Archives For A Family Man

This may seem like a story about football, but it’s really a story about love.

In 2001, Miska and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where a little town and a little circle of friends welcomed us and, over the years, became part of the intimate fabric of our lives. I’ve been passionate for college football since I was a boy, but I was unprepared for Clemson. When we arrived, the Tigers’ football program was mediocre, flashes of brilliance overwhelmed by moments of disaster. However, the Clemson faithful captured me. They were generous to the fans of opposing teams, unflinchingly supportive of their school and all sports, had the most massive tailgate parties, were rabid in their enthusiasm (I mean, orange overalls…) and there was something sturdy mixed in with all this that went far deeper than only winning or losing. As Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s coach, says, “It’s all about love.” That says it right. These Clemson people loved their school, their history, the Blue Ridge mountains that surrounded them. And they loved one another. It’s cliche, I know, but the place really is like a big family – and it gets in your bones. So many of our dearest friends were Clemson students or alums, and they exuded a vibrancy, a joy, that was radiant. Like a bee to honey, I couldn’t resist.

I went to a small private college and never had this kind of loyalty or esprit de corps around a university. Once I realized what had happened to me and how, without intending to, I had thrown in my lot with Clemson, I’ve always wished I had attended the school or been a fan since childhood. However, both our boys have this. They were born in Clemson, and when they were only wee tikes I’d carry them atop my shoulders into Death Valley. Seth was all-in orange and purple from the beginning, and after we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, every year for Seth’s birthday, we road trip to a Clemson home game (sometimes Wyatt joins for a second game or the Spring game). Seth’s a man of tradition, and every year, he wants the same routine: pick him up at noon from school with Bodo’s packed for lunch, stop at Zaxby’s in SC for dinner, pre-game lunch at Moe’s on game day, a stop in at Judge Keller’s or the Tiger Sports Shop to look at gear, scream like mad for 3.5 hours inside Memorial Stadium, dinner at Bojangles on the ride home. Obviously, good nutrition is not a priority. Those weekends are about a day on the gridiron, but they’re so much more. It’s a father and a son, sharing a passion, putting miles on the road together. It’s me enacting, year after year, how much I adore this son of mine. I hope he’ll remember, come every fall and even when he’s old, how much he was loved.

So when Clemson stamped their ticket for a trip to the 2016 College Football National Championship, there was pandemonium in our house. I looked at tickets early, but they were astronomical. However, on Saturday night before the game, I saw how ticket prices had plummetted and how redeye flights to Vegas were dirt cheap. So, I woke the boys Sunday morning and told them to pack their bags because we were heading to Phoenix. Their eyes went wide, they jumped out of bed, and the next three days were a joyful, chaotic flurry.  I never imagined being able to actually sit in the stands at a National Championship game, especially cheering on your team. And to surprise my boys with this trip and then sit between them, one of them hanging their arm around my shoulder the entire fourth quarter – that was pure magic. 

After arriving home from Phoenix and hoping that Clemson-lightning would strike twice, I reserved a hotel on the outskirts of Tampa, the sight for the game more than a year away. I snagged a good price, and I knew that come January 2017, rooms would be scarce and prices outrageous. I did this in hopes for one more opportunity to take the boys to see Clemson play for all the marbles, maybe even a chance at redemption since they came up short in the desert. The boys knew we’d try our best to go again; however, this year, ticket prices never came down and as of Saturday night this time, they were hovering around $1200 a piece. I told the boys the chances of finding tickets we could afford were next to nil and that it probably made sense to admit we’d done our best but to call it quits. Seth, ever the faithful one, said, “But dad, we’ve got to at least try. And anyway, I just want the trip and the experience with you.” After clearing the lump in my throat, I loaded up the car.

We left Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and drove through North Carolina where, for more than 2 hours on I-95, we creeped and skidded across sheets of ice. The temperature gauge said 1˚. Every time I thought of turning the car around, I’d look over at Wyatt and Seth, eager, hopeful. We kept pointing South. On Monday, we pulled into the HCC parking lot at Raymond James Stadium and over the next 3.5 hours worked the parking lots and sidewalks in search of tickets. The entire time, we saw only 2 genuine tickets (along with a number of scalpers hawking counterfeits), and they were $2,000 each. The boys were troopers, but I’ll be honest, I was struggling. I wanted so badly to at least get those boys in, at least get Seth in.

About an hour before kickoff, when things were looking grim, we made our way over to the one merchandise tent we could find because Seth had decided that if he couldn’t get inside, he at least wanted to get one of the Clemson National Championship scarves. Of course, the scarves were all sold out. Are you freaking kidding me? Maybe this is the place where I’m supposed to say that the trip was epic and we made memories and getting tickets wasn’t really the point. But getting tickets was at least part of the point. The trip was indeed epic, and I’m so glad we gave it a go. But it still smarts, that we were right there, so close, and I couldn’t get them inside.

Finally, as the bands and the announcer warmed up the crowd for the tip off and after it became obvious there were no tickets to be had, we dashed to our car, dialed up the radio and gunned it toward the hotel. We rushed into the Flying J Truck Stop, loading up on pizza, wings, Dr. Pepper, “fruit” snacks and blueberry muffins. We raced to our room and for the next 4 hours raised holy ruckus on the third floor of the Country Inn & Suites. When Deshaun Watson threw that final TD to Hunter Renfrow, we screamed and pounded and ran in circles. Wyatt jumped up and down on the bed like it was a trampoline. My eyes may have been wet.

That night, Wyatt came over to me and laid his hunk of a frame over me, placed his arms around my neck and buried his head into my chest. “Dad, it’s okay that we didn’t get into the game. I just wanted to watch it with you.” So yeah, it’s all about love. It truly is.

 

 

christmas wrapping

I planned for the Christmas of 1988 for at least 7 months. It was my senior year in high school, and I knew everything in my world would be changing. Soon, I’d leave home for college and I’d move into new orbits and of course, I’d be scraping pennies for the foreseeable future. So beginning in May, I revved up the lawnmower and went to work, cutting yards all summer and squirreling away almost every dollar. In December, I reached deep into the top drawer where, for months, I’d stashed my loot and pulled out fistfuls of greenbacks. I spread the treasure onto the floor, mouth agape. There I was, like Scrooge McDuck, rollicking in all the wealth. I counted $1250.

For the next two weeks, I went on a buying spree, intending to surprise my family (including my grandparents and Great Grandma Sparks) with the most lavish gifts on Christmas morning. I don’t remember a thing I bought, save one. At Service Merchandise, I found a combo tape player/radio deck that mounted under the kitchen cabinet, above the counter. My mom, a musical soul if ever there was one, could listen to Perry Como or the London Philharmonic while whipping up her chicken, broccoli and rice casserole or her parmesan chicken bites.

While I don’t remember most of the gifts, I remember the feeling. I remember wrapping those boxes and slipping them under the tree, so eager for everyone to catch first sight of them and wonder what in blue Christmas blazes was going on. I remember my joy at watching them unwrap their presents, the joy at doing something that felt, to a 17 year old, outrageous.

Some of us poo-poo gift-giving this time of year, and I acknowledge we’ve run amuck with our lust for more. I can only say I’m so glad I spent a summer sweating and saving, that I blew every dime I had, saying “I love you” in one grand, extravagant gesture that, for me, felt like tossing a match onto a pile of cash. And I think my mom was grateful too; she kept that tape player in the kitchen long after cassette tapes were overwhelming landfills the world over. It stayed right there until the day mom and dad said goodbye to that old house. I like to think that some days, after I was off in Colorado or South Carolina with a family of my own, that she would stop and look at that worthless pile of metal and plastic and smile and maybe put her hand to her breast and remember.

Dear John,

I’ve been thinking about you and Mer a lot this weekend. Will to one side of the world, Sarah to another. I remember the day my dad dropped me off for my first semester at college. There was only one small item left in our van parked in front of the dormitory. It was one of those portable ironing boards, couldn’t have weighed more than 4 pounds, but my dad insisted he needed to carry it back up to the 3rd floor for me. I didn’t understand why until after climbing those few flights of stairs and dropping the board in my room, when my dad had no more excuses and finally had to say goodbye. Tears. I remember the tears. I had tears too after he drove off. Man, the love was deep.

I know you well enough to know there’ll be some red eyes over this stretch of days. That’s one of the things I love about you.

When you put all this together with Abbey starting high school, it’s overload. I know, we’re right behind you. Wyatt starts high school tomorrow, Seth’s full throttle in Jr. High. You know what’s the kicker? They both decided to play football this year. You know how I love the sport, and it was the best part of high school for me, but I never wanted to pressure them in any way to play. Not only is it a jerk thing to try to maneuver your boys’ passions, but also, as you know, we have lots more information on the perils of head injuries now. We’ve done a good bit of due diligence. I even sat in on a conversation with two experts: a pediatric neurologist and the guy who teaches the course called “Concussion” at UVA. Anyway, Wyatt and Seth wanted to play, and so they are. Thankfully, squads are teaching lots of new techniques. Did you know some teams are teaching rugby style tackling? My ol’ Texas coaches would sure be scratching their heads.

I will tell you, though, I love these days. As our sons’ bodies and minds and hearts are growing, I love seeing my boys step into new territory. I love seeing their wonder and their nervousness and their eagerness. I love how they are being challenged and are rising to the moment. I love how these rites of passage are stoking a new (old, really) fire in their young, strong bones. 

Given that high school and football are now both part of our family life, Miska and I decided it was time to introduce them to Coach Taylor and those Friday Night Lights. Boy, it was good. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. The boys were hooked, but then I knew they would be. I wish every kid could have a Coach Taylor.

Well, I know you’re somewhere in the air heading to Pepperdine right now. It’s brave of you to battle the airlines again after that hellacious weekend you endured. I hope the next two days are good. You’re a good dad, and I’m thankful for that. We need good dads.

 

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,

Winn

moonlight row vision

One of the profound gifts discovered amid true friendship is the ability to see and be seen, to see the truth of who we are – past the frivolous fascinations, beyond our sabotaging nitwittedness, through the seasons of lethargy, estrangement or basic foolishness. Once, when I felt trapped in an undercurrent of self-disgust, Miska looked at me, clear-eyed and without even a hint of shame or distance. “Winn, you’re a better man than that.”

I believed her. For one, Miska’s proven entirely incapable of blowing BS, even if merely to make someone feel better. Miska’s a kind, generous soul, but she adheres to the school of straightforward love — Miska believes truth heals more than any lie ever could. Even more, though, I’ve learned to trust that Miska does actually see the truth, that she sees me (at least most of me). I believe Miska would say that I see her too, that love and fidelity through the long labor of love has trained me to see the truer places in her (at least most of them).

I also have a handful of friends, companions who, in various ways, see one another truly. This is one of the signs of a sturdy, weathered friendship: the capacity, as well as the commitment, to catch sight of the deep goodness in another – and to cling to that goodness even when it costs us to hold tight. I agree with the hopeful axiom Helmut Thielicke insists upon: “If there is one rule that is given to us by the command to love our neighbor, it is that we must always judge a person by his optimum and not by his failures.” We see with generosity. We see beyond the bluster or the isolation. We see the truth.

 

image: Massimo Valiani

At breakfast for several weeks now, I’ve been reading The Great Divorce to the family, Lewis’ wild and imaginative vision of the future. After everyone settles at the table with their smoothies, bagels with cream cheese and bowls of cereal, I begin to read. I had forgotten that George MacDonald, the Scottish fantasy writer whom Lewis loved, appears as a character. So, as any good father would do, when MacDonald’s long, excursive conversation appeared, I casually slipped into Scottish brogue. I swelled with the potency of my dynamic reading, really bringing the narrative home for these dear ones gathered round me. There was no doubt I could pull it off — I mean, I’ve been there…for a week. And I’ve spent hours and hours watching Sean Connery and David Tennant.

I was only a few syllables in before everyone erupted with laughter. What was that? asked my beloved son Seth, incredulous. Isn’t MacDonald Scottish? asked my wife, the joy of my life. You sound Indian, with a twinge of Mexican.

Yes, that’s right, Seth added, as if he’d just discovered something. Yes, you sound like an Indian pirate.

Wyatt was too busy holding his gut to actually utter any words. I muddled my way for another page, soldiering on, consistently interrupted by hackles.

Today, we returned to the reading. Mercilessly, MacDonald had much more to say. Undeterred, I charged back in, returning to my Scottish cadence that apparently sounds nothing at all like the Scots. Maybe somewhere in South America? Or Southeast Asia?

Still, I took another swing, butchering the text so violently that I’m sure ol’ Jack Lewis himself winced. However, I persisted for two reasons. One is that I’m still convinced I can get the Scot thing down. Mainly, though, I want to give my family every reason to laugh. It was so good to see their smiles, to hear the belly-deep guffaws.

Dear John,

I can picture you there at Pepperdine, as you imagined Sarah walking that campus, only without you next time — and knowing that it’s right for her, feeling the joy and heart-tug of such a moment. This weekend we found old pictures of the boys, pictures we haven’t seen for a long time. The boys were wee tikes, on their first soccer team. Soccer – hah! It was a full-on miracle if we could just keep them running in the right general direction. Seth was 3 and wore a headband, looked like a very short Björn Borg. Wyatt ran around mostly in circles, trying to position himself in the general vicinity of the ball but without ever actually having to kick it – but he made all these maneuvers very fiercely. Miska and I stood there staring at those pictures, doing what parents do whenever we find again proof of where we’ve been, of the love that flows so deep. It will be only a few snaps of the fingers and we’ll be packing our boys off to some university somewhere. My wallet’s already whimpering at the thought of it. I think I’ve told you I’m not feeling like a great dad these days, just feeling off, not generous and present as I want to be. I’m not beating myself up too much about it, but I do want to remember what I most want with my sons, who I want to be with them.

Have you seen Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “Banjo Lesson”? I’ll include the picture below. Tanner was such a fine artist, and with this piece it’s believed Tanner painted a grandfather teaching his grandson the art, but it says a lot about what I hope to be with my boys: close, tender, attentive, passing along something of my life, something of my work, something of myself.

Anyway, we found those pictures of the boys this weekend because we were going through our storage closet, tossing things we should have tossed years ago but only get around to when you’re ready to pack up and move. Why is it that we give the house extra shine and complete those projects that have nagged us forever just as we’re about to say farewell? Isn’t that ass-backwards? Still, we’ve lived well here. I think we’ve played hard and loved hard and (as we like to say in Texas) we shot our full wad. When we haul out our last box and lock our purple front door, I imagine these old walls exhaling, maybe flopping on the floor exhausted, panting for breath but with a big grin and then saying, with a long sigh: “Those Colliers knew how to live.”

Yes, it seems time to pull our letter-writing back a tad from the blog-o-sphere. I’m glad we’ve done this, and will do it again here and there when the urge strikes. Friendship is one of my truest joys in this life. Thank you for being a big part of that joy.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

Henry Oshawa Tanner's "The Banjo Lesson"

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson”

two-trees

My oldest son (13) is now a solid two inches taller than me, the same two inches I spent most of high school begging God to grant me. Three or four times a week, he asks Miska to come and be the official eyes while we stand side-by-side so he can mark his progress. I was traveling four days last week, and nearly the first thing he said after I walked through the door was “Dad, I think I’ve grown taller.” He insisted we stand nose to nose so he could check. Whenever he looks down at me now, he’s beaming wide.

Wyatt’s also begun to walk into the kitchen and wrap his arms in a bear hug around Miska, catching her off guard as he lifts her into the air and swings her around like a doll. The other day he wanted to do leg squats while somehow strapping his younger brother Seth on to serve as his weights. I shut that one down, but he kept insisting how much sense it made and how easy it would be to use his brother as a dumbell.

Some days, the constant comparison grates on me (could we possibly compare how much he towers over me once a week??), but I know he’s testing his mettle. He’s seeing how he stacks up. My son is growing in awareness of his strength and his body, his manhood. And it’s so very good.

My son wants to know that he has strength in him, that he can do hard things and wonderful things. He wants to know for sure that there’s something marvelous about him – and he wants us to recognize this goodness too. He wants to stand beside us and imagine his place there and move toward it. Don’t we all want something like this?

bike community

Years ago, when our boys were little, we had a small community of friends that gathered in our home for several years. One evening, our oldest (three at the time) asked, in eager expectation, whether our friends were coming over. “Yes,” I answered. “Why do you like having them here?”

My son paused only a moment. “Because they love us. And they help us fight the dragons.”

In the years previous and the years since, I’m not sure I’ve heard a better definition of friendship than this one from my three-year-old. Friends (true friends) love the person we are, not the person they imagine we are or the person we pretend to be. Friends clasp arms with us as together we swing at the darkness.

I’ve often wondered what the future will reveal about how we’ve raised our sons, how we’ve done with our hopes to help them become good men who live good lives. I wonder if our meandering efforts will prove enough to help them take their good place in this topsy-turvy world. I will tell you this, though: the friends who have been in our life (thus, the friends who have been in their lives) will play a larger role in all this than most of us imagine.

When I think about how I hope to love my sons along the path toward becoming their true selves, my mind turns to the people they are blessed to encounter. There’s Tom, the master carpenter, who takes us into his shop with the massively cool racks of hand tools and takes us for walks in the woods surrounding his land, all of which exudes presence, attentiveness and respect for craft and place. There’s Corey and Juli, who’ve loved them since the day each of them came squealing into this world. There’s Debbie who asks tender, meaningful questions, provoking care and curiosity. There’s John, the poet, who sits at the kitchen table for games of Farkle and carries delight in how our boys are full-on boys, delighting too in how they are becoming men (but not yet, not yet). There’s Raul who gives them hugs and kisses on the cheek, as he does each of us each time he arrives, then pulls out his guitar for a jam session or pulls from his days as a coffee roaster and teaches my sons the art of the single pour. These friends are merely a sample – and on top of grandparents, uncle and aunts, so much love. We have so many good people in our lives, so many gifts. So many teachers.

John Lennon said he got by with a little help from his friends. We all do.

Until I was seven years old, Miska and I both lived in Middle Tennessee, with only 75 miles separating us. Our worlds never intersected, but we watched fireflies under the same summer sky. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we had met then. On Saturdays, my dad would often take his motorcycle out on the serpentine country roads. On a few occasions, dad loaded me on the seat behind him, and we’d roll through the hills. We always stuck to the backroads, and I wonder if it’s possible we might have rumbled past Tolleson Road. Is it possible I caught a glimpse of Miska running barefoot through the grass or lying under the big elm with her best friends, her dogs? Could I have happened by just as Miska rode the tractor with her pappy or right when she made one of her courageous jumps out their barn’s hayloft?

I don’t know, but I’ll thank God every day that fifteen years later, I found my way back to her. Strange that we’d meet in Florida of all places.

I was thinking of all this, our shared geography and the way of fate, this morning. As kids, we both remember loving the first scent of our Tennessee honeysuckle, and in our backyard now, the Virginia honeysuckle has made its first appearance. It’s a marvelous scent of life and lush bounty. And it’s a reminder of where we’ve been and the grace that has carried us to this place. Life is a wonder.

 

I probably have until July before Wyatt, our oldest, stands taller than me. That looming event feels like the crossing of some kind of fatherly Rubicon. His shoes are already 2.5 sizes larger than mine, and last week when I needed to borrow a pair of running socks, he answered, “Sure, dad – but they’re too big for you.” Wyatt said this without jest or boast, simply matter of fact. As of last Sunday, I can still take him one-on-one in basketball, but only by sheer intimidation. Dads have a special knack for rattling their kid’s psyche, it’s a gift. For some ridiculous reason, Wyatt believes I can still beat him in a 40 yard dash. In a few weeks, Wyatt turns thirteen, so my days are numbered. In so many ways, my days are numbered.

When he was a tike, Wyatt endured acute sensory issues. At night, he didn’t want any blanket on his body, and many kinds of clothes were problems for him. He was a porcupine whenever we tried to hold him close. Affection was hard won, but we persisted. I want to be the dad who can always kiss his sons, even when my sons have sons or daughters of their own. So I regularly tousle the boys’ hair and kiss their forehead. I hug them and squeeze their shoulders and tell them, each morning before they leave for school and each night before they go to be bed, that I love them. Our youngest, Seth, soaks up the affection, and for years I’ve hoped we’d eventually win Wyatt over.

Last week, Wyatt, Seth and I walked into Whole Foods to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I walked between the two, my left arm draped over Wyatt’s shoulder and my right arm draped over Seth’s. In turn, both boys spread an arm over me. We walked in step, like the Rockettes. I realized how I was no longer surprised with Wyatt being the first to come in close, the one to lean heaviest into me. As we entered the store, I believe I sensed Wyatt slow to pull away, as if he wanted our walk to linger a few moments longer. I know I did. I want so many of these moments to linger longer.