It’s about masculinity, emotional development and me. Head on ove and take a look!
I’m a Herb.
A Herb is a standard issue, dime a dozen, khaki wearing guy who tucks in his shirts and is always presentable but never stylish. ‘Nerdy’ has taken on a different connotation since I used the term with any regularity back when I was in college in the mid-nineties, but back then this would have been a part of the definition.
Back then I would have blanched had I heard I’d been called a Herb, but it was always my destiny. I merely had the freedom to wear jeans and t-shirts constantly back then. Were I to have a job, to have had kids, thus making me sincerely value said job, I’d have been a Herb already at that point, I suppose. Such is the arrogance of youth that I presumed my destiny to be endlessly casual.
Now I rely on my uniform. Blue button-down shirts in various though similar shades, khaki’s, black or tan and a belt. A brown belt. I’ve had it for 20 years, worn it most days and spent eras in each of it’s eight varying sizes based on which hole I could cinch to as determined by my ever expanding gut. I am so frequently in this uniform that when I came down in a white button down shirt yesterday (laundry day and I had to break into my formal wear) Teddy looked at me and with 100% sincerity asked, ‘Are you a Doctor?’
‘No, Buddy. Just wearing a white shirt.’ I replied.
‘You wear blue.’ he said. Correcting my obvious mistake.
I am a Herb, it’s true. Any kid would look at me and recognize the standard, basic, middle aged white guy who no longer cares. They’d be right and wrong. I don’t care about many things anymore. If I’m walking down the street and someone is passing and I really need to let one fly, just to relieve the discomfort, I will. I’m okay with whatever tittering it brings. Really. I am.
On the flip side I’ve truly come into my own as a unique individual who is not afraid of who I am. I’m a person capable of remarkable creativity. I’m learning that I have the ability to truly make a difference by being sincere about my vulnerabilities and I’m happy to share them wide and far. It’s scary at first but it’s also freeing. I’ve come to really enjoy my moments of melancholy. I have come to truly like most of the characteristics I possess that I formerly thought of as flaws and I’ve lost a whole ton of hangups I had about my personality that I used to think of as my failings. They aren’t failings they are who I am and now that I acknowledge these aspects of me as just part of who I am they have no ability to hurt me. I’m a snowflake dammit. Even if this snowflakes closet is a string of blue shirts and khaki pants. That doesn’t define me. I’m a free thinker and boring dresser. I’m the proverbial book of infinite interest behind a cover of bland button down blue shirts.
It’s becoming clear to me that it’s going to be my life’s work coming to and maintaining a level of self-acceptance. It’s good. I like doing it. But it was quite a journey, filled with missteps and mistakes all of which got me to this place I’m so fulfilled in. It’s a destination that was arrived at more swiftly, I’m certain, for all the wrong roads I went down. Those roads taught me who I was, who I could be. They were seen as mistakes or bad choices at the time, but they weren’t. They were the classrooms and laboratories where I worked tirelessly in earning my Doctorate in me.
I needed to take all the journeys to get here to the destination I so value. It’s important for me to remember this. It’ll be my job to act as resistance during my kids rebellions and wrong turns. But I hope I am able, when I know they are out of mortal danger, to tolerate the challenges I see them facing and to get out of the way so they can learn all they can learn about how remarkable they truly are.
I sometimes take a picture of you because you’re just so adorable and amazing and beautiful. And sometimes I catch a hint of fragility in what the camera catches. Other times I see huge heaping mounds of it. Giant reserves of delicate. Like you’re a crystal chandelier in the shape of my beautiful boy. And then, in my minds eye, I see all the thousand ways you’ll be disappointed by the realities of life you can’t even fathom at this point. Sculpted from this thing of beauty into another thing of beauty to be sure. But still, that journey is treacherous and full of potential. Potential harm. Potential fortune. Potential damage and grace.
Maybe it’s you. Maybe I’m not just a proud dad that’s just insanely obsessed with my kids. Maybe your specialness, your perfectness is not a function of my pride. Perhaps you are magical and I’m afraid of being at the helm and breaking you by some silly decision I make that seems necessary that I’ll grow to regret years from now.
I could stare at the pictures of you, the you you are now, on the precipice of independence and I dread the pain that growing up can be.
You’ll be fine. I know that. But you’ll be broken too. You have to be. Good, happy little boys can’t survive growing up. If they could they’d never grow up. Which sounds good until you realize that never growing up makes it hard to be a good man. That’s just the way it is. It’s okay. If you figure out what’s important from being a boy you can pull some of those parts out and take them with you. You may have to pack them away for a time, but they will be there when the time comes and you need them again.
A broken arm is one thing. I can handle that. Easy, actually. But the thought of you being teased or picked on or not knowing what to do in a school cafeteria and feeling sick and disoriented because you think everyone doesn’t like you, that thought ties me in knots. I got caught up in that process when I was a kid. I cried everyday for months when I was sent to school the first time. I was removed eventually and allowed to return the following year, but by then I knew to be cautious. I knew people didn’t like me. I knew they didn’t have to. What was wrong, though, was that I looked at the few that enjoyed making fun of me and thought ‘how can I do what they want me to do? How can I make them like me and stop picking on me?’. All along there was a world of kids who’d have been delighted to play and be my friends. But I just kept trying to impress the cool kids, even shunning kids I’d have gotten along with great who weren’t at the ‘right’ table.
Eventually I figured it out and sat safely where I didn’t want to be. It was mostly fine and it largely defined who I was to the world, or at least to my classmates who comprised the entirety of the world for me then. It took so long for me to be the me I liked and was comfortable being. I learned early on how to make them like me and I leaned on that all the way through school, which I hated because of how it all began. I spent so many years not liking me, internalizing the voices of all the wrong people.
All because I had some tough early days. The types of days grown ups like to say are ‘tough but you get through them’. Days we fool ourselves into thinking aren’t all that important because we were 5 and how much damage can really happen to a healthy and loved 5 year old. But we’re wrong. We can get hurt and scar up in tender places at very young ages. Even those of us that had enough of everything. I see your precious face and your beautiful and awesome expectation that nothing breaks and everyone will love you always and it scares the hell out of me. Because some day you’ll feel weird, alone and scared. And you won’t know why. And it will break you as it must. In the end I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about the ‘weird’ and the ‘scared’. You need to get through these things. We all do. But if we can help you with the alone part for as long as possible and stay present for the times you’ll need to explore being ‘away’ than maybe, just maybe, a small but invaluable piece of you, a piece of the you you are now might be able to make it through to the other side. If it does I hope that you are able to see all the things that I’m getting to see in you. If you do you’ll see what all that breaking was for. You’ll know once again what it feels like to be a fragile chandelier. To look at something you love so much that you can’t even imagine it ever not loving you back. The mere thought makes me break just a little.
Interpreting the conversation between your head and your heart is often a futile task. At least in the moment. They often seem to speak different languages in order to plan covert operations. But don’t be fooled, while they may often be at cross purposes, these two aspects of your character are in cahoots. Any obfuscation they employ is done so with the bigger picture in mind. They each know that the other is powerful and know that for you to remain somewhat sane they have to stay in this pitched battle, each taking victories and losses in turn in order to retain any balance.
As a matter of course this means that if need be they will fight dirty. They will employ chemicals in puberty. They will engage your superego in adulthood. They will provide fuel for the id to motivate behavior. With no warning the heart will act rationally and the brain will start to crave risks it normally protects you from. They are at war but they are utterly codependent. A simple exploration of how life would be if ever the heart killed the head or if the head beat the heart into submission is horrifying.
Over the long haul you come to appreciate and respect the various strengths and weaknesses of each. Were it not for feelings of discomfort mixed evenly with ideas to relieve that discomfort nothing so much as going for a walk or lying down to sleep would ever happen. My boys are toddlers at the moment. Okay, the four year old may be a little boy rather than a toddler by now, but I’m letting my heart win this one for the moment and I’m keeping him firmly in the toddler camp. Anyway, they aren’t balanced at all. Their heads can figure stuff out in retrospect, but if their hearts want something their heads surrender immediately. They scream and cry and cast accusations at the first hint of disappointment. It’s not their fault. Their brains are yet to build up defenses and their hearts are enabled to be full actors in order to ensure that they are tended to and there needs met. The hearts are untamed, but fully functional nearly immediately. It’s a blunt tool at this point, but an effective one.
As they get older the balance of power will shift and they will exert more and more control. It’s a long way off, but I trust it will happen. And when it does, I hope they keep the heart active and strong as the older I get, the more important a role it has. I’ve heard woman worry about me and other men saying things like, ‘I worry about him. He just bottles everything up and it’s not good. I wish he’d just open up to me.’ The sentiment in these words is kind and helpful, but totally misguided.
I’ve been using the principles of Rick LaVoie, a thought leader in the world of Special Education, in my work for at least 12 years. One of the eye opening lessons I’ve learned from him was in regard to how we teach social skills to people that lack any facility in that area. More to the point, how we fail in teaching these skills. His point was that we, us parents and caregivers and educators, are often terrible teachers of social skills because our skills are SO advanced from those we are hoping to teach that we aren’t likely to break down the skills far enough for it to be useful for the student. He talks about walking in to a movie midday, when the theater is practically empty. You and I know not to sit near the 2 or 3 other people in the theater. It is so intuitive that we would never think to teach it. But for the individual struggling to understand the social environment this may be a much more important lesson to learn than teaching them to maintain eye contact, a skill that is actually much more complex then it sounds to a person with high level social skills, which is practically everyone not effected by certain disabilities that limit understanding of the social realm.
I think of this lesson often when I hear women who are befuddled by the men in their lives and how ‘closed off’ they are. Sometimes they are even hurt by this, thinking that this man is withholding something from them specifically. While what they’re seeing is true, how they understand it is way off. We are shut off. But this blockage is not located in brain and it certainly isn’t located in the mouth. Women are so skilled in the area of experiencing and expressing emotion that they can’t conceive of how different it is experienced by men. For one thing, we are less and less capable of transitioning between emotions with each shift. If I move from happy to mad as a result of something, and it almost always is the result of something and not just a shift without external input, it’s not going away anytime soon. Having a front row seat to the abilities many women have to cycle through emotions, say a number that might seem small to a woman, say 5 emotions from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed, it is equally befuddling to us that ANYONE can manage such a thing. This would possibly put me in the hospital, but it would DEFINITELY require me taking a day in bed. Most men are simply incapable of this type of emotional dexterity. The thing you experience as us being ‘closed off’ is experienced either as nothing at all to us, or we are sensing our emotions, other than anger and joy usually, as being ‘closed off’ from us as well. We’re rarely hiding anything, and if we are, it’s certainly not a ‘feeling’. The emotional pallet that women use is one that can paint a beautiful and nuanced landscape with details and colors that if men were to spend a lifetime trying they MIGHT be able to see and appreciate, but would never be able to imitate or replicate. Our pallet, if we are lucky, has the primary colors. We have no brush or canvas. We draw simple stark lines.
I was fortunate to be very close to my sisters. This afforded me the chance to do longitudinal studies from close range on the differences in how we took in and took on the world as it unfolded before us. They were and are the best friends I could ever have. If you asked them they might be shocked to hear that since I never give as much as I get. I feel bad about that, but I also know that while some of that is my fault, some of it’s just nature.
I have two sons and very little likelihood that the family will grow. I love our family unit, but wonder if they may miss out on a very important understanding of the world that I was given by having sisters.
I’m reluctant to assume I’m smarter than anyone. This is a discipline as my natural inlination is to in fact think myself smarter than almost every one. By now I’m fully trained and at little risk of making such an assumption. My natural hubris has been fully extracted. At least mostly extracted.
There is one person, though. I haven’t seen him in five years or so, but i spent a lot of time with him. Handsome devil, and fairly certain about all the wrong things. Yup. I’m talking about me. You couldn’t tell me shit I didn’t want to hear. Certainly some that deal with me on a daily basis these days would take great umbrage at my claims that I’m no longer that person. And in those idiot’s cases, they may be right. But to my point, which is a very specific one about a very expansive topic, I know I’m right. You see, what I know about parenthood now, what I know specifically about my experience as a parent is something I was sure I could estimate and get fairly close to correct from my previous perspective.
it wasn’t a COMPLETELY ridiculous assumption. Okay, it was an absolutely ridiculous assumption. But I did have a vast and fairly comprehensive set of experiences working with kids and families and have worked my whole life in caring environments. Which I came to find out was somewhat instructive in putting me in a position to know how to learn to raise kids, but in terms of letting me in on ‘what it’s like’ to have kids, it was of less than no value. That’s right, it actually put me in the hole on that front. Comfy in the hole, smug and full of confidence, unwilling to read a thing on the topic and unable to hear the cacophany of parents ahead of me in the line to get a baby opine on the nature of
exhaustion, er, parenthood.
Thank god I couldn’t hear them. Furthermore, thank god for that look on young couples faces whom we mistakenly assume would be interested in the topic of ‘what parenthood is like for me.’ For the befuddled and confused look of younger siblings and friends that think that their vast experience with the responsibilities of dog ownership has made it so their won’t really be a transition to having kids. Thank god I sat in judgment of these stupid and selfish folks with kids that couldn’t shut up about how freakin tired they always were but who were missing the whole point of this most basic and primal and profound experience we are afforded as humans. Thank god for the younger workers that can come early, stay late and be obsessed with their work, who look on you so pityingly, reassuring anyone and everyone that they’ll never let a baby change their lives that much. Thank god that we are all of these things that our circumstances allow prior to that moment. If we weren’t these things we might just have paid attention. Believed those folks that we got to at the wrong moment who couldn’t stop telling you about how hard it is. We might have assumed that the payoff can’t equal the investment. We might have chosen the only smart option and taken a pass on the whole thing. Had any of us done so we would have missed this chance to be the sun for these few early years. The chance to be with the most precious and adorable people we’ll ever know. We’d never discover the love that so transforms you as to make even the hardest and cruelest realities of life seem to fit into an overarching meaning that comforts and informs us and provides us with wisdom and understanding we would never have known otherwise. We’d never have learned the thousands of lessons our children teach us. We would never have discovered any of the music or programs or books that we’ll come across decades from now and cry instantly knowing that they are precious relics from that profound moment in time that lasted years when you discovered the meaning of your life.
Thank god I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Thank god I couldn’t be told any of it. Had I known it would have robbed me of my life’s greatest discovery.
I was compelled to leave and couldn’t. I was fifteen or sixteen and temperament and hormones conspired to convince me I wasn’t happy, that it was an awful place and that I MUST get out of there to become whom I was meant to be. Its a very harsh, but from what I can tell a fairly common sentiment at that age when you think you know everything. On this energy I catapulted out of the cradle of my life and found a big, amazing world and I’m so happy that I did. Had I not I would never have been able to see how wonderful a world I had been born to.
I grew up amidst the apple orchards, corn fields and rust belt industrial hubs of western New York. Brockport, New York, to be specific. It’s an area that is occasionally mistaken for belonging to the northeast, but as a matter of reality its the Midwest. Much more in common with Cleveland than with New York or Boston.
I love the place, I miss the place and I imagine I always will. It was a beautiful place to grow up, and a cold one. Not many people would think of North Jersey as more hospitable in winter, but EVERYONE from where I’m from would. In fact it gives me a palpable sense of superiority every winter when locals complain about anything more than a dusting of snow and how hard it is to drive. Please. I was born in November and took my drivers test in January in Brockport, NY amidst copious amounts of lake effect snow.
From time to time I would have the occasion to bring people back home to Brockport. Often it was folks that worked at the lodge with me while I was in college. They were usually in their early twenties like me, and often from other countries. From my perspective it was a chance to have worlds collide, friends from home hanging out with my new found friends from far and wide.
We would go to bars, drink in apartments and socialize like young people the world over do. During the days we’d look for things to do. Being me and being in my early 20’s and breaking free of my home at that time I had a generally negative view of my region of the world and a specifically negative outlook on the town I was from. Shamefully now, I was embarrassed most of my home and my family. Bringing strangers from strange lands to visit changed that for me. It gave me a fresh perspective on what was in fact the great good fortune of my charmed life.
The broad, vast, open sky and miles and miles of beautifully worked farmland was visual white noise for me by the time I left. I would warn folks of the sea-level, flat monotony of the region. It was something entirely different to them. Taking them to see Hamlin Beach on Lake Ontario, the only thing I’d ever considered a lake, and to have them point out the obvious to me, who was so used to this sight as to think it nothing, that it was in fact hardly distinguishable from an ocean and breathtaking not only in its scope but also in it’s unexpected beauty was paradigm changing.
To bring them to Niagara falls and see there mouths agape, speechless at its awesome grandeur made me reassess this thing I’d so long taken for granted. I’m from a place, not nowhere. That place is unique and vast and beautiful. It’s a thing I was certain it was not, it was gorgeous. It took looking through others gobsmacked eyes to realize what it was I’d been looking at all those years.
While my head was down lamenting the tediousness of flat topography the eyes of my friends, eyes from the world over looked up and marveled at a sky they never imagined could be so enormous and vast and filled with so many stars.
In high school all that I was embarrassed me. I was popular and a jock and not a kid that was picked on or mocked. I’ve come to find that many of the young men I grew up with who were similarly fortunate have never stopped longing for that time. I was not reveling in it and felt little more than relief that my older years turned out far better than my younger years suggested they might be.
I was uncomfortable in my role. I was certain that I needed to get away from all I was to be what I wanted to be. And this was indeed true.
Becoming an adult is an act of contrivance and one that only made sense after the job at hand was completed. An inkling snuck in at the edges of my youthful anger and self-righteousness that I was in fact from a truly special family. But I needed the fuel of thinking I had something to run from, something that would always forgive me and accept me after my return, in order to motivate me out of the local bars and past a comfortable but unchallenged existence. For me that was getting away from the ‘crazies’ that were incontrovertibly ‘my tribe’, and trying to find another tribe to call my own. And I did.
The Lodge. It was an experience that propelled me directly to where I sit in life now. It allowed space for me to be curious and envious and striving and lazy and ponderous and annoying and loved. Thank god I went.
A funny thing started to happen. As I met and learned of the private lives of eccentrics and strivers and stoners and journeyers I learned that I am just like everyone else. All the things I felt shamefulness embarrassment about were in fact precisely what made me able to relate to these free thinkers, adventurers and truly revolutionary spirits who both attended the lodge and provided stewardship to the place. I started to feel like there might be a day when I’d feel fully comfortable in my skin and harmonious with my people.
I started bringing the world to my family and was afforded the opportunity to see them through others eyes. I came to realize that I had perceived them so ungenerously.
My family is what was and remains the most amazing gift my life has provided for me. They are generous and kind and thoughtful. They are fierce and funny and incredibly smart. They keep you sharp and keep you warm and keep you laughing and with the right mix at the right time, they keep the party going, although a laid back party with smart jokes and warm smiles.
Now that I’ve seen a few things, not a ton, but some, I know their was no better place on the planet to have grown up. I’ve met some people and had some victories and some struggles and in the end I am certain my big, crazy, funny, talented and thoughtful family is the only reason I am any of the good things I may be.
There is no doubt in my mind that I was exactly where I was meant to be, exactly when I was meant to be there and I will look back for whatever time I have left with nothing but generosity and appreciation for the wonderful family I was born into.
Something happened at the library. There were a group of rambunctious kids, loud but harmless kids, probably a year or two older then Charlie, playing and running around. The kind of kids engaged in the kind of play that, in the wrong mood, one might look at their parent and think, ‘come on, you’re making this harder for all of us.’ But we were having fun and I really wasn’t feeling that bothered.
We started doing a puzzle, as is Charlies wont at almost all hours of the day these days, and he kept looking over at them. He was clearly intrigued, but they were quite active and loud and it was considerably difficult to understand what exactly it was that they were playing. I said, ‘do you wanna go over there and play with them, buddy?’ At first it was no and back to the puzzle. But soon he’d decided yes so he marched over and announced/asked ‘Hey, can I play with you guys?’.
So innocent and vulnerable with eyes wide and fully expecting the only answer he could conceive of. The kids didn’t know how to respond, or they didn’t hear, and he just started to play despite no response. I assumed the play would take care of anything left unsaid.
Almost immediately, he stepped awkwardly back from the group, subtly, and watched for a second, brow furrowed, looking for another entry point, wanting to be a part of the fun, but not being welcome, or at least not thinking himself so.
I felt a small and subtle punch in the part of my gut where I hide my unresolved issues. I have felt that exact way my whole life.
So he walked back to me and with quivering lip said, ‘he took the toy from me.’ He wouldn’t cry, which made it even harder to watch. I suppose I could have gone over and helped ease a transition, but I’m not great at leading by example in these things. I told him I was sorry they didn’t want to play with him and he went back to the puzzle. A minute or two passed and I asked him if he’d like to try again, or maybe run around the room a bit and he would just keep his head down and say ‘no.’ It was that kind of embarrassed, teenage, barely audible, clenched teeth kind of ‘no’.
I didn’t want him to feel like he felt, but the situation insisted he feel that way. He has no idea how much I get where he’s coming from.
These are the things that break my heart because they feel like he’s breaking a little. I feel broken in this same way, so perhaps I’m a bit more attuned to this particular style of breakage. It’s a feeling he can’t do anything with. It was a feeling I could never overcome. I couldn’t cry it away, complain it away, try really hard it away, brood and aloof it away and eventually I just held it for so long I started to think I was unwanted and uninvited. I hated being around me. I carried it with me everywhere for a long time.
Carrying such a thought around for so long does funny things. It makes you see things that confirm your fears everywhere you look. No amount of signs from the world telling me I was worthy were enough to break through this negative self assessment. Later on, as an adult, no amount of sadness, drinking or risky behavior ever killed me, but I wanted it to.
I realize that none of this is likely for Charlie. But that’s the thing with your kids. He is me. I know he may react to this with a deep misunderstanding that he can hide from everyone. It’s not likely, but I know more than any other outcome that its possible. It Killed me a little to see that lip quiver, to see him trying to hide his feelings.
But this is life. I’m familiar with my teeny tiny corner of it, a corner that was considerably brightened and made bigger when Karen and I pushed our corners together and planted our flag in our new shared corner. We’ve since made people to populate that teeny tiny corner and it shouldn’t surprise me that their perspective is similar to mine. How could it not be.
I KNOW that this is projecting feelings that are mine onto Charlie. That’s okay. Familial relationships are by definition overlapping and intertwined. I don’t own him, I’m merely raising him. I’m trying in the long run to provide him with as much as I can to make sure he becomes capable of staking out his own teeny tiny corner of life someday on his own.
To be properly prepared to do so he inevitably has to feel and process pain and rejection and disappointment. Just as he has to feel and process copious amounts of love and joy and optimism.
So this step of his toward a road I’ve traveled, on which I took some terrible wrong turns, is an opportunity for me to walk it again. This time I have the honored position of being his guide. We hold hands on this path as I shepherd him through the dark, aware of particular risks and potential bad choices. I hope to be able to protect him from the mistakes I made.
He is also guiding me to the demons that have so challenged me my whole life. Holding my hand, he is not only my charge, he is also my partner and he has given me the courage to slay them for the both of us as of late. Let’s hope I can return the favor.