Engaged

Thursday afternoon, Kris Spilker and I got engaged.

I am, of course, delighted. It’s hard for me to articulate what I appreciate about this woman without sounding like a Jane Austen novel. She is kind, true, steadfast, and lovely. She embodies hospitality both in her home and in her conversation. The trust I have placed in her has been validated many times over; when she says she’ll do something, she follows through. She takes seriously and lives out the great commands of Jesus: “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” And we have a fantastic time making music together.

For those curious about the details: I took Thursday afternoon off work and took her to Wimberley where we had lunch at The Leaning Pear, a beautiful spot on Cypress Creek with marvelous food. We then climbed up a nearby hill (known variously as Old Baldy or Prayer Mountain) that affords beautiful views of the surrounding Texas Hill Country. When we reached the top, there was a drunk man and a tattooed woman doing yoga up there; not quite the cast I had envisioned for the occasion, but arguably the quintessential Texas Hill Country experience. We found a shady spot not too far from the yogi, pulled out the guitar I’d hauled up, and sang songs together for a while, drinking in the beauty of the place and laughing at ourselves as we stumbled over lyrics only half-remembered.

If John Hughes has taught us teens of the 80’s anything, it’s that Peter Gabriel songs are the proper way to profess one’s affections. Accordingly, I played and sang “The Book of Love,” which ends with the line “You ought to give me wedding rings.” (Note for pedants: yes, I know this wasn’t originally a Peter Gabriel song, but the John Hughes joke doesn’t work otherwise; just play along, OK?) I then pulled the ring from my guitar case and presented it to Kris, saying some inarticulate things that I mercifully do not remember. Fortunately, the prop carried the day, and she said yes.

Thus begins a new chapter of our lives. I very much look forward to continuing to better know and love each other’s families, kids, and other dear people, to further adventures in art, music, food, dancing, play, exploring the world, reverent silences, much laughter, and to serving the people around us and each other for many, many years to come.

Reflections on the Gains and Losses of Maturing Children

I found this on my hard drive this morning: a piece I’d written a first draft of almost exactly four years ago, but never got around to publishing. While it’s outdated in several ways now, I still thought it worth sharing belatedly.

Last month, I walked one of our kids to school for what will be the last time.

The occasion is not catastrophic. I have no fatal illness. Our kids have not been thrown out of school. We’ve not decided that public education is irredeemably flawed, nor are we starting out own magnet school for gifted children with our own surname. The cause, in this case, is the same one we all face: the march of time.

Maggie, our youngest, has just finished up her 5th grade year at Crockett Elementary. The school she will be attending next year is Miller, a Middle School which lacks Crockett’s one-block proximity to our home. Though we still have many years before we face the challenges of an empty nest, this melancholy-tinged march was a foretaste of things to come.

Already I have marked with sadness milestones along the way. Loose teeth are far less frequent around our house than once they were. I’m reminded of one exceptional day when Liam loudly announced that he’d lost a tooth, proudly displayed it for all to see, and then went back to jumping on the trampoline, only to announce 30 minutes later that he had lost another one.

I often see activities coming up on the library’s calendar and get excited about taking the kids, only to realize belatedly that our kids are all past the age where they would hold any interest. “Ooh, hey, a puppet show! The Billy Goats Gruff! Great Story! Oh, wait…my youngest child is now eleven, and billy goats now lack their former charm.”

Saddest for me is the fact that having an adventure becomes progressively more difficult. When a child is young, merely being in the world is a grand, continuous process of discovery. The bar is then raised a bit, but is still easy to clear: a simple walk through the neighborhood yields deer sightings, fascinating clouds, nests of insects. Later, once the neighborhood has become familiar, going to the park or down to the river is necessary to renew that sense of wonder and excitement. And, of course, it’s natural that doing something with one’s parents moves from a consistent delight to something less wonderful. (We have been singularly fortunate in that regard, as even our teenagers seem to still enjoy our company.)

But with these miniature tragedies also come a variety of joys. Each of our young people has such a rich, distinct personality that discovering them is a constant, unfolding delight, like watching a tree bloom and mature over the course of years. One develops an interest in music, and does great in band. Another has a sly sense of humor that continuously surprises and delights me. This one does amazing art; that one takes up theater.

And while adventures become more difficult to come by, they also become bigger and more exciting. We get to go SCUBA diving together. We play open mics together. We design and produce computer and card games. We build (and blow up) a huge variety of things in lumber and lego. We travel and explore the world around us. We explore other worlds that we have invented, tell each other stories that get more engaging with each passing year, and challenge and spur each other on to richer and deeper relationships with those around us.

With each swing of the sun across the sky, I have fractionally less of a child, and a tiny bit more of a friend. And that’s a trade that, while it comes with a bit of sadness for opportunities lost, is well worth making.

Mexican Chocolate Creme Brûlée

For this past year’s annual pre-Thanksgiving Creme Brûlée day, I improvised a Mexican Chocolate recipe. It was a new favorite, so I’ve experimented some more and pinned down the ingredients to share with the world. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

Custard:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 quart heavy cream
  • 2 tsp natural vanilla
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder

Topping:

  • additional sugar

Directions:

Preheat over to 375°

Whisk together sugar and egg yolks until they’re homogenous and lighten a bit in color. Add vanilla, cinnamon, and cocoa powder, and gradually add cream while continuing to whisk all ingredients together.

Pour mixture into ramekins. (Size doesn’t matter much, though I like shallower ones, as it maximizes the topping/custard ratio.) Put ramkeins in a roasting pan and pour enough hot water around the ramekins in the pan to cover the bottom half of the ramkeins. (Too little water and your custards will dry out. Too much and you’ll probably spill the water into the custard as you move it.) Bake for 45 minutes.

Refrigerate the custards for at least 2 hours, but not more than a few days. When you’re ready to serve, pull ramekins from the fridge and sprinkle a thin layer of sugar across the top of the custard. Then us a kitchen blowtorch or an over broiler to melt the sugar and form a layer of sugar glass across the top of the custard. (I prefer the torch, as I’ve had a hard time controlling the process with a broiler.) Allow creme brulee to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Piña de Gallo

Here’s a new recipe that I created for Mutual Mobile‘s annual Cinco de Queso competition. I’ve taken a couple of stabs at recipes that use pineapple for the sweetness before, but this is my favorite. (It’s also pretty much the easiest salsa recipe I’ve come up with to date.) Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • 2 20 oz cans crushed pineapple
  • 2 7.5 oz cans chipotle peppers in adobo
  • 1 bunch cilantro (discard stems)
  • 3 limes

Preparation:

Put the pineapple and cilantro in a blender or food processor. Juice the limes into the mix. Pick the peppers out of the adobo sauce and add them.

Now determine how much of the adobo sauce to add — the more, the saltier. The sauce from one of the cans tastes right to me, but you can add more or less depending on what you like.

Blend until smooth.

IMG_6288

On the Care and Feeding of a Depressed Friend

I recently wrote an email to the woman I’ve been spending time with lately. I was feeling depression creeping in around the edges of my mind, and wanted to warn her that it was coming, what to expect from it, and give her a good idea of what I would need during the time I’d be dealing with it. After I sent the message, it occurred to me that this might be a helpful window for other folks who have people they care about who deal with this malady as well, so have lightly edited it to share here. I hope it’s valuable for someone out there.

This morning sometime, I started to feel the Black Dog of Depression nipping at me. It’s not severe yet, and I hope to head it off before it gets there. But, since you haven’t gotten to put up with me during a bout of depression yet, I thought I’d provide a bit of a primer.

Things to know:

  • It’s not about you. It’s not about us. It’s not really about anything in my life. It’s mostly about brain chemistry. Sometimes an event will trigger it, but that’s only the domino that happens to start the chain reaction.
  • I’ll function fairly normally, though I may seem a bit listless and sigh a lot like some 19th century Byronic ninny.
  • Sometimes while a bout is active, it will recede for a bit, but then come back. Usually my depression lasts between a couple of days and a couple of weeks (shorter is more common), and ranges in intensity from “a little bummed out” to “emo band lead singer and songwriter.”
  • I should not be trusted to make any decisions of import during times when my depression is active. It poisons my thinking. Most (but not all) of the time I’m aware of this effect at work and deliberately avoid doing anything important until my head is clearer.
  • Again: it’s not about you.

Things to do:

  • Be sympathetic. Feel free to ask how I’m feeling and about the depression specifically.
  • Gently check on how I’m doing with exercise, sleep, nutrition, and spiritual disciplines. These are the things that seem to help, though at the speed of a cruise ship changing direction. (Playing music is also often cathartic for me.)
  • Perhaps encourage me to get off the phone in time to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep. 🙂
  • Be patient.
  • Offer me delicious food. This is a pretty benign indulgence I will treat myself to.
  • When we’re together, give me hugs, hold my hand, be with me.

Things not to do:

  • Feel obliged to try to fix it for me. I’ve got a pretty good grasp on how it works and runs its course at this point.
  • Take it personally if I act a bit grouchy or withdrawn.
  • Avoid being around me.
  • Expect me to be terribly motivated toward big life goals. Or even little ones.
  • Offer me alcohol. I don’t drink when I’m depressed. (See the “can’t be trusted to make rational decisions” item above.)
  • Be concerned if I disappear into books, naps, movies, or video games for a bit. (More benign indulgences.)

Hope that’s a helpful user guide.

A Few Articles from Mutual Mobile

Over the past year, I’ve written a few articles for Mutual Mobile that I’ve never gotten around to posting here. They’re all more or less technical, so may not be interesting if you visit for personal and family stories. If you’d like to see any of these, they’re linked here.

Love’s Lonely Offices

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

– Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays” (via Bob Fischer)

My father and I had a contentious relationship during my growing-up years. He and my mother divorced when I was six, and weekends with him devolved over the years from fun to difficult to dreadful.

There were some good times: discovering Doctor Who together. Going down to Brackenridge Park where he showed my brother and me how to trigger the crossings for the miniature trains, slowing baffled motorists. Building small wooden boats out of scrap and chasing them down the gutters during a rainstorm. Eating imprudent amounts of Taco Bell after church. Afternoons at Lake McQueeney with my step-mother and her family.

But those good times were too often overshadowed by conflict. When I was young, the stakes were fairly small and our battles correspondingly benign. My refusal to try three bites of everything on my plate resulted in long hours at the dinner table (and late night surreptitious runs, often intercepted, to the kitchen for crackers and tuna). My reluctance to help around the house brought loss of Star Trek privileges. And my arguments with my step-mother over the utility and value of dish soap caused difficulty for him as he tried to support his wife while attempting to keep a straight face.

When I graduated to my teenage years, things got tougher. Though he didn’t impose a curfew, I thought it absurd and unreasonable that he would require me to call to let him know where I was. I balked with a mule’s stubbornness at lending any kind of help with household chores. I was loudly exasperated and petulant whenever he planned something for the family that interfered with what I wanted to do.

These bigger battles resulted in more substantial casualties. For a period of time, I got into a shouting match with my dad nearly every weekend my brother and I went to visit. When those arguments escalated enough, I would stalk out of the house, walking miles to stay with friends, dodging behind dumpsters to keep my dad from spotting me as he scoured the neighborhood in his blue pickup truck. One memorable time, my dad pinned me to the floor with enough vigor that my retainer popped out of my mouth and sat on me until my defiance was temporarily exhausted. Even when quiet descended on the house, it was a Cold War, with the threat of explosion hanging heavy over us all.

At the time, the only way I knew how to interpret my dad’s actions were as a tyrannical dictator, only interested in keeping his power unchallenged. (And with the zeal of a misguided freedom fighter, I rose to challenge it at every opportunity.) But as time has passed and I’ve had kids of my own, I’ve gained some perspective on those difficult times. While his approach wasn’t always optimal, I now understand how much of what he did during that span was motivated by love; not a sentimental sort, but a hard-edged, steely desire for my ultimate goodness and well-being. As C.S. Lewis said, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”

With that additional perspective, I want to thank my dad for arguing with me when I was wrong. For making me sit at the table for eight hours until I finished my zucchini. For having my brother and I over every other weekend when I gave him every reason not to. For disabusing me of the notion that I was the most important and smartest person in the world. For miles driven in that blue pickup looking for me (again). For disconnecting the TV when I was being an ingrate (also again). For sticking around when there must have been no small temptation to disappear across the country. For never giving up on me even when it would have been the far easier course. For being more interested in giving me what I needed than what I wanted. And for all the other lonely offices of love that I still, to this day, haven’t recognized.

Thanks, in short, for being a father, and for teaching me something of how to do the same.

A Belated Mother’s Day Reflection

I think it was seventh grade when I told my mom that I wasn’t very fond of classical music because I felt like it was too repetitious and predictable. This was the same year that I spent hours in the car on the way to or from school repeatedly listening to Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey”.

The fact that I lived to eighth grade is ample evidence of my mom’s character and restraint.

iBeacons Lessons Learned

I recently published an article covering our experiences with iBeacons at Mutual Mobile on the Mutual Mobile Engineering Blog. I was excited to see this morning that it was picked up by iOS Dev Weekly. Thanks for the enthusiasm and the link, Dave!

Christmas Letter 2013

(This is the non-illustrated semantic HTML edition. Also available: the fancy photos-included PDF edition.)

Dear family and friends,

It has been quite a year for our family. We’ve enjoyed some great times together  with family and friends, a few promotions, a terrific (though slightly bittersweet) family vacation, a visit with alligators, an eviction from our house, a repatriation, and a new addition to the family. Read on for all of the details!

Kathy began the year working at Horizon Bay, an elder care facility around the corner from our house, as a caretaker. While she has a fantastic affection and gift for interacting with older folks, this was not a completely ideal appointment: it demanded a fair number of overnight shifts and other times that were inconvenient for her and the family, and it didn’t make much use of Kathy’s Therapeutic Recreation degree. After proving her worth and presenting her case to her boss, he appointed her Program Director for Clare Bridge, the Alzheimer’s community at Horizon Bay — a role that hadn’t existed before. She has received a number of accolades in her new position and, more importantly, loves it.

Emily continued her schooling, taking a few more art classes at ACC where she turned in some excellent work and continued to expand her artistic skills. In the middle of summer, she completed a long-planned move to Baltimore, which has the dual attractions of an art school that she’s interested in and portions of her family that she wanted to spend more time with. Her first few weeks there were a trifle rough: her car was broken into the first day she was there and the rougher sections of the city had her feeling a bit ill at ease. After selling the car and moving to a better section of town, she began to feel much more comfortable with the city, and is now enjoying it a great deal. She’s taking classes there and has been working a job at The Pratt Street Ale House for several months now, and has enjoyed the opportunities to visit with family and friends up in that part of the country.

Abigail is now in her Senior year at the high school. She’s taken up swim team this year, and has done quite well. She is turning in solid times on her events and enjoying her team and teammates a good deal. She has also been learning ukulele (it’s easier on her fingers that guitar was) and continuing to do some singing. One of her favorite classes at school has been a Special Education PE class, where she helps the kids there to stay fit and engage with others. Her plans for next year are still a bit murky, but we’re talking about and weighing the advantages and expenses of work, travel, college, etc.

Liam is halfway through his Freshman year. He has found the transition to High School easier than he expected, though the demands of marching band came as something of a surprise to him. In the month before school started, the band would arrive at 7:30, march until noon, and then practice inside until 5:00. During the first week of that, he would come home, eat a bit, sit in a chair in the living room answering questions in monosyllables, and stumble off to bed around 8:00. His playing is excellent, and he earned second chair among all the French Horn players at his school, beaten out only by one senior. He’s pulled straight A’s so far, and has also been learning some programming in his spare time, writing a few iPhone apps with a little coaching from Dad.

Maggie is now in 7th grade. She continues be a great favorite of her teachers thanks to her sweet nature, generosity, and willingness to work hard. She loves animals, and was delighted at the opportunity to have a lengthy horse riding lesson over the summer thanks to some friends of ours. (It was accompanied by a shooting lesson as well, at which she did startlingly well.) She also continues to enjoy art a great deal, and created several lovely pieces for family members at Christmas. Stories are also a favorite of hers. She’s enjoyed reading and rereading Maximum Ride and Harry Potter this year, in addition to reading through Jurassic Park, Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, and All Creatures Great and Small with her Dad.

Sean is finishing up his second year at Mutual Mobile, where he has been writing iPhone and iPad apps. He recently moved to an Associate Director role, which means less day-to-day programming and more strategic work and caring for people there. He’s also playing music with O’Malarkey, a local Irish band, whenever he can squeeze in the time, and has been enjoying cooking for family and friends more this year. The building of a 25′ tall trebuchet, some delightful long hikes, and a train trip to Chicago with Liam and Sean’s brother rounded the year out nicely.

Over the summer, knowing that Emily was planning her move to Baltimore, we pulled together a last big family trip: a week in New Orleans, where we had spent a day as a family a few years back and all really enjoyed. The vacation was terrific. We stayed on the edge of the Vieux Carré, and enjoyed rides around town on the streetcars, trips to the botanical gardens, aquarium and insectarium, and one of the most memorable meals we have ever enjoyed. (At Jacques Imo’s — “Warm Beer, Lousy Service” and highly recommended.) A particular highlight of the trip was a boat tour through Honey Island swamp, where we met a family of friendly warthogs and saw a number of alligators up close.

Alas, when we returned to San Marcos, it was to a home with a broken toilet supply line which had flooded a good portion of the house. Some of our good friends were checking on the homestead while we were gone and discovered the problem before it got even farther along, but it still ended up causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage. We moved to a three bedroom apartment for “no more than 45 days.” That ballooned to three months before we finally got home. Fortunately, USAA (our insurance company) was very helpful, one of our church friends was gracious enough to build us a beautiful new built-in bookcase, Kathy was able to replace the abhorrent pink tile that has lurked in our bathroom since we moved in, and the house now looks better than when the whole ordeal began.

During our exile, Maggie got stuck sleeping on the couch for much of time time which, understandably, became tiresome for her partway through our stay. As a thank-you for her forbearance, we (perhaps rashly) promised her a kitten upon our return home. Hewing to the family tradition of absurdly named animals (“Fluffy” the hermit crab, “Llama” the gerbil, “Hasenpfeffer” the rabbit), she christened her new black kitten “Mayonnaise”. He’s quickly made himself at home, and has even won over Liam, the most pet-skeptical among us.

 

As we review our year, it is apparent how blessed we are to have such terrific family, such wonderful friends — what a different year it would have been without those of us who give us regular support, and those we know are further off in the wings, ready to offer friendship when it’s needed. Thanks for being a part of our lives, and for allowing us to be part of yours.

May all the joys of this blessed season be yours in full measure. Merry Christmas!

The Clan McMains

(San Marcos Chapter)