Living Lent as a Family

Blogger’s Note: This post originally written for and published in the February 2018 edition of the St. Michael Catholic Church stewardship newsletter.

Most of us don’t actively seek out sacrifice or suffering, and Lent is a season that encourages both: We give up meat on Fridays; we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; we are called to pray and give alms. Jodi and I spent this past Epiphany with some dear friends and discussed how our families approach Lent. Below are several of the best ideas shared that afternoon—may they spark new Lenten traditions in your own family!

Preparing for Lent

In the weeks leading up to Lent, spend time with your spouse and each of your children discussing how each of you are doing emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually. This can help you assess where you need to prune and where you need to grow. Ask: What brings me joy? What makes me anxious or upset? What’s going well, and what do I wish was going better?

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Forty-Third Birthday, Extended and Remixed

I am still a such a kid when it comes to birthdays. I still love the food and fun, the off-key singing, the warmth and glow and light and presents. Yes, I know that material wealth does not avail, but I love receiving (and giving) gifts. I can’t help it.

At the same time, birthdays are also a bit melancholy. As each year passes, I find myself reflecting on those things I have not yet done, and the speed with which time seems to pass these days. That mix of joy and anticipation with reflection and blues often leaves me quiet, recollected, and prayerful—which, in the end, is not a bad place to be.

Nevertheless, when my 43rd birthday rolled around on Friday, I struggled a bit. Jodi and I worked during the day, which is not unusual, but Gabe needed to work late afternoon through early evening. In addition, a couple of conversations with my bride (one somewhat veiled, one not so much) led me to believe that she was struggling to come up with a gift of any sort, much less the one she hoped to purchase. It was shaping up to be a subdued celebration.

So when Emma was offered a babysitting gig for Friday evening, I sighed and surrendered. We would celebrate Saturday, gift or no gift.

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Geek Feast: How to Eat Like a Hobbit

Last weekend our offspring (minus Brendan, who’s at UMary, of course) and the Engel clan gathered at our house for a Lord of the Rings movie marathon. Of course, such a quest—nine-hours-plus of movie-watching—requires a substantial outlay of provisions. I came home from work that Friday afternoon to a house that rang with laughter and hobbit songs, and smelled of savory meats and sweet baked goods.

The eldest Miss Engel had cracked open her hobbit cookbook (and not a few eggs, I suspect), and the teens were busy filling meat pies, cooling fresh lembas and cupcakes, and preparing mushrooms for stuffing. Bacon-wrapped sausages and po-tay-toes (“boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew…”) rounded out the feast.

Rosebud had frosted the cupcakes: nine with blue circles to represent the Rings of Men, seven red ones for the Dwarf-lords, three in green for the elves, and five yellow-frosted cakes with delicate runes in black (“It’s some form of Elvish, but I can’t read it.”) translated as “One ring to rule them all.”

Mike and Stacy came over to eat after Jodi got home from work. The teens watched movies all night. We ate for days.

Hobbits eat well, as do Lord of the Rings geeks, it appears!

When One Door Closes…

Tonight I have a date with my bride. Tonight we celebrate that I finally landed a freelance project that pays the bills for the next few months and enables me to stop my early-morning labors at FedEx. We are able to make ends meet. We are able to pray together in the mornings again. I am able to see my children at the beginning of the day and stay up past eight o’clock.

God’s timing is impeccable. For the past couple months, I’ve been losing weight and getting in progressively better shape. I’m holding steady at around 218 pounds right now—a weight I haven’t seen in close to two decades, I would guess. I am stronger, more flexible, and in better condition as well.

At least, I was until a week ago.  Continue reading

Road Trip Review, Part 5: What We Learned and Why We Laughed

Emma, Trevor, and I spent a lot of time together last week — time enough to have learned a thing or two in common and to have developed a few “in-jokes.” We learned, for example, that when you’re playing Score! (a road-trip game in which you count yellow cars for points*), the game gets faster and more furious as you travel south, as sunshine-colored muscle cars, Love’s fuel tankers, and Penske rental trucks take over the highways. Do rental car companies in Florida stock higher numbers of brightly-hued, late-model Mustangs and Camaros? They were everywhere, and more than half were bright yellow!

We learned that, south of Tennessee, drivers have  little regard for posted speed limits, unless it’s to add at least 15. In Georgia, especially Atlanta, and on the return trip through Alabama, I generally drove five or 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, even in reduced speed zones, to keep from being killed. We laughed to think that, if I got pulled over, it would be because the police figured they could actually catch up to me.

We learned that Florida drivers are the craziest I’ve ever seen. At least in Georgia and Alabama, the need for speed did not come with rage, impatience, or homicidal or suicidal tendencies. In Florida, I was passed by a car at such a high rate of speed (while I was driving 10 over) that the air around us seemed to split and our own car shook. As I regained my bowels and watched that car shrink toward the horizon, a crotch-rocket motorcycle zipped by even more quickly — like someone removing my left ear in one motion, with a Dremel — and vanished into the distance! I also watched two or three drivers, stopped at red lights, who began inching (or rather, jerking) forward into the intersection mere seconds after coming to a stop; one arrived in the center of the intersection while cross traffic was still advancing and made them steer around him!

But the worst example was a driver who rode my bumper as we were entering a construction zone. I was decelerating, but still over the posted limit; he or she was behind me mere moments before deciding to pass…at freeway speeds…on the right…using a rapidly diminishing merge lane lined with orange barrels and Increased Fines signs!

Of course, I always try to oblige the locals, so I added to the chaos, emerging from behind a left-turning semi in a non-freeway construction zone to wind up headed the wrong way into oncoming traffic in a dusty, narrow lane lined both sides with orange pylons. We laughed in retrospect, once I quickly backed between pylons and pointed us back the way we came, and the kids learned that I am, in fact, prone to frightened expletives in times of stress.

We learned that deputies in the Keys will pull you over for a burned-out headlight (“Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No, sir, I do not.”), but the one we encountered was very friendly, even when out proof of insurance was set to expire at midnight that very night! He let us go with a verbal warning and the admonition to get the light fixed ASAP.

We learned that gators can, indeed, be spied along the highways in rural south Florida. We speculated that the panther and bear crossing signs were posted to drum up intrigue rather than to warn of any actual wildlife present, and again, that the bears were escaped polar bears (judging from the shape of the black silhouette on the signs) from an apparently flooded zoo. This odd thought led to further speculation that behind the high fences and tall grasses, Floridians were breeding armadillos and releasing them along the highways of Tennessee — or at least littering that unfortunate state with their carcasses.

The prevalence of roadside armadillo carcasses made roadkill-watching something of an activity, in addition to license-plate hunting (45 states, all but one from passenger vehicles, not trucks or trailers; five provinces; and the U.S. Government) and the Score! game. We laughed at a term I made up as we passed a particularly unidentifiable critter on the pavement: inside-out-opus. Indeed, inside-out-opus may have been the second most prevalent creature we saw along I-75, armadillos being the first, and easily identified by their disjointed but intact bands of so-called armor.

We learned (or rather, confirmed) that Trevor and Emma have the same dark, though nonsensical, edge to their humor as I sometimes have, as when we passed a dead deer that had been clearly blitzed by a large truck. “There’s a semi deer,” I observed to pass the time. Trevor replied, “That’s exactly what it was: a semi-deer…half a deer!”

Another example: After being pepper by no-see-um bites the first night in the Keys**, we discussed now and again the possibility of chewing off our own limbs to rid ourselves of the itch. Emma was in a particularly bad state the evening we were in Memphis — relieved only by the distraction of eating those exquisite Rendezvous ribs. She railed at Trevor his seeming inability to get the bones clean of pork to her exacting standards, which led to the best joke of the trip: as we left Memphis and my own numerous red spots began to itch with a fury, I asked Trevor to gnaw off my feet (since I was driving and unable to do it myself). Without hesitation, Emma said, “He won’t be able to finish.”

In addition to inside-out-opus, we learned two new words, courtesy of Trevor: froth-tips (he meant whitecaps) and crane-truck (he meant tow truck). We laughed to recall Randy telling us of his late Airedale Sandy, who rode with him everywhere and became something of a celebrity in Wetumpka, Alabama — how, if something caused Randy to say an angry word, Sandy would jump in the back of the vehicle until he said, “I’m sorry, Sandy, I didn’t mean it!” We learned that a manatee on a mission can swim more than 20 miles per hour, and that Hemingway’s then wife, Martha Gellhorn, stowed away on a Naval vessel to be the sole woman to land at Normandy on D-Day.

We learned many other things, and laughed a lot — though much of the humor was born of 60-plus hours together in a car. I won’t share more. You had to be there!

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* As my kids play Score!, when you spy a yellow vehicle moving under its own power, you get two points; a yellow vehicle parked (on land or a trailer) is worth one point. Yellow Hummers are 15; yellow construction vehicles, school buses, and vehicles with fewer than four wheels don’t count at all. It gets a little touchy at times: designating which shades of chartreuse are too green, or which of signal yellow are too orange, or which bucket trucks, dump trucks, or semis are sufficiently vehicular to not be considered construction equipment, or how to handle a Penske rental lot. After many hundreds of points combined, the final score and victory came down to the last two miles of the trip: Emma spied the last two yellow vehicles and beat Trevor by a mere three points. (She also “scored” multiple Hummers, while Trevor saw none — controversially, the first one came with an accompanying gasp from me, which was followed by Rose saying, “Is that a Hummer? Yeah, it’s a Hummer!” Trevor claimed she didn’t know for sure, so it should have counted. That 30-point swing would have made him the victor by a sizable margin.

** We learned that no-see-ums are a plague on humanity that make mosquitoes and ticks seem quaint and tolerable; the sheer volume of tiny red blistery, burny, itchy bites, couples with the intensity of the itch and the week-plus duration of inflammation (not to mention the sheer madness of a bug you can hardly see carving chunks from your living flesh) make it no competition. Emma got it worst; they loved her, and her bites swelled to pea size early on, like mosquito bites. I was bitten second worst, and Trevor least of all, but still plenty badly — his also seemed to take root and flare up later than ours. Wicked. I won’t make the same mistake and trust the breeze and tent screens to keep the bugs off!