The Sweet Stuff

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, an elderly woman across the street named Hattie Hewson made homemade cookies for all the neighborhood kids. Upon our knock Hattie would emerge in a flowery housedress bearing a warm pan of buttery, chewy oatmeal cookies.  It was as if she were doing it just for us, which she may have been — she lived alone and didn’t appear to have a family. Our consistent glee may have been what got her through her days.

In addition to the Hattie infusions, sweet stuff was standard fare in my childhood. I remember spending hours separating my Halloween candy into piles and trading particular pieces with my sister as the arsenal dwindled. After school, there was always a kid whose household was more lenient than mine, and we’d spend hours raiding his pantry until our stomachs would feel like they literally were about to burst. When I was thirteen, I spent a summer at a northern California camp run by hippies where the food was so healthy my friends and I would spend hours talking about all the candy we’d eat when we got back home. We ended up discovering a way to break into the camp’s kitchen, but the hardest stuff we could find was a cache of carob chips. We cursed for a second and then scarfed them down.

By my twenties, my relationship with sugar had become more complicated. When I was teaching high school in South Africa, I began suffering from debilitating mid-morning “hazes”: I’d be in class, and suddenly my brain would feel as if it were encompassed by fog, my students’ questions like vague flares.  Fortunately I saw a good nutritionist who suggested that I should avoid processed foods, especially sugar, because my high metabolism would churn through them so quickly I’d be left bereft. She said that my hazes were caused by low-blood sugar and warned that I was flirting with hypoglycemia. I eliminated refined sugar from my diet and within a month the hazes were gone. I’ve kept my distance from sugar ever since.

Now that I am a father, sugar has returned. Rio likes candy, what do you know, and I sometimes think the sugar industry has conspired with the commercial-holiday lobby to create a constant stream of junk: Halloween is just the beginning; then there are holiday parades where people throw candy to bystanders from floats; then Christmas with its damn candy canes and stockings; then Valentine’s Day with its candied hearts; Easter isn’t far behind with its ridiculous chocolate eggs. I suppose summer provides some relief.  Sometimes I feel like I’m holding a shield over Rio to protect him from all the sugar falling from the sky. Not that he asks for my intervention; a recent short story he dictated to me for a school competition concluded with superheroes saving the planet and then showering the earth with streams of candy in celebration.

Perhaps I wouldn’t care so much if candy didn’t tweak Rio’s behavior. But when he eats artificially colored, processed confections, it’s like he becomes a strange robot with ears that don’t hear and a body that moves in jagged, jerky motions. I don’t notice it when he eats what I consider sweet food: edibles that actually have some nutritional value in them. But give him some Skittles and clear the room.

It’s sad to me how corrupted sugar has become; as Michael Pollan has pointed out, sweetness is actually rare in nature, so humans have always associated its taste with comfort and abundance. I know Hattie’s cookies did that for me. But now confection appears in almost every bowl; I’m afraid we beat the sacred right out of sugar when we learned to “refine” it.

So here I am a sugar cynic, scoffing at the Sour Patch Kids but also trying to remember the wondrous road that used to open up when an adult offered me a sweet treat.  At my grandfather’s funeral in 2008, I met for the first time the son of my great Aunt Lorraine, who had passed away a few years prior and who had played an important role in my childhood. I told my cousin Bob about the icy bottles of Coke and plates full of Nilla wafers that Aunt Lorraine would offer my sister and me every time we visited. She so consistently gifted us with goodies that even now I warm at the thought of her. Bob nodded his head and choked back tears as he heard the story, no doubt recalling similar moments with his mother.

When Rio and I returned from my grandfather’s funeral, we learned that our neighbor Cubie across the street had died while we were gone. In the coming months, Cubie’s husband Ollie began mowing the lawn obsessively, seemingly to give himself something to do in her absence. Rio started walking over to visit with Ollie, and he’d inevitably return with tales of cookies and a few uneaten ones in his hand. I thought about discouraging the practice, but who was I to deny Ollie and Rio the pleasure of this sweet memory?

The Bold and the Beautiful

Portrait of Alberto Morales by Anna Blackshaw

Seven years ago when Annie was pregnant with Rio, she and I spent three weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. One of the most memorable adventures was visiting the ruins of Monte Alban, once the site of an ancient city that was a hub for the indigenous Zapotec people.

Atop the mountain we met a man named Alberto Morales who was selling handmade clay replicas of indigenous holy figures. Annie, in her indomitable style, became fast friends with this gentleman, and within minutes we had an invitation to visit him the next day in his tiny town at the foot of the mountain.

Alberto lived in Arrazola, a place well-known for its original art: small, intricately carved and painted wooden animals called alibrejes. We had seen these figures throughout Oaxaca and recognized them as well from the living rooms of people we knew back home. We took a taxi to Arrazola and exited on a dusty road at the town center with no one in sight. “Just ask people for me,” Alberto had said, and so we began walking around looking for someone to ask. We were soon approached by curious children, who beckoned us to follow them to their homes to see the art they had for sale. Once there we were greeted by their mother, who gave us a quick tour of the family’s alibreje operation: father and sons fetched wood and carved; mother and daughters painted; the young children solicited customers. Leaving that house, we were immediately approached by another team of children, and we continued our impromptu art tour until we finally met a woman who pointed us to Alberto’s adobe.

There we got a tour of the Morales’ home production line (a little bit of traditional iconography; a little bit of modern art). He then told us his version of the history of the alibrejes: for years the entire town had created handmade replicas of what the indigenous folks had used in their religious rituals back in the day. They all looked about the same (dark clay hand-pressed into figurines), and the men would hike up to Monte Alban and sell their wares to tourists. One morning a local man named Manuel Ramirez was home sick and had a dream of a different kind of art. He began creating elaborate and intricate wooden figures of the area’s animals: iguanas, armadillos, frogs, coyotes, snakes. He painted these bright, vibrant colors and hauled them up the mountain. At the top, he showed his goods to his fellow salesmen from the village and they had a good laugh over his ugly art.

Surprisingly, however, Ramirez began selling his new creations at an unprecedented pace, and before the day was half over he’d sold his backpack’s contents and was heading back down the mountain for lunch. Next day, same fortune.

Seeing the profits Ramirez was making, his neighbors asked him to teach them how to make alibrejes. He did so, encouraging each family to bring their own style and flavor to their creations. Before long, every man was hauling a pack of alibrejes up the mountain, and the town turned from backwater hamlet to a self-sustaining art village.

Flash forward three years. While I am at a final job interview in Chapel Hill, Annie, in her indomitable style, becomes fast friends with Sarah, the bartender at our hotel, and within minutes we have an invitation to visit her the next day in her tiny town on the banks of the Haw River. There we notice huge, colorful wooden animals gracing every front lawn. I think to myself, Those look like huge alibrejes. Sarah explains that the artist’s name is Clyde Jones and that he lives right there in Bynum. Would we like to meet him? We do, and Clyde explains how many years ago he was home sick when he had a vision of chain-sawing a cedar trunk into sections and creating colorful animals. Since then he has made thousands of critters and donated them to charities throughout North Carolina. Clyde says his work is all over the world, “from Russia to Zimbabwe.” People from around the globe regularly come visit Clyde’s zany art palace, and it is not unusual to see smiling child sitting atop saddled blue horses and pink giraffes in his front yard.

I like to believe I receive the messages the universe sends me, but sometimes I need to hear it twice. As I sit here these years later in our living room in Bynum, staring at Clyde’s red-reindeer critter under our oak tree, I think about the boldly colored iguana we bought in Arrazola that sits just a few rooms away on Rio’s bookshelf. Believe in the vision you have inside you, these animals seem to be saying. Bring forth your own mad art and share it as a gift to those around you. Otherwise, the world is a little less bright.

At the Funeral in the Woods

This Saturday Rio went to his fifth funeral in four years. It was a very sad but beautiful day: our good friends’ third child had been born still, and they had gathered us to honor their baby girl and bury her remains. The service’s most heartbreaking moment came when their three-year-old daughter broke into sobs as the death of her sister became indisputably final.

There is no part of me that wishes to shield Rio from death. Even before his first funeral, he’d encountered the death of countless living beings, from the flowers outside our window to the dead deer we once found in the shallows of the river. He naturally inquired about what happened, and Annie and I answered as best we could: that death was sad but also a part of life, and that its arrival does not necessarily mean the end of life but rather the evolution of it into something else. When Annie’s father Bill passed away, we comforted Rio with the notion that Bill lives on in the sky, in the flowers, inside of us. Rio thinks the same about his great-grandfather Joe, his beloved aunt Mary, and Cubie, our neighbor from across the street.

For Rio to understand the cycle of life, he needs to see death, not by peeking out from behind our backs as we tried to protect him from tragedy but by taking it in with a good, clear view. When we paid respects to Annie’s sister Mary, Rio and all the children sat on blankets in the very front row. Two of the funerals he has attended featured open caskets, and I felt no hesitation as I paid my respects to my grandfather and Annie’s dad with Rio at my side. He’s young, but he loved those men and deserved a final look just like the rest of us.

We have taught Rio to embrace the unknown; that he can’t know who will win a card game, or what a walk around the neighborhood will bring, or if a character in a book will save the kingdom or falter along the way. So why should we treat the Great Mystery any differently? If we sit around fearing death, aren’t we teaching Rio to fear the unknown, which of course is life too? After all, nothing is certain.

About two years ago, Rio and I were walking in Bynum and he said, “Papa, I don’t want to die.”

“I know, my love, but everybody dies,” I said.

“Even you?” he asked.

“Even me.”

“Well I won’t die!” he declared.

“Rio, you know lots of people who have died: Baba, Grandpa Joe, Cubie…”

“But they’re not gone!” he insisted. “They’re still here. Cubie’s still here!”

“Where?” I asked.

“Up there in the trees,” he said, pointing to a giant oak. “She’s up there! HELLO CUBIE!”

Today I asked Rio what he was thinking on Saturday when he watched our friend stand at the podium and give, through tears, a beautiful eulogy to her daughter. “I felt sad, but I kind of felt happy too,” he told me. “You’re always sad when you’ve lost something, but you’re also happy you had it.” To think how less nuanced his view of loving and losing would be had we shielded him from the dark side of life.

Finding the Spot

The most memorable part of my family’s day trips to State Beach in Los Angeles was one man who was always there when we arrived. He was probably about 65 and tan and trim in that way that some older men are: no rippling muscles but sharp shoulder blades and thin arms that suggested a life of action. He wore only a Speedo, and he always occupied the same exact square of beach, right next to a faded blue lifeguard stand.

As thousands of people over the course of the day walked past him, he performed the same act over and over: he heaved a large white frisbee at an angle over the ocean and toward the sky and then waited as it reached its apex and hurtled back along the incoming breeze into his outstretched hand. He was so skilled at his task that he barely ever left his small box of sand.

As a child, I noticed how oblivious everyone seemed of  this man, passers-by strolling along, talking, maybe ducking their heads for a moment to avoid the incoming frisbee. He acted as if no one was there — just him, the wind, and that spinning chunk of plastic.

That man has stuck with me all these years; I sometimes think of him when I lose my feet in the world’s stampede. My friend Carmen once showed me an exercise: she asked me to put my hands together out in front of me. She immediately pushed them down with great force. She then told me to raise them again, and that this time I could resist but not actively push back. And so I separated my feet to shoulder’s width, bent my knees, inhaled and exhaled a deep breath, and lifted my arms up. She pushed but could not budge my arms.

“Life is like me trying to push down your arms,” she said. “The trick is to always been ready to hold your ground.” This is hard because one never knows when life’s wild winds will come. Sometimes I can predict it; the transition from work to home can be difficult, going from a desk I can control and a door I can close to a house where Rio wants to play the second I arrive, any plans I had for myself gone like a string on a helium balloon. Sometimes I have literally shaped my right hand into a “c” (for chaos) and knocked it against my forehead a couple of times before entering the house to remind myself to brace for life’s half nelson.

The truth is, I try to be attentive to those around me, particularly Annie and Rio. The trick is balancing this with my own inner life, which can be just as demanding. If I ditch it for them, I risk losing touch with the channel that sometimes opens inside me. If I ditch them for it, I might not be there when they need me, and vice versa, something I witnessed happen with too many fathers. Just tonight I tried to squeeze in a few moments with the page right as my domestic needs came calling. I chose the words, which felt right at the time, but it can carry a price.

I’m not sure the Frisbee guy had to grapple with this. After all, there weren’t a bunch of toddlers clamoring on a blanket beneath his feet. He could focus exclusively on that piece of plastic. Who knows, maybe every other day of the week he took care of his three grandchildren. But for me, for now, I’m constantly trying to juggle my inner and outer responsibilities, and it seems the weather of what’s right changes every hour.

Funny enough, in college I started playing Ultimate Frisbee and became well acquainted with the nuances of a flying disc. I even started practicing my throws into the ocean wind when my friends and I went to the beach. There really is an art to it: measuring the strength and direction of the wind; angling the frisbee just right; throwing that piece of plastic with just enough force that it returns to the spot you’re standing on. But the man on the beach’s true art was not simply mastering this skill but having the presence to stay committed to it while the world whirled around him. Today I set the alarm early, and Rio and Annie are, as of this moment, still sleeping.


Photo by Anna Blackshaw

When I was little I spent the summers at my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. Every other week we’d drive from their home near Hartford to the tiny fishing cottage my grandfather built in the 1940s on the edge of Bashan Lake.

One of the best parts about “going down the lake” was that my second cousins lived three cottages down. We’d spend all day building forts, hiding in the woods, and swimming, moving between their cottage and ours like they were swappable goods.

Up the dirt road from their cottage was a place we called “the Professor’s House.” It was nicer than the others, with a perfectly trimmed yard bordered by a straight line of cinder blocks to separate it from the dusty path. We often played near there, and it would have been easier to cut across this lawn than to walk around it. But we never, ever took this shortcut. My cousin Billy had told us about the day he took one step over the cinder-block wall; the elderly professor had come running out of his house shaking his fist and screaming for Billy to get off his lawn. I had recently read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the idea of a Boo Radley-type figure, rarely seen, chasing me down, was enough to keep me off that property every summer I was there.

After my son Rio was born five years ago, we started returning to the lake. Despite the passing of thirty years, the Professor’s house was still pin-neat, and the yard looked the same. I began telling Rio the story about my cousin and the Professor.

(I tell Rio two original stories every night after I tuck him in. It keeps my improvisation skills sharp, and it has become such a valued resource to Rio that taking away stories as a punishment is the one loss sure to make him cry.

It’s exhausting “being on” for a final performance after hours with the kid, but if I try to fake it, Rio always knows. In fact, just tonight I tried to skimp on one of my stories by telling him about the Bermuda Triangle; after I finished, he sat up in bed and declared, “That wasn’t a story! You just described the place! There wasn’t any ‘once up a time’ or anything that happened!” Soon thereafter, there was a laser beam coming from the depths of Atlantis that sliced an overhead spaceship in half.)

But back to the Professor. To keep things fresh, I started adjusting the story: sometimes my cousin would trip over the wall and barely escape the Professor’s grasp. Other times, the main actors were Rio and his cousin Milo, and they would run full speed to our cabin with the Professor hot on their trail. In the final rendition, the Professor finally finds Rio and Milo under a picnic table and ends up only wanting to offer them a cookie, after all.

Last summer, Rio and I saw someone down at the Professor’s house and walked down to chat. The man standing there was the Professor’s godson, and he offered me a beer as Rio ran down to play with the man’s teenage son on the dock. I told the man about our childhood lore, and he laughed, saying that the Professor was in fact very particular about his lawn. He called the Professor a “good man” but really didn’t say much more than that. I left a little disappointed that there was no dramatic end to the story; I’d hoped for some intrigue, some mystery, something about the Professor that was as monumental as the myth. But instead he was just a math professor from New York who liked to garden and come up to the lake on weekends. But in my story, he will always loom large; who knows, tonight he might come up with the math equation needed to transform flashlights into light sabers.


Portrait of Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Carl Sandburg called it the “creative hush,” that holy place where the heart sings and the pen records. He found it at night, after everyone had gone to bed; while his wife and daughters slept he wrote in his upstairs office: poetry, Abraham Lincoln biographies, folk songs. At five in the morning he’d shuffle in his slippers over to his bedroom, hugging on the way his wife Lillian who was just heading out to milk her prize-winning goats.

There’s not much silence where I live. Bynum is quiet, but the acoustics in our old mill house produce more cacophony than symphony. House guests do not sleep in late chez Blackshaw-McKee. (Rio may chortle at your earplugs.) Annie and Rio both have the gift of the gab, and one generally knows where they are in the house, no matter what their activities. Rio has taken to busting out improvised rock n’ roll choruses while he plays, and Annie does a mean Ella Fitzgerald while cooking pasta putanesca. When Rio slips into bed with us in the early morning, he and Annie usually joke and giggle in a half-asleep state, me turning over and sighing histrionically, relegated to the outermost edge of the bed. The last time Annie was out of town, Rio came to bed as usual in the morning, nestled into her spot, and then said to me, rather formally, “Excuse me. Can we cuddle?” We did of course, but only after he relayed to me the dream he’d just been having.

Yeah, I get my quiet where I can. I read Rumi on the toilet.

But old Sandburg wasn’t so flexible. He needed his hush. He was 67 when they moved from Michigan to North Carolina. Lillian was sick of the cold northern climate, which proved difficult for her goats. She researched the best spot for raising her particular breed, settling on western North Carolina in a town called Flat Rock. Carl was fine with the whole thing as long as he didn’t have to change his routine. And so before they moved in, Lillian had the upstairs renovated so that it matched the exact layout of their house in Michigan. By the time they drove down, she’d had the contents of their entire house shipped and put in their proper place, down to the last book.

Carl wrote at this sprawling house until he died of heart failure at 88, winning the Pulitzer prize for poetry in his seventies. He said he only needed four things in life, maybe five: to stay out of jail; to eat regular; to have what he wrote printed; to have a little love inside the house and outside of it; and, he said, sometimes, to sing.