Family Portrait

Our friend Micah Player is an amazing writer/illustrator. When he announced that he had some spots open for portraits, and we jumped at the chance. We couldn't be happier with the work he did. This is an absolutely perfect representation of the Petersen 5 at this point in our lives, and we can't wait to hang the print in our home.

by Micah Player

The Inherent Creativity of the Down Climb

Today, my wife and I took Max to his daycare, and becuase it was President’s Day, and the Big Ones didn’t have school, we took them on a little adventure to a place west of town called Three Peaks. It has pretty vistas of the mountains to the east of us. It’s close, but not too close. We weren’t trying to hike forever, or anything. We just wanted to get outside and move our bodies a little during this non-wintery February.  

Here's a picture Zoë took with her ratty old 3rd Gen iPod Touch.

The trail was hard to find. The kids got a little bored, broke away from us, and started scrambling up the side of some really crumbly rock. Ike was up the side of that stuff faster than a mountain goat on a sugar high. Zoë, who was moping about the whole trip like some bored teenager in a television commercial, followed him straight away. I was just about to call them back down to the safety of the trail, when I noticed my wife scrambling right up behind them. Zip—off they went.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a dubious history as a YMCA camp counselor, unit director, outdoor school teacher, ropes course facilitator, life guard, and assistant program director. I run everything my kids do through a pretty elaborate risk analysis algorithm, which is not entirely unlike the way Guy Ritchie had Sherlock Holmes plan out his fight moves. 

I’ve had enough experience with this sort of thing that I can predict an accident with uncanny accuracy. Often times, I can shut tragedy down before it happens like a Minority Report agent, but this time, I just shut the algorithm down and just followed them quietly up the boulders. They all did a good job getting up to a great vantage point, and I fought the urge to shout out advice like: 

“Three points of contact at all time!” 
“Bend your knees to keep a low center of gravity!”
“Use the sole of your shoe for friction. You need a lot of surface area!”
“It’s easier to climb up than down!”

In then end, there were a few scrapes and scuffs, but not many. They were red-cheeked and huffing, and thrilled by their accomplishment. The views were great. We were high enough that a raven circling nearby was below us.

After a rest, they decided to go down the other side using a route that seemed easier than the way up. I spotted that route on the way up and was pretty sure it wasn’t a good way, but I just kept my mouth shut. They figured it out pretty fast and headed back and found another way down. During that time, my wife and I stopped to talk about what was going on.

She said, “You know, this is just problem solving and creative thinking.”

I agreed. It was a fantastic insight. Add that to the list of why I married the right woman.
“It would be easier if I'd just told them which way would be safest, but they wouldn’t have learned a thing,” I said.

We went on to discuss convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is the type of thinking one uses when creativity isn’t needed. It's usually used to solve a problem that has a single approach and a single, well-established answer. It’s not an entirely useless form of thinking, but when you’re have to be creative it can hamper your progress. Convergent thinking is something you might use later in a creative process, once you know what direction you need to take, once you’ve tested out the possibilities.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is most useful when there are many possible solutions or approaches to a problem, and you need to try them out or iterate before you can settle on the best one. Route finding is the perfect example of needing divergent thinking first, and convergent thinking second.

Both are needed to get you where you're going.

There we stood, my wife and I. One an art teacher and teacher of art teachers, the other a creative writing professor and the director of a university creativity center. We were watching our kids go through the process of figuring out how to get down the side of this little mountain safely.  It wasn’t an entirely risk-free enterprise, and we could have made it faster for them by showing them the way, but that would have stolen any success they earned that day. So, instead of a couple of kids who got down onto level ground and said to themselves, “We did it.” The attention would have been turned to the wise parents who kept them from catastrophe.

How often does this happen in the classroom or in the workplace? Correctness has become the goal. We use correctness to measure our success, even though failure is so often the most thorough instructor. When teaching people to be art teachers, my wife often reminds them that if every art project on the wall looks the same, then you’re doing it wrong. 

It’s almost always the wrong choice to take away someone’s ability to choose their own path through an assignment, a project, or a life event. One can imagine a few criminal examples where others might have to intervene, but otherwise it's no help to meddle. People who have experience really do mean well. They want to save people the trouble, grief, and anguish they've had in their own experiments. Sometimes they want to save themselves the trouble of having to come around and help that person who messed up. They don’t want to be bothered. But the goal as a teacher, parent, or leader is to help people grow and to help people feel proud of their own accomplishments, not to make things easier.

That happened today on the rocks. And we all came back in one piece, a little cold, a little scratched up, and a little winded, but better people all around. When you're a parent and a teacher, there's a constant meta-level to everything you do because, in the end every parent is, in fact, a teacher, the most important one those kids will ever get.

Auld Lang Syne

We’re coming to the end of another year. It seems like a ritual, but it never really feels like the end of anything, really. It feels like an observance that helps us mark something that we can’t really see, like a border. But it’s not really nothing either. When I think about the end of the year, it seems more like the articulated vestibule between train cars. We pass from one year into the next with a strange kind of effortlessness. You know you’re in between places, but that inbetween is a place of its own.

Photo by  Chris Huggins

Photo by Chris Huggins

Passing easily from one year to the next is not a satisfactory feeling. I sort of wish it was they way it used to be on trains before the vestibules: the noisy air full of soot and cinders, the gap between the cars requiring a bit of a leap to clear, the knuckle coupling pulsing and knocking malevolently as the train lurches along. As dangerous as it is to get from one car to the other, you know that you’ve done something once you’re across. You can take some satisfaction in that.

I’m beginning to think that perhaps too much of the world is easy these days. So much of what we accomplish comes at the push of a button, at the end of an upload, or as the result of a tap or swipe. I realize how old and crotchety this will make me sound, and I suppose that’s about right. I am a middle-aged curmudgeon of sorts. So, instead of a Jeremiad about technology and the like, and instead of an annual family letter, I thought I’d present a snapshot of the Petersen 5 as they are right now as we’re passing from one car to the next. Hopefully, this can give me a baseline for next year’s passage.

Maxwell is no longer in the nursery program at our church. Next Sunday, he’ll join the big kids in the primary program as a Sunbeam. With this kid we’re looking for any marker of age and maturity, because, despite his humor and intellectual prowess (not joking here), he is a runaway CPU process, a crotch puncher, and entirely deaf to the voices of his parents. He drains my batteries faster than any other thing that has ever been in my life to this point, and I’m including comprehensive exams, grading essays, and radiation treatments. We’re completely aware that we should not wish away any part of the kid’s temperment or wish him older. Curiosity is so hard to manage in a three-year-old and so lacking in adults. He’s got it, and we want him to keep hold of it. Maxwell also throws himself into everything so deeply that we could all take note. This is how you get things done. We’ll see what year four is like for this tiny tornado.

Isaac is in the eye of the storm. At nine, he’s come through the harrowing times that his little brother is in, and he’s yet to move into the tempestuous tweens where his sister has been. Ike has his own battles as a middle child and struggles daily to remind us not to forget him. He is not inclined towards any of the sportsball programs, which is going to make him the odd boy out around these parts. He’s 100% nerd, with glasses and a skinny frame. He scrunches up his face when he thinks, and it’s apparent that he’s always thinking about something, usually Minecraft. He is so much like me at his age that I worry I don’t honor his uniqueness. We’re watching him closely, and we’re impressed with his humor and intellect and memory and his ability to feel deeply. I want to encourage him to charge up his batteries during this calm.

Zoë is no longer in the primary program at our church. She’s moved on to the young women’s program, which means as a family, we’re poised for her to leave Tween Town for good. This year she’ll turn thirteen, she’ll advance from the seventh grade to the eighth, and a whole host of other transformations will take place. She’s made it through half of middle school without much drama (knock on wood). She is got it together, really, and I worry a little about what the future will hold for her. We hope that she’ll keep us in the loop, but that’s hardly likely, and it would hardly be her fault. Endocrinology is such a wild card, and as her body changes, her mind will, too. When I look at her, in her jammies, drawing lovely pictures of Totoro, I think of the maelstrom waiting to emerge. I want to be prepared for this. I hope that all those years working for the YMCA will supply some kind of Kung Fu for parenting a teenager.

Alisa is very possibly in the most flux of all. She has had a cascade of changes in the last few months and will continue in that vein for a while. She left classroom teaching this summer to take a job as the coordinator for an elementary arts education program. She now mentors many of the art teachers in southern Utah. Her supervisor is retiring, so she’s planning to apply for her job. If she gets it; big change. If she doesn’t; big change. So, there’s no getting around that. She’s also finshing her master’s degree with a thesis addressing the effects talking about art has on how children create art. Like our own kids, Alisa’s in a transition at our church. For a long time she’s had a ministerial calling with the young women. This Sunday the torch was passed to others, and she’s relieved of that calling. It is almost certain that this coming year will be unrecognizable from this last one.

Todd I’m probably the most stable, though this has hardly been norm. The passing year was a wild and tempestuous one; the upcoming one seems more likely to be calm. Last year, I left life as a classroom teacher and took on a new role as a program director, which puts Alisa and I in parallel tracks. Because of the big changes in Alisa’s professional life, I’ve been doing a lot more to keep things going at home. I’m in a phase where I have been living and working in the same place for longer than at any other stretch of time in my life thus far. I have some truly great friends here, new and old. The town we live in is in a legitimately lovely corner of the world. I have to admit that stability gives me a little bit of anxiety because it hints at the calamity lurking out there. The longer it’s been since an emergency the closer you are to the next one. I’ve got to watch what I eat, try to lose weight, and exercise. Normal stuff for a man my age. I’m doing that and I haven’t felt this good in years. I’m on the second chapter of a new book that I should be writing faster than I am, but I feel like this year is the year for that to take off. I’m not going to fret over the upcoming year, but I’m going to keep the old Arabic proverb in mind: “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.”

So, that’s what the transition time between 2014 and 2015 feels like for me. I tried to take its fingerprints. In a couple of days we’ll jump across the gap. We’ll see you there.

Last Man Standing

This is a photograph of me, my grandfather, my uncle, and my dog. I have no idea when it was taken, but from the house and my hair I'm guessing it was about 1982.

I almost tossed it into another stack of stuff until I realized that everyone in this photograph is dead, but me.

This was one of those moments you never plan for, because you can't. It's the kind of awareness that hits you over and over again in middle age. I wish I knew more about Buddhism, because their thinking about impermanence is so valuable, and so much clearer headed about change than my own Christian traditions. In fact, everything in that picture has moved on.

My dog went first. I wasn't there. At that time, I was living on an island in the Puget Sound at a YMCA camp. I had a message in my box to call my mother, which I did from the staff phone. I hung up after my mother told me that she found Pongo peacefully curled up in the morning after being mostly miserable for the last few weeks of his life. My step brother buried him in the back yard. 

I wept openly because no one was there. Eventually a man named Steve Spaulding, who managed the camp, saw me crying and asked what was wrong. I sniffed and wiped my face with the back of my sleeve like a little kid and told him my dog had died. He just looked into the trees, pulled me into his arms and said, "Dammit, Todd. I'm so sorry."

Poppa Bob was the next to go. I got the call two years later when I was in graduate school in northern Arizona. My mother said plainly, "Poppa Bob died today, Todd." I remember asking what happened, and she said, "It's taken a long time for him to go, but after we went to see him last Christmas it seems like he felt he could go. Nana says there was a giant double rainbow right over the house. She couldn't see it, but everyone in Chinook did, and it felt like something out of the ordinary was going on."

I felt relieved by the news. Poppa Bob had been sick for a decade or more. At one point, early on, he apparently had some kind of heart attack in his chair, and because he was a physician, he got out his own stethoscope, listened to his own heart, and said to himself, "If I call Lucia, they can get an ambulance here, and they can get me to a hospital in Havre and I'll have a 60/40 chance of surviving, but I'll be a mess for the rest of my life. If I do nothing, I'll be dead in an hour."

He decided to live out the rest of his years as an invalid. There are very few people left in this world who have the character and skills to make choices like that.

Poppa Bob and I spent a day together few months prior to his death, and he went through a lot of old stories about WW II that my mother said he'd never told anyone. He let me go through a bunch of his papers from the military. We laughed a lot. From my position now, I can tell that he knew then that his time was going to come.

On the phone, my mother said it would be really difficult to get me to the funeral, and Poppa Bob wouldn't not have wanted me to leave school. Instead I wrote a eulogy and faxed it up to Northern Montana, which my mother read at the service. I was told that there wasn't room for everyone who came. His life and career was an influential part of that section of northern Montana. Someday I need to tell it.

A few weeks ago, my Mother sent me a text message about my Uncle Steve, which came during a faculty meeting. Again, the message was plain and unadorned.

"Your Uncle Steve died this morning. Details coming." I just sat there, and the words other people were saying broke into pieces and dropped to the floor. My cousin and sister were included in the text message, and their responses buzzed in during the meeting. I don't remember what the meeting was about.

Steve had stroke a year ago, and I thought he'd had a second one, but I learned from another text that he died of diverticulitis, which basically meant he'd died from ruptured intestines, which the doctors told my mother might be one of the most painful ways to die. Instead of getting help, he just lay in bed, suffering until he died.

Steve's story is complicated and pretty messed up. It's not worth going into, but I was, quite frankly, glad to hear he'd passed. It was really better for everyone. We think he knew he would die if he did nothing, so, like my grandfather (his father-in-law) he made a conscious choice about his life. In this case, he chose to commit suicide over the course of three days. His weapon of choice was a run away infection.

All of these thoughts and more broke loose this weekend, when I hovered over this picture. I wondered who in my family would pick up this photograph at some point in the future (I hope decades from now, but who knows) and say to themselves: "Everyone in this photograph is gone." 

How long before everyone in all of the photographs is gone?



Are You My Mummy?

NOTE: this is an old post that got hung up in the draft phase for over a year. Ever since I first saw this Diane Arbus photograph, about twelve years ago, I have been enamored of it. I have also been envious of it, upset by it, even obsessed by it. It seems like this kid caught Arbus off guard. He challenged her. It lacks the ironic distancing that is so common in her work.

It's so crazy looking and off the cuff and weird and in your face. It's a pretty famous image, so I know that others have had some kind of similar response to it, maybe not the same identical one that I've had, but something that punches me in the guts.

Today at a Halloween party, I got the chance to get into that Arbus territory with a picture of my son, Ike, in his Doctor Who inspired costume.

It's from the 2005 episode "The Empty Child" The boy Ike is dressed as is named Jaime, a child who was killed during the Blitz but who was resurrected (sort of) by some alien creatures but had his gasmask genetically fused to his face. He goes around asking everyone, "Are you my mummy?" It's pretty chilling in the show.

This costume was Ike's idea. My wife, Alisa, put it all together. She made the gas mask herself, which is pretty impressive.

And I got the shot.



Childhood is Awesome

Being a kid rules. Being a parent of kids like this rules.

I mean, seriously, when did we all decide that it's not cool to wear a construction paper headband with kangaroo ears stapled to the sides?

Alisa and I are (obviously) awaiting the arrival of another little boy. Could be any day now. We've both been thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent, and what it means to get these kids raised in such a way that they can (a) function, (b) succeed, and (c) rock this world. It takes time and it takes patience and it takes a willingness to make all kinds of mistakes, but it is really the coolest thing I've ever done, which is why we want to do it again.

Sure, there will be lots of crying and sleeplessness, and poop, but there are also moments you get when your shy daughter gets on stage to sing and dance and when your son says, "Wait, let's stop and clean my room, Zoë. If we don't, I won't be able to have any screens tomorrow."

I have more to say on my style of fathering (cheeseburger + Marvel Comics iPad app), but suffice it to say, I've been feeling kind of glowy and happy about being a dad lately.

My Doctor is Five

I will be the first to admit that this kid is a little obsessed right now with Doctor Who, but given all the possible things in this world a little boy could become obsessed about, I am okay with a hero who doesn't like guns or things military, who gives every creature in the universe a choice and a chance, who thinks that human beings are "brilliant." And, he could totally be the Doctor if they ever needed a five-year-old blonde version.

The thing is, this stuff (hair, screwdriver, etc.) is pretty much all his idea. Even the pose here was 100% his. He got all set up like this and marched off to church, gaining all kinds of attention, mostly from old ladies who wanted to gobble him up and lick the sweetness off their fingers.

More photos from the shoot at Facebook.

Finally Got the Zoë Portrait

It took a while, but we finally have a full set of portraits, now to send off for printing, then matte, frame, and hang in the house. I was shooting for naturalistic, informal portraits that focus more on what the family feels like. It think it all worked out.

Add One of Ike, Too

What started with a lens and camera calibration check is turning out to be a full fledged family portrait project. I think these photographs really capture personality as well as the look of each person at this point in our lives. Here's the five-year-old, Ike. Next will be to catch the elusive critter, Zoë Ingrid.

But You'd Be Wrong

The other day we found this drawing in the house. It was done by our four-year-old son, Ike. At first glance it might seem that our sweet little boy is a little bit fixated on—let's just call them "lady parts."

But you'd be wrong. Dead wrong, actually. After a little questioning we discovered that these are actually the young artist's rendering of a pair of Cylon Raiders.

Innocence restored, for a season.

Look at Those Bad Boys

On Superbowl Sunday, we made all the game day food (wings, guacamole, etc.) and then Alisa watched Masterpiece Theater. I read Proust. And, oh, yay, without any help from the Petersen family, Manning took a dive so New Orleans could win, selflessly healing the country, just like Sandra Bullock.

Sorry, America. Football is boring.

Big Star

Zoë has astounded everyone with her announcement that she would very much like to audition for a local production of Seussical: The Musical. This comes from a kid who is pretty close to winning the Oscar for shyest person in the universe. Here's a secret video of her song rehearsals. She chose Priscilla Ahn's song "Wallflower," which isn't really a Broadway hit, but we don't listen to many Broadway hits around here. In this respect, Alisa and I are useless to her budding career in musical theater.

Zoë's Audition Practice from Todd Robert Petersen on Vimeo.

We're proud of her. She auditions at 5:15 on Monday. Wish her luck.