The Strangeness of the Universe – You Can’t Escape

When I asked Facebook what I should write about the first person to respond was Jon Colman. He said that I should talk about the strangeness of the universe, he was quickly followed by someone that wanted me to talk about my ancestry. To my mind these two have a clear crossover, because I can talk about them in the same story.

You Can’t Escape What You Look Like

No matter what you do you can never escape what you look like. You can change what you look like, but you can never escape the assumptions that come with your appearance. I have a beard and tattoos. Some people like that, some people don’t. I can shave my beard, and laser off my tattoos, but that won’t change the fact that some people will like it and some won’t.

You Don’t Actually Know What You Look Like

When I was in second grade I learned this lesson: you don’t know what you look like. As a young squirt I was bright, attentive, and gregarious, and to my teacher (Ms. Sullivan) the icing on theses qualities was that I was black. Because I am black, like her, she had quite a bit of affection for me and pride in having me in her class.

When it came time for parent/teach conferences she was excited to meet the rest of this bright, black family. The next day when Ms. Sullivan saw me I was no longer a black boy–I was a BROWN boy. Nothing had changed about me: I was still seven years-old, bright, attentive, and gregarious; hell, I was still the same color (two-parts burnt umber, one-part burnt sienna). From that point forward my attractive warm brown looked like mud in her eyes.

I was no longer medium-skinned black boy to my teacher, I was a half-white-mongrel.  She didn’t really care what made up that half of me, it could have been Scottish, Swedish, it even could have been Brazilian, all she cared about was that it wasn’t acceptable.

In part this was the formative moment in why I have tattoos, piercings, and a beard. During what I like to think of as my quarter-life crisis I decided that my outside was going to look like my inside. I can’t ever change the fact that other people make assumptions, but I can make myself comfortable in my skin.

So, Where Do You Go From Here?

Always dress comfortably; you will make your best impression. One of my high school friends got most of her dates by going to the mall in sweatpants, because that is when she attracted the right kind of people. When you are comfortable you are confident, wear things that make you feel like the best version of you whether that is flats or heels, t-shirt or dress shirt. Don’t invest in accessories that you won’t maintain:

  • Don’t grow a beard unless you are going to keep it trimmed.
  • Don’t buy cheap eye-glasses.
  • If you paint your nails keep them nice.
  • Do one make-up trick well instead of several half-assed.

Learn to talk to people. I know that this is scary for introverts, but honestly the only way to escape the pandemic prejudice of other people caricature of you is to break the ice. Polite introductions are a good start:

  • Tell strangers what your first name is when you ask them a question.
  • Choose something about yourself that you are comfortable sharing with people, even strangers.
  • Do your best to be appropriate to your venue.

Sadly, we all live under this weird tyranny of familiarity. That is one of the biggest factors in bigotry, not knowing anyone from a particular group. If you represent yourself authentically and offer to exchange familiarity (even small ones) you will make the universe a little less strange.

Who Do You Love?

During one of our recent interviews someone said, “I hope that I come to love my son for who he is, not just what he is.”

That moment crystalized for me. In the smudgy comic book of my mind people started dividing and filling those buckets: Who and What. I realized that if you were to press me about the five people that I call my siblings I can only confidently say that I know who two of them are.

I have affection for all of them and know things about them, we have known each other for 20-30 years, but I think that I have more understanding of Sean and Dee. When it comes to my cousins I think it point becomes even clearer. I have several first cousins that I have only met once. I wouldn’t hesitate to show them hospitality, but I don’t think that I would open in the same way as I would with the ones I know well.

Staying connected with family in many ways means balancing these two aspects. Acknowledging what someone’s role in your family is the least you can do. Showing love really means taking that leap into opening yourself to who they are, what they think, and how they feel.

In my own life I know that I am largely to blame for my distance from my family. In early years I only had good connection habits with one person, my dad. When he died I really never got back into the habit of talking to anyone. Between running from so many things, intense depression, and spending more than a year with neither a phone nor email I just forgot what to do.

By the time I came back to reality I didn’t use text, didn’t think about email, and really never called people unless I was trying to meet up with them face-to-face. Even though it has been a decade since I emerged from the jungle, I still fail at staying in contact with my family. Seriously, multiple times this year I have promised myself that I will write an email to a family member on Sunday. On Tuesdays I tend to realize that I have failed yet again.

In part this blog is a passive way to fight that bad habit. I am trying to get used to telling people where I am and what I am up to. Writing about all of this has given me an excuse, something specific to talk about, and a built-in subject to discuss.

Getting to know who a person is really requires asking a lot of questions. In that moment during the interview I realized that I was getting to know who this woman on the other end of Skype is better than I know most of my blood relatives.

To improve my community, and strengthen my family, I am going to start investing more into asking questions of the people that I love, even when I think I already know the answers. Ultimately, I really do want to love you people for WHO you are.

For The Love of…

In taking on this adventure, the first thing Rose and I did was go through a lot of introspection and conversation. Part of being intentional about how we build our family meant being aware and honest about our own failings and histories. For me the biggest issues to address were my family history of addition issues and time as an expression of love.

Overcoming Addiction

There are a wide variety of ways that people display addiction–not all of them outwardly negative. While we most often recognize patently negative addictions (alcohol, drugs, gambling etc.), there are also ways that people display addictions that aren’t as readily apparent. For the purposes of this post addiction is reaching an investment level in something where it interferes with your other commitments. So: can’t pull yourself away from work to pick your kid up on time (that is addiction); played WoW too long and missed your bus to meet up with your friends (that is addiction); didn’t eat because nothing fulfilled your dietary choices (that is addiction); hate yourself because you missed one day at the gym (that is addiction).

Principals are good, dedication to excellence is good, having a hobby is good–chronically letting them overshadow your relationships or self-care is bad.

When I sat down to think about it I realized that I use the same coping mechanism against addiction that my dad did in his later years – I do lots of things all at once. You can’t over-invest in things that you only do a little bit of, right? You also can’t be failing to do multiple things if you do two things at once, right? No, in fact, that is wrong.

I kind of have an addiction to the steep part of the learning curve, and to newness. When I needed to cut back on playing video games so I could get more packing done I started building a ukulele. When I needed to stop watching movies all day I researched the entire character biography of the Incredible Hulk. I basically distract myself into disengaging from the thing I am doing too much of, but I also have 2 or 3 almost finished projects at all times (and almost read books, and almost beat video games, etc.).

Accepting that one of my favorite things about myself–I have a wide variety of things that I am at least slightly proficient at (or come back to pretty fast)–is at the core the result of a major flaw, I over-invest, was a long abrasive road to travel.

A Change of Time

Time is really important. Being on time shows that you value other people’s time. I grew up in a family that was chronically late.

With my dad time was expansive; it took over and hour to go the grocery store that was literally across the street, we would talk to everyone, and we would get to the next thing when we got there, it was very laid back. I also just assumed that he was going to be 15-minutes late in picking me up, it was a fact of life.

On the flip-side of that coin my mother was inconsistently late; sometimes it was 15-minutes, sometimes it was 3-hours, but it was always late. That was scary for me, once I noticed.

I recognized that I can fall into both of their patterns. I need to teach myself skills to overcome the pre-dispositions and habits that have accumulated in me.

Here’s the Kicker

To combat this issue I have accepted that one of my bad habits is going to get worse. I am working to give myself not just permission, but also a mandate, to leave what I am doing to keep my promises to Rose and Rockford. I don’t finish the page, I don’t complete the e-mail, I pause the game, or let my character die. So, my pile of almost done has been getting bigger, but I have to accept that my obsession with knowing the name of the Incredible Hulk’s sons isn’t as important as waking up on time to take care of my son.

I’m still chronically late (I send a lot of text message ETA revisions and have lots of phone alarms), I still try to do too many things at once, but I am working to make sure that I shoulder the burden of my flaws instead of passing them on to Rose and Rockford to forgive me. I hope that in the long run they will see that in a global sense they are the most important things to me, even when I fall prey to my obsessions.

The Be a Dad Project: Year in Review


I have been a dad now for a year. It has been a big year.

  • 2 Countries
  • 8 states
  • Rolling, crawling, walking, screaming
  • And major changes to our family

To arm Rockford for life I have endeavored to instill 3 basic virtues:

  1. Explore
  2. Share
  3. Don’t slap the dog

When I started this whole “let’s have a baby” journey my friend Eric told me: “All you can do is love them and feed them.” In my experience I can’t argue against that point. However, I do know that Rose doesn’t really like the phrase (b/c it isn’t about food), so I will reword it.

All you can do is love them for who they are, and help them become who they want to be.

My son wants to chase the dogs. Clearly I can help him get there, but there is very little I can do to change his state. I can encourage him to walk instead of crawl, I can demonstrate how to chase the dogs (and when to leave them alone), but I can’t magically make him balance well enough to run.

Loving my son, in part, means accepting that with each new skill he gets I need to pay more attention to him and let him show me what is next on the agenda. Right now he is pre-talking and getting used to walking and holding at the same time. As a baby he is changing quickly, which means both the bad and good events each day are rarely repeated. But, soon he will have some actual proclivities and broader interests.

Right now my goal for loving him is to accept what he gives me (food, sticks, rocks, cute moments). My goal for helping him become someone cool is to introduce him to lots of people and places.

The Road Plan For Year Two:

  1. Listen to what Rock tells me.
  2. Continue to teach him Sign Language.
  3. Never tell Rock who he is
  4. Ask who he wants to be.

Is it Fair, Is it Equal, Is it Just?

Since becoming a dad I have been wrestling with and revisiting not only the core concepts that I would like to pass on to my son, but also reexamining my thoughts on tricky questions. Questions like: Would you rather be remembered as fair or just?

In our development from child to adult we go through many developmental stages physically and mentally. The same way that we progress in our ability to walk; we also progress in our morality. As a parent, especially if you have multiple kids, you have to address what is fair, what is equal, and what is just.

Just think about the cornucopia of disputes that have to be resolved: portion sizes, time-conflicts, pieces of candy, why do people treat boys different than girls, why is this Walmart security guard trying to arrest my dad, the list can go on forever.

  • Equal: Everyone gets 1 slice of pizza.
  • Fair: You can only get more pizza if you have finished your first slice.
  • Just: I will take away any pizza that breaks the rules.

Answering in what measure a particular action or decision meets a standard of fairness, equality, and justice is of monumental importance to introduce a child to as they grow. In a simple example of a big kid hitting a smaller kid, what is fair, just, and equal? To let a small kid hit a big kid has a clear parity for justice, but is it really equal? To have you, an adult, hit the big kid may result in a more equal exchange, but is fair to anyone involved? The way that you express and act on issues of inequality will form how your child sees and acts on the world.

Last month the Supreme Court ruled on DOMA. They ruled that it constitutes legislated inequality, and so is indefensible and null. That is definitely in the realm of the equal decision. But, in my opinion, they did not serve justice. I don’t think it is fair or just to say, “That is unequal, you can’t do that, let’s not talk about fixing it.”

Equal-marriage is one of the few places where parity (everyone gets the same thing) can actually meet the standard for all three issues. Because this issue comes down to access to a contractual agreement, simply flipping the switch and taking the restrictions off will make access equal, allow those who want to to exercise their rights, and repair the injustice.

If your largest goal is to create equality (in a global sense), it is important to err on the side of fairness, not parity. It is a strange road to walk, but in the long run I think emphasizing the importance of sharing and an understanding that unequal is not the same as unfair will help the next generation.

I believe being fair in what I do will eventually lead to equal respect and dignity for the people in my life. I hope that I am remembered as a fair person–someone who considered the people involved in equality, not the resources.

You Get What You Need

I have a lot of energy. Once I make a decision I want to make it happen. Sometimes I find myself at odds with what I know and what I want. Sometimes I find myself in the same conflict with Rose: what she wants against what I want.

When Rose suggested staying in Portland for a month I had some concerns. But, the first night in our sublet erased them. We have come here, I think, for good reason. We have experiences that are useful to the people we are living with. Well beyond our goal in this project, these are conversations that Rose and I need to have as people.

June is not a great month for me. One of my favorite people died in June–specifically my father. This year I attended my grandmother’s memorial and found myself leaning on my aunt during the anniversary of her husbands death. Overall this project has been forcing me to slow down.

It doesn’t have to happen today. Just breathe and let your thoughts happen. Getting what you need today won’t stop you from getting what you want eventually.

Conversion Van Renovation

Due to the recent passing of my grandma I put my shoulder to the grindstone to finish the van. I’m going to show what I did, and show you my materials list at the end.

So the Van (we call her Nessy) started like this:

Interior shot - Chinook Interior Cab

But, then I tore ALL out. All the carpet, the bed/seats, the cabinets, the stove, the toilet, the heater and water heater, even the kitchen sink.

2013-04-15 17.19.45

That resulted in over 600 pounds of trash and recycling.

600 pounds of trash

Since we started with a 1986 Ford Chinook I was able to reuse the holding tanks, stove, and heater–I had to replace the water heater, it was too far gone to repair. Once I had the entire thing torn out Rose cleaned all of the surfaces and I started insulating the walls, floor, and ceiling. I used 1-inch insulation board on the floors, 2-inch insulation board on the walls, and a combination of fiber insulation and Refletix on the ceiling.

Framing for van insulation

You can see in this picture that I made framing for holding the insulation in, and to attach the plywood to. I used mainly 2×2 boards with some 1×2 boards for spacing and buttressing. Special thanks to my father-in-law, John, for help during this section.

Framing for conversion van

After all of the parts that require outside attachment (heater and water heater) were back in place and the insulation was complete we used 1/4-inch plywood to cover the walls and floors. Rose found some outdoor fabric that helps us make things look nice and retro at the same time.

Retro Fabric Wall

That window cutout is the bane of my existence, at all stages of the process. The hole in the floor on the left is where our “house battery” lives. Because we started to run out of time we half-assed the ceiling covering (it is bright blue canvas, if you are curious).

Once that was all done I started with the cabinets. I used an old table top to build the new kitchen area and upgraded the faucet to be a taller model with a spray head. The framing for the cabinets are 2×2 boards and the shell is 3/4-inch plywood. I built the back portion to be sectioned in 3-rows and 2 columns. I reinstalled the over-cockpit cabinet and will be adding a bedside cabinet. I used Rose’s favorite Ikea rug and a cheap 4×6 rug as floor covering.

Next, I upgraded to pluming system by replacing the Suburban 6-gallon water heater and switching the lines to PEX tubing and SharkBite unions. With all of the changes in design I also had to reconfigure all of the grey water plumbing. Rockford helped.

Rock helps me cut pipe

Next, because we are bringing our dog with us on the adventure I picked up a 12-volt fan for the roof vent. I chose the Fantastic Fan since it has a thermostat control and move 90-cubic feet of air per minute. Since we only have 144-cubic feet it should be able to keep it fresh even in the hottest weather.

Replacing a vent

I am also replacing the power converter and controller, the stereo (we wanted usb and auxiliary inputs), and the speakers. Those are less interesting to describe though.

Overall the materials list looks like this:

  • 6 – 4ftx8ft 1/4-inch plywood sheets (you might want more for your ceiling)
  • 2 – 4ftx8ft 1/2-inch plywood sheets (miscellaneous cabinet parts)
  • 3 – 4ftx8ft 5/8-inch plywood sheets (We used these to build the vertical walls of the cabinets)
  • 2 – 2inch 4×8 foam insulation board
  • 2 – 1inch 4×8 insulation board
  • 50ft – 48inch Reflectix Sheeting
  • 6 – 2×2 8 foot boards (framing for insulation and cabinets)
  • 12 – 1×2 8 foot boards (small framing, furrings, cleats, etc)
  • 1 – 5×7 foot rug
  • 1 – 4×6 foot rug
  • 1 – 30 gallon tank
  • 1 – 15 gallon tank
  • 1 – 10 gallon tank
  • 1 – Faucet and sink
  • 1 – Propane Cook Range (ours is an older version)
  • 1 – Range hood
  • 1 – Fan-Tastic Vent w/ Thermostat
  • 1 – Suburban Water Heater
  • 1 – Suburban Furnaces
  • 1 – RV Toilet
  • 14 yards – upholstery cloth
  • 5 pounds of screws
  • 12 door hinges
  • 100count wide crown staples

Now Nessy looks like this on the inside. We still need to finish doors for our cabinetry, but this is the gist of it. I will update once we get it all dialed in. 🙂

In Nessy

I Love You, Even When You Are Mad

The Cold Shoulder

There are a number of issues that have recently reared their gnarly domes. As Rose has mentioned, we lived in a house with 5 adults, 200 pounds of animals, and a baby. Which coincidentally means 2 cars, a truck, a van, a motorcycle (for sale), and a Vespa (also for sale). Adding into this that the only person, other than me, that isn’t on the decidedly introverted-side of communication is teething, and you will have a rough guide to life as Carlos.

Rockford only speaks to me in dinosaur noises that express hunger/pain/drumming, and the rest of the household has between 20 and 32 years of familial semiotics that mean most of my day is filled with the kind of silent seething that only a stranger in a strange land can truly understand. Everyone is talking at me and surprised that I don’t understand what they mean. Finally, people get mad at me for persevering too long or, occasionally for asking probing questions (nails on the chalkboard for introverts), and I am left with just this one motto to guide me: “I love you, even when you are mad at me.”

Long ago, in a relationship far far away, I used to get in a lot of fights. Many of those fights revolved around a feeling that I was being willfully negligent of my partner’s desires, many of which were inadequately defined/communicated. On one of these occasions that phrase came to me, even when I wasn’t doing what-I-was-told/what-they-wanted, I wasn’t being intentionally difficult.

Sometimes when we are having issues with people, we forget what it is like to not have any idea what our partner (wife, baby, in-law) is trying to accomplish. One of the things that you will hear a lot from us is that emotions just are, but actions make them good or bad. Anger is neither proof nor refutation of love. Even when emotions get in the way of clear communication, it is important to take stock of yourself and your partner to address what can be done; either a solution or just a chance be heard and return to common ground.

What’s In A Name?

I want to give you a quick warning that this may get weird for those of you who don’t like history or philosophy of faith, but bare with me (pun fully intended).

Those of you who have had in-person conversations with me have probably heard these words come out of my mouth, “People like naming things. It is what we do well, it helps us understand.” I think that you have to be respectful of peoples’ names for themselves. If you have had a private, perhaps late-night or intoxicated, conversation with me you may have heard me say something like: “Naming a thing is not the same as knowing it,” or, “You can’t name a path that you are on.”

Part of this view comes from my understanding of the universe around me. That understanding is very influenced by the Tao Te Ching, particularly the day that I read, “You cannot push a river.” I won’t get into the evolution of what that means inside of my head; instead I will tell you what that means to me in thinking about my own name.

My name is Carlos Durant del Rio. That means (roughly): Man Enduring of the River or Strong Endurance of the River.

Depending on the day, I have distinctly different feelings about the river, but I can’t really escape it. That has been in many ways how I have seen my life–surviving or persevering through life. Both my dad and my granddad had the same name: Guardian (Protector) of the River. It’s kind of like Granddad passed his job on to his son. And, in turn, my dad gave me the job of trying to be part of the river.

Days went by, as they are so wont to do, and I met (and much later) married Rose. When she decided to take my name it had a great deal of symbolism for me, like she was committing to get in the river with me. So, get this, her name now means Little Apple Flower of the River. At this point you may be saying “Shut the fridge-door!” No, really, that is her name–she was sort of pre-made to be the little thing that makes the river less terrible.

But, wait there’s more!

I kinda knew exactly what I wanted to name our baby, like immediately, well before we decided to get married I knew I would name my son Rockford. Somewhere in my heart, I knew what I wanted to pass on, what I wanted the next step to be.

We named our son Rockford Jay del Rio. Jay has a variety of meanings, depending on the line you trace, but if I can pass any of them on I will be happy.

Rockford Jay del Rio == (Victorious/Happy/Swift) Rock Crossing of the River.

Okay, the woo-woo stuff is over now. Here comes the big finish…

There is power in naming. Neighbor, Friend, Lover, Family, ‘Ohana, Child, Mentor, you get it (I hope). One of the key components of communication is clarity, and love needs communication. You should give your love a name to give it power.

Rockford and Carlos