High Stepping Out of Toddlerhood

They know its ‘daddy’s car’ that they get into to go to school. They are three and one so it is definitely daycare, but it’s a truly great one and they learn a ton and have the chance to interact endlessly with all kinds of kids and they do so more naturally than kids who aren’t fortunate enough to have this opportunity. It would be nice to spend the whole day with them, everyday, but I could never give them what they get at the Y. Sometimes the days are longer than you’d wish and by Friday all that play and fun can add up to some tired and cranky kiddos, but all in all, its great.

This is because, every morning after me and the older boy drop off the younger boy, getting him to his favorite teacher that got him past those tough early days when it was all confusing and scary, I get to walk to the end of the hall, the other side of the daycare center and drop off the older boy with his teachers and make small talk as we put his special meal away (food allergies) find and move his nameplate from the out board to the in board and ask him if he needs to go potty. Then I take a knee and say, ‘I love you, buddy. Have a great day.’ and he hugs me and I hug him back and tell him I’m proud of him. Finally I get up and once again, more publicly say, ‘have a great day buddy. Bye.’ And he says ‘have a great day, daddy.’ See ya later. There’s really nothing cuter than a 3 year old talking, trust me, its adorable. I tell the teachers to have a nice day and I head out of the room.

Unlike any of the other dads, I turn right out the door, take two steps and go through another door. This brings me to the corridor stretching about a fifty feet or so from the welcome desk to the right, and the doors that are closed all winter but open all summer as they are the point of entry and check in for all staff and campers in the summer day camp program at the Y about fifty feet to my left. I’m 5 feet from the door to Charlie’s classroom, I step directly across the hall to my office. That’s right, I work maybe 20 feet and two doors from my kid all day.

Recently it’s become okay for him to see me and it doesn’t ruin his day if we happen upon each other. So I do my best to happen upon him whenever I can. I sneak onto the mezzanine around the pool he learns to swim in and I spy on him, until he sees me and refuses to do anything other than to wave to me nonstop saying ‘Daddy, daddy.’ I have to leave once discovered. All his friends know who I am too, so they do the same and let him know that his daddy is there. Cover blown I blow him a kiss and he returns the kiss to me and I wave bye bye and leave. In the halls we slap high-fives on the occasions we run into each other. I even have a window in my office that looks out on the gymnasium where he plays an hour a day in the winter months and I sneak peeks when I can and worry when he’s sitting or playing by himself, or if I think he’s sad. Until I look around and see about ten kids playing independently like this and I remember that I was much the same way, still am, and while like everyone I sometimes wish I had opposite characteristics to my own, I’m a decent and well adjusted human and it would be weird if he weren’t somewhat like me.

All these things are highly valued by me. I took a big risk to be sitting here with these perks that I rarely talk about. We’ve only been here for a year. Not even. I dropped a fully formed career (I’m a forty year old dad of two toddlers) that had consisted of two stints, roughly a decade each, at two prominent nonprofits in the city and with not enough education had managed to become a middle management type through doing what I loved to do, doing it well and trading a certain amount of recognition and upward mobility for a level of independence and freedom. I didn’t love all aspects of it, but it was good and it allowed me to essentially be very part time while still getting the benefits of being full time in the early years with the little ones. It was a hard decision to leave a place where everyone did what I did, namely work to provide opportunities for more full and fully integrated lives for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to a place where I was the one guy fully in that boat. Where special needs was a dept. and not the entire mission of the entity from the very very top all the way to the 2 hour on weekend bus aid. I’m still a bit of a fish out of water here at the Y.

But it’s all good. Because, at the end of the day I get to pick up the guys! These days its from the small fenced in playground just outside the winter-locked, summer camp doors. At least that’s where I pick up my Charlie, my three year old. Inevitably he is first picked up since the one year old is at the wildcard stage of development and I kinda need to have my hands and feet free to keep him in check.

For the entire time I’ve been working there I’ve walked in, teachers or kids have let Charlie know that I was there to get him, and his knees have started bouncing like crazy as he’s high stepped it over to see me, yelling 3 times, daddy daddy daddy. He runs to me. I get down and we hug and smile and hug and smile and eventually I ask how his day was and he eventually says it was good and that he had fun. It’s our moment before we head in and get his little brother, the kid he has called, affectionately, ‘baby’ for most of his life. His name, Teddy, was already taken by Charlie’s bear by the time ‘baby’ arrived.

This reaction of Charlie at the end of the day is something I’ve never taken the time to think about, something I’ve taken completely for granted. Until today.

Why, you ask. Well, my boy is growing up. We still had our moment at the pool, and I’m sure he’ll give me a high-five the next time I see him in the halls. But today he didn’t have his ‘daddy daddy daddy’ reaction. The knees didn’t pop up and down above his waist like they always had. His smile was tepid and not beaming. He was happy to see me. It was still wonderful. But it’s slipping. I suspect it’ll be slowly at first. It was a strange day as I came from a different angle than normal. And he saw me from a distance and it was going to be some time til I got there. But ultimately it won’t last forever. I hope I get even one more reaction like this from him. His brother is starting to run smiling and I love that he recognizes me now, and I look forward to his excitement. But I can’t help but feel a touch of the melancholy as Charlie so easily shifts between stages and grows up so fast.

It’s a day later and the halting greeting I received yesterday was once again replaced by the ebullient and buoyant energy I’ve come to rely on, though I didn’t know it until it skipped a day. I’m relieved to know it’s not gone forever. Terribly relieved. But I’m also awakened to how much it has meant to me and I cherish it even more.

I’m told that I should make little movies of these things. Of the times they are so excited by there favorite show coming on that they can’t help but run to the floor to dance. Of the times they choose to be our playmates and they make us 3 years old right beside them as we melt in the glorious glow of their exuberant and uninhibited joy. Surely some of these I have recorded and some I will. But this moment of excitement will have to be remembered here, like this. Watching it after it’s a thing of the past would simply hurt too much.

My Punchable Face

When I was in first grade Jeremy F——— told all the kids at our lunch table at our small, community catholic school that he was going to punch me in the face. I said, Okay. Or maybe I said, no you won’t. Jeremy F. stood up from his lunch, walked around the table and I stood up and faced him. I didn’t even raise my arms while he balled his fist, reared back and punched me, dead in the face. I’ve come to understand that some people have faces that other people just need to hit.

Smug bastard. Looks like the type of guy that thinks everyone will be SO fascinated by his personal stories. God. Don't you just wanna hit 'em?
href=”https://joejmedler.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/2014-07-29-11-08-31.jpg”> Smug bastard. Looks like the type of guy that thinks everyone will be SO fascinated by his personal stories. God. Don’t you just wanna hit ’em?[/c

My time in Catholic school was just god awful but it was more than balanced out when my parents allowed me to make the leap to public school a year or two earlier than anyone else in my family. For the six years I was there I was punched so often that it started to seem that it was a rite of passage for the other boys. I was the kid whose mom spoke to the teacher about the teasing I was receiving and she was the teacher who then sat us all down and told the whole class what my mother had said and insisted that the other 8 year olds stop picking on me. Any of you that are familiar with 8 year olds may be able to guess this, but it didn’t go well.

I showed up in fifth grade and was instantly seen as cool, cute, smart and funny. I was instantly popular and it stuck to me through high school. At my old school I got a reputation as a kid you beat up, who would cry uncontrollably. In my new school, my first and best friend was Kenny, who was a smart and sensitive little wise ass/bad ass who took me under his wing and never let anyone ef with me. At my old school I was the kid who dropped out of kindergarten the first time around. At my new school I was simply popular, a thing my parents had more to do with then me as it was entirely due to genetics. Fifth grade girls are surprisingly aware of boys and I was deemed handsome.

I simply do not exude humility. I am perceived as confident if not arrogant. A confounding dichotomy as my inner life experience has left me with a penchant for self-loathing. Perhaps this is it! Is it possible that the feelings I have had toward myself, feelings where I wanted to punch me in the face, were evident to the world? Have I simply projected a punch-me-in-the-face vibe?

I have a number of native attributes that might attract people that are predisposed to face punching. I am stand offish and reserved. Except for when I’m ridiculously manic and over the top, which happens less frequently but is certainly more annoying. I’m also judgmental. I’m also annoyingly smart. NOT overly smart, just annoyingly so. The kind of smart that acts like it doesn’t care what you think but also wants you to see it. I’m quick to smirk at ideas that are stupid. This is hardly my fault. I can hardly be blamed for holding the correct opinion.

To summarize I am superior, arrogant, dismissive, judgmental and correct. Did I mention ‘stubborn’?

If you are a person that has punched me in the face, or if you’re a person that has simply wished to do so but are not the type of person to follow through on the act, I can certainly understand the inclination. Actually, for a good ten years in my adolescence I myself would get so frustrated with me that I would punch myself in the head.

I am punchable. This has had permanent effect on my personality and it has in many ways shaped me. This brings me to my larger point. ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle that no one knows about. Be nice.’ I learned this from memes.

When I was young I had to learn first to have empathy for myself. It’s the hardest empathy to learn. Being punched early and often actually made it harder. It made me internalize those feelings of disgust I perceived in others and my act of confidence and superiority was only a mask to hide from myself my own loathsomeness and feelings of despair. My lack of understanding and compassion for myself made me stupid. It lead me to make a thousand mistakes that prevented me from growing. It also forced me to confront my negative feelings toward myself before I could ever move on and be who I was meant to be. So what appeared to me and surely to others as stagnation in my development was really just the rapid compiling of negativity to either hasten my demise or hasten my own salvation.

When I emerged from youth into adulthood I was bitter, drunk, sarcastic and unsuccessful. I guess you could say this was my personal style. Make no mistake, I took no real hits. I’m an educated, middle-class American who is both white and male. The world tilts towards me to be sure. Whatever battles I was fighting were ones in which I needed no allies. They were my fights alone and ones that were largely my own making. I never liked school because you could fail, so I never worked at it. I loved basketball until the competition met me and then I gave up. I’ve consistently put myself in positions where my responsibilities fell far short of my capacity. This kept me safe and secure in my feelings of superiority and protected from having to challenge myself to grow. Life has ways of finding you, however.

At some point while we were discussing starting a family it occurred to us that we’d be doing ourselves a huge disservice to not at least make a passive effort at having a kid. It’s impossible to think now about how sincere our thoughts and concerns were. It’s hard to remember what was important to us at that time. It was mostly lifestyle stuff. I shudder now to think how seriously we considered NOT having kids. The idea of not having Charlie and Teddy is vomit inducing! The argument that took the day for us was that we had a brief time left to avail ourselves of one of the truly essential experiences that life has to offer.

So now we are on the wild ride, extreme-sport that is parenting toddlers in your 40’s. It is absurd, delightful, devastating and all-consuming and there’s no way either of us could EVER imagine that our old lives would ever do anymore. By taking this leap we have truly put ourselves in a situation where we cannot avoid failure. We fail our kids, we fail ourselves and we fail each other. All the time.

Our lives mirror the lives our children. Extraordinarily high highs and crushing lows, all in a bubble, on view to the world. Each day is filled with life altering mistakes and life recovering amendments that fix those mistakes. It’s remarkable that I have any wisdom at all the way I had insulated myself from failure. You see, failing is the most important thing you can do. Each day my kids see me fail and recover and each day I see them fail and recover. In each case, everyone is learning lessons and we’re all reinforcing for each other that failure is never the end.

I used to run summer camps and work with staff that were between seventeen and twenty-four years old or so. I did this for about half of my total life and the entirety of my adult professional life. Twenty years of Helping kids learn how best to work together to accomplish awesome and amazing things. One thought I liked to come out with whenever they ran into a situation that seemed to be hopeless and devastating was that it’s like walking in the dark… all you can do is put your hands out in front of you and keep your feet moving. It certainly feels like your lost in a cave, but if you keep moving forward, you’ll either find the wall or discover it was a tunnel the whole time, and you made it to the other side.

When it feels like you have arrived at failure the most important thing to do is to keep moving. You may never fix the mistakes you made and you may feel entirely deserving of the punches you take. You may even waste years punching yourself. You don’t have to look too hard to see people that stopped right at the moment that life smacked them and refused to move from that moment of disappointment. The decision to stay in that moment can be tragic. But if you keep moving and keep learning you will get further and further from those moments. The further you get from bad decisions and bad behavior and bad judgment and petty arrogance and truly regrettable choices and cruel misfortunes that were not your making the more they start to like the map that guided you to where you were headed. In hindsight these errors and accidents often change and become turning points that led you to this place where you’ve learned to make mistakes often and to learn from them and to put them down once they’ve taught you what they can. Each mistake now is a blessing as its one more chance to teach your kids not to fear failure, but to embrace it as it’s the most effective expedient to learning.

I no longer pity myself for being punched in the face all those times. Turns out having a punchable face is one of the greatest gifts I ever got.

The Problem with Potential

Charlie Builds UmiCityMy children are showing signs of potential and I couldn’t be more concerned. It’s a wonderful thing, ability, but let it out from under wraps too early and it can be awfully counterproductive.

My firstborn is not even three and a half and he is pretty consistently told about his brilliance. This isn’t unusual, most people spend their time praising children for rather standard accomplishments. In the case of parents this is natural. Every new thing your child does is earth shaking. Truly. But it’s becoming evident in school that he is getting some distance between himself and the other kids. He has a memory that is remarkable, a vocabulary that is of someone twice his age and in a class where many of the other kids struggle recognizing their own names he not only recognizes and spells his own name, he recognizes and spells everyone’s name. And when he is confronted with new words he can often sound them out since he’s known the sound of each letter and what letter comes after what since he was two and a half. He reads me bedtime stories.

I should start by saying that I’m aware this isn’t some kind of Doogie Howser, MD level of brilliance or anything. He’s a bit advanced, that’s all. But he hears it all the time. He’s also started to hear and notice disappointment in teachers when he misbehaves or struggles to focus. It happens so rarely that it must be noted as it is entirely out of character. But to have simple struggles like these, standard ones really, highlighted at every opportunity is something that his burgeoning emotional development is starting to register. He’s already a kid capable of harsh self-criticism as noted in an earlier piece, Fear and Loathing in Parenthood, about his struggle with potty training.

Furthermore he is stunningly good looking. I’m not going to explain this one away. I may be biased, but that don’t mean I’m wrong. And on top of that, he’s about the average height of a six year old. When he’s around other three year old kids, as he is all day everyday, the combination of his precocious ability and his mature behavior, combined with his stature and handsomeness make grown ups think he is older and more capable then he is. If he’s struggling there’s a reason. He’s three that’s the reason. But lately, I’m starting to feel like that reason is pressure. Pressure to live up to something that others think of him. Again he’s three.

What makes me crazy is how wrong people get the whole ‘gifted and talented’ thing. I want to foster his curiosity and I worry that it can be stifled if he isn’t able to continue to see the joy in learning if he drifts further from the mean and finds less and less that challenges him moving forward. But this is often where people start talking about ‘tracking’ kids. Getting them into a lane that will challenge them intellectually in order to keep them engaged. It’s important. But don’t for a second think this is the most important thing.

Prior to moving out to New Jersey my wife and I lived in Astoria, Queens. It was our first apartment and the neighborhood will always hold a special meaning to us. While she was pregnant with Charlie it became clear to us that we would have to move. She was working in Parsippany, NJ and we lived in a fourth floor walk up without a dishwasher or a washer and dryer. It became very clear that we could double our space and amenities and get what we needed to be comfortable by moving. So once the spot was picked and the date was set we went about planning. This is something we do now on the fly. Life is crazy with kids. But back then it was something we could plan a dinner for. So we went out to a Greek restaurant on Broadway and 30th, sat on the street and talked about our future.

We hashed out logistics. We did calculations and determined that we could get movers!!! (ALWAYS GET MOVERS) We decided our move day and talked about the various possibilities for daycare. We even daydreamed about our new apartment and planned projects that we had no idea that we’d have no time for after a kid.

Then Karen started talking about the need for us to get our kid into a good school district. I have biases against the education system, biases that have altered in detail but remain present and I dismissed the concern. We weren’t buying at that point. We were getting a two bedroom in Morristown. Who’s to say we’d even be there when the kid started school. Besides, I had a close friend and coworker who grew up there and went to the public schools where we were moving who is one of the brightest and most energetic and engaged people you could know, we should stay zenned out and not worry.

This was and is my way of avoiding many things I don’t wish to confront. But she pressed as she should and eventually got me to access and express my true feelings on the matter.

The first part of my feelings are cynical. I don’t think school matters, and it matters less and less the further you go. The people I’ve known, at least the non-scientists and non-social workers who have gone to ‘the right schools’ are living a life I don’t want for me or my kids. They place value in the wrong proportion. There’s no denying the value of money, but there is greatly overstating it and many of these people in my experience do that. Which pulls these efficient minds further and further away from curiosity and pushes them to cold profit analysis. It’s gross and I don’t want my kid surrounded by these people.

The second part was more optimistic. I told her that the kid, assuming standard developmental health, would be bright. We didn’t have to worry about that. We were both smart. The IQ and capacity would take care of itself. What we had to do, what our responsibliity would be was to foster natural curiosity and be mindful in nurturing his emotional development. It’s our job to make sure he is a compassionate and caring person who is respectful of others and appreciative of all that he will be afforded.

While we may have disagreed on the value of an education, my wife could not have been more in agreement with me. It is our job to raise a person in whole and value the right things. Everyone gets to decide what is right for them. For us it was fostering curiosity and compassion and kindness and enthusiasm and love and a sense of appreciation.

I think that in general we’ve lived up to this. It might be hard to see as he is at an age where his curiosity puts him in a lot of situations that could cause an ambulance ride and as a result I’m more often then I’d like employing my scary dad voice. But we are very proud of the little boy he is. He shares, is kind and is loving and joyful. And at this age that is all that counts.

The problem with potential is that it narrows your outcomes and heightens expectation. So if you show early signs that you might be incredible, you are then tracked to be so. And that’s crazy, you’re a kid and no amount of giftedness, other than effort and curiosity should be highlighted. Your interests may turn out to be in a direction that isn’t yet present. Why stifle these.

I have a visceral reaction to this, one that is personal. Emotional immaturity causes you to internalize the disappointment of others. I have a good deal of experience in this area. And in my case, I reacted to this by failing immediately. I’d pre-fail to get it over with. High School would have been easy for me had I tried. But I didn’t. The same is true with college. And I claimed not to care. I swore up and down that I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I didn’t care so much in fact that I drank to blackout every night and gained 80 lbs. immediately on going away to college. Where I immediately failed off the basketball team and never had a gpa above 2.1 in the ten years it took me to get a degree. I made a point and a show of not caring. To this day I still am able to get access through my first impression and to this day, to some degree, I still set out to lower expectations immediately when I sense that there are high hopes.

I labeled myself a failure and went about making myself one. I didn’t care, and it nearly killed me how disappointed I was in myself. It is for another post, but the seeds of my salvation from this awful cycle of self-defeat was when I went to work at a summer camp for adults with special needs. The result of which was finally confronting my issues and embarking on years of struggle with myself and the eventual ability to find and be loved by Karen. She was the payoff, and as such the WHOLE struggle was worth it.

I hope beyond hope that I can avoid a similar fate for my Charlie. I’m frankly terrified that he won’t regress to the mean of toddlers in his world and that the expectations will come at him fast and furious. I am afraid that he’ll start having his potential squashed by the good intentions of those trying to support him. I fear this will make it nearly impossible for him to know what it means for him to be fine. Which is exactly what he is. Absolutely, joyously and beautifully fine.

My Sentimental Heart

Life has grace notes. Every life.

In the past few days I’ve panicked at 4 in the morning that I wasn’t doing enough to support my wife and our little boy. I’ve drafted a fantasy baseball team. I’ve given several bottles and wrapped and re-wrapped a baby several times. I’ve given Charlie two baths and read not a word. I’ve caught up on many things at work while feeling awful that I wasn’t there to do the things that needed doing at home. I’ve hummed the baby to sleep, his favorite tune being Brahms’ Lullaby. I’ve cooked a few dinners and cleaned the kitchen on a 1.2 times a day clip. I’ve cried and I’ve laughed and I’ve shouted in frustration. I’ve watched international women’s curling. I’ve actually recorded it. I’ve been awake from 1:30 AM until at least 4:30 AM each night. My life is full.

I miss some things from my former life, when I have the time and the energy to do so, but I would never trade the present for the past. I can’t imagine this will be true in the years to come, but for now it is so. Yet I hasten to add that I am becoming sentimental in a way that I never thought that I would.

Don’t be fooled, I’ve always had a sentimental side. I’m a writer and it’s in some ways, at least in the ways and reasons attached to my writing, unavoidable. But it’s different now. It’s not filtered so thoroughly through thought and reason. It’s visceral and it allows me to feel things I was formerly incapable of. It allows for a true empathy if not sympathy that I was unable to access and experience in the past. I am still prone to anger, it being a primary emotion men feel, but I’m now able to feel life like I never have before. In a connective way. In a way that validates my Romantic notion of the human condition. In a way that allows me to cry.

I don’t know necessarily what has brought about this change, but I suspect that there are a number of factors at work. Surely some of this is due to Charlie, and it is most assuredly a delightful development in this regard. I am aware of the fragility of life in a way that’s different from the intellectual understanding I had in the past. Surely the lack of sleep is a contributing factor as well. It could be the onset of age. It’s said that I am on the downside of Mount Testosterone. If I am I must say its a far more livable life and one my temperament was suited for from the start. That torrent of aggression that accompanied my majority was not handled well.

You can ascribe questionable ethics to anyone that has lived successfully. As a game it’s quite easy to find even a well meaning person’s blind spots. In fact for a time, when one is defining oneself it is practically impossible, and I would guess inadvisable, to refrain from poking holes in the facades around you. It’s your societal duty as an adolescent and as a young adult, and it’s your personal duty as the holders to the flame of the wildly hypocritical. This is one functional purpose for youth, no? But like I said before, life has grace notes. Every life.

Jim Valvano’s speech near the end of his torturous and ultimately losing battle with cancer (one that he continues to fight valiantly from the grave) is one of the ways you could always coax a tear from me. I won’t repeat the whole thing, but it was given right at the end. He summoned energy that an athlete can sometimes hold in reserve when they know it will be needed later. There were thousands of tumors (his description) pumping through his body and he was addressing a crowd gathered to give him a ‘human spirit’ type lifetime achievement award. His motivation was to give a memorable and inspirational speech that would move people to give for decades to come after his inevitable demise. This was the one chance he’d have to establish the momentum to make a difference by creating a fund for research. He knew what he had to do and he did it in a breathtaking and heartbreaking way.

One point he made, and this was not on the teleprompter and not in his notes, was how he understood his life to be meaningful. He said that if you laugh, if you think and if you cry everyday, that is a full life. It was a profound accomplishment since he had so eloquently just finished walking the listener through thought, to laughter and ultimately to tears.

I admire his sincerity in grappling with his own mortality in a way that was sincere, forthright and vulnerable. It is a valuable lesson. While it may be impractical at this point in my life to cry daily, it is without question a full life when I do.

I cried a bit this weekend because some very good people, expecting joy were surprised by tragedy. Heartbreaking, life altering and ultimately scarring tragedy. I don’t know how it will be when I see them again but I know the tears are not done on my end. I wish I could grab them and hold them tight for as long as it took. I wish I could jump into the well with them and talk them through the dark. I wish this never happened and I hope they know how many people love them and wish to unburden them of the terrible weight they will carry forth. I wish I was brave enough to tell them I loved them and to cry with them, but not being a person that fills that role in their lives I’m afraid it would only burden them more.

I will go home to my precious boy and I will hold him and giggle and make silly noises and forget everything in the world for entire minutes and there is nothing that feels better. I know joy.

I have known tragedy, it’s human and all of us have. It draws us together and holds us apart.

I am now mature enough to say, I hope I never die and I hope my boy never grows up and moves out and I hope we never change from this perfect moment in time.