Lia, for all of her six years, turned out to be an exceptional soldier, using her sharp, childhood inquisitiveness to sniff out the enemy on ingredient listings everywhere. Even Krista came around, by the end of the two weeks she had lost the equivalent of one grumpy pre-teen along with six unnecessary pounds.

The war ended eventually, as all wars should, and we made our peace with sugar. We had neither won nor lost. Sugar is back in the house again, but without unchecked reign over our pantry, so I suppose you could say we won the battle. Out of it grew new alliances: A garden, egg-laying chickens, closer friends at the farmer’s market, veggies that did not require condiments. Even my cholesterol played nicer, staying in check without medication for the entire next year.

Yes, we thought we’d done pretty well, and even if we hadn’t, in those days it was much easier to make light of our failures. Losing takes on different meanings depending on what’s at stake, and for us now, sugar — carbs, whatever you want to call it — is waging a fresh new war and the goals have become much loftier than life without a pill.

To read more on the perils of sugar, here is an in-depth article from Mother Earth News. In addition, there are plenty of myths surrounding sugar and type 1 diabetes, to see the facts please click here.