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The Lodge, Part VI: Hello S–thead, How Are Ya?

‘Hello Sh*thead, how are ya?’ 

This was my morning greeting. Every morning. For two weeks each summer from 1995-2002. I can’t remember which session he came, but Devin was a legend. Well, maybe not originally. I think he was kind of a blender-inner prior to us boys of Lodge 12 meeting him and getting to know him in ’95. From that summer forward though, he was a legend. 

  I can tell you that he came session 3. There were five sessions and his was in my first as Lodge Leader. Yep, I was a camp counselor, the foundation of my 20 year camp career, for 4 weeks. Anyway, another story for another time. Just know that I was nervous. I was eager to do well, and as was and remains my custom, I really was very unprepared for what my position was. I work best when hiding panic and ignorance under a facade of confidence and competence. 

‘Oh, hi. You the leader.’ 

‘I am. Your Devin, right.’ I asked. 

We were outside the cabin after rest hour, before period 3 activity. I was all official, hiding behind my clipboard with my daily schedule and other forms I hoped no one would ask about. 

‘Did you take a shower, Devin? Like, just now?’

Devin was maybe 46. I was 21. Still, I was the Lodge Leader and he was the guest. 

‘Oh, no.’ He said, wistfully, voice drifting. ‘I haven’t showered in five f*cking years.’ 

I think I heard that right, but I better check. 

‘What was that.’

‘Five long, happy, Jewish years.’ Devin said.

I looked over at him and smiled. I then laughed. He reflected me. 

That was how I met Devin.

Devin lived with his mother, best as I could tell. He was the living and breathing definition of an ‘unreliable reporter’, so who’s to really say. He would often wake in the cabin, the one we all woke in, in sight of everyone all night, to tell his cabinmates and staff that he was hungover.

‘How are you hungover?’ we’d ask.

‘I was drunk last night. Oh, yeah. I had two Schaeffer’s beers.’ Everything he said was kind of sing-songy and benefited greatly from a delivery I can’t even begin to capture. He’d say these things, eyes getting big, face serious, holding your appraising eyes for a couple of seconds until his whole face would break out in a big jowly grin, eyes now softening and gleaming with mischief and humor. 

I came to seek out his familiar and always energetic salutation, ‘Hello sh*thead, how are you?’

  Devin, all our guys, they lived lives of limited independence. Limited, certainly, by their abilities. They required some level of assistance, some a good deal, some it took a while to find, but all of them were there for a reason. But they loved camp because we were new. New staff, kids and they were the old pros. Some might have seen all of us taking a guest ‘under our wing’ and developing real, lasting bonds and genuine connections. What you had to be there longer to see was them taking us under their wings, teaching us and grooming us. Befriending us and taking a shine to us. We got to know them and they got to know us and at some point we all had different roles to play and we loved playing them, but there really was just an ‘us’. ‘Them’ were left behind about half way through the first day the guests arrived.

Devin was funny. His sense of humor was a tool for him like it is for many of us. One that is hugely helpful and ocassionally misused and capable of getting any of us who use it into trouble. It helps us out of trouble more, though. It’s a powerful thing, the ability to make others laugh and I loved that he had it. Largely because it’s also a powerful thing to laugh and he made me laugh nearly every day. 

So when it came time to take him to the dentist I jumped at the chance when asked. I wasn’t in his Lodge anymore and I’m sure I had no idea what it was for. Whatever it was it wasn’t anything major. Still, I had to at least prep him for what was to come. I decided to do so in the van on our way down the mountain to the dentist. 

‘Now, Devin, I know you know this, but I feel like I have to say it.’ I said.

‘What?’ He said, in that overly expressive and delightful way of his. 

‘We’re going to be in the community. You have to mind your P’s and Q’s’ 

‘Yeah.’ He said, giggling.

‘Seriously. Gotta be careful with the language. At the lodge, we’re family, but these folks won’t know you.’

‘I know. Helen tells me not to swear at the dentist.’ Said Devin. 

‘Well, You have a very smart mother.’ I said. 

It was just that. He was more than capable of understanding and I was virtually sure that he did. The rest of the ride was just fun. If you haven’t worked at a summer camp you can’t know how fun it is to get in a vehicle that can in no way be classified as a bus, to go to that magical land known only as ‘off grounds’. To be doing so with a legend, well, that was just the cherry on the top of this already super awesome sunday of a ‘job’ I was asked to do on this day. 

I’ll skip the details of the appointment as they are not notable save this one factor; I can’t tell you the joy it brought me as ‘The Kaiser’, as he often referred to himself as, would just look at me sideways, smiling, ever on the verge of bursting, from across the room and in the chair. It was magical and sustained. He was giving me this look of not at all hidden conspiratorial mischievousness that was just great. And he did great. He was a model patient as I’m sure he always was. He was, after all, a simply lovely man. 

‘Sir. Can you sign this please.’ We heard as we approached the door to leave. 

‘Of course, I say.’, and we made our way back to the lobby window. It was a standard, midsummer, midday, midweek dentist office. Moms and kids mostly. Perhaps a few working people getting some work done on a workday. Nothing of note but the room was populated. 

‘Just sign here.’ I would have signed anything she gave me. I still have no idea how that appointment came to be and less of an idea of how it might have been paid for. I didn’t even look at or even for the number. But apparently, Devin did. 

‘Holy f*cking s*it, Helen’s gonna f*cking kill me.’ Devin sung. 

It. Just. Hung. There. 

Slowly I turned to look at him. I wasn’t angry or even bothered. I was just in awe.

‘What?’ He asked, eyes gleaming and smirk growing. 

 I know the moment now all too well. The moment when I am responsible for someone who is unaware of the proper way to handle a situation and I’m supposed to communicate something akin to, disappointment, I guess. The stern look of a dad to my child is what I do now but there are times where the overwhelming funniness of the thing they have done so outweighs the importance of the ‘teachable moment’ that we all just crack up in a ‘laughable moment’ of true and beautiful connectedness. Well, I can say for certain that the receptionist didn’t see the humor in this outburst. Her loss. It was instantly and remains one of the genuinely most joyous moments of my life walking out of there with him, both of us cracking up.

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Feeling the Love

Basketball player. That was the first dream.
More than anything I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I wanted it so badly that I played every day. All day. Not always easy for a kid from a top 5 snowiest city. Fine, I lived 20 mins from that city. Still, I spent a good many a days shoveling the playground courts across the street. braving wind and rain. Lighting up the court while running down car batteries.
I didn’t become a pro. That’s for sure. People who’ve met me as an adult might find it hard to imagine. I’m not really carrying a basketball players body these days.
I got pretty good. Real good. Good enough to make teams with guys who would make the pros. Good enough to run on the highest level court at any open gym. Not great, but pretty good.
By the time I got close enough to greats to know I wasn’t going to make it I got disappointed. Inertia kept me going. Inertia and the energy of youth and a deep love of the game. But I burned myself out. I was the kid that dribbled a mile or two to school and back, shot until my mom would make me come in as the sound of the ball on the concrete surely was keeping up the neighbors. I didn’t go pro, not even close, but I got a ton out of trying. I travelled, accomplished a good deal and even got in to college.
I was a failing student. Not a bad one, a failing one. You had to get 3 F’s to fail off the team in high school, so I’d carried two and came close with the rest. I’ve never liked school. But I’m very thankful I went to college.
I liked night classes. They tended to be populated by grown people, moms and dads going back to school or people looking to change careers, looking for a new direction. For me the appeal was that instead of 3 one hour classes a week there was 1 three hour class per week. I used to joke, ‘I can skip the whole week at once. Just think how much more efficient that is.’
In one of those classes I heard from the Executive Director of the local ARC who described what it was like to try to make a difference by helping others. It sounded great. I liked the idea of toiling for good. I liked the idea of waging a war on behalf of those that had been unfairly treated. I was in Human Services to that point because it was an easy course of study. That night would change that. I didn’t become a better student, but at least I was in the right place.
A senior girl who I knew in passing described an experience working at a summer camp. This camp was for adults, many of whom were ‘graduates’ of the Willowbrook state school. If you don’t know what that is (I didn’t) look it up.
Anyway, she described her experience, working morning to night in cabins and in pools and in music and arts and crafts classes, with adults with disabilities. Physical and developmental. Well, it sounded awesome.Truth be told, she struck me as the type of person that couldn’t do something so selfless. I was wrong, obviously. Both that she couldn’t and that it was selfless. Not at all selfless. It may be the place I’ve given the most of myself, but it’s also where Ive taken the most.
Over the eight years I worked there, starting a career in the field, I learned a thing or two about perseverance. Working with individuals who struggle day to day, but thrive through grit, determination and practiced indifference to the naysaying of others, I learned that it starts with trying. And trying starts with saying what you want.
As silly as it was to me to even think it, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write and get paid for it. I wanted to be a writer.
Turns out its not as easy as saying you want to. Unfortunately, you have to actually try. You have to try and fail a lot. Becoming a writer has made me learn that if a writer tells you, no, you don’t want to read this stuff I wrote, you should believe them. That’s how mine was for a long time. Now you STILL may not want to read my work, but at least it’s passable.
There’s truth to people who say all you need to do to be a writer is write. It’s true. But you can pass that hurdle and still not ‘feel’ like a writer. Until you feel like a writer you’ll never describe yourself as one.
I felt like a writer after I shared my work on a fateful winter morning on Medium and shared it with my facebook friends. I literally hit share and sprinted away from my computer and out for lunch. When I returned there were 20 or so amazing notes of encouragement. So many people who read it and liked it enough to tell me. It was unbelievable.
The next amazing feeling was being paid. I sold a piece to Mamalode. It was the sweetest and most impactful $20 I will ever earn. Someone not related to me, someone who didn’t even know me, bought my words. Breaking a big market, a Scary Mommy was amazing and a few bucks more. Being selected as a spotlight blogger for a dad blogger conference, well, I had no idea how big it was until I was there. I honestly didn’t know. It was great.
This past week it’s come full circle. I’ve written a book and I feel like a writer. Not in the way I imagined I would, I’m not retiring from the day job any time soon. I self published. It was not some bidding war. In fact, if you totaled the dollars I’ve earned and the dollars I’ve spent in pursuing my dream of being a writer you’d find a fairly decent sized number under the ‘break even’ line.
Something different started happening this past week. All these people I grew up with, in one place or another, at home or at camp or somewhere those places took me, they started buying my book and posting pictures of themselves with the book or of the book posed and lighted or in their hands. And they are saying the loveliest things. They are helping me, showing off my book and helping me sell it to people who don’t know me. Not sure anyone who doesn’t know me has bought one yet and I don’t care. I’d love if they did, but it’s not the point.
Book.SelfiesThese book shots and paperback selfies, they are amazingly touching. I can’t begin to describe to you how much they all mean to me. In a very real sense they are a literal dream come true. They are kindness and generosity and love I can feel. I’m moved beyond words and grateful to no end.
I never feel like thank you is enough. I start vomiting exclamation points. I start thanking so earnestly it might sound insincere, it might even read that way to me, but it couldn’t be more honest. I’m so very thankful.
If you are on my friend list it may seem silly that 10 or 12 people are doing this, it may start to seem silly, laughable or even annoying. I don’t care. I will love these pictures every day for the rest of my life. They are the product of so many kind and charitable souls celebrating a friend who is trying. To my eyes these pictures will ALWAYS be beautiful.
Thank you.

The Lodge, Part V: Figuring it Out

‘I really love it. It’s crazy. I’m here with people from all over the world, we work around the clock and we get one day off per 13. It’s perfect.’ I said. I meant it.

‘Joey, I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited.’

‘Thanks. It’s just a lot, but I think I really like it.’

This was my first call home after the guests had arrived. After the week long, 9AM-9PM trainings we were all ready to get to it, whatever it was. Even with that much time spent learning, with that many people who’d done it before there was no amount of preparation that was going to give me so much as a clue as to what that first day would entail.

‘I got picked to be on the bus that went into the city to pick up the guests. It was crazy. Unbelievable how much could happen in so short a time.’

This is not the staff picture from my 1st year. 3rd year, maybe?

About half of us staff were selected to ride the bus down to the city that first day. It really was a good omen, even if I didn’t know it yet. I’d be prepping the busses and coordinating the drop offs and pick ups within a couple of years and would continue to do them for many years after. You really had to trust the people on that crew. Any number of issues could arise, between the guests and their anxiety or separation or some other totally unexpected thing having to do with their diagnosis to random cars breaking down in front of you in the Lincoln Tunnel, car accidents, staff walking off never to be seen again (this happened more than once, place could drive you mad), incidents between guests on the bus, anxious, angry or just plain mean parents (as a rule they were ALL lovely. As a rule. Rules are ocassionally broken), mixed up medication, short fuses, insane heat, torrential rain. Whatever we ran into, whatever ran into us, we were there to check in 60 or so individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, process their personal effects and account for them, ensure they were fully stocked with meds, check in money get them on the bus and start to entertain them and continue to do so, and to be entertained by them for two weeks, sun up to well past sundown. It really was the most amazing thing I’ll ever do. Having and raising kids will mean more, but we can relate to so many others who’ve done it. But this, this was a singular experience.

‘Guests?’

‘Oh, yeah. Thing is they aren’t campers really. They’re grown ups and face it, grown ups don’t go to camps. They go on vacation. So they aren’t campers, they’re guests.’

‘That’s interesting.’ Mom said.

‘Yeah. Not so much, it’s just what it is. You forget about the word after a day of using it. Not even when you hear it so much during training. Truth is I was ready to see some guests by Sunday. They got here, Sunday.’

I was already spewing my person first language, practicing my committment to treating people respectfully and in line with their life experience and not the way I had before those trainings, which would have still been sensitive, but wouldn’t have been mindful of age appropriate language. In real terms I have learned a hand full of things in the 22 years since that week of training, some real valuable things, but none of it will ever come close to what I learned in those two weeks. Two because the training really didn’t end until after the first week that you were putting it into practice with the guys.

The training wea almost all centered around the arts and crafts room that was off the kitchen, the dining hall and the administrative/infirmary hallway. It was painted grey cement floors with knee to ceiling roller windows lining the walls to either side of our rows of chairs we lugged back and forth to and from the dining hall between meals to reset our classroom all day every day. I was given basic, sanctioned safety trainings, by the book and repeated yearly or near yearly since. I was given first hand trainings on what it meant to work in a field that was still populated with residents and former workers at Willowbrook State School. I met some of those who transformed our entire service system, from the inside, from one fraught and underfunded, filled with systemic abuse into one that was so truly person centered that we busted our asses to ensure that every person was given every ability to choose every single activity on their own and we would modify everything to ensure they could do it regardless of ability. I learned what it was like to be a sibling or a parent of a person with a disability from one of those parents. I met some of the heroic figures who said no to Doctors in the fifties who told them to put their child with a disability in the institutions and forget them. I met many of those children who found their way, through decades of darkness, both literally and in every other way and emerged on the other side heroic and still in touch with their tender and delicate humanity which had been so forsaken. They taught me. And I soaked it up. I loved it.

img_0191And I wasn’t alone. There was a core of us who made it through and reaped endless rewards because of it. There were at root about 30 or so of us who worked in cabins, lived with the guys. We were on call all through the night and working every waking minute (save the one hour break you lived for in order to shower and make a ten minute call to whoever to say how amazing the whole thing was or to cry because it was breaking you). Of those thirty about 16 or so made it through the summer. My cabin started with the full allotment of 6 staff. We lost Ausberto and Jim the Marine and I can’t remember who else, but one more. We made it through 3, two week sessions with just me, Mike and Tony. A suburban, an urban and a comrade. We cared for and loved 16 guys in that cabin every day. Two in wheelchairs? No problem, everyone will have what they need cause anyone of us would push ourselves miles past our limits to make sure of it. Truth is we did it to gut busting laughter much of the time. There were moments of discord and hot tempers, but they were over fast. Still love those guys and dozens more and would have the time of my life sitting around a fire all night reminiscing on those days. I can say confidently we all would. I met real family there.

‘Joey. I’m really proud of you.’

It’s still the most important thing I ever hear them say. Whenever they do I just eat it up.

‘Thanks mom. I think you would love it here more than anyone.’

And I’m sure I was right. It was a utopian society experimentation lab built on the ideals I learned from her. Love, compassion, understanding, committment, service and tireless giving that results in you getting so much after giving all of yourself.

Deleted for the Day

5:30 Saturday morning. I sat in the bathroom liking, loving and sharing anything that triggered anything that felt like something new. Any argument I hadn’t yet seen, any inspirational meme or rage hidden plea from folks struggling with the same crisis I was trying to engage with. Suddenly, alone on the toilet in the dark I went to the home screen, found the facebook icon, held it long enough to cause all the icons to shimmy. I looked at it shaking there, tiny ‘x’ in the corner and I couldn’t. I needed it. So my cooler head prevailed, I stabilized my apps and immediately opened facebook again. That was when I knew. I went back and deleted the app. Here I am, 18 hours later and I could use some validation. Likes are good I guess. Loves are great. And laughs. They really do bounce around a lot longer in the synapses, feeding the need as it were. Comments. That’s what I’m talking about. Even the pissy ones. I could deal without the ones of people who clearly don’t read the whole update. Granted, mine can get long and I admit freely, I have tone problems. Shares. God do I love a good share.

But none at all today. That’s not totally true. I opened this here computer to write this piece and it was on FB and I had 25 notifications. So I scrolled them. I’ll say this and this alone about one notification. I don’t care who is racist, whether they  are republican or democrat. I don’t like them. I’m anything if not clear on this I feel, but apparently it must be said.

I’m going on a day without facebook everpresent and I feel like it’s probably good for me. I had a great day with the kids. We went to the park across the street on this unseasonably warm day and played our extremely modified version of wiffle ball, which includes long stretches of Teddy walking like a sea crab and Charlie wanting to bat, field, be in the bleachers and search for treasure. Whatever, there was a bat, a ball, a few hits and some very passive fielding. I’m counting it.

When we were done we made it over to the other side of the school across the street, to the playground. It was good, there was another dad and son there. He was right between Teddy and Charlie in age and as suits their personalities Teddy went about digging holes on his own in the woods surrounding the playground and Charlie went about making a best friend. Everyone he meets is his best friend.

The dad was a nice guy and we got to chatting. It really was nice. He was cool, easy to talk to. He made a joke about the Mets shirt I had on and I let him know that the Mets were my winners as the Bills were my football team. He said it was good to see a man raising boys of character, kids who will have to endure pain. It was funnier when he said it. It was a good laugh line. I’d have been happy to call it at that. But we kept chatting and it was fine. By the end he asked for my number in case the kids wanted to get together. Sure. So who knows. Maybe I made a friend. It’s weird. Maybe its just me, but I kinda think that part of my life is over. I’ve never been very good at socializing without getting blind drunk and ghosting. It’s my signature move.

Once home I took apart a full bed to move it to T’s room, took apart his toddler bed and reassembled the full size and finally got done a job this poor, giant four year old has needed doing for some time. After showing him and his brother his cool, new big boy bed, one that matches his big brothers I made dinner. Rice and beans, corn on the cob, corn muffins and chicken tenders (the boys don’t really dig on my rice and beans, but there gonna regret that someday). After a nice meal at the table I had some quality TV time with the boys and then T came up and helped me shave my head. I do it every two weeks and his big brother likes helping, but this was Teddy’s first time. It was cool.

Capper, I got them both to bed. This is normally a two parent, two room job. I did it in under an hour. Whatever you think about that, you have to know, I’m bragging. In this house that’s bragworthy.

I almost forgot. I listened to the new Tribe album while I cooked. It’s good.

Here’s the thing. I’m bad at community. I’m good at dad, but I’m bad at making and maintaining friends. Actually, come to think of it, I’m pretty good at making them but really bad at maintaining them. I can strike up the conversation in the park easy. I can initiate or respond. I’m equally effective. But I know me, and despite everything I should do I’ll never respond if this guy texts. I’ll stay away from the park for a good long time, too. I know. It’s terrible. It’s where I fail.

I say all this firstly to brag. I got a ton of shit done this weekend. That’s not even counting the full day of painting I did yesterday. but secondly I say it because I think there might be something instructive for me in it. I’ll engage all day long on Facebook. I’m sure I’d do the same on other social media platforms but I’m old and FB is where it’s at for me. Anyway I’ll spout opinions, engage in give and take and generally be an open book there. Meanwhile I can’t fathom the idea of having to talk to someone regularly without a structure to it. I love face to face at work but I don’t think we’ve ever had a neighbor in the house. Like ever. A good part of that can be blamed on it being very small, us being very full time employed, both of us, and it being a mess most of the time due to these factors and the two small tornado’s I put to bed this evening.

We’ve lost our political connectedness and I think it might be because we’ve lost almost all of our connectedness. Online I can disengage if you frustrate me or if I think your argument is stupid or if I just get caught up in a show. My grandparents were 1950’s style entertainers. After work other couples from the neighborhood swung around for cocktails. They would perform in community theater and go out with friends. My parents who had six kids, or nine if you looked at it right, even managed to be better than me. My mom is the social glue of her world and made a friend every time she met anyone. They had groups they would go to on Friday nights when I was young. Other moms were always over at the house for coffee, neighbor kids coming and going. It was a hub of activity and they were key players.

We don’t do that. We aren’t like that. It seems fewer and fewer people are. And so when something comes along, like a decision for who to vote for, we have no context to put it in. Honestly, I’m worried this guy, who seemed nice as hell (and looked remarkably like Tom Brady) might have had a Trump sign in his yard. This is a TERRIBLE way to think. And something that I think was avoided by my predecessors because they bowled with friends who’d vote for the other guy. Or they were in a play with them or they sang in the church with them. Maybe they just drank with them, whatever. They knew each other. They had a context for the whole person while nowadays we know nothing of our neighbors. Meanwhile we fill in all the worst.

I should note here that I’m projecting all of this and this might just be an issue for me. If it is, I can tell you, it ain’t healthy. It makes me blind to what people really are. It makes me see people unfairly and inaccurately. It makes me scared of a world of people and surely some of those people can be feared even or especially after getting to know them. But in that mix would be many more who could and should and would help us understand each other better. Maybe if the Trump guy down the street got to know me over pickup hoops and dinner with our wives on a date night for parents before we ever even broached the topic of politics we wouldn’t be so angry all the time. Maybe I’d see sooner how messed up and alienated some have felt whom we’ve never considered as liberals and perhaps he’d understand and see some of the inequalities I’m so upset about. In fact we might come to find we’re voting different folks for the same reasons and that we are both furious at the rising racist tide. Even if that didn’t happen, at least that’s a jumping off point.

Well, Its not been a full day yet and I’m already a little less tense for being away from FB for a bit. The arguments, often not tied to anything but our respective abilities to google facts that support our unbending opinions leaves us feeling like we’ve engaged when all we’ve done is harass. For my rather substantial part in that transaction lately, I do apologize.

I won’t go away. I love facebook and likely will as long as it houses y life of relationships. Just yesterday, in the midst of painting the upstairs landing and smack in the middle of my several day meltdown on FB one very kind, and genuine and thoughtful thing happened as a result of my community there. A friend from college, Bryan reached out to me. We hadn’t talked a ton in college and hardly at all since. But he had a context for who I was and he could see I was unraveling. He sent me a sincere and kind private message letting me know that if I ever wanted to hear a someone’s opinion who voted for the other side he’d be happy to talk. It was genuinely thoughtful, I know because I know him and he knows me, however long ago it was, ours was was a real relationship. Where you sat in the same room and talked. Had beeers. Watched games. All of it. We had a good back and forth about the issues that irked us. I know his information genuinely made me think. Than we talked about fatherhood. How much he loved it and how he enjoyed reading about my experience. It was nice. It was genuine. I wish I had more of that in my life. Disagreement without being disagreeable.