‘I’ll have a shark sandwich. You like shark? Never had it! You’re in for a treat.’ I thought.
I wasn’t so much paraphrasing Jeff Bridges in the contender as I was riffing on my memory of him. I mean, shark sandwich. Come. On.
Not that I have a taste for killer beasts of the sea. Not much for seafood, actually. But what a cold and cool way to announce your power as President. Invite your opponent to come to the east wing and order someone near you to get you some shark. Damn.
No one ever imagines life in the governors mansion. Not from here. Not sitting in council chambers suggesting yourself as next town council rep. Why would you place such limitations on yourself. Nope, I could already imagine it. Life in the White House. Hell yeah.
I had written a statement to read that had gotten a very positive response from the organizer of our event. She was enthusiastic beyond words. Her email calmed me down before stoking my Walter Mitty like daydreams of shark sandwiches and front yard Easter egg hunts.
You have to understand. A writers work has an emotional ebb and flow. Allow me to illustrate using art. ‘Talledaga Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby’.
At the beginning of the movie Ricky is running hot. Winning everything, on a roll, full of confidence and unable to imagine it ever stopping. In an interview he makes a statement that is EXACTLY what it feels like when you are writing and it’s flowing. He said…
‘Look. Here’s the deal, I’m the best there is, plain and simple, I mean
I wake up in the morning and I piss excellence.’
Okay, it’s crass. But you know what, I don’t care. That is how it feels when it’s working.
There’s another scene in the same movie. This is later on. Our main character, the beloved Ricky Bobby is in the middle of his comeuppance. He has failed and failed and failed and he finds himself imagining a himself being engulfed by a fire ball and he has stripped naked and is running wildly on the abandoned track in tighty whitey’s and a helmet screaming in a panic…
‘Help! Fire! Oh god help me. Help me Oprah Winfrey, help me Tom Cruise!’
This quote (paraphrased from memory) typifies exactly what it feels like as you push ‘publish’ on the writing you were so recently so confident of while producing it. It’s a pretty extreme variation between unflinching confidence and bed wetting fear, to be sure. Especially considering these emotional states exist without any transitional states between them. Typically, at least.
So when the organizer replied to my email, sent with all the confidence of a church farther hoping to god it be both silent and odorless, with the opening of WOW! Well, I was right back to my writerly confidence. She wrote a bunch more, but to be fair ‘you had me at wow’ is a statement I feel fairly confident making for all writers.
I arrived to the council chambers with humility in my heart, not that you’d see it on a topographical map as it was a tiny sparrow sitting behind a mountain of confidence. Warmly greeted upon introducing myself I was so very excited to be around similarly minded resisters. A moment of sincerity here, it was truly heartening to see all these folks, neighbors and friends I’d yet to meet who felt the same as me. We have a town council that by what I can gather has been 100% republican for decades, without so much as opponents to run against them.
So newly friendly with my neighbors who’d come out of the shadows I took my seat and the evening began. We pledged allegiance. Off we go. I had no idea there would be so many folks here. This was a real meeting, not just a town gathering. County officials from the party there, candidates for state office. It was a real thing happening. The pros got up. The first stood behind the table at the front of the room. Party guy told her to come around front, but I knew what she was doing. There was no podium. It had caused me a moments panic, but I had my WOW in my back pocket, already committed to paper, why should I worry.
I’ll tell you why. Because when she came around front of the table it snuck into my mind, around the mountain of confidence. The tiny sparrow was on my side of the mountain now. I’ve only once read my own work to a crowd from a stage. I barely got through without sobbing. To be fair that one was about my son, it was a tender piece about the fears of a father. This wasn’t that. It was a political speech. Still, I learned through the many times I’ve spoken to groups at work that holding my paper was a bad idea. The hands would start to shake.This would trigger the completely illogical loss of breath control. Then, yep, the water works. But this was a friendly crowd. Why should I worry.
Her reason for running was profound, heartbreaking, personal and touching. I was definitely in the right place, with the right people. Okay, I can do this.
Next candidate got up and announced that she was working on her speech. She would be reading from cards. CARDS! Why the hell didn’t I think of this. It would give me a natural way of looking up and realizing I’m not naked, these people are with me. And when the hell did this sparrow get so goddam big! WHERE THE HELL IS MY MOUNTAIN OF CONFIDENCE! And I was totally wrong about the sparrow being humility. The sparrow was humiliation!
At least I was still confident in the support of the audience. It would appear my rabble rousing, ‘conscience of the liberal left’ speech would meet the tenor of the room. We were all here to organize resistance. What the hell am I so afraid of. Get out of here, negative self talk. I don’t need you!
‘Okay, I know it’s been a long night, but we have some people that have offered to run for Town Council and they will all address you this evening.’
HOLY CRAP. HOLY CRAP. DEAR GOD, I KNOW I’M ATHEIST BUT PLEASE BECOME REAL AND TRANSPORT ME YODA LIKE TO SOMEWHERE, ANYWHERE ELSE… Maybe I won’t be fir…
‘First I’d like to bring up Joe Medler.’
Shit. That’s not a sparrow. Is that an eagle? Why does he seem so angry and threatening. Shit. That’s a vulture, dude. Oh no, when I start calling myself dude in my brain something is way off. Crap. Don’t trip. Wait, why would I think that. I’m a grown man in fine health, I won’t trip. But god it would be the worst time to trip. I’M NOT GOING TO TRIP.
Breathe. This is easy.
‘Hello everyone.’ I said.
This isn’t so bad.
‘I’m not a politician. I filled out a survey, literally last night, and said yes, I’d be willing to be a candidate for town council. Then Tracey, wrote to say I should prepare a statement on why I was running. So I did. Thank you for being here and here goes.’
That was fine. What was I so worried about. All I gotta do now is read.
I pick up my paper, chin nailed to my chest, head down and we’re off.. that’s a strange tremble in my hand. Maybe two hands will be better. Wait. That’s supposed to stabilize not double the shaking. Where was I. Oh my god, why did I write suvch a personal piece. I really am kind of naked up here. Where are you mountain, don’t disappear.
NONONONONONONONO! It was just a simple crack of the voice nothing to worr.. shit, again. Is that water in my eyes. Fuck. I’m doing it again. Hands up, Im done.
‘And I think that’s a good place to stop.’ I said, and started to make my way back to my seat to see if I can fit under it. Forget the shark sandwiches, forget the glory of being a vessel for equality and democracy, forget the more humble aspirations of serving the town and being a politician.
‘Okay, Joe, do you mind if I read the rest. It’s really powerful and think it’s worth everyone hearing.’ said, Tracey.
‘My goodness, I can’t thank you enough. My god, yes, please, save me and this moment from the disaster it feels like!’ I thought. It came out more like a barely audible, ‘Yes. Thanks.’
She proceded to complete my story. I have to say whether they were just taking pity or genuinely appreciative of the writing, I don’t really care. Everyone was so generous with their kindness. Handshakes and thank yous and people sought me out to tell me they enjoyed it. I was in the right place after all.
But perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board in terms of figuring out how exactly I can best serve the goals of our group. After all, there is very little need for a crying call to arms. Might play into the worst stereotypes of liberals, actually. I’ll stay a bleeding heart, but perhaps i should retire the crying eyes;)
Writing. I write to express myself. Sometimes it brings a smile of recognition to those that have known me or shared a portion of the same paths I’ve traveled. Other times in sparks interest of a sort that is more intriguing. Revealing of a self I may never have thought to share or may even have been hugely invested in hiding. For me writing sublimates rage, actualizes vulnerability and exposes fear. It’s lessened the load considerably.
Sometimes I write merely to impress. To give myself and hopefully some others a few laughs. I like the feeling of making people laugh. I like the feeling of people thinking I’m funny even more. I like them telling me I made them laugh and that I’m funny most. I’m as easily wooed by flattery as anyone. Moreso than many, I’m sure. External validations are sweeter than the internal ones. Not as long lasting, but at least theres a button to push. Can’t always find it, but at least I know its there, waiting to be pressed.
It’s amongst my healthiest coping tools, writing. It’s creative and productive and a tool for reflection that has served me well. I fear the times when I’m uninspired and don’t write for a few weeks. I spent twenty years scrawling incoherent ramblings of rage and confusion into manic and crazy looking notebooks and journals wanting desperately to be a ‘writer’ only to learn it took others reading to make me one.
After that I learned that a facility for words merely means you meet the minimum requirements. What became apparent quickly to me was that I had to start getting naked. I had to start writing down the truths of me and not just the flattering ones. I wrote about rage and failings and experiences I buried deep. I shared my scariest moments and my more vulnerable ones. I have not fully cleaned out the closet as yet, but I’ve made space so when I look in I can make some sense of what’s left in there. I can see it all. I don’t just crumble under the sheer mass of emotional detritus. It’s been a very healing and healthy exercise. One I’m proud of.
If you are one of the few that has read a good deal of my work you’re aware of this. To one degree or another you’ve seen the praise seeking showoff, the vulnerable human and the emotional rager. I’ve kind of put it all out there. What’s not so present is the view you might have of me if you were actually looking at me with your own eyes. Every day.
Writing. It’s the best tool I’ve had to cope. With the pressure of being a dad and a husband. The pressure of working in a field where we are caring for people and their loved ones. Having what feels like a lot of responsibility on me a lot of the time due to both those things. Not to mention the inherrent guilt I seem to have been born with. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. It’s the best tool. But it’s not the only tool. Just the best.
The others I won’t get into. I won’t lay them at your feet and wait for some unearned praise, though that needy part desperately wants to. He wants to share all he does from midnight to three, wants to watch the little numbers crawl up. He wants your manipulated respect and even the tender feelings you have and share for a person being truthful about the lesser parts. But they would only validate me and make me more prone to continuing the other things. The ones I won’t share. Not with you or anyone. The parts I don’t want to let go of. That meet me in the middle of the night and stay primary no matter how much I squeeze in to distract me.
Writing is my best tool for coping. I just wish it was enough.
‘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.’
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.
‘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.
And 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.
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.
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….
‘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!
Before 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.