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 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.

Exhultant Exhaustion

I am a father and I feel like now, after years of low level striving to be an artist, to create something that will live independently of my conscience I have now painted my masterpiece. I’m not yet sure whether this realization will free me of the pressures I feel and allow me to access more fully my muse or whether it will free me of the need to create any further. Either way I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This feeling, which includes awe, joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, curiosity and accomplishment is almost entirely misrepresented to the uninitiated by those that have been through the process. In a way it makes me feel for them. I am vindicated, because just as I suspected the overwhelming feelings upon becoming a parent are not in our case centered around feelings of loss and exhaustion. In fact we are already thinking and talking about how exciting it would be to have another baby. We are already missing the Charlie of four weeks of age, of two weeks of age just as we are excitedly loving the Charlie of 6 weeks of age and looking forward to all that is to come. It is what I understand my Jewish friends to mean when they say that a thing is a ‘mitzvah.’

How childish we have become us modern day adults. The exhaustion, which really is NOT as bad as everyone makes it out to be, is overstated. But the indulgence I hear so many parents granting themselves, as if this parenthood is an evil necessity. It is not. My life was wonderful before Charlie, as it was before Karen, because life by it’s nature is so. But don’t kid yourself now that I know what I know, it was nothing. A laugh. An idle at best infused with widely fluctuating perceptions of self that have all crystalized since being gifted this most wonderful of tasks. I lost nothing. Things changed, but for the better, in every regard. My exhaustion, spent before on self improvement or self destruction was always pointed toward my belly button. Now it is on another belly button and who knew how great it would feel to be relieved of my endless navel gazing. Or at least how great it would feel to be gazing endlessly on another navel, wondering who HE is and not whom I SHOULD be.

We have a neighbor with a beautiful little daughter whom I would say is about 3 or 4 years old. She does not seem to be in school yet. She introduced herself when we moved in and was very generous with her support. She hooked my wife up with the number to a mother’s group in Motown. Very nice. She warned of the sleeplessness, just like everyone. But now the relentless negativity in everything she says is ever present. She speaks openly about no longer having a life. She seems to think that life has been taken from her. I use her as the example because being across the hall from us she is relevant. But its a thought that has been told to us from any number of parents. This is crazy.

What has taken me by surprise, although it shouldn’t when you think about it, is how much this experience has made me think of my own mortality. I am going to die, as is this little guy. We are all here for but a pittance. It is the thought that makes me smile. I realize that this is counter intuitive. It shouldn’t be. My daily thoughts of death help me accept its inevitability. There is nothing wrong with death. I appreciate everything, EVERYTHING because it is all fleeting. We are fools to think death a thing to avoid. Put it off, sure. Mourn our losses yes. But I think that some are so scared of it that they strive to outlive it, out think it. But it’s what makes these times with my little baby boy so wonderful. And completely unpredictably, these thoughts keep me squarely and emphatically present in the moment I am in and with those that I am in it with. It makes my marriage stronger. It makes my love more accessible. It makes my wounds heal.

I still have a part of me that wants to tell a story. Probably one that ends in smiling optimism. But the pressure to make that story make me is gone. If anything I want that story to reveal me. I have made my masterpiece, with relatively little effort and I want nothing more than for him to experience everything, the good and the bad, with the knowledge that it is ALL precious and that he is loved unabashedly.

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Starry Starry Night

babymoon pic

I had an argument with my wife this morning. And last night. Well, to say it was an argument implies it was more than it was. An argument comes earlier in a relationship and it involves lots of shouting, the stating of hurtful and judgmental opinions and the generalized threat that one or both members of the pairing are on some level considering whether or not the partnership is one that is even worth saving. That’s an argument.

What we have now is much more targeted and it never, well rarely, threatens the existence of an ‘Us’.  Our attacks now are straight to the point. We know our target and we strike in a way we know will cause the most damage while taking the least time and effort. It’s the efficiency one finds in a marriage, this ability to have a full fledged fight based on two sentences, one each and then targeted silence and muted sneers. It’s not altogether bad, it’s just the standard. It passes fast and allows us the opportunity to breath and get our heads and to apologize after we acknowledge our part in causing any tension. It’s also a reminder that this thing we have requires more than a little effort and growth on both of our parts.

I should mention that today was totally my fault. I have somehow allowed my new computer to become infected and in the course of trying to fix it myself have seemingly crippled it. My emotions are usually measured and tempered, not too high not too low. That said, they are irrational when it comes to these things. Or rather this specific thing. I don’t know how to live without my internet which updates my podcasts efficiently, entertains my sports obsessiveness and allows me to manage my various fantasy teams. My patience in it’s absence has all the maturity of a, well, 13 week old. That said, he was all smiles this morning and he didn’t have internet either, so maybe I regress even further.

The snideness of our tension today was my fault.

I bring this up because something else dawned on me. It’s April 15th!! Isn’t that WONDERFUL! Not because it’s tax day, at least traditionally, or because it’s a day to remember the tragic end of Abraham Lincoln, the Greatest American. These things certainly make the 15th a day to be noted. Neither of these reasons however are why I think of this day so positively.

Four years ago the 15th was a cold, grey and rainy day in NYC. I lived in Astoria, Queens at the time and with my roommate ceding the TV room to me I spent the day curled up on the couch watching old movies. I specifically remember Chinatown. A unique cinematic experience if there ever was one. It was the kind of day when being on the couch and getting absorbed into the muted and faded technicolor of a seventies indie film was the best form of getting cozy. The weather was dreadful and I could have stayed there all day. But I couldn’t. I had a date that night.  It was at 8. It was at Doc Watson’s a bar on the upper east side, in the neighborhood where the girl I hadn’t met yet lived.

When she emailed to see if we were still on (It was really quite bad out weather wise and frankly she’d been on enough of these dates to not be bothered if she missed one) I decided that heading out and meeting her was in fact the best thing to keep me from melting to the couch and succumbing to my inclination to snuggle in for the night at 2pm. She, being polite decided, okay, she’d see me there at 8. She wanted to know if I wanted to talk on the phone. I knew the reasons. Women are right to be scared of men. We’re capable of scary aggression, and she couldn’t have known then that I wasn’t that type of guy. But I still had to say no. Really, there’s nothing more awkward than that conversation, one where she’s trying to pretend that she’s not interrogating you and you trying to sound genuine while aware the whole time that she is trying to determine what type of man you are and whether or not she should have the top of the pepper spray flipped. So instead I gave her my cell number and told her to gimme a text if she was so inclined. I told her that I’d be happy to have a phone convo, but if it was all the same could we skip it. I hate the phone. She was cool with that.

She asked how she’ll recognize me and I said that I’d wear something slutty. It was a risk, but I gotta be me and I thought it was funny. Thankfully, so did she.

We met and before she even had a beer we got away from the overcrowded Irish pub and we were both smiling, ear to ear for the whole night. Even when the bar we wound up at locked it’s doors and kept serving us til the wee hours, as the bartender got plowed and kept giving us and another couple down the bar from us drink after drink. We kept smiling when a little buzzed and over confident I asked her if I could kiss her, like really kiss her. We smiled through that, and the kiss still worked. We smiled all the way though telling each other how we got to this place, our mid thirties and transplanted upstaters living and working in NYC. We smiled as we told each other our different but equally amusing stories of all the bad blind dates we’d had lately. We smiled when we realized that not only was she facing me as I sat at the bar, her free hand rested naturally and lovingly on my leg. We laughed our way through the walk to her corner, a far enough escort on a first date and we stopped long enough to be wildly inappropriate in our public display of affection on the corner of 72nd and York.

The storm we ventured out in that night was epic. It even continued into the next day and the subways could not run due to flooding. That’s a rarity for the NYC transit system, believe it or not. But while we sat there falling in love, both having come in from the storm, the clouds broke and the skies cleared and we were able to walk away together, under a starry sky, hand in hand, smiling and laughing.

My Sentimental Heart

Life has grace notes. Every life.

In the past few days I’ve panicked at 4 in the morning that I wasn’t doing enough to support my wife and our little boy. I’ve drafted a fantasy baseball team. I’ve given several bottles and wrapped and re-wrapped a baby several times. I’ve given Charlie two baths and read not a word. I’ve caught up on many things at work while feeling awful that I wasn’t there to do the things that needed doing at home. I’ve hummed the baby to sleep, his favorite tune being Brahms’ Lullaby. I’ve cooked a few dinners and cleaned the kitchen on a 1.2 times a day clip. I’ve cried and I’ve laughed and I’ve shouted in frustration. I’ve watched international women’s curling. I’ve actually recorded it. I’ve been awake from 1:30 AM until at least 4:30 AM each night. My life is full.

I miss some things from my former life, when I have the time and the energy to do so, but I would never trade the present for the past. I can’t imagine this will be true in the years to come, but for now it is so. Yet I hasten to add that I am becoming sentimental in a way that I never thought that I would. Don’t be fooled, I’ve always had a sentimental side. I’m a writer and it’s in some ways, at least in the ways and reasons attached to my writing, unavoidable. But it’s different now. It’s not filtered so thoroughly through thought and reason. It’s visceral and it allows me to feel things I was formerly incapable of. It allows for a true empathy if not sympathy that I was unable to access and experience in the past. I am still prone to anger, it being a primary emotion men feel, but I’m now able to feel life like I never have before. In a connective way. In a way that validates my Romantic notion of the human condition. In a way that allows me to cry.

I don’t know necessarily what has brought about this change, but I suspect that there are a number of factors at work. Surely some of this is due to Charlie, and it is most assuredly a delightful development in this regard. I am aware of the fragility of life in a way that’s different from the intellectual understanding I had in the past. Surely the lack of sleep is a contributing factor as well. It could be the onset of age. It’s said that I am to be on the downside of Mount Testosterone. If I am I must say its a far more livable life and one my temperament was suited for from the start. That torrent of aggression that accompanied my majority was not handled well.

You can ascribe questionable ethics to anyone that has lived successfully. As a game it’s quite easy to find even a well meaning person’s blind spots. In fact for a time, when one is defining oneself it is practically impossible, and I would guess inadvisable, to refrain from poking holes in the facades around you. It’s your societal duty as an adolescent and as a young adult, and it’s your personal duty as the holders to the flame of the wildly hypocritical. This is one functional purpose for youth, no? But like I said before, life has grace notes. Every life.

Jim Valvano’s speech near the end of his torturous and ultimately losing battle with cancer (one that he continues to fight valiantly from the grave) is one of the ways you could always coax a tear from me. I won’t repeat the whole thing, but it was given right at the end. He summoned energy that an athlete can sometimes hold in reserve when they know it will be needed later. There were thousands of tumors (his description) pumping through his body and he was addressing a crowd gathered to give him a ‘human spirit’ type lifetime achievement award. His motivation was to give a memorable and inspirational speech that would move people to give for decades to come after his inevitable demise. This was the one chance he’d have to establish the momentum to make a difference by creating a fund for research. He knew what he had to do and he did it in a breathtaking and heartbreaking way.

One point he made, and this was not on the teleprompter and not in his notes, was how he understood his life to be meaningful. He said that if you laugh, if you think and if you cry everyday, that is a full life. It was a profound accomplishment since he had so eloquently just finished walking the listener through thought, to laughter and ultimately to tears.

I admire his sincerity in grappling with his own mortality in a way that was sincere, forthright and vulnerable. It is a valuable lesson. While it may be impractical at this point in my life to cry daily, it is without question a full life when I do.

I cried a bit this weekend because some very good people, expecting joy were surprised by tragedy. Heartbreaking, life altering and ultimately scarring tragedy. I don’t know how it will be when I see them again but I know the tears are not done on my end. I wish I could grab them and hold them tight for as long as it took. I wish I could jump into the well with them and talk them through the dark. I wish this never happened and I hope they know how many people love them and wish to unburden them of the terrible weight they will carry forth. I wish I was brave enough to tell them I loved them and to cry with them, but not being a person that fills that role in their lives I’m afraid it would only burden them more.

I will go home to my precious boy and I will hold him and giggle and make silly noises and forget everything in the world for entire minutes and there is nothing that feels better. I know joy.

I have known tragedy, it’s human and all of us have. It draws us together and holds us apart.

I am now mature enough to say, I hope I never die and I hope my boy never grows up and moves out and I hope we never change from this perfect moment in time.