Underlying what has been in fact my most enjoyable summer in decades, if not ever, is the reality that a part of me is struggling. I’m listing and drifting further and further from the confidence I recently took for granted.
As I write this I’m still in the shadow of a vacation in which I spent long evenings sitting up with close and distant relatives laughing and listening. I’m sitting at my dining room table while my sons play with legos at my feet. They’ve taken to making their own creations from the thousands of assorted blocks we’ve accrued over the years. I’ve had the entire summer home with them and I haven’t wasted it. Sports, days at the pool, a little shouting now and again, but all in all an opportunity I didn’t imagine I’d have when they were this age.
An opportunity that has left me worried about whether we will be able to maintain this life. Concerned and ashamed, honestly, that it’s my failings that are putting all of this at risk. I keep stoking the flames as I search for the answer but I am finding less and less hot coals to revive. It’s the end of August and I’d say I’m at least a couple of weeks away from the search picking up again. People who hire people in my situation (too experienced and too expensive for most openings) are out of the office at this time of year. I guess we are all on a school schedule of sorts.
Our youngest will be entering kindergarten and his older brother will be starting 2nd grade in a little over a week. I know that they look up to me, but I’m having a hard time feeling admirable. I can appreciate my value beyond how it is defined by capitalism, but I can’t deny that on the capitalism front, I’m failing.
I have perspective and my day to day isn’t devastating by any means. I’m actually quite happy. If I could design life it would look like this. Long summer days spent playing and swimming and exploring with my kids. What could better. The answer, the obvious one, is I could have that start date for my next contribution sitting in my head, validating the part of me I always try so hard to deny. That part that knows ‘provider’ is not my strongest suit.
TIme to wrap it up. We are off to the pool this afternoon and we want to get there in time to get a good spot.
I am spending the summer home with my sons. They are 5 and 7. I fully appreciate the unencumbered, freewheeling imagination of these bright young boys. I do. I say this as a disclaimer to be applied to what might be considered a hurtful thing to say did you not know how truly enamored and impressed I am with these children. They are the apple of my eye and the light of my life.
They are also the progenitors of the largest private collection of horribly conceived ideas I’ve ever come across. The tonnage alone makes their collection impressive. I am the sole arbiter of these ideas. I am the judge and jury and I can tell you, I could shout ‘NO!’ at the outset of any question beginning, ‘Daddy can I…’ and I’d feel justified and correct in my response 99 times out of 100.
Being a good person and modeling the patience I wish them to possess I listen fully to most of these proposals. Here’s a small sample of things I’ve said no to this summer.
‘Daddy, can we bring the hose into the trampoline?’
‘Daddy, can I walk to the store alone?’
‘Daddy, can Charlie drive me to Grandma’s house and you and mommy stay here?’
‘Daddy. Can you open my window so we can jump down to the top of the umbrella on the deck?’
‘Daddy, can we go by ourselves out to stop strangers with dogs to pet them, right by the road, around the corner where you can’t see us and ask them if they have candy and if they would take us for a ride in their windowless van?’
Okay, that last one wasn’t asked, the 5 year old just did it. Granted, it was just the petting strangers dogs around the corner part, but any decent parent fills in the rest and doesn’t allow them out to the back porch without supervision once they are reminded of the total lack of common sense possessed by a five year old.
These are the times when they think to ask. Other times it’s just luck that I caught them in the act.
‘What are you doing?’ I ask incredulous.
‘I’m putting sunscreen on my tongue.’
Saying no to my kids was once a hobby. After this summer, seeing the decisions they’d make without me, I have come to think of saying no to my kids more as a passion. It is what I need to do, sure, but it is also what I love to do.
Besides, saying no to trying Fortnite is so much easier when it is part of a larger milieu.
Charlie is playing with the regulation size basketball this summer. He is playing every chance he gets. We live across the street from his school where there are six hoops and two full courts on a patch of pavement where a group of neighborhood kids, the older ones, play a regular game of baseball. Charlie isn’t quite up to that game yet, but it won’t be long. It’ll be a different set of kids, different relationships, different ground rules, but essentially he will join them not too long from now. It was about three blinks ago that I was tossing gently the oversized wiffle ball underhand from a few feet away. It would hit his belly with a barely audible thud and shortly after he’d bring his hands together hoping to catch the ball that was already on the ground and rolling away from him. This morning we already tossed the softer but still relatively hard tee-ball ball for a half hour or so. Full speed, catching in gloves. That happened in the last couple weeks. Forget about hitting. I’ll never throw that boy another underhand pitch again. Haven’t for some time now.
I wasn’t much for baseball growing up. I was in fact rather anti baseball. I was a basketball player to the core. It was my first identity and one I will never fully abandon. I could go a decade without taking a shot and I’d always be a basketball player. A bit past my prime for sure. Rounder and slower. But so long as I have any control over my body I’ll be able to do something with a basketball to feel young and vibrant. It’s ingrained in me.
Teddy is not yet interested in sports. He may become an athlete and he may not. He loves his art classes and his dance class that he powered through for the entirety of the school year. Seeing him on stage with the rest fo his classmates at the recital at the end of the year was incredible. He was so nervous about it that for the weeks before everyone wondered if he’d be able to go through with it. But there he was, the ‘Tin Man’ dancing to ‘Ease on Down the Road’, hitting all his marks, even helping others. He was brave and graceful.
I so wanted to be that brave when I was little. My older brothers were in all the plays at school when I was Charlie’s age and I watched them so intently, wishing I could be up there. When they were done with their three day, four show run I’d collect the abandoned, worn scripts and read them cover to cover, over and over, reliving the story in my head for months. I loved Oklahoma so much that I went to the Seymour Library, nine years old, and would take out other Rogers and Hammerstein plays to read and imagine into existence as a production in my head. When I was of an age I was too self-conscious. I didn’t ever tryout. I wish I had his courage.
They aren’t ever going to be in strollers again. I’ve lived long enough to learn that parents are needed for a lifetime, but the need that they had before is gone. They need other things. They need someone to play catch with and casually chat about school friends and sports teams. They need a dad to take them to their dress rehearsal and talk about the music and where it came from and why its cool to be the only boy brave enough to be on the dance team. Sometimes they need a rebounder to feed them for endless shots at the playground hoop and tell them over and over how much better they are then when I was their age. Sometimes they just need me to get in the dirt and look for worms under the rocks.
The home I grew up in, the one I’ll only see in pictures and inhabit only behind my closed eyes ever again, was one that had life oozing, sometimes tumbling, out of every corner and on every wall. Hell, the walls themselves can never fully mean to someone else what they meant to us. You see, my father is an artist and he designed our home. He’ll hasten to point out that he’s a designer, and he’d of course be right. But art is in the eye of the beholder. In fact I’d use a version of his own argument against him if he ever were to push back too hard. Not that he would, I suspect. He’s always been a dad that’s happy to allow us to be wrong and to learn in our own time. As we’ve gotten older and wiser the times that time has proven us right have increased and on this one I’m right. Just like he was when someone would say that Norman Rockwell was not an artist, but rather an illustrator. Besides, my dad’s art, much of it from his ‘art school’ days, some from the days when they were a young couple trying to decorate a home, hung all over those walls he designed.
Now ‘illustrator’, at least as far as I can tell, holds no innately pejorative meaning. It’s not an insult to call someone who illustrate’s an illustrator. But in the particular case of an artist of Mr. Rockwell’s talent and the way in which his work was received by so many contemporaries and more recently by so many subsequently, there is no mistaking the pejorative if not downright disdainful way the term ‘Illustrator’ is spit out in regard to this man’s considerable work. Now I paraphrase here, and my dad is not one given to high emotion, but I’m quite certain that my father would find this assessment to be straight up baloney. Or Bologna, if you prefer. It rankled him. His art was no less artful for being purchased. Was in fact far more technically impressive, emotive and often breathtaking than the celebrated works of his contemporaries who looked to shock or amuse rather than paint and convey. I believe these things. I did even at my most harshly judgmental, Brooklyn bohemian, cravenly desirous of the approval of the cool people that I ever was. Because my dad was right.
We went out of the way for a day on a family vacation when we were kids to spend a night in Stockbridge so we could visit the Rockwell museum and the work is extraordinary. I assume we stayed near Stockbridge. Even then it was ridiculously expensive and we were a family of 6-9 kids, depending on when you caught us. I mean, I have 2 and we’re challenged to make a day at the beach. But my dad, he was going to see the Rockwell Museum, and we were going to as well.
The art that hung on our walls, it was and is beautiful. It was original and creative and something I’ll have a sense memory of until the day I die.There were pieces made of crepe paper and lacquer, some evoking scenes from nature others crinkled and crumpled and exploding from the the frame out to you. As a kid, even now I’m sure, I’d be hard pressed to resist feeling them, running my hands over the points and crevices, riding the ridges of the bright orange that has never seemed to fade with time. Or the hard wood drawn on with varying sized nails hammered in that should seem hard and unforgiving but convey soft fluidity as the lines denote structure and movement from top to bottom. The figure could be wind, it could be human, it could be a spirit. I could look forever and for me it would never fully be decided. Or the dark stained blocks, differnt shapes and sizes, but all right angles, creating a skyline if laid flat, and a sense of looking down on a city as they hung in their frame on the wall.
Art wasn’t just something he did. He breathed art. There was something of it in the very life he’d crafted. He is 6’3″ and as a young man, for at least the first 15 or 16 years of my life he had a big, bushy black beard. He looked, as EVERYONE noted, like a living, breathing Abraham Lincoln. He and his beautiful, loving wife had 6 kids. They didn’t always have enough to make it all work, but somehow they did. Didn’t matter, even if they couldn’t, there was always room for one more at the table. Anyone who knew us, even just a little, they always knew that about them. Many would ascribe it to my mother, a truly charitable and loving soul, but they were a team. The decisions they made were based on what served the greater good, what completed their vision of what a beautiful life looked like. For my father that picture was one that couldn’t avoid including art and curiosity, and daydreaming and all that it had given his life. He was a designer, true, but he was an artist not only of multiple media’s when that term meant something altogether different.
Art was a living and breathing thing in our home. I don’t know that this part is true, but I even think that my dad’s parents met somehow through community theater. This may be a fanciful fiction, but it’s got some truth in it, even if it isn’t fully ‘correct.’ Music, books, theater, these were all an integral part of life growing up in the Medler home. I wasn’t quite brave enough to try to participate in the creation of said art like my older brothers were when I was a kid, but I sure am happy I was exposed to it. I became a big reader and lover of novels. It was what spoke to me. They were performers. I envied them. I’m glad I’ve found and stuck to writing. I’m glad to be a part of this part of the family legacy in some small way, even if it doesn’t exactly mesh with the rest.
My father also communicated with me through art. When I was not much older than ten, maybe twelve, we found ourselves home alone for an evening. Honestly, I’m the third child in a family of six, or sixth of nine if you choose to define our family in the most inclusive way, as we all do, and this might be the only time when we found ourselves in this predicament. My younger sisters were at friends houses, my youngest brother may have been traveling with my mom, or maybe he was not even born yet, I’m not sure. In any case, I distinctly remember my father mentioning that he’d heard an interview earlier in the day and that Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie were playing at Finger Lakes that night. He really wished he could have gone.
‘Why don’t we go?’ I said. I knew Arlo Guthrie was the guy who did the Alice’s Restaurant song. I liked that.
‘Yeah?’ He asked.
‘Yeah.’ I said. I was really excited. Things like this had yet to start happening for me.
That night we just drove out there and stayed for the whole thing. It was great. My first concert. Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie with my dad. A night to remember indeed. He even played Alice’s Restaurant and his shtick was pretty amusing. I had no idea how much of an inspiration Pete Seeger would become as I grew up. He seemed super old then and I don’t think he’d even STARTED cleaning the Hudson yet, though I’m certain I’m way off. I didn’t know he had, anyway.
Another time he rented Breaking Away from Wegman’s on a Friday night and said, you should watch this. It’s important. He would later rent Brazil and say I should check it out. Wasn’t of any use though as neither of us could make any sense of it.
In our home, filled with art, there was a piece of furniture that no longer seems to hold the place of importance it once did as a family focal point. Our Stereo. It was six feet long, two and a half feet tall and big. Speakers covered in earth tone fabric occupied either end in full and in the middle was a door that rolled open. Behind it were the records that were important enough to keep out, to listen to. Eventually we’d overrun his truly beautiful collection with Disco Duck and K-Tel Collections, but early on, it was magical. All the first editions of the Beatles. Beach Boys. Ray Charles. My father’s favorite band, The Lovin’ Spoonful. I remember dancing in underoos to Summer in the City. Loving the Beatles before knowing it was a band anyone other than us knew. I remember my seventh birthday and my cool cousin buying me ‘Off the Wall’ after seeing how much I loved every time ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ came on and having something that could stay in the Stereo. It felt so SO grown up. I had taste, I had arrived, I had something adult enough to have to stay in the stereo when the doors rolled closed. Now my music, my history in songs largely stays in my pocket, on my phone. I’m sure it will seep out and as they get older more and more music will return to the air. But it’ll never hold the mystique and the mystery and the excitement that the stereo in the shape of an upright freezer in the dining room held.
My father has given me more than I could ever possibly recall. He gave me life, after all. As a father now I realize that even more than that, he gave us, all of us, his life. Freely and fully and happily. I’m endlessly thankful for it. But beyond that, beyond the sacrifice and the work and the love he also gave me art, and I can’t thank him enough for that.
I don’t think there’s a lot that could make me feel anything short of insanely lucky. My life is great. I have nothing to complain about and as a result I tend not to complain. But to say that life is an unending bowl of cherries, filled with joy and devoid of pain, lapping up happiness and shutting out fear and anxiety would also be untrue.
My default position is of gratitude. I am thankful for all that’s been granted me.
I’m getting older. I’m not getting old, don’t mistake me. I’m just, you know, getting older. You are too. We all are and have always been. As I get older perspective evolves and I see things I never noticed before. My responses aren’t as quick as they once were, but they’re considerably better informed. I usually benefit from this. You could say I’m in a sweet spot where the benefits of maturing are still outrunning the detriment of decaying. I’m 42.
I’m incredibly thankful to have my young kids at this fairly advanced age for such an endeavour. The challenges are largely physical, if you discount the emotional and financial. My five year old, delightfully, falls asleep in our bed each night. It’s warm and wonderful and something we all love. I am starting to think, however, that he is becoming strategic in his placement atop our king sized bed in hopes of defeating me, getting me to throw up my hands in a moment of surrender and allow him to stay. I’m 6’2″ and 225 and strong and still I dread trying to lift his dead weight, sound asleep, 4 foot even, 56 pound body off the middle of that massive bed. But I do it, because I know the 3 year old is right behind him ready to awake to take up the one free space in our bed come sometime after midnight.
These are things you don’t necesarrily see coming. There are a ton of others. But rarely are we warned of them and even if we are, we’re not really going to understand until we’re going through it. I solemnly swear, right here, out loud and in public, I will NEVER tell a parent of a newborn that it’s just as hard now. It’s not. Newborns, especially the first one, the one that teaches you everything in a nonstop round the clock barrage of ‘teachable moments’ what it means to be a parent, are life blower uppers. I fully believe that teenagers are as well. As for the rest, don’t believe those bitter, forgetful, wretched souls who try to convince you that they are as hard as 5 year olds. They aren’t. Not by a thousand miles.
There are other things you learn along the way, about what life becomes. Again, I’m 42 and maybe some people have told me this before and I just wasn’t in a place to understand them. Maybe it’s too scary a thought to process, so you don’t. Maybe you’ve processed this long before I’ve had to as not everyone has the great good fortune that I so thankfully have had.
I spend portions of everyday fearing that the phone will ring and the world will dissolve around me as I’m told that one or the other or both of my parents have died. My mom knows I suspect as we’ve had a couple of scares and, while nothing’s ever been said, perhaps she hears a fear I’m trying to hide in the way I say ‘hello’, that makes her hasten to say ‘hello,thisismomeverythingisokay.’
‘Hello. This is mom. Everything is okay.’ I have a family now and I understand, at least intellectually, how this all fits and works together, this whole circle of life thing. Until recently, last five and change years, to be exact, I’ve come off the stance of thinking to myself, I’d trade everything, including my own life, the own rest of my days, to make sure that is the last thing I hear before leaving this world. On speakerphone, knowing my dad is there listening and waiting to hear the latest stories of the boys successes, excited to tell me about an article he saw with awesome things my friends are doing in the community or them waiting to tell me about an author they think I’ll like or about the party they had the other night with some of the kids to say farewell to their grandson as he headed off for his Jack Kerouac/On The Road adventures.
I don’t know that others feel this when the phone rings and they see it is their parents. Surely some are understanding of the whole thing and appreciative of hearing from mom and/or dad, as I most certainly am as well. Surely others in a similar situation are merely avoiding, imagining the whole thing impossible, choosing rather to continue to see their parents as the undefeatable, indefatigable pillars they’ve always known them to be, the way they still are, pushing off all thought of the matter until it is upon them. Sounds like a better way to me. Unfortunately I have a temperament that doesn’t allow for such ease of thinking. I can’t stop imagining. It’s a wonderful quality in so many circumstances, truly. But in this stage of life, for me, it’s impossible to put it fully out of mind.
For me it’s like knowing the earth is going to stop turning on it’s axis and all life will cease to have meaning at some time in my future, in my lifetime, but I can’t know when. It’s just there. Waiting to catch me and remove the ground from beneath my feet. It’s going to hit my chest, hard. Iknow it will. I saw it happen to them. I saw there world crumble. I saw them cry and cry and not know what to do. It only lasted a few moments because they had to take care of me. I was just little after all, as were my brothers and sisters to greater and lesser degrees. But it showed up again as they had to go through the ceremonies and the condolences and the quiet nights alone when they might not have known I was still up and might be coming down to watch tv or grab a drink. Maybe I was exactly what they needed in that moment. I can’t imagine anything less than my own kids being the salvation that will keep me alive after the bomb lands on me.
I’m fortunate. I’m in a position where I’ve never had to confront an issue so many I love have. My life is one of gratitude and as a child of my parents I’m sure I’ll make it to the finish line, my own finish line, one that will be hopefully at the end of a long and fruitful life as grateful as I am today. But by the time I get there I know I will have passed through times that will test that and I hope I can sustain the weight of all the good fortune I’ll have endured.