My First “All Nighter”

An annual tradition, the Mother’s Day post. 

When I was in the third or fourth grade, my mom signed me up for this after school space program. She was a single mom. This was in the days of the old gray Chevy Citation. Money was tight, and I think Mom did not want me to be alone by myself too much. I remember three things about this program. One, we watched a lot of videos that I later learned were voiced by Carl Sagan. Two, Carl Sagan’s voice makes it hard for me to stay awake. Three, we had a project due at the end — something to do with designing a space station. I forgot about it until the night before, and then I panicked.

Before going any further, I should say that I do not think I understood this was an extracurricular activity. It took place at a school, and so I thought it was for a grade. If my mom tried to explain that to me, I do not remember any of it. I was unable to keep it in perspective. I wanted to do well in school, and this was school.

Mind you, I did not do very well in school. I would not start being somewhat successful until my sophomore year of high school. Before then, I remember actively trying to pay attention, really wanting to, trying to focus, but I just could not do it. As I got older, I learned to compensate. I take medicine for it now, but in those days I was told I just needed to try harder.

Mom helped however she could. In fifth grade she had the idea for me to do math homework on graph paper so that I could keep all the columns of numbers lined up. My teacher loved the idea so much, she started doing it for other students like me, who had a hard time paying attention.

My third grade teacher, Ms. Caito, cared a lot about spelling. I came late to reading and spelling. (That is another story.) I was eager to prove to my parents, others, and myself that I was good at it. Every Thursday, Ms. Caito would have a class-wide spelling bee. And every Wednesday night, my mom would quiz me. Any word I got wrong, I would say to myself four times. She would mark the word and go back to it later. This was at my insistence, by the way. She was happy to oblige at first, but Ms. Caito’s bees were cumulative. So as the year progressed, my sessions with my mother got longer. By the end of the year, we were going over every single unit, sometimes for over an hour. There were many nights when my mom would be bone tired and try to get out of our personal spelling practice, but I would insist, and she would relent. I think I only lost one of Ms. Caito’s spelling bees.

On the night of space station project, I was in a complete panic. Mom and I went and bought construction paper and markers, and we set to work. All things considered, I remember a surprising amount about the project. We drew the design of the space station in one corner, diagramed some of its specifications. It was cube-shaped because we felt that this would allow it to absorb maximum solar energy on its interstellar travels (starlight from every direction). It was a multi-generational craft. I think it spun on its y-axis to create the effect of gravity. In the center were the gardens that provided oxygen. We decided the crew would have different colored uniforms like in Star Trek — blue for medical, yellow for engineering, etc. Children would grow up and fill the jobs for which they were best suited. It was a permanent space habitation.

To tell it now, it seems like a rather fun and creative bonding experience. But the truth is that every few minutes I would completely lose my mind and scream how it was impossible. There was too much to do. There was no way we could finish it all. My mom would calm me down, tell me we were going to be fine, just one bit at a time. Just do this part, then move to the next thing, and so on and so on. I say it was an “all nighter” because that is how it felt. I might have gone to be close to 11. I did not understand at the time that my mom was probably more tired than me. She never let it show.

Maybe it was the fatigue, but I do not remember much about my presentation on the space station itself. I remember my teacher asking me questions. I remember feeling like a lot of my classmates had designs that were “cuter” than mine, but less feasible. One kid brought in a potted plant, and I still have no idea what that was about. I think that was the point when I realized we were not being graded for this. Part of me was kicking myself for trying so hard on something that did not matter, but most of me was proud for having done it. That might also have been the first time I understood that the work done can be its own reward.

This memory came to mind last month, and I made a note to write about it today, because my middle child had his first meltdown moment. He came to me because a project he thought was due next week was actually due the next day. He got angry. He panicked. He said he could not do it. I tried to imitate my mother. “One step at a time. Just do one, and then the next one, and so on.” I do not think I was as successful. He got the project done at some point or another. It is hard to know for sure. I was actually impeccably honest as a youngster. My son is less so. So it is hard for me to know the truth of what he does and does not have to do. But hopefully it matters that I was there for him, and he will remember I was. We have different work ethics — he and I — and that is okay for now. (He does not have to like to work; he just has to do it, because I am his father and I damn well said so!)

Stephanie (my wife) says I can do anything. She says I amaze her. If I set my mind to something, I get it done. I think she gives me too much credit. There are plenty of things I cannot do and have learned not to attempt. (It is important to know one’s limitations.) But I do approach problems differently than her. A counselor we once saw said Stephanie is like a turtle, and I am more like one of those lizards with a frill around its neck. In the face of something big and overwhelming, she pulls back to seek safety and comfort. I inflate my neck and run at it with abandon. It is one of those ways we have a difficult time understanding each other. I think that approach came from my mom.

It is not that my mother or I are brave and confident. It is more like a kind of fatalism. Either take on the threat, or put on a good show trying. When Stephanie compliments me on this, I think she is complimenting the woman who made me like it. And when I try to talk my son through his all-nighters, I am trying to pass onto him the lesson my mother taught me: When you are facing something that seems impossible, then the only choice you have, is to do everything you can.

My mother had a hearing impairment at a young age, married the first boy who liked her, protected her children when he started beating her, divorced the bastard, put herself through school, and retired from a career of civilian military service. Along the way, she was an activist, an author, and a world-class saber fencer. In her retirement, she became a founding member of her county’s League of Women Voters.

In my case, it is too early to tell how effective her lesson will have been. But in her case, I think it worked.

Sorry for Being A**holes, Mom

A Mother’s Day letter in the form of a dialog co-authored by David Dunn and Joan Dark (a.k.a. Toni Carr). David writes in plain text. Joan in italics.


There comes a time in every parent’s life when they will say to themselves, “Oh! This is why that one time Mom lost her shit.” Our mother lost her shit many times. She lost it because there were many times when we were pretty shitty children. What is remarkable is how many times she managed to hold it together.

I feel sick to my stomach every time I think of the hard times I gave Mom. Every time I said “I hate you” or “Okay LINDA!” because of course, calling Mom anything other than Mom was a smack in the face.

Especially when I remember the sacrifices. I have vivid memory of eating those cheap, frozen pot pies for dinner. You and I had one, Mom did not. I asked her why she wasn’t eating and she said she wasn’t hungry. But of course she was hungry! She just didn’t have the money to feed all three of us. As a Mom now I get that. I would give my kid my last scrap of food. Hell, I would claw my heart out of my chest with my bare hands if she needed it!

You know the worst memory? We were up late and Mom was passed out exhausted. She had scraped together money to buy us new pants. We decided, in our amazing wisdom, to cut up the pants and tape bits of them to the wall as a surprise party for Mom. She woke up and sobbed because we had ruined the clothes she had saved up to buy for us. (I think I tried to tell her a mouse did it)

No Mom is perfect (She chanted to herself as she takes the baby in public and realizes it’s cold and baby has no socks on) but our Mom tried as hard as any Mom could. As an adult I can appreciate that a lot more than I could as a kid. It’s because of Mom that I can be a mother myself. Not only did she help me with the grueling IVF process, she showed me what sacrifice is and how you can and will do everything for your kid.

I don’t remember putting the scraps of pants on the wall. But I do remember you saying something about a mouse. What I definitely remember is the Christmas when she bought us lots and lots of clothes. I think it was our first Christmas in the new house. There are photos of me throwing a box across the room as I opened yet another package of underwear or socks or something. I don’t like to think of it.

We were super!

My kids are older, and there are plenty of times when I got them a gift that was sub-par. We have had some tough financial times ourselves. One Christmas, I got everything from the Dollar Store. It worked out okay. You can buy a lot of things at the Dollar Store, but I could also tell the kids were disappointed. They were trying to put on a brave face. Still, I felt awful.

I feel awful every time I get them a small gift they don’t like. I cannot imagine how mom felt after getting a divorce, having the first Christmas in the new home, and then seeing her children rage against the injustice of getting socks and underwear. I think the worst part of it is that she sort of blames herself a bit. She tells me that she read somewhere in a magazine that you should wrap up a lot of presents for kids under the tree, and that she should have just given us the clothes and let us open the few toys there were. I can see why she takes responsibility for it. I do that all the time for all sorts of things. As a dad, I am always doing the best I can, with what I have, and for who I am in that moment. Mom did too, and she had even less. When I think about it now—when I picture that photograph of me chucking a box—I say to my younger self, “You were a real dick, kid!” Of course, we were kids, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it.

Oh man, I’m so nervous about presents. I want my kid to be cool and not care about material crap, but I also remember the SHAME of having the payless birkenstocks and not the real ones in school. You could tell because the buckles were smaller, and everyone made fun of the kids that didn’t have the real ones!

Mom worked hard for those knockoffs! They were the best knockoffs that the almost total absence of money could buy!

At the same time, how much stuff does a kid need?

Clearly not as much as we thought when we were kids.

I have a friend that takes her kids on a big family trip every year instead of Christmas presents. I like that idea way better, but then will my kid not be cool for not getting a ton of gifts? Will she care? Will I be able to raise her to not care about material things?

We are both fighting an uphill battle there, but I would like to think you and I grew up not to care about material things. You should ask Mom for advice about that.

I get to see how good of a mom our mom was when I see her be a grandma. She is an awesome grandmother. I wish we lived up near you sometimes so that she could see her grandkids more. I am jealous of you for that.

Mom is an awesome Grandma. You should be jealous. You should be so jealous that you move back.

Find me a job, and I’ll get the U-Haul! For now, Mom has been coming down to help in the summers. I am glad my kids get to spend time with her. In July, she took Kyla with her to the Virgin Islands for a fencing tournament. Kyla was initially very upset when she learned that she could not take any of the seashells she collected back home her. So mom had her pick out her favorite and said, “I say we smuggle it!”

And that’s what they did. Toni, our mom is a smuggler!

I am glad now that we’re older we realize Mom is cool enough to be a sword fighting smuggler.

…who is willing to risk prosecution for customs violations for the sake of her granddaughter’s favorite seashell.

Is this our mothers day letter? Is it enough to just tell her that we regret being assholes and wish we could go back in time and appreciate her?

I think that is the best we can do. Sorry, Mom for being assholes and not appreciating you enough when we were kids. We appreciate you now!

Also we promise to put you in the good home.

All our love,

D.J. & Toni



An Open Letter to Matthew Heimbach

Dear Matthew,

May I call you Matthew? I would prefer that over “Mr. Heimbach.” When you are “Heimbach,” you are a white supremacist SOB. When you are “Matthew,” you are a young man who is going through hell right now. So I am going to call you “Matthew” to remind me, in my weakness, to act like a Christian.  Continue reading “An Open Letter to Matthew Heimbach”

The Annual Mother’s Day Post

One day my mother will die. This is a certainty. For her. For all of us.

What a way to begin my annual Mother’s Day post, right? Every year, I try to tell a story about my childhood or young adulthood that illustrates the impact my mother had on me. I’m not sure I have one this year, at least not one in the traditional sense. Honestly, as I write these words now, I am not sure where this is going to go. Continue reading “The Annual Mother’s Day Post”

Messy Prayer

This morning I went to pray, something I will confess I do not do enough, when I noticed how messy the area around my family altar was. There was a vacuum cleaner under Augustine, a basket of things for Goodwill hanging out under St. George, and to the right of Nona a bunch of crap that my kids left in the hallway and never picked up. Looking at the picture I snapped of it all, I just noticed a crack in the wall. I wonder how that got there. It was probably the kids, though I am sure none of them will have any idea how that happened.

I thought about cleaning up the mess before I prayed, but there is something about the vacuum cleaner and Goodwill basket being part of that space that seemed right. In her book The Quotidian Mysteries Kathleen Norris talks about finding spiritual meaning in the ordinary. Housework itself can become an act of prayer. I have tried to remember this as I pick up after my children. It is very easy for me to bark at them about the messes they leave about, or worse yet to make them feel guilty. “You say you shouldn’t have to pick up a mess you didn’t make, but I pick up messes I didn’t make all the time.” Poor me. Dad the housekeeping martyr. At times I have found myself thinking, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t do this.” I am not proud of those thoughts, but they come at times when I am feeling sorry for myself. Lately I have been trying to reverse it, thinking, “I love you, and so I am doing this.”

I pick my daughter’s boots up off the floor and chuck them into her room and quietly pray, “I love you.”

I pick up the scattered candy wrappers my son left in my favorite chair. “I love you.”

I empty Gallifrey’s cat box, a job they promised to do when I agreed to adopt him.“I love you.”

I pick up my youngest’s bowl of milk leftover from his morning cereal, milk I keep asking him to drink so it doesn’t go to waste.“I love you.”

Yesterday we read from the Gospels about Jesus saying to take up our cross and follow him. A litter box is not a cross, not even close. Christianity demands sacrifice. One must die to one’s pettiness. There is no salvation without sacrificing the inner child, much like how Abraham laid Isaac upon the altar, killing him in his heart before he could receive him back. If I cannot raise the knife above the whiny brat in my own heart, then there is no hope for me. The kingdom of God is not for the petulant. Or on second thought, maybe it is. Jesus said we must come to him as a child, did he not? So perhaps there is hope for me yet. Perhaps God treats us the way I know I should treat my children. We leave our stuff lying around, we make cracks in creation, and God says to us, “I love you.”

That is why I chose to leave the crap lying around my family altar. Prayer is messy, just like life. Prayer is not about a presentation of artificial cleanliness. Prayer is, so to speak, ugly. Or at least it is not always pretty. Prayer is interrupted by our children, our spouses, or our own thoughts. Though we pray in the church about setting aside “all earthly cares” before we receive Communion, I cannot help but hear that prayer with a kind of irony. More often than not we are unable to lay aside our cares. We have to push through them, like a child pushing its way through a crowd of grownups, hoping we do not get lost along the way.

So I left those cares right in front of my face this morning. I have to vacuum the living room tonight, and I really do need to remember to take the stuff from that basket to the thrift store. I will do all that later…or, to be honest, I may not. All that quotidian stuff that is a part of my household is also a part of my prayer life; it is part of what I must learn to make a living sacrificing, laying it, like Isaac, upon the altar of my own petulant heart.

I tweet stuff like this, and other quotidian things, at @DrDavidJDunn. Thanks for following and sharing.


Reflections on the Wise Words of Cartman


Last summer a friend of mine from work laminated this for me. It sits behind my office desk now, and I try to look at it everyday. It’s been nearly a decade since I watched South Park. (I have less of a stomach for raunchiness now.) But the episode from which this quotation was taken has stuck with me. Cartman decides he will take it upon himself to enforce traffic laws, and when he feels people are not showing him proper deference, he starts hitting them in the shins with his nightstick.

Why do I keep this poster by my desk? To remind me of this… Continue reading “Reflections on the Wise Words of Cartman”