I Wish my Son had Gone to the Funeral

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
My father lies in state in his living room.

I went to the funeral of a man I’ve never met. He was the grandfather of one of my six grader’s best friends.

I wish I had taken my son. But being a stay-at-home dad I was the last know about the funeral and I didn’t really get organized in time. Far from getting my son out of school and appropriately dressed for an 11am service, I barely managed it myself.

After I hopped out of the shower at 10:45am I discovered that my one suit should have been dropped at the dry-cleaners after its most recent venture – some months ago. I ended up in khaki pants and a navy jacket. Hardly mournful attire, especially as I had also forgotten a tie and neglected to shave.

I shuffled into a pew at the back of the church reassuring myself that given my tangential relationship with the family showing up was more important than dressing the part.

Two of the man’s daughters gave a lovely eulogy. It brought a tear to my eye. I sometimes wonder if my emotional life is like a church building; ornate on the outside, but a cavernous void within. To cry at a complete stranger’s funeral was reassuring to me.

Who knows why I was crying. Grief is a mysterious thing. I remember hardly crying at my own father’s funeral, but weeping uncontrollably at the next funeral I attended. When you are close to the dead person it is necessary to keep a lid on things just to get through it.

I wish my son had been there to see me cry and to witness the grief of his friend and his friend’s cousins. It would have been awkward for him, but that is the point. Death is part of life and I don’t believe in sheltering kids from it. It is not the sort of topic one brings up in the playground, but my sense is many parents wouldn’t see this as a missed opportunity.

My son would have squirmed in the pew, but at least he would have come away some idea what happens when someone dies; that pain is part of the experience of life. Maybe he could have only managed the faintest of nods to his friend outside the church but he would have shared that experience and offered some comfort.

I was three when my mother’s father died. All I remember of him was he loved to bounce me on his knee and sing the Grand Old Duke of York. I do recall being left at a friend’s house while the rest of the family went out of town for his funeral.

My mother says I have never forgiven her for that. When my grandmother died five years later she made sure I was rushed to the funeral home to see her body before the doors closed at 5pm.

People get squeamish about bodies, especially about letting kids see them. But bodies are important to the process of grief. A body makes a death real.

Sunset over Mount Hooker
The Haast River; my brother’s last resting place. © Cabin boy chronicles

When I was 15, I watched my brother drown in a wild river in New Zealand. They never recovered his body. In a way I was lucky that I witnessed his final descent into the torrent. I knew he was gone.

The rescuers told me to tell my family that there might be hope. There was none. All I gave my sister-in-law was something false to cling too. Later that night when I called my parents with the news I told my father straight up, “Sean is dead.”

His cry still echoes in my memory. When my mother picked up the phone he’d dropped, I was a little less direct. My father came to terms with the loss much quicker than she did. I think my honesty helped him.

Grief is an unavoidable. You can’t bury it, hide from it or out run it, so you might as well be open to it and let it take you where you need to go. While it is a very personal experience I feel on a cultural level we encourage people to shy away from looking death in the face.

William Worden speaks of four tasks one must accomplish for “the process of mourning to be completed” and “equilibrium to be reestablished”. Accepting the reality and significance of the loss is the most immediate task.

That is why seeing a body is important. When my father-in-law passed away we took our toddlers to see his body. I remember they had a lot of questions and it soon dawned on me that the concept of an after life was very convenient when discussing death with children.

My father-in-law suffered Parkinson’s disease, but in death all the tension had drained out of his face. He looked at peace. Seeing him with the disease banished from his body was powerful reminder of the man. That man may have been lost for several years before he died but the extent to which we grieved his actual loss took me by surprise.

I had expected a disease like that causes one to go through a certain pre-grieving. For so long there had been a sense that his passing would be a blessing or a relief. While that was true, it did nothing to lessen the impact.

My own father died three months before our wedding. He was 70. During his illness he lamented that he probably had a few more good years left in him, but he recognized he had full life, the loss of a grown son excepted.

My late brother’s wife is Samoan. She brought a wonderful Polynesian approach to death to our family. My father’s body lay in state in his own living room in the days before his funeral. In keeping with their tradition my sister-in-law and other members of the Samoan branch of the family slept with his body to keep him company.

That was a bit much for some of us with British and Irish heritage but plenty of people went into the room to have a final chat with dad in his open casket. By the time it was closed it was overflowing with tributes people had sent him away with; his stethoscope, the newspaper, tennis balls, his favorite candy, bottles of wine and photos.

My children never knew my father. His coffin contained a story of his life; his interests, passions, losses and loves. I wish I had a complete list of the items that ended up in there. It would give them a window into his life, a more child-friendly picture than any eulogy could hope to paint.

The Unfinished Business of Caring


My friend Anne-Marie Slaughter just published a book called Unfinished Business. It is her road map to completing the revolution that started out as the women’s movement. But to characterize it as a book about feminism would be too narrow.

Slaughter has reframed the gender debate and focused on caring and competition as the two drives that make us human. Caring manifests itself in the domestic sphere, while competition dominates in the workplace.

The concept of caring encompasses more people.
Slaughter made a name for herself with a 2012 article in The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“. Due to a coincidence in publication it was widely regarded as a response to Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.

In Unfinished Business she recognizes that the work-life balance debate is limited to women of means, and doesn’t capture the experience of a solo-mother living paycheck to paycheck and having to choose between going to work and staying at home with a sick child.

And coupling caring with women, however numerically persuasive, fails to capture the experience of men like me, while also creating a barrier that stops other men joining the cause.

Her argument is that we need to address the imbalance between the caring and competition, by placing more value on the latter. As a carer I am well aware that we collectively relegate it. It is a huge hurdle both at both the individual and societal level.

When I typed the word carer in this previous sentence, my word processing program inserted a jagged red line beneath it. The software prefers the term caregiver. Carer is the Queen’s English. Caregiver is American, but if caring is only something that can be given it will always remain undervalued.

I am guilty of undervaluing caring. It is almost a chronic condition.

Last month spent five days in Rocky Mountain National Park. My goal was to climb a Fourteener, which is what Coloradans call peaks over 14,000 feet which I described in a separate post “Men, Mountains and Middle Age“.

Throughout the trip I had a lingering sense that I was not worthy of this little vacation.


I know plenty of working dads who go away on boys’ weekends. They don’t feel badly about it. My wife makes time to be away with her friends. The biggest dilemma that presents the girls is finding a half marathon in a city with decent après-race shopping.

The Fourteener was my New Year’s Resolution in 2012. It’s been rolling over ever since. A continuing resolution like they have in Congress when they can’t get their act together.

Admittedly it is an inconvenient resolution. You just can rock up from sea level on Friday night, climb to 14,000 feet on Saturday and be home for Sunday dinner. I tried that in Hawaii a year ago, taking a day out of a family beach vacation to hike up 13,700 foot Mauna Kea. It almost killed me. This time I took a week so I could acclimatize.

That only added to the sense of guilt. This was a particularly self-indulgent scheme.

Indeed if a friend, a stay-at-home mother, had not decided to celebrate her 40th birthday in Las Vegas, making Denver a convenient stop on the way home, I probably still wouldn’t have climbed my mountain.

The logistics were not easy, but my wife has long been supportive of the idea, so the only thing stopping me doing it sooner was me:


Did being a man make taking this time off particularly challenging for me? Earlier this year a friend sent me this article about men and their “Conspicuous Work” habits “Why Men (at Least Pretend to) Work Longer Hours“.

A Dutch study found men are happiest when they think they are working longer hours than their male peers. We are more concerned with the appearance of working hard than our actual income or productivity.

We compete with each other to be seen to be working the hardest. I have taken myself out of what Annie-Marie Slaughter calls the competitive realm of the workplace, but have I lost that natural urge to compete? Of course, not. Maybe it manifest itself in the temptation to deny myself time off.

Was I climbing into more that rarified air in Colorado? Did I create a double whammy; a subconscious devaluation of my role as a carer was exaggerated by my male propensity to compare my labor with others? Not only was I not working, I was not working very hard at not working.

Anne-Marie Slaughter outlines some societal changes that would elevate caring. Along with legislative remedies and changes in the workplace the caring mindset needs to change.

I am a carer, but individual work I need to do improve my attitude to caring represents quite a mountain to climb.

Death to the Birthday Party Goodie Bag

A collection of goodie bag detritus fished out of the corners of my house.
A collection of goodie bag detritus fished out of the corners of my house.

Last weekend I ran an experiment on 16 boys.

My middle-schooler had his birthday party and I did not provide goodie bags. I wanted to see if his friends would even notice.

It is hard to conceive what an eleven year old boy would want in a goodie bag.

Surely they are over cheap pencils with chronically fragile leads?

Super-hero erasers that would more accurately be called ‘smudgers’ must have lost all utility by now?

Now, they have adult teeth I’m loathed to load them up with candy. It’s hard to get them to clean their teeth. They’ll build a virtual toothbrush on Minecraft, but actually using a real one; that’s a tough ask.

The personal hygiene penny has yet to drop so a jar smelly-shoe powder or a stick of deodorant would probably elicit blank looks from the guests and a resigned ‘Dad you are so embarrassing’ glare from my son.

The whole concept of birthday party favors is wrong.

I accept that a personalized momento of a once in the lifetime celebration is appropriate. We gave out woven flax-leaf bags at our wedding containing a selection of items that had meaning to us.

The only thing a party-supply store goodie bag tells you about the giver is his or her favorite superhero or princess. A fact that was probably apparent as soon as you opened the invitation.

A birthday party is a celebration of one person’s special day. Can’t we leave it at that? Let’s teach our kids it is not all about them. You give your friend a gift because it is their day, not so you can get a little bag of unhealthy food or dysfunctional knick-knacks in return.

I don’t recall getting party favors when I was a kid. That was in the distant age when you didn’t get a trophy for showing up at soccer or a bunch of flowers for making up the chorus numbers in the school recital.

People of my generation are constantly complaining about Millennials. They are over-entitled and impatient. They have unrealistic expectations for career advancement. They are not prepared to do the hard yards.

They are the first generation of kids who grew up expecting a gift when they went to a birthday party.

As it happened none of the boys appeared bereft when their hour of paintball was up and they left empty handed. I was sweating it a little bit, but once they discovered the left-over pizza my anxiety disappeared, or rather it was refocused on recall of the Heimlich maneuver.

Using the advent of middle school as excuse to bury the goodie bag is just a sign of my own inability to take a stand earlier in life.

I’ve been itching to write this column since my boy was in preschool. We had the farcical situation where the class would celebrate a birthday and the parents would leave a gift bag in every child’s cubby. So even those kids who had not been to the actual out-of-school party would get a rewarded. They got a gift when they had not even given one!

I drafted a letter to the pre-school administration requesting this daft practice be stopped, but I never sent it.

I mounted a more subtle protest. I sent mandarin oranges as my contribution to the Valentine’s Day collection. I started lacing my own children’s goodie bags with a deeply subversive item designed to question the status quo. An item to challenge kids and parents alike. I found something that wouldn’t end up in some fish-killing oceanic plastic heap after the kids inevitably lost interest in it.

Long before Wall Street was occupied, I occupied my goodie bags with the most wholesome, anti-commercial gift I could think of.

I filled them with apples!

Organic apples.

It sure felt good. Many parents thought it was great idea, but it didn’t catch on. I get it. As a parent you have to pick your battles. It’s taken me ten years too fully join this one. As my wife pointed out birthday parties are stressful for most little kids. They don’t need their parents too make them stick out from the crowd any more than having to blow out four candles does.

It is easier just to go with the flow, to let Party Incorporated lead the goodie bag trend. To let the little children suffer a yo-yo which doesn’t retract.

Or maybe we can collectively make a change.


Men, Mountains and Middle Age

Morning light on Longs Peak
Morning light on Longs Peak.

I’ve been thinking about a chance happening this week; I was in Colorado to climb Longs Peak, one of its more famous 14,000-foot summits, while an old workmate from Los Angeles was in the Sierra Nevada trying to ascend 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48.

We are both men in our mid-forties and I joked on Facebook that we were “trying to prove that we still have it”.

I’m still trying to figure out what the “it” that I was referring to is. But it was not just lazy throw-away line. Well, it might have been as far as my friend is concerned but he is stuck on a mountain in California with limited reception so I can’t ask him.

One hesitates you use the term midlife crisis. A crisis is when you do something really reckless like buy a Ferrari or run off with a younger colleague. Suddenly deciding you are going to drop tens of thousands of dollars paying someone to guide you up Mt. Everest might count, but not these peaks. They represent more of a midlife measure. An accounting of what you are still capable of.

According to this account in the Havard Business Review a midlife malaise affects people of all classes and cultures. Psychological well-being takes a U-shaped trajectory through-out life. We are happiest when we are young and very old, but have a notable dip in life satisfaction in our forties and fifties. This can manifest itself in different ways.

So, it is possible my ex-workmate and I were responding to a similar impulse despite our many differences. I am an introverted stay-at-home dad. He is gregarious and unmarried; From my settled perspective he seems like a playboy without a trust fund. Maybe, I am reading too much into that time he summed up his weekend by claiming that “50 was his new 40” when it came to women?

A statement that inadvertently captures a truth. Our generation is getting older later in life. It’s hard to feel old when you have kids in elementary school. I notice I am getting older. I’ve started having to move the screen in and out to focus on the words in front of me, but I’m not panicking about it.

When I turned forty-five I calculated that I’d probably already lived half my life, but that realization didn’t shake my equilibrium. I was just as much of glass-half-empty guy as I’ve always been.

Perhaps I haven’t entered my midlife nadir yet? I wonder if my current occupation will make it worse. I tell myself that traditional conceptions of masculinity are out dated and that I am near the leading edge of some great and necessary social change. That works intellectually. At a deeper emotional level those old macho stereotypes can still work me over.

I posted a photo of one of acclimatization hikes on Facebook. Someone commented that I should “Get a Job”. Because he was English, I could brush it off with a timely sports-related retort. But it did bring up some self-doubt, even though I suspect he was motivated by envy, rather than the imposition of traditional ideals.

The journey up Longs Peak is a substantial endeavor; 15-miles round trip from the trail head with a 4,800 foot up and down on the way. Furthermore the last mile and a half from the Keyhole is off trail and there are a few spots where you wouldn’t want to slip. In good conditions it requires a head for heights and some scrambling, otherwise proper mountaineering skill is required.

The Keyhole, where the scrambling begins.
The Keyhole, where the scrambling begins.

Before I left I doubted I could still do it. The alternative to a 10-15 hour day was to camp at the Boulderfield, 6 miles up the trail and 12,760 feet above the sea. I brought my tent, although it was not clear that hauling camping equipment that far up the mountain would make the trip any easier. As it happened a stormy forecast the day before my summit push ruled out a two-day expedition.

I used to hike for a living. When I wasn’t getting paid to do it, I did it for pleasure. Then I moved to places where the hiking lacked the aesthetic appeal I’d grown addicted to and I did less of it. This was no random addition to my bucket-list, which only added an element of pressure.

I was definitely a middle-aged man out to prove he could do “it”. I imagine this was like a marathon. I got pre-race jitters. At the last minute I rented an ice axe and crampons because word around town was the conditions on near the summit were “technical”. I was worried about having to use them. I’ve done it before, but I am not an expert. Hell, I was worried I might not make it to the point where I would have to use them. Was I fit enough? Was I acclimatized to the altitude?

Then I started my climb on the internet, which is never a good idea if you are in a compromised frame of mind. This meticulous climber died, and these guys, by their own all-capped admission, got lucky (This is not a good route description. Several names and elevations are wrong. I used 14ers.com)

I went to bed at 8:06 pm and probably got less than 2 hours sleep. I was trying not to look at the clock, which didn’t stop the possibilities stampeding through my head.

The mountain would still be there if I didn’t make it. Don’t get summit fever. The top is only halfway. Bailing out 300 feet from the summit was a great and noble story. At one point I planned the video farewell I was going to record for my wife and kids in the hope my phone would survive a 1000-foot fall better than my body. That brought me to tears, although it was hard to find the right balance between the sentimental and frivolous.

It would be quite an interesting thought experiment if you weren’t also counting the minutes your weren’t asleep. I know I got some sleep because when the alarm went off at 2am I felt like absolute crap.

As it happens the conditions were ideal. I made good time, fatigue didn’t cloud my judgment, the ice axe or crampons were not required and got back to the car just as the forecast afternoon rain began to fall. Afterwards, I treated myself to a massage, which I’ll regard as a sign of maturity rather than an admission of my eroding capacity.

I felt good. I didn’t turn back the years as much as they haven’t caught up with me.

The next day on the rental car shuttle bus at Denver airport I almost offered my seat to a man standing in the aisle. I didn’t, which was just as well as on closer inspection I realized I had more grey hair than he did!

So, yes, right now, I can say, “I’ve still got it”. Until the next fourteener comes along.

The Author on the summit. © vjcphoto.com
The Author on the summit. © vjcphoto.com

Finding Liberté on Vacation in France

Can you still call it a diving board?
Can you still call it a diving board?

My children spent the first four weeks of summer at camp. The facility had a pool with a couple of one-meter diving springboards.

They should have had great fun, instead they were cast into a particularly American sort of purgatory. The rules said you were not allowed to dive off the diving board into 12-foot deep pool.

You could jump, but only forwards and only if you didn’t try anything daring like bouncing up and down on the springboard before you propelled yourself through the air.

The rules were strictly enforced by a set of whistle-happy teenage lifeguards. The teens were empowered by a Pool Manager; the only thing keeping this guy upright was he appeared to have a chip on both shoulders.

I assumed the zealous regard for my children’s safety was cover to avoid a hefty insurance payout in the unlikely event of an accident, but it was actually dictated by a local county ordinance. How un-American, to have government usurp the power of the market to regulate the joy out of life.

After four weeks of camp we landed in Lake Annecy in the foothills of the French Alps. The locals directed us to a public beach and there it was; manna from heaven for my closeted kids, a diving platform rising out of the water to the grand height of five meters (15 feet).

It didn’t take long for them to strip off the psychological bubble wrap and start clambering up the stairs ready to try their luck on the three-meter platform.

There was one lifeguard, sunning himself on shore and doing his best to remind the tourists that the English had stolen the word nonchalant from the French. The diving platform was a free for all. I found standing five meters up snuffed out any sense of daring, but there were plenty of locals executing flips into the water below. Most of them seemed unable to rotate in multiples of 180 degrees, which made for some painful looking entries.

Given the French are not renowned for orderly queuing, one might have thought someone with a whistle and a red swimsuit might have been in order at the top of the platform, just to make sure all was clear before the next person slapped into the water.

But no, it was left entirely up to this group of humans to self-generate enough order to prevent a horrible accident. They managed to do so. My kids had a ball. My wife even took the plunge from on high, as part of her never-ending quest to demonstrate to her sons that they should not fall for the sort of woman who shies away from adventure.

Lake Annecy is one of the hidden gems of France. Lying in the first ranges of the Alps less than an hour south of Geneva, it is off the most heavily-beaten tourist path, but is frequented by enough English holidaymakers to make it accessible to those travellers who’ve long forgotten their high-school French.

It is paradise for those with a sense of adventure. For a mountain lake it is surprisingly warm. My children spent hours in the water. They chose water-skiing over sailing and when their fingers were like prunes we had a choice of hundreds of terrestrial activities.

The kids pumped for the ropes course. There was a sign indicating the minimum height required to do the course. My daughter barely qualified but none of the staff checked. Either they had a really good eye for millimeters or it was the roughest of guides.

The next day we went tandem paragliding; you clip yourself to a Frenchman with a parachute attached to his back, run down a steep mountain-top slope until the chute catches the wind and suddenly lifts you up into the air. The ride was surprisingly smooth. We were aloft for fifteen minutes before we landed in a field far below our takeoff spot. The kids wanted to do it again.

We did a via ferrata, which is a series of permanent cables and rungs that enable amateurs to ascend cliffs that would otherwise only be accessible to advanced rock climbers.

The public diving tower, via ferrata and paragliding at Lake Annecy, France
The public diving tower, via ferrata and paragliding at Lake Annecy, France

All this with minimal safety briefings and I never had to sign a waiver.

The French have struck a different balance between the individual and society. If you get injured in France the state will restore you to health (supplementary health insurance exists but the costs are firmly regulated). In America you need your own medical insurance. Insurance companies need to cover costs which brings litigation into play. Litigation exists in France, but the legal system doesn’t use juries, which reduces the chances of a big payout. So business operators and their insurers are not faced with the need to cover that risk or avoid it by not doing anything risky in the first place.

Adventure businesses like the via ferrata are popping up all over Europe. The two we did in France were not legacies of some long-ago conflict, but purpose built for tourism. There are via ferrata in America. You can go paragliding, or canyoning here, but compared to France your options are far fewer and generally more expensive.

The American exception is the big business of skiing. Most skiing states have laws aimed at protecting resorts from liability. Which is ironic as the risk involved in paragliding or doing a via ferrata is centered on a catastrophic equipment failure. That is much less than the risk posed by hundreds of Bode Miller wannabes.

Back home I showed a few people the video of my daughter sprinting off the mountainside and paragliding into the abyss with Lake Annecy far below.

Some were in awe that it was even possible for an adult to do that, let alone a six-year-old. Others gave me a suspicious look as if they were making a mental note to never allow their child to go to my house on a play date. One person made an uneasy joke about child protection services.

Are we becoming too cautious?

It’s Time to Retire “Mr. Mom”

Andrew Moravcsik on Good  Morning America.
Andrew Moravcsik on Good Morning America.

Yesterday, Andrew Moravcsik wrote a thoughtful article in The Atlantic titled “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First”.

It was an honest account of his role in the family he has created with his wife Anne-Marie Slaughter. Much of what Andy wrote resonated with my experience as a stay-at-home dad, although he uses the term ‘lead parent’ to encompass household leaders who work as well as those who are unpaid. He graciously mentioned me as an insightful commentator.

As the subtitle of his piece indicated he was writing in support of a broader social change that both he and Anne-Marie have been advocating for some time.

The well-being of children, the status of women, and the happiness of men will depend on whether more fathers are willing to take on primary parenting roles.

This morning, ABC’s “Good Morning America” show headlined Andy’s piece under the title “Mr. Mom”.

One can imagine a sleep-deprived copy editor resorting to that term at 5 a.m. as the breakfast show deadline loomed, but unfortunately it totally misses the point of Andrew’s article. In fairness, to ABC, the panel discussion afterwards was much more on point.

I’ve been called “Mr. Mom” before. Interestingly, I can only recall women using it.

It doesn’t really bother me. It is a bit like an Irish joke. Just as I’ve moved beyond the patently absurd stereotype that Irish people are stupid, that the O before my name is indicative of my IQ score, “Mr. Mom” washes over me like some distant cultural relic.

But that is me. I am there. I am quite comfortable in my role running our household.

I suspect most other men are not ready to join me as the home-maker. Andrew’s article details the social and cultural biases facing men as lead parents;

Pew polls show that 42 percent of Americans now view the “ideal” family for child-rearing as one in which Dad works full-time and Mom works part-time; about half prefer that she not work at all. Only 8 percent believe children are better off with Dad at home. About two-thirds of Americans believe that a married man should be able to support his family financially, yet only a third say the same about a woman.

These expectations present quite a hurdle for a man who is contemplating taking on the role of lead parent.

If you are starting out on the journey “Mr. Mom” is not a cultural relic. It is a rock rolling down the mountain you are trying to climb. If you get hit by enough rocks you are not going to ascend very far.

That is why we should stop using it.

Language matters. Its effect is subtle. An individual word or phrase has small impact, but the cumulative result of its repeated use is massive.

Language both reflects and creates culture. It is a self-perpetuating system. If you can change the language you can alter the culture. The results are not always perfect. Stereotypes are hard to break down, but those who complain about political correctness are usually on the wrong side of the cultural shift.

Fifty years ago Donald Trump would have been in the unchallenged majority talking about a woman having an unelectable face. Today, he is a cultural dinosaur who, apparently, doesn’t look in the mirror.

The place of women in our society has shifted in that time.

“Mr. Mom” is an indicator that men’s roles are lagging.

Hiking Lake Annecy: Montmin to La Tournette

The author enjoys the view of Mt. Blanc from the summit of La Tournette.
The author enjoys the view of Mt. Blanc from the summit of La Tournette.

This is a departure from my usual subject matter, but having fruitlessly scoured the internet for information in about hiking around Lake Annecy in English, I thought I would fill the most obvious void.

La Tournette (2351m, 7713ft) is the highest peak overlooking Lake Annecy in the French Alps. It looks like a castle atop a series of seemingly impenetrable limestone cliffs, but as with most mountains in the Alps there are several well-worn trails to the summit.

La Tournette rises above the warm waters of Lake Annecy.
La Tournette rises above the warm waters of Lake Annecy.

Finding English descriptions of these trails on the internet is the trickiest part of the journey. Here is a description in French.

On the Annecy side of the mountain the adventure starts in the Montmin valley, which is separated from the lake by a popular cycling route over the Col de la Forclaz.

From the village of Montmin I headed up the valley towards the Col de l’Aulp, before climbing to the summit from the north. I returned via the less popular southern Chavert route.

From the church in Montmin (1,000m, 3250ft) climb out of town on the one road that heads directly up the hill. Soon you will get to a junction. The left fork traverses below La Tournette and leads to the Col de l’Aulp. The branch that continues straight up the hill is the southern approach to the summit.

I choose to do the long traverse at the beginning of the day when the shade was greatest and I wasn’t suffering “Get-home-it is”. Having climbed out of the village it was a fairly level traverse through the forest to Les Pres Ronds. This is the end of the sealed road and as such is an alternative starting point. From there the trail climbs up to Col de l’Aulp. The signposts indicate you should follow the dirt road as it makes a circuitous way uphill, but the trail behind the sign provides a more direct route free of cyclists and cars.

The Route from Les Pres Ronds car park. Col de l'Aulp is out of view to the left.
The Route from Les Pres Ronds car park. Col de l’Aulp is just out of view to the left.

The Chalet de l’Aulp is the last place to get drinking water. From there the trail switchbacks up the shoulder of the mountain until it is above the line of the first set of cliffs. It then traverses a basin above the escarpment past a shuttered Chalet before climbing onto a terrace above a second line of cliffs. After backtracking along this terrace, the trail switches back and picks its way up through third set of cliffs leading to the summit terrace.

On the French topo map this was indicated as the most difficult section of the trail. There were chains to help you navigate the more exposed sections but in reality only those particularly sensitive to drop offs needed the security they provided. Despite La Tournette’s vertiguous aspect at no point did I feel a slip would be fatal.

View across first terrace from above Col de l’Aulp. The chalet is closed. Montmin is in valley below.
View across first terrace from above Col de l’Aulp. The chalet is closed. Montmin is in valley below. The trail switches back above the cliffs to the left.

It took me just over three hours to reach the summit terrace from Montmin. That was much faster than indicated on the trail signs, but I was moving quicker than most of the other hikers.

A series of ladders and chains assists the descent from the summit.
A series of ladders and chains assists the descent from the summit.

The true summit is on a small escarpment above the summit terrace. Take the trail to east side of this escarpment to find the route to the top. This is marked with chains and has two metal ladders, which can be a bottleneck. While you wait for the downhill traffic to clear you can enjoy a fabulous view of Mt Blanc and the high Alps directly to the east.

From top of the mountain, range after range the ice-capped peaks file from east to south toward the Mediterranean. To the northwest is Lake Annecy and hills leading to Geneva.

Summit Panorama. Mont Blanc to the east, revolving south to Lake Annecy in the northwest.
Summit Panorama. Mont Blanc to the east, revolving south to Lake Annecy in the northwest.

Most hikers descend to the way they came up. I traversed along the summit terrace overlooking the Montmin valley towards the Chavert drainage. The descent into the drainage was on loose step rock. It was the only point I regretted not having my trekking poles.

After a wide loop around the basin at the top of Chavert, the trail dropped into a narrower canyon, before entering the forest for the final descent into Montmin.

As you rounded the upper basin, there was a section that past through Krummholtz-like beech forest. The trail followed a watercourse which would not be much fun if it was raining.

The descent loops around the upper Chavert basin.
The descent loops around the upper Chavert basin.

I hiked in the first week in August. It had been a light winter. There was no snow and most of the wildflowers had finished blooming. Only two small streams crossed the trail. One senses they would be an unreliable source of water during a hot dry summer, or if you are queasy about animals pooping upstream. The more substantial Chavert stream is only accessible from the upper reaches of the canyon, after descending from the basin past the ruins of a refuge, and before the trail enters the forest.

A mountain ibex overlooking Lake Annecy, from just below the summit terrace.
A mountain ibex overlooking Lake Annecy, from just below the summit terrace.

The village of Montmin is surprisingly undeveloped for its proximity to Lake Annecy, a popular tourist destination. There is no bar, shop or restaurant so if you are accustomed to a cold beer after a long hike you are out of luck.

Reverting back to Dad mode there were plenty of children doing this hike. Enough to give me some pangs of regret that I couldn’t convince my kids to share the experience, but they were lakeside enjoying some quality time with their mother.

Carefree Living is Not Easy


I am conflicted.

I’m sick of yelling at my kids to don a bike helmet and throw on a pair of shoes before they scoot off down the street.

But every time I caution them the image the wizened old lady with wild hair and a “Go Barefoot Earlier in the Spring” bumper sticker on her convertible flashes through my mind.

We live on a cul-de-sac. As they get older and more independent, I feel comfortable letting them play outside without being on full-time watch.

The problem is this; I leave them playing Wimbledon on the driveway to go and sweep up the summer soil they’ve tracked through the house and and the next thing I know they are on their scooters doing loops around the circle at the bottom of the street completely unprotected. Soft, tanned skin against ball-bearing road grit and centrifugal force.

The event that changes the game is usually one of the neighbors coming out with their kids to play on the road, which only adds the several layers of guilt to the situation as she ends up watching my kids while they set a bad example for her toddlers.

I’m not a reckless guy. Riding a motorbike in flip-flops, a T-Shirt and cap seems like a very stupid thing to do. But I don’t want to put my kids in invisible bubble wrap.

It amazes me that they don’t want to wear shoes. If I cross the street barefoot every little bit of gravel gouges into the soles of my feet. I’m sympathetic to the idea of going barefoot. When I guided backpackers on the Routeburn Track in New Zealand’s Southern Alps I met a guy walking the trail without boots.

He grew up in Papua New Guinea. He had shoes but he never wore them. Instead he developed a natural pad of hard skin on his feet, which insulated him from most bumps and pricks. For most of our history this has worked for humans. Many people blame shoes for all sorts of afflictions.

My chiropractor thinks the arch-supporting insole is an insult to evolution. But he is a new-age, anti-establishment type. For a more accessible insight into the perils of the shoe read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.

So let them go barefoot.

But a bruised brain is more consequential than a broken toe, which counts against the wind in their hair argument for being helmet free. My interest in helmets was piqued by a radio interview I heard a few years ago about bike sharing.

Mandatory helmet requirements are fatal to bike sharing programs. The expert on the radio claimed that the benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of having an exposed noggin at the speeds most urban cyclists move, but requiring helmets like they did in Melbourne, Australia results in far fewer riders.

Melbourne’s 600 bikes where used for 70 rides a day. In drizzly Dublin, Ireland they have over 5,000 daily trips on fewer bikes, and as of 2011 had not experienced a single fatality. (Article in The Grist) Melbourne has since started offering free helmets to riders.

The benefits of a successful bike sharing program are numerous; healthier people, less congestion, cleaner air and safer streets. The more cyclists there are on the road the more drivers are prompted to look out for them, which leads to fewer accidents. Bike share programs also tend to introduce new riders to cycling, which amplifies the good.

Before I let my kids loose completely I decided to do a little research into bike helmets. Four days later I am none the wiser! Oh, the curse of the internet. I feel like I’m trapped in a thicket of conflicting facts, tangential statistics and personal agendas. I can’t even get a straight answer to simple questions like:

Do helmet laws make cycling seem safer or do they “dangerize” it as some anti-helmet law campaigners claim?

Is cycling a more dangerous mode of transport than driving or walking?

Does the speed you are cycling matter?

Apparently, your forward speed makes little difference to the performance of the bike helmet. The force on your head from a fall is all produced by gravity, so what matters the height from which your head starts descending to earth. Now there is a deceptively named “smudging” effect as other parts of your body hit the ground they can slow down the impact of your head which is good for your brain, but not so kind on the parts that get smudged over the road.

Which means falling off your bike while playing that silly little balancing game at the red light is just as risky as falling off at high speed, unless you get thrown up and your head falls from a great altitude, or you hit a vertical object like a lamppost or the back of a big rig.

Does that make sense? Not so fast; if your ride at Olympian speeds your chances of avoiding an accident are lower, so that needs to be factored in to your risk assessment. Then, some people claim wearing a helmet makes cyclists more careless and motorists less wary of them.

So you can see why it is hard to gauge the risk of cycling without a helmet. Is it like the chances of being attacked by a shark; real, but not high enough to stop you swimming in the sea? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it is risk free.

As one reads the websites railing against mandatory helmet laws it is hard to escape the logic that wearing a helmet is safer than going bare headed. Whatever the consequences for bike sharing or public health, or arguments for making pedestrians wear helmets too, the fact remains in a bike crash any individual is better off with a helmet on.

If the hottie in the car next to you at the lights fails to appreciate your beauty beneath your foam crown that’s a small price to pay. Most of us parents are off the market for hotties anyway.

Parents should encourage our kids to wear them. And we should set the example of helmeting up ourselves.

If you are visiting a city with a bike share program and you have to explain to the kids the concept of risk per hour of exposure before they hop on one of those clunky bikes without a helmet then you have done your job.

Or they a being lazy little sods trying to weasel their way out of a bit of exercise, which is a completely different problem.

A link to most comprehensive anti-bike helmet law website I found.

A link to the opposite point of view (Note this page includes a picture of naked cyclists from a Swedish safety campaign).

Errant Tween Phone Home

A typically informative text from a Fifth Grader.
A typically informative text from a Fifth Grader.

My wife and I have succumbed.

My son got a phone last week.

Given my previous post questioning the wisdom of graduating elementary school (Graduation Degradation), I awkwardly acknowledge the phone was a graduation present.

Well, it was more a concession to the wave of pressure caused by other parents capitulating ahead of us.

One of the other mothers had briefly tried to resisted the surge of expectation that the kids would get a phone for graduation. Her effort to organize the parents came to naught.

Her fall back plan was to give her daughter an old flip phone, but when I spoke to her after the graduation the daughter had a brand new iPhone 6. The mother noted it was better than her own phone. This would have been the perfect moment for Siri to offer the definition of the word vanquished. But Siri has no sense of humor.

My son got his mother’s old iPhone 5. Complete with a watermark on the screen. It is actually a wine reduction but he is still too young to get that joke.

I don’t subscribe to the argument that children need mobile phones for emergencies. Anyone reading this probably got by without them. They need them to be part of the social scene. Kids organize everything on the phone. Moving to New York hasn’t been easy for my boy, so it was reassuring to witness him being involved in the social plans.

We have reserved the right to look at his texts, which provides us with real information for lessons in appropriate social interaction. Like any technology it can cut both ways but so far so good. He hasn’t been bullied or cast out of any group chats.

I had to set the phone up on the Family Share with which we control his purchases and he can share our apps and music. After sending the kids to bed at 8:30 I sat at the computer and set everything up.

First, I had to do a little housekeeping.

I changed his four-digit PIN; 0000 is more of a passport than a password. I noticed he had misspelt Mum in his contacts. I corrected that. Apparently he had two dads with remarkably similar phone numbers. My wife and I are upending traditional gender roles but I draw the line at female-lead polygamy. So I deleted the Dad with the other number.

When I put the phone down the buzzing started. Text after text came in. So much vibration I was worried the phone was going to etch its imprint into the table top. I couldn’t resist glancing at some of them. Any juicy morsels of gossip were well hidden in the digital detritus. It was a pointless stream of emoticons, acronyms and greetings.

The next day I was relieved to discover that at least one of the girls at school was desperately trying to get out of the group they had made for all members of the class. Then someone else made another group and the torture started again.

Two of our rules are;

  1. no phone in your bedroom.
  2. no using the phone after 8pm.

As the texts kept flooding in until after 9:30. I allowed myself the satisfaction of being, at least in this rare case, on top of my child’s behavior.

Case in point, I’d let bedtime slip over the last week and the kids were getting a little ratty which it why they were all in bed by 8:30. They were all a sleep within 15 minutes. Trouble is my son got up and started texting before 6am, which woke some other boys.

“R U awake?”

“am now”

The last app I synced to his phone was Nike+ Running. Keeping the kids off screens is a constant battle so part of the phone deal was to run his age in kilometers every week.

The aerobic obligation was going to be measured in miles but that seemed archaic; the use of miles that is. Given his history of complaining bitterly after running a tenth of a mile, multiplying that one hundredfold was quite a few steps too far.

Children can’t create a Nike+ profile, which is ironic as it is just the sort of health-centered social media engagement that should be encouraged, but they can still use the app to track runs.

This morning was my son’s first jog. He is behind the weekly schedule but he still resisted the idea. He even tried to turn a few spots of rain into Noah’s flood. But after his lesson I relieved him of the burden of his trombone, opened the app, began a run, told him the scenic route, hopped in my car and drove off.

Lest I give the impression I gleefully left him in my dust, I will concede the ground was a little too damp for that.

After twenty-six minutes and 3.16 km (almost 2 miles) he came loping down our street, grimly trying to hide the fact he was quite pleased with himself.

Thirteen-minute miles! Either his journey was interrupted by a series of texts or he really does run like his Mum.

Graduation Degradation

Graduation Balloons

My son had his Fifth Grade graduation ceremony this week.

The concept of graduating from elementary school seems odd to me. Don’t get me wrong, the ceremony was lovely and I don’t object to giving the kids a farewell. But do we have to call it a graduation?

It smacks too much of giving every child a trophy for showing up.

When I was a kid growing up in New Zealand we didn’t even have high school graduation, let alone a rite of passage in the middle of our school careers. The only person who got a dinky little statuette was the player of the day at rugby or cricket; they kept it until the next game when the coach deftly awarded it to someone else. So yes, I start with an old school bias.

Fifth Grade is not the end of school. You don’t sit any exams to qualify for middle school. It is not the culmination of years of focused study. It is just an arbitrary line that divides children in one school building from another. In our school district, elementary school used to run through Sixth Grade so it is a flexible standard at best.

Finishing Fifth Grade is expected. Yet, even in our middle-class suburban school some kids graduate reading or doing math at below grade level. This is a problem that should be addressed. Letting these kids graduate before they are ready seems a rather perverse way of dealing with them. What sort of message does it send to a child who graduates when they don’t possess the skills to perform at the next level?

I’m not advocating for holding kids back. Clearly that is a vexing issue beyond the scope of this column (if you are interested here is recent study). But, we should be throwing resources at these kids rather than just handing them diplomas.

I get that they are young, and I am all for letting kids be kids and not forcing them to grow up too fast but, sometimes the harsh realities of life get in the way of childhood innocence. If a child is not operating at grade level it is too serious a problem to just be shifted on up to the next school or the teacher on the floor above.

Fifth year graduation is not just a pretence it degrades the value of a real graduation. I mean a college graduation. That is the graduation that is not a foregone conclusion. The one you have to work towards and pass. You might take an extra years or you might fail to finish at all.

In 2012 only 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution six years earlier had completed the degree at that institution, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nothing guaranteed about getting a degree. You have to work at it. Graduation is a reward not a right.

This matters because these Fifth Grade kids are eventually going to encounter the real world where there is competition and hierarchies exist. Where you have to deal with disappointment. Where showing up at college or work is no guarantee you will graduate or get promoted.

Back in the days when I worked I remember my boss rolling his eyes about one of my Millennial colleagues who threatened to quit because he had worked for a year and not got a promotion. I wonder how many “graduation” ceremonies had fertilized his expectations over the years?

Let’s rename the graduation event we had at school this week a leaving ceremony. We can acknowledge it is time of transition in the kids’ lives. There is no harm in giving them a good send off.

In the last week my son’s class had a students-only party, a field trip to Broadway and they worked on their legacy project. The legacy project is about giving back, which is a quality we should be encouraging in our children.

Last year’s Fifth Grade raised money to put the school name in big letters above the door to the auditorium. This year the departing class has planted native flowers and shrubs on a once overgrown bank behind one of the school playgrounds.

Of course, these projects are heavily reliant on the parents. We had to clear the slope of invasive weeds, lay landscape fabric and buy the plants before the kids came out and put them in the ground. Now the parents need to mulch the beds and water the plants over the summer.

But still in the years to come, I hope these departing Fifth Graders will look up that slope and see the little native woodland they had a hand in restoring. Maybe they will only appreciate the legacy they had a part in creating when they have experienced the ups and downs involved in graduating from college.

The Fifth Grade Legacy Project