Tag Archives: Amwriting

The Lodge, Part V: Figuring it Out

‘I really love it. It’s crazy. I’m here with people from all over the world, we work around the clock and we get one day off per 13. It’s perfect.’ I said. I meant it.

‘Joey, I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited.’

‘Thanks. It’s just a lot, but I think I really like it.’

This was my first call home after the guests had arrived. After the week long, 9AM-9PM trainings we were all ready to get to it, whatever it was. Even with that much time spent learning, with that many people who’d done it before there was no amount of preparation that was going to give me so much as a clue as to what that first day would entail.

‘I got picked to be on the bus that went into the city to pick up the guests. It was crazy. Unbelievable how much could happen in so short a time.’

This is not the staff picture from my 1st year. 3rd year, maybe?

About half of us staff were selected to ride the bus down to the city that first day. It really was a good omen, even if I didn’t know it yet. I’d be prepping the busses and coordinating the drop offs and pick ups within a couple of years and would continue to do them for many years after. You really had to trust the people on that crew. Any number of issues could arise, between the guests and their anxiety or separation or some other totally unexpected thing having to do with their diagnosis to random cars breaking down in front of you in the Lincoln Tunnel, car accidents, staff walking off never to be seen again (this happened more than once, place could drive you mad), incidents between guests on the bus, anxious, angry or just plain mean parents (as a rule they were ALL lovely. As a rule. Rules are ocassionally broken), mixed up medication, short fuses, insane heat, torrential rain. Whatever we ran into, whatever ran into us, we were there to check in 60 or so individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, process their personal effects and account for them, ensure they were fully stocked with meds, check in money get them on the bus and start to entertain them and continue to do so, and to be entertained by them for two weeks, sun up to well past sundown. It really was the most amazing thing I’ll ever do. Having and raising kids will mean more, but we can relate to so many others who’ve done it. But this, this was a singular experience.

‘Guests?’

‘Oh, yeah. Thing is they aren’t campers really. They’re grown ups and face it, grown ups don’t go to camps. They go on vacation. So they aren’t campers, they’re guests.’

‘That’s interesting.’ Mom said.

‘Yeah. Not so much, it’s just what it is. You forget about the word after a day of using it. Not even when you hear it so much during training. Truth is I was ready to see some guests by Sunday. They got here, Sunday.’

I was already spewing my person first language, practicing my committment to treating people respectfully and in line with their life experience and not the way I had before those trainings, which would have still been sensitive, but wouldn’t have been mindful of age appropriate language. In real terms I have learned a hand full of things in the 22 years since that week of training, some real valuable things, but none of it will ever come close to what I learned in those two weeks. Two because the training really didn’t end until after the first week that you were putting it into practice with the guys.

The training wea almost all centered around the arts and crafts room that was off the kitchen, the dining hall and the administrative/infirmary hallway. It was painted grey cement floors with knee to ceiling roller windows lining the walls to either side of our rows of chairs we lugged back and forth to and from the dining hall between meals to reset our classroom all day every day. I was given basic, sanctioned safety trainings, by the book and repeated yearly or near yearly since. I was given first hand trainings on what it meant to work in a field that was still populated with residents and former workers at Willowbrook State School. I met some of those who transformed our entire service system, from the inside, from one fraught and underfunded, filled with systemic abuse into one that was so truly person centered that we busted our asses to ensure that every person was given every ability to choose every single activity on their own and we would modify everything to ensure they could do it regardless of ability. I learned what it was like to be a sibling or a parent of a person with a disability from one of those parents. I met some of the heroic figures who said no to Doctors in the fifties who told them to put their child with a disability in the institutions and forget them. I met many of those children who found their way, through decades of darkness, both literally and in every other way and emerged on the other side heroic and still in touch with their tender and delicate humanity which had been so forsaken. They taught me. And I soaked it up. I loved it.

img_0191And I wasn’t alone. There was a core of us who made it through and reaped endless rewards because of it. There were at root about 30 or so of us who worked in cabins, lived with the guys. We were on call all through the night and working every waking minute (save the one hour break you lived for in order to shower and make a ten minute call to whoever to say how amazing the whole thing was or to cry because it was breaking you). Of those thirty about 16 or so made it through the summer. My cabin started with the full allotment of 6 staff. We lost Ausberto and Jim the Marine and I can’t remember who else, but one more. We made it through 3, two week sessions with just me, Mike and Tony. A suburban, an urban and a comrade. We cared for and loved 16 guys in that cabin every day. Two in wheelchairs? No problem, everyone will have what they need cause anyone of us would push ourselves miles past our limits to make sure of it. Truth is we did it to gut busting laughter much of the time. There were moments of discord and hot tempers, but they were over fast. Still love those guys and dozens more and would have the time of my life sitting around a fire all night reminiscing on those days. I can say confidently we all would. I met real family there.

‘Joey. I’m really proud of you.’

It’s still the most important thing I ever hear them say. Whenever they do I just eat it up.

‘Thanks mom. I think you would love it here more than anyone.’

And I’m sure I was right. It was a utopian society experimentation lab built on the ideals I learned from her. Love, compassion, understanding, committment, service and tireless giving that results in you getting so much after giving all of yourself.

3AM

I’m sick of everyone 

and their crockpot recipes. 

I’m sick of their Midwest mockeries. 

I’m tired of the constant cacophony 

of pained but righteous melodies 

sung by sparrows feeling entitled to everything 

and assholes baring their baritones 

and all the others who can’t be alone. 

Who won’t atone. Who sling their wares 

through country roadsides and broader thoroughfares. 

All the noise feels redundant but looks resplendent. 

Feels remarkable. But sounds insolent. 

I’m tired of wanting and wishing and playing 

never missing a moment I’m convinced is so vital 

to find it arrives and passes with no residue, no lasting. 

I leave wanting not more, not less. 

All I ever want is next. 

This can’t be me. It can’t be what it seems. 

I’m filled and fly on wings of dreams 

but ever I know and ever I try there’s nothing left but next. 

Next year and sorrow. 

Next pity and wallow. 

Next thing to be earned next feeling to burn. 

Forgotten piles amount to a life well mined 

by others who don’t give mine the time 

or the mind.

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….

Get This Man a Drink—and Let His Glass Catch up to His Memories

Kindergarten Rotation

2016-05-08 13.56.34‘Don’t get too excited, Charlie’ said Miss K., his pre-school teacher.

‘I’m gonna be too excited. My heart is gonna burst out of my cage.’ He replied. He was beaming. I realize this could be read in such a way as to think he might be expressing something of great concern. He wasn’t. It was a rebuke. Think of it more like, ‘I’m gonna be super excited and you can’t stop me. I mean seriously, I can’t stand still. I’m bouncing out of my shoes. You don’t get too excited!’

Today was kindergarten orientation.

‘Where are you going with your daddy, Charlie?’ The daycare director asked, with a wink, prompting the response she loved and she knew I would as well.

‘Kindergarten rotation!’ Orientation, rotation… Close enough and I ain’t changing it.

I have mixed feelings about my boys entering the school system. On the one hand I hate it and on the other I dread it. So, you know, mixed.

My feelings come from a place, they aren’t just anti-everything, white male suspiciagression. I actually failed at school. A lot. It’s okay. I’ve overcome my shortcomings and had enough bursts of effort to actually attain a bachelors after about 10 years of mostly not trying. While I don’t have my first dream job, pro basketball player, I have a version of a dream job and I’m working on a second, writer.

When we got home to meet mom and head out to the school he started to wonder what was going to happen. Like, what actually was going to happen. I immediately tried to hide my fears and anxiety by over talking. It’s not something I have to work at, in fact I come to this tactic quite naturally!

‘You’re gonna love it. You’re gonna go into a classroom with all the other kids and play. I guess you’ll play. Honey, they’re gonna play in the room right? We’re gonna go in a different room and meet all the other mommy’s and daddy’s and the nurse.’ I said, anything but nonchalantly.

It came out all wrong because I didn’t believe it. I mean I believed the details but the enthusiasm wasn’t there. I was starting to think back to my first few months of kindergarten. All the tears and nonstop screaming I did. I mean it was a lot. I generated a river of tears that was remarkable for it’s persistence. I was my own little Lake Tear of the Clouds building the mighty Hudson of toddler sorrow that I rode to the principals office everyday for months. She tried everything a nun has in the quiver to get me to calm down but it didn’t work. Eventually she just started giving me lollipops to shut me up for a bit while she continued to work but it was of no use. I’d just blurt out again when I was sent back. Some days must have been worse than others as I was occasionally sent home with my mother who’d cuddle me and play with me the rest of the day, when she wasn’t tending to my little sister.

In retrospect having grown up and lived as an adult for some time now I actually think I was consistent, always tears all day everyday and some days the adults just had had enough or were having a bad day and decided today was a day I needed to go away. I’d have never been allowed to go these days. I wouldn’t be five until the week of Thanksgiving. Not that this understanding of why I’d handled it the way I did would ever make the older kids stop singing, or chanting actually, ‘kindergarten drop out’ as they skipped around me that summer.

Charlie was so excited to even be at the school. He’d been hearing us tell him, for years now, how one day he’d be one of the big kids who got to the ‘big kids’ school. Never mind that when he gets to the ‘big kids’ school it will be a shock to him to find a (half) school day lasts two and a half hours as opposed to the 9 hour ‘school’ day he’s had to this point at his daycare, this is the big time. When we got there, in the mass of moms and more dad’s than I’d assumed would be there, and overexcited 5ish year olds, it became a tad scary for Charlie and he clutched our hands.

‘I bet you can’t walk all the way around on the wood and not fall off.’ I said, pointing to the boarded border of the tree around which a group of kids were busy playing/slash burning off some of their excitement to be here, kindergarten, the destination so many were surely looking forward to in the same way that Charlie was, hearts bursting. He of course could and was excited to do so and even brushed up against some kids. Who knows, one of these kids might be the best friend he has through high school. Maybe his first love is in this crowd. Sworn enemies. Everyone needs a good, harmless nemesis and I had already spotted several that would fit the bill.

He was immediately back between us holding both hands asking if we could stay with him. Of course we can, I was thinking. And we will. We won’t throw you to the wolves, your our guy and we’ll never let these people kill your enthusiasm, destroy your curiosity and make you obsessed with GPA’s and other meaningless signs of conformity that surely spell your demise. Don’t you fret buddy.

We lined up, as is one’s natural inclination in the halls of a building designed in the classical American architectural tradition of grade schools, as a family. Hand in hand. With other families standing in the same familial posture both in front of and behind us. As I stood in the hall, a 42 year old man who could hardly be described as anything other than confident and self possessed in any normal setting, my heart raced.

The line moved swiftly and the parents in front of us were very cool. Far cooler than I in my standard issue button down and Khaki’s. It was a workday after all. I made the dad chuckle with one well placed punchline. Something about a prison that worked on the honor system. I don’t really remember what the setup was. In hindsight it had to be that I, holding Charlie’s hand and silent and ready to start sweating, was staying perfectly silent so as not to draw any attention, particularly the kind that felt palpable in the air of the school hallway, mocking attention, and had been listening intently to this obviously comfortable dad being cool and hoping I could say something that made him laugh. Thank god there was an opening and I had something.

Charlie meanwhile shouted, ‘It’s a classroom!’ That exclamation mark is not misplaced. He shouted it as if he’d found the final golden ticket. Immediately I grasped his hand a little tighter. God forbid we make a scene. I’m as disgusted as anyone else is at this behavior, stifling his natural and understandable excitement. Although I do believe I may have failed in my attempt to prepare him for this day if the thought of there being a classroom in a school was such a surprise. I judge myself horribly and constantly for my temperamental disdain for expressions of exuberance and excitement. Honestly I do. I’m like that scene in the birdcage where Robin Williams while choreographing implores his dancer to be flamboyant and expressive.. Fosse, Fosse, Fosse… Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham.. but on the inside. On the outside, stay still. I’d have NAILED that part. And I’m not even a dancer!

2016-05-08 13.56.37Before too long we were at the front of the line, he had wiggled free and was gathering with all the other little boys around the box of Lego’s, ready to invent and build and make friends and laugh and play. Just like we wanted him to. I was faking it and thankfully he was making it.