Do You Believe In Miracles

‘Do you believe in miracles!’

 Al Michaels iconic cry as time expired in the semi-final game of the Olympic Hockey tournament in 1980 in tiny little Lake Placid, NY. The feelings this can stir in me are notable. They run the gamut from patriotism to belief to hope to astonishment. There was no way we were going to win. They were the best of the best of the Evil Empire, men driven by personal and professional and patriotic duty of their own against our upstart group of ragamuffins. A team of college stars in a sport, Division 1 Mens Hockey, that didn’t make stars. We didn’t even have all the stars. Get me on the topic for too long and I might start to tell you we even had some high schoolers getting valuable minutes. While not technically accurate, as far as narrative goes it would be true enough. We were a nation ready to believe, looking for a miracle and this team, this makeshift team did it. They gave us our miracle.

It’s a thrilling and stirring tale. One capable of inspiring tears and long bouts of sentimental nostalgia. Which is shocking and possibly troubling as I didn’t watch the game. I didn’t even know it was happening. I doubt I learned about it until perhaps 8-10 years later. As best I can tell, we didn’t have it on our radar at my house. I learned of the story by learning about it.

Still the story is worthy of everything it gets and at times I think it’s worth so much more.

I grew up in the height of the Cold War. Russian equaled bad. They were the big bad wolf out to get us, I guess. I mean I remember fearing the idea of that nuclear weapons were in the mix, but that was the extent of my analysis. I was a kid. I saw War Games and I cheered when Rocky beat Ivan Drago (the sonofabitch who killed Apollo Creed). I knew that they were the enemy. My mind and sights were clear, but really I was just a kid. As much as I’ve heard about the tensions of the time I have to say, they didn’t filter down to me.

I grew up in the heartland, really. It’s New York State, but it’s the Great Lakes part of the state. I loved and hated where I grew up. Had nothing to do with where I grew up, I’d have felt that way anywhere. But it was a GREAT place to be a kid. A stupid, oblivious kid. A great place to get your first real kiss while playing truth or dare. A place to get caught by kindly neighbors telling on you that they saw you buying cigarettes at the diner cigarette machine. A great place to fall in love for the first time and to lose your mind when you saw that girl making out with the cool guy who you could never compete with because he was two years older than you and he had not only a license but a car. It was a great place to play basketball, sun up to sundown in playgrounds where other kids were playing. It was a great place to ride your bikes uptown and get pizza or tacos or see a movie or just hang out with all the other kids that lived near, ‘uptown.’ It was a great place to walk to the neighborhood doctor who knew you since you were new. Or to catch crayfish walking barefoot through the crick. It was a great place. Still is.

It wasn’t a place for me to process the Cold War, despite all of it happening, apparently, the whole time I was doing all that other stuff. It wasn’t a place that was nervous or palpably anxious. It wasn’t a place that was out of step and it wasn’t a place that was in line. It was my American experience. I suppose the seeds of what has happened since were around. Factories closed. Our local economy had for generations been underpinned by Kodak and I did see that diminish a ton while I was growing up. Hard not to notice as it was kids parents you went to school with. Other things popped up, but nothing, no amount of things popping up could make up for losing jobs by the tens of thousands, seemingly every year for a couple decades there. Good jobs too. Union jobs for a labor force that often had only needed a high school degree. Just gone. I saw that. Didn’t know it would be such a harbinger of things to come for a pretty big stretch of the country. I imagine my elders did see it coming. Imagine those that stayed saw it coming and to some degree perhaps even got caught standing on the path.

I don’t know what my kids lives will be 30 years from now. My parents weren’t locals to where I’m from and their parents aren’t local to where they’re from. I suspect that trend will continue, but who’s to say. Perhaps my kids will love it here so much that they stay. I would be happy. I would be happy to know that they not only loved where we raised them and found a community of kind and caring friends and neighbors here, but also if they were inclined to stay because the opportunities look like staying was a good decision. I’d like them to have options.

I’m anxious. I’m scared about the direction of so many things. The economy. The hostility that seems to be so prevalent in so many. The rising social issues, some we considered if not resolved, heading inevitably in that direction in the America I grew up in. The role of America in a world in upheaval, without the terrifying order the Cold War provided. I’m hoping this anxiety that seems to be floating free in the world is resolved and my children grow up as I did. Happily oblivious to all that they will one day read about and wonder how they didn’t see it all. Nostalgic for that miracle that is awaiting us just around the corner.

Picture Day on Mamalode

Today I’m looking back and projecting forward as I look at my son on Picture Day. Click the link to see my story on Mamalode.

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Picture Day 

Today is picture day. You are wearing a new blue button down shirt and we packed a more durable, comfortable shirt in your bag for you to wear at after school. I have my suspicions as to whether you’ll change, though. You are so proud of yourself today and you know you are handsome. It doesn’t occur to you to be bashful, to quell your pride. You smiled this morning and you were excited. Today is picture day.

Picture day is a day for us too. It’s a day to get a snapshot of you in Kindergarten. A chance for us to attempt earnestly to do the impossible. To capture you as you are now, to freeze you in this moment. We do it so we can share this moment with the wide world of people that love you. To capture and disseminate your joyful boyishness so that even a tiny bit can be transported across space and your Grandma and Koba and Nana and Papa can hold this part of you from hundreds of miles away. So they can put you on the fridge and look at you whenever they wish. So they can show their friends and your relatives, ones you don’t even know yet, how well you are doing. So they can feel pride. Not only in you, but in us.

We also take these pictures so that we, your mommy and daddy, can travel through time to right now. It’s important. We dress you in your finest and we do your hair especially carefully. I think you may have even had your first encounter with hairspray this morning. We do it as it is our wont. We want you to look your finest and be happy. So we can find this picture a few years from now when you are perhaps a bit self conscious and less open to us combing your hair. When you try to comply and smile, but when that smile is put on, something to think about and not so much your default facial expression. We will come back in time to this picture and the others like it to remember who you are inside, at least the part of who you are that we first met. We’ll always see that part, even after you’re convinced it’s not there anymore. We’ll know it’s just dormant. You will never look like you do now and that’s important to memorialize, but you will feel this way again, but it will be tempered by life and what it teaches you.

Innocence is highly overrated. But it is also a real and wonderful part of being five and while you are a more mature boy everyday and while we love that you can be quiet and contemplative from time to time, there is something we will miss about this time you are rapidly graduating from where you are earnest and honest with us and yourself by default. You haven’t gotten too caught up in fitting in. Too caught up in trying on identities you conjure. Instead you look at the camera proud because you are handsome, funny, smart and loved and you know it. And so do we.

We’ll know it when you are away at college and going on adventures to find yourself. When you are busy developing and defining your purpose.  We will look at this picture and the others, the ones from every step on the way and we will be recognizing ours. We will see all that went in to getting you to picture day and take pride in us, all of us, for doing what we did together. We will still be doing it, but it will look a lot different than it does now, all of us smooshed together, experiencing it as one and interpreting it individually. There might be times when these interpretations are deceptive and we struggle to stay positive. You may need to distance yourself and we may reactively hold tighter. You’ll surely have to push us away someday, just like we will surely have to nudge you along from time to time. It will all be from love, but it might not always feel that way. When it doesn’t these pictures will help.

They’ll help you too. You’ll look back and remember vividly some things. I remember my mother wetting the comb and working with my cowlick. Trying over and over to supress my hairs natural desires in an attempt to look my best. Licking her thumb and cleaning the smudges from my cheek. I remember the brown bags we used for lunches that my father would sit at the table at night and decorate. I’ll remember the joyful pink elephant sitting under the lone palm tree on the tiny island on a lunch bag that I used repeatedly that I loved so much that he made for me. It’s another framed talisman from a time gone by that I cling to, though after my many adult moves I can’t say I know exactly where it is. I’ll find it someday, probably too late, and when I do I’ll cry tears of love and joy.

Hopefully when you look back, from a great distance and see your picture you’ll see love. The love and time and unabashed joy we took in giving you what we had. In doing our best to make sure you were taken care of, that you knew you were loved. Because when we look at them, when we travel through time and space to see the you you are now it will be with joy. It will be with love. It will be with longing for the time we had with you and the many journey’s you are surely going to take.

I Hate School

img_3083I hate school.

I hope you won’t but I fear you will.

Let me be clear. I don’t fear you will fail at school. You are INSANELY smart and I suspect you will soar at school. My fear is that school will fail you. Will turn your attention from satisfying and stirring curiosity to simple and attainable achievement. That a fire you carry will dim in order that the oxygen it would have taken to be stoked from a flame to an inferno will be otherwise deployed to satisfy the wishes of others. It’s hard to stay away from that. You’ll spend lots of energy pursuing that which you may be unsure of to pursue the expectations you are handed. A little of that is okay, good even. But only enough to learn that you aren’t here alone and you are accountable to others. Beyond that my only wish is that you find that which excites you and you pursue it without fear, embracing the failures that come from trying new things. Staying true to yourself will make most failures tolerable and some downright necessary. Just remember that failures are not end points. They are merely spots on the journey.

School made me horribly self critical. I don’t know why but it did. As you prepare to head out for your first day you are so much more prepared than I was. Still I find myself regressing. I sat with your mother last night and it all came out. I’m horrified and angry that you are heading to school. I had a miserable first few years at school and as a result I learned how to be liked regardless of whether or not I was remaining true to myself. I lacked confidence and swam in conformity. As much as I could. My heart and mind were free, but under wraps. All that time and energy spent hiding me made me wonder if I was worth anything.

img_3078If anyone ever laughs at you or says something critical about who you are ignore them. Seriously. Hold on to your kind heart, smart head, unique tastes and your loving and weird family.  If you do you’ll see these clowns for who they are. Okay, there was a tad more anger in this sentiment than intended. Truth is most of them are scared and excited and wanting to hide in a corner unnoticed while also wishing to have all the attention possible. Growing up is confusing sometimes. The only power anyone has over your opinion of yourself is the power you grant them. Don’t give it. Hold firm. You are weird and wonderful and unique and perfectly flawed and loved. Find the people that are engaged in the things you want to be doing, regardless of what anyone else thinks about them, and sit with them. If it takes weeks or months or years, I don’t care. Stay where you want to be, don’t go where you’re ‘supposed’ to be.

I love you so much and for one of the few times since meeting you I’m shaken. It caught me off guard. I’ve been spouting the ‘I hate school’ gospel for over 35 years now. But I didn’t realize how much I feared it until I was seeing it through your eyes. Seeing it from a perspective of a protective dad. Seeing it as someone who is certain that school worked in reverse, at least for me. It killed enthusiasm, stoked self-consciousness, raised fear and followed through on it. I know this won’t happen to you, so why am I now thinking thoughts I haven’t thought since I was your age. Feeling scared that kids might make fun of your stuff. Hoping to god you aren’t picked on. Feeling a visceral concern that you have the wrong hair or wrong shirt or wrong glue sticks and you’ll react like I did.

This is your journey and I have to check out of it. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but this part of me, I have to protect you from it. Maybe when you are older we can talk about it. When we are two adults. Not now.

You really are going to do amazing things. You’re going to LOVE school! YOU are going to make friends today that will be your friends for the next 13 years and probably for the rest of your life.

YOUR LIFE. I’m sorry if I forget that at times.

Grabbing Life, Holding On

img_2962With every age and stage there comes certain signs. Signs that my little boys are running out of time to be ‘little boys’. It’s not such a bad thing. In fact, for them it’s the most exciting thing you could imagine. The walls are starting to come down. Well, perhaps not, but they are certainly moving further and further out and for my sweet rambunctious boys this is very, very exciting. From time to time they will pretend they are babies. Not in any real way, but they will say, ‘I’m a baby…’ in a silly voice, smile, giggle and laugh at the absurdity. They are decidedly little boys and we are accepting as best we can that we’ll never have our babies again.

img_2921Like so many parents before us, we know they will always be our babies. It’ll be a metaphor to them, but it won’t be to us. They will be our two and only babies and we will hold them, if only in our hearts, as closely and tenderly as if they were newly wrapped and leaving the hospital for the first time for the rest of our lives.

But that will be it. The rest of our lives. The seemingly inexhaustible but ever diminishing time we have left with them, here amongst them, able to hug and be hugged is also being put into stark relief with each barrier breached and each new independence learned and granted. As they go through life reveling in the ever greater autonomy of being a ‘big boy’ another tiny tick passes and we are closer to the end. Not noticeably so, not always, but the big ones can pierce the bubble we’ve so happily stayed in during these early years. Can make us aware if not of our own ticking clocks then those of their time left in the bubble we’ve created and cared for and patched up and loved. As they grab life that is out there waiting for them we are hard pressed to let go of another tiny piece of it that we’d give anything to keep in our grasp til the end of time.

img_2930It’s joyous. I don’t want you to misunderstand. It’s a faint feeling of time passing and is easily overwhelmed by the joys we share as they start there journey’s. But it is a real feeling. A real sense of life’s passing. We are older parents and we aren’t so quick to let feelings slide passed as we once were. I suppose that’s true for all parents, regardless of age. But with the years we bring to the task comes a thought that this second act that will happen when they no longer need the minute to minute, the meal to meal, the day to day or week to week attention they once did may be more on the down slope of our time here, our time with them. It’s jarring to think, but comforting as well. As long as we can make it long enough to know they are safe, to know they are loved and to know that they know how wonderful this all is, than knowing this is the thing, being a parent and doing our best to make foster this family, we’re pretty happy having that be the thing we go out on. The last and best of what we did while we were so lucky to be here.img_2978

Handle with Care

I sometimes take a picture of you because you’re just so adorable and amazing and beautiful. And sometimes I catch a hint of fragility in what the camera catches. Other times I see huge heaping mounds of it. Giant reserves of delicate. Like you’re a crystal chandelier in the shape of my beautiful boy. And then, in my minds eye, I see all the thousand ways you’ll be disappointed by the realities of life you can’t even fathom at this point. Sculpted from this thing of beauty into another thing of beauty to be sure. But still, that journey is treacherous and full of potential. Potential harm. Potential fortune. Potential damage and grace.

Maybe it’s you. Maybe I’m not just a proud dad that’s just insanely obsessed with my kids. Maybe your specialness, your perfectness is not a function of my pride. Perhaps you are magical and I’m afraid of being at the helm and breaking you by some silly decision I make that seems necessary that I’ll grow to regret years from now.

I could stare at the pictures of you, the you you are now, on the precipice of independence and I dread the pain that growing up can be.

You’ll be fine. I know that. But you’ll be broken too. You have to be. Good, happy little boys can’t survive growing up. If they could they’d never grow up. Which sounds good until you realize that never growing up makes it hard to be a good man. That’s just the way it is. It’s okay. If you figure out what’s important from being a boy you can pull some of those parts out and take them with you. You may have to pack them away for a time, but they will be there when the time comes and you need them again.

A broken arm is one thing. I can handle that. Easy, actually. But the thought of you being teased or picked on or not knowing what to do in a school cafeteria and feeling sick and disoriented because you think everyone doesn’t like you, that thought ties me in knots. I got caught up in that process when I was a kid. I cried everyday for months when I was sent to school the first time. I was removed eventually and allowed to return the following year, but by then I knew to be cautious. I knew people didn’t like me. I knew they didn’t have to. What was wrong, though, was that I looked at the few that enjoyed making fun of me and thought ‘how can I do what they want me to do? How can I make them like me and stop picking on me?’. All along there was a world of kids who’d have been delighted to play and be my friends. But I just kept trying to impress the cool kids, even shunning kids I’d have gotten along with great who weren’t at the ‘right’ table.

Eventually I figured it out and sat safely where I didn’t want to be. It was mostly fine and it largely defined who I was to the world, or at least to my classmates who comprised the entirety of the world for me then. It took so long for me to be the me I liked and was comfortable being. I learned early on how to make them like me and I leaned on that all the way through school, which I hated because of how it all began. I spent so many years not liking me, internalizing the voices of all the wrong people.

All because I had some tough early days. The types of days grown ups like to say are ‘tough but you get through them’. Days we fool ourselves into thinking aren’t all that important because we were 5 and how much damage can really happen to a healthy and loved 5 year old. But we’re wrong. We can get hurt and scar up in tender places at very young ages. Even those of us that had enough of everything. imageI see your precious face and your beautiful and awesome expectation that nothing breaks and everyone will love you always and it scares the hell out of me. Because some day you’ll feel weird, alone and scared. And you won’t know why. And it will break you as it must. In the end I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about the ‘weird’ and the ‘scared’. You need to get through these things. We all do. But if we can help you with the alone part for as long as possible and stay present for the times you’ll need to explore being ‘away’ than maybe, just maybe, a small but invaluable piece of you, a piece of the you you are now might be able to make it through to the other side. If it does I hope that you are able to see all the things that I’m getting to see in you. If you do you’ll see what all that breaking was for. You’ll know once again what it feels like to be a fragile chandelier. To look at something you love so much that you can’t even imagine it ever not loving you back. The mere thought makes me break just a little.

Hell Found Me at the County Fair

County FairSaturday we found ourselves, all of us, lost amidst the deep weeds of toddlerhood.

We were leaving the county fair. It was hot, crowded, noisy and uncomfortable. This was the setting as I did my own performance piece re-enacting every episode of cops ever. The big one was melting while the little one was overdone and riding his big brother’s coat tails. All the mistakes that can be made were. We were unprepared for the crowds, the food, the animals and the heat. Naps were skipped and bad behavior was mollified with treats. In hindsight any parent of any ability could have predicted the outcome. We could have predicted it. But we chose instead to barrel through because that is what you do with toddlers. If you waited for optimal conditions you’d be frozen in place, TV blaring, hiding from your kids. Forever.

Instead we took them to the fair where hell found us. It’s not the fault of the fair. Its not the fault of the heat and it’s not the fault of the various vendors and tricksters hanging their sweet booty, in the form of plush Spiderman dolls or blow up Spongebob’s to attract the hearts and minds of the worlds most brutal and successful class of negotiators, toddlers. Actually it’s totally the vendors fault. And of course the toddler’s fault. Everything is their fault. It isn’t their responsibility to do anything other then what they do, but lets not kid ourselves, we’re all grown ups here, it’s ALWAYS the toddlers fault. That’s okay, they can hardly be blamed for it.

Back to our story…

As I sit on the vacuum packed, stifling, Twinkie-shaped, sardine can of a school bus with with all manner of humanity, waiting on the edge of my seat to see if one of us will crack, scream and dive out the window as the bus tries to weave it’s way through the throngs of fair goers oblivious to those of us on the bus and our plight, toward the traffic that it will have to navigate before getting us to our abandoned vehicles in a vast empty field 3 miles away, I felt relief that at least we were nearly done with this trial. I believe that life tests you and it looked like we were going to make it out of this one having passed this test and learned a lesson.

The bus eventually picked up speed as we traveled away from the fairgrounds. A breeze moved the still hot air and we all let our shoulders down a bit. Even the enjoyable parts of such a day, for parents, are challenging. An example? The Butterfly’s. Going into the netted area, filled with flowers and butterfly’s was something like magic. Until you try to control a 4 year old and a 2 year old that don’t really get it. We were given small, foam style paint brushes upon entering and were told they were dipped in nectar to attract the butterflies, which the 4 year old could eventually do. I turned for a second to look and marvel at how he had managed to procure a butterfly for his very own enjoyment. Being four and having the attention span of a gnat and needing the validation of constant achievement at video-game speed he was bored nearly immediately, which was fine, I still had to look after the 2 year old. Where the hell did he go! Ah. There he.. wait. Teddy, no! He had started brandishing his brush like a weapon and was trying to in fact ‘squish’ the butterflies. Thankfully he is not as coordinated as he thinks he is and no butterflies were harmed in the making of this disaster. In the future, even later that day, this was the memory we isolated and highlighted as the ‘magic’ part of our trip to the fair.

As I slowly drove the air conditioned car I had a few moments of serenity on my way back to the fairground to pick up my wife and kids. A thought snick into my mind. I could probably get away with sneaking off for a bit. Have a beer, catch an inning or two of the Mets game. Why not. What would they care if they got to stay at the fair for a few more minutes? Kids love fairs!

Having arranged with Karen to have the boys across the street from the gate through which we entered the fair I knew it was not to be. They were waiting and I had what they needed. A car, some screens (I don’t care what you think about this, keep it to yourself, talk behind my back, just don’t think I care about your data and research) and a ride back to the grandparents house.

I’m afraid that my abilities as a writer will fail me as I try to describe what it was I returned to. The fairgrounds are in a rural area and the lawns of the residents of the modest homes in surrounding the grounds are  filled to bursting with cars that paid a bit extra for the convenience. These folks who paid $10 to be able to leave immediately, when free parking was right down the street, people I called suckers not 3 hours ago, are the smartest people. Ever. As we crowded our car onto the edge of one such lawn, across from the parked police car, lights aglow for apparently no reason other then to be prepared, my family came into sight. The full blast of a Volvo AC unit with the windows up can completely cancel out the sounds of what was perhaps the busiest moment of the busiest day of the county fair, megaphones ablaze, kids screaming from death defying rides and all manner of annoying, ice cream truck style circus music blasting from the concourse that is perhaps as much as 25 feet to my left. What it can’t obscure is the wailing and screaming of my four year old son, retreating to the maze of automobiles behind him, blood curdling screams that would cause me, you and any other decent person to stop and watch to be sure that he is not in mortal danger.

He is not, but it’s not so evident. You see, I’m angry now. Again, it’s unfair, not his responsibility and still entirely his fault that I’m now on a warpath. He’s a big four year old and his brother is squirmy. Being outnumbered and overburdened by the necessary and unnecessary items that accompany a mom of toddlers from a fair, my wife was not able to fully gather him in his state and it was a full blown disaster unfolding. I kid you not, everyone stopped, as if this were a real episode of cops, and watched as I stormed, cheeks ablaze in frustration and fed-uppedness as I marched directly at the boy and restrained him physically. This was a situation in which diplomatic methods could not be employed, not yet at least. We were in the midst of a full blown rebellion. What was needed was a police state, removal by force and I was the brute squad.

Here I was, a stranger in a strange land, looking to all the world like the type of father I was, but not the type I reported to be. I prefer to be the benevolent dictator, allowing my boys to think they have choices. ‘do you want to brush first or read a story first?’ that kind of thing. But when the moment is upon us, when hell is staring me down at the county fair all artifice is lost. This is a regime that must occasionally use the full force of it’s bestowed powers and put down all threats. Today that threat came from within and I’m terrified to think what the surrounding masses thought of our little performance. Surely they saw my anger, his frustration, our failures and must have come to the same conclusions I’ve often come to when seeing others in this or other, similar situations.

Within five minutes, a seemingly short time until you’ve spent it confined in a station wagon with two screaming, not shouting, SCREAMING toddlers, we were able to diffuse the situation using the wisdom of our elders who always have spoils ready for their grandkids visits.

‘Okay, Charlie. I guess I should call Grandma and tell her to put away the cupcakes and ice cream. Cancel the pancake dinner. Charlie doesn’t want it.’ I said in my best toddler-whistle falsetto.

Deep breaths. Wiped tears.

‘No. I want cupcakes.’

‘You do?’ I asked.

‘Yeah’

‘Okay, I’ll tell Grandma, as long as your a good boy and say you’re sorry to mommy.’ Still falsetto.

‘I’m sorry, mommy. Yeah!’ he shouted, and got the attention of the other.

‘Cupcakes!’ They yelled in unison.