Fragile and Brave

I have a picture of you from daycare. You are sitting quietly, legs stretched out in front of you. You are holding a board book, eyes down inspecting it. Your cheeks are so beautiful I can feel them just by looking, smooth, soft and pink with warmth. Your narrow shoulders are somewhere under the hood of your sweatshirt, a book open but ignored between your legs as you investigate this other book that has captured your curiosity. You’re wearing jeans and there are books scattered around you. You’re probably an old 2 year old in this picture, or maybe a young 3 year old. You are fully engaged, busy doing and uninterested in the person standing in front of you, probably unaware of their presence, who took the shot. I love this picture and it can make me cry.

You are the youngest and I can’t stop seeing the vulnerable in you. Sitting here with the picture and without you I can’t for the life of me imagine you look any different than that picture. Cherubic and intrigued. Tiny and determined. But you have grown. A lot. I still see the baby in you and always will. 

You still tell me about ‘tomachakes’ (stomach aches) and love ‘Sharlie’ (Charlie) and I don’t really want you to learn you are mispronouncing these things. I don’t want you to grow up. 

There are selfish reasons that mostly live in my subconscious. For one, if you’re getting older than I’m getting older. You don’t need to really know this for a good long time now, but I’m not going to be here forever and when I see you lost in discovering I want to freeze the world and stay in it forever. I didn’t have heaven until I met you and Charlie. Mommy made me come to life in a way I hadn’t, but the concept of heaven was one I rejected for lack of imagination. To be fair, who could conceive of something so wonderful and extraordinary as you. My heaven is here and now. 

Another reason I prefer you stay in this moment forever is so that I can always be what I am to you right now and you can always be what you are to me. We have challenging moments for sure, but they are fleeting. They revolve around simple challenges. This simplicity is balanced by an extraordinary frequency. You can have 5-8 crises before breakfast and without fail, whether we do so well or poorly, we get through every one.

Thirdly, I fall asleep next to you. You don’t like to fall asleep. You love to sleep, but the falling part, you are a resister. You get this from me. Each night, when I see you are tired, when we’ve been lying in bed for a long time I’ll inevitably say, ‘just close your eyes, buddy.’ Without fail, at least to this point in time it’s always met with your response of, ‘But it hurts to close my eyes.’ I could stop asking, but I just love the answer so much. You’ll start to drift and most nights you’ll pop your head up and say one last, half conscious crazy non-sequitir just before rolling over and falling asleep. Something like ‘I can’t sleep in parking lot frogs’ or ‘I look just like Fawzy.’ In case you’re wondering years from now what those things mean, well, I have no idea on the frog thing, but the ‘Fawzy’ thing is how you pronounce ‘Quazi’. He’s a character from Octonauts and your mispronunciation is adorable. I prompt it like five times a day. 

What I really don’t want to change is the you in this picture. You are a perfectly fine with the contradictory nature of life that becomes something so scary as an adult. You are exquisitely fragile and profoundly brave at the same time all the time. It’s amazing to see. Your brother was the same way, but you learn, you will learn any day now, to be self-conscious. You will wonder how other people will react before pursuing an interest. You will stop crying when mad and sometimes even try not to laugh when something is funny. You’ll toughen up and as a result you’ll be more cautious. That’s the confounding conundrum you’re going to wrestle with in the years ahead. It’s okay, you’re supposed to. But what is going on right here and now is beautiful and not be dismissed hastily. 

Being simultaneously fragile and brave has served you extremely well to now. It’s made you explore nature intuitively and voraciously. Left to your own free will you’d spend hours a day trying to find and transport every imagineable living creature from the dirt back to the house to show us. You explore whatever sparks your curiosity and you do it with abandon. You are excited when you see things you love, so excited you barely keep in your skin and you show it with squeals. They are pure joy and they are infectious to all who hear them. When you are upset, regardless of any reason or the presence of any others you let that be known too. Your emotions come out when they are felt and it’s incredibly healthy. In a sense you taught me these things. Charlie did too, but he’s teaching us other things. He’s at the tip of the spear, bringing us to new experiences all the time. He’s a boundary breaker and we can’t really enjoy as much of that process as we can with you. He’s desensitized us and you are showing us how to live an experience, not just survive it. 

I can honestly say that you’ve impacted my life more than I ever could yours. You’ve shown me the value of being unafraid. You’ve pushed me to challenge my fears to explore my world like you do yours. Thank you. 

I feel extraordinarily fragile these days. I also feel brave and curious. All these things were pushed so far down before I knew you that I often felt nothing, which was perfect for keeping invisible, but terrible for feeling alive. Living is pursuing your curiosity and finding your emotions and wrestling with all of it all the time. Living is not fearing feelings, but feeling them, saying it and processing them fully and with the help of those you love so you can put them down and not be ruled by them. Living is something you can only do if you are fragile and brave, just like you.  

Enough Already with the Whole, ‘How do I talk to my kids..’ Nonsense.

If you are asking ‘how do I talk to my kids about the fact that Trump won?’ there’s a real problem.

Here’s the thing. If you believe that we elected a racist, sexist, misogynistic, unhinged maniac whose mere existence is capable of bringing untold abuse to minorities of all stripes, like I do, than you damn well better know how to talk to your kids about it. And yes, I said ‘WE’ elected. Because you know what, we are ALL Americans. Even those people you somehow forget when talking about how horrified everyone is at the thought of a President Trump. Also, start saying President Trump. Get used to it. Four years is not forever, but it’s not nothing.

Now also understand that the people, excluding the KKK and the various white supremacist groups, who elected Mt. Trump did not do so, uniformly and in lock step, for these vile traits. I know. I grew up in the area of the country, the beautiful area known as the Great Lakes Region to me, but as the ‘Rust Belt’ to so many who aren’t there. Fuck all of you, by the way. I don’t like that so many people I know and love from growing up felt the need to vote for this monster, but I understand why they did.

Let’s talk about that. Why? There is a fair bit of racially disgusting thought everywhere. It’s a real problem, just as real there as it is in cities and suburbs and rural areas the country over. But there’s a lot of kind, caring, loving and even socially aware, woke white folks there too and they voted for Mr. Trump. Can you sense my frustration? It comes not from any latent opinion changing of the other guy. He’s a straight monster in my opinion and the thought of him as commander in chief scares the life out of me. Nope. Still hate him, even if I still love so many of his voters. I disagree with them, yes, but I love them too. Nope, I’m mad at my own, left side of this country.

I’m mad because even now, when the election is over and our worst nightmare is true, we are taking the easy way out and calling our former base, working class Americans everything but what they see themselves as. Which is the forgotten backbone of a formerly great industrial economy.

Here’s what’s happening. It’s like Trump is in an iridescent dress and each side is seeing only one color. I see plain and clearly the monster, willing to put whole demographic catagories of humans, never mind the fact that the vast majority of them are fellow American’s, into the hungry lions mouth, caring not one iota for them because he thinks of them as some lower form of man then he. Seemingly seeing them as subhuman even, merely for the color of their skin or an accent that their children don’t share. I see a monster that is emboldening the voices of racial and nationalist hate all to serve his own acquisition of power and I’m disgusted.

You know who is on the other side of that monster, though? People. Struggling people. People who were raised in company towns where three quarters of the kids I grew up with came from homes that worked for the same company who could afford to operate there and promised a career long job with good benefits and an honest check that was not just above poverty level but rather a genuine article job that put you in the middle class. People who were made to believe that if they took the special classes those jobs would be there for them when it was time for them to have kids. People who now see those same giant buildings all their dads and many of their moms went into every day crumbling from the decay that comes from being abandoned and left to die as companies died and had to go other places where labor is cheap and human rights aren’t a thing. People who now struggle to paste together a valid income by stitching temporary job to part time gig to anything they can try to do for enough to make Christmas special for their kids they love. And you know what. Many of them love the brown and black kids, what few there may be, whose parents are there in the same boat, having no idea if what little opportunity that’s there now will be there tomorrow.

These folks, they don’t see only what we see. They see someone who came to them and at the very least said, I SEE YOU. You are not crazy. You really did get screwed and by forces beyond your control. He placed the blame where they placed it. He said yes, you got a raw deal and she(really he, but by extension) did this. Was it completely accurate? Who gives a shit. He was on TV every goddamn day telling them they were right to be angry. Then, he went where it didn’t need to go. He stoked anger into hatred and pointed it maniacally at OTHER hard working people struggling to get by. It was truly messed up, yes. But it was done by then. He got it. He saw the America that is ignored, though it is still tens of millions of our daily lives. Communities and economies in despair. Heroin tearing through families and towns and regions. Whole generations of people being ignored no matter how hard it gets. No matter how cold it gets. No matter how much opportunity disappears.

So talk to your kids about the fact that anger can turn to hatred when people refuse to see or hear people who disagree with them. Tell them that a bad man won and we lost. Losing is a part of living in a democracy and you feeling entitled to winning merely because the other guy is vile isn’t gonna cut it. You want more love, go find angry people and listen to them. Find people that don’t look like you and sit with them and try to make friends with them. Tell them we all have to work to make the world a nicer place and we can’t pretend other people struggling has no effect on us. It’s not an option to think that way anymore. Tell them to start thinking now about the next great invention they can think of because who knows what spark of genius will create a new industry and economy that can raise the water so all of us can float higher.

Just don’t tell them you don’t know what to say. That’s bullshit.

The Lodge Part IV: Greatest Job Ever

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

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

Perhaps not as comfortable as my friend Evan.

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

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

Me: Evan, right?

Evan: Yeah, Joe.

Me: When was the last time you showered?

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

Me: (5 seconds of silence) Bwahahahaha!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evan: Oh yeah. I know dat shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evan: You can do it.

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

Evan: You too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Am Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Crumbling Under the Weight of a Whisper

What are you watching Daddy?

-It’s a memorial service for something that happened 15 years ago.

I knew he wouldn’t know what a memorial service was, but I was put on the spot and hadn’t yet worked out my answer to the question yet so I let it hang there.

The service was the now familiar reciting of names. The seemingly endless recitation of the dead that occurs every year where the towers stood. I’ve tried to listen or watch in the past, but couldn’t always make it. This year it fell on a Sunday and I had some coffee and wanted to stir the emotions that didn’t come as early as they used to. That still hadn’t really arrived until I put on the service.

As in past years two relatives or friends will recite a section of the seemingly endless scroll of names, alternating turns alphabetically until arriving at their final destination. The name of their loved one who is now gone, frozen in time, never growing older. Each year the pictures of them getting more dated as time continues to creep forward without them. When they get to their own loved one they say something to honor them, something to remember them, something to put out in the world some of the pain they carry the rest of the time. They give it out now so that others may burden some of the pain. If not for them, then at least with them. It never fails to stir me. Never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

In the past my emotion would arrive earlier. It would loom large on the horizon for days just waiting their stoic, unmoved  by and unaware of my concerns. This year I had yet to confront my emotions around the whole thing. It was my head that lead my heart this year.

-Why are you sad, Daddy?

-Well, something very sad happened 15 years ago. Some very big buildings fell down. I had a friend who was in one of them and when I hear about the people that were in the buildings it reminds me how sad that day was. It was very very sad.

-Did your friend die?

-Yes, he did. A lot of people did. Thousands of people died that day. 

-I’m sorry your friend died daddy. 

-That’s very sweet Charlie. Thank you. He was a very nice man and it is very very sad that he died. I’m sad.

I shattered into a million tiny pieces.

I’m not used to this. It’s completely foreign to me, in fact. These tiny little people are not so tiny anymore and while there has been love and pain and joy and pride and so many threads that bound us together since the beginning, this is new. This compassion and concern emanating from him. This expression of love and thoughtfulness, this true recognition of such a sorrowful moment and his wish to comfort me felt overpowering but it wasn’t. It was tender and gentle and disarming. I shattered not because the weight of the moment. No. It was the complete removal of defenses that his loving words brought me that turned me to thin glass that crumbled under the weight of a whisper.

-I could draw a picture of him!

He is five and I love love love his pictures.

-That would be amazing, Charlie. Would you like to see a picture of him.

-Yeah.

So I searched for Darryl L. McKinney and there he was, the same tight, zoomed black and white tight shot, his head turning. The same action shot on the court in his college uniform, the picture of athleticism and youthful energy. The shots I see every year at this time. The one’s I’ll always have. The ones that will sadly never change.

-Daddy, how do you spell Darryl?

I spelled it out for him from the couch where they were up to the ‘L’ names.

-How do you spell love?

It was all their now. All I wanted was that one minute. I hoped it would be a family member of Darryl’s up there, telling of his life and saying some kind words past tears. I hoped I’d be able to see something of him in that face. It wasn’t t be however. I think they mispronounced his middle name. Only slightly.

-Daddy. Do you like it? That’s him and that’s you.

I love it. I love it so much.

Grabbing Life, Holding On

img_2962With every age and stage there comes certain signs. Signs that my little boys are running out of time to be ‘little boys’. It’s not such a bad thing. In fact, for them it’s the most exciting thing you could imagine. The walls are starting to come down. Well, perhaps not, but they are certainly moving further and further out and for my sweet rambunctious boys this is very, very exciting. From time to time they will pretend they are babies. Not in any real way, but they will say, ‘I’m a baby…’ in a silly voice, smile, giggle and laugh at the absurdity. They are decidedly little boys and we are accepting as best we can that we’ll never have our babies again.

img_2921Like so many parents before us, we know they will always be our babies. It’ll be a metaphor to them, but it won’t be to us. They will be our two and only babies and we will hold them, if only in our hearts, as closely and tenderly as if they were newly wrapped and leaving the hospital for the first time for the rest of our lives.

But that will be it. The rest of our lives. The seemingly inexhaustible but ever diminishing time we have left with them, here amongst them, able to hug and be hugged is also being put into stark relief with each barrier breached and each new independence learned and granted. As they go through life reveling in the ever greater autonomy of being a ‘big boy’ another tiny tick passes and we are closer to the end. Not noticeably so, not always, but the big ones can pierce the bubble we’ve so happily stayed in during these early years. Can make us aware if not of our own ticking clocks then those of their time left in the bubble we’ve created and cared for and patched up and loved. As they grab life that is out there waiting for them we are hard pressed to let go of another tiny piece of it that we’d give anything to keep in our grasp til the end of time.

img_2930It’s joyous. I don’t want you to misunderstand. It’s a faint feeling of time passing and is easily overwhelmed by the joys we share as they start there journey’s. But it is a real feeling. A real sense of life’s passing. We are older parents and we aren’t so quick to let feelings slide passed as we once were. I suppose that’s true for all parents, regardless of age. But with the years we bring to the task comes a thought that this second act that will happen when they no longer need the minute to minute, the meal to meal, the day to day or week to week attention they once did may be more on the down slope of our time here, our time with them. It’s jarring to think, but comforting as well. As long as we can make it long enough to know they are safe, to know they are loved and to know that they know how wonderful this all is, than knowing this is the thing, being a parent and doing our best to make foster this family, we’re pretty happy having that be the thing we go out on. The last and best of what we did while we were so lucky to be here.img_2978

I See It

Today I’m on The Good Men Project trying to understand what it must feel like for parents of African American sons. I am horrified of a world that can be so cruel.

http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-reality-in-america-that-is-more-prevalent-than-most-white-people-see-medler-jrmk/

 

The Lodge, Part Three: Family.

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

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

I really was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Drinking Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nope. Hey man, how are you.’ I said.

‘Give him a beer.’ Said friend.

‘You want one.’

‘Yeah.’ Said Chris. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Phone Call To Mom 

I have a column that runs every Friday on The Good Men Project. Today I recall a phone call I made to my mother accusing her of all sorts of failings. I was unfair, unkind and coming undone. She responded with grace and love and it made all the difference!

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.. 

http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/call-mother-becomes-painful-transformative-experience/

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