Tag Archives: Family

Christmas Chaos

There are many great Christmas memories of growing up in the Hays Household. Most of these memories are not tied to any particular gifts or presents. When you are a family of eight surviving month to month on a public employee’s salary, materialism plays a prominent role only in dreams. Nevertheless, we were unbelievably happy for the most part. 

Nothing is better around the last week or so of December than to be stuck inside a house with four brothers and one sister. I’m sure my mother recalls these times through rose-colored glasses and neglects the reality of the chaos which ensued but the chaos is what made these great memories. The fights over electric football frustration (Yes, electric football was absolute frustration for a child by its very design.), who played with whose toys, who ate the reserved piece of pie tucked in the back corner of the fridge behind the vegetables, etc. The list goes on and on.

I’m sure when Madison Avenue set out to create the idyllic American Christmas with smiling families drinking punch and singing carols around a fire while opening expensive but thoughtful gifts they did not have the Hays Family in mind. Who uses the wooden nutcracker as a brotherly torture challenge to see how much pressure one could take on their thumb? What houses tumble into complete pandemonium over whose turn it is to turn on the light inside the 15” plastic Santa decoration? Not many, I would guess. Certainly no houses in the Madison Avenue plan.

This year there are two Christmas memories making me smile. The first is povitica. It is a sweet bread made by my Croatian great aunts, my grandmother, and my mother. It is a wonderful food. It’s also one of the few Croatian traditions we have left. Povitica is a mixture of melted butter, walnuts, and sugar spread over a thin layer of bread dough. The bread dough is folded over and over upon itself (which is a beautiful, synchronized dance when performed by elderly Croatian women) until it fits neatly into a bread pan. The finished product is heavenly. Where bread is usually orderly and structured, a loaf of povitica is swirls of bread layers and filling layers becoming a thing both chaotic and beautiful. To this day, when I bite into a piece of Strawberry Hill Povitica on any occasion, holiday or otherwise, the taste chaos brings with it memories of my Croatian ancestry. Good memories. Chaos that warms the soul. 

The second Christmas memory is of a plywood Santa cutout. I have no recollection of where we got this thing. Perhaps it came from a relative’s storage cleanout, I don’t know. It was about four feet tall. It had an old color printing scheme of white, red, and a kind of pea-ish green. The colored, thick cardboard print of Santa was tacked with small nails onto a cut 1/4” piece of plywood. It would often be stuck against the wall between the Christmas tree and the television set in the living room. This Christmas memory, however, is not of the Santa cutout but about projectiles and homemade weaponry.

I went through a period where it seemed like a great idea to create missiles out of paper clips to be shot from rubber band launchers. It was fun, I guess, to fire the projectiles at increasing velocities from thick and larger rubber bands. We were sons of an engineer if that helps explain anything. It turns out, however, that siblings do not like to be forced to take cover or be struck by high-velocity paper clips shaped like arrowheads. I was forced into coming up with a better target than my family members for practice and experimentation. Hence, the Santa cutout. 

After several strikes, I noticed the paper clips left a mark on the paper. I should have stopped to avoid a verbal thrashing from my mother but…science called! I began to wrap the business ends of the paper clips with masking tape. Success! The mark on jolly, old Saint Nick was barely visible, plus the “THUMP!” made when the missile found its mark was now barely audible. Success!

After all these years, that sound still brings a smile to my face. Chaos created with siblings diving out of the firing line. Chaos in placing Santa at various positions in the house for a little variety. Chaos in the memory of, not only how lucky I was to have never shattered the TV screen into a million useless shards of glass, but of the fun of growing up in the family I grew up in. 

Chaos and order. That’s the core of Christmas. It is a birth from the chaos we celebrate. A birth that brought the Savior into the world while the family’s own world was tumbling into chaos. Christmas is the turning from dark to light. It is hope inside a nutshell to be cracked with a wooden nutcracker exerting about as much pressure as it took to make my little brother’s thumb throb with enough pain to make him tap out. There is light after the dark. This is hope amidst despair.

There is beauty in the chaos of our life. Every, single day.

Merry Christmas! 

Happy Holidays to all!

The actual wooden nutcracker we used as a thumbscrew.

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My Dad, Part Two

For two summers when I was in college, I worked as a materials inspector for the Kansas Department of Transportation. It was one of the few summer jobs around at that time and a place where I could do some science. I got to be honest, my dad got me the job. He was the Field Engineer Administrator for the Kansas City KDOT office. Basically, he was the big cheese.

What I’d did as a materials inspector was going to concrete plants and test the sand and gravel they were using that day for state highway jobs. I’d also have to sit in the concrete plant as long as the contractor was pouring concrete that day and check the calculations of materials the batchman used for each load of concrete. If the numbers looked good, a signed ticket was filled out and given to the driver to take to the job site.

Whenever I went to a new concrete plant, I was treated as an outcast. The inspector. Nobody really likes having an inspector hanging about their business. On top of that, I was a college student, a double whammy in the construction world. College boy. This was the greeting I walked into on a regular basis. I’d enter a plant being the enemy until they saw my last name. Hays.

“Are you Joe Hays’ boy?” always followed a few thoughtful seconds after giving my name. In the first post, I talked about how different my dad and I were physically. These workers in the plants had no clue who I was until I answered that I was, indeed, Joe Hays’s boy. 

Everything changed with that piece of information was revealed about me. I went from being the inspector to having serious credibility. All because I was Joe Hays’ boy. That’s the kind of man my dad was.

You can’t talk about my dad without talking about him as a civil engineer. He went to tiny Findlay Engineering College in Kansas City, Mo. My dad is a testament to the philosophy that it’s not where you get a degree, it’s what you do after you get your degree. He was a bridge-builder in more ways than one. He was meticulous. He knew his stuff. He was a good co-worker and a great supervisor. He distrusted computers because he saw young engineers use them as a crutch instead of as a tool. He was respected throughout his profession. Even though I’m a molecular microbiologist, I’ve tried to emulate his example in everything I do. Often, I’ll look back and try to figure out how dad did it. I think I’m starting to figure it out.

When I first started at K-State, dad would come to Manhattan every year for a civil engineering conference. Before he moved to Texas, my oldest brother, Pat, also a civil engineer, would come to the conference. I’d find an hour or so during the workday to walk across campus for a quick visit. I was always amazed to see the admiration, the camaraderie, and the way the throng of civil engineers would treat dad. He was respected. It was almost like he was ten-foot-tall when I’d seek him out in the crowded Union during a break. As we’d walk together, people would stop and say hello or ask him questions. It was pretty damn cool being his son.

What did I figure out about dad’s secret? I’m still working on that one but I think it has to do with being trustworthy and being consistent. More important, that trust and that consistency have to be built on a foundation of ethics. A moral compass and rock-solid ethics. This is what dad stood for. 

  • Do the right thing at the right time and do it every, single day.

  • Be the rock everyone can rely on.

Early in my microbiology career, I was struggling trying to find a foothold to stay in my career of choice in my place of choice with a young family at home. Dad was never a man of many words, especially with us kids, but he gave me something I still hang in a plastic cover in my lab today. It was a simple photocopied cartoon of a stork swallowing a frog while the frog reaches out from the beak with a stranglehold around the stork’s neck. “Never Give Up” is the caption.

A silly, somewhat stupid cartoon that was poorly photocopied made a difference. It was my dad’s way of telling me to quit whining and get back to work. Things would be okay. Things would work out. Do the right thing at the right time and do it every day. Never give up.

Growing up, I guess I never realized or even thought about Dad as a professional. He was just my dad. It wasn’t until I got to see from a first-hand viewpoint just how great he was at what he did. In life and in death, his legacy endures. He touched so many lives in a positive way. Many of these people came from near and far to tell us this fact at his funeral. Dad was a rock to many people through good times and bad times. We were lucky kids.

(NOTE: I’m writing a few memorial pieces about my Dad to celebrate his life. Part One is here. With each piece, I’ll try to post a picture that helps tell the story of who he was. Most of the time, the actual monetary value of these things is nothing. The memory value, however, is priceless.) 

The T-square. Years ago, Dad gave me his old t-square and his drafting board. These, along with his drafting tools in a purple-velvet-lined-case, are marvels from his early engineer days. He kept these things at the house, stored in his closet. Every once in awhile, he’d get them out for us to see. They were magnificent tools. We kids felt like giants whenever we got to use them.

I don’t really know why or how it came to be me who is in possession of the drafting board and the T-square but I am. He might have thought they’d come in handy for my drawing work. I just know one day, they were with a box of my memorabilia stuff he sent back west with us when we left KC. Dad never was a big arts kind of guy. He used to draw some cartoon stuff with us and was able to hermetically seal a Christ The King School textbook in a brown paper sack cover that they are probably still trying to unseal forty years later, but that was about it.

He was all about the function. Drawing for the sake of drawing was not in his DNA. It was in mine, though, and he helped me in my youth to get started creating. He was always there to help with school projects and the like. From using coffee cans as a circle template to draw planets to using the T-square and drafting board to lay out a grid to plan a drawing, he’d always get me started down the right path. Creative work is creative work and not often thought about from an engineer’s perspective. Dad taught me a lesson early on for both writing and drawing. He taught me to look at the project not only from an artist perspective from also as an engineer. Design the framework and build a creative idea around it. Simple but beautiful. 

Here’s the T-square. It hangs over my work desk. I still use it to frame up drawings and templates. It comes in handy more than one would think. Plus, it still looks pretty magnificent—even in its old age. Thanks, Dad!

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My Dad, Part One

If you didn’t know our family and saw my dad and I standing in close proximity, you never would never have guessed he and I were related, let alone father and son. We were different people in many ways. He was tall, light-skinned, and thin. I’m a bubba, Husky-sized, dark, and strong. He was 100% engineer. I was 100% life sciences.

(True story to illustrate our differences. Once, my sister’s dog died after being hit by a car, he put my sister’s dog into a Joe Hays sealed plastic trash bag. Me, the biologist, tried to explain decomposition and why this was a bad idea. The engineer wouldn’t listen. Later in the day, when the trash bag started to…well, you can probably guess what happened, I silently enjoyed one of the few true “victories” I’d ever enjoy over my father. Biologist over Engineer for once.

For all these outward differences, we are the same in the core. Honest. True. Headstrong. Resolute. Good friend/Terrible enemy. Faithful. Family. Problem-solving. Economic (and not just with money). Humorous. Plus many other things. 

In late July of 2015, he was in the hospital for a last-ditch surgery to fix his stomach. It was my turn to go to KC and help my mom and siblings. Looking back, the times I got to spend with him one on one over that summer when he was hospitalized were a gift. You don’t get much one on one time in a big family, one of the very few drawbacks of a big family, so it was special.

When I arrived at the hospital, it was transfer day. A medical transport service was scheduled to pick Dad up and take him two blocks away to the rehabilitation clinic where he’d been for most of the summer. I have to admit, Dad looked rough. He was already weak from not being able to eat for a while and the surgery to implant a feeding tube took a deep toll on him. 

During the move out of the hospital, I did the best I could to help the driver. We got Dad moved and set up in his room at the rehab center. The driver left and I thank him. He tells me he’ll leave the wheelchair there and the hospital will pick it up later. Dad settled in and I sat down. We talked for a few minutes before he fell asleep. One of the wonderful rehab center nurses came into the room, checked Dad’s charts, and then noticed me sitting in the corner. She took a quick look at the wheelchair, looked back at me, and said, “We got him from here. It’s okay to leave now.”

I stared back at her in complete confusion. I looked at the wheelchair. I looked back at the nurse. Then just about the time she is ready to call security, it dawned on me. 

She thinks I’m the guy from the medical transport company.

She thinks I’m hanging around for a tip or something. I immediately break out in a huge smile. “I’m one of Joe’s sons.” I get up and shake her hand. “I’m Mike. The fourth kid.”

Her 100% badass, this-is-my-patient-and-you-better-not-mess-with-him facade broke into shock and embarrassment. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I thought you were the—” She pointed at the wheelchair. Long story short, she apologized and I told her it was no big deal because it happened all the time. 

I had forgotten about it over the next few days of sitting with Dad in the room.

Dad died five-years-ago today. August 1, 2015. It was a Saturday. As sad as we are, our family was lucky. We got bonus time on Earth with him. Dad almost died of esophageal and stomach cancer in 1986. He had a large portion of his stomach and several inches of esophagus removed in a sort of crude surgical solution to a desperate situation. He made the most of these almost thirty bonus years. We were lucky to have this extra time. My only regret is he didn’t get to meet my grandson. Dad was an awesome grandpa. He and my grandson would have hit it off royally. 

My Uncle Ed was a priest and presided over the funeral. He called the Sunday after Dad died and asked if I’d talk at the funeral. I immediately envisioned how mad my Dad would be to have someone stand up and deliver a eulogy for him. Besides, I told my uncle, nobody wants to see a 250-lb man become a blubbering pile of emotional goo on the altar of his dad’s funeral. Anyway, Uncle Ed’s homily, where he worked in the Judgement of Osiris, was the most spectacular way anyone could have remembered my dad. It was the perfect match for the event where people came from all over to honor Joseph Hays. 

One of the best parts of the funeral for me was when that nurse from the rehab center came through the family receiving line at the front of the church. First of all, how awesome it was for these busy nurses to take time from their schedule to pay their respects to dad? When she came through, she apologized again and we told everyone the story about how she confused me with the transport worker. The assembled in the church pews must have thought we were all crazy as we laughed about the mistake. This laughter and the shared stories from the people Dad touched in his life was the perfect eulogy. Nothing any one of us kids could have said would have wielded the power of memory and tribute like the people who gathered, either in person or in spirit, at Christ The King church that August morning. Mom, his two brothers, us six kids, our spouses, his beloved grandchildren and great-grandchildren, friends, coworkers, friends of us kids, and caregivers were the true eulogy to Dad.

That is perhaps the finest lesson I learned from my father. The final lesson he left us. 

The power in a well-lived life is not what you take with you; it’s what you leave behind. 

(NOTE: Now that I might be past the 250-lb blubbering son stage, I’m writing a few memorial pieces about my Dad to celebrate his life. With each piece, I’ll try to post a picture that helps tell the story of who he was. Most of the time, the actual monetary value of these things is nothing. The memory value, however, is priceless.) 

This picture is of a wooden goalpost Dad made for us when we were kids. We loved playing paper football on the living room table. We fought a lot while playing. The recurring argument that usually resolved into a full-out brawl across the living room carpet, was cheating (mostly by Tim Hays) making a goal post for the opponent with your fingers. One could slightly adjust the width of your goal and/or slightly move it before, during, or after someone “kicked” a field goal or extra point.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention so Dad invented. With six kids within a dozen years of each other, we can say that he invented often. A piece of plank board, some dowel rod, felt on the bottom to avoid scratching Mom’s coffee table, and a few hours work yielded virtual fight-free hours of paper football joy for the Hays Boys.

That’s who my dad was.

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Leap Of Faith, Trust Your Cape

Being a part of a marriage, a family, or any sort of a team requires the players to take a leap of faith to achieve success. To build this type of faith, there needs to be built a trust between all involved. Faith and trust that the other members of the team unit will take care of their role and do the thing, or things, they are supposed to do. It is a simple concept of a team unit. Everyone has a job and needs to focus on accomplishing that job.
It’s not easy, though. It is not easy to trust that someone else will hold their own, especially when you know their faults and their weaknesses. It’s easy to lack faith in each other and try to perform all the parts yourself. This doesn’t work very well, believe me.
Trust doesn’t come prepackaged and FedEx’d overnight at our convenience. This type of trust and faith needs to be pounded into shape with consistency and time and repetition. Perform adequately. Every time. Over time. The harder the challenge, the more faith and trust is built; a baptism by fire, as I like to say.
When you trust those around you, it’s like wearing the superhero’s cape. Your cape gives you powers beyond just yourself, it makes you stronger, and it makes you a better individual. With a team, a family, or a marriage, the more intertwined the individuals are, the stronger the unit becomes. We need to help those around us build with their own capes by being faithful and trustworthy teammates.

Young Super Hero Standing on Laundry Machines
So, be a true and faithful teammate, wear your capes proudly, and live life as Guy Clark wrote in his song, The Cape:

“Yeah, he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith.  Spread your                            arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.”

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Plinko

When I was younger, I viewed life as linear function. Sort of like the board game, Life. Move down the path, forward only. Get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, and then make your pink, globe-shaped head, uber-thin wife sit in the back row of the sleek, blue roadster as the fam cruises the plastic landscape. Linear. Set a goal and go do it. Simple.

With age and experience I have come to find that life is not really like the game of Life at all, it is more like the Plinko game from The Price Is Right. You know the game. The contestant climb the stairs to the top of the vertical Plinko board and drop big round plastic chips down slots. The board has bumper pins spread over the surface to block the straight path to the targeted money slot at the bottom. Gravity pulls the chip down into collisions with the pins and it moves randomly down the course. Sometimes it glances off a pin and only slightly knocked off course. Other times the chip has a full force, head-on collision with the pin and gets knocked straight backward until gravity wins out again to start down another path. Plinko.

Doesn’t that sound more like real life?

Hey, I’m not complaining one bit. At age 48, with my wife, my three kids, two dogs, maybe two cats, great friends, a house in a cool small town, job(s) and never ending chaos, I welcome the Plinko-life. It is a grand adventure climbing up to the platform above the Hays family Plinko board, aiming our chips at the intended goals at the bottom of the course, and then letting go. Yeah, we fret when the chips glance off pins and veer away from their intended course. We feel the pain when a chip hits a pin head-on and gets knocked backward. Sure, it hurts and is a bit disheartening to see the chip plink further and further from the big prize.

That’s where the fun begins. We laugh as the chips dances down the board. We learn to enjoy the journey and try to get the most out of the new directions. These surprise changes of direction become moments of great joy, truer and more real than any plastic scenery can match.
Sure, I’ll miss my cool, blue roadster, but I kind of like my chances getting knocked around on the Plinko board.

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Five Things I’ve Learned: Parenting

These are five things I have learned (and am still learning) since becoming a father, with some things learned from the wise mother.

1. Watching your own kids is NOT babysitting, it’s called PARENTING.

2. The dining room table is one of the most effective family-building tools.

3. The kitchen, household and laundry appliances are unisex in design and engineering. Go figure.

4. Not much beats a good family game or movie night, especially when the Dad wins the game or John Wayne and/or Star Wars and/or Indiana Jones is the movie.

5. If you give them a good base and allow them to be them, your kids will become better human beings than you. (Just as you wished for the day they were born.)

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Whose name is written on YOUR foot?

Whose name is written on YOUR foot? by Coach Hays

I sat down in my man-chair.  It was comfortable. It was quiet. It was peaceful.  I was reading some Sherlock Holmes. Life was good.  In comes offspring #2, who plops down on the sofa and turns on the TV.  Toy Story followed by Toy Story 2.  I cough.  Then I loudly clear my throat, but to no avail.  And wanting to avoid an international incident requiring mediators and negotiators, I let the intrusion slide.   I ignored Offspring #2 and went back to reading.

But pretty soon…well, you all know what happened.  The giggling and laughing from the sofa caught my attention and before you know it, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is safely closed on the end table with me and Offspring #2 both laughing and reciting lines by heart.  (Admit it.  “Positive is positive and negative is negative!” is one of the greatest quotations ever recorded on the intricacies of battery polarity engineering and placement.)

Well, the following morning, in that magical mental place between the alarm ringing and full consciousness wrestling back the proper mental faculties, I had a thought flash into my head with the vivid mental image of Woody looking at the faded name of ANDY written on the bottom of his boot. ANDY.  The name that represents belonging to and being a part of.  ANDY. The name that gives Woody purpose.  Looks what happens to Woody in Toy Story 2 when the cleaner wipes those four letters off his boot.  He gives up trying to get back to Andy and the others. Gives up and floats away from all that is important to him.  When the name disappears, so does the very core of who he is.  Eventually, it takes a monumental effort by his friends to bring him back.

Then came the big question.  Whose name do I have written on the bottom of my foot in permanent marker?  Who do I choose belong to? Who do I choose to give myself up to?  What is the purpose, what is the driving force I stand on?  Is it a name to provide solid footing or is it one that will cause me to slip and fall?  I know now.  After some mistakes and some trial and error (see here), I now know.

God on the right foot.

Faith on the left.

Family on the toes.

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