Tag Archives: coming of age

The Letter, The List and My Greatest Fear

Mansfield, Pa. I was there for the week for basketball camp. I don’t know how it became a thing in our town, hundreds of miles away, but for anyone serious about basketball, at least any of us between 10 and 14, you went to Mansfield for a week of basketball camp. I was the most serious about it and I was there. I was about 12 and it was great.

It was a great time for a 12 year old who was obsessed. I was the kid who had a basketball in my hand every minute. I was the kid in Western New York, where it can snow in 8 or 9 different months a year, who would shovel the court to play in January. Or October, if need be. I was the kid who played a level up always. I was obsessed and good as far as anyone could tell. This was the first big year away at camp and the first time I shined outside my own town. I was good against the good kids my age from other towns. I could run with the good kids older then me. It was a buzz.

My dad picked me up and my memory is that he told me we had to get going fast. Mom wasn’t home and we had to get moving.

‘Where’s mom?’ I asked.

‘She had to go to see Grammy.’ He said.

‘When?’

‘She’s there now.’

A lot of things happened in our house without advanced warning. There were six or seven kids at that time, including a toddler, so it’s possible these plans were always in the works and I was just never informed. Still, weird for her to travel alone, but to be honest, she’d gone to Israel on her own while 8 months pregnant with the little one so who’s to say if it was weird that she went on short notice to see her parents.

‘Why?’ I asked.

Here’s where my memory fails me. I don’t know if I asked that. Maybe I didn’t, though I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have come up. Maybe we were driving a friend of mine home or something and he couldn’t tell me. Whatever was said I didn’t know ‘why’ she was gone until I read it in a letter. Might have been in the car right when I was packed up and we were ready to go. I have a memory of it being a letter I read when I got it on the kitchen table when we got all the way home. In hindsight I can imagine a dad wanting to keep it from a kid as long as possible.

What is true is that I found out in a letter. My dad probably wrote it. Might have been mom, but I can’t imagine. It was one of them. My grandfather was dead and he’d killed himself. It was a suicide letter by proxy.

I haven’t been writing much lately. I have to start again. I’m nervous about losing writing. I fear it’s like basketball. I’m old and unable and all those years of pounding my knees on pavement have not left me very able with a hoop and a ball anymore. I can shoot, I’ll always be able to shoot, but the rest is rusty and the will and ability to fix that are gone.

I’ve been sharing the writing I’ve done in the past in different ways recently. It’s been good to reach some new people and find some new life in old stories about times gone by. It’s been interesting to mine my own work, produced largely without reflection. Or rather, to reflect on what I was compelled to write over time.

I recently shared a piece that was written as if it were a letter to my sons. It was a letter outlining the fact that what I want for them is to feel loved and to love. I want the person they love to love them and to inspire laughter and curiosity and energy and compassion and passion and all the things that love alone can fulfill, but I don’t care if the person they love is a man or a woman. I will very much care about who that person is, I just won’t care about that.

It’s in line with a lot of my work, really. Often I’m sending a message out through time and space hoping they will see it and know they were loved. Know that I’m aware of the things I got wrong. Sorry for the parts I’ll fail at. I want them to know that I was a failure. That I was a drunken mess for years. That I had false starts and self doubt and self loathing. That I was depressed. That I hated school. That I didn’t know what I was doing when they came along and all I wanted to do was do right by them. That love so amazing as the love they and their mom have brought to my life is worth slogging through painful times for. That even the hope of it is enough.

I remember having a conversation with my sister a number of years back where I told her that I have always kept a list in my head of who it is I think is most at risk of killing themselves. It’s not some list of sad celebrities or self destructive artists of one sort or another. It was a list of family and friends. Mostly family. A list I at times put myself on. A chronicle of my real time assessments of presumed depressive states that were potential life changing suicides. I did it subconsciously and without noticing I was doing it for years. It sounds like bullshit to me, but it was true. I was truly unaware of this constant drone in my psyche.

One of the recurring points I’ve made over the years was the startling and profound understanding of mortality that I had when I saw my kids the seconds after they were born. It’s more pronounced after the first, sure but that isn’t to say it wasn’t there with the second. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung, but it can certainly be rung again.

It was a rolling realization but the fact is that it was inevitable, being me, that sooner than later the fear of the worst thing I could ever imagine would occur to me. What if some day, too far out to imagine, but not so far out I can avoid ever thinking about, one of my kids, in a moment of pain and suffering and confusion and hopelessness and depression killed himself. It’s the worst thought I can imagine. It’s vomit inducing to say. It’s my biggest fear and I’ve never acknowledged it until now.

Because I got that letter. The one that I had no idea would ripple into the future not in weeks or months or even years, but in generations. In families that weren’t even imagined yet. In the darkest corners of my imagination and in the lists I’d construct mindlessly for hopes that somehow the preparation would perhaps soften a blow I couldn’t possibly see coming.

I’m not capable of having an objective view of my life. By definition it’s impossible, but at times my subjective experience of it can lead to insights that perhaps obvious to others are still profound for me. So saying that it would appear my grandfather killing himself may have effected me and my point of view may sound obvious to you, it wasn’t to me. It wasn’t at all.

I felt bad after reading the letter. I felt hurt even. There was no ‘good’ way to tell me and at a time when communication at a distance was not like it is today I understand why I’d learn about it this way. But it felt like I was left a few days behind. I came back to everyone being in the third or fourth day. I came back to a process that I was left out of. It wasn’t like it was anyone’s fault. I’m really only putting it together right here. At the time I just felt out of synch with the world. I didn’t know what else to do then keep doing what I did. I probably went and shot hoops. It’s literally how I spent an easy 50% of my waking hours at that time.

What I didn’t do was cry. I felt terrible about that. I wanted to so badly, but it just didn’t happen at that time. I didn’t really shed a tear. Maybe I would have had I been there for the group horror, but I wasn’t and I was a twelve year old boy. Emotions are hard always, but they’re a more confounding sort of hard, a less tethered kind at that age. It was 30 years later, when a young man I only knew through others and only enough to say hello to killed himself that I finally wrote about him, and my grandfather and read it to my mother that I really bawled about it.

The tears were not just sad tears. The tears I’ve shed for this event are sorrow filled to be sure, but they are rage informed as well. Confusion and fear are in tears for a suicide as well. There’s empathy and judgement and all of it just comes out. It doesn’t get processed or fixed with a good cry. That’s the thing about suicide. It doesn’t, as far as I can tell it can’t get resolved.

I write because I write. I have only this single keyhole through which to see the world and from where I’m looking the threat of finding out the worst news imaginable is possible because I’ve found it out before. And I’ve watched others find out what it all means, over time, others more directly related and I can’t ever lose the fear of it. So I write. I write about as many of the feelings and failings I can muster the courage or the perspective to find in my story. I write to the worries I have that can keep me up, about what if they don’t know how much I love them. What if they are disconnected at a time when I can’t reach them and they think an awful thought and I can’t hug them and hold them and assure them they are loved. What if they are afraid of me or think I will judge them harshly and I add weight to the burdens I can’t know that they will someday carry. And I write.

I write because it brings me joy and relief and understanding and it can fill me with pride and drive me to dig deeper. In doing so I’ve come to understand that I don’t always see all the forces compelling creation. I don’t always understand why the topics come to the surface. When they do I can ignore them or indulge and some I’ve indulged should likely have been ignored and many I’ve ignored should probably have been explored. The process of creating over time though is starting to reveal reason’s to me and one of them is I don’t want to ever catch myself ever thinking I’ve ever failed to do everything in my power to keep these two names, these two magical and wonderful human beings as far away as possible from my tragic lists. Lists I can’t sop making.

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.

The Lodge Part IV: Greatest Job Ever

As I walked away I could already taste the regret. I was making a mistake. I wasn’t sure how big a mistake. I didn’t really care either. It took all of a split second to determine that I was now going to go down on this ship, this manufacturing of a moment, perhaps a moment that would go down in lore as ‘Oh my god! Do you remember Joe? Remember when he was here, he stood right there. Oh my god.’ Really, what regret could I have that would ever make me feel like this was a mistake. So I had to change, put on some fresh clothes and act like it never happened.

As I walked around the corner I knew that everyone would be watching for me to emerge above the fence in the distance as I headed toward the dance/honeymoon suite building. My stride, for whatever reason, became easier. Less encumbered by the stress of the moment and even liberated by the squishing and dripping that oozed and fell from my clothing. I was getting comfortable with what I’d done.

Perhaps not as comfortable as my friend Evan.

Evan was a guest at the Lodge. Evan was about 50, fairly jovial and capable of being incredibly witty and acerbic. It wasn’t all an act, not by any stretch, but there was a peformative nature to Evan. He was in it for the attention, but he wasn’t over eager. He waited for his audience. He lived in my cabin the first year, when I was a counselor turned Lodge Leader. He was there in the second half of the summer when we were down to the skeleton crew/dream team of Me, Mike and Tony. A suburban white kid (me), streetwise city kid (I wouldn’t call Mike a kid back in those days, though in hindsight we all were) and a gangly Russian with an Italian-Americanized name (Tony. I’ve come to know home on Facebook years later by the name of Anton, a far more fitting name considering his surname. He taught me a thing or two about the world I didn’t know, a rapidly changing one in the 1990’s in Russia). I remember going to each of my cabin mates and seeing if they saw things I didn’t. I went to Mike to confirm that Evan was who he was after the following exchange. Before I tell you I should note that it was my first session in charge. It sounds cute, but it was running a cabin of 16 adult guests with various intellectual and developmental disabilities, including people with needs for physical supports, with 3 guys, all hovering around 20 years old, all with six weeks experience, who worked round the clock, 24 hours a day. No punch outs. No back up staff. It was stressful.

Anyway, about a week in to Evan’s stay I see him outside the cabin, at the other end of the fence we all hung out at outside (lodge) 12. I catch an eye, I look for his name on my ever present clipboard (I needed the prop to signify my authority) for head, no name counts…

Me: Evan, right?

Evan: Yeah, Joe.

Me: When was the last time you showered?

Evan (Shaking his head like Al DelVechio at Arnold’s saying ‘yup, yup, yup’): Five fucking years ago. Five long, happy, Jewish years.

Me: (5 seconds of silence) Bwahahahaha!

As you might imagine I grew quite fond of Evan. Not only for the effortless way he used cursing as a tool in his comedy, but for who I found him to be. Who we all did. When I checked with Mike after this he said, ‘yeah, he’s on my side, he’s pretty funny all the time. Unless he’s talking about Helen.’ Who’s Helen? I ticked through the staff, the support staff, the nurses, his fellow guests (who would be campers elsewhere, but we were all adults here, our guys had agency, they were not to be treated as children. Guests, please.) ‘It’s his mom. Mike said. I think he still lives with her. Actually, he can be funny with her too. But you can tell it’s different.’

Evan became a guy. We loved all the guys, but he turned out to have a little Rock Star to him. He was hysterical.

He was also foul mouthed. Not in groups, and not with anyone that didn’t appreciate it. But for me and Mike and Tony, he’d be there, every morning one or the other of us would run up to the dining hall to grab coffees for the crew as we got to the incredibly challenging job of getting everybody up and out on time. Whenever we saw him he’d not do anything. But if we said hello or good morning it was always met with a huge smile and a ‘Hello shithead, how are ya?’ He always said it with a little bit of Squiggy in his voice. He emphasized the how are ya and the smile and it was just so damn funny. There’s no way to recreate it here, but anyone that was close enough to him would tell you the same, it was amongst the funniest and most adored greetings I’ve ever received in my life. Honestly, if I’d never had kids it would be the number one greeting of all time. Hello Shithead, how are ya? With a giant smile and a genuine twinkle in the eye.

What had been regret was turning. As I strode away, aloof and sopping wet, regret was changing. Not to it’s opposite, per se. Rather, I was just starting to own it. To feel no way about my decision. It was just something I’d done. I liked this feeling. I could hear the tittering masses left behind, still giggling, some even guffawing and I liked it. I liked the attention. I liked the silliness of it. I even liked the carpe diem of it all.

Later that summer I’d be charged with taking Evan to the dentist. It wasn’t something that we did at camp without an emergency, so he must have had one, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. Perhaps they had to pull a tooth or something. Whatever it was it needed to be addressed immediately. It could not wait for him to go home and it wasn’t enough for us to insist he go home.

I took my job quite seriously and at 23 it meant having the conversations, gently, that I knew I had to have.

Me: Now, Evan, it’s not like camp. We’re going to be out in public and there will be others around.

Evan: Oh yeah. I know dat shit.

He burst a second of laughter and then looked sidelong at me to see that it landed. It did. Just saying ‘shit’ was enough to make it funny. I know. It’s immature. I also know that he was not immature, was in on the joke and actually understood why it was funny. Judge if you like, but we were and are good at this and it was merely a grown man getting a laugh with crude language. It was normalizing and accompanied by a very real sense of humor that lived along side his performance art of cussing for laughs.

Me: That. You can’t do that while we’re at the office. I know you know that, but I have to say it.

Evan: I know that. I tell Helen all the time, oh yeah, boy, I know that.

This was our Evan. I didn’t have to bring it up again. We just chatted for the half hour or so that it took to get down the mountain and to the dentist. I gave him one more respectful reminder and we went in.

It was clearly a family practice and they must have been well aware of where we were coming from, and by extension who Evan was, or at least they had an idea that he was different. I have to say, Evan charmed everyone. He is an excellent patient. Why shouldn’t he be. He’s an absolutely lovely person!

That said, he was teasing me a little. Giving me those sideways looks. Answering questions straight when asked by the Dr. then looking at me to let me know that he knew what would be the funniest way to answer. He’d even be smiling as the phrase would go through his head, and mine, but the smirk never turned into uttering a vulgarity. I shouldn’t have been so worried. He’s a good dude. A good friend to all and an excellent companion  for an adventure.

When his work was done and we left to go I gave him a wink of approval/thanks and he chuckled back. We were grown ups, out in the world, away from the camp. All that was left was to pay. I stood at the reception desk, Evan at my side and awaited the forms eagerly so we could sign them and head out for lunch.

Reception Staff: So we’ll just need you to sign this affirming that the work was done.

Me: So would you like me to sign or Evan?

Evan: You can do it.

Reception Staff: That’ll be fine. It was a pleasure meeting you, Evan.

Evan: You too.

He smiled bashfully. Even tilted his head. When he did he fell upon the number, the thousand or so dollars that the procedure was going to cost. That’s when the bubble burst.

Evan: Holy fucking shit. Helen’s gonna fucking kill me!

It boomed. I held back my laughter and you could tell. It was an active denial that was seen by all. He laughed outright, big and jovially, big belly bouncing. The mom’s with kids in the waiting room bristled. One laughed, thank god. The dentist, the assistants, all the staff snickered and smiled, some nervously and some like me, holding back. It was the one instant when we were in the middle of everyone in the whole damn building.

I suppose you had to be there, but it was amongst the funniest moments of my entire life and a good part of that was due to my discomfort next to my man Evan’s seeming indifference. He could have said that in church and his heart rate wouldn’t have budged nor a bead of sweat been anywhere near him. The man just knew himself, had reacted sincerely and was damn funny for it. He knew it.

My regret was fully gone by the time I was rising above the fence line and I was happy, damn happy I’d done what I’d done. My job in this magical place hadn’t really fit me right yet. I was still struggling to wear the ‘uniform’ of big boss man now that I was in my second year and first year on the Admin Team, the four or five of us who were the big bosses. I would be invisible as I strode from activity to activity counting names and looking stern. I was a little overwhelmed by the job at hand and I was trying so hard to look the part that I missed the whole damn point. That being, if you can’t have fun at a job where you are changing the world, making others lives magical and being transformed by that same magic coming at you from all angles, than what the hell are you even doing there.

I think that was why I did what I did that day. Instead of quietly opening the gate to the pool, popping in and eying up the lifeguards and the staff, ensuring everyone was where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to be doing and leaving as quietly and stoically as I’d arrived, I did something different. Of course I still made sure everyone was where they should be. Of course I ensured all was safe. Then, in what amounted to street clothes, I strode right to the middle of the pool and fully clothed proceeded to make a show of the whole damn affair. And it was great. All the guys started laughing, but I stayed in character, never even cracking a smile. Which only made the guys laugh more and even some of the staff, who had to be tiring of my ‘transitional’ phase to leadership. It was a moment. Forget all you normals, we’re the weirdos and we’re proud of it. It was a story they’d tell at lunch. It was something so simple but so special that it had to have turned at least someone who was there’s whole day around. In fact I can guarantee it did.

No matter how much they screamed, or hooted or called my name as I walked up that hill, I wasn’t going to turn around. But as I got to the top of the hill and rounded the corner of the dance building a giant smile broke across my face. From that moment forward until I left years later I had the greatest job on earth.

 

I Am Dad

I’m feeling kinda done with writing about parenthood. It was a massive transformation and now I’m transformed.

img_3451Parenthood is a sequence of workaday realities that once awed and floored me in a way that when not paralyzing, was heartbreakingly beautiful and expansive. Well, its still those things, really, I just can’t throw as much emotional energy behind it all anymore. I am still transported on a daily basis to a place of awe and wonder, but it’s often fleeting. It has to be. Any moment of daydreaming and self reflection is necessarily interrupted by the mundanity of daily life with a 5 and freshly minted 4 year old.

Gone is the exhaustion fueled deluge of emotional frailty and excruciatingly earnest expressions of fawning and perspectiveless love. It is not as sad as it sounds. These feelings are still there, behind all the work. Gone however is the constant feeling of being overmatched by the task at hand. It’s been replaced by a security you only have when you have a steady hand and a clear eyed confidence that you are up to the task.

img_3402Sure, we could feed them better food, we could replace TV shows and movies with family activities, we could certainly stand to reduce screen time and increase story time. We could even take better care of ourselves come to think of it. We could sleep more. We could drink more water and less wine (okay, I’m the wine drinker). We could be more physical and less sedentary. We could stand to spend less time on our screens and could be more patient and less prone to yelling. Where was I going with this… ?

Whatever. All of it is to say we got this. We get a ton wrong, but we’re doing it. Not everything is a trauma and drama. We’ve left the bubble where reflection and exploration were how we retained a sense of self as we changed to who we needed to become.

Being a parent, a dad, is now a fully ingrained part of me. It’s who I am and I’m no longer struggling to fit into this new uniform. Its on and worn in at this point. My mistakes are not as often the learning and growing experiences they once were. Now they are just human. Just what it’s like being this guy.

img_3373What hasn’t changed is the love. The fascination. The endless desire to be connected to these people. My tiny tribe. Karen and I have rediscovered each other and it’s never been better. We’ve never been closer or more in love. The kids are still orbiting us, tied to our motions and our decisions and our schedule but they are drifting. They have interests beyond us and it’s amazing to us what is so natural to anyone else. It amazes us simply because we have all of the wonder and awe of the first time they opened there eyes stored in our hearts and to see them venture and wander, well, it can make you swallow hard and hold back a tear now and again. Just as fast the moment passes and we are swept up into the day to day grind of running a house, a car service, a grocery and a restaurant (specializing in nuggeted nutrition of dubious value), a recreation department, an education system, social services organization, a health and safety inspection unit, a counseling service and cleaning service (which is a failing venture if ever there was one) and to a degree we never could have before, we love doing it. It’s our life’s work. For now the emphasis is on work but down the road, and not too far, it’ll be understood much more so as our life.

 

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.

How I Understand Privilege

‘I wish I was black.’ 

I was probably 12 years old or so when I said this and I was 100% sincere. In that moment, looking out the window as the rural landscape of western New York flew past, barely undulating and never ending I couldn’t have been more sincere. 

My life was basketball and I was a Piston’s fan, Isaiah Thomas was my all time favorite player. Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ was my first record. And I mean vinyl. Might have been my last as well. Tapes were on their way. All the guys I watched on the playgrounds and at the college, whose games I emulated and whose styles I mimicked were all black guys. I was into early rap through my older brothers. We had cardboard taped to the floor in the basement and we spent hours a day working on all the moves we could remember from ‘Breakin’. I’m not sure I could ever windmill but I could do everything else. I was a badass little pop and locker. I remember someone getting a hold of a tape of Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’ and hearing it and thinking I’d just heard the coolest and damn near funniest thing ever. ‘Gooney goo goo’ had me rolling, and for the life of me now I can’t remember what the joke was to that punchline. Whatever, his stories were so clearly real and it felt like a sneak peak into a life that I was fascinated by. A life I could only imagine. A life I couldn’t stop imagining. 

The appeal was made only stronger by the sense that they were fighting a battle I couldn’t really fight. My team, the one I was on not by choice, was the opposition. The ‘man’ and I didn’t want to be ‘the man.’ I wanted to be cool. Black people, to me at 12, were cool. I can’t remember which comedian I heard more recently who said, and I’m most certainly paraphrasing here, ‘God knew that black people would have to endure countless and endless suffering and to make up for it he gave us a lifetime supply of ‘cool.’ It’s kind of a joke and kind of a sad statement of the reality of what a lot of people have to face and how a certain number choose to counter the reality that won’t seem to change for the better without changing doubly for the worse at times. But at 12, for me, it wasn’t so nuanced. 

Beyond that I had a couple of role models in the house, older brothers who were the guys I looked up to most. I had two other brothers, actual brothers of mine, born of the same parents and all, and I looked up to them like crazy, but for some reason, perhaps my aforementioned affinities, I was drawn to my brothers who were ‘brothers.’ 

Eventually after processing what I’d said my father replied to my non sequitir calmly and wisely.

‘You probably shouldn’t tell anyone that. It’s okay for you to feel that, for now, but you should probably keep that to yourself.’ 

‘Why?’ I asked. 

To my mind it could only be taken as an honor, right? I mean I was saying I envied blackness. How could that be wrong? 

A thousand ways. Trust me, it didn’t take long for me to see that after enunciating my most sincere wish. 

‘Well…’ My dad thought. How do you tell your 12 year old that they are being so ignorant of life’s realities in a moment when they are trying, sincerely, to understand people different from them. 

‘I don’t think you are thinking about this, but it could come off to some people like you are not really appreciating all that you have been given. Might seem a little unaware of all that black people have had to go through.’ My dad said.

My dad’s not a ‘race’ guy. The issues confronting his own ‘kids’ would be dealt with when they would come up, but it was largely not a thing he thought about. He’s often surprised by how much I will think about race and the unfairness I’ve seen as I’ve grown up and watched. I’ll remind him, it would be hard for him to have my perspective, he didn’t really grow up in an environment like the one I did. He didn’t grow up in an integrated home within a largely homogenously white community. He didn’t see all the dads who’d go out of there way to drop the ‘n-word’ in front of me, just to, I don’t know, check if I was cool with it? Remind me that they thought my brothers less for it? Just to shock me? Maybe they were like that all the time, I don’t know, but from my house growing up it was the single most hateful sounding word ever. When I was a kid it was just barely starting to be reappropreated by black culture and these grown men weren’t aware of that. It was the ugliest of usages of the ugliest word. 

That day my dad stopped me cold. For him he was just responding to a sensitive issue, trying to steer me clear of saying something so wrong, but what he did was get me thinking. I knew instantly what he meant and it started me on a train of thought that has been a thread through my life. It didn’t change my heart in that moment, but it changed my head. Eventually my heart caught up and I came to understand how truly wrong my wish was. 

I’m still learning to understand my great good fortune. I’m so thankful I said that to my dad. So thankful that he answered the way he did. Through the years and phases of my life I’ve seen how it’s made me see things, things that are now so obvious to me that are so hidden from so many white men. About how much is taken for granted. 

When I was in high school and we were all sitting in suburban living rooms drinking forties of O.E. with our shoes off and watching Boys in the Hood and playing out fantasies that were others nightmares I knew the privilege. When we aped the style and patois of emerging disaffected young men who society rejected before they even arrived we were drowning in entitlement and dismissing and glorifying that which was exotic to us young men who would never have to face it. I recognized it, many of us did, for what it was not long after. 

When I was in college and heard truly vile hate speech being bandied about by the future executives of the world I was disgusted. The truth was there weren’t too many of them that did it, it was the tolerating of it all and the occasional sick deep indulgence of it all. I remember my mother, sitting at our kitchen table on a summer evening when I was home from school after my sophomore year telling me to love the people I loved for their good qualities and stick around to try to influence them positively when it came to the ugly parts. I don’t know. I didn’t really do that all that well there. Made some friends but I still have a lot of bitterness too. 

What I know is that ‘wishing I was black’ while sincere, was a privilege. It was a child’s understanding and I hope it came from a place of empathy and a desire to connect with and understand other people and their experiences. But it was definitely a privilege. The reality is that if a 12 or 15 or 28 or 45 year old black person were to ‘wish they were white’ it likely wouldn’t be from the same place of privilege as my wish came from. It likely woudn’t be naive. In fact I suspect it would come from a place of far deeper understanding than I may ever know. 

I Don’t Want to Let Go

imageTeddy still babbles. He’ll sit with the Lego Duplo’s and play by himself and there is a stream of playful and emotive gibberish. He has started to use words and and pretend and play make believe with his creations and the figurines, but if I listen in the right way, if I’m able to listen loosely I can still hear the patter of the 2 year old he was.

Being a parent is a lot. Early on we weren’t up to the task. Seriously. We are excellent, loving parents. Any kid, and I mean any kid at all would be lucky to have us. But the truth is that as excellent as we are as parents, we just aren’t very good at it. We don’t revert naturally to routine. We don’t always provide excellent examples and we are just terrible at doing so many of the things that we are ‘supposed’ to do.

Our house is a mess and while it’s better than it was, it’s never gonna be an ordered and soothing environment. I like to think that has to do with our artistic bent, that our clutter and struggle to eliminate is an element of us that is strongly informed by our connectedness and the meaning we see all around us. Meaning that I turn into stories.

imageWe don’t sleep train. We shouldn’t have to at this point, frankly. Our kids are well past the age when that should not be a thing that needs doing. I’m afraid that if our kids are ever to get themselves to bed, it’s gonna happen on it’s own. For now we each take one and we snuggle and struggle and ultimately find them asleep sometime within a couple hours of getting them up the stairs and into their rooms. In my case, with the three year old it is sometimes in the chair after losing the fight of getting him to calm down in his bed. Other times it is both of us on the floor looking up at the green stars on the ceiling that emanate from Winnie’s honey pot when you press the bee. Sometimes we find the moon, other times we find the one constellation, an outline of Mickey Mouse’s head. Yep, Disney even invades their sleep. Still other times it’s on the ‘big boy bed’ the five year old will be moved to once I am able to solve this endlessly flummoxing Rubik’s Cube of a task that I am told should never have been allowed to get to this point. In my moments of confidence, a wonderful if fleeting thing when it comes to my life as a dad, I like to think that whatever we’re losing by not giving them normalized sleep routines is more than made up for by the love and feeling of security we’re giving them by never leaving.

imageWe are inconsistent practitioners of reward systems, a crime doubly indictable as I’ve been designing and implementing such programs for much of my 20+ year career. We don’t practice anything approaching appropriate self-care. The clothes are piled up, usually separated into piles that require sniff tests to determine whether they are clean or dirty. We take them into our bed and let them stay the night. Every time. We are wonderful parents to have as we never fail to give love. But we are just not very good at the component skills.

I’m not complaining. Well, not much. Now that our lives are this way I can honestly say there’s very little I would change. Perhaps I’d employ more consistent rewards or maybe I’d have a few more date nights. I’d certainly have a neater pile of clutter, that’s for sure. Okay, there’s a lot I’d change.

But I won’t, because at this point, this is who we are. We are fumbling through this thing together, imperfect as hell. I’m not saying we refuse to grow or we won’t change. We’re changing all the time, growing all the time. We’re just doing it together. At this point that means we’re messy, tired, together and happy.

imageI don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to hear through the coherent play and listen to the babbling that is working it’s way fully out of my son’s mouth. Truth is I might already have heard the last of it. That’s the thing. Nothing we do is going to stop them from growing up. Nothing I do will keep us from watching life slip ever past. The older they get and the older we get the more clear it becomes that none of it is forever. None of it lasts like I’d like it to.

It kills me to think that I’m ever going to step out, I’m ever going to be finished. With loving and watching and helping and messing up with my kids. That I’m ever going to walk away from my wife who I’ll never see again or that she’ll have to walk away from me. I don’t want any of this to change because for the first time since I was too young to understand the implications of it, I don’t want to ever die.

I want to live forever and never say goodbye. Never grow old. Never die. I want to live this life I have for a million lifetimes. Not some version of it, not some other life, but this one. Mine. With the same pains and the same joys. Now everyday that goes by where I don’t hear my boy babble, like the ones that came before he uttered a sound and relied on us for his every aspect of existence, every tiny change that moves some aspect of their lives to the past is a process. One of letting go. That is how we think of it.

I often think that parenthood is the first time it’s highlighted for you that so much of life is the process of constantly letting go. It is, but it also isn’t. It gives me some agency, some power, some sense that this is my choice. To let go. To slowly choose to hand away life one tiny handful at a time, knowing that at the end the last thing I’ll let go of will be life itself. It’s inevitable. It’ll be all I have left to hand over.

imageThat’s not how it is though, is it? I don’t want to let any of it pass. I want to live equally in the moments where I was three, sitting on my momma’s lap playing with her long hair that flowed out of her ’70’s style bandana, staring at the wooden cross hanging from a leather strap around her neck. I want to spend eternity smiling at the brown lunch bag my father drew pictures on just for me. I want to fall in love for the first time at 12 years old and play act what I thought it meant to lose it all. I want to feel lean and limber and strong and beautiful as I dance with a basketball unafraid of anyone who might wish to stop me. I want to be brash and cocky and altogether terrified on my first day of college and I want the world to open up to me at camp as I found what it was I’d do the rest of my life. I want to meet my wife, sit on those bar stools forever. Falling in love and diving into the unknown. I want to have my kids, meet them for the first time, and I want to watch them grow and marvel at the spectacle. I want all of this to be held. Why would I ever let go of this?

The answer is obvious. We ‘let go’ because we have no choice. Because we can’t choose to hold on. That being said, I want to get as much of this as I can. I want to watch my boy play on the floor with not a care in the world but what the little elephant on the back of his train that he built from Lego’s and imagination is going to do next. Forever.