What’s In a Name?

  I’m in writer’s groups. Private groups that more than anything else have really made me feel like I’m a real writer. Really writing actually has very little to do with feeling like a ‘real writer’ in my experience. Being allowed, if not always invited, into these private groups on the other hand is validating.

In the past week or so a couple of these groups have had discussions about the names we’ve chosen for our blogs. After sharing my story, after telling all these cool writers why I chose ‘Developing Dad’, it occurred to me it’s a topic I’ve never fully addressed here. 

Developing Dad. It’s become a part of my identity. A part that feels so natural now that I’ve already gone through the phase of hating the name and have come all the way back around to thinking it’s pretty perfect. It’s me. Rather, it’s very very imperfect, just like me. 

So, anyway…

Let’s just start with the obvious. Alliteration. Alliterative titles sell. This piece of marketing wisdom, completely fabricated by me, is the full extent of my knowledge in the field. So there’s that. 

I started writing about what I was experiencing as I prepared to greet our firstborn. When my wife was about 3 or 4 months pregnant with Charlie I decided that I’d write about what the experience was like. I’ve always been a ‘writer’, but I’d never been so publicly. So that first venture, well, it was a dipping my toes experience. I created a ‘blog’ that literally no one, no one at all, read. I mean not a single time. Except for that terrifying time I sent it to someone who is a writer that I knew from work. She nearly immediately moved across country. I don’t think it was because I shared (ugh) some incoherent, self involved, unedited mouth vomit with her, but I wouldn’t blame her at all if it hastened her desire to return to whence she came. Sincerely, I’m sorry Rebecca. I thank you for protecting my dignity.

After we had the kid I went into a bubble and got lost. I fell in love, lost my mind, grew old and weary and eventually was so broken down that I needed to write to regain a sense of self. This all occurred in about two to three months. These writings, which grew in many cases out of my aforementioned mouth vomit, became passable, mildly succinct stories. Sincerely, Rebecca, I am so sorry I didn’t wait. I got much better. I must have sent you 10,000 words. I still lose sleep over it. 

One day I heard a story on NPR. It was about a site that was amazingly beautiful for readers called medium. It sounded great and it was free, so I culled through some stories and found one that summed up how I felt about becoming a dad and I put it on medium and I thought, what the hell, I got kids now, I have to pursue, even if meekly, my dreams. How else will I ever be able to tell them to do so. So I shared it on Facebook. Well, my friends really liked it. So many nice things to say. It was a buzzing charge to my brain and I started writing like crazy. Before long I looked around and knew I had to have a blog. A place to contain it all. 

I didn’t think of it for more than a day. I was thisclose to naming it ‘Daddy’s Issues’, but thankfully I laughed that one off and went with Developing Dad. 

One way to look at it, the way I see it on the surface it that I was about 2-3 years into this whole daddy thing and what had become evident to me was that every time I felt competent, every time I thought, man, I got this, well, my kids reminded me… nope. Being a dad is not something you become and then you are that. It is, but it’s also so much more than that. It turns out that dadding is something of a constant evolution. I’m in fact always, endlessly in the act of becoming a dad. I’m always developing as a dad.

Another way to look at it, the way I’ve looked at it for the most part, is entirely different. I’m an old dad. I am 42 at the moment and my kids are 5 and 3. I have a good long time left and I’m going to make the most of that time. But being this age I’ve realized some things I hadn’t realized when I was 22 or even 32. One of those things is that I want to know everything about my parents. I want to know how they met, what they were like before they met, how they made it through having young kids and no money, what life was like when they were young, what their parents were like, why they chose to do what they did, what made them laugh, what their favorite movies were, how they dealt with losing their parents, how much they loved me, how they did so even when I was awful to them. I want to know everything.  My kids questions might not be exactly the same as mine, but I suspect they will want to know more than they will ever ask. Will wonder what we were like when we had them, will look at our old bodies and wonder why we look at each other the way we do. It’s a cruel trick life plays, to put us with these people for the entirety of the time when we are solely interested in ourselves only to take them away before we’ve had time to fully know them. 

Well, I hope this collection of stories, about everything I am, my memories and my thoughts and my opinions and my love and my humor, I hope it’s something they can come to when they want to know more. I hope that it’s something they can read and hear my voice when they can no longer hear it anywhere but here, and in their memories. I hope that if they ever question what they are worth they’ll be able to come here and know that they are the entire world to me and their mom. When the memories are all that is left and they wish they had the chance to know me more I hope they can take some comfort knowing that I left as much of myself as I could right here, for them, to bring the picture they might have in their head, a picture they will think is not fully developed, into better focus. 

When I’m gone and all that’s left of me is this I hope it’s a tool they can use to more clearly see who I was and how much they meant to me. 

That’s what’s in a name. 

Lucky as Anyone Ever Was

 I was home this past weekend. I had the rare opportunity to spend the weekend with my family. The one I grew up in. 

We’re not as young as we once were. Rather, each of us isn’t. It’s still the same stars in the constellation, only now we are the big and bright ones, filled with fire and burning bright in the midst of our vibrant though fading glory while our own kids are now the twinklers we once were, streaking through the days unaware of the forces that bind them feeling every days possibilities, every moments magic all the way to it’s core. The anchor stars that once were with us have been replaced by stars we’ll never see in any kind of context as they’ve been the ones to light our path forever and will do so long after they have faded.

The older I get the more I realize how lucky I am to be from this family. This big family. This hysterically funny and smart and loving and biting family of huggers and competitors. This family of artists and dreamers and doers and thinkers. 

It’s not hard to see how lucky we are. Everyone who ever finds their way into our family finds out immediately how lucky we are. We’re told this pretty regularly. One of us, one of a more recent vintage, said it again this weekend. In that old familiar way I’ve come to love. She looked across the table we middle stars were arranged around, in the waning hours of the long night we simply were refusing to leave behind, all of us giddy with laughter and debate and reminiscence and debate and one upsmanship, and she said, ‘You guys are so lucky to be from your family.’ 

We know we are. We didn’t all always know that, but we know it.

‘I know.’ I said.

‘No. Seriously. You really are lucky.’ She restated.

I looked her in the eye, trying to measure my tone so she knew I was being real. ‘I really know.’

People don’t believe us. We don’t wear it on our sleeves. I think it’s because we were never made to think we were any different than anyone else. I mean, we were all unique, but no more or no less, in general. We struggled like everyone. We took our time becoming happy and we all have overcome challenges and we all will face more. We have differing views and can be made furious by one another. We all make each other laugh. 

But there are some weekends, some parties that leave you buzzing. This was one of them. 

We were there for my mothers _0th Birthday (I’m no dummy. She was an age divisible by ten, that’s all you’re getting.) It was a surprise party. She knew some of us would be there, she had no idea how many. She entered with joy and a face that registered surprise, then shock, then she screeched so loud as she scanned the room and all the faces that we worried the cops might have been called. 

The weather was perfect. Not too hot in mid July, a rarity and an appreciated one as heat truly makes her unable to be comfortable. But this day she could sit outside and visit with family of all kinds. Some from her earliest days, some from her marriage and life as a mom and grandma and some from the unbreakable bonds of friendship. Four longtime friends, actually. And some were missing. I don’t know how she does that. I have a best friend. I haven’t seen him in years. Meanwhile here she is at an age I would never reveal, but suffice it to say, older than me, with 4 amazingly close friends ready to come out for her birthday without hesitation, here to celebrate her. My sister got a photographer to come out and it was totally worth it. My mom gathered her friends, all Franciscan sisters and as they posed one made a comment that I won’t repeat here, but was a tad bawdy. And hysterical. 

Food was plentiful. Kids were active. Chairs were sat in for hours in the front lawn under full and shading trees while the adults visited and caught up. It was a delight. Before the time even began to be asked after 5, 6, 7 hours passed. The sun faded and those that remained sat gossiping on the front porch. Laughing and catching up on the goings on throughout our familial Galaxy. Slowly this group faded as plans were made for those of us who could continue later. After the kids were in bed. 

Later we got slightly dressed down, then bundled back up, drinking beers, telling stories, having the time of our lives under the stars of the big sky that hangs over the plains in the middle of America. We were an eclectic and diverse bunch. There was good reason to look at us and think us lucky. We are. As lucky as anyone ever was, actually. 

My Father Gave Me Love and Art

Several, though NOT all of us...
Several, though NOT all of us…

The home I grew up in, the one I’ll only see in pictures and inhabit only behind my closed eyes ever again, was one that had life oozing, sometimes tumbling, out of every corner and on every wall. Hell, the walls themselves can never fully mean to someone else what they meant to us. You see, my father is an artist and he designed our home. He’ll hasten to point out that he’s a designer, and he’d of course be right. But art is in the eye of the beholder. In fact I’d use a version of his own argument against him if he ever were to push back too hard. Not that he would, I suspect. He’s always been a dad that’s happy to allow us to be wrong and to learn in our own time. As we’ve gotten older and wiser the times that time has proven us right have increased and on this one I’m right. Just like he was when someone would say that Norman Rockwell was not an artist, but rather an illustrator. Besides, my dad’s art, much of it from his ‘art school’ days, some from the days when they were a young couple trying to decorate a home, hung all over those walls he designed.
Now ‘illustrator’, at least as far as I can tell, holds no innately pejorative meaning. It’s not an insult to call someone who illustrate’s an illustrator. But in the particular case of an artist of Mr. Rockwell’s talent and the way in which his work was received by so many contemporaries and more recently by so many subsequently, there is no mistaking the pejorative if not downright disdainful way the term ‘Illustrator’ is spit out in regard to this man’s considerable work. Now I paraphrase here, and my dad is not one given to high emotion, but I’m quite certain that my father would find this assessment to be straight up baloney. Or Bologna, if you prefer. It rankled him. His art was no less artful for being purchased. Was in fact far more technically impressive, emotive and often breathtaking than the celebrated works of his contemporaries who looked to shock or amuse rather than paint and convey. I believe these things. I did even at my most harshly judgmental, Brooklyn bohemian, cravenly desirous of the approval of the cool people that I ever was. Because my dad was right.

We went out of the way for a day on a family vacation when we were kids to spend a night in Stockbridge so we could visit the Rockwell museum and the work is extraordinary. I assume we stayed near Stockbridge. Even then it was ridiculously expensive and we were a family of 6-9 kids, depending on when you caught us. I mean, I have 2 and we’re challenged to make a day at the beach. But my dad, he was going to see the Rockwell Museum, and we were going to as well.

image
imageThe art that hung on our walls, it was and is beautiful. It was original and creative and something I’ll have a sense memory of until the day I die.There were pieces made of crepe paper and lacquer, some evoking scenes from nature others crinkled and crumpled and exploding from the the frame out to you. As a kid, even now I’m sure, I’d be hard pressed to resist feeling them, running my hands over the points and crevices, riding the ridges of the bright orange that has never seemed to fade with time. Or the hard wood drawn on with varying sized nails hammered in that should seem hard and unforgiving but convey soft fluidity as the lines denote structure and movement from top to bottom. The figure could be wind, it could be human, it could be a spirit. I could look forever and for me it would never fully be decided. Or the dark stained blocks, differnt shapes and sizes, but all right angles, creating a skyline if laid flat, and a sense of looking down on a city as they hung in their frame on the wall.

Art wasn’t just something he did. He breathed art. There was something of it in the very life he’d crafted. He is 6’3″ and as a young man, for at least the first 15 or 16 years of my life he had a big, bushy black beard. He looked, as EVERYONE noted, like a living, breathing Abraham Lincoln. He and his beautiful, loving wife had 6 kids. They didn’t always have enough to make it all work, but somehow they did. Didn’t matter, even if they couldn’t, there was always room for one more at the table. Anyone who knew us, even just a little, they always knew that about them. Many would ascribe it to my mother, a truly charitable and loving soul, but they were a team. The decisions they made were based on what served the greater good, what completed their vision of what a beautiful life looked like. For my father that picture was one that couldn’t avoid including art and curiosity, and daydreaming and all that it had given his life. He was a designer, true, but he was an artist not only of multiple media’s when that term meant something altogether different.

Art was a living and breathing thing in our home. I don’t know that this part is true, but I even think that my dad’s parents met somehow through community theater. This may be a fanciful fiction, but it’s got some truth in it, even if it isn’t fully ‘correct.’ Music, books, theater, these were all an integral part of life growing up in the Medler home. I wasn’t quite brave enough to try to participate in the creation of said art like my older brothers were when I was a kid, but I sure am happy I was exposed to it. I became a big reader and lover of novels. It was what spoke to me. They were performers. I envied them. I’m glad I’ve found and stuck to writing. I’m glad to be a part of this part of the family legacy in some small way, even if it doesn’t exactly mesh with the rest.

My father also communicated with me through art. When I was not much older than ten, maybe twelve, we found ourselves home alone for an evening. Honestly, I’m the third child in a family of six, or sixth of nine if you choose to define our family in the most inclusive way, as we all do, and this might be the only time when we found ourselves in this predicament. My younger sisters were at friends houses, my youngest brother may have been traveling with my mom, or maybe he was not even born yet, I’m not sure. In any case, I distinctly remember my father mentioning that he’d heard an interview earlier in the day and that Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie were playing at Finger Lakes that night. He really wished he could have gone.

‘Why don’t we go?’ I said. I knew Arlo Guthrie was the guy who did the Alice’s Restaurant song. I liked that.

‘Yeah?’ He asked.

‘Yeah.’ I said. I was really excited. Things like this had yet to start happening for me.

That night we just drove out there and stayed for the whole thing. It was great. My first concert. Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie with my dad. A night to remember indeed. He even played Alice’s Restaurant and his shtick was pretty amusing. I had no idea how much of an inspiration Pete Seeger would become as I grew up. He seemed super old then and I don’t think he’d even STARTED cleaning the Hudson yet, though I’m certain I’m way off. I didn’t know he had, anyway.

Another time he rented Breaking Away from Wegman’s on a Friday night and said, you should watch this. It’s important. He would later rent Brazil and say I should check it out. Wasn’t of any use though as neither of us could make any sense of it.

In our home, filled with art, there was a piece of furniture that no longer seems to hold the place of importance it once did as a family focal point. Our Stereo. It was six feet long, two and a half feet tall and big. Speakers covered in earth tone fabric occupied either end in full and in the middle was a door that rolled open. Behind it were the records that were important enough to keep out, to listen to. Eventually we’d overrun his truly beautiful collection with Disco Duck and K-Tel Collections, but early on, it was magical. All the first editions of the Beatles. Beach Boys. Ray Charles. My father’s favorite band, The Lovin’ Spoonful. I remember dancing in underoos to Summer in the City. Loving the Beatles before knowing it was a band anyone other than us knew. I remember my seventh birthday and my cool cousin buying me ‘Off the Wall’ after seeing how much I loved every time ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ came on and having something that could stay in the Stereo. It felt so SO grown up. I had taste, I had arrived, I had something adult enough to have to stay in the stereo when the doors rolled closed. Now my music, my history in songs largely stays in my pocket, on my phone. I’m sure it will seep out and as they get older more and more music will return to the air. But it’ll never hold the mystique and the mystery and the excitement that the stereo in the shape of an upright freezer in the dining room held.

The artist and the writer's... Plus some pretty cool art on the walls..
The artist and the writer’s… Plus some pretty cool art on the walls..

My father has given me more than I could ever possibly recall. He gave me life, after all. As a father now I realize that even more than that, he gave us, all of us, his life. Freely and fully and happily. I’m endlessly thankful for it. But beyond that, beyond the sacrifice and the work and the love he also gave me art, and I can’t thank him enough for that.

Hello. Everythingisokay.

  I don’t think there’s a lot that could make me feel anything short of insanely lucky. My life is great. I have nothing to complain about and as a result I tend not to complain. But to say that life is an unending bowl of cherries, filled with joy and devoid of pain, lapping up happiness and shutting out fear and anxiety would also be untrue. 

My default position is of gratitude. I am thankful for all that’s been granted me.

I’m getting older. I’m not getting old, don’t mistake me. I’m just, you know, getting older. You are too. We all are and have always been. As I get older perspective evolves and I see things I never noticed before. My responses aren’t as quick as they once were, but they’re considerably better informed. I usually benefit from this. You could say I’m in a sweet spot where the benefits of maturing are still outrunning the detriment of decaying. I’m 42.

I’m incredibly thankful to have my young kids at this fairly advanced age for such an endeavour. The challenges are largely physical, if you discount the emotional and financial. My five year old, delightfully, falls asleep in our bed each night. It’s warm and wonderful and something we all love. I am starting to think, however, that he is becoming strategic in his placement atop our king sized bed in hopes of defeating me, getting me to throw up my hands in a moment of surrender and allow him to stay. I’m 6’2″ and 225 and strong and still I dread trying to lift his dead weight, sound asleep, 4 foot even, 56 pound body off the middle of that massive bed. But I do it, because I know the 3 year old is right behind him ready to awake to take up the one free space in our bed come sometime after midnight. 

These are things you don’t necesarrily see coming. There are a ton of others. But rarely are we warned of them and even if we are, we’re not really going to understand until we’re going through it. I solemnly swear, right here, out loud and in public, I will NEVER tell a parent of a newborn that it’s just as hard now. It’s not. Newborns, especially the first one, the one that teaches you everything in a nonstop round the clock barrage of ‘teachable moments’ what it means to be a parent, are life blower uppers. I fully believe that teenagers are as well. As for the rest, don’t believe those bitter, forgetful, wretched souls who try to convince you that they are as hard as 5 year olds. They aren’t. Not by a thousand miles. 

There are other things you learn along the way, about what life becomes. Again, I’m 42 and maybe some people have told me this before and I just wasn’t in a place to understand them. Maybe it’s too scary a thought to process, so you don’t. Maybe you’ve processed this long before I’ve had to as not everyone has the great good fortune that I so thankfully have had. 

I spend portions of everyday fearing that the phone will ring and the world will dissolve around me as I’m told that one or the other or both of my parents have died. My mom knows I suspect as we’ve had a couple of scares and, while nothing’s ever been said, perhaps she hears a fear I’m trying to hide in the way I say ‘hello’, that makes her hasten to say ‘hello,thisismomeverythingisokay.’ 

‘Hello. This is mom. Everything is okay.’ I have a family now and I understand, at least intellectually, how this all fits and works together, this whole circle of life thing. Until recently, last five and change years, to be exact, I’ve come off the stance of thinking to myself, I’d trade everything, including my own life, the own rest of my days, to make sure that is the last thing I hear before leaving this world. On speakerphone, knowing my dad is there listening and waiting to hear the latest stories of the boys successes, excited to tell me about an article he saw with awesome things my friends are doing in the community or them waiting to tell me about an author they think I’ll like or about the party they had the other night with some of the kids to say farewell to their grandson as he headed off for his Jack Kerouac/On The Road adventures. 

I don’t know that others feel this when the phone rings and they see it is their parents. Surely some are understanding of the whole thing and appreciative of hearing from mom and/or dad, as I most certainly am as well. Surely others in a similar situation are merely avoiding, imagining the whole thing impossible, choosing rather to continue to see their parents as the undefeatable, indefatigable pillars they’ve always known them to be, the way they still are, pushing off all thought of the matter until it is upon them. Sounds like a better way to me. Unfortunately I have a temperament that doesn’t allow for such ease of thinking. I can’t stop imagining. It’s a wonderful quality in so many circumstances, truly. But in this stage of life, for me, it’s impossible to put it fully out of mind. 

For me it’s like knowing the earth is going to stop turning on it’s axis and all life will cease to have meaning at some time in my future, in my lifetime, but I can’t know when. It’s just there. Waiting to catch me and remove the ground from beneath my feet. It’s going to hit my chest, hard. Iknow it will. I saw it happen to them. I saw there world crumble. I saw them cry and cry and not know what to do. It only lasted a few moments because they had to take care of me. I was just little after all, as were my brothers and sisters to greater and lesser degrees. But it showed up again as they had to go through the ceremonies and the condolences and the quiet nights alone when they might not have known I was still up and might be coming down to watch tv or grab a drink. Maybe I was exactly what they needed in that moment. I can’t imagine anything less than my own kids being the salvation that will keep me alive after the bomb lands on me. 

I’m fortunate. I’m in a position where I’ve never had to confront an issue so many I love have. My life is one of gratitude and as a child of my parents I’m sure I’ll make it to the finish line, my own finish line, one that will be hopefully at the end of a long and fruitful life as grateful as I am today. But by the time I get there I know I will have passed through times that will test that and I hope I can sustain the weight of all the good fortune I’ll have endured. 

Drinks and Memories on The Good Men Project 

I have a 30 year relationship with drinking. One that covers so many memories….

I’m thrilled to be on The Good Men Project today, writing about it all….

http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/get-this-man-a-drink-and-let-his-glass-catch-up-to-his-memories-jmedler-jrmk/

I Don’t Want to Let Go

imageTeddy still babbles. He’ll sit with the Lego Duplo’s and play by himself and there is a stream of playful and emotive gibberish. He has started to use words and and pretend and play make believe with his creations and the figurines, but if I listen in the right way, if I’m able to listen loosely I can still hear the patter of the 2 year old he was.

Being a parent is a lot. Early on we weren’t up to the task. Seriously. We are excellent, loving parents. Any kid, and I mean any kid at all would be lucky to have us. But the truth is that as excellent as we are as parents, we just aren’t very good at it. We don’t revert naturally to routine. We don’t always provide excellent examples and we are just terrible at doing so many of the things that we are ‘supposed’ to do.

Our house is a mess and while it’s better than it was, it’s never gonna be an ordered and soothing environment. I like to think that has to do with our artistic bent, that our clutter and struggle to eliminate is an element of us that is strongly informed by our connectedness and the meaning we see all around us. Meaning that I turn into stories.

imageWe don’t sleep train. We shouldn’t have to at this point, frankly. Our kids are well past the age when that should not be a thing that needs doing. I’m afraid that if our kids are ever to get themselves to bed, it’s gonna happen on it’s own. For now we each take one and we snuggle and struggle and ultimately find them asleep sometime within a couple hours of getting them up the stairs and into their rooms. In my case, with the three year old it is sometimes in the chair after losing the fight of getting him to calm down in his bed. Other times it is both of us on the floor looking up at the green stars on the ceiling that emanate from Winnie’s honey pot when you press the bee. Sometimes we find the moon, other times we find the one constellation, an outline of Mickey Mouse’s head. Yep, Disney even invades their sleep. Still other times it’s on the ‘big boy bed’ the five year old will be moved to once I am able to solve this endlessly flummoxing Rubik’s Cube of a task that I am told should never have been allowed to get to this point. In my moments of confidence, a wonderful if fleeting thing when it comes to my life as a dad, I like to think that whatever we’re losing by not giving them normalized sleep routines is more than made up for by the love and feeling of security we’re giving them by never leaving.

imageWe are inconsistent practitioners of reward systems, a crime doubly indictable as I’ve been designing and implementing such programs for much of my 20+ year career. We don’t practice anything approaching appropriate self-care. The clothes are piled up, usually separated into piles that require sniff tests to determine whether they are clean or dirty. We take them into our bed and let them stay the night. Every time. We are wonderful parents to have as we never fail to give love. But we are just not very good at the component skills.

I’m not complaining. Well, not much. Now that our lives are this way I can honestly say there’s very little I would change. Perhaps I’d employ more consistent rewards or maybe I’d have a few more date nights. I’d certainly have a neater pile of clutter, that’s for sure. Okay, there’s a lot I’d change.

But I won’t, because at this point, this is who we are. We are fumbling through this thing together, imperfect as hell. I’m not saying we refuse to grow or we won’t change. We’re changing all the time, growing all the time. We’re just doing it together. At this point that means we’re messy, tired, together and happy.

imageI don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to hear through the coherent play and listen to the babbling that is working it’s way fully out of my son’s mouth. Truth is I might already have heard the last of it. That’s the thing. Nothing we do is going to stop them from growing up. Nothing I do will keep us from watching life slip ever past. The older they get and the older we get the more clear it becomes that none of it is forever. None of it lasts like I’d like it to.

It kills me to think that I’m ever going to step out, I’m ever going to be finished. With loving and watching and helping and messing up with my kids. That I’m ever going to walk away from my wife who I’ll never see again or that she’ll have to walk away from me. I don’t want any of this to change because for the first time since I was too young to understand the implications of it, I don’t want to ever die.

I want to live forever and never say goodbye. Never grow old. Never die. I want to live this life I have for a million lifetimes. Not some version of it, not some other life, but this one. Mine. With the same pains and the same joys. Now everyday that goes by where I don’t hear my boy babble, like the ones that came before he uttered a sound and relied on us for his every aspect of existence, every tiny change that moves some aspect of their lives to the past is a process. One of letting go. That is how we think of it.

I often think that parenthood is the first time it’s highlighted for you that so much of life is the process of constantly letting go. It is, but it also isn’t. It gives me some agency, some power, some sense that this is my choice. To let go. To slowly choose to hand away life one tiny handful at a time, knowing that at the end the last thing I’ll let go of will be life itself. It’s inevitable. It’ll be all I have left to hand over.

imageThat’s not how it is though, is it? I don’t want to let any of it pass. I want to live equally in the moments where I was three, sitting on my momma’s lap playing with her long hair that flowed out of her ’70’s style bandana, staring at the wooden cross hanging from a leather strap around her neck. I want to spend eternity smiling at the brown lunch bag my father drew pictures on just for me. I want to fall in love for the first time at 12 years old and play act what I thought it meant to lose it all. I want to feel lean and limber and strong and beautiful as I dance with a basketball unafraid of anyone who might wish to stop me. I want to be brash and cocky and altogether terrified on my first day of college and I want the world to open up to me at camp as I found what it was I’d do the rest of my life. I want to meet my wife, sit on those bar stools forever. Falling in love and diving into the unknown. I want to have my kids, meet them for the first time, and I want to watch them grow and marvel at the spectacle. I want all of this to be held. Why would I ever let go of this?

The answer is obvious. We ‘let go’ because we have no choice. Because we can’t choose to hold on. That being said, I want to get as much of this as I can. I want to watch my boy play on the floor with not a care in the world but what the little elephant on the back of his train that he built from Lego’s and imagination is going to do next. Forever.

 

 

The Problem with Potential

Charlie Builds UmiCityMy children are showing signs of potential and I couldn’t be more concerned. It’s a wonderful thing, ability, but let it out from under wraps too early and it can be awfully counterproductive.

My firstborn is not even three and a half and he is pretty consistently told about his brilliance. This isn’t unusual, most people spend their time praising children for rather standard accomplishments. In the case of parents this is natural. Every new thing your child does is earth shaking. Truly. But it’s becoming evident in school that he is getting some distance between himself and the other kids. He has a memory that is remarkable, a vocabulary that is of someone twice his age and in a class where many of the other kids struggle recognizing their own names he not only recognizes and spells his own name, he recognizes and spells everyone’s name. And when he is confronted with new words he can often sound them out since he’s known the sound of each letter and what letter comes after what since he was two and a half. He reads me bedtime stories.

I should start by saying that I’m aware this isn’t some kind of Doogie Howser, MD level of brilliance or anything. He’s a bit advanced, that’s all. But he hears it all the time. He’s also started to hear and notice disappointment in teachers when he misbehaves or struggles to focus. It happens so rarely that it must be noted as it is entirely out of character. But to have simple struggles like these, standard ones really, highlighted at every opportunity is something that his burgeoning emotional development is starting to register. He’s already a kid capable of harsh self-criticism as noted in an earlier piece, Fear and Loathing in Parenthood, about his struggle with potty training.

Furthermore he is stunningly good looking. I’m not going to explain this one away. I may be biased, but that don’t mean I’m wrong. And on top of that, he’s about the average height of a six year old. When he’s around other three year old kids, as he is all day everyday, the combination of his precocious ability and his mature behavior, combined with his stature and handsomeness make grown ups think he is older and more capable then he is. If he’s struggling there’s a reason. He’s three that’s the reason. But lately, I’m starting to feel like that reason is pressure. Pressure to live up to something that others think of him. Again he’s three.

What makes me crazy is how wrong people get the whole ‘gifted and talented’ thing. I want to foster his curiosity and I worry that it can be stifled if he isn’t able to continue to see the joy in learning if he drifts further from the mean and finds less and less that challenges him moving forward. But this is often where people start talking about ‘tracking’ kids. Getting them into a lane that will challenge them intellectually in order to keep them engaged. It’s important. But don’t for a second think this is the most important thing.

Prior to moving out to New Jersey my wife and I lived in Astoria, Queens. It was our first apartment and the neighborhood will always hold a special meaning to us. While she was pregnant with Charlie it became clear to us that we would have to move. She was working in Parsippany, NJ and we lived in a fourth floor walk up without a dishwasher or a washer and dryer. It became very clear that we could double our space and amenities and get what we needed to be comfortable by moving. So once the spot was picked and the date was set we went about planning. This is something we do now on the fly. Life is crazy with kids. But back then it was something we could plan a dinner for. So we went out to a Greek restaurant on Broadway and 30th, sat on the street and talked about our future.

We hashed out logistics. We did calculations and determined that we could get movers!!! (ALWAYS GET MOVERS) We decided our move day and talked about the various possibilities for daycare. We even daydreamed about our new apartment and planned projects that we had no idea that we’d have no time for after a kid.

Then Karen started talking about the need for us to get our kid into a good school district. I have biases against the education system, biases that have altered in detail but remain present and I dismissed the concern. We weren’t buying at that point. We were getting a two bedroom in Morristown. Who’s to say we’d even be there when the kid started school. Besides, I had a close friend and coworker who grew up there and went to the public schools where we were moving who is one of the brightest and most energetic and engaged people you could know, we should stay zenned out and not worry.

This was and is my way of avoiding many things I don’t wish to confront. But she pressed as she should and eventually got me to access and express my true feelings on the matter.

The first part of my feelings are cynical. I don’t think school matters, and it matters less and less the further you go. The people I’ve known, at least the non-scientists and non-social workers who have gone to ‘the right schools’ are living a life I don’t want for me or my kids. They place value in the wrong proportion. There’s no denying the value of money, but there is greatly overstating it and many of these people in my experience do that. Which pulls these efficient minds further and further away from curiosity and pushes them to cold profit analysis. It’s gross and I don’t want my kid surrounded by these people.

The second part was more optimistic. I told her that the kid, assuming standard developmental health, would be bright. We didn’t have to worry about that. We were both smart. The IQ and capacity would take care of itself. What we had to do, what our responsibliity would be was to foster natural curiosity and be mindful in nurturing his emotional development. It’s our job to make sure he is a compassionate and caring person who is respectful of others and appreciative of all that he will be afforded.

While we may have disagreed on the value of an education, my wife could not have been more in agreement with me. It is our job to raise a person in whole and value the right things. Everyone gets to decide what is right for them. For us it was fostering curiosity and compassion and kindness and enthusiasm and love and a sense of appreciation.

I think that in general we’ve lived up to this. It might be hard to see as he is at an age where his curiosity puts him in a lot of situations that could cause an ambulance ride and as a result I’m more often then I’d like employing my scary dad voice. But we are very proud of the little boy he is. He shares, is kind and is loving and joyful. And at this age that is all that counts.

The problem with potential is that it narrows your outcomes and heightens expectation. So if you show early signs that you might be incredible, you are then tracked to be so. And that’s crazy, you’re a kid and no amount of giftedness, other than effort and curiosity should be highlighted. Your interests may turn out to be in a direction that isn’t yet present. Why stifle these.

I have a visceral reaction to this, one that is personal. Emotional immaturity causes you to internalize the disappointment of others. I have a good deal of experience in this area. And in my case, I reacted to this by failing immediately. I’d pre-fail to get it over with. High School would have been easy for me had I tried. But I didn’t. The same is true with college. And I claimed not to care. I swore up and down that I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I didn’t care so much in fact that I drank to blackout every night and gained 80 lbs. immediately on going away to college. Where I immediately failed off the basketball team and never had a gpa above 2.1 in the ten years it took me to get a degree. I made a point and a show of not caring. To this day I still am able to get access through my first impression and to this day, to some degree, I still set out to lower expectations immediately when I sense that there are high hopes.

I labeled myself a failure and went about making myself one. I didn’t care, and it nearly killed me how disappointed I was in myself. It is for another post, but the seeds of my salvation from this awful cycle of self-defeat was when I went to work at a summer camp for adults with special needs. The result of which was finally confronting my issues and embarking on years of struggle with myself and the eventual ability to find and be loved by Karen. She was the payoff, and as such the WHOLE struggle was worth it.

I hope beyond hope that I can avoid a similar fate for my Charlie. I’m frankly terrified that he won’t regress to the mean of toddlers in his world and that the expectations will come at him fast and furious. I am afraid that he’ll start having his potential squashed by the good intentions of those trying to support him. I fear this will make it nearly impossible for him to know what it means for him to be fine. Which is exactly what he is. Absolutely, joyously and beautifully fine.