The Groans of Settling

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Staring at a mountain of mess is not something you want to do when you come home. It’s even worse when it hasn’t been home for half a year. Those million annoyances I mentioned the other day make settling back into life much much more difficult than it ought to be.

In my head I had left the house much cleaner. I worked really hard the couple weeks before we left to get it ready. But when we walked in it was just scary. The way this house looked when we walked in is just another indicator that stress makes hard work far less efficient. Apparently I had just spun my wheels in February and March. Sure, I fixed the broken truck (this is beginning to sound like a broken record), but I let other things slide.

The best part of returning here is that after six months so much of this stuff has lost it’s usefulness to me. I haven’t seen it or touched it or used it in half a year. Why do I really need it? How much of our junk do we just keep because “one day” we might find use for it again? I have realized that is a very pauperish thing to do. Poor people keep things and re-use things almost compulsively. This is not wrong, when the situation calls for it. But when you have the resources to replace broken things or pass along unused things without having to “worry” about replacing them later, you should. I have not used so much of this stuff, why hang on to it when I can give it to someone who can, and if I need it later simply replace it?

Emotions are fickle also. I said I liked it out there and wasn’t so sure of here. But now that I am here I am not so sure. There are advantages to having the grocery store two miles away. There are also disadvantages to having fast food and shopping so close. There are temptations galore!

The biggest question right now is this: Is this vacation or is this life? when you spend equal time in different places it almost feels like you take on two different lives. We have different friends, different activities, different styles. It almost feels like we are entirely different people out there.

Settling in to a “new” place takes time. I’m still not sure this is home or not. But for now it will have to do.

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Fatherhood Is Not Babysitting

This was in a Facebook group I’m in. Most people got the joke. One guy commented:

“What exactly is this meme saying?

Why is the woman abandoning her God given role as mother “for the next few days”?

Why is the father being regarded by both women almost as a boyfriend?”

My response was “you gotta be trolling.”

But looking at his timeline I really don’t think he was. His posts show that his worldview assumes men and women were created exclusively for distinct “roles”, women to pump out babies and stay with them constantly until they are capable of pumping out their own, and men to go out of the house most of the time to till the fields and provide the means to buy food (which definitely falls into the woman’s role). These roles are rigid and unbending.

I’m not completely opposed to the idea of roles. In any organization, such as a family, division of labor is helpful to ensure that all jobs are taken care of.

But implicit in this guy’s worldview is the idea that men are incapable of raising children. The fact that a woman would “abandon her God given role” and leave her children in the incompetent hands of their father is appalling. We all know men don’t have the capacity to nurture. We know their attention spans are way too limited to ensure the kids get all that they need to survive.

Implicit in this worldview is the concept that fathers are nothing more than babysitters when they take responsibility for the care of their children. If this guy had his way, the mother would never be out of the child’s presence. The father would will never be left out of his league watching the kids for a few days, let alone a few hours.

Maybe I am being uncharitable. Maybe this guy is a great father. Maybe he lets his wife “abandon her role” and go out occasionally. I don’t know.

All I know is I take exception to the idea that men are useless for raising children. I reject the notion that fathers are babysitters and the jokes about them needing “rescue” and being incompetent.

This guy may not have understood the meme, but I think most of us got the point loud and clear.

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The Mysterious Death of Francis Degen: Part 3

If you haven’t read the previous posts, you might want to go back now and read them. Otherwise, you might be a bit lost here.

When our story ended last time, Francis Degen was dead. His blind wife Helene was given charge over his estate. And his body was exhumed but nothing found.

“Fifty dollars and other valuable considerations. ..”

But what of the faithful servant Hugh McNeil?

Well, shortly after Helene was made administrix of the Degen estate, McNeil had her power of attorney signed over to him. Within twelve days of Francis’ death, Helene sold him the Belmore property for “the sum of fifty-dollars and other considerations.” Between March, 1890 and February 28th, 1891, Helene and Hugh dutifully took care of settling Francis’ estate.

By the time of his burial, the stock Francis held was worth $1,000.00. His land shares and mining shares were worthless. His deposits in Marble Bank amounted to $1,900.00 and he had a note owed him by W. L. Raht for $700.00. Without considering his furniture the estate amounted to $3,600.00. For the time, this was a comfortable sum of money (though not the $22,000.00 quoted by one newspaper of the day). Helene was declared sole heir of the entire amount.

Helene died March 6, 1891 at 91 Guernsey Street in Brooklyn, exactly one week after settling her husband’s estate. Her body was supposed to have been taken back to Florida for burial, but no records exist to indicate such a burial happened.

“Final discharge from said administration…”

According to newspaper reports written after her death, Helene and Hugh had come to New York hoping to get treatment for her lost eyesight. They apparently made several trips between Florida and New York in the months after Francis died. During one November trip Helene had a will drawn up.

This will of course left everything to McNeil. However, Helene never actually signed the will. The will was marked with an “X”. Her nephews, Eric and Frederick Rothgart contested the will in September of 1891. In early 1892, after several delays, witnesses came all the way from Florida to appear in the case.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 o’clock Edition, May 25, 1891

The first witness called to the stand was Bernard J. Douras, the attorney for the will. He testified that he drawn up the will for Helene at 195 Guernsey Street. Witnessing the will were George Wilson and Morris Barnett.

Mr. Douras was a friend of Hugh McNeil and met Helene through him. According to his testimony Helene wanted “Mac” to have all her property when she died. The will was signed on November 29, 1890. There is dispute about whether the witnesses actually saw her make her mark or if they were in a separate room at the time.

Mr. Douras further testified that Helene “had told him twenty-five times at least that “Mac” was entitled to her estate.” She also told him that Francis had reletives who accused her of having poisoned Francis. She had no relatives of her own, according to Mr. Douras, and she wanted everything to go to McNeil.

The case was decided in McNeil’s favor and the nephews filed an appeal in Clay County. The attorneys weren’t too interested in fighting hard for Bavarians who were on the other side of the world and the case didn’t make it much further. McNeil was the sole heir of the Degen estate.

Not only do we not know what happened to Helene’s body, we don’t know much about Hugh McNeil after this whole ordeal. The last record I have been able to find is an 1892 census record indicating the he lived in New York with a wife named Anne. No previous records indicate that he was married.

Was Anne a trophy wife for the 54 year old heir to a small fortune? Was Hugh a secret lover to Helene during the year they spent together in Rutland before traveling out to meet Francis in Utah? Did they plot Francis’ death together? Did he betray her and poison her into blindness? Did they poison Francis as is relatives suspected? Did McNeil trick the blind widow into signing her fortune to him, or did she still love him and the mark on the will was truly hers?

There are many unanswered questions. Perhaps some of Joseph Degen’s descendents can answer them. Anyone know a Degen? Maybe they know where Helene is. Maybe they know what happened to McNeil. Maybe they would want to restore the grave of Francis Marion Degen to its former glory.

We can only wonder…

Adventures in Fathering

Four out of five, because it’s impossible to get them all together…

When you take over as a full time parent, people always seem to have expectations for your success or failure. Dads are particularly singled out with these expectations, but not in the way one might think. From what I have experienced, the male of the species is expected to do a lot less.

I get compliments all the time about my kids. I suppose I could just chalk it up to how good they really are, and beautiful, and smart. But most of the compliments seem to be aimed at me. But I am only half of the reason they are how they are, if that. Would people compliment my wife like that? Would they compliment her if she had to wrestle all five of them through a church service? They tell me I’m doing so well bringing them week after week, would they do the same to her?

The double standard seems to assume men aren’t as capable of parenting as women. Fathers are inept creatures, barely able to juggle one child, let alone five.

Frankly the assertion makes me laugh. Yeah, my kids are a handful. They are constantly moving, vibrating really, and sometimes they make noise at inopportune times. They treat me like a jungle gym. They stand firm in “no” and make me drag them by the leg into certain places. But it isn’t hard. It’s exhausting sometimes to be sure, but not “hard”.

I love them. I love the challenges they bring. I love watching them make connections and grow and learn. I love that they force me to be strong and active. I love that they ask complex questions and make me think. If I was not actively involved in their lives I dare say I would atrophy.

I pity the men out there who don’t have kids, or at least act like they don’t. I pity the men who don’t know their kids well enough to know what discipline works for what kid (hint: they are individuals, every one is different). I pity the men who never engage with their kids, physically or mentally, for they will grow olds quickly without the exercise.

Most of all I feel a bit grumpy towards the men who fit the stereotype of inept and aloof. They are the reason for so many misplaced compliments towards men like me. They are the reason I will get five compliments to every one my wife gets. They are the reason my kids never get told how awesome they are, everyone is too busy being surprised by me.

Next time you see a lone father (or mother) with well behaved (mostly) kids, compliment all of them.

They’ll appreciate it.

The Beautiful Life

“Expedition Happiness” Watch on Netflix. Or don’t.

Sometimes when I read blogs or watch documentaries all I can think is “How do these hipsters make it look so easy?”

I don’t know what kind of world these people live in, they are always young, always attractive, frequently childless, and always seem to have an endless stream of money. They seem more like fictional characters than real people. You have to wonder what they do for a living, are they ever stressed? Do they get bored? Do they fight? Where is the ugly in their life?

Sure, sometimes the bus breaks down, the visa gets denied, or the cake in the oven falls. But these people always seem to handle it with a smile. Or at the very least they look gorgeous while crying.

Well, that ain’t my life.

I get sick. Nothing productive happens for days at a stretch. My kids make giant messes, animals get into my trash, my trailer sometimes smells like something died in it.

People thrive on positive. We love comedy and run from tragedy. We live vicariously through these adventurers and beautiful hipsters. We don’t like our conventional lives, so we read about theirs and forget our problems for a bit.

But who’s to say your conventional life is ugly? Who’s to say you aren’t living a beautiful life, even if it isn’t quite the adventure these people seem to have? Life is a gift, even with its warts and wrinkles. Life is beautiful even with the sickness and the smells.

You don’t have to read blogs or watch fru-fru documentaries (both of which I do. Too much.) to enjoy a beautiful life. All you have to do is start enjoying yours.

Seasons

This is my third season.

In fire, we describe a firefighter’s experience level in terms of “seasons”. A typical season is six months long and can be quite arduous. Sometimes the season is busy and physically demanding, sometimes it is slow and mentally exhausting. Sometimes it is a bit of both.

This is my third season as a stay at home dad. So far I find that parenting is a lot like that as well.

My first season began in Truth Or Consequences, NM. My wife handed me the keys to our truck and trailer and said “don’t destroy our house.” She went off to fire boot camp and left me to find a camping spot for five kids, two cats, a dog, and me. I never felt so free and optimistic. I was newly unemployed, and she had no job prospects, but I felt like we were finally headed in a good direction.

That first season we stayed with family in Virginia. She worked 60 hour weeks and I battled family disagreements, juggled school and play, and tried to keep seven people fed well. It had its problems, but for the most part it was easy. I felt like I accomplished something. I felt that I had it under at least some control.

Then came the second season. After a fire season in New Mexico, we returned to our home in Florida. I now had to worry about more than just a couple rooms and a trailer. I had an entire house to care for. I stumbled. I failed. I succeeded in some, I completely missed the mark in others.

It wasn’t completely the role reversal we were going for, and I almost wonder if that is part of where the struggles came from. I still worked. I still tried to take on more than I could. I let some things slide and over focused on others.

I didn’t even realize my failures.

Now I am in my third season, the beginning clearly marked by a new living space and a stable schedule. I have only 200 square feet to care for, not nearly the same distraction as 1800. I have been given an opportunity to make a good season.

This is going to require focus and determination, two things which don’t come to me easily. I intend to learn in a small space what I couldn’t in the impersonal space of extended family’s houses or the “large” overwhelming space of an entire house. This tiny space doesn’t require too much work, unlike the tiny people in it. They are going to be a main focus this time in a way they weren’t in previous seasons.

If I can’t handle this, I definitely can’t handle a “normal” living quarters.

Fatherhood Perils

This is an old post I wrote years ago, I’m not sure I ever posted it anywhere, so here it is now, many years late but better than never!

Pulling a five year old off of my leg was a great start to my day. The tears, the whimpers, the “but I miss you”s. All are too much to handle. While I don’t agree to coddle every whim of my children, this is one anxiety that I will comfort. So what if I’m a little late? Work will wait, the growth of my children will not.

There are times when her professed love for me is nothing more than an attempt to stay awake a little longer, or to flatter me into giving her this, that, or the other. Children can be incredibly flattering when they want something. There is a genuine inborn unconditional love that children have for parents, and I don’t think it healthy to crush this love by constantly pushing them away. But there is also a natural inborn selfishness in every person that should be crushed with every opportunity. Distinguishing between these two is an art form every parent needs to practice.

Some days I feel incredibly guilty over my absence in the house. I wonder how good parenting (or at least good fathering) can be done in four hours a day. Somehow I doubt this was God’s intention for family life. One cannot adequately bring up a child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord in so few hours. But alas, God has put me where I am, and I am to do what I can with the little bit of time I have.

Absent fatherhood is an epidemic in this country. The most obvious type of father-absenteeism is single motherhood; the child simply does not know his father because the father is not there. Other well documented cases are the work-a-holic father or the father who spends his non-working hours at the bar, clubs, or golf course.

A less obvious occurrence is the working father who comes home to roost in his recliner and watch football, play on his computer, or involve himself in myriad hobbies. This father is not absent in the traditional sense, but being male he is focused on other things. Women may be “present” with their children while reading something on a screen, but in my experience men are not this adept with multiple stimuli.

Physical and mental absenteeism plague me with guilt. My long term goal is to work from home so that I can minimize physical absence from both spouse and children. However, this kind of work can easily lead to mental absence. If I over-focus my work around the house, shooing the kids away and losing my temper over the slightest disturbance, it may be better for them if I were working in an office somewhere.

I used to think that “being there” for my children meant playing with them. If I was not playing with them, or at least focusing on them and nothing else, I was “not there.” I quickly realized that this simply isn’t true. There is a time for play, but the bulk of life should be spent in diligent labor. To play with them all day would leave my house and garden in shambles. It would also give them the false impression that fun and playing are all there is to life, and work is something that should be boxed into as few hours as possible (think 40 hour work weeks).

They need to see me joyfully working. They need to see me careful to plan and prepare my labor, work steadily, with temper, and not worry when the work is not accomplished in the time I’m given. God gives us enough time in the day to accomplish exactly what He wants us to accomplish. If they see me wasting time in laziness or in hasty sloppy work it will not benefit them.

It is not absenteeism to be an example to one’s children. In fact, I would say it’s the opposite of absenteeism. The entire point of spending time with and around your children is to be an example to them. They will grow up being imitators of you, whether they are drinking beer and watching the game every night, or overworking themselves in the garden, cursing the cold, the darkness, and the lack of rain, or whether they are being good stewards of their time. You are the example they will follow.

Lately our eldest (the above mentioned five-year-old) has taken to “helping” at every instance. This is the perfect opportunity to be an example to her, even if it is just an example of patience at her mistakes. I am thankful for this opportunity to teach her in the short time I have.

She has also toned down on the early morning tear session. Now she is content to pray with me and tell me to “be careful. Take care of your friends, don’t get burned up” and other such words of wisdom.