Confessions Of A Hoarder


My wife and I are always looking for ways to simplify our lives.  Recently, she heard about a project called “40 Bags in 40 Days.”  In this challenge, you commit to de-cluttering a single area of your house every day for six weeks.  All excess items are placed in bags for donation or dumping.  It’s like a Lenten purge.

“Doesn’t it sounds like fun?!” she exclaimed.

“You and I have very different definitions of the word ‘fun,’” I answered.

The first few days, she attacked trouble spots like a human sieve, sifting through years of family knick-knacks.  I helped by sitting on the couch and watching reruns of Deadliest Catch.

Gabby unearthed a treasure trove of random items.  A VCR recording of an episode of Seinfeld.  A twelve- year-old package of funnel cake mix, stashed in a box with a funnel cake maker we have never used.  Over thirty different keys for unknown locks.

Several days into the challenge, the obvious items had already been packed away for donation.  Now it was time for the really difficult work.  She enlisted my help and pulled me into the kitchen, where she stood silently staring at the stacks of dishes in our cabinets. 

“What about our china.  Should we donate that?” she asked.

I gasped.  Like a woman scorned.

“You mean our wedding china?”

I was momentarily horrified.  As if giving away our prized wedding gift somehow indicated she had given up on our marriage.

A long debate ensued.  And not because I have a china fetish.  There were a lot of happy memories tied to our fancy dinnerware.  But we soon realized that none of those memories actually involved eating off of those plates.  We had been waiting for a special occasion.  Unfortunately, the Queen of England still hasn’t RSVP’d.  So the china goes unused.  Just like fancy napkin rings.  And the “good towels” hanging in the bathroom.  

Waiting for a guest who will never come.

And for this reason, I think I am a hoarder.  Not the kind you see on reality TV shows, living on piles of clothing and old pizza boxes.  I mean the kind of hoarder who takes more than he needs.  And it all stems from the fact that I’m asking all the wrong questions.


When sifting through the clothes in my closet, I ask,

“When might I wear this again?”

No matter the item, I can always think of a situation. 

   Maybe save it for a Halloween party! 

   Or painting a room. 

   Or a visit to the White house.

When looking at dishes in our cabinet, or knick-knacks on a shelf, I ask,

“Should I keep this?”

No matter the item, I can always think of a reason. 

   It was very expensive.  

   It was a gift.

   It might come in handy someday.

And most of the items stay in my house.  Tucked away in a junk drawer.  Until the next time I stumble across them and try and remember why I still have them.  Worried that giving them away somehow leaves me vulnerable.

I’m not alone in this.

I recently watched a clip from the movie the Son of God.  If you haven’t heard of the picture, it’s the one in theaters now with the GQ Jesus whose teeth were straightened and bleached by the angels before the Almighty sent him down to live with us poor slobs.


* Side note:  Some moviegoers thought they had accidentally stepped into a screening for "The Bachelor."

Anyhow, the clip I saw was where Jesus sets out across the Sea of Galilee with the disciples.  When he gets to shore, he is shocked to see that five thousand people have come to see him.  It’s like a Christ-a-Palooza:  Healfest ‘32.  The problem is, no one called the caterer.  So the disciples are little worried about crowd control.  They have five thousand soon-to-be-“hangry” folks who know how to use a rod and a staff. 

They told Jesus,

36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”


37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”


They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”


38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”


When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”


39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied,

In the movie version of this clip, when GQ Jesus looks up to heaven to give thanks, he holds the basket above his perfectly-coiffed, highlighted head.  When he brings it back down, it is miraculously filled to the brim with food.  And this is image I’ve had in my head for decades.  Jesus multiplying what he was given.

But I think our math is wrong.

It’s not a multiplication problem.

In every account of the story,

Jesus broke. 



And there was more than enough.

I tend to think that miracles are like magic.  Like Sigfried and Roy making a tiger appear where there was none before.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t at the seashore that day, so I can’t be certain.  But when I think of this story in the context of my reluctance to give, I wonder if the miracle may have been less an act of Jesus himself, and more an act of God moving within those present.  Finding satisfaction in the simple.  Finally learning the definition of enough.  Realizing that the “least of these” are often made whole through the generosity of those who have the “most of that.” 

Miraculous, I know.

My prayer today is that I change my questions.   The old method of asking “How might I use this?” and “Should I keep this?” encouraged my creative mind to think of reasons to hang on. 

But hanging on is not the goal. It’s all about giving in.  Trusting.   Sharing.  Distributing.  Dividing.  It’s about asking, “What harm will come if I give this away?”  And “Who needs this more?”

The answer?

Not much. 

Not me.

And in parting with those things I once held so tightly, may I finally find myself.


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Week Forty: "This Purchase Sucks"

Eight years ago I was searching for the perfect Christmas gift for Gabby.  It had been a year filled with milestones.  We were new parents, I was finally getting my business up-and-running, and we had purchased our first home together – a major fixer-upper, complete with foundation problems and a growing family of rats living in the roof. Finances were tight, but I knew I had to splurge.  I scoured the stores for days hours minutes looking for just the right thing.  Knowing my wife’s love for all things functional, practical, and fabulous, I bought her what I thought was the perfect symbol of my love and devotion.

A vacuum cleaner.

I know what you’re thinking.

Boy Scott, I wish my husband was as thoughtful as you.

Christmas morning came.  To add to the anticipation, I waited until all other gifts had been opened before presenting her with her new miracle of suction.  Her eyes lit up as she unwrapped the giant box.  Even though there was a picture of a cherry red vacuum right on the front, she excitedly asked,

“I wonder what’s inside?”


Her smile faded as she tried to pry open the box and flexed her muscles against the factory-applied glue that tightly held the flaps closed.  She knows my half-assed wrapping style, and this was obviously a professional job.

“It’s a vacuum?!” she said with feigned excitement.

Nothing says, “I love your child bearing hips and strong skeletal structure” quite like a vacuum cleaner.  That Christmas, with one purchase, I single-handedly bludgeoned Cupid and Santa Clause with a telescoping wand and rotating brush attachment.  It’s quite a feat when you think about it.  I may as well have bought her a coupon book filled with soul-sucking chores.  To top it off, this was a manly vacuum.  It looked like a bright red hammerhead shark, with gadgets and doodads shooting off in every direction.  It was heavy.  And loud.  Conjuring visions of a tatted-up hotel maid firing up a Harley Davidson.


* Big Red.  Beware of her power.  But, she doesn't clean too well.

Gabby hated my gift but couldn’t bring herself to return it to the store.  Instead, every time she vacuumed the house, a little piece of her died inside.  It was painful to watch.  I would hear her let out a little sigh with every back-and-forth sweep of the carpet. It was the kind of sigh that tells you that tonight’s goodnight kiss will have no future.

And Gabby vacuums a lot.

Last week, as a show of marital solidarity, I pulled out the red beast and tackled the floors on my own.  I like to offer my wife this little olive branch any time the government is shut down or when Halley’s Comet is visible with the naked eye.  It keeps her guessing and spices things up a bit.

Midway through my domestic diversion, I smelled something odd.  A strange mix of singed pet hair, burnt rubber and an exploded bottle rocket.  I looked down and saw a curl of smoke coming from the front of the machine.  Soon after, a loud chattering erupted like a fistful of marbles thrown into a speeding blender. I cut the power and surveyed the damage.

The front housing of the vacuum was cracked. The plastic screw pieces that hold the rotating brush assembly to the main part of the cleaner were shorn off.  I tried for several minutes to re-adjust, re-align, and repair the damage.

It wasn’t happening.

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but the breaks in the screws and the housing looked clean.  Too clean.  And the grass trapped in the filter looked like it could have come from the grassy knoll.  But just when I started to channel Oliver Stone and look for dubious scratch marks or a second shooter, Gabby came in and offered what, in our house, amounts to a legitimate attempt at repair.

“Could we just duct tape it all together?”

I considered her proposal.  In theory, I could wrap the whole vacuum in silver tape.  This would likely give us a few extra weeks of use - maybe even enough to carry us through the end of December keeping our Year Without A Purchase vow intact.

However, while the magical tape does have amazing healing properties, I do not believe it can repair a broken marriage.  I had visions of Gabby sweeping the floors with our hack-job fix.  Dust bunnies and hair balls trapped in the unyielding hold of the adhesive. Her voice adding some choice expletives to the sighing.  Me sleeping in a tent in the back yard and having to eat roots and berries to survive.  Completely devoid of physical contact from my formerly loving and forgiving wife.

“No honey.  I think it’s dead.”

I can’t be certain about this, but I believe Gabby’s excitement caused the lights in the house to burn 10 watts brighter for a flash.  But she hid it well.

“Are you sure?” she offered, with only a hint of remorse.

“I’m sure.”

And so we broke the rules.  And it was all my fault.  There was no emailing or texting of friends asking for a spare vacuum.  There was no finding a used vacuum at Goodwill.  On our next trip to the store, we bought the Taj Mahal of vacuum cleaners.  It glides like a dream.  It’s petite, like my wife.  And quiet, like other people’s kids.  But it can still suck an almond off a bald guy’s head from fifty yards away.

As we loaded it into the back of the car, I looked at Gabby.

“Are you excited?”

“Yes”, she replied.  I could see eight years of animosity melt away in an instant.  As if all was forgotten.

“Do you want to test it out when we get home?”

“No.”  There was no hesitation.

“Why not?”

And then I saw her own conspiracy theory wash across her face.  As if breaking Big Red was part of my plan.

“You gotta’ finish the job, Dannemiller.”

And she’s right.  The Year Without A Purchase is almost over.  We’re in the home stretch.  And even though there are setbacks, we’re sticking with it.

Even though it sucks sometimes.

Week Thirty-Five: "Meeting Mom"

This is my mom. YWAP - mom3

She is an absolutely beautiful woman, inside and out. Five-foot-two and full of spunk. Just over forty years ago she was a much larger version of herself, all on account of yours truly.  You see, she gained so much weight carrying me that the doctor was afraid it might make for a troublesome delivery.  He would constantly caution her against consuming too much unhealthy food.  My mother would always listen closely to his advice.  Then, upon exiting the office, she would promptly hit the A&W drive-in for a burger, fries and a large chocolate milkshake.

Prenatal prevention of post-partum depression, I guess.

I was born at 3:53 pm on June 8th, 1973.  Dad wasn’t around.  He was busy moving the car to avoid paying a parking ticket when his time was to expire at 4pm.  Mom, however, was present during the entire ordeal.  When I finally came bursting forth into this world, I weighed a whopping 9 pounds and 4 ounces.  Upon seeing my chubby, angelic face for the first time, my mother’s loving response was,

“See doc, I told you I wasn’t a lard ass!”

She had me at “lard ass.”

I have loved this woman my entire life.  While dad has taught me the value of a job well done and the gift of storytelling, mom has taught me all about the twin joys of spontaneity and compassion.  I will never be able to repay her for all she has given me.

But once a year, I try.

They call it Mother’s Day.  Back in May, I was wracking my brain, trying to decide what to get the woman who gave me life.  In the Year Without A Purchase, “stuff” gifts are off the table.  No small kitchen appliances or home décor.  I do have a stash of makeshift science experiment kits - Mentos and 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke - that we’ve been giving as gifts to the kid’s friends for birthday parties.  But mom has been there and done that.

I contemplated creating some original artwork or handicraft for her, but my skills have scarcely improved since the last time I fashioned her a macaroni necklace back in the third grade.  And today, I’m afraid mom would rather cook such an item as wear it. In fact, I suspect that’s what happened with the original.

Then I remembered that our YWAP rules permit us to give “experience” gifts.  So I thought, “How about a nice lunch date with Mom?”

To be a suitable experience gift, we would have to go to one of Mom’s favorite places.  That meant no Buffalo Wild Wings or any other establishment featuring large screens showing sports.

So, last week, I met mom at the Cottage Café.

The Cottage Café is not exactly my style.  Sure, I may not be the most manly guy on the planet.  My love of televised sports and mastery in the art of flatulence is far outweighed by my ability to joyously demonstrate “Jazz Hands” and my intimate knowledge of color palettes.

I’m an autumn, for those scoring at home.

But the Cottage Café may be the girliest restaurant on the face of the earth.  The place makes me look like a professional wrestler.  It’s covered in lace doilies and filled with scented candles and household knick-nacks.  At the door, they do a quick blood screen.  Those measuring high in testosterone are given a fanny pack shaped like a uterus.  All the animals on the menu are given a complete facial and pedicure before becoming a key ingredient in my tiny, girl-portion-sized sandwich.  Those caught talking about football are strapped to a chair Clockwork-Orange-style and forced to watch the Lifetime channel.

I’m telling you.  It’s that girly.  But the food is amazing and Mom loves it.

On the day of our date, I met her in the parking lot.  She gave me a hug and we walked together into the restaurant.  We gave our name to the hostess and waited for a table.  The place was packed!  I glanced around and noticed two other guys in the restaurant, but I was the only male under the age of 65.  I suspect the other fellas were former electricians slowly losing their hearing.  When their wives said “Cottage Café,” they heard “Wattage Delay” and came running.  Now they were draped in gingham napkins eating pimento cheese crackers and wondering why no one’s asking them to fix the wiring.

But the Cottage Café’s pimento cheese will do that to a guy. They bring you a plate of it as a complimentary appetizer.  It’s so good it’ll make you forget anything you were worried about before.

Kinda’ like Mom.

Once we were seated, time just stopped.  You see, it had been a while since I had talked to my Mom.  Sure, we get to spend time together now and again.  But usually we’re surrounded by lots of other people.  Or kids.  Or meals to prepare.  So four hours at a family party becomes only five minutes of actual contact time.  The rest is spent mopping spills, filling plates, cutting food, and cleaning up.

But this was different.

It was an honest-to-goodness talk.  No distractions.  No agendas.  Uninterrupted conversation as beautiful and sublime as uninterrupted sleep.  The depth of it leaves you feeling so refreshed that you feel like you can tackle all of the world’s problems with a smile on your face.

We ate crackers while reminiscing about childhood.  I picked from her salad while we discussed the issues of the day.  We contemplated dessert as mom shared with me her thoughts on her future with my Dad.  Where they might live.  Where they might go.

And two hours passed.

I never noticed that tables turned several times as we savored our time together. People coming and going while we sat still.  In some ways, it was like we were getting reacquainted.  She was getting to know the man that grew from the little boy that cluttered her house for nearly twenty years.  And I was getting to know the genuine, flesh-and-blood woman that lives underneath the SuperMom cape she wore during my youth.

And I think we like each other.

People say it’s hard to make new friends later in life.  I say that’s a bunch of bunk.  New friends are right around the corner, just waiting to be rediscovered.

So, next time you’re stressing about what to buy the woman who has everything, take her to lunch instead.

You never know who you might meet.

Week Twenty-Five: "The Rescue"

In forty years on the planet, I have learned something about myself. I am a coward.

If you’re looking for me when the chips are down and lives are on the line, know that you can find me running around in circles, jazz hands flailing, screaming “we are all going to die!”

It’s who I am.

My tendency toward panic makes for some really good stories.  Like the time the corn tortillas caught fire in the toaster oven and I tried in vain to blow them out with hyperventilating breaths, only adding more oxygen to the fire and engulfing the oven in flames.

Or the time I got so distracted trying to keep photos dry while running from my car to the porch during a thunderstorm that I accidentally left my car door open, allowing my frightened, filthy dog to take shelter inside until the rain subsided and the seats were drenched in matted hair and mud.

Or anytime I’ve walked through a spider web.


Unfortunately, this little quirk of personality is not something you can hide.  Like a love of show tunes or an obsession with the number seven.  When emergencies happen, all senses are heightened and folks tend to notice the irrational man-child making matters worse.  But over the years I’ve found you can cover up the embarrassment with a blanket of self-deprecating humor.

I often see news reports of people coming to the aid of someone in distress.  You know the kind of thing I’m talking about.  Could be a car on fire.  An assault in broad daylight.  A hole in the ice.  I have always feared that I may someday be caught in the same situation and I’ll freeze.  Or worse yet, it will happen while my kids are around, and they will remember their dad as the guy who sat by and whimpered while other Good Samaritans did their civic duty.

Last week I wrote about my magical surprise birthday week with friends and family on the Florida Gulf Coast.  It was an acceptable expense in our Year Without A Purchase, because it was all about building connections with others through shared experiences.  Setting aside our stuff and really talking.

So, let’s really talk.  Since I’m airing my own personal dirty laundry and embarrassing traits, it’s high time I mention the most significant experience of the week for me.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but it may just be the reason God put me on that trip in the first place.

It happened on our first day at the beach.  As we walked down the wooden steps to the sand, I heard a sunburned tourist mention it was a “red-and-purple-flag day.”  As the words exited his mouth, I glanced at the sign at the foot of the steps and saw the red flag indicated “High Surf/Strong Currents” and the purple flag warned of “Dangerous Marine Life.”

I have been stung by a jellyfish before.  I was eleven.  I was lying face down on an inflatable raft when two of them washed up onto the backs of my legs.   I immediately began kicking and screaming, which repeatedly launched the creatures and their poisoned tentacles into the air and back down onto other parts of my anatomy.  When the fireworks were over, I had total of seven stings on various parts of my body, and zero chance that any of the cute girls on the beach would ever turn into a legitimate love interest.  The mere thought of Dangerous Marine Life took me to a whole new level of anxiety, conjuring visions of late night Japanimation movies where scores of people run along the beach to escape the wrath of The Sea Monster covered in seaweed, until Godzilla comes to the rescue.

Cue panic.

Image * Godzilla?  He's no coward. 

We pitched our tent and I cautiously entered the water.  I quickly learned that marine life would be the least of my problems.  The crashing waves made it difficult to stand and the undertow was strong.  Gabby and I wrapped the kids in the safety of their life vests and kept them close to shore.  After two minutes and a belly full of sea water, Jake declared at 150 decibels to the entire assembled crowd,

“I hate the beach!”

Gabby took him out of the water for a sand castle break, and I remained in the surf with my brother-in-law, Victor, and his daughters, Mia and Julianna.  We were chatting about the strength of the currents when we heard a high pitched scream coming from deeper water. Almost cartoonish.   At first, I thought it was Jake.  But he was on the beach.

I asked Victor, “Was that someone screaming?”

He gave me a puzzled look and said, “I think so.”

“Sounds like they are joking around.”

“It does.”

Again, we heard the voice.  This time, it was clearer.  A woman’s voice, over-emphasized.  Like a stage play.

“Help!”  “Help!”

I turned to the girls and chided,

“She really needs to stop that, or someone might really think she needs help.”

They agreed.

I looked out toward the deeper water and saw nothing.  A large wave was blocking my view.  It broke just above my head and came crashing down.  When I came out of the surf, I wiped the salt water from my eyes and focused.  Thirty yards away, in deep water, was a blonde woman in her mid-forties.  She was waving her arms above her head.  A round-faced, bald headed man was ten yards to her right.

She shouted, “My husband needs help!”

I froze.

What do I do?

I scanned the water for others who were closer to the couple.  A half-dozen swimmers were nearer than I was, but there were noises all around, and they were distracted.  And for good reason.  They were surfing the waves or laser-focused on the safety of their own children.  And that’s when it happened.

I started swimming.

I managed to close the gap by ten yards in no time.  I swam past two men standing in the surf.  A young guy in a yellow shirt and another in a hat.  I pointed toward the bald head bobbing at the surface and yelled, “That guy needs help!  Maybe his wife, too!”  I saw them look toward the couple in distress and I continued swimming.

What started as Michael Phelps ended as Michael Moore.  By the time I reached the man, I was spent and struggling.  I tried to touch my feet to the sea floor.  No luck.  Too deep.  The man was now floating on his back.  His face was the color of dishwater.  He was gasping for air, but the waves would wash over him and cause him to swallow mouthful after mouthful of water.  I asked if he was in trouble.  His eyes got wide and he nodded his head.  It was then that I realized something.

I have no clue what to do.

The man weighed over 250 pounds.  I weigh a buck seventy-five with shoes on.  My only official lifeguard training consists of watching old episodes of Baywatch.  I look down and note that my swimsuit is the wrong color for this operation.  David Hasselhoff always wore red.  What’s more, those lifeguards always brought some sort of floatation device with them.  The men had the red foam lifeguard baton.   The women had their breast implants.

I had neither.  And I was terrified.

Baywatch cast

* I looked just like the fella' in the middle.  Only whiter, more frightened, and less muscular.

So I went with my instincts.  I grabbed the man under his arms and started pulling him toward the shore, nearly ripping out the poor guy’s underarm hair.  He simply had no strength left.  I was underneath the man now, and it felt as if I was hauling a sleeping bag full of wet dough toward the beach.  I had heard that you never try to swim directly in toward the shore to fight a rip current, but I tried anyway.  After a few strokes, I noticed we were making progress, so I stuck with it.

“It’s OK!” I shouted.  “We’ll be where you can touch soon!”

He pointed laterally, as if he wanted to go down the beach.  But I assured him we were OK and kept pulling him.

“We’re moving.  No worries!”

After thirty seconds more of swimming, I stopped to check the depth and noticed I could touch when the crest of a wave passed by.

“You can touch here!” I said.  “Try to stand!”

He refused.  Just kept kept pointing sideways.

“Try to stand!”  I screamed.  “You can touch here!  I promise!”

At that moment, the man in the yellow shirt swam up and offered the voice of comfort that I was lacking in the moment.  He grabbed underneath the man’s left arm and spoke in a calm, soothing voice.

“You’re OK, buddy.  It’s going to be OK.”  He must have repeated that phrase four or five times as we pulled the man toward the beach.

He replied, “Get my wife.”

I looked toward the man’s wife.  The man with the hat and two others were now standing with her in the surf.  She was crying.  Sobbing.

Soon, the water was shallow enough.  The man tried to stand, but his knees gave way.  He kneeled in the surf for a moment, took a deep breath and said, “I’m fine now.  I just want to sit for a minute.”

His wife and a friend came up to meet him and helped him to the shore.  They said a simple thank you and found a spot in the sand for him to sit down and collect himself.  He looked straight out toward the water and said, “I was fine, and then I just couldn’t catch my breath anymore, and my body was too tired to swim.”  He sat slumped in a ball for another ten minutes, staring blankly out to sea.

The next day we learned that four people had drowned that week.  Victims of vicious rip currents.  Two men, plus a girl and her grandfather.  He swam out to save her and both perished.  A tragedy.

That’s when it hit me like an anvil to the head.  I had been in danger, too.  That guy could have panicked and pulled me under.  The current could have carried me out to sea.  I could have died.

But I didn’t.

The following day at the beach I saw what the man had been pointing at.  There was a shallow sand bar not ten yards from where I caught up with him.  He knew it was his refuge.  And it would have made the rescue much easier.  Instead, the poor guy is probably cursing my name.  Embarrassed by the lack of hair on his right underarm.  Suffering through physical therapy to nurse a rotator cuff injury I gave him when I started yanking him toward shore.  I’ll never know if it was truly a heroic act or simply a very stupid decision.  But one thing is certain.

I’m not a coward.

And neither are you.

So consider those stories in your head. The lies you have told yourself since childhood.  Since college.  Since your last corporate downsizing.  The ones that drown out the voice of God, spoken so often they are memorized, like a script to an awful, hurtful play that graces the stage of your memory.  And realize.

They are only stories.

Week Twenty-Four: "Photographic Memories"

I love looking through old photo albums.  We have some fantastic specimens from the mid-70’s.  Giant puffy volumes covered in padded fabric that may have been harvested from a couch in Burt Reynold’s bachelor pad.  They smell like an old librarian’s purse seasoned with a splash of Aqua Velva. Vintage.

But there’s something missing from the albums.  Namely, photos of my childhood birthday parties.

My first thought is to blame birth order.  My sister came first.  There are so many baby pictures of her, you can put them in a stack, hold them tightly, flick through them with your thumb, and relive the first three years of her life as if it were a home movie.

Next came my brother.  He was the first boy.  ‘Nuff said.

I was the baby.  Tucked away deep inside the album is a picture of me in a onesie, and one of my high school graduation.  Nothing in between.  With three kids, my parents were just too exhausted to advance the film on their old Vivitar camera.

Alright.  Maybe I’m exaggerating.  But not much. The real reason there aren’t any photos of my grade school birthday parties is because I had only one.  That’s right.  Just one official party where I sent real invitations.

I was four years old.  Even though it was long ago, my memories of this party are vivid.  I wore my favorite outfit – a tan jumpsuit/overalls combo that my mom made for me with a pattern she bought from Montgomery Ward’s.  It was covered in little cars.  I had a yellow cake with chocolate icing.  I blew out the giant candle shaped like a "4".  We played red-rover and I busted through the line.  I got to hold Amy Clifton’s hand during said Red Rover game.

Note to self:  wear more jumpsuits.


But I never had another birthday party.  Sure, I invited a friend or two over and we went swimming, or saw a movie, or blew a bucket of tokens at an arcade, but nothing official.  It’s not like my parents banned parties as “the devil’s handiwork” or anything.  In fact, my mom encouraged them.  Every year she would ask, and every year I would decline.

You want to know a secret?

I didn’t want to have another birthday party because I was afraid two things might happen.  I was afraid no one would show up, and I was afraid everyone would show up.  If no one showed up, that would tell me my friends weren’t really my friends.  And that’s not something I wanted to know.

And if everyone showed up?  Well, all eyes would be on me, and that’s just too much pressure.  I know it’s surprising to think that a guy who publishes a weekly blog about himself would shy away from attention. But it’s true.  A me-centered party seemed kinda’ overindulgent for someone who hasn’t done anything special beyond surviving the not-so-mean streets of a suburban Oklahoma City subdivision for another year.

And yes, I can hear you saying, “This guy needs a therapist.”

Fast forward 35 years.  In preparation for my 40th birthday, I told my wife I didn’t want anything special.  No parties.  I just wanted to relax with my family and have some cake and ice cream.  And, with our “Year Without A Purchase” in full swing, I knew that Gabby would have to work wonders to throw a major fiesta.  After all, she’s into decorations.  I kept my eyes on our supply of toilet paper Ziploc baggies just to make sure she wasn’t pilfering from the stash to make streamers and homemade balloons.

The morning of my birthday came early.  Call it neuroses, paranoia, or simply a healthy lifestyle, but I wanted to give myself the gift of accomplishment by running farther than I ever have before.  So I woke up at 6:00, strapped on my running shoes, and gave father time a one-finger wave as I walked out the door.  Gabby, face down in her pillow on her side of the bed, mustered a muffled “Happy Birthday” before I set out.


My Dannemarathon lasted just over an hour.  When I arrived home, I was greeted by the smell of Gabby’s famous chocolate chip pancakes and two very loud, overly-excited children.  According to my calculations, these two small people were burning the caloric equivalent of a surprise party of 40 full-grown adults.  And it was exactly what I wanted.

I peered over toward my seat at the table and spotted a couple of envelopes and a CD case.  Gabby instructed me to open one of them.   Inside the first envelope was a homemade card that read simply “The Grey Owl flies at midnight.”  Nothing more.  The reverse side was printed with the date, “August, 2013."  I smiled a mile wide, as I knew this to be the secret code of my college buddies signaling a get-together was imminent.  Some of these guys I haven’t seen in years, and a surprise trip to see them is one of the best gifts I could have received.


Next up was the CD case.  On the front was a beautiful photo of Gabby and the kids, each holding a guitar.  I asked where she had the picture done, and she told me that our friend Mari Wilkes, a professional photographer, was happy to donate her services to the cause.

Inside the case were three CD’s and a thick booklet.  As I leafed through the pages, I saw a list of songs, submitted by friends, that reminded them of me, along with a story of why the memory was stirred.  It’s over fifty tunes ranging from “Never Gonna’ Give You Up” by Rick Astley, submitted by my brother because “Scott and Rick Astley have never been seen in the same place at the same time” – to “Play That Funky Music White Boy”.

Submitted twice.  I’m not sure whether to be flattered or offended.

Every single song told a story, and conjured a wonderful memory.  When I put the CDs in the player, the first song on the playlist wasn’t a song at all.  Apparently, Gabby had coordinated with my family who own and work at World Music Nashville to commandeer their studio for an evening and capture my kids’ voices on tape.  First up is a priceless interview with Jake.  Gabby asks him all sorts of questions about me, and he answers in his tiny, toothlethhh voithhhh.

Next up brought me to my knees.  It was Audrey’s song to me.   Every night she asks me to sing her to sleep with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”  As a gift to me, Gabby had her sing along to a version of the song recorded by a children’s choir from Newtown, Connecticut.  Instant waterworks.  In four weeks of CD ownership I have played it almost as much as my old Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette.  It’s a treasure.

That night, a makeshift party erupted at the house.  My mom and dad stopped by.  And my sister and her family picked up my favorite cake from the grocery store.  I had made a giant pot of spaghetti sauce that afternoon, so we all shared a meal crammed in our tiny house.  I couldn’t help but think, “It doesn’t get much better.” Especially because we were scheduled to start our summer vacation the next day.  A drive to the Florida Gulf coast to meet up with my family (sister, brother and parents for a week of beach fun.  A perfect “experience gift.”

The next day, we filled the car with gas and enough highly processed snack foods to send the entire state of Montana into a diabetic coma.   I was looking forward to the drive to Florida for two reasons.  First, the kids are allowed to eat whatever they want and partake of our vehicle’s DVD system on long trips.  It’s a small Dannemiller family policy shift that creates harmony in the car.  Second, the snacks and entertainment lull the kids into a rare, trance-like state allowing Gabby and me to have uninterrupted adult conversation for hours on end.

I popped one of my new CD’s into the car stereo and kicked off the Gab-fest.

“So, what do you see yourself doing once Audrey starts kindergarten?  It’ll be the first time we’ve had both kids in school.”

I waited for a meaningful response.  Instead, I heard,


“Audrey.  Starting Kindergarten.  Are you excited?”

I glanced over at Gabby and caught her texting.

“Oh.  Yeah.  Sorry.  Just trying to see where your sister is.”

“Why does it matter?  We’re not in any big rush.  We’ll all get there today.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

But the texting continued for the whole drive.  We’d be talking and then Gabby would take a break to send more messages.

“Don’t you just want to listen to your CD?” she would ask.

Irritating.  I didn’t realize I was such a crappy conversationalist.

The drive lasted eight hours.  After that much time at the wheel, I was ready to sit on the couch and have a cold drink.  According to the GPS, we were less than a  minute away.  I started to look for the others’ cars, as Gabby had told me they arrived before us.

And that's when I saw her.  A woman.  The spitting image of Carla, an old friend from Austin whom I haven’t seen in years.  She was standing next to my dad on the porch of a beach house.  She looked scared.  I thought to myself, “What a coincidence!  That woman looks like Carla.”

Then I looked closer.  “Wait… I think it is Carla!  What a coincidence that she happens to be in the Florida at the same beach house at the same time as us?! “  I turned toward Gabby to say, “Can you believe it?!”, when I noticed she had a huge smile on her face and tears in her eyes.

I looked back at the porch and saw a flood of people come out of the house.  More old friends.  Gabby’s dear family.  Other kids.  Twenty-seven people in all.  All making a surprise trip to Florida to celebrate a week-long birthday party.

For me.

Gabby had been planning it for 18 months.  How everyone kept the secret, I’ll never know.

I was absolutely floored.  It took me several days for the surprise to sink in.  The week is a beautiful blur of time with people I love. Sharing meals.   Riding bikes.  Swimming.  Playing in the sand with nieces, nephews and other kids.  An honest-to-goodness heart-to-heart talk with my old pal David.  Sitting on the porch drinking beer, telling stories for hours on end with family and friends, old and new.


* my huge, crazy family


*Love them Taylors!  David and Carla.  And no, I'm not pressing charges.


*Me and my wonderful wife.  I'm almost as tan as her.  Almost.


* The whole Brand clan


* Boys memories being made


* The big kids


* Jen and John on the beach

It’s the best gift I could have received.  Far greater than anything item Gabby could have purchased from a store.

And the best part?

I have photographic proof.  My very own, official birthday party.  With real invitations.  Vivid pictures on paper and in my memory.  Just perfect for an album.

And the only thing missing is the Aqua Velva.

Week Twenty: "It's In Our Nature"

I don’t feel like being funny today. I know.  Funny is in my nature.  My default response.

But not today.  Today I feel like crying.

Because my nature is Okie.  I spent 26 of my formative years in the state.  Oklahoma City is my home.  It’s where I learned to ride a bike, kiss a girl, and properly eat a lamb fry (don’t ask).  It’s also the place where I learned to look a man in the eye when shaking hands, to leave things better than you found them, and to offer help to strangers.

Don’t let the Okies fool you.  You might mistake the slow, easy drawl in their voices for a lack of intellect.  But remember, humility is a requirement for Oklahomans, so they develop their accents accordingly.   It’s there to mask the wisdom that lies beneath.  Anything else would be too preachy.

This week, I was scheduled to teach a workshop in The Power of Positive Influence to a group of safety professionals at OG&E, the electric utility based out of Oklahoma City.  I arrived on Sunday and was greeted by tornado sirens in the parking lot of my hotel.  But I wasn’t scared.  Growing up, the sirens in my neighborhood were tested every Wednesday at noon.  Like clockwork.   So, for me, the sound generates the same feelings of nostalgia that seagulls and crashing waves might bring to someone who grew up near the beach.

But the sirens weren't a test.  On Monday morning, a couple of the workshop participants were no-shows.  They had been called to the town of Shawnee that had been hit by a tornado the night before.  Their job was to keep the community safe from downed power lines and restore service.

On Monday afternoon, the tornado sirens sounded again.  The remaining participants – all safety guys – made sure we knew where to go in the event we were directly in the storm’s path.  Luckily, we were over ten miles away.

By 3:30, they had all heard of the destruction in Moore, and requested an early stop to our class.  On the way out the door, they were thanking me for my time, and apologizing in advance.

“We might be up all night helping get the downed lines out of the way for rescue vehicles and such.  So, no offense if we look a little sleepy tomorrow, or come in late.  We promise it’s nothing personal.”

Guys like this already have a Master’s degree in positive influence.  We cancelled the rest of the week’s classes.

By now, you all know what happened.  The town of Moore, Oklahoma is devastated. The rest of us watch and weep.  We cry for the families who lost their homes.  We ache for the parents who lost children.  And we look for ways to help (here are some).  It would be criminal to do nothing.  Like sitting next to a guy having a heart attack at Applebee’s and asking him if he was going to eat the rest of his chicken fingers.

And I’m still here on the red dirt soil of Oklahoma for a few more hours, just a stone’s throw away.  But my hands are tied.  It appear that Oklahomans are too good at helping.  Local news stations are begging people to stay away from the area.  They have been inundated with volunteers.  So the volunteers bring supplies.  With lines stretching out on the highway past midnight.  Cars loaded with shovels and gloves.  Pickup trucks filled with diapers and stuffed animals.

This kind of generosity breeds strength and character.  Like my grade school buddy Trevor, now a state trooper for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, who logged a 19-hour shift.  All he asks in return for his service is that the next time you see a cop or a firefighter, you give ‘em a hug.


And then there’s Jay, a high school classmate, who just last week posted a photo of his fun new landscape lighting project.


And now finds a whole new landscape.


* Jay's house yesterday afternoon

Hard to believe.  The strength required to come back from this is more than I can imagine.  But I know he will.  He’s an Okie after all.  I only hope that when I bumped into Jay and Trevor walking through the halls of Yukon High School, that some of their strength rubbed off on me.  It’s one thing to go through a year and not buy any stuff.  It’s an altogether different thing to save a life or rebuild one.

Humility can humble you like that.

At times like these we think of the important things in life.  Friends.  Faith.  Family.  We tell people we love them.  We hold our wives a bit closer.  We hug our kids a little more often.  It’s good for the soul and it deepens relationship.

At the same time, it can be sad.  I blush at how many times I have used tragedies like a metaphorical Post-It note.  An outward reminder to focus on what’s important.  Part of a to-do list.  And the problem is this: that Post-It note is not a part of me.  It’s not my default response.  It’s something I keep on a shelf until the next tragedy comes along.

And it’s sad.

So today, my prayer is for Oklahoma.  May wounds be healed and hope restored.  May those who have been affected see God in the face of strangers and helpers.

And my prayer is also for all of us.  May we all look to make our lives a constant reminder of what’s important.  To sift through the rubble of the day-to-day and find that shining point of light that sustains us all.

Because, whether Okie or not…

It’s in our nature.

(image below courtesy of Nancy Dodd Poole whose niece and nephew assisted with yesterday’s clean up efforts.  It reads, "The most important things in life aren't things.")


Week Nineteen: "Traveling Light"

I got to spend a couple of days working with one of my favorite business partners in Dallas this week.  I was there to help him develop a short-term strategy for his training and consulting business.  For some people, a good business partner is one who sends a lot of clients their way, or shows loyalty through investment.  Me?  I can tell I have a good business partner when they send me an email like this:

Hey Scott,

Not sure when you are landing but we’re sorting canned goods at the local Food Pantry on Tuesday eve – 7:00-8:15.  You would be most welcome to join us.  -Mark

I had to take him up on the offer for two reasons.  First, I have a ton of respect for Mark and what he represents.  He is one of those guys who puts everyone else before himself.  His attitude is contagious.  Makes you want to return the favor.  Case in point: knowing that Mark was picking up the tab for my travel this week, I reciprocated by renting the cheapest car I could find.  “Jim’s Repo Depot” turned out to be a real value, especially when you consider they waive the deposit if you promise not to use their vehicle in a mob hit.

The second reason I took him up on the offer is that it’s good for the soul.  In doing a bit of research this year, I uncovered that one of the building blocks of happiness is serving others.  And here was Mark, my friend and colleague, making it easy.  Business can wait.  Hungry people need food for cryin’ out loud!

When I landed, I drove my recycled getaway car 45 minutes to the Plano Food Pantry where I met Mark and a team of youth that he mentors.  There, I managed to slice off the end of my toe in a can sorting accident.  Apparently, flip-flops are not the best choice of footwear when wandering around a crowded food pantry with metal table legs jutting about.  The good news is, Jim’s Repo Depot is used to blood stains on the floor boards, and I had stashed some extra Band-Aids in my lavender suitcase for just such an emergency. 

The service project set the tone for our time together.  In between business meetings over two days, Mark and I shared some personal stories.  I even got to go to dinner with him and his family.   By the end of the trip, I found myself wanting to stick around.  Wanting to help him more.  Buoyed by Mark’s generosity, honesty, and integrity and the way he lives his values.

I stayed as long as I could, but time got away from us.  I had to hustle to the airport.  Traffic was ridiculous.  By the time I got to the rental car facility, I had less than 30 minutes to catch my flight.  I quickly handed the keys to the rental agent, who popped the trunk to do her customary search for Italians wrapped in plastic.  She found nothing.


Not even a purple suitcase.

Uh oh.


Where is my lavender bag?  The humiliating rolling suitcase?  The one that carries shoes, clothing, toiletries, and my last vestige of masculinity?  Did it get stolen?  I wondered. 

Not a chance.  What the suitcase lacks in color, it makes up for in poor quality construction and inadequate size.  No traveler in their right mind would lay a hand on my bag.

That’s right!  It’s small.  I must have laid it in the back seat.


Maybe between the seats?


My search of the car turned up some duct tape, a rag, a shovel, a Sinatra CD, a half-eaten meatball sub and cement overshoes.

But no purple bag.

Panic set in.  The rental agent could tell something was amiss.

“Are you OK?”  She was looking at me as if I had forgotten to bury the body.

“No.  I think I may have left my suitcase at my hotel this morning.”

“Oh,” she said, clearly disappointed at my mundane response.  “Do you need to go back and get it?”

“I don’t have time.”

You might think I would be happy with this development.  I’ve been schlepping around this purple suitcase for the past three months. And our rules state that if I do not have a working replacement, I could buy a used suitcase.  Perhaps a nice black or gray.  I could be rid of the purple suitcase!

Instead, I felt a rush of worry.  How could I leave all of my stuff at the hotel?  Running shoes.  Business clothes.  Medications.  Toiletries. 

I called the hotel.

“Hi.  I was a guest at your hotel this week.  I checked out this morning, about ten hours ago.  I think I may have left my bag in your lobby.  Have you seen it?”

The man on the other end of the line spoke in a deep baritone.  “Is it a purple bag?”

“Yes.  That’s it.”

“Yeah.  Ain’t nobody touched your bag all day.  It’s still sittin’ right here.” 

I sensed disdain in his voice, sprinkled with a dash of pity.  But it didn’t matter.  I knew my bag was safe.  Relief.  Like finding your child after he’s been lost in the circular clothing racks of a department store. 

I immediately texted Mark.

“Hey Mark.  Funny thing.  I left my suitcase at the hotel.  Could you pick it up on the way in tomorrow?  I’ll pay you to mail it to me.”

He responded, “Sure.  Let them know I’ll pick it up.”

Then I reminded him that it was a purple bag, to which he replied,

“I’d better have Katherine go get it instead.”

Apparently, Mark’s charity only goes so far.

I continued on to my flight.  Barely made it.  It was a moment of stress in a wonderful week, but I was grateful. And then I realized that my anxiety was not about the possibility of losing my stuff.  It was just stuff, after all.  Devoid of meaning.

But it was all about the suitcase.   This purple bag has grown on me over the past few months.  The bag and what it holds.  Not the contents, but the meaning. 

Every time I drag that purple box behind me on a short business trip, I am reminded that life is not about stuff.  I am reminded that I don’t have to buy in to the myth that what I own defines who I am. I am reminded that truly knowing a person starts with peeling away all my perceptions created by their possessions and getting to the heart of what makes them tick. 

Because life is kinda’ like that purple bag.  We fill our days with stuff.  Actions and activities that may not seem like much.  But the spirit we devote to those tasks says a lot about who we are.  So, today, I can wrap my life with a spirit of worry and self-importance, creating meaning only for myself.  Or, I can choose to wrap my life in a spirit of giving, a heart for service, and a knowledge that my meaning is derived from passing on the grace I’ve been given. 

And that’s what I call traveling light.

Week Eighteen: "Haters Anonymous"

Hey there readers!  Looking for an inexpensive diversion this weekend?  Here’s a three-step process sure to make you feel as self-conscious as a bikini-clad supermodel who just polished off an entire brick of Velveeta cheese dip. 

Step 1: Record a video of your family trying to see if it’s possible to be happy without “stuff”

Step 2: Post the video to YouTube

Step 3:  Watch the comments roll in!

Earlier this week, we posted Lindsay Ferrier’s video interview with our family.  When Gabby and I first saw the video, I felt like I looked nervous due to some serious sweat beading on my upper lip.  Gabby thought she had “crazy eyes” and she was doing something weird with her neck.  She then asked me if I agreed her eyes looked crazy and her neck looked funky.  Little did I know, this question comes from the same kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species as “Am I turning into my mother?” and “Do these sleeves make my arms look like flabby old lady arms?”

“Gabby, I think I have to go pee.  Be right back.”

Once we got past all of our goofy superficial hang-ups, we agreed Lindsay’s interview captured the essence of what our Year Without A Purchase is all about. Would Lindsay’s blog readers agree? 

Our new friend Chrissie writes: 


We were really disappointed in her comment.  She didn’t even notice sweaty lips or crazy eyes.  Was she not paying attention? 

We scrolled down to hear a shout-out from our newest fan club member, momaof8?


She’s right.  The Great Mooch is really catchy!  Much better than the Year Without A Purchase.  What do you think, Melissa?


I agree, Melissa.  I, too, would be very impressed to see my wife butchering chickens and churning butter.  The truth is, we have been composting since last year, so we tried to reuse egg cartons and old pots to grow tomatoes and cantaloupes from seed.  It was a fun experiment that began 45 days ago.  We planted 12 plants.  Here are the results. 


Yes.  Two of the plants are weeds.  The rest are on life support.  We’re now looking up recipes for clover and dandelions.

As the comments continued, some said that we’re going about it all wrong because we’re not saving a ton of money.  Still more suggested we simply go a year without buying anything “new.”  But the most frequent comment was that what we were doing is no big deal. 

And I agree with them all.  Every.  Single.  One.

Could we buy more thrift store items?  Yes.  But we’re trying not to buy “stuff.”  And stuff from a thrift store is still “stuff.”

Could we save more money?  Yes.  Instead, we’re choosing to spend time with far-scattered friends and relatives we haven’t seen in a long time. Celebrating joys and sharing sorrows. 

Is this challenge a big deal?

No.  There are plenty of people who spend every waking moment trying to provide food and shelter for their own children.  Over 3 billion people, to be imprecise. 

Back in 2003, we quit our jobs, sold our house, moved to Guatemala and spent a year living with a beautiful, generous family just like this.  Our work paid us $260 per month.  We walked everywhere.  If we couldn’t walk, we rode a bus with people and livestock.  We ate loads of rice and beans.  We pooped in a hole in the ground.  Bathed in a bucket.  Washed clothes by hand a giant concrete sink.  And this experience showed us that we could be happy without having things that most Americans consider needs.   

And it was hard.  Really hard.

But coming home was much harder.  Because the advertising noise and consumer excess in the United States told a story in a voice much louder than the heart beating in my chest.  Everywhere we turned, we were being told that happiness and stuff are the same thing.  The message was inescapable.  It groped you at the grocery store.  It shouted at you from the car radio.  It exploded from billboards on the roadside.  Fulfillment is only a purchase away.

And we knew it was a huge lie.

But if you are told a lie long enough, you start to believe it.  After Guatemala, Gabby and I found ourselves slowly working our way back into society, and working ourselves out of the mindset that taught us to relish the simple beauty of a hot shower and a flushing toilet. 

So this challenge is not about saving money.  It’s not about living off the grid.  It’s all about bringing us back into balance.  Being “in” the world but not “of” it. It’s our way to remind ourselves that true fulfillment doesn’t come from a store. It comes from within – from the knowledge that no gadget in the world can change the fact that something larger is in control.  It also comes from the outside – from seeing God in the eyes of others as you move beyond a chat about the weather into a real conversation that’s alive and vulnerable.  

Because too many of us spend today lamenting about the things we don’t have, making a down payment on the stress of tomorrow.  We nurture that stress.  Invest in it.  Grow it into a monster.

And it’s eating us alive.

So today, this challenge is for us.  Me and my family. 

But it’s also for the guy who feels trapped in a job that brings him sheer misery.  A misery he shares with his family. With snapping, shouting, and emails until 2am.  A misery he endures so his family can maintain a standard of living that none of them have the time or energy to enjoy.

It’s for the mom that is burdened by guilt, desperately wanting her kids to fit in and get by.  Trying to save their beloved child some heartache with the right pair of jeans or the perfect cell phone.   A short-term fix with a long term penalty.  Perpetuating the lie that “you are what you own.”

It’s for all of us, myself included.  Those of us who can’t see that it’s not the object we desire, but the reaction we can get when people know we have it.  So we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people who are too wrapped up in their own lives to care.

It’s about bringing value to life.  And we won’t be perfect. 

But I truly believe we’ll be better off for trying. 

Week Seventeen: "Video Blog"

Maybe it's a cop-out, but this week's blog is via video.  In week seventeen, the Dannemiller family was lucky enough to get a visit from Lindsay Ferrier.  Lindsay is a former morning show host who now writes loads of cool blogs and tells fun stories. Lindsay and her family also attend our church.  When she heard about our Year Without A Purchase, she asked if she could bring her video crew in to do a short story, figuring it would speak to her target audience - moms.  It was a fun experience. Check it out here!

Initially, we were nervous about the cameras.  Especially when Lindsay told us she would be interviewing us separately.  You see, Gabby and I share one brain and can hardly form a single, coherent thought without the other one there to edit and shape it.  This anxiety is evidenced by the beads of sweat on my upper lip.

But who knows, there may be more!  Lindsay said we should turn this into a multi-year documentary where she would show up again in five years and our house would be falling apart.  In ten years, it would just be us bickering at each other huddled over a trash can fire in the middle of our living room.  A little glimpse into the future!  Enjoy the video, and feel free to share if you think it would spark some thoughts for others.  Peace!

YWAP - video2

Week Sixteen: "Fishing for Ice Cream"

Last week, I shared the story of Gabby’s girl’s weekend and my ridiculous attempt to keep everything in order without my wife around.  You may have noticed that the kids were scarcely mentioned in the post.  This was intentional, as I was afraid to share what I had done with them in the event that anyone at Child Protective Services reads the blog.

It was my job to keep the kids occupied so Gabby and her friends could enjoy as much uninterrupted time as possible.  My first thought was to build them a “fort” out of clothespins, blankets and a puppy crate and fill it full of fruit snacks and ring pops.  This way, I could (humanely) sequester them for a couple of days under the guise they were having fun.  Unfortunately, I could never get Jake to consistently pee on the newspaper, so this plan was a bust.

My second idea was to loan them out to the Nashville Police department.  They often need loud noise makers to flush out kidnappers and other ne’er-do-wells from their bunkers.  Jake and Audrey both did well in their first audition, but were ousted in the final round for asking too many irrelevant questions. 

I was quickly running out of options. Our Year Without A Purchase rules state that I could not buy any trinkets to keep my children entertained.  This means I would have to rely on my own ingenuity and items already in my possession to do the job.  

Our first trip away from the house was a disaster. I drove around aimlessly waiting for fun to smack us upside the head.  And, due to my horrible planning skills, I left any of our fun possessions back at the house.  I tried to improvise with what was on hand, but a five-year-old girl can only play with jumper cables and car jacks so many times before the novelty begins to wear off and whining begins.

We went to a couple of parks and had fun playing on the playgrounds, but two hours later, the whining started again.  I called the Nashville Police and put the kids on speakerphone, hoping they would reconsider.  They just hung up on me.  Then, a revelation.

Commence “Operation Frozen Treat”

Our rules do include a provision to purchase food, so I whipped the car into the Sonic drive-in and ordered a menagerie of frozen delights.  A slushee for Jake, a caramel sundae for Audrey, and a Butterfinger Blast for yours truly.  My research revealed that the frozen cream and sugar act as a mild sedative, transforming loud Banshee screams into a perfectly acceptable conversational tone.


* ice cream: the miracle drug

I know the parenting mantra.  Ice cream should be reserved for special times.  Important, momentous occasions.  So, I confess that we had ice cream four times in a 48-hour period.  I’m not proud of it, but it’s amazing the things I learned about my kids when they were chatting and stuffing their faces with crap-tacular goodness. Case in point:   I learned (upon visiting a Sonic that backs to a cemetery) that Audrey would like to be buried in a heart-shaped coffin with a headstone shaped like a horse.  And Jake only wants to be cremated if it doesn’t hurt.  Audrey assures him it’s painless, because when you die your skin falls off.  And skin is the part that feels hurt.  So they only burn your bones.  But when you go to heaven God gives you new bones and new skin, too, unless you want to use your old skin you brought from Earth.

My research also suggests ice cream may be a hallucinogen.

On Saturday evening, as my wife and her friends were enjoying a free hotel night purchased with my frequent traveler loyalty points, the kids and I shared ice cream sandwiches and played board games.   It was a delightful time.  They were enjoying each other’s company.  No one was crying.  Even if they lost.  There were patches of silence while the kids sucked on their fingertips trying to lick away the chocolate sandwich glue.

Finishing off her pinkie, Audrey cut through the silence and blurted out,  “Let’s go fishing, Daddy!”

“Honey, it’s 7:00pm.  It’s almost bedtime.”

“But fish don’t sleep.”

“Not fish bedtime.  Your bedtime.”

“Can we go tomorrow?”

I thought about this.  Fishing does sound more interesting than playing in the park.  But the last time I took the kids fishing, we all got sunburned, I got a hook stuck in my shoulder,  one pole ended up in the pond, and all of us were crying.  And this was just the first half-hour.  What’s more, we only have one tiny fishing pole in working condition.  The other has a rod that’s been snapped in half and a reel that needs some major re-engineering.  We call her “The Widow Maker.”


* the "Widow Maker" and Lightning McQueen

“Sure!”  I answered.  “Let’s go fishing!”

“But we only have one pole!” Jake can always kill a buzz.

“That’s OK.  I can work on the other one.”

“Awwwwww!  Can we buy a pole for me?” Audrey asked, remembering that hers was the one still soaking in the pond at Bowie Park. 

Obviously, she doesn’t read the blog.

“Not this time.  We’ll share.”

The next day after church, I packed up the kids, our two shoddy poles, and drove to the Little Harpeth River. Our good friend, Dwayne Smith, even gave us some left over night crawlers from his own recent expedition.  We looked for a spot to fish, walking past a group of teenage girls swimming in the frigid water.  We walked past a somewhat creepy guy standing watch over the swimming girls and playing fetch with his two rambunctious dogs.  Finally, we found an open spot.

The kids and I spent considerable time wading in the shallows of the river.  With all of the bugs and rocks to check out, Audrey quickly forgot she didn’t have a fishing pole.   We were all skipping rocks and enjoying a new experience.    I then moved on to fiddling with my broken reel and casting an occasional line.  I coaxed both kids to fish for the better part of an hour.  The current was moving pretty fast, so every cast made it look like the bobber was being dragged under by Jaws himself. We caught nothing, but the kids loved it. They reeled it in with gusto every time, excited at the possibility of landing Nemo.

Audrey  took a break from fishing and went back to skipping rocks.  In an attempt to find the perfect stone, she slipped, fell into the river up to her shoulders and came out shivering.  By this time, we were all soaked and chilled.

Standing next to me, Audrey politely asked, “Can we go back to the car and warm up, Daddy?”

Recalling our Bowie Park fishing expedition, I thought it best to quit while we were ahead.

“Sure.  Let’s go.”

I looked down river.  Our tackle box, clothes and bait were about twenty paces away over some jagged stones.  Jake was standing very near all of the gear.  The bank was steep, but there were some branches and rocks immediately to my right which looked easy for Audrey to climb.

“Here honey.  Let me help you up.”

I pushed Audrey’s tiny hiney up the eight foot incline.  She clawed her way to the top and looked down at me.

“Alright Audrey.  Stay right there.  I’m going to walk down and get Jake and we’ll meet you up top.”

“OK Daddy.”

I made my way to Jake and all of our gear.  Two minutes, tops.  He was surprisingly compliant.  He immediately reeled in his empty hook, and I gathered all of our things.  We meandered up the steep bank and came to the grassy clearing.

“OK Audrey, let’s go.”


I looked to my right, twenty paces, expecting to see Audrey.  She wasn’t there.

I looked up and saw a kid’s birthday party going full swing at the picnic pavilion roughly 100 yards away.  There were bouncy castles and balloons all over the place.  I scanned the crowd for a tiny, wet girl in a white flowered bathing suit.  


I looked all around me calling her name as loud as I could.  I expected to hear her call back, “Right here, Daddy!”

But her call never came.  Instead, my voice got louder and louder.  I paced along the path beside the river.  My tone more anxious.  I looked at Jake and it was obvious he was scared.  His smile had transformed into a look of pint-sized panic.

“Where is she, Daddy?”  I could see tears forming. 

Then I thought of the fast-moving current and the steep bank.  What if she fell down the bank after I turned my head?  What if she waded back into the water and slipped?  She doesn’t swim!

I ran to the river bank and looked down.  I saw no signs of her.  But what if she got trapped under the water?  Under a rock?  She wouldn’t be on the surface!  I ran along the bank yelling her name.  I looked for a pale object under the current.  Parents at the birthday party were looking up now, sensing something was terribly out of balance. 

Jake stood motionless.  Whimpering.

I was about to dive into the water when my thoughts drifted to the creepy guy with the cute dogs.  Audrey loves animals.  I thought of every stranger danger cliché in the book.  Is this how it ends?  Dear God, no.  If I dive into the water, I am wasting precious seconds when someone could be walking off with my child.  If I go in search of her, I am wasting precious seconds when my daughter could be trapped under water. 


I started running toward the birthday party.  I was about to yell, “Has anyone seen a little girl in a white swimsuit?!  Did you see where she went?!” I looked to my left and saw a girl running down the path toward me.  One hundred fifty yards away.  Her awkward, distracted, beautiful gait telling me my fears were unwarranted.  I dropped to my knees, threw my head back, and covered my face.  Didn’t want Jake to see the tears of relief that were coming.  It was only thirty seconds.

But it felt like a lifetime.

When she finally reached me, I scolded her with a giant bear hug.

“Where did you go?  I was so worried we had lost you?  I told you to stay right here!”

“I wanted to go back and pet the puppies.”

“I’m sure you did, honey.  But you didn’t tell me where you were going.  I thought I had lost you.  Worse yet, I thought you might have fallen in the water and drowned.”

Her eyes got big.  She said nothing.  She just looked at me and saw the relief in my face and knew. 

We walked back to the car in silence.  Halfway there, she grabbed onto my leg with both arms.  I walked with a happy limp the rest of the way.  When all the gear had been packed into the trunk and everyone was strapped into their seats, I heard Jake call out from the back seat.

“Can we have some ice cream when we get home, Daddy?”

The mantra plays in my mind again.  Ice cream is reserved for special times.  Important, momentous occasions.

And none is as special as this.

Because, unlike my brief, panicked moments with Audrey that stretched into forever, in our day-to-day lives time passes us like a raging river.  We feel like we have a lifetime to spend with those we love, but soon it will feel like only thirty seconds.  Life is precious gift of God that I often waste on worthless worry and the pursuit of perfection.  . 

So here's my prayer today.  Let there be many moments in life that sound the alarm.  A wake up call that stirs my soul.  Because I'm tired of sleepwalking through the simple pleasures that make life worth living. 

Like one more scoop of ice cream.

Week Fifteen: "Surprise!"

A few months ago, two of my wife’s best college girlfriends, Miranda and Chelle, approached me with a proposal.    They wanted to come into town and surprise Gabby for a special “girl’s weekend.”

For any uninitiated male readers out there, allow me define a girl’s weekend for you.  Think of it as a 72-hour book club meeting. Though I have never been formally invited, I have seen book club females in their natural habitat.  Their gatherings include the following: wine, lots of laughter, wine, indulgence in snacks that they normally forbid themselves to eat, simultaneous conversations, wine, more wine, discussions about crazy things their husbands do, whispers and eye rolls, surprised exclamations of “where did all the wine go!?”, and long goodbyes at the front door followed by someone saying,

“Oops!  We forgot to talk about the book!”

For the girl’s weekend, just add shopping.

I know this may sound like a nightmare to most of you fellas out there.  But trust me.  A girl’s weekend is the best thing you’ll ever do for your marriage.  We males simply do not have the capacity to absorb the number of words and complexity of emotion our wives have to offer.  It’s like trying to shove 50-pounds of raw bread dough into an empty beer can.  Try as you might, you’re still going to end up with a big, gooey mess.

But her girlfriends?  They take all that dough and knead it, nurture it, and bake it into the best rolls you ever tasted.  It’s sustenance to last your wife several months.

Her girlfriends wanted it to be a surprise.  “On the morning we arrive,” they said, “just tell her she has something to pick up at the airport, and we’ll be there!”   I was reluctant.  You see, Gabby loves to give surprises.  She loves the planning, preparation, and the ultimate “aha” moment when her plan comes together.  But receiving surprises is a different story.  I believe they all feel to her like winning an Academy Award, then realizing during the acceptance speech that you’re not wearing any pants. 

Against my better judgment, I agreed to the surprise.  My cover was that I was planning a special family weekend for us.  This announcement led to a Freaky Friday style body swap. Gabby took on the role of happy-go-lucky, carefree Scott.  I became the organized, planful Gabby.

This is not what God intended.

For me, planning involves lots of thinking, then walking to the refrigerator and opening the door, followed by expert procrastination.  In the three months leading up to the big weekend, I had consumed several pounds of leftovers, but not much else had been accomplished. 

A few days before their arrival, I had a Zen-like moment of clarity.  Since they couldn’t go shopping, I decided that my job would be to make sure everything at our house was taken care of so that once her friends arrived, Gabby wouldn’t have to think of a single thing besides enjoying their company. 

What followed was a frantic array of failure.  I tried to clean the house as Gabby might in preparation for a long-term guest.  I told her, “I’m handling everything for our family fun weekend.  But, assuming someone comes by to check on the plants while we’re gone, what would you want me to clean?”  She rattled off a list that started with vacuuming and ended with putting down wood floors in our linen closet.

I’m not kidding.

I only finished one-third of Gabby’s normal pre-trip cleaning checklist, and I felt like I had just birthed a walrus.  One hour after scouring the hall bath, I heard Audrey scream “Oh no!”.  I rounded the corner to see her watching a cascade of urine run down her legs, saturating the bathroom rugs I had just washed.  Jake added his own yellow design to the back of the toilet seat for good measure.

It was glorious.

I also committed to doing all of the errands Gabby had planned.  Shuttling kids around.  Dropping off paperwork.  Going to the bank, etc.  I think I ended up delivering our tax forms to the kid in our car pool, and trying to deposit a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the canister at the drive-thru teller.

This is definitely not what God intended.

The night before Miranda and Chelle were to arrive, I surprised Gabby with a note on her pillow.  It said, “There is no family trip.  Instead, you are to go to the airport tomorrow morning and pick up a special friend.  Be there by 9:30.”


Her gaze met mine.  Her face wore a complicated expression of anger (how could the love of my life have lied to me?), excitement (I wonder who my special friend is?) and Gabby’s Look of Mild DisapprovalTM (Scott didn’t clean out the refrigerator!). 

The next morning, I took the kids to school while Gabby got ready to meet her special friend.  I watched her in the mirror as she put on her eye liner.  Seeing her in a whole new light.  But her mind was elsewhere.  She caught me ogling her and said. 

“What have you done, Dannemiller?”

“What do you mean?  Aren’t you excited?”

“I’m sort of excited.”

“Why not completely excited?”

“Because, had I known someone was coming to stay at our house, I would have dusted the shelves in the playroom.  They’re filthy!”

When Gabby left the house, I got to work.  I wiped down a few shelves in the refrigerator so they would pass inspection.

Meanwhile, at the airport, Gabby was relishing a teary-eyed reunion with some of her best friends.  I had left a second, intriguing envelope in the car.


Inside was a surprise letter for Gabby and her friends telling them they could cash in Gabby’s unused spa certificate I had given her three years ago as an anniversary gift.  Side note: After taking over Gabby’s duties for just one weekend, I now see how an entire Presidential Administration could go by without her finding the time to get a massage.


* The lovely ladies.  Chelle, Gabby and Miranda.

They called to relay their thanks to me, and tell me they were on their way home.  I estimated I might have just enough time to grab the knock-off-brand Pledge and a rag and attack the book shelves, but I would be cutting it close.  I started in on the first shelf when my phone buzzed.  It was a text from Miranda.

“Um.  We might be getting a ticket.  L It’s mine and Chelle’s fault.  We were distracting her.”

Two thoughts came to mind.  First, now I have plenty of time to dust.  Second, bail bonds are not on the approved purchase list this year.

I texted back, “FYI… In case you were wondering, the hunky young cop is not part of the surprise.  Do NOT put any dollars in his waistband.”

Apparently, Gabby relayed this information to the State Trooper thinking it might get her out of a ticket.

It didn’t.

As I dusted in the playroom, I wanted to do a good job.  Twenty-four book shelves in all.  Each filled with stuff.  Some were crammed full of great children’s stories like “Oh No, Gotta’ Go” and “Tickle Monsters.”  There was no dust on top of or behind the books, so I carefully wiped in front of each one.  As my rag passed each spine, I remembered how much fun it is to sit on our couch and hear the kids beg me to give a special voice to every character.  In “The Gruffalo”, the mouse sounds a bit like Elmo.  The fox is a dead ringer for Larry the Cable Guy.  The Owl is from Bangalore.  And the snake is an odd mix of Sean Connery and Jimmy Stewart. 

I also do children’s parties.

Then there were the pictures.  I picked up each one and dusted underneath.  Thanks to Patrolman Riley/”Not-So-Magic” Mike, I now had some extra time to really see the photos that go unnoticed day-to-day.  They all brought back memories.  Friends young and old were all preserved in a moment in time.  Family.  Pics of the kids from when they were babies.  Smiling.  All bringing back happy memories.

Finally there were the shelves covered with trinkets.  These left a very different impression.   I tried to simplify the job by simply dusting around them, but it didn’t work.  Each one had to be moved and set down again.  Every time I picked one up, each seemed to ask, “What purpose do I serve?”  “Why do you keep me?”

The answer was always the same.

“I don’t know.”

These things just got in the way. Old awards and plaques once held pride and ego.  But all of that leaked out long ago.  And the decorations?   The effort required to maintain and transport them far exceeded the benefit of having them.  They were now just items that we had to maneuver around.  Getting in the way.

I finished the dusting five minutes before the girls walked through the door.  I was greeted with hugs and smiles. They were so ready to take on the weekend.  They came to visit Nashville.  Music City.  It’s a place where people come to see the sights. Hear some music.  Buy souvenirs.

And surprise!  They failed. 

Sure, they went out on the town.  But for the most part, they buried themselves in the couches and chairs.  Nonstop conversation.  It was like that for the entire weekend.  Plans came and went, falling victim to the desire to relax and just enjoy the company of one another.  Storytelling.  Catching up.  Connecting. 

Never once mentioning the shelves. 

Just as God intended.

Week Eleven: "A Long Strange Trip"

I went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to teach a class this week. No.  That’s not a lie.

I was doing work with the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center.  They had conducted a web search and stumbled across some information about a Critical Thinking workshop I teach.  They invited.  I accepted.

YWAP Saudi discussion *A group of hospital leaders working through a critical decision

To say Riyadh is conservative is an understatement.   Outside the Embassy walls, there are no movie theaters, bars, or dance clubs.  There’s no alcohol to be found.  The flight attendants on the plane took it away from everyone once we crossed into Saudi airspace.  Women and men are not allowed to accompany one another in public, unless married.  There is almost no crime.  The customs admission form includes a graphic of a skull and crossbones declaring drug traffickers will be subject to the death penalty.

I kept my allergy medicine in the hotel just in case.

Most everything that a typical westerner might call “fun” has been wiped from the community like a muddy footprint, save for one thing.  Shopping malls.    While retail represents 7.9% of the entire Gross Domestic Product in the US, in Saudi Arabia, it’s 17%.  You can’t throw a kabob without hitting a Bath & Body Works.   I’m stereotyping here, but Saudis visit the mall so much it’s as if the entire country was made up of 13-year-old suburban girls jonesing for a fro-yo.   I wondered how such constant exposure to commercialism might impact the culture here, causing there to be an imbalanced focus on acquiring stuff.

Wanting to experience it for myself, I went to the mall on my first night there.  The place was filled with window shoppers.  Women out for a girl’s night.  Families with kids in strollers.  Guys hanging out and chatting.  I noticed some familiar stores such as Victoria’s Secret, which seemed quite out of place to my untrained eye.  But you quickly realize that the long, black abaya worn in public by every adult woman is simply covering up clothing that fashionable ladies are sporting the world over.  Public and private lives are very different in Saudi Arabia.


* Methinks Victoria has lots of secrets underneath that black robe

Around six o’ clock, I was getting hungry when I heard an unfamiliar sound.  It was the Muslim call to prayer being broadcast over the mall loudspeaker.  Storefronts closed.  Most men disappeared.  Women gathered in close-knit groups.  Seeing that it would be another 20 minutes before I could go to McDonald’s for my McArabic (an actual menu item), I took a break.

I wandered over to a bench and pulled out my two-day-old USA Today.  I made it through the first paragraph of an article skewering the latest Steve Carrell movie when I got the unsettling sensation I was being watched.  I turned around to see a rather large mall security guard standing behind me.

“You cannot sit here.”

I quickly panicked, as I often do when surprised.  My mind drifted to the skull and crossbones as I wondered if reading a colorful newspaper was against Saudi law.

“Oh.  I’m sorry.”

“Go to Starbucks.”  The man was intimidating, speaking in broken English.


“Let me show you.”

He walked me to the elevator, pressed the button, and escorted me into the elevator.  We spent an uncomfortable half minute riding to the second floor, neither of us making a sound.  When the doors opened, he curtly gestured toward the Starbucks which was also shuttered during prayer.

“Go there.”

I did as I was told.  I sheepishly walked to the coffee shop and stood there like a frightened puppy, afraid to even glance at my newspaper.  Is Starbucks just a holding pen for unruly Americans?  Others were walking around and window shopping.  But I stood still.  I didn’t want to see the guard again.

After fifteen minutes of people watching, the storefronts opened, and I took that as my cue to move.  International incident averted.

The next day in class, Latifah, a housing manager approached me during a break.

“How are you enjoying your trip?”

“Very much,” I replied.

“It’s very different from the U.S., no?”

“Yes it is.”  Her face was covered by her head scarf, but I could see the smile in her eyes.

YWAP Saudi Chat 2 *chatting it up with participants

“Can I ask you a question, Latifah?”

“You just did.”

Good one.  We both laughed.

“I was in the mall last night during the evening prayer.  I sat down on a bench to read my newspaper, but a security guard quickly approached and ushered me off to Starbucks.  Is it illegal to read during prayer time?”

She paused, then laughed out loud.

“No, Mr. Scott.” she responded, still smiling at the worry on my face.  “As a form of respect toward women, it is customary to leave them a place to sit.  Especially during prayer time.”

The only law I had broken was being a jerk.  Like the guy who steals a subway seat from your grandmother.  The security guard was just trying to salvage what little chivalrous honor I had left.

YWAP Saudi Classroom * A good shot of the classroom.  Falah is in the back with the white head scarf.

Falah, a fellow student and the hospital’s media relations rep, caught the end of our conversation.  He was wearing his keffiyeh, a long robe and with a white head scarf.  He asked,

“What is the perception of Saudis in the United States?”

Haifa, a research lab technician, interrupted him.

“He’s not going to tell you!”

Before he could respond, I answered.

“Sure!  I’ll tell you.  Many people in the United States are fearful of anything in the Middle East outside of Dubai.  Very few people would want to travel here willingly.  They think it might be dangerous.  My mother, for example, called me just before I got on the plane to say her ‘final goodbye’. I think it’s a product of what they see on TV.  Bombings.  Terrorist groups.”

Someone else, I forget whether it was Latifah or Haifa said, “My family was scared for me to go to New York.  Very dangerous.  People get shot all the time.  According to the TV programs.”

Apparently CNN and Law & Order don’t do anyone any favors.    Media manipulation distorting reality.

Falah continued, “Mr. Scott.  You seem like a really good guy.  Are you interested in falconry?”

“Falconry?”  This may be one of the most obscure questions I’ve ever been asked.

“Yes.  Hunting with falcons.  I have written nine books on falconry, and run a falconry club here.  If you come back, I would love to take you out to the desert with my bird.  We could hunt.  See some camels.   It would allow you to see an entirely different side of the country.”

Haifa added, “We actually have hunting camels, too.  They snatch birds right out of the air.”

My eyes were wide until I realized she was pulling my leg.  Showing how quickly reality can get distorted. She smiled.   Falah handed me a copy of one of his books, and his personal contact information.

“I’m not kidding.  I would love to take you out.”

“I will call you.  Most definitely.”

Later that evening, I took one final trip to the mall before my midnight flight.  I was laughing at myself.  My misconceptions.  The night before, I remembered wondering how such constant exposure to commercialism might impact the culture here, causing there to be an imbalanced focus on acquiring stuff.  Heck, even on this second trip to the mall, I found myself wanting to break the Year Without A Purchase vow.  I’m half way around the world!  I gotta’ bring some shiny junk back for the kids, right?  How can anyone stay connected to what’s important when you’re surrounded by the unimportant all the time.

As I was about to walk into a leather goods store and browse the luggage, I heard the sound again.  Over the loud speaker came an atonal voice singing the adhan – the call to prayer.

Storefronts closed.  Most men disappeared.  Women gathered in close-knit groups.  For the next twenty minutes, people left their everyday distractions behind and re-centered on God. Me included.  I put away the newspaper and focused on what’s important.

For three minutes, anyway.

But there was nothing else to do. And here, it happens five times per day.

Before sunrise.  Fajr.  Remembering God.

At noon. Dhuhr.  Asking for guidance in your day.

Late afternoon. ‘Asr.  In the midst of daily stress.  Pausing to remember God’s greater meaning in our lives.

Before sundown. Maghrib. Thankfulness for a day well-lived.

After sundown.  ‘Isha. Remembering God’s presence, mercy and forgiveness.

How beautiful. How consistent.  Connecting with God as part of a routine.  Like bathing or breathing.  Simple and powerful.

I went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to teach a class this week.

But learned far more than I taught.

YWAP Saudi class

*the gang's all here!  Me and my new friends.

Week Ten: "True Confessions"

The holy smoke came out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel yesterday morning, reminding me of my Catholic upbringing and signaling a new Pope is in the big Pope chair.  I was never a very good Catholic, otherwise I would have remembered the formal name for His Eminence’s fancy seat. In fact, I may be the only Catholic child to get “held back” in Sunday School.  Most kids do their first confession in the third grade.   I was so nervous about confessing my sins to the priest that I came up with every excuse imaginable to miss out on the Sunday School lessons where they taught you the proper way to rat on yourself in front of a holy man.  I had to remediate many years later.

As a freshman in high school.  I was the Catholic Billy Madison.

This created some real angst for me.  By the time I finally mustered the courage to release my face-to-face tell-all biography to Father Mikliska, I had moved way past lying to my parents and into regularly taking the Lord’s name in vain and entertaining a constant stream of impure thoughts about the varsity cheerleading squad.  I may be the first sinner on record to ever have to pay a security deposit on the confessional.  The first 15 minutes are free, but each additional quarter hour will cost you.

After my first confession, I never went back.  I piled up sin-after-sin for another fifteen years or so before visiting Europe on a trip of self-discovery.  The year was 2001 – the Jubilee Year.  Every fifty years or so the Catholic Church celebrates its Jubilee, and opens the special doors on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  The belief is that anyone who walks through the Jubilee doors is automatically absolved of his sins.  You don’t even have to do anything to receive the forgiveness.  It’s kinda’ like walking through the turnstile at a Major League Baseball game on a big promotional night.  Only instead of a Derek Jeter bobble head you get total absolution.

I went through three times, just in case.

Now a real-life priest and friend from college (see Fr. Stuart's comment below this post) informs me that both my tour guide and Wikipedia have misinformed me.  Walking through the doors isn't enough.  It still requires a sit-down with a holy man.  Looks like it's now been over twenty years since my last soul cleanse.    So, today, as readers of the Year Without A Purchase blog, you shall be my priest.

Forgive us readers, for we may have sinned.

The rules state we will not buy anything this year.  We haven’t technically broken these rules.  We’ve just found some loopholes.  So, we need your judgment to determine if we need to do penance of some kind.

The first one is a minor sin.  Jake is playing catcher for his little league team, and the coach suggested he get a cup to protect his nether regions.  That’s not something you typically want as a hand-me-down.  And, while I’m sure we could have used a recycled yogurt container or something, we bit the bullet and bought one.  I think it qualifies as a need.

Next up, Jake’s shoes.

Last week’s blog mentioned that we made Jake wear his summer swim shoes when his regular tennis shoes became more hole than shoe.  Well, the elastic cord on one of those shoes snapped, leaving the shoe floppy and slipping off whenever he ran.  We checked with a few relatives for some hand-me-downs.  Finding none that fit, we bought him a new pair.

One Hail Mary.


Then there is the lunchbox.  I am fortunate enough to have married a woman who knows the exact location of the receipt for any purchase she has made since Milli Vanilli won a Grammy.  We were able to take Jake’s broken lunch box back to Costco and receive a refund, which we used to purchase a replacement.

Three Our Fathers.

And finally, there was the Scholastic Book Fair last week.  Jake was very excited about it, and it was promoted all over school.  He kept talking about wanting a new sports almanac book – the new version of last year’s book which he read cover-to-cover hundreds of times.

So, we let him use his Christmas money (before the Year Without A Purchase, mind you) to buy a new Almanac at the book fair, with the provision that we could read it together.

Two Rosaries and bring the main dish to the next parish potluck.


* Apparently, some of us still like new things.  "The Pre-Year-w/o A Purchase 2012 Santa made me do it."

I know our rationalization sounds a bit like, “I know the sixth commandment says ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ but that guy was a total jerk!”  But this is a learning process for us.  We intentionally went a little crazy with this manufactured wackiness at the risk of looking patronizing to those who live the Year Without A Purchase reality every day.  But Gabby and I know that we’re not the type of people that can just say “we need to get more focused on what’s truly important” and stick with it.  We’ll just backslide.  Or worse yet, do nothing at all.  In many ways it is a selfish pursuit for us.  My cousin summed it up best in a recent email.

“So the Dannemiller family consists of highly educated, healthy folks in their prime in the wealthiest nation earth has ever seen ... and you still find a way to make challenges!  Bully for you!  Ain't it fun?”

So, we shoot for the moon and then fiddle with the rules.  Maybe even fail.  But sometimes brokenness speaks louder than perfection.  We’ve heard from a lot of people that our little adventure, both successes and failures, has made them think a bit more about their own lives.  Maybe even alter a perspective or two.  But most importantly, it has stirred changes in us.  Some are too hard to name or describe at this moment.  That will come with time.  But we do know this:  Every time we see something we want to buy, we’re reminded that connecting with those near and far is more important than the object of our desire.

So our penance is continuing the journey.  Day by day.  Learning and growing.

Week Nine: "The Worst Parenting Advice You'll Ever Receive"

Hey parents out there.

Yeah.  I’m talking to you.  The ones who said you would never let your kids eat McDonald’s in the back seat.  Or listen to kid music.  Or do that cliché’ discipline tactic where you yell, “I’m going to count to three and then I’m going to (insert horrible, irrational, overblown punishment here).”

Well, stop scrubbing that ketchup stain on the upholstery, mute “The Wheels on the Bus,” and shut you’re your big yapper.  Because I have something to say and you’d better listen up.

I’m serious.

Turn the music off.

Now.  Don’t make me say it again.  I’m going to count to three, and it better be off or you’ll never have candy ever again.  For the rest of your life.  Never.  I don’t care if the whole world blows up and the only food left is candy. You’re not eating it. You hear me?

One…  two…

OK.  That’s better.  Now that I have your attention, I’m gonna’ lay some wisdom down on you and not even charge you for it.  Here goes.

Stop protecting your kids. 

You heard it right.  Stop. Protecting. Your. Kids.

Before I start sounding like an overbearing know-it-all, please realize that I am actually talking to myself.  Any resemblance to your own neurotic parenting style is purely coincidental.

This past week brought a perfect storm of challenges to the Year Without A Purchase.  All of them child-induced.  And all had us questioning whether this whole ordeal is making us bad parents. 

For starters, Jake’s tennis shoes are on life support.  The soles are ripping off, and the side is developing a gaping hole, as if my son has the feet of an 87-year-old man with huge bunions and an extra pinkie toe protruding out. 


He asked, “Can I get some new shoes after school today, daddy?”

I replied, “But son, you HAVE other shoes.  The black ones.”

“But I don’t like those shoes.”

“You don’t have to like ‘em.  The job of shoes is to protect your feet.  These are shoes.”

 “But they aren’t the right shoes.  They are summer shoes.”

“Summer is coming fast.”

“Not until June.  June 21st.  You said so.”

Even though my son remembered the correct date of the summer solstice like he was channeling Rainman, we did not reward him with a new pair of sneakers.

Besides the shoes, the zippers on both his backpack and lunch box broke this week.  The school requires an insulated pack so kids don’t eat room-temperature turkey sandwiches and turn the place into a salmonella factory.  His is barely functional.   He wants to leave it half-zipped until it finally falls apart.  Luckily, we have another one he can use.  The problem?  It’s a lovely paisley-floral print.

I hope he’s ready to set some new first grade fashion trends.

As for the backpack, it’s a goner.  But we have a backup.  Gabby got it at a trade show over twenty years ago.  How do we know the exact age of the pack, you ask?  Because it has the date written right on it.  1989.  I stuffed it full of his school gear and laid it in the hallway.


He asked,“What’s this?”

“It’s your new backpack, son.”

"But I didn’t pick it.”

“I know.  Mom did.”

He pointed to the clover-like graphic between the words "Yak-Pak" and asked, "What's this funny shape?"

"I don't know."

After twenty questions about the coolness of the pack and the definition of the word “new”, he lost interest in arguing the point and changed the subject.

But the topper this weekend was the March Madness basketball tournament.  No, not the one that generates squillions of dollars of revenue and makes Vegas oddsmakers giddy.  We’re talking about the no-holds-barred basketball slug-fest at Montessori Academy in Nashville.  The one pitting first-grader against first-grader to establish worldwide bragging rights for generations to come.  NBA scouts in attendance.    Corporate sponsorship deals going down in the hallways.

Or so you might think if you saw me yelling like an idiot in the stands.


As a fun way to celebrate the end-of-season tournament, the other kids’ parents had purchased these really cool red camouflage Air Jordan socks for their players.  Gabby and I struggled with the decision.  Do we get some for our kid?  Sure, we have $13.  We don’t want him to feel left out.  But it’s not part of the standard uniform. 

So Jake wore white.  The only one. 

We carried around some heavy guilt over these decisions.  I asked myself, “Is this cruel?  Have we gone overboard?”  I didn’t respond to either question.  I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

Because we’ve all lived through childhood and know how cruel kids can be.  We’ve all shed tears after taunts, left feeling inadequate.  You didn’t have the latest shoes or the latest style.  You looked different.  Acted different.  Laughed different.

And it sucked big time.  We all wear the scars.

So the question is, if you have the ability to buy a few things and protect your child from this heartache and choose not to, are you the one doing the scarring? 

The answer is, “No.”

Stop.  Protecting.  Your.  Kids.

By protecting our kids in this way, we only help perpetuate the idea that what you own is a measure of who you are.  We cover them up with so much shiny junk that it’s virtually impossible to see the person inside. 

And we drown out the God-voice inside each and every one of them.  The voice that says I’m uniquely and beautifully made.  The voice that doesn’t hear the put-downs and taunts because it’s too busy shouting,

“I love you”

“I made you.”

“You’re more than enough.”

When we protect our kids in this way, we deprive them of disappointment.   Disappointment that forges faith in something bigger than today.  Bigger than the present or the presents.  A resolve that bubbles up from deep within, making us stronger day-by-challenging day.

Because Jake got used to his summer shoes.   His friend Yusuf said his backpack looked like a “leprechaun bag,” but went on playing with him anyway.  And by the time the next basketball game rolled around, stubborn stains, stinky kids and laundry schedules had all the other players in mis-matched pairs once again. 

I realize that we may be simply justifying our own lunacy.  Rationalizing away the guilt of watching our kids struggle.  

Or maybe…

Just maybe…

We’re taking their lives out of our own hands and placing them in God’s. 

Back where they belong.

Week Eight: "The Better Half"

Not buying stuff forces you to focus on other things.  For a moment there, I was focusing on stuffing my face with as much junk food as it would hold.  A single step on the YMCA scale told me that my energy was misplaced.  Perhaps I could find it in the same place I left my self-restraint. Time to refocus on the important things.

Last week, Gabby and I vowed to eat dinner as early as possible, so we would have some quality with the tiny people in our house before we finally put them in their cages to bed for the night. After all, this year is about building connections, and we should start with those closest to us.

So last week we sat on the couch as a family every night and read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe cover-to-cover.   You see, we’re still keeping our kids in the dark about this whole Year Without A Purchase thing.  So Jake and Audrey don’t know they’re “deprived” yet (a minor miracle), but the Scholastic Book Fair at school might blow this whole thing wide open.  We hoped a little C.S. Lewis would be enough of a draw to make them forget about any other literary works they might desire.


* a typical storytime, minus Gabby

It worked!  Each night, Gabby would chide me when I forgot to use my lion voice, the kids would beg for “just one more chapter”, and we would torture them with a cliffhanger.  When we finally finished, we got to discuss the deeper meaning of the book.  It’s amazing the concepts a young mind can absorb.

I upped the ante on “togetherness” the very next day when I picked Jake up from school.  I had to run some errands, and used them as an excuse for us to spend some one-on-one time with him, just chatting.  He independently strapped himself into the car seat.  No help needed.  Another sign that we are one step closer to the days when I will be a social anchor around his neck, holding him back from fun with his friends.

But innocence remains.  We jumped out of the car and he grabbed my hand as we walked into the post office.  I smiled.


* enjoying it while it lasts

Our six-year-old sports statistician was grilling me about Kevin Durant’s shoe size when we were quickly interrupted.

“Hey buddy, you got a second?”

I looked down and saw a man sitting on the curb.  His eyes were tired, like half-drawn mini blinds.  A woman sat beside him with her head in her hands.  I got that familiar feeling.  A body split in two.  One half wanting to hear the man’s story, and the other wishing I had chosen the other entrance.

The sliding doors opened, but I didn’t slide through.  My other half wanted to, but my better half was attached to a six-year-old compassionate anchor who knows the meaning of the word “ignored.”

Quality time.

I turned toward the couple, “Sure. What’s up?”

The woman started coughing into her lap, deferring to the man.  He explained, “My wife and I sell papers.”  He gestured to the lanyard around his neck, displaying a badge that says he works for “The Contributor”, Nashville’s homeless newspaper.  “We’ve been really sick, so this morning we went to the clinic.  The doctor says we both have pneumonia.  By the time we got back, there were no more papers for us to sell, and we don’t have enough money for rent.  Can you help us out?”

I let go of my anchor, but stayed in place.  Because my anchor knows that I have money in my wallet.  And I would much rather my better half explain to him that we should help people no matter the circumstance, rather than have the other half explain the meaning of the word “cynical.”

My better half reached into my wallet and pulled out the only bill there, while the other half wished that ATM’s spit out cash in much smaller denominations.

I said, “God Bless” as I handed him the bill.  He thanked us profusely, and I quickly blurted, “No problem.”  Unable to fully accept the gratitude knowing the turmoil I felt inside.

Jake and I talked a bit about the couple on the way home.  Always the fact-finder, his questions were mostly about details.  “What’s pneumonia?” and “What’s rent?”  I answered with the best Webster’s dictionary response I could, happy to be having a good conversation with him.

That night at dinner, as we rounded the table with our Thorns and Roses discussion, Jake chimed in.

“My turn!”

“OK buddy, what do you want to start with?”

“A thorn.”

“So what’s your thorn for today?”

“We didn’t get to go out at recess because it was raining.”

“And what’s your rose?”

“We got to help people today.  They needed money to pay for their house and we gave it to them.”

Quality time.  Well worth the effort.  An opportunity to reconnect.  Because they say “integrity” is what you do when no one else is watching.  I say “teaching” is what you do when your kids are close at hand.

And my other half is doing the learning.

Week Seven: "I Love You"

“I love you.” Her words pierced through the silence.  I looked over at Gabby in the passenger seat.  She was smiling and looking me in the eye.

“I love you, too!”

My mind had been racing.  Jumping from “What should we eat for dinner?” to “How should I redesign my company website?” to “Who wrote the 80’s classic ‘Safety Dance?’”  Gabby’s unsolicited, unexpected words of affection brought me back to reality.

A few miles down the road, she said it again.

“I love you.”

I stared at her, both hands on the wheel.

“That’s nice, honey.  I love you, too!”  I glanced up and corrected my steering, coming back into the passing lane.

“No.  I really love you,” she said.

I reached across the console and grabbed her hand.  We continued our drive to church, connected in silence, but knowing the deep bond between us.

And so it went for several weeks.  Three simple words, “I love you.” Spoken as frequently as one might say “Hello” to an acquaintance or “Put on your shoes” to a four-year-old prior to leaving the house.  I’m not sure what I had done, but Gabby showered me with an avalanche of affectionate words, and I was happily buried.

Then came Easter.

On our way home from church, Gabby turned to me and asked, “So, do you want to know what I gave up for Lent?”


“I never told you what I gave up for Lent.  The past forty days.  Do you want to know what it was?”


“Well,” she hesitated.  “You know how I always criticize your driving?”


“Well.  For Lent, every time I wanted to comment about your speeding, or not signaling, or whatever else, I decided to say ‘I love you’ instead.”

I nearly rear-ended the Toyota immediately in front of us.  To this day, anytime Gabby says “I love you,” my first response is to scream, “Driving on the shoulder is perfectly acceptable in 43 of the 50 states!”  Probably not the result she was looking for.


As we enter another Lenten season, we church-goers are looking for something significant to “give up” for Lent.  So, what’ll it be?  Sweets?  Reality TV shows?  Facebook?   I’ll make you wait until the book is out to hear about the hilariously crazy “no new stuff” action I have taken to kick off the Lenten season this year.

But Gabby had it right.  Lent is less about “what” you choose to sacrifice, and more about “why” you choose to sacrifice.  For Gabby, she realized a simple behavior in her life was getting in the way of genuinely connecting with someone important to her.

Too often, Lent becomes an exercise in delayed gratification.  We choose to deny ourselves of something we love so that we can truly appreciate it when we have it once again at Easter.  And, there is a certain spiritual truth in that.  On the Earth, we can get disconnected from all things God.  And one day, God willing, we’ll get to ride that grand escalator to the sky where we finally meet our Creator and bask in the heavenly embrace.  I’m sure it’ll feel just like having your first Pop Tart after going carb-free for six weeks.

But it’s so much more than delayed gratification.  Lent is a time of pruning.  Cutting away the shoots that have grown over time.  The ones that clutter, and choke, and prevent healthy growth.  And feeding and caring for the branches that really matter.

And we hope that is what comes from this “Year Without A Purchase”.  Our stuff and the energy we put toward its acquisition can distract us from what’s truly important.  Time with family.  Deep conversation.  Service to those on the margins.

We hope that this won’t be a one-time thing, or an opportunity to binge on January 1, 2014.  It’s not about saving money.  It’s about saving ourselves from the distractions by consistently asking, “What is this purchase for?”  “Will this purchase help to build a connection with others or with God?”  “Or will this purchase just be something else to take care of.  Something else to worry about?  Something that gets in the way of people seeing the real me?”

While we’ve been successful in not purchasing any new “stuff” in seven weeks, we are still short of this larger goal.  A permanent change.  A lifetime of “I love you.”

And so we press onward.

Week Five: It's In The Bag

Disclaimer:  The following rant highlights how trivial our first world problems are.  Feel free to be disgusted and annoyed.  In fact, it’s expected. Well, we’re five weeks into this little experiment and things are getting lost and broken at a record pace.

Gabby lost her favorite travel cup.  The insulated one with the straw and the screw top.  Since our house has no shortage of containers with which to hold ice water, she’s out of luck.

Jake lost his basketball, too.  He loaned it to some kids at school who didn’t return it.  He was devastated, thinking they had pitched it into the woods.  He even searched there after school with no luck.  It turns out a Good Samaritan had spotted it and taken it to the lost and found in another classroom.  Thankfully, Jake and the ball were reunited, and I didn’t have to play the role of dream crusher by saying, “Sorry, we can’t get another basketball Jake, because your parents are psycho-idiots who don’t think they should buy any new stuff for a year.”

The old fridge in the garage is on the blink as well.  As further proof of global warming, it is only cooling our food intermittently.  Since I am a complete and utter failure when it comes to appliance repair, we’ll be knee-deep in leftover chili and half-frozen peas if it goes.    A second refrigerator is definitely not a necessity.

Then, last week at breakfast, a blinding light erupted from our toaster oven.  I thought it might be an angel of the Lord, coming to settle the spontaneous debate between Jake and Audrey as to the gender of her stuffed animal.  Imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be a blown heating element.  Not only will I never know whether Crushie the turtle is a boy or a girl, but now it takes four minutes per side to brown a slice of bread.  I called Cuisinart for a replacement part, and they simply said,

“That’s not a fixable item.  I think it’s time for you to buy a new unit.”

Apparently, they don’t follow the blog.

But the most troubling loss was my rolling suitcase.  She’s like a family member.  A rich brown color with four fully-articulating wheels and a pleasant disposition.  She has a telescoping handle with extra length to accommodate taller folks like me.   Always at my side - every week for business travel.  Happy to carry my burdens without complaint.

But I pushed her too far.

Irritated after a long wait on the jetway, I yanked her handle a bit too hard.  The handle cracked, and one of the telescoping arms ripped right out of its channel in the back of the suitcase.  Shoving it back in was a bit like trying to shove a Twinkie back into its wrapper - requiring patience and lots of mumbled four-letter words.  I was able to get the suitcase back into semi-working order, but I knew it wouldn’t hold up under duress.

I looked for other options.  Gabby had purchased a beautiful new red rolling suitcase last year.  It’s clean, and uncluttered.  She caught me eyeballing it and said,

“No way, mister.  That’s my suitcase!”

“But we’re family.  Families share.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because your version of sharing involves you using my stuff, breaking it, and then giving it back to me.”

She has a point.

So I dove into the bowels of the closet looking for an alternative.   Ideally, I would find a very small suitcase that might fit in the overhead bin of the tiny jet I was flying this week, allowing me to avoid the long wait at baggage claim.  After some rummaging, I found what I was looking for.  The perfect-sized suitcase.  A bag that could meet the simple requirement of holding my garments and keeping them safe and dry.  But there was just one problem.

It was purple.

And no, we’re not talking royal purple.  Not even violet.  This suitcase is lavender.  If this bag had a scent, it would smell like an infant Liberace wearing your grandmother’s perfume.  No self-respecting businessperson would dare be seen with a bag like this.

But I have no self-respect.

And I’m not buying anything this year.

So I packed the bag and prepared for my trip to Denver.  I stuffed it full of workout gear, business casual clothes, and socks.  Yes, I remembered the socks.


I got to the airport and cleared security.  Everyone seemed to glance at me, then glance at my bag.   Their eyes would then scan the area for a thirteen-year-old girl.  Finding none, they would avert their gaze to save us both the embarrassment.  It didn’t help that I was humming a Justin Bieber tune that was playing in the airport shuttle van just minutes earlier.  Damn that kid and his catchy lyrics!

As I was standing in line to board the plane, I heard a voice behind me.

“Excuse me, sir.”

I turned to see a businessman in his mid-forties.


His eyes were burning a hole in my suitcase.  He continued,

“Please tell me I’m not the only one today to give you $#*! about your purple bag.”

“You’re the first to verbalize it.”

“Good.  I was just checking.”

I didn’t know what else to say, so I boarded the plane and looked for my seat.  I quickly shoved the bag in the overhead along with my coat and settled into 14B.  I fell asleep not long after we took off.

I awoke as we were landing.  The plane made its way to the gate, and, as usual, everyone jumped to their feet as soon as the doors opened.  A blonde woman in the row in front of me gestured to the man standing behind me.

“Could you hand me my bag?” she asked, pointing toward the overhead bin.  “It’s the rolling suitcase right next to you.”

Without missing a beat, the man reached up and grabbed the purple bag.

“Sorry.  That’s mine.”  I said.

“Really?”  He stopped and stared at me in disbelief.


“Nice.”  He said, before grabbing the appropriately-toned black bag next to it and handing it to the blonde in 12C.

It was another moment that affirmed for me how much our “stuff” can define us in our culture.  I actually found myself wondering if I should let my client see my little purple suitcase.  As if the quality of my work is somehow reflected in the color of my luggage.

I only have to look to myself for the answer.

How many times have I discredited someone’s worth based on the clothes they choose to wear, the car they drive, or the things they choose to buy?  I’d like to think I see past all of those things, but I’d be lying if I said such judgments never crossed my mind.

So I hope that is a little side benefit of this challenge.  That I will re-learn what I knew as an infant.  Our worth is not wrapped up in what we own.  Our worth is guaranteed.  Our life is our currency.  And it’s up to each one of us to choose how we spend it.

Week Two: "The Year of The Goat?"

Jake came home from school this week with an invitation to a birthday party.  The girl who invited him had chosen to have her bash at a local karate school.  The kids will spend an hour or two in a giant, padded room, rolling on the floor, punching foam-filled bags and beating each other senseless.  Sounds a lot like a room I would like to build in my house, but I would add a big drain in the middle, so we could just throw food in there at mealtime and then hose the thing down once the kids had stuffed their pie holes.

But we’re not buying anything this year.  So I’ll either have to let my dream die.  Or build it out of garbage.

I digress.

Meredith’s party is in a couple of weeks.  At breakfast this morning, Gabby mentioned that we needed to think of a gift that Jake can give the birthday girl.  This had totally slipped my mind, as most details do.  Luckily Gabby does the advance planning for us.  If I was a single dad, I wouldn’t remember a gift until we were in the parking lot.  Meredith would be receiving some pocket lint and a bag of ketchup packets we have crammed in the glove box. 

But what do you get a kid when you can’t buy any stuff?  This is something we didn’t think of ahead of time when we created our rules for the year.  The rules state that “gifts must be in the form of charitable donation or ‘experience gifts’ to build connections and memories.”

But that’s not what most six-year-olds want. 

I started thinking of the reaction Jake might get if he gave her the gift my folks got us at Christmas – a donation to Oxfam, the proceeds of which are used to buy a goat for someone in a developing country.  We loved the gift.  It's such a great concept!  But I could see our little guy sheepishly (pun intended) handing a card to little Meredith.

“What’s this?” she would ask.

“It’s a goat.”

“No it’s not.  A goat can’t fit in an envelope.”

“It’s a card that talks about how I bought you a goat.”

“Where’s my goat?”

“He’s not here.”

“When do I get him?”

“You don’t.”


“He lives with some other guy.”

“Why did he take my goat?”

“He didn’t take it.  I gave it to him.  My dad says he needs a goat really bad.”

“So for my birthday, you gave me a goat, and then stole it back and gave it one of your dad’s friends.”

“Pretty much.  Happy Birthday!”


* Is this a b-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-d gift?

I would be shocked if our son didn’t receive a wedgie within ten minutes.  I hear they teach that at karate school now.  My brain is starting to awfulize this scenario as we speak.  It starts with giving a goat.  Then the wedgie.  Then he’s not picked for the dodge ball game.  Next, no one will accept his invitation to prom.  He drops out of school.  Can’t get a job.  Moves back in with us.  Refuses to shower.  Starts collecting cats.  Not figurines, but real cats.  Dies sad and alone at 58, found sprawled out on his couch wearing dirty sweatpants and eating a bag of generic cheese curls watching Wheel of Fortune reruns.

It’s a slippery slope.

Another option is to go with an “experience gift.” But that’s not a simple as it sounds.   A movie ticket doesn’t cost much, but it fails the “build connections” piece.  A trip to a children’s museum is good, but it’s pretty expensive, and I’m cheap.  And, is it really a gift to give someone a ticket to something that requires their parents to buy two or three more tickets at twenty bucks a pop to accompany their kid? Sure, Meredith could go it alone, but I think Child Protective Services frowns upon that sort of thing.

A third option is no gift at all.  I’m sure Jake wouldn’t mind.  The funny thing is, Meredith probably wouldn’t notice either.  Those of us with children know that kids can hardly remember what gifts they received last Christmas.  Heck, we adults can hardly remember the gifts we received last month.

The truth is, this dilemma is more about Gabby and me.  We want to live out our values as best we can, knowing we are a walking contradiction.  Stuck in our own heads.  Wondering how others might react.  Wanting to do the right thing, but not wanting to force our values on other people.  Trying to overcome the pull that “stuff” has on us, and the meaning we give to that “stuff.”

But back to the gift.

Still not sure what we’ll do.  Make a gift?  Do a science experiment with the kid?  Make a balloon animal for her?  Other ideas are welcome.  Maybe a certificate for an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins?

Yeah.  Ice cream.  A great "experience" gift!  Unless you're with me. I may be getting good at not buying stuff, but I stink at sharing.

The "Year Without A Purchase"

Last night, Gabby and I settled into bed.  The kids were sleeping, and the Holiday hustle had subsided.  Finally time to exhale.   I set my book on the nightstand.  Optimistic, I was wondering what the first night of 2013 might hold for this husband.  Would we begin with some romance?  Half-smiling, Gabby turned her head toward me and looked into my eyes.

Definitely romance.

Then she spoke up.  Our first “pillow talk” of the New Year.  Her lips parted and she let loose the phrase,

“It’s only January 1st and I’m already irritated with you.”


“This year is going to be a lot harder for me than it is for you.”

And thus begins our “Year Without A Purchase.” 

Several months ago, our Sunday school class did a study on giving the firstfruits of your labor, and “The Power of Enough.”  The book wasn’t exactly a page-turner, but it reminded us of our year in Guatemala. 

Back in 2003, we lived with a beautiful Mayan family, made $130/month, and experienced an indescribable level of purpose and fulfillment.  When we returned home, we were what Southerners call a “hot mess,” arguing over whether or not we truly needed Scotch tape, and curling into the fetal position at the overwhelming choices available in the cereal aisle of the neighborhood groceryplex.

Since then, we have adapted back into life in the USA as our definition of needs vs. wants has slowly morphed into something suburban.

“I need a new pair of dress pants,” I say.

Am I naked from the waist down?

“We need to renovate our bathroom,” we say.

Are we allergic to linoleum?  Have people died from exposure to 20-year-old squeaky toilet seats?

I don’t think Mirriam Webster would agree with our new definition of needs and wants.  So, a few months ago, Gabby posed the hypothetical question, “What if we didn’t buy anything for a year?”

“Are we talking hunting and gathering?  Don’t think I could do it.  I have terrible aim with a staple gun (our family’s only weapon) and can only grow tomatoes.”

“No, I mean the essentials.  I don’t know what essentials are, but it’s less than what we buy now.”

So, we mulled it over during the fall and winter, and agreed we would try to go a year without buying anything.  And now Gabby is irritated with me.  And rightfully so.  It will be harder for her.  Last night she caught a glimpse of my swiss cheese boxer briefs and realized that men tend to buy big ticket items and avoid the everyday needs such as soap and underwear.  Women, on the other hand, make small purchases to make life easier and to nurture their children, but can live without the full-size recreational vehicle converted to backyard smoker capable of turning a full-grown buffalo into 34,000 tasty Beefalo burgers.  Perhaps this paradigm will shift once my underwear slowly disintegrates into the world’s first boxer brief thong.  Until then, my crazy business travel schedule will make her life as a “single mom” much less convenient during this experiment. 

And, we do realize how elitist our challenge is.  The majority of the world faces this same challenge year-after-year out of necessity.  The fact that we are talking about it outwardly is downright offensive.  Still, we think it will be a worthwhile venture to see if a recalibration is possible.  We’ll be posting every week or two to keep you up to date on our lunacy.  Will this truly be the “Year Without a Purchase?”  Or will it simply be “The Year Preceding Our Divorce?”

Tune in to find out.

Meantime, help us out.  How would you define needs vs. wants?