Friday, January 30, 2009


Dear Spike:

Both your mother and I wear our emotions on our sleeves, so it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to learn that you’re just a tad bit sensitive.

OK, that’s the understatement of the year. You’re not just a tad sensitive — you emote like Beijing pollutes.

A few weeks ago, your babysitter was reading you the book, “Curious George Goes to the Hospital.” As usual, George got into a bit of mischief and one of the hospital’s nurses scolded him.

And you cried for 20 minutes.

A few days later, we were watching the “Super Why!” episode in which the Super Readers were settling a dispute between the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. When they asked the old dog why he was being so mean, he began to cry.

And you sobbed for an hour.

The slightest hint of melancholy in a musical number makes your chin quiver and your eyes water. So the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” is out. So too for all but the chorus of Don McClean’s “American Pie.” And Burt Bacharach’s entire songbook has been banned from our home.

But I’m glad you’re in touch with your emotions, because people who steel themselves from sorrow are also stealing themselves of joy — for you simply cannot block out one and enjoy the fullness of the other.

So cry, baby, cry.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Dear Spike:

Before it gets too far away from me, I’d like to share with you the experience I had last Tuesday – and what I think it means for the world you are inheriting.

Tuesday, of course, was the day in which our country inaugurated a new president. I watched the historic event unfold from the base club at Hill Air Force Base.

There, I sat beside a chaplain named Carl Wright and studied the way he beamed as his new commander in chief took the oath of office and delivered the inaugural address.

“I’m having a hard time believing this is all happening,” he told me. “I just have a deep sense of pride and awe."

He had good reason for those emotions. Thirty years ago, the chaplain was a young enlisted airman, returning home from his first duty assignment overseas, only to confront some of the uglier realities of life back in the land of the free.

As he tells the story, he was outfitted in his dress blues, waiting for a bus outside a military base in Charleston, South Carolina, when his pride was wrenched off its hinges.

The driver pulled up, stepped off the bus, and proceeded to take everyone’s ticket — except for the young black airman standing in the front of the line.

“I was getting worried,” the chaplain remembered. “I knew there were only so many seats on the bus, and I’d spent all of my money on this ticket, so I said, ‘excuse me, sir, are you going to take my ticket?’ ”

The bus driver looked him up and down and then, turning to the white passengers, mocked the young airman for having had the audacity to speak up -- throwing in a few cruel racial epithets for good measure.

With no other way to get home to Washington, D.C., the airman took the verbal assault and, when the driver finally consented to letting him on the bus, took a seat toward the back.

“I cried the entire way home,” he told me.

I’m sure this will sound as ancient history to you. As the television in the corner of the base club replayed images of black man taking on the role of our nation's leader, it seemed as ancient history to me.

But then I thought to ask…

“Chaplain,” I said, “when was the last time you heard that word?”

“That word?”

“The word the bus driver called you.”

“‘Nigger?’ Oh, you know, you hear that word all the time.”

“I don’t mean in music. I don’t mean in movies. I mean directed at you. Like that. Like it was in 1979.”

“Oh, in that way? It’s been a few years.”

I could see him flipping back through a mental calendar before he answered more confidently.

Two years, he said

Two years. That all that separated this man — a decorated officer in the United States Air Force — from the last time he’d been disparaged in that ugly, awful way.

Even on days when the world seems forever changed, you’ll sometimes get reminders that this planet actually turns quite slowly.

You should not ignore those truths. But neither should you allow those momentary darknesses to snuff out the lights of change.

Chaplain Wright told me that he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking of the day he cried from Charleston to D.C. And he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking of the times, between then and now, in which he’s been treated as a second-class citizen in this land where all men are created equal.

He prefers to recall a day, not long back, when he stepped off the airplane from his most recent overseas duty in Iraq.

“There were people there to greet me, to shake my hand, and I was thanked for my service."

That, he said, is all he ever wanted.


Saturday, January 24, 2009


Dear Spike:

There is precious little in this world that makes me feel nostalgic.

The soundtrack from Out of Africa — which my father regularly played at dinnertime — always sends me back to the goulash suppers he’d make for my siblings and I after my mother went back to school.

The smell of fresh oranges sometimes makes me pine for the days when I’d climb up into my grandparents’ tree in search of a perfect piece of fruit.

And once in a while, the sight of kids fishing in the pond near our home reminds me of the days I used to spend trying to catch carp with my good friend, Aaron Jones, in the city streams near his home.

But other than that, I’m not big on starry-eyed reminiscences.

Or so I thought.

As many tales do, this story begins at the library: We’d just loaded up a big canvas bag with books for you and were getting ready to check out when your mother suggested we swing through the children’s video section. There we found a few Bob the Builder videos, a documentary about the history of Disney World and a few other Disney flicks. And then, to my great joy, a true treasure: The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin.

The videos were from a cartoon based on the magical life of Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic stuffed bear that was the toy to have when it was first sold in 1985.

That was the same year in which the first Back to the Future movie was released, Mike Tyson made his professional boxing debut and Nintendo began selling its most famous video game console.

Those things were all part of my childhood, but none has ever made me feel like I did when I found the Ruxpin videos. And that’s a bit strange, because the truth is that I never had a Teddy Ruxpin – although my little brother did.

The combination of nostalgia and unfulfilled childhood longing was simply too much to bear. As I watched the videos with you that night, I decided that you desperately needed a Ruxpin, and I cruised the Internet looking for a used bear in working condition.

But it didn’t take long for me to come upon the Website for a Hong Kong toy company that had bought the rights for the long-abandoned Ruxpin — and that had been turning out a brand new line of digital Teddys since 2005.

With no thought whatsoever as to whether or not we could afford the $50 bear or the two $20 story cartridges, I’d placed my order. And even though I felt rather guilty, the following day, as I admitted to your mother what I’d done, I couldn’t bring myself to say that, in hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it again. Such is the power of nostalgia, I suppose.

The box arrived on our front porch this afternoon. And this evening, you had your first encounter with a talking bear.

I brought him in and sat him on the edge of the bed.

“Ruxpin!” you squealed, recognizing the bear from the cartoons we’ve been watching together. “Ruxpin!”

A promising start, to be sure. I turned him on.

“My name is Teddy Ruxpin,” he said.

Your eyes grew wide.

“Can you and I be friends?” he asked.

Your mouth dropped open.

“I really enjoy talking to people,” he explained.

You smiled and inched forward toward the talking bear.

“Ruxpin!” you said again, reaching out your hand to shake his furry paw. “Pleased to meet you!”

You sat mostly spellbound as Ruxpin told a story about searching for treasure in the magical land of Grundo, interrupting only to curiously touch his blinking eyes, rub his talking snout, and pet his furry ears.

“Hi!” you said, again and again. “Hi! Hi! Hi!”

I felt vindicated, a bit, by your reaction, although I still feel a bit guilty about dropping $100 on a toy bear — even one that talks, sings songs and tells stories.

But I’m glad you like it. And I’m looking forward to sharing it with you, if you’ll allow me to.

I wouldn’t get used to this sort of thing, though. You’re unlikely, for instance, to get a Rubik’s Cube.

I had one of those. And it was a pain in the ass.


Thursday, January 22, 2009


Dear Spike:

Today was a day of firsts for you.

For several weeks you've been convinced that the highest number in the universe is 2. Today, with a little help from some decorative wooden apples that were resting in a basket near the fireplace at a local bakery, you got all the way up to 3, which is rather good, because up until that point you were living a life devoid of odd prime numbers. Three is also a good numeral because it is the number of people in our little family, the number of chickens in our backyard and the number of meals most people eat in a day.

You also figured out how to spell your name today, which is also a very good skill to have. The ability to spell your name comes in rather handy when applying for jobs, writing letters to friends and making purchases online. It's also good for those occasions in which you lose your voice in a freak fishing accident and have to communicate with people from a quaint Maine fishing down with only the use of a little chalk board -- it'll just makes things easier if they know what to call you.

Life is full of firsts — and the joy of learning something new is not something you have to give up as you age. Do something new every day. Commit something new to your memory every waking hour. This is one of the many ways that your life can be rich and rewarding — even if you don't have three pennies to your name.

I'm proud of you.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Dear Spike:

Will you shiver when you hear this speech?
Yes, I know you’ll probably shrug.
What is historic for me will be history to you.
A black man in the White House?
OK, you’ll say. That’s fine.
Now give me a woman.
Give me an immigrant.
Give me a homosexual.
For this is the way of our Republic.
The way of our Revolution.
For a more perfect union.


Sunday, January 18, 2009


Dear Spike:

I couldn't help but sigh when your social security card came in the mail, a few weeks after you were born. The nine digits on that baby will follow you around for the rest of your life, giving employers, insurers, creditors, educators and the government a way to keep tabs on you.  
The idea that Big Brother already had you on his grid was depressing enough. But it was those first three numbers were especially depressing. Most folks don't know it, but that prefix is code for the state in which you were born. 

And so, no matter where you go, what you do or what place you ultimately come to think of as your home, you will always be a...

... sigh ... 

... Utahn.

Your mother and I came to Salt Lake City thinking it was a good stepping stone to somewhere else. A rest stop on the road of life. We figured we'd spend a few years here en route to another place — probably a bigger town on the west coast. 

Portland would have been nice. Seattle too. San Francisco or San Diego, oh yeah.

We'd leave Los Angeles to your Aunt Kelly, but anywhere else would have been swell.

But we found a nice home here, right across the street from one of the coolest city parks in the country. We found some good friends, too. We grew to love the mountains and got used to the sweltering summers. The winters? I hardly even notice the cold anymore. And every time it snows, I glance up at the canyons, do a little fist pump, and check our bank account to see if there's enough in there for a lift ticket. 

When you came along, we did some thinking about the issue and recognized that this wouldn't be too bad a place to raise a kid.

The clincher came when your mother got hired at the elementary school a few blocks away. It wasn't just the proximity. She'd found a place where she was making a difference — a place where like-minded people were teaching their guts out and where it really mattered that they were.

And yeah, the five-minute bike ride was nice, too. Suddenly, neither of us had a commute. You can't put a price on that. 

I like this place. I like our life here. And if we end up staying here for the rest of our lives, I wouldn't be sad about it. 

But for whatever reason, I've resisted calling myself a Utahn. Maybe it's just that the word is so funny. Maybe it's that, for whatever reason, I've long held onto the very Californian idea that being from California makes you so much cooler than being from anywhere else. And maybe it's that, for whatever reason, I really came to feel like an Oregonian during the six years I lived there — a period in which I found my calling and found your mother. (And yes, I love the rain. I love, love, love, love, love the rain.)

Or maybe it's that, for most of my life, Utah was little more than an endless plain of salt, a stinky lake, a boring desert, a place so desolate that, after being run out of every other town on the continent, a sect of religious fundamentalists managed to form its own polygamous nation without anyone really noticing or caring, because — hey — it was only Utah.
So for all the effort this state has put into re-marketing itself — and it is true, absolutely true, that Utah has "the greatest snow on Earth" — I just couldn't bring myself to call myself a Utahn. 

But you? You were ... 

... are ... 

... forever will be ...

... oh holy heck ...

... fer goodness sake ... 

... gol' dang't fetch ...

... a Utahn. 

At least, that's what your social security card says. I resolved, however, to raise you up like the west-coaster I know you really are.

But there's nature... 

... and there's nurture ...

... and then there is everything else.

And today you reminded me that no matter how hard your mother and I try, there will be parts of this place that will seep into your veins, that will course through your body and that will, alas, confirm that three-digit prefix is accurate. 

It was no small slap in the face that all you did, to make me realize all of that, was to repeat something I said. 

We were at the dinner table and your mother passed me a napkin.

"Thanks," I said, wiping the corner of my mouth. " 'preciate it."

" 'preciate it!" you repeated. 

I dropped the napkin and stared at you.

" 'preciate it!" you said again. " 'preciate it!"

I shook my head. Your mother laughed hysterically. And you just beamed. 

We're Utahns.


But if you ever so much as think of cheering for BYU, you'll be out on the street faster than you can say "Provo." 


Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Dear Spike:

Her hands were soft as rose petals. And her heart was big as the ocean. 

Your great grandmother, Dorothy Meath, died Friday, just a few hours after your mother reached her bedside in Oregon. "Gaga," as we called her, was 92 years old. She was gracious and kind and strong and decent. And we will miss her very, very much.

Although you will not get to know your Gaga the way we would have wished, there is still a lot you can learn from her. Of course, your mother will have far more stories to share with you than I will, but let me whet your whistle, as Gaga would say...  

Stand by your man, but with your own two feet on the ground: 
Gaga lost her husband decades ago and she never stopped loving or admiring him — but she also did not let his life define her life. Having lived through the Great Depression, she knew the value of work and she understood the importance of independence. She often told your mother that it was crucial for women to be able to stand for themselves, so that they could walk away from a bad husband with a moment's notice, if need be. There's probably more romantic things to be said about marriage, but none more practical. 

There is nothing worse than war:
Gaga was born in 1916, two years into World War I. That was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but she lived to see many more. Her son, Don, fought in Vietnam. She despised the way that war tore apart families. The only time I ever saw her become angry with me was when she learned that I was contemplating returning to Iraq over your mother's objections. She called me "a nincompoop" and refused to speak to me for the rest of the night.   

If you can't say something nice, say something even nicer:
Gaga didn't care much for your given name, and she made no secret of her dislike for your nickname. But that didn't chance at all how she felt about you. You weighed no more than five pounds the first time she held you. She called you "my littlest, littlest angel." And that's what you are.

Love is a system of unspoken agreements: 
Gaga used to help your mother get ready for school in the morning. On days when your mother would ask, Gaga would make her an ice cream sundae for breakfast. Your mother never abused this arrangement, and so Gaga never had to turn her down when she asked.  

You'll never be alone in the kitchen: 
Gaga loved fresh produce. And she loved to cook for her family. There is a photograph of Gaga and your mother, from our wedding day, on the windowsill in our kitchen. Even before she passed away, we called her "the saint of the kitchen" and imagined that she was there whenever we brought home a bag of veggies from the market, or started a soup on the stovetop, or sliced into a warm loaf of bread. Now we don't have to imagine anymore. Gaga is there. And she always will be.


Friday, January 2, 2009


Dear Spike:

It's four-thirty in the God-forsaken a.m.

You've been in and out of sleep for the past two hours. That wouldn't have been altogether unusual a week ago, but the past seven days have been a lovely string of relatively restful nights for our little family, as you've been slumbering in your brand-spanking-new bed.

It was a bit of a gamble, I suppose. Discontent with spending your nights like a little convict, you'd been spending nearly as much time sleeping in our bed as you had in your crib. We figured if we got you one of your own, it might make for a more slumbersome situation for all of us.

On Christmas morning, while you had breakfast with your mother, I went to the basement to retrieve the bed I built for you — a simple 2-by-4 frame painted mossy green to match your room. I tore down your crib and set the bed up in the corner of your room. Then your mother made it up with a quilt she stitched for you.

Someday, I'm sure, you'll be a bit underwhelmed by the way we do Christmas — exchanging simple handmade gifts instead of barraging one another with a salvo of store-bought items — but on this Christmas morning, you couldn't have been more excited.

"Bed!" you squealed, nearly tripping over the cuffs of your pajamas as you leapt onto the covers. "Big girl bed!"

You've slept soundly ever since. Up until tonight, that is.

For whatever reason, you woke a 2 a.m. and just couldn't get back to sleep. Your mother, who is off of work this week, took one for the team and went to be by your side. I listened in over the baby monitor as she tried to rock you, sing to you and tell you stories. Nothing worked.

Finally, at about 4 a.m., she gave up. She brought you into our room and set you down you between us.

But you wanted nothing of it.

"Bed!" you cried. "Big girl bed! Pleeeeeease. Big girl bed!"

Whatever the problem is tonight, it's not that you don't like your bed.

And so she brought you back to your room, tucked you in and snuggled up beside you. Now — for the moment at least — you're both asleep, singing a sort of snoring duet that's being broadcast live to anyone fortunate enough to be tuned into the frequency of your baby monitor.

Sweet dreams.