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.


‘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 wouldn’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.



The Lodge, Part Three: Family.

783_41971287745_2761_nAs I stood there counting names, not heads mind you as heads can be counted twice, it was mighty distracting to have so many trying to get my attention. Yelling things at me like, ‘Joe!!’, and ‘You’re still in your pants!’, and ‘What’s wrong with you…’ All to the unending guffawing of these supposedly ‘special’ people. My people. On top of it, this was a high risk area. The pool. Where we are all to be on extra high alert.

To their credit the reaction was the one I sought by coming down to do my name count in the same fashion I always did, at 6-10 activity areas 4 times a day but proceeding to walk directly into the middle of the pool, fully and normally dressed, while maintaining as stern an authoritarian countenance as I could project at all of 23 years old. All the while never breaking from my task of making sure all were accounted for and safe. Once I was done I left, not saying a word, just soaked through from the waist down, dripping all over and smiling ear to ear on the inside. I was making a memory that would last for all those who saw it. My attention seeking behavior pointed to bringing a smile to the faces of our guests. My guess is I’m the only one that really remembers that. I was pretty cool.

I really was.

Camp was home in a way I’ll never really experience again. It was a childhood home. The home I was an integral part of, but not one I was in any real way in charge of. I was an older brother maybe, or a young uncle that sometimes seemed more like a cousin. I always would be perceived as a kid there as they saw me at my finest and my, well, not so finest in my early twenties. Not so finest covered a LOT of territory back then.

Still, it was home. I discovered the world there. Discovered myself in the process. When I was done, at least when I thought I was, I launched. Out into the world armed with the confidence and skills I would never ever have found without having spent my four years there. Yep. Four years, 2 of which were year round. Unlike other camps that do year round programming this camp was not one that was really set to have tenants in the winter, other than those that come up for weekend programs and the director. But that director, she liked me and trusted me and needed the help so I had the chance to stay. To be the kid leaving dishes in his room. To be the teenager too big for these little beds, ready to push off on his own but not yet willing to pull the trigger.

Four years in I started to get self conscious about it. I should really be going I thought. So I did. I moved to New Hampshire where I went to start a new life, one that was supposed to be a lifetimes journey.

10 months later, having shown thoroughly that I was not yet ready to make that step, I was lost. Not yet 26 at this point, the summer of 1999, I loaded my belongings, said all my apologies, cried some tears that hurt because they were the first final tears I’d ever cried for myself, and I headed back to camp. I could be a driver. That was alright by me. Just what I needed. I knew they didn’t need a driver, not often enough anyway.

The journey back was terrible. I was full of failure and judging myself harshly, the way I could back then. But at the end I was home. For whatever reason it always felt like I was already there when I passed through the traffic light in Palenville, some 15 or so miles down the mountain, headed toward the winding roads that were so harrowing the first few times, but came to be second nature to me as the years passed by and this road became the primary means of egress from my mountain life.

That summer, the one I spent as part time asst. director (Not in title, but I sussed it out when I was tasked with firing people and covering for the director on days off)/Driver, was when I came crawling back with my tail between my legs. But when I got there I was welcomed happily by the few senior staff I knew and the guys. Oh, the guys. They were  the reason we were there, all of us, everyone of us, but that year they were the actual reason I was there at all. I needed to be somewhere where I was loved and so many of them loved me without reservation. The camp was really a lodge, and our ‘campers’ were known as ‘guests’. Intellectually and developmentally disabled adults that had no idea how much it meant to me to hang out at the store those nights at after hours with them, playing pool and listening to music on the porch. Or sitting with them on the swinging benches that were placed around the Gazebo. Or just hanging out in the office listening to the camp live around me while I felt so securely and perfectly placed in a life I loved. How much it meant to me to be somewhere where I knew what I was doing and how to do it well. Where I was openly and obviously seen as someone worth spending time with.

I didn’t get close to any of the staff that year. It was the year the guests became more my family than the staff. They were permanent after all. Staff turned over, mostly, every year. There were returners, but by year three there’s only a handful left from year one.

That said, this past week I got a tweet from a man who was a kid there working at the camp that summer. Peter. He was an Irish lifeguard and he remembered me. Stuck out to him that one night I afforded him the privilege of breaking curfew on my porch. I was given the exec’s cabin for the summer and I took full advantage and knowing I had no one to really hold me to account for an infraction I knew to be minor I said come on up, have a drink and a smoke. And we did, and we chatted. It was nice. And he remembered.

It’s funny what you remember. I have memories that die every day now. Ones that have just lost space or priority or value for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s age and distance that are crowding out so much. But for whatever reason it didn’t crowd out that one extra beer and smoke after curfew for Peter and his bringing it up to me rescued it from the waste bin I’d yet to empty in my mind. Now it’s there, given a lifeline, safe for a few more years.

I’m certain on my death bed I’ll think of my son’s. The times I’ve spent with them in this short time we’ve already had have filled me to overflowing. I’m sure I’ll flash to the night I met my wife Karen. It’s a memory I visit often to thank my lucky stars. I’m equally sure I won’t think of that night on the porch with Peter. Won’t happen I’m afraid. But I’m glad it made another appearance, because family, the family you grow up with, well all of it is significant. The silly times you made everyone laugh as you walked away beaming from the inside, and soaked from the waist down and the times you came crawling back, embarrassed, with all your life in tow and they didn’t for a second see you as anything but welcome and they were even thankful, happy that you were there.

I’ve said this to everyone who’s ever asked about camp and it’s true today. ‘If everything falls away, if my life literally crumbles around me and I’m left with nothing, I’ll always have camp.’ After all, if it all were to go away where else would I go other than to family.

My Drinking Life

  I love getting drunk. I love being drunk. I miss it.

I love the first beautiful sip. The factory whistle of my soul telling me my obligations are done for today and it’s time to play. I love the giddy inebriation of that first drink going down in minutes followed ever so joyously and abundantly by a line of soldiers willing to die just for me. I love the feeling when I know I’m a little light headed and I don’t want it to ever go away. I love it so much. So much.

I’ve been drinking for 30 years now and I know that it’s not ‘right’ to say it, but I’ve loved a lot of it. I’ve loved it so much that I can even miss and love the awful parts of it. 

I don’t really drink anymore. I drink, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t ‘really’ drink anymore. Two’s my cap now. Has to be. There’s too much I have to do and the body doesn’t absorb my indulgence the way it once did. My recovery time took a serious dive around the turn of the century and has bottomed out by now. If I ever lost my head and went at it with the hedonistic gusto I did in my teens and twenties, or the rigorous grinding it out style I adopted as a wily veteran in my thirties, lord knows how long I’d be laid up. At least a week and I’d be gun shy for at least 3-5 days. I know the math doesn’t really work out on that one but I’d offer that you’re looking at it wrong. 

I marked who I was as much by what I was drinking. As who I was drinking with. I used to be a committed beer guy but the cells morph and your tastes and cravings change. I still always have beer in the house, but a six pack, a starter pack for me in the days I was really drinking, now lingers for a minimum of a week and that’s with another grown up in the house having one or two of them. No, the glory days have passed.

I still know what I like and I indulge it once or twice a year. I like whiskey now. Started with scotch, but now it’s any. I’ll get a bottle for my birthday and one for Christmas perhaps, or in celebration of something momentous; a new job, some new, big writing goal achieved or maybe I just feel like it. Happens two or three times a year and I wait until the house is quiet and I’m the only one awake. I get the lighting to my liking and I sink into my spot and I drink. I still have the propensity after decades of chugging beer to drink it too fast, which is always alright by me. My wife knows I still got whiskey left if I’m snoring. Whiskey puts me to bed like a baby. Like a giant, blissful, soulful baby. 

I miss meeting my best friend at the park across the street from my house over stolen beers. 

‘Hey, you know Chris?’ A friend asked.

‘Nope. Hey man, how are you.’ I said.

‘Give him a beer.’ Said friend.

‘You want one.’

‘Yeah.’ Said Chris. 

He was a freshman and I was still in 8th grade, but we made it work. Made it work for a lifetime. That said it’s been well over a year, maybe two since we’ve been in touch. That’s me. It’s not him. He has always been the better friend. Not to mention better at making and way better at maintaining friends. He’ll be my best friend, outside of my marriage, for the rest of my life. I have no doubt. I miss him and I hope to see him again. I mean I know I will, I just don’t have any idea when. 

I miss the drunken sneaking of teenagers in middle America. Honestly, in memories it was a movie. Boys in cars drinking on the sides of country roads surrounded by corn fields in the light of the moon, smiling and laughing and having the strangest and most unexpected conversations. Myself and Kenny telling a random stranger about our imaginary exploits on very real athletic fields we’d only ever see on TV. Fights and laughs and girls and boys, drinking our GL’s and as free as we’d ever be.

I miss Driving around in beaters visiting responsibilities we couldn’t yet live up to and talking openly about how we couldn’t sustain or maintain friendships when one had everything and one couldn’t come along for that ride. I remember my friend E. Telling me I was gonna be a writer someday. We talked like that, over 40’s of OE, sitting in parking lots and learning to be men. I had read a couple books and I wanted to write one. But he was the only guy I’d really talk about it with. At some point the Newport smoke would fill the cap of the beat up old 70’s mustang with rusted out floors replaced by plywood and we would talk for hours. We had different histories and the future was threatening to end these nights. This wouldn’t be the last but he told me, he said I’d be a writer. Just knew I would be. Told me to write about this, about us. I miss that. 

I miss the drunken nights of college life, when the world became bigger and smaller all at once. I didn’t love it there, not at all. But I sure had a hell of a lot of laughs. I was starting to feel the difference between how I felt and how I looked and how the latter dictated how people viewed me. I was ocassionally angry drunk. It was a thing that I’d seen with my high school friends, but I didn’t really get it. But I got it in college. It mostly turned to depressive drunk, but there’s no better place for that transition. Always surrounded by friends and everyone always ready for that novel suggestion of grabbing beers when it would be proposed every evening after dinner. It’s a fun and friendly place to disappear and I did. So many of the people I met there I couldn’t really be vulnerable in front of. I wasn’t ready yet to show myself, but they weren’t either for the most part, so that was fine. 

I miss drunken benders with the cast and crew of my personal attempt to save the world. I miss the stories we told and heard at Cheer’s in Tannersville, the counselor’s bar where we’d go to blow off the steam that had resulted from our boiling, youthful exuberance. Fed by hormones and that energy we knew would never leave us. We’d work 18 hour days filled with emotional turmoil, endless toil, broken backs and tireless love and want nothing more than to go to town and relive the day we’d just finished all night. Or until the last van before curfew could get us back up the mountain in time to sleep it off before starting it all over the next day. 

I miss the dark and lonely weeks I spent in the camp I loved, slowly losing light as the summer turned to winter and the drinking turned therapeutic. Sitting in my quiet cabin, in the abandoned camp watching the same VHS tapes over and over with a can of lemonade and a bottle of whatever was cheapest. Finishing both of an evening, wrapping myself in the warmth of the sadness that accompanied me retreating to the woods. I miss the silence and even the sadness. They were the only weight that cloud properly counter the ebullience of those summers.

I miss moving to New York City and drinking with a million others every night, every free moment. I miss making a life with roommates. Finding ways to laugh and laughing at ourselves and realizing how foolish we’d been to think so highly of the adults we’d known. Finding out the world had changed and having drinks to honor the dead and to loosen up our minds and lubricate our thoughts to try to make sense of the senseless happening on a scale that had only ever existed in the faraway other. I miss my friend and roommate deciding that we needed to set up the table, order falafel and gyro’s and grape leaves and drink wine and talk because there was nothing else to do but talk about the world and how it was changed. Forever. 

I miss the lonely life on the treadmill, working all day, going to the gym sweating out the previous nights drunken overindulgence as a form of penance only to get it all out and know I’d earned my evenings drinks. I miss getting the cycle interrupted when a few texts would come in a a bunch of folks would be at St. Mark’s tonight. You coming. Let me check. Yes. I’ll be there. And I’ll get sloppy drunk and everyone will laugh and I’ll miss it all as I leave early to get home for a quiet, solo nightcap or two. 

I miss falling in love over drinks and finding that love at the street end of the bar downing two too fast to be sure to have the courage to pull off what we did that night as the bubbles flowed in and through us. I miss asking if you’ll have another even though it’s a Sunday and we both should go to work tomorrow. I’ll miss us both saying yes as long as we could stay right there as long as it took to know there’d be another date. As long as it took to know you’d know I was the one as I knew you were already. 

I miss being Saturday wanderers stopping on the Island for a winery tour completely unaware where the day would takes us. Finding ourselves lost on the island in a living room/tasting room and watching you bubble with glee at the place we’d found. I miss the nights when you would go to bed like a responsible adult and I would drink a bottle of Absolut. I miss them because they were fun, mostly. And because you knew and you let me work out whatever it was I was working out. When you saw it was nothing you knew I was in too deep and you lovingly and sincerely asked me to please consider slowing down. I did. I miss that more than anything. It was the most loving thing anyone had ever asked. I’d tried to get people to believe me before that it was getting to be a bit too much, but you believed me. 

I love drinking. I love being drunk. I love it now more than I ever have. I don’t do it anymore. I don’t get drunk. Because I found something better. But I will never forget the life I’ve had, the life I’ve lead, drinking and laughing and loving it all. 

The Lodge Part Two; Faking It

I have a good deal of respect for the fraud I was at that time. My bravado and false courage was believable. I was 22, driving a 15 seat van from deep in the Catskills down to Union Square where I would pick up families that included at least one member who was diagnosed with an intellectual and/or developmental disability. Pick up was at 5pm on Fridays in the middle of Manhattan. I was the host and the boss. The looks I got. I ignored them, but they were evident. I would drive families that had never met before through the dark and snow to a camp in the mountains that was so remote that the road turned to dirt about a quarter mile out. No houses or light emanating from anything but the vehicle. It had all been arranged by a finely tuned, though still almost totally pen and paper bureaucracy that I had a good deal of responsibility for. They were startled and perhaps a tad frightened by me.

‘You’re Joe MEDLER?’ They’d ask. ‘This Joe Medler?’ They would hold the letter, sometimes pulled from the envelope with my handwriting on it, looking very official, with the logo for AHRC of NYC across the top and a list of board officers and members cascading down the left hand side and point to my name under my signature.

‘Yep. You’re in the right place. Is this Daquan, then? Hey man. Are you excited to head up to the mountains? We’ve got so much fun stuff planned for you.’ I’d say, moving right past the doubts of these now very worried people and instead engaging the kids. I had at least the accidental wisdom of engaging thoughtfully with kids without patronizing them. Usually at least.

Smartest In the World. And Robert.Thank god I didn’t recognize the doubt they must have been feeling. I mistook it for something I wanted to help change. It motivated me to be brave and bold and try honestly to change the world. Had I any of the wisdom I’ve gained since becoming a parent, wisdom that often is cloaked in fear and worry, I’d have known they were judging my youth and inexperience. I’d say they were right to have made such a judgment in general, but to this day, and I suspect for the rest of my life, this is the place and the job I was most perfectly suited to. Which isn’t to say this piece of the job was my strongest suit, but this place was the place that fit most perfectly with my emerging sense of right, wrong, fun, learning, priorities. It perfectly reflected my sensibilities. Harriman Lodge. Its my home, the one in my heart and it will always be to some degree.

I arrived at the place from across the state a summer or two ago. I don’t remember the timeline that well anymore. I was driven by my dad as it was the tail end of childhood and the leaping off point for my whole life. My confidence may have had little foundation, but it had good bones. I was a person taught to do what I believe even when it’s hard, especially when others aren’t. I had not yet applied these teachings, but somehow just being here, jumping in with two feet to a new and strange world and becoming a native felt like a stance. Taking the concerns of a person with disabilities as seriously as they took them, feeling like you were literally providing and caring for people that must have had innumerable amounts of ‘no’ and inadvertent and quite intentional discrimination heaped on them over a lifetime that often included severed family relations, neglect and institutional abuse felt world changing. It felt like I was making their lives better and as a result I was finally important. I was important for taking the care of and showing respect for people that needed help to have their voices heard. I was alongside the most wildly diverse assemblage I’ve ever been a part of, young people from all over the globe looking for a unique way to grow up while having fun and being the change they wanted to see in the world. It turned out that the people that were in our charge had a far greater impact on our lives those summers then we EVER could have had on theirs.

That first year was the moment I’ll always think of as my time of discovering the world and inventing myself. Leaping on opportunity and working 7 days a week, up to 20 hours a day, and no less then 16. Even when you were asleep in the cabin you always had one ear open in case a person that needed help was seeking it. You and 5 other counselors in a cabin of 18 guys. Then the leader of the cabin walks off the job, unable to deal with it. Then the Marine, couldn’t hack it. Finally it was me, Mike and Tony. The suburban, the urban and the Russian. And we did it. We had help, but we gave ourselves completely to our guys for more than half of the ten week summer. Ragged and bedraggled. Excitable and exhausted. It was and remains the greatest accomplishment of my professional life. I was 21, a knuckle headed post-teen finding purpose with the rest of us.

We’d all go on to have challenges and struggles. We’d resist the responsibilities of adulthood, shrink at times we should have roared and not use the springboard we were given to jump ahead in life. We’d all come back and do it again and again. I stayed 8 years, often through the long and lonely winters where I’d carry comfortably huge responsibilities only to crumble during down times that allowed me to wallow in ways I needed to in order to grow up. It was the formative experience of my life. One ONLY matched by becoming a parent.

Cheers 95For the first few years I identified as ‘Staff’. God that was awesome. We were weirdos and tough guys and earth mom’s in training and world explorers. Intellectuals bent on bending the world and lifelong service providers. We were on the one hand always ready to be silly and on the other hand so new at adulthood that we applied aesthetic judgment to the way we held our cigarettes. We were terribly vulnerable and horribly self-conscious and lacking the self awareness necessary to avoid embarrassment. I can look at the pictures for hours. When a new one shows up on Facebook I pray all of us will jump on and relive those times and speak of reunions. I can’t tell you how much I hope one comes to fruition. I love those people like my family. They were the people present at my coming of age story and I was present at theirs. I am of these people and I couldn’t be more proud of that.

Something strange happened over my time there. Fully integrated with the staff at 21 I started the slow move away from the group. It took a few years and a promotion or two, but before you knew it I was starting to realize that I was a lifer. I only stayed eight years, but in that time I became part of the permanent structure of the place. Before long I stopped having the bonds with the staff. The staff I’d always thought of as the ‘permanent structure’ that stayed in place as groups of ‘guests’ would come and go throughout the summer, two weeks at a time. I would be emotional when they’d leave and I’d reminisce with my fellow staff, the others left behind. You have no idea how much you bond with someone in this type of setting. How many emotions and experiences you can share in just a few days. But eventually as I got more involved in the year round operations my staff family became ‘big mama’ (Director), Big Joe (Caretaker extraordinaire of the facility) and Jessa-Lee (Year round rep for the AHRC NYC organization for the first couple years). To this day they feel like family to me. Jessa-Lee, though I haven’t seen her in ages, is still one of my very best friends. These people knew me as a pup and not only allowed me to grow up, they facilitated it. Put up with my shenanigans, the false starts and the inconsistencies and knew I was able and entrusted me. Partly because I was the only one who would do some of it, but lots of times because they had faith in me. So I had faith in me.

After that, my family became the guests themselves. My former self, my ‘staff’ self looked out to a horizon that went as long as the evening light. Perhaps into September. It was a short view. By the end I knew that I was with the guys. I was there every year, like they were. It was the staff that changed. Some returners every year, but eventually they all left. We stayed. At least until we didn’t.

There are times now when I look back and know I couldn’t do now all I did then. On the most basic level, it’s a young person’s game. The commitment, the hours, the emotionally raw feelings that come with the whole endeavor, it would be too much now. But I still wish I could do it. I still draw on it, like all of us who were lucky enough to have been there do. It provides a soulful foundation for me. Remembering the whole thing. It’s where I’d fall to if all else failed, if every imaginable tragedy were to befall me, I could always go back there and live out my days working for a roof and food. Sounds crazy I know, but it’s a real thought. It’s even a fall back plan in my mind for me and Karen. We hope to live out our days in our lovely home and have a fully realized vision for what our future will look like. But when discussing fall back plans in the event they should become necessary, the idea of camp has come up on several occasions.

I guess you have to fake it when you start. I did, at least. There wasn’t anything to draw on so you make it up. All of it. Then at some point you realize, I’ve been making it up for so long that in the process something has been made. The whole of the experience has to amount to something. It just has to. For me it amounted to me. I faked it, I made it and that made me.

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