Diary of a Wimpy (and AWESOME!) Bookstore

When your seven year old son manages to have his attention wrangled by a book you pounce. When he falls so in love with a book series that he reads 12 of them as fast as he can acquire them you do everything you can to feed his passions. In our case that meant spending hours on end reading with him. He would assign both me and his mother separate books that we would take to his room and lie in his bed with him while each reading quietly. If one or the other of us chuckled we would read what it was that made us giggle back so we could all get in on the laugh. For us, for our Charlie, that book series was the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney.

Charlie at the hotel that night showing off his haul!

I don’t know if you’ve had any time recently with an obsessed seven year old. It’s intense. And when there is a exactly 217 pages x 12 books of details to obsess on ones curiosity extends beyond the pages of the books and into all the surrounding content they can find. It was while pursuing any and all things Greg Hefley that our Charlie discovered the existence of An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Massachusetts.

Well, our fate was sealed. A journey to the store was in the offing. So when we surprised him on the night before we were to drive the four and a half hours (spread over six or so as we were of course traveling with the seven year old and his five year old brother) he immediately started bouncing. Just ceaseless bouncing while exclaiming over and over, ‘this is going to be the best day ever!’

He wasn’t wrong.

There’s no telling if a bookstore so highly anticipated in the active imagination of a little boy can live up to his wild expectation. As soon as we pulled into the small parking lot adjacent the store on the otherwise unremarkable intersection in the aptly named (no offense) Plainville any concerns were allayed. He was all buzz and electricity.

Upon entering the bookstore we were all a bit overwhelmed. Immediately it was clear that this store was not the beautiful monstrosities we come across at our local corporate book monolith but rather a space designed by and for people who loved books. The high ceilings and burnished wood surfaces were beautiful in the lighting that instead of bathing every inch in overwhelmingly bright floods of fluorescent uniformity highlighted the spaces between the shelves and the items throughout the store.

It’s clear as well that this space was designed as a community space for book lovers, fantasy geeks, story obsessives and lovers of the type of independent bookstores that take residence more in our minds and memories than in our lives these days. Which is wonderful. For all the awesomeness we discover at the massive book behemoths there is something about getting lost in a less uniform space that I didn’t realize they were missing until they got to navigate this place of magic. It’s a modern throwback to a time when bookstores held a different role in the life of a place and a welcome balance to the modern, uniform experience. A place where a sports fan, a cookbook enthusiast, a reader of mystery and genre fiction and kids learning to fall in love with stories can share the space without feeling separated and segregated. Where each can stumble on the other and become curious about others interests.

The cafe was unobtrusive and inviting and after making all our purchases of all things Wimpy (and a novel for me and bag for mama) we were comfortable lingering and exploring our new lit stuff. In fact the cafe attendant saw how much Charlie loved the Wimpy Kid books and when we were done getting our assorted refreshments she slipped us a few cups, the sort used for a fountain soda or iced coffee, with images of Greg Hefley, the Wimpy one himself, all over them. We haven’t broken them out yet. We’ll probably save them for dinner the night his pre-ordered, signed copies of book 13 come in the mail!

An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Cafe

Summer of Joy and Pain

Underlying what has been in fact my most enjoyable summer in decades, if not ever, is the reality that a part of me is struggling. I’m listing and drifting further and further from the confidence I recently took for granted.

As I write this I’m still in the shadow of a vacation in which I spent long evenings sitting up with close and distant relatives laughing and listening. I’m sitting at my dining room table while my sons play with legos at my feet. They’ve taken to making their own creations from the thousands of assorted blocks we’ve accrued over the years. I’ve had the entire summer home with them and I haven’t wasted it. Sports, days at the pool, a little shouting now and again, but all in all an opportunity I didn’t imagine I’d have when they were this age.

An opportunity that has left me worried about whether we will be able to maintain this life. Concerned and ashamed, honestly, that it’s my failings that are putting all of this at risk. I keep stoking the flames as I search for  the answer but I am finding less and less hot coals to revive. It’s the end of August and I’d say I’m at least a couple of weeks away from the search picking up again. People who hire people in my situation (too experienced and too expensive for most openings) are out of the office at this time of year. I guess we are all on a school schedule of sorts.

Our youngest will be entering kindergarten and his older brother will be starting 2nd grade in a little over a week. I know that they look up to me, but I’m having a hard time feeling admirable. I can appreciate my value beyond how it is defined by capitalism, but I can’t deny that on the capitalism front, I’m failing.

I have perspective and my day to day isn’t devastating by any means. I’m actually quite happy. If I could design life it would look like this. Long summer days spent playing and swimming and exploring with my kids. What could better. The answer, the obvious one, is I could have that start date for my next contribution sitting in my head, validating the part of me I always try so hard to deny. That part that knows ‘provider’ is not my strongest suit.

TIme to wrap it up. We are off to the pool this afternoon and we want to get there in time to get a good spot.

A Moment to Treasure

Some moments are just magical. They arrive unannounced and if you are lucky you recognize what’s happening in time to capture it in some way. This is not one of those moments.

‘Daddy? What’s your favorite butt cheek?’

Hmm. Thinking. Resisting every inappropriate joke running through my head.

‘My left butt cheek, I guess.’

Phew, dodged all bullets.

‘No. I mean between me and Teddy.’

‘I don’t have a favorite. I love all four of your butt cheeks equally.’

…and, scene.

I Wish I’d Met You Earlier

‘If I could change anything I’d go back in time and meet you earlier so I would have more time with you.’

imageOf course for that to work I’d actually have to go further back than you might think. I’d have to go back to the relationships before I met you, to the therapies and jobs and life lessons and various family functions when I festered with free floating rage and self loathing. The feelings that led me to some of the terrible decisions I made that left me looking for you in my early 30’s via the internet, wasting one Saturday night after another with the wrong people engaged in the same search. And of course you’d have to go back and relive all you’d lived to get back to the same place at the same time. In the end even that wouldn’t give us so much as a fighters chance of creating the events necessary to ensure another 5-10 years with each other.

The truth is had we met earlier I wouldn’t have been ‘the one’ yet and you may not have been either, though I have a harder time thinking that. Truth is we had to get to where we met, separately. In hindsight it was the only way it could have happened. Had you met me earlier you’d have met an even more imperfect man.

But we didn’t meet earlier. Life knew when and where you were going to be and made sure that I was ready. Made sure I had resolved my old and musty issues and was better able to understand how little I knew. Made sure I had learned, even if only in theory, that the person you love and commit to is not meant to be the end of the challenges and the resolution of all discomforts but rather they are your help and comfort while facing them. Life made sure I knew that it was my job to be that for you, too. That the dream of finding someone to love and be loved by was not the equivalent of going on permanent vacation. That it was not your pillows fluffed and your sheets turned down and rooms cleaned magically and freshly stocked paper products everywhere you looked. It was not nonstop nights of endless passion and wine and late night bathroom window cigarettes and days full of endless entertainment.

Wedding DayLife brought us to the same place at a time when we were ready to commit. To face the challenges and monotony and joys and unknown glories of having someone to do it all with. To commit not only to someone that could make the highs pure bliss, but also someone who could endure the lows, tell you your crazy and put up with the issues you haven’t resolved. Someone who will love you if you never resolve them. Someone who can write all these things at 12:51 in the morning after we didn’t have our best goodnight ever and never ever have to worry that that means anything other than we each have to figure out what it is we have to apologize for. Because this is real. I’m forever thankful for you. You absorb my frustrations and reflect my joys. You make the bad times quick and the good times permanent. I hope I can do at least some of the same for you.

None of this could have happened any earlier than it did no matter how much later it was than either of us might have expected it.

That said, it does leave me sad in one specific way.

I’m thrilled that Charlie is who he is and that Teddy is who he is. Specifically. Had it been another time they would have been other people. They wouldn’t exist as we know them. So in that sense I’m so happy it happened when it did.  But now I’m left looking at them and thinking…

‘I wish I could have met you sooner so I could have had more time with you.’

imageIt’s impossible for me not to project out now that they are with us. It’s hard to look down the road and know that at 20 I’m whispering to 60.  The math gets more unnerving from there. I’m not going to live forever. It’s something that hit me the second our first was born. Perhaps I’m dumb. We all know it doesn’t last forever. To say that it occurred to me at the moment Charlie was born is to somehow suggest I hadn’t known it all along. I did. I mean I knew people died and I knew I was a person. So, ipso facto and ergo and whatnot. But not like now. Now I’m going to die on my kids. I mean, even in the best case scenarios I die and leave them behind. But at my age the chance is it’s going to be when I would have been too young for my parents to go.

I didn’t learn to even start appreciating my parents until my 30’s. Not in the way they deserved. Not in the way that’s a bit more reflective of the amazing job they did  And my god, I’ve needed them more these days than I can ever remember needing them. I understand how silly and sweet that sentiment must sound to them. I ‘get them’ now that I’m a parent.  It must be cute to them to think I think I ‘need them’ now more than ever. Because those early days, my prehistory, the prehistory that is the equivalent to the one my kids are living now, concurrent with the peak of vibrant life for me are days they won’t  remember. They’re our days, actually, not theirs. Theirs come later. And I was their third. Of six. And there were a few more. I have two and I’ve needed them for all of it.

It worries me to no end that I’ll die while they still need me. The early days are just like that, and I’m still in the early days. But the deeper fear is that I’ll die without them being ready, without them being of an age or established in the life that will be there’s to live, that’s the one I can’t shake. I know no one is ever ready. I know I won’t be. But I’ll have a home, a wife and a job and my boys. I fear leaving them before they have any of this. Before they have roots.

There’s also a selfish piece to it all. I want to live long enough for them to forgive all the things we’ll get wrong and to see us as people, who loved them all the way through, even through the hard times when they couldn’t see why we did what we did. Through the times when we get it wrong. When they couldn’t see the love that was at the root of it all. Because having kids and being a parent and a spouse, it’s made me understand my parents in a way nothing else could. It made me love them in a way that’s oddly equivalent to how much I loved them when I was just Charlie and Teddy’s ages now, when they were my whole world and I was theirs and it made all of us special. There’s a symmetry now and I can see all that they did. I once again think of my parents as something so much more than ‘just people’. It’s your job to realize that they are in fact just people as you depart your family of origin. You have to see them for all their humanity and in that you find shortcomings and magnify them. It’s a part of your liftoff you have to exercise. It’s the balance to those years when they were the sun and the moon. It provides you perspective. But if you’re lucky enough, like I am, you get to come around on that later and see how superhuman their lives have been. I’m back to a place where I can tell them unabashedly how much their love means to me. How much I love them. I want that with my boys. I want to make it there.

‘I wish I’d met them earlier so we would have had more time together.’

How I Became the Creepy Dude at Walmart

 With great power comes great responsibility, sure. But with middling power and autonomy there comes some amount of privilege. When that power and autonomy is exercised at great distance, and when it is accompanied by insane committment and endless hours, so many that you move to work for a few months to attack the job at hand, well, it comes with the privilege of ocassionally taking liberties. In my case my great liberty was I skipped first breakfast. I brazenly entrusted my senior staff, their staff and the staff they supervised with breakfast for the 6-12 year olds.

It was understandable and in my defense I tried hard to be there by the end of Wawa breakfast to at least check in. My skills were rarely needed here and my support was hopefully felt in other ways. You see, the hours of a summer camp professional, roughly sun up to sundown to curfew to on-call until sun up, are the hours one keeps when they are a mythical creature or a college student. Being neither, being in reality a 33 year old man with a quite specific, though veiled case of Peter Pan syndrome, I felt it was within my capacity to do this job that I’d been doing in some capacity since I was the college kid getting up at the crack and getting my guys ready to be to breakfast on time. I was normally right. I did the job well, really well and by the end I at least maintained ‘well enough.’ This was probably the sunset of my ‘really well’ years and I knew how to operate.

There is a specific thing that goes by the wayside at camp. Vanity. Actually, now that I say that I realize it’s a lie. I was awash in vanity. It just looks different at camp. Vanity is masked in disgusting personal habits, lax hygeine, scattershot bouts of shaving and an overall bedraggled appearance that screams for attention with witty asides and hats that once spoke whimsy that now speak to tradition. I did all the things. I was a fully institutionalized man you could say, a camp guy. Complete with my own unique quirks and a signature style of management. I was a guy that by all accounts was camp basic. Standard issue to all who were more than an arms length away. I was quick with a smile, easy in conflict, ready to stand up to anything and ready to help whenever asked and happy to be invisible when things were good.

My day to day at the camp was as often at a desk as it was out and about. I loved getting out though. I loved stepping always from budgets, off the phone, away from my responsibility to my bosses who were based hundreds of miles away in the city. The camp day was a race to accomplish all the proactive planning one intended to do versus the reactive responding one was compelled to do and often it left you working until all hours. Then it left you waiting until the very end of the talent show to see the routine the cabin of 14 year old guys had been working on all week and responding to the girl who couldn’t understand why the girls she liked didn’t like her, or she didn’t think they did.

Then it was the counselors, the hardest working 17-22 year old kids you’d ever want to see finding you to tell you all that transpired that day and the week leading up to that day (for context) and why it was all so unfair to them. Then walking the smartest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with through the experience they lacked in order to build them up to earn the experience they’d get from facing the challenges that come with being accountable to 30-40 kids with special needs, the parents and caregivers of all those kids, the bosses, like me and others they were working with and all their friends who now needed so much from them now that they were supervised by them. This last part was my favorite.

On the day in question I was asked at breakfast, not the one I skipped, the second one, the older kids breakfast, If I’d be making a run. This was another one of my jobs. Making the hour plus drive to Walmart to get supplies. I wasn’t planning on it, but they were kind of stuck if I didn’t. It was for the girls cabin and I asked Lexi if it was stuff they NEEDED needed or if it was stuff that could wait til next week. I was home on weekends (more of that earned liberty taking) and had a busy day of commitments. She said yeah, it would be good if I could go.  She was uncommonly talented and knew at 20 how to gently tell her boss, ‘Yes, dummy, this is important.’ Being good at being the boss I understood her. I wasn’t going home til the end of the following day, so I was sure I could make it happen, even if it was at the end of the night.

The day proceded however it proceded. As it was getting to the end of second dinner I was telling Lexi I’d be heading out and would drop the stuff off at the girls cabins when I returned, after evening program.

‘Um, can you help me with something first?’ She said.

‘Sure. What’s up. Do we need to step outside?’ I asked.

‘No, but come with me.’ She grabbed her tray and radio and stood up.

‘Go sit with the STEP guys. Hang out for a minute. Tell me if you see anything.’

So I did. STEP was our older guys, 18-24 or so, who were capable of coming back and having a work experience be a part of their time here. It wasn’t for everyone. We had at most room for 10 per session. Kind of a graduate level camper. They had need for support, but they had a great deal of independent skills as well.

‘So, did you notice anything about Taylor?’ She asked.

‘Not particularly. Seemed to be in a good mood.’ I replied.

‘Yeah. I mean, he’s always in a good mood. But it took me a bit too. He shaved his eyebrows off.’

‘WHAT?’

‘Yeah. I asked him why and he said, my mom told me to shave my whole face while I was at camp.’ She said.

‘Oh my GOD!’ I said and started cracking up.

‘I know. I asked him how he liked his new look and he said he thought it looked cool.’ She said.

Now, I can’t tell you how much this is no big deal for someone like Lexi. She was poised beyond her years, emotionally and in all other ways intelligent and intuitive. But when you are 20 and you take your job of taking care of others kids seriously, and you are a tad shellshocked from being the point of contact for parents of kids with special needs, day and night for weeks on end, who are on ocassion quite nervous to be alone without them for what is often the very first time, well the potential for disaster in calling a parent to tell them their kids will be coming home with at best a five o’clock shadow where their should be eyebrows, well, it can call for some support from your boss.

We talked and laughed and talked and laughed and finally arrived where we needed to be.

‘How’s your relationship with his mom?’ I asked.

‘Great. I mean, until now.’ She said.

‘How about we just laugh. Life is short and she seems like someone who gets it. I mean, I’d be happy to make the call if you like, but I think we should just treat it with her like we’re treating it now. No one got hurt, it’s super funny. We could present it that way. I’ve always known her to get it. What do you think?’

She was down, and she would make the call. But this was a risky approach. We had faith that she would have a good perspective, but I was going to be there. So, once whatever the activity was that was going on that night was off and running we stepped out to the office to make our call. Being a pro I took the pro’s approach…

‘Oh no, I’ve done a ton of these kind of calls, you get used to it. You want me to do it?’

‘No, I think I got it.’

Phew. She bought it. Now, lets see how this goes.

Ding ding ding… We were right! His mom coulndn’t even stay on the line long enough to say goodbye in real words. She was in stitches. Crying, laughing. It was a highlight of my life hearing the volume of that laughter that came from that phone as Lexi joined her cracking up at something that was genuinely funny.

So, dusk upon us I told her I’d be heading out.

‘What do the older girls cabin need? In the hubbub of dinner I didn’t get a list.’

‘It’s not a list. They need a few cans of FDS.’

‘What’s FDS?’

Sometimes when you are young you forget that people who are right next to you don’t posess all your knowledge. She was dumbstruck.

‘um, really?’

‘Really.’

She hemmed. She hawed. I waited, unaware why she was so uncomfortable.

‘Our girls are a little older. You know, we go up to 18?’

Nope. I’m still staring at her blank faced and innocent.

How about this…

‘What does it stand for?’

‘Feminine Deoderant Spray.’

I was inclined to say something like, Oh, like ‘Secret’, but the implication was that it was not ‘secret’, and  it was.  Nuff said.

‘Where do I find that?’ Okay, one more question.

So there I was, a list from the younger girls cabin in my cargos, unshaven and unkempt in clothes that were wearing me headed off into the late night to do my little part that took a long time. An hour plus each way to the Walmart in Kingston where I would ocassionally see several people I just knew were there doing the same thing. Making time where there was none to do things important but not important enough to be done earlier than the middle of the night.

Now, all of this is context. I was away in the woods in a committed lifelong pursuit to make the world a better place. I was a man who cared about how he spent his time, but not so much how I appeared outside of this little world where all of us, dirty, tired and worn, understood who we were and why we were there. We were the good people, dammit. Breaking down barriers in the real world and in the minds of children who would go on to build on our small but hard earned successes. We were planting seeds and tending gardens that would bare fruit for our children. But to the other people in Walmart, I was just a clearly unwell man, one who could use some help taking care of himself. Someone to be cautious of, someone to perhaps be careful with. Who smelled funky.

But there is no one who was more concerned for who I was or what I was up to then the woman at the cash register as I lay my admittedly very small pile of items onto the belt for her to ring up. If there were a silent alarm system under the till I am both thankful and concerned that she didn’t activate it. You see my list consisted of three items and three items only. The aforementioned Feminine Deoderant Spray. A few packs of multicolored underwear for little girls. Candy.

I saw the look in her eye and rushed my way through all my explainations. I’m engaged to be married, I run a camp for kids, sleepaway. I was sent with this list. I didn’t even know what this stuff was a couple hours ago. Ugh. It was only making it worse. We both survived our one and only interaction, but we were both scarred, far as I could tell.

As I dug into the candy for the ride home I did something I never did on any of the other nights I was out and about running errands throughout the Catskills. I set the cruise control. For the exact speed limit. If ever there was a night when the cops might be looking for me it was this one.

Sometimes trying to make the world a better placed can be severely misunderstood.

‘No’ is My Love Language

andrew-seaman-645932-unsplashI am spending the summer home with my sons. They are 5 and 7. I fully appreciate the unencumbered, freewheeling imagination of these bright young boys. I do. I say this as a disclaimer to be applied to what might be considered a hurtful thing to say did you not know how truly enamored and impressed I am with these children. They are the apple of my eye and the light of my life.

They are also the progenitors of the largest private collection of horribly conceived ideas I’ve ever come across. The tonnage alone makes their collection impressive. I am the sole arbiter of these ideas. I am the judge and jury and I can tell you, I could shout ‘NO!’ at the outset of any question beginning, ‘Daddy can I…’ and I’d feel justified and correct in my response 99 times out of 100.

Being a good person and modeling the patience I wish them to possess I listen fully to most of these proposals. Here’s a small sample of things I’ve said no to this summer.

‘Daddy, can we bring the hose into the trampoline?’

‘Daddy, can I walk to the store alone?’

‘Daddy, can Charlie drive me to Grandma’s house and you and mommy stay here?’

‘Daddy. Can you open my window so we can jump down to the top of the umbrella on the deck?’

‘Daddy, can we go by ourselves out to stop strangers with dogs to pet them, right by the road, around the corner where you can’t see us and ask them if they have candy and if they would take us for a ride in their windowless van?’

Okay, that last one wasn’t asked, the 5 year old just did it. Granted, it was just the petting strangers dogs around the corner part, but any decent parent fills in the rest and doesn’t allow them out to the back porch without supervision once they are reminded of the total lack of common sense possessed by a five year old.

These are the times when they think to ask. Other times it’s just luck that I caught them in the act.

‘What are you doing?’ I ask incredulous.

‘I’m putting sunscreen on my tongue.’

‘NO!’

Saying no to my kids was once a hobby. After this summer, seeing the decisions they’d make without me, I have come to think of saying no to my kids more as a passion. It is what I need to do, sure, but it is also what I love to do.

Besides, saying no to trying Fortnite is so much easier when it is part of a larger milieu.

 

I’m Sad Today and That’s Fine

joshua-earle-557-unsplashI’m sad. I wasn’t this morning. I won’t be soon enough. I’m sad right now.

I can’t tell you how much being able to recognize that and acknowledge it has changed my life.

When I was younger I would process a change of mood perhaps as often as once a day. Back then I might not even notice the presence of my feelings for a few hours after waking. That was true whether happy or sad or angry or whatever. I say whatever because I’m sure there are more than 3 moods. In general though it was one of these. For a long time there were just two since ‘sad’ would morph immediately into angry. I don’t know why. I guess it had something to do with a limited emotional palate and an abundance of youthful testosterone.

I once heard a person who had been abused talk about their decision to forgive the abuser that took so much from them. Initially I didn’t understand how they could ever truly forgive them. I thought perhaps they were still reeling from the abuse and reacting out of fear. But in their explanation I learned about what they were really doing when they chose to forgive. How it was actually an act of self preservation. 

‘Forgiving my abuser was very hard. I didn’t do it for a long time. Instead I held on to that anger and felt like it was my armor. I somehow thought that carrying and caring for my anger, keeping it alive, was what kept me safe. But it didn’t. He didn’t abuse me again. He didn’t have to. Carrying around that much anger and bile did all the damage he couldn’t do. In time I had to forgive him to let go. Think of it like this, anger is a poison pill. For me, holding on to my anger was like swallowing poison in hopes that it would make someone else die. But of course it doesn’t work that way. The poison was in me. It was killing me.’

The second I heard that my whole perspective shifted. 

I have not had to confront abuse, thankfully, but I could see myself holding on to anger. Compiling resentments and scorn and holding them close in order to keep them fed. In the years I’ve spent thinking about this piece of wisdom I’ve come to relish the opportunities I have to recognize and identify my feelings. My anger was my poison pill. Still is. 

It may sound silly, but to me feelings were an outside force somehow. That was how I perceived them and I’d guess I’m not the only man who has felt this way. My feelings felt like a threat to my stability, best denied or ignored. At least the negative ones. But that’s not how it works. I can’t deny my feelings away and the more I may try to do so the more I am at their service, providing them only enough oxygen to live but never enough to recover and heal. In that kind of cycle joy feels more like a liability and I treated it that way.

So today for some reason I started to feel sad. I recognized it, I acknowledged it, I’m feeling it and soon I’ll be moving on.

Sometimes emotional maturity is as simple as that. As simple as recognizing that which is evident and allowing space and time to do their work so I am not controlled by that which I struggle against and try to wrestle into submission.

Instead I just say I am sad today and I am thankful that I recognized it. Being sad now does not mean I’ll be sad tomorrow and it doesn’t mean I won’t be. It just means I’m sad. It’s a feeling and feelings change. Sometimes I’ll discover there was a reason I felt that way and other times I’ll discover there was no reason other than being human.