COUNCIL BLUFFS — For a moment on a beautiful June afternoon, John Price is not the grown-up.
He is not the university professor approaching middle age, with responsibilities like this well-worn Victorian house and its runaway yard. He is not the author of a few books, including one just published on fatherhood.
He is not the father of three boys who are running through the overgrown haven of a neighborhood that dead-ends atop a leafy, steep hill on the city's east side.
He is not the sole bread-winner in this family of five, not someone who nearly had a heart attack.
John Price, age 46, is the kid gleefully showing me around.
Trampoline in the front yard! Burr oak trees along the side! A zipline along the back! A fort deep in the gulley! You can't see the cemetery behind those trees in the woods, but it's there! Watch out for poison ivy!
This is what gratitude looks like.
A childlike wonder at the world. A deep and sincere appreciation for the little things. A willingness to laugh off troubles, like a book that probably cost more to write than it will make. Or the imperfect house he once called “my bitter nemesis” that constantly needs something.
Or the aged Subaru they sunk too much money into ever to get back. Or the ants that have moved into their home, along with the mice, the tadpoles, the crested gecko, the cat and probable other creatures.
Back in 2006, John Price did not hold these things in much appreciation.
In fact, the house, the boys, just two of them then, the yard and his work — mainly, his work — pressed down on him. Hard.
Here he was, on sabbatical from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Here he was, old hand at nonfiction, trying to bang out his first novel at age 39.
Here he was, envisioning that unwritten novel providing his family with more than his essays and book on prairies and Midwestern life had and certainly more than his salary as an English professor had.
But the story was stuck. And so was he.
One evening, while sitting at his desk, John's heart suddenly clenched.
The pain was immediate, sharp and shocking, stretching down an arm and to his teeth.
He'd write later that it felt like someone grabbed his heart “and juiced it like an orange.”
He couldn't breathe.
The pain went away. Tests revealed nothing.
But the experience stayed with John.
It stayed with him in part because his wife, Stephanie, told him this was his wake-up call.
John had been distant. He'd been spending too much time in his office. He'd been too down-in-the-dumps about what on paper was a good life but to him wasn't a good-enough life.
“Squander” was a word that often came to his mind. He felt he was squandering his time. And the month-to-month financial realities of their life were a constant stress.
His doctor's words haunted him. Not the bit about eating better and exercising. The doctor told him: “Take a close look at your life. If you want to live, that is.”
John was puzzled. He made a living out of taking a closer look at his life. He had written personal essays published in places like Orion and the Christian Science Monitor. He'd published a book about personal discovery and prairieland. He taught writing about one's life through UNO's creative nonfiction program.
So just what was he missing?
John tells us in 209 pages of his third book, “Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father” (Trumpter Books/Shambhala Publications Inc., 2013).
John was missing life small and large, his own and the lives around him.
Like that of Augustus Gloop, a tiny crustracean pet that was part of his boys' grow-your-own dinosaurs set. Like that of Grandma K, John's grandmother, who at age 92 called him one day to say she was quitting the meds that fogged her brain and extended her life, opting for quality in her final months.
In between are the lives of sons Ben, then age 5, and Spencer, then age 3, who with John's wife, Stephanie, bring him out of his funk and into their world of discovery. The 1890s Victorian home is their palace.
The creatures that abound — and there are plenty, including a deadly brown recluse spider — are named, cared for and otherwise treated as if they were singing Disney characters.
John sets aside his novel, tunes into the messages of life and death around him and realizes that the book he should write is right before him.
He takes his doctor's advice to heart, and at the conclusion of this tenderly (and hilariously at times) documented journey publishes not one but two memoir-type books.
The first is “Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships” (DeCapo Press, 2008), which traces John's journey from Iowa to Idaho and back and also deals with death — his grandfather's.
The second is “Daddy Long Legs,” which begins with John's heart “event” and ends, in the epilogue, with John and Stephanie deciding to have a third child.
Reviewers of both books have praised John for his self-deprecating, dry sense of humor, respect for nature and honesty. Our own book critic, Carol Bicak, wrote in May that this was one of the best books she had read lately. Iowa's state magazine, the Iowan, called John the “literary love child” of David Sedaris and Annie Dillard.
That I had to see.
On a recent June night, John read excerpts from “Daddy Long Legs” outside a cafe along the Old Lincoln Highway in picturesque Crescent, Iowa.
The setting provided a perfect backdrop for stories about man, children and nature.
Here was John, regaling a small audience with a tale about son Spencer's justice-seeking imaginary friend, a stuffed baby named “Baby.” Here was Spencer, now a 10-year-old, listening shyly while brothers Ben, 12, and Alden, 3, were among the children playing in the grass on the hill above, not paying the least bit of attention to their father.
John told about the time “Baby” put the hurt on a neighbor boy's stuffed penguin, “Pengy.” He told about how nature-loving Ben and Spencer guilted him into stopping the car in downtown Omaha so he could leap out — a la Jim Fowler of the old “Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom” TV show — and save a praying mantis they had spotted in a restaurant window.
They were sure this mantis would die. It was up to Dad to save it. Which he did.
“There I was, just like Jim with his rippling, tan muscles and big net, facing down the giant anaconda or lion or crocodile,” John read, “except I was a skinny middle-aged man with a pencil and a sandwich baggie.”
Several days later, I tramped through the wilds of the Price yard with “Jim Fowler.”
John pointed out places where different events in “Daddy Long Legs” occurred.
This patch of fresh mint growing amok among little statues of gnomes: “Here's the fairy garden, where Alden sets all his bugs free.”
This pile of bones? “Spencer has a HUGE bone and skull collection.”
The deck? “Where 'Baby' flew out of.”
It's clear he's plugged into his family and the rhythms and ways of his children.
It's also clear that this wild yard is a wonderland for Ben, Spencer and Alden.
So is the Price home, which is papered with kid artwork and filled with toys, books, homemade swords and small aquariums.
“Isn't this awesome?” he asks earnestly.
And I have to agree.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH