Learning to Live with Myself

In July of 2019, our family caravanned with friends from Michigan out to Glacier National Park to camp and hike and see the sites. It was a wonderful trip, and for the first time, Brendan’s fiancée (now wife) Becky joined us as well.

One of the characteristics of our family that Becky had to adjust to is the constant crackle of wordplay, sarcasm, and verbal violence dealt out among our members. I remember distinctly the first shot I fired across her bow at the dinner table during one of our first few visits with her. She took it well, with a wry smile and a very deliberate “Wow.”—as in, “Okay, so it’s like that now.”

This is not about that, however. This is about the first real shot she fired back.

We were standing around the firepit at the campground at Glacier, and Brendan was complimenting something he had eaten with Becky’s family: venison meat sticks, I think. I was standing just behind Becky, and as Brendan gushed, I stooped to rest my chin on Becky’s shoulder and gave her my best sideways puppy-dog eyes to indicate how much her future father-in-law would appreciate such delicacies.

She took evasive action, as one might in such a circumstance, and with the same wry smile, said, “You know, you’re basically Bruno in human form.”

I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it again.

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The Second Third, Week 30: Male Bonding

I’ve written a number of Second Third posts about the reasons I need to scale back my work hours and volunteer commitments, but this week drove it home, and gave me a new reason to seek better balance. The past few weeks have been intense at work — a number of major and important projects to bring to a close, a handful of goodbyes to colleagues leaving for new jobs in this time of transition, plus those of us accompanying my boss on his next adventure were supposed to be packing our offices for the move.

Add to that the start of soccer for two of our children, and of daily weightlifting for a third. Then layer on Albertville Friendly City Days this weekend — our KC council sponsors the softball tourney, the beer tent and the pedal-power tractor pull, and appears in the parade. (I have direct involvement with two of these events and at least some vested interest in the success of all of them.) Plus we are trying to organize the annual parish-wide weekend at Camp Lebanon and need to meet with our co-chairs. It’s no wonder I’ve come down with shingles (seriously).

I need to scale back for my family, for the new baby, for my bride, and for my future as a writer. And now I need to do it for my health. But last night, I realized I have yet another reason. I swung by a friend’s place to discuss the fact that I probably didn’t have time to hit the shooting range with him this weekend (and to ask if his family wanted to hand out candy in the parade). He was enjoying the Twins game in his garage, sipping a Summit India Pale Ale. He offered me one, but I was too tired already and had to be up early. We talked about shooting (no), retrieving a deer stand at his brother-in-law’s this weekend (maybe), and other things we ought to get on top of this summer. I told him something I’ve said many times over the past year: “We’re overcommitted. We’ve said ‘yes’ too much.”

“I know,” he said. “You do a lot. It’s good…and it’s bad.”

“It’s bad,” I said.

“You’re needed,” he said.

I don’t know for sure what he meant: needed by the people and organizations we work with and for, or needed by our friends we don’t see. But I know how I took it.

I’ve never had a lot of close male friends, because I’m not a sports nut or a partier; I don’t tell dirty jokes or golf; I don’t build much or have a motorcycle or anything. I love being married, dig my kids, and enjoy reading, writing, music, and faith.

Only now, living in “The Bubble,” I have men around be to whom I can relate, who are walking the same road with the same end in mind. And they like to hunt and fish and enjoy a good beer (and maybe even brew one). They love their wives and balance doting and discipline with their kids. I like these guys. And they deserve more than me swinging by their garage to say I can’t go shooting this weekend.

A while back, another friend was asked by a third if he had seen me around lately. “Nah, I haven’t seen him,” he said. “He’s probably at the church. They volunteer for everything.” That’s gotta change.

The Second Third, Week 7: Hunting Old Knowledge

Blogger’s Note: The whole idea behind these “Second Third” posts can be found here.

This fall, I took Brendan deer hunting for the first time. We’ve never hunted for small game together, and he’s never bow-hunted, so he’s skipped two stages of development I passed through on my way to firearms deer season. And it turns out we live in Minnesota’s shotgun zone — probably not such a big deal, given the range and accuracy of modern slug guns, but still, it feels somewhat foreign.

But worse still is the fact that Brendan has questions, and in the roughly 20 years since I last did any serious hunting — especially deer hunting — I feel as thought I’ve forgotten much of what I knew.

As a kid, I was an animal nut and hunted with my Dad all the time. I knew habitats, habits, and tracks, and what I didn’t know, Dad could teach me. I spent long hours alone in the woods in all sorts of weather. (I used to even enjoy late-season bow hunting — sitting still in a tree in a snowstorm waiting to ambush a deer with sharp sticks is its own kind of crazy, don’t you think?)

Today I know the basics; I’m safety-conscious and careful. And that’s a good start. But in my Second Third, I’ve got so much to relearn before I’m qualified to teach. Dad says it will come back to me. I hope so — without too many bonehead mistakes.

Autumn Recalls Octobers Past

Blogger’s Note: This originally ran as a column in Tuesday, October 7, 1997, edition of The Pioneer daily newspaper, Big Rapids, Michigan. This week, the boys have their bows out, and I’m protesting the snow today by blogging about the autumns I miss.

October! and the trees are turning red, gold and topaz. Already cool breezes tug loose the gaudy vestments and scatter them in piles ’round the ankles of tall aspen and unsuspecting maples. The sumac, embarrassed, has blushed deep red — overnight, it seems.

Only the oak maintains its dignity — its greenery turns drab brown and rustles almost the entire winter through. Only after many long nights and cold days, when the first breath of spring tickles the topmost oak leaves, does the stoic tree shake loose its crumpled hood and prepare for new leaves and sunshine.

Used to be this time of year, just about the time my feet had learned the flagstone path to my morning classes and my digestive tract had readjusted to browning lettuce and red meat substitutes, I’d catch October on the wind. A good nose — a nose hunting autumn — could pick it out, somewhere above the stench of diesel exhaust fumes and ginkgo berries. (Ginkgo trees, so I’m told, filter pollutants out of the air and drop them to the ground in these concentrated flesh-colored packets, which, when stepped on, make you wonder who brought the dog and forgot the scoop. Popular with cities; not so much with pedestrians.)

Acorns! The smell must’ve blown in from East Rock, because squirrels in the city ate pizza crust and stale bagels. And the crisp smell of dry leaves tripping over the wind and each other, and I’d be halfway home and in the woods, hunting deer with bow and arrow …

In a city like New Haven, at a school like Yale, where every meal featured a vegetarian entree and people could say things like “turkey bacon” and not stumble over the contradiction, hunting was foreign to many students. The idea of climbing a tree to ambush a deer with a bow, a half-dozen arrows and a skinning knife was both terrible and fascinating … it also earned you a wider path down down a crowded sidewalk.

Even students who enjoyed red meat often found the idea of killing a wild animal appalling.

“How can you kill an animal and then eat it?” the would ask.

“How can you eat an animal and not kill it?” I’d respond, but they do not want to know what comes before the pink foam tray and cellophane.

At Yale it was always death that took the spotlight. It makes sense, I suppose, in a land where guns are used to shoot people and (sometimes) paper targets.

Looking back at past dining hall discussions to Octobers spent hunting, it seems the focus was never death, but the wide variety of life.

I remember piling into Dad’s rusty blue pickup in the wee-hours before dawn, feeling my way up the tree to my stand, and strapping myself in and dozing as the cold seeped through my coveralls. I remember starting when an owl a few short yards away and invisible in the darkness questioned my presence in the tree. I remember the stars fading, the breakfast arguments of ducks in the swamp around me. Somewhere a splash — a beaver slaps its warning on the surface of the water. Then footsteps.

Crunch.

Eyes strain into the grey light. Stumps stop short and stare back; ferns move like deer at the farthest edge of sight.

Crunch.

It’s right behind me, but I don’t dare look.

Crunch. Crunch.

It’s a red squirrel, moving one hop at a time through the dry leaves beneath the tree.

I relax, exhale, and I’m spotted; he chatters the news to the entire section.

I remember sitting in the treetops with chickadees flitting about my hat, thinking back on my beagle, Ranger, and Dad’s old red ‘coon hound, Jack. I remember porcupines and hawks and my kindergarten teacher walking her dog past my tree. I remember watching two bucks square off beneath my tree, and shooting at and cleanly missing both of them. I remember other deer, as well, and I remember, in six years of active bow hunting, never taking one.

In fact, in all my years of hunting, I have taken only one deer, and have fingers enough to count the number of partridge, rabbit and squirrel I’ve harvested. What I’ve brought to the table, instead, are stories and memories of animals quicker and more clever than me. If the the thrill was in the killing, I’d have quit a long time ago. Instead, I’ve at last come home to October’s breezes and the chance to return to the woods. And I can hardly wait.

Summer Vacation, Day 67: Into the Wild

Got up super-early (like, 4 a.m.) to travel with my brother-in-law to his patch of hunting ground near the Ohio border. 60 acres, mostly woods, with a little stream – kind of a wild drainage ditch – hills, a bit of corn. They’re building a small house out there – cabinish, but more than that. Deer, rabbits, raccoons, turkeys. Lovely.

I want a place to hunt, to shoot, to camp, to write. To escape. We’re years away from that – but we had a place in the Upper Peninsula when I was a kid, and friends, I hope to again!