Life Stories

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

The Chocolate Milk Incident of 1987

I was in kindergarten the day I spilled my chocolate milk all over Andy Kolberg’s lap. Unfortunately, for his pants and my thirst, I don’t think a drop remained inside the carton. It was as though that particular carton’s entire life was preparation for that moment: to make Andy Kolberg appear like he’d peed himself (and had a very large bladder).

Those pesky milk cartons. I’d barely learned to tie my own shoes and the teachers’ aides had me opening my own milk. Don’t get me wrong, I was proud to be entrusted with grownup tasks. It’s just that it was the first week of school. The stakes were higher than normal. I had friends to make and adults to impress. I don’t think I’d ever opened my own milk carton. Certainly not without adult supervision.

I’d been sitting alone up until Andy Kolberg and Jake Dreyer sat down. I could tell they were friends. They started talking and eating their lunches. Meanwhile, I dreamed of a future in which they’d tell me I was their second best friend. We’d form a super trio. We’d be the world’s go-to team for any world-saving needs.

I basked in the glow of my new prospects then looked down at the task at hand. I was glad to find the first step not terribly difficult. Pealing the the front rooftop of the carton backward was much like opening a very small book with sticky pages.

Step two, though, had me puzzled. I tried to squeeze it like I’d seen others do—so the waxed cardboard pops out into a triangular drinking spout. But my squeezes just made creases in all the wrong places until I was left with a floppy and very-much-still-sealed carton lid.

I needed a solution before Andy Kolberg and Jake Dreyer took notice, risking the future of our super trio and, really, the world.

Stupid milk carton! I shoved my index finger down the center of the lip and pulled.

My resourcefulness produced some good news and some bad news. The good news was that my unopened-milk-carton problem instantly vanished into thin air. But the bad news was that all of its contents were flying in slow motion (in said thin air) straight toward Andy Kolberg’s privates.

In moments like these, it’s interesting what items on your wishlist you retract. Things like “friendship,” and “not sitting alone in the school cafeteria,” for example. All of a sudden they seemed so petty and superfluous. In fact, loneliness in a school lunchroom sounded like a pretty good time.

Andy Kolberg sat speechless staring into his nether regions, his soggy situation too much to bear. I could tell, much like me, he was a “shut down” type of reactor to problems. An internalizer. I liked that about him. Jake Dreyer, on the other hand, leapt to Andy’s defense and let me have it. “What did you do THAT for!” I admired his loyalty. Had things gone a different way, our super trio could have done some real good. Jake’s spunk and forthrightness would have balanced the introspective sides Andy and I would have brought to the table.

I didn’t really have an answer. I wanted to explain our not-yet-existent super trio. That the world was relying on us and we needed to show a united front. I wanted to assure them this was just a small setback. If only they could look past it and envision our bright future together.

But that was a lot to unpack for a six-year-old.

Given the chance to do it all over again, I’d simply cry out, “Could someone please show me how to fold the stupid cardboard so a triangle pops out? Me and my soon-to-be friends have some world-saving to do.”

Or even better, “Sorry, Andy. My bad.”


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 …

Scroll to Top