Life Stories

Reflections on my upbringing, fatherhood, and trying to be a better person.

Why My Parents Dog Tagged Me as a Kid

Growing up my sisters and I would spend summer days roaming the neighborhoods on our bikes, heading home when the street lights started to buzz or my dad whistled with his index fingers.

Then when I was around 8 or 9, my parents gave each of us a dog tag bracelet. It was a shiny piece of rectangular metal, on which was inscribed our home address and telephone number. We wore these around our skinny suntanned wrists. 

I don’t remember being given an explanation. I don’t remember asking for one either. I assumed it was in case I kicked the bucket. (Even in death it’s good to be useful, or at least considerate of your first responders.)

When school was back in session the metal tag proved to have upsides. My peers assumed I was diabetic or allergic to bees. I let them think this for a while because it was nice to see their look of concern and soak up sympathy. I imagined them realizing in their heart of hearts that they’d taken my presence for granted. But never again. The school lunch room would be my new kingdom. Here, Aaron, sit by me. No, Aaron, over here by me. You can have my chicken nuggets. 

The tag was useful for other purposes. Slouching in my homeroom desk, I could fidget the tag when I grew bored. I’d flip it over and back again. I’d twist it around until it pinched my arm hairs. I was a dog with its favorite chew toy. 

Some 30 years later it occurred to me that my parents bought the identity tags shortly after Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. Jacob Wetterling lived in a similar small town not all that far from mine. He and his friends were roaming on their bikes, much like my sisters and I would. He got in a car with a stranger and was never heard from again. I remember seeing his school picture on the back of the milk carton. He was on the bulletin board at Dairy Queen. I remember eating an Oreo Blizzard and thinking he looked like my friend’s older brother. 

Buying identity bracelets was probably my parents way of braving a new world. Until Jacob Wetterling, peddling your Huffy bike unsupervised all day was childhood 101 in a small town. But times change, the world gets meaner in some ways (kinder in some ways, too). Parents are left with the hard task of figuring out how to extend the proverbial playpen.

I don’t remember when I didn’t wear the bracelet anymore. It’s one of those memories that’s hard to pinpoint, like trying to remember the last time your mother held your hand while crossing the street One day she just didn’t anymore. But looking back, you’re thankful to be on the other side. 

And I wonder if someday our kids will remember this time in the same way. Maybe they’ll come across a picture of themselves wearing a mask, or they’ll be driving (flying?) the car and something will cue a memory: masking a stuffed animal or pretending to be a robber. 

It’s likely they won’t remember the last time you put the mask on them. I bet, though, they’ll understand you were a parent trying your best to brave a new world. 


I Was Wrong, and I’m Sorry

I didn’t feel right about posting a secret song yesterday. I also don’t feel right about saying much. Partly because I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong things. But also because I’m listening and processing. It feels like I will be (and should be) for the rest of my life.

I’ll just share one anecdote. Because I can’t stop thinking about how wrong I was. It’s about someone close to me. I’ll call him James, for privacy.

One day it was brought up in conversation that James never puts his hands in his pockets. Early on, his dad broke the habit, teaching him to always have his hands visible.

It wasn’t because James’s dad thought it was more polite or proper to have your hands out of your pockets.

It was because James is black. His dad worried James might someday be mistaken for a man pulling out a weapon. Simply because his hands were in his pockets. Simply because he is black.

When I first heard that story, I’m ashamed to say, I thought his father had been drastic. That at best he was overly worried. And at worst possibly paranoid. But I don’t think that anymore.

I was wrong, and I’m sorry.

Please let there be more love and justice, compassion and equality, and may we have the courage of our convictions in this important moment in history.


Kids 1, Quarantine 0

I am writing you from a makeshift hunting blind on the outer edge of my backyard. My sons Silas and August sit cross-legged beside me in the cool grass. Silas holds a yellow mason’s string tied to a twig 30 yards away. The twig props a cardboard box leaning upside down over rabbit pellets. Rabbit pellets are great for catching rabbits.

We are trying to catch a bird. 

I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of quarantine or not, but for the last three days …

Stage Fright at the Kittson County Fair

I was 16 when Adam Grafstrom asked me to join his band. He and Tony Erickson, the drummer, needed a bass player for their classic rock cover band. I was terrified. Real bands stood directly in front of people. I was used to church bands. We sat off to the side, like an orchestra pit. The audience wasn’t really an audience. It was people reading lyrics off a Powerpoint presentation. People not looking at me. People not looking at me is my favorite kind. …

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