This is not the actual raccoon we saw, but at 3am, it was more or less what I saw in my mind. Except bigger. Like 3 feet bigger.

raccoon psychology

When you go camping, the first night is pretty exciting. All the comforts and amenities of home are stripped away as you try to return to some simpler state of being. As parents, there is the added pressure of pretending to be some sort of wilderness expert despite the fact that we usually end up fumbling our way through this process with a smile on our face to ease the nerves of onlooking children.

And so it was our first night at Devil’s Lake. We had setup camp and the kids had a snack of some fruit snacks and granola bars to keep them occupied. Our plan called for us to run into town for some final groceries and to eat one more supper with the common folk before we transitioned to our diet of things that can be prepared over a poorly regulated cookstove and a fire.

As we settled down to go to bed that night, everything was going great. The kids were having fun, Jamie and I hadn’t made total fools of ourselves, and so far no one had gotten hurt. Not bad for a half day away from home.

The kids surprisingly went to bed easily. We were all tired and were quickly asleep in our tent, all piled side-by-side. It was good. For most of the night.

“Honey, wake up.”

It was about 3 am.

“Wake up, there’s a raccoon outside the tent.”

Through the haze, I processed what Jamie said. This is roughly the exchange I had in my head for those 3 seconds, that seemed like an eternity.

Animal. Outside. No problem. Back to sleep…..

Wait. “Outside” doesn’t mean 2×4 construction and sheet rock. It means single-ply nylon between me and nature. And what about the kids? And Jamie? How exactly do you fight a raccoon? Do you “get big” or “play dead”? Both?

As I stirred myself and shook the cobwebs, I grabbed a flashlight and aimed it at the end of the tent where I heard the snarling and rustling. I saw a white garbage bag and a flash of teeth moving quickly around. It was at the other end of the tent, right next to Eli’s head who was sound asleep, unaware of the monster feeding next to him.

Like any good husband and dad does, I pulled myself off the hard ground, unzipped the dew soaked tent, and slowly shuffled my way in the dark to the far end of the tent. It’s funny how your mind can run wild with each step as you approach a wild animal. As I type this, I can see how irrational any concern about a raccoon is. In that moment though, that raccoon was a 6 foot long alligator covered in fur, wearing a leather jacket, wielding a switchblade. It was tough. And I was tired, cold, and caring a child’s flashlight as my only weapon. Seemed like a fair fight.

As I turned the corner to see where the raccoon was, I expected some epic confrontation. What I got instead was a torn up white garbage bag, the remains of some Cheez-It snack bags, and a sudden realization of how ridiculous this must look.

I slinked my way back to my sleeping bag and tried to calm my nerves. Eventually I went back to sleep. A few hours later, another raccoon visited, this time to Jamie’s end of the tent and found nothing but a way to have me woken up again. It ran away before I even saw it, but I’m convinced it was the raccoon’s way of getting one last shot in before he left for the night. But I was wrong. He wasn’t done with me yet.

The next night I walked up to the shower house to take out my contacts and brush my teeth. I realized I didn’t have my glasses, so I walked half-blind back to our campsite. I looked to the sky hoping to see the stars and the moon, but all I saw was a white blob on a black canvas. I could see blurry orange lights dotting the campground where smores and stories were still being exchanged.

I looked forward and was just across the street from our campsite, remembering the raccoon fiasco from the night before. Just then, the loudest slamming sound imaginable crashed to my left at the dumpsters. I spastically jumped two feet to the right as if the dumpster had tried to eat me. Was it the raccoon!?!

No. It wasn’t. It was my mind and blurry vision. Instead of a vicious animal, it was just a responsible camper putting their white garbage bag in the dumpster for the night to avoid the same fate we had the night before.

And that’s how the campground trains us to be more responsible with our garbage. No signs or warnings are needed. They don’t even have to pay someone to clean up the sites. We live in fear of the many-toothed consequence that awaits the litter bug.

Nothing draws a family together like doing dishes…except maybe every other activity known to man.

when the camp family goes camping

introduction

We survived. I wish I was being clever and melodramatic, but the best way I can summarize a family camping trip for 3 nights with 4 young kids is simply that. We survived.

It was still a good trip. There were some bumps on the road that I’ll share in the next few posts, but it cannot outweigh the moments of wonder and happiness each of us experienced during the trip. As we were driving back, I asked Jamie “In hindsight, would you have rather spent two days at a waterpark, or still have this camping trip?” Without hesitation, she still would go camping. And that’s one of the reasons I love her. (Many of you would probably take the waterpark once you hear some of the more trying moments of this trip.)

For me, the best part of going camping as a family was just to sit with the kids and listen to them. Everyday I hear them, but I realize I don’t always really listen to what they are saying and try to figure out where the words are coming from. There were several moments during the trip when the kids would say something and I would just smile to myself at the curiosity and innocence that they see the world with.

And the same was true for my time with God during the trip. It seemed as though I had this ongoing conversation with God during the entire trip with a friend I had not be in touch with for some time. A flood of insight kept hitting me day after day. These moments of reminded me that it is important that I let God inform my view of life and not to allow life to inform my view of God. If I start with Him, the rest makes much more sense and allows me the strength and endurance to be who He needs me to be.

I look forward to sharing a lot of the insights from this trip over the next few days. Some will be about God, some will be about family and some will probably just show how broken I can be at times. Through it all, I’m eager to share it and finally do some writing.

part 1: the crow’s song

One of the best parts of going camping is setting up camp. It is the initial moment when you get to build your house for the time you are roughing it. The decisions of where to put the tent, the picnic table, the kids toy tent and extra stuff are all integral to success. That’s why I let Jamie do it.

In reality I know that Jamie knows the flow of our family better than I can pretend to. She manages the day-to-day operations of our household better than I ever could. I just pray I can keep her laughing and sane enough to do it each day.

And so as she directs where things go, I go about setting the tent. We invested in what is probably the largest tent I have ever seen, but when you have a family of 6, things don’t get any smaller. In a park full of RVs, we seemed to fit in until people realized our tent didn’t have wheels or an air conditioner.

So as I was working with Jamie to put the poles through their respective sleeves and pretending to remember how this thing went together, I kept hearing the unmistakeable call of a crow. The obnoxious “caw” over and over again. When contrasted with the other birds in the area, it sticks out so painfully.

And when there is one of these large blackbirds, there are more. Soon a whole group of them is constantly piercing the relative quiet of the park with their noise. There are few things more ominous than these large groups sitting in a tree by your tent either. I suppose that is why a group of crows is affectionately called a “murder” of crows.

It was during this growing annoyance with the crow that I felt God remind me of the plank in my own eye though. As if to remind me, “There are plenty of times I hear nothing but cawing from you like that crow, but I love you all the same. Your song isn’t always pretty, but I still care. Day after day, in happiness and sadness, the crow sounds the same because it only has one song. I gave you a voice and heart to do so much more. Try to remember that with those you meet as well.”

As I paused to let it sink in, I gave a knowing sigh as I realized this was going to be a good couple of days for me. I need these reminders. I need to keep perspective so I remember I am more like a crow most days than some wonderful song bird. Even at my best, I can do better, serve more, be more generous, and love more people. I hope that even on my days of sounding like the crow, I caw out a song that pleases my God even if it isn’t easy to compose with one obnoxious note.

The Passing Sickness

February.16.2012

We have finally recovered from a few days of stomach flu. It is never very fun for any family to deal with illness, but I think the challenges only become magnified when your family is larger. Add in the unique nature of leaving in relative isolation and it only gets worse.

My wife has become acutely paranoid to family sickness. As the Facebook posts declaring “another night of cleaning up puke” or “3 sick kids :(” start popping up, she becomes hypersensitive. Every cough from the kids is met with a quick glance to make sure no fluids followed it out. Every half-eaten meal is psychologically dissected for the true meaning of its shallow effort. Is it the start of something horrible?

I can hardly blame her though. As a mom who stays with the kids, her life is largely dictated by their health. If one kid is getting sick, do you really want to bring that ticking time bomb into a public setting?

So this round went with no exception. Stomach flu worked its way from parent to child to child to parent to child. Only one kid has remained intact, and it is almost worse that he never got it. Now we are stuck in this holding pattern waiting for him to erupt after a meal. I’m still a little gun shy every time I wrestle with the kids and he decides it’s a good idea to hover over me like a giant monster.

It’s not all bad though. Like any struggle, the light at the end is always the brightest. As sickness passes way to health, we all feel thankful for a new sense of energy and ability to control general digestion. All the things we weren’t able to do we twice as fun and even on the coldest day, playing outside seems like a pretty good idea.

February.1.2012

(As to be expected, this is the second time I am writing this post. I’m not sure what happened, but I apologize if this post isn’t as good the second time around. It’s hard to write the same thing twice and have the same connection to it.)

When I was growing up, the idea of logging and even cutting trees was pretty dramatic. All I can remember is watching grainy videos of large yellow bulldozers leveling sections of an amazon rainforest. The would show toucans and monkeys scurry away as their homes were destroyed and how this was going to ruin the environment. 

This Captain Planet depiction was all an urban raised kid from the 1990s knew about logging and forestry. Oh, and that chainsaws were awesome in horror movies. Still are really.

So when I heard that there would be some forestry work done around our house and the camp, I think my mind was filled with inaccurate craziness. Every night as I walked home, I would look at all the trees marked for removal and imagined how it was going to look like a wasteland. That giant yellow bulldozer was coming for us all.

I can still remember when I heard the heavy machinery and the chainsaws for the first time. A moment of panic ran through me as I figured I would arrive at a maze of pick up sticks at the entrance of camp. Might as well forget going to the mailbox without some kind of machete to work my way through the wreckage.

These thoughts were only compounded when I initially watched a piece of their equipment grab a tree with a claw, cut it at the base, remove all the branches, and section it into 7’ lengths in 30 seconds. 30 seconds per tree. Wow. This would be bad.

But after a few days, I realized that with that speed, came care and accuracy. They had a plan and they were sticking to it. Some trees were removed, but many were left. There was never a bulldozer or a howler monkey running for its life.

Today we went as a family to see the progress. The stacks of wood were impressive. We can now see much further into the woods which is a change as well. Our kids loved that they were able to stand beside the equipment and ask how it all worked. I’m thankful they are still of an age when giant machinery is still fascinating and not the stuff of nightmares.

The base of our driveway is the staging area for the logs, so it is a pretty busy place. It is littered with branches and sawdust and will likely be a mess for quite a while as will the places where the cutting took place. But I know in the long run this was a necessary step in being good stewards with the forest we have. When the camp was first started, these trees were not here. We are blessed to have such a rich environment to live in now. I just hope our guests can see past the immediate mess and see the bigger picture of sustainability.

I have always been intrigued by the rings of a cut tree as well. I love the idea that every tree has a story wrapped up in those circles. Each season it goes through is captured. If there was good rain, you get one kind of ring. If there was a lot of snow and stress on the tree, you get something very different.

I love to imagine how those rings would look in my own life as well. If I could see the moments of my past that were hard, how different do those rings look than the moments when I was blessed with great joy? How often do I even bother to reflect on what that history looks like?

For now though, I’m just thankful for all that is being done at the camp and the blessings we have. I hope my kids will see that sometimes a season of harvest is needed to see a better season of growth; both in the forest and in our lives.

Love Thy Neighbor

January.24.2012

When I was growing up, the concept of neighborhood came easy. My best friend lived next door and all the houses around us were families we knew and cared about. If someone needed something, neighbors were eager to help.

Now that I live in relative isolation, I realize I probably took that sense of community for granted. We have neighbors here, but to visit almost any of them, it would take more than a simple walk to get to their house.

That is, except one. There is a small private cabin that is essentially in the middle of camp. The cabin was here prior to the camp being established, so that alone makes for a unique dynamic. They even have to drive on our driveway to come and go from the cabin.

During my first several years, this cabin was only used in the non-winter months. I had a good relationship with them and I hope they feel the same.

However, In the last two years, it has been a little different. One of the relatives of the family has been staying in the cabin through the winter despite not having running water or a furnace. I’m sure that cannot be an easy existence, but it typically does not impact me or the camp other than a few times that I’ve needed to pull his car out of the snow.

Our neighborly stance became strained this summer though. On one instance where I was already kind of at my wits end, I saw a vehicle going way too fast on our road, probably in excess of 30 miles per hour. I yelled as loud as I could to slow down. I knew that our kids often walk on the road between our house and camp, so that kind of driving really was not safe.

I confronted him on this when he returned to camp with as much self control as it could muster, but all the anger that should come from a father worried for his children’s safety. Needless to say, this confrontation made things a little awkward going forward.

Fast forward to last Friday. I was working in the office when this neighbor came running in.

“I need your help.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I think I have a chimney fire.”

Now, it is probably important to clarify something. While I have spent the last 6 years here trying my best to fake it till I make it when it comes to being a rural community member. I do know that the word “fire” is bad though.

I went over to the house and I could see flaming ash flying out of the chimney. The wavy lines of heat stretched two feet out of the top of the masonry. This is not good.

When I entered the cabin, I was met with a blanket wall. He had divided the house to try and trap the heat, but in the process it also trapped the smoke. I pulled back the blanket and could not see more than a few inches in front of me.

My mind raced as I tried to put together the best way to put out the fire. Would it be dangerous to put water on it? Would it make the masonry crack or explode if it cooled too fast?

As is often the case with these odd situations, I called our camp maintenance manager for advice. He told me to put salt on it. I didn’t ask questions and found a bag of ice melt on the front step. It quickly choked out the fire and slowed the heat as the oxygen was stripped out of the chimney.

Once things slowed down, my neighbor thanked me and we parted ways.

It is hard to say that helping someone in an emergency is following the commandment to love thy neighbor, but it’s a start. I like to think that I would have the same heart and intention in a less dire circumstance, but only time will tell if that is true.

January.18.2012

When it is too cold to ice skate and sled, it is still warm enough for ballet.

Going for supplies

January.17.2012

If there is one thing that I took for granted living in a more urban area, it was going grocery shopping. I remember when I was growing up and I would ride my bike to the grocery store just for something to do. Now, going to the grocery store is a much more complex situation.

Today was one of my days off for the week. As such, we began planning our trip to the store the day before. Even that seems ridiculously to me. We are going to get food, not robbing a bank. If getting cereal ever becomes an Ocean’s 11-esque ordeal, it is probably time to reevaluate your life. But I digress…

So we decided that in order to maximize our trip, we would do the following: buy some groceries, buy a present for a birthday party the kids were going to later in the week, pick up a prescription and get the oil changed in the car. It was a full slate, but when all of these conveniences live 45 minutes from the motherland, it pays to consolidate your travel.

As we started to plan the itinerary (paging Mr. Clooney to the set), we realized that our best bet was to eat a large lunch, then make the voyage. That would buy us enough time to complete our tasks and end the trip with supper at a fancy fast food restaurant. It has become a bit of delicacy in our family.

I dropped Jamie and the kids off at Wal-Mart and drove the car over to the auto shop. I had not accounted for the bitter cold of today. I trudged through the snow and wind and I could feel my face getting red and wind burned. I stopped short of Wal-Mart and checked on the prices of a new cell phone plan for Jamie and myself. I could have done it another time, but then again when you are in the urban jungle of Portage, WI, it’s best to strike while the iron is hot.

I finally made it to Wal-Mart: The holy land of small town middle America. Considering our geography, it is not uncommon to be met by Amish families at this particular location. I used to think how odd it must be for them to be here surrounded by so much “stuff” but I am quickly realizing that my existence is really only a beard and a few horses away from theirs. We are both here stocking up for the next few weeks in hopes that nothing breaks or runs short in between.

We do our shopping and the only hiccup is when our 4 year-old son gets stuck on his master plan for the day: “I want to build a robot.” It may sound odd, but it’s par for the course with him. He is a creator of things. This morning he was cutting and taping together booklets of paper. When asked what he was doing he simply said, “I am making Bibles. For people who don’t have them.”

As we prepared to leave, we noticed huge lines at the registers. Through the murmurs of the crowd we hear that the “computers are down.” Considering the technological era we live in, it was about the vaguest description of the situation I could think of, but I later pieced together that what they meant to say was that credit and debit card payments were down. Uh oh.

Total panic in the current financial paradigm of Wal-Mart. You can see on the faces of most people in line that they live and die by the plastic with little plan B. Thankfully we pay our church offering every week by check and the checkbook was still in our family traveling luggage. God saves us from personal chaos again.

Before a riot begins, I make my exit. Time to get the car. Back out into Siberia…

We finally get everything loaded and eat dinner. Just as we are settled in and prepare to make the drive back home, Jamie suddenly remembers we almost forgot the prescription we needed filled. A near crisis averted.

It was at this moment I realized something. We are the modern day equivalent of frontiers people. We make this journey to the big city general store to refill our pantry, our medicine cabinet and to maintain our lives. Forget something and it will hurt. Remember something and it is a victory. Every trip is different. Every trip is an adventure. Especially with four kids in a Wal-Mart.

On diversity…

January.16.2012

[Context: A group of 40 people were at camp this weekend from a church in the Milwaukee area. This is the conversation I had today before breakfast with the pastor’s wife, Linda. These moments in the dining hall before anyone else arrives tend to be amazing.]

Me: Good morning!

Linda: Good morning. How are you?

Me: I’m good. Just struggling to get this fire going. You and your husband just came in last night, right?

Linda: Yes. He feels it’s important to be in the pulpit, so we had to wait until service was over.

Me: Well, I’m sure the people here appreciate it. Not a lot of pastors would make that time after a full day on Sunday.

Linda: Oh, we enjoy it.

Me: How big is your church?

Linda: The building is about 3,800 square feet but our attendance is about 100 people soaking wet.

Me: Really? Considering the diversity of this group I thought it was a much larger church. Even in this group, it seems like you have every race, age and demographic covered.

Linda: We are really blessed. We have been at the church for 20 years now and when we first started we prayed that we would be a church of diversity.

Me: I think that one was answered. We have a lot of different groups come here, but usually they are all the same cultural background. I mean, in Wisconsin it’s mostly the same caucasian crowd every time, but occasionally we serve hispanic, korean and hmong groups as well. It is rare to see it all intermixed so completely like your group.

Linda: It wasn’t always this way. Over time we had a few families join that had adopted children of different races and it let visitors realize that this was a place where this was a part of who we are.

Me: That’s wonderful and kind of sad.

Linda: Sad?

Me: It’s sad that it means there are places they might not be a part of a church because they are different.

Linda: Yes. That’s why we were praying. [warm smile] We pray for your family often too. Your little kids are just precious but we know you probably sacrifice a lot by being out here.

Me: Thank you. That means a lot to me. Getting to visit with groups like yours is what keeps us going. I love that my kids get to see so many different people even though we live way out here.

[Conclusion: From there, she carried on with setting tables and I continued to struggle making a fire in the fireplace. I didn’t remember until later that it was Martin Luther King Day. It was good to hear that diversity can occur in a church not out of some false intention or feeling of obligation, but instead of a pastor’s earnest prayers to serve everyone with the love and grace of Christ. I need to have a heart like this whenever I have multiple groups at camp that I desire to see live and fellowship together during their time at this place.]

Blogging is so 2003. Or earlier. I have lost count, but this is probably the fourth or fifth attempt I have made at keeping some form of a digital journal. They all start out with good intentions. I do well for about a month and then I remember that we are still slave to a 24 hour day that is divided by a great wife, four active kids, a demanding job, all along trying to growing closer to Christ in all I do. The prospect of writing anything down for “fun” clearly falls off that list quickly.

This latest attempt is not something I really wanted to do. I was not inspired by someone else’s great writing or a movie. Instead, this boulder was pushed off the cliff by a simple question by my grandma a few weeks ago.

During the great holiday extravaganza that is Thanksgiving and Christmas, I offered to drive my grandma home from my dad’s house as it was quite late. I don’t get to spend much time with my extended family, so it was really good to have a simple one-to-one conversation with her.

While most family conversations follow the formula of how the camp is great, the isolation is hard, but my family and my church get me through, this conversation had a curveball. After my biography, my grandma simply asked me, “Do you write anymore?”

I was kind of stunned. I am not and never have been a writer of any great consequence, but my family knows that I enjoy it. Or at least I did at some point.

After trying to figure out just what the question meant, I stammered out, “No. Not really.” 

I couldn’t see my grandma’s face as I was driving, but I swear I could feel her expression. It wasn’t disappointment or any amount of disapproval. She had been the mother of a large family and probably understood my situation. But it felt like she was almost heartbroken that I wasn’t doing something I enjoyed.

So that brings us to this. I’m sure this outlet is ripe for content. From my conversations with friends, I know my life is kind of unique. I look forward to sharing it and hopefully reuniting with my love of writing. At least for a few months…

Finding Home…again.

February.18.2009

Whenever I have moved to a new location, there are a few landmarks that need to be ironed out before comfort can be found. Once I know where to get groceries, go running, find people, and go to church, I’m pretty well set.

Well, we have now been in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin for about 3 years and we had found all but a church as of about a year ago.

Churches are a funny thing. It’s kind of like trying to find a favorite restaurant. You don’t really know what you want until it’s right there in front of you. And sometimes, the food is great, but the service is so horrible that it doesn’t matter. Or even worse, the people there are great, but the food lacks flavor to the point that it’s not even a restaurant. (see what I did there?)

The worst part is that we actually found a great church. We were as active as we could be considering our unique situation of living at a camp. We even were active in a small group and helped lead the youth ministry for a time. But then it happened.

When gas prices went through the roof, it became a difficult decision. Driving 40 minutes each way to a church multiple times a week became not only a drain with two small children, it also became a drain on our finances. So in came some doubt…

For some reason we decided to renew the church search. We went to several churches and I even had myself convinced that I found a better church that was closer.

Week after week we went to this new church and it was okay…but it was never home. I never felt that my faith was intertwined and being refined by those around us. It wasn’t their fault, it just wasn’t happening.

So we went back to our original church. And it was home. Again.

It’s amazing how familiar and comfortable good fellowship feels. It’s the same way with my closest friends. Even if I only see them once a year, it feels like they came to my house in a Delorean with Doc Brown riding shotgun. Nothing has changed. It’s astounding.

In the parking lot on Sunday I confessed to our pastor that I had my “prodigal son moment” of churches and hopefully it was over now. His reaction was straight out of the Bible story as he smiled and honestly was pleased that we came back.

I just wish we didn’t have to leave to realize how great we have it.