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 It’s been replaced by a security you only have when you have a steady hand and a clear eyed confidence that you are up to the task.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.

 

I Hate School

img_3083I hate school.

I hope you won’t but I fear you will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem with the ‘Good Schools’

High School ClassroomWe live where we live for a lot of reasons. We feel its a good place to grow up for our kids. A big reason for this, the biggest reason we are here, is the schools. We moved here for the schools. It’s a common refrain.We’re starting to meet the other parents of kids who will be in Charlie’s kindergarten class and so many of them mention the schools as a part of why they are here. There was a state wide ranking that came out around the time we moved here declaring our school the top rated public school in the state.

We can’t afford private schools and neither my wife nor I are interested in them. We were public school kids and we wanted the same for our kids. We wanted them to have a real connection to the place they grew up. Besides public schools fit better with our politics as well. But I can’t help being a little uncomfortable with the idea of ‘moving here for the schools.’ I can’t help but think there’s some coded message in the phrase, some coded history that reflects how we’ve gotten here.

My town is 85% white, 10% Asian and just over 1% African American. These numbers are from the 2010 census. We have a train station that allows one to easily access commuter lines to NYC. Broadly speaking New Jersey is a diverse populace, particularly as you approach the city. So why this largely homogenous population? I have some ideas.

The great migration of African American’s from the south to cities of the northeast and Midwest made northerners confront the realities of a diversifying population. We white folks didn’t really handle it all that well. What many of my contemporaries now see as an organic, self segregating impulse that has left many communities largely homogenous was in fact anything but organic in how it came to be.

Many of you will surely recognize at least some of what I’m saying. Perhaps your history makes you aware of the great migration. Perhaps your history makes you aware that diversity can be more an economic issue than a racial one. Perhaps you can see that the community you live in, the one you moved to, perhaps for the ‘good schools’, is largely homogenous but feel that this being a free country that the whiteness of your town is coincidence more than design. If you think this last thing you might be right. Surely there are some communities that this is true of and those communities have other issues. Also, they are unicorns. Generally speaking the communities we live in are homogenous by intent if not design.

When African American families moved to the north they met opportunity to be sure. They met successes that would have been unthinkable in some areas of the rural south they left. They met new challenges and new problems as well. One of those being that despite the north being on the side of the angels in the war, it didn’t mean their was any less racial animus here. It didn’t mean that there was a smoother integration. In fact, it turned out, so much of the racial tolerance many expected was completely absent and there was new, sophisticated ways in which they were experiencing racism. Subtle ways that kept them struggling no matter how hard they tried. Wage deflation, employment discrimination, poor funding of schools, legal bias and housing discrimination.

Housing discrimination was rampant. If you were a young black professional with a family you were shown the ‘black’ parts of town. You were refused tenancy in ‘white’ areas, at least the desirable ones. The ones where you were barred from as your presence would ‘bring down property values’. Steering people to one place based on a perceived undesirability, having brown skin in this case, was how we ghettoized the African American’s who moved north for a better life. So the young, black child of that young black doctor couldn’t go to the schools where the young white kids of the young white doctor went, where they had other young professionals and tax bases were strong and schools well funded. The ceiling of achievement was thus lowered to meet their blackness. Furthermore those young, bright, possibly world changing young kids segregated into ‘black’ areas were losing the value of home ownership that was growing for their white counterparts since there was the burgeoning reality that the areas where African Americans lived were losing value as they could only sell to ‘blacks’, who were increasingly poorly educated by underfunded schools.

For a generation or two black businesses working with largely black clientele may have thrived, but the communities were crumbling under increasing financial pressures being put upon them to relocate as their neighboring ‘white’ neighborhoods, growing richer from generation to generation needed to co-opt more property to keep the growth going. Gentrification is a beautiful and euphonious word considering how destructive a force it has been in so many communities of color over the years.

White folks in white neighborhoods started to see themselves as more capable, more worthy and ultimately more valuable. Over time the system reinforced these views and before long what was simple racism could now be seen as inherent superiority. I’m a white guy, but I have to imagine that the grinding gears set in motion to devalue our brown skinned brothers and sisters was internalized by generations of young children seeing the world they lived in as one that punished them for being ‘black.’ You may not see self esteem and self worth as a socioeconomic issue, but that’s probably because you are afforded more opportunity to define your own worth. That’s what I’m afforded.

As historically African American areas were slowly or swiftly overrun by the ever more prosperous white community the neighborhood that was once there would have to move. While there was good money to be made selling ones property to the gentrifying crowd, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the skyrocketing costs of living in the area. So they moved just outside the area, to the ghetto down the street, where they could afford to relocate and stay employed. It wasn’t always a great idea to look to move away as there might not be a lot of options there for employment, but what there was they had and there was no doubt value, however little, in the undervalued work had vs. the undervalued work elsewhere that was likely already had.

Eventually the ‘white’ folks could move out of the city. They could find a nice place to live, a place where the kids can play outside in big back yards. Where there is purposely not a lot of business or opportunity. Where you’d make it expensive enough to keep out the riff-raff. Where you could be happy that your kids would get a good education due to the high tax base. Where you could charge whatever you want as young professionals, like everyone, wants to give their kids the best chance to succeed.

There’s nothing wrong in my decision to live here. Nothing wrong for wanting to move here for the schools. But there’s something terribly wrong in thinking that the world doesn’t favor me at the expense of others. There’s something wrong in thinking there was not a ton of external factors that have brought us to this place. Something awful in thinking others aren’t here simply because they don’t want to be.

I moved here because I could. For the schools.

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.