Today I’m looking back and projecting forward as I look at my son on Picture Day. Click the link to see my story on Mamalode.
Today I’m looking back and projecting forward as I look at my son on Picture Day. Click the link to see my story on Mamalode.
I’m feeling kinda done with writing about parenthood. It was a massive transformation and now I’m transformed.
Parenthood 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 It’s been replaced by a security you only have when you have a steady hand and a clear eyed confidence that you are up to the task.
Sure, 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.
What 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.
Amongst the clearest and most treasured memories of my youth are the handful of roadtrips that I took with my dad, just the two of us. One that sticks out for me as particularly enjoyable was a trip to Pennsylvania where I needed to be on campus early for basketball camp check in the next day.
The day started at the Morgan Manning house for the 4th of July town picnic and fair. Its the kind of tradition I had no idea I’d come to love about the town of Brockport, NY where I grew up.
After hot dogs (Zweigel’s, the only proper hot dog) and my little brother doing the cakewalk and the barbershop quartet of high school teachers we went home, loaded the minivan and got on the road.
On this trip we were in the right mood. We were just relaxed and comfortable and conversation flowed and we talked about life and family, everything and nothing. I don’t remember the details and they weren’t important. We were relaxed, comfortable and alone. It was nice.
It was in fact the counter to my normal level of anxiety. Once when I was 5 or so I was in the bathroom while he was shaving. There were at least 8 of us, often more. As George Bluth said, watch out for hop-ons, you’re gonna have hop-ons. Anyway, with two bathrooms overcrowding was not at all unusual so for me to be peeing while he shaved was not unusual. After a moment of observation he looked over at me, face half covered in thick white foam and half smoothly shaven and said. ‘Are you breathing.’ I wasn’t. He said, ‘it’s okay. Breathe.’ So I did. I’ve always been self-conscious, still am.
We stayed in a hotel that night near the camp. It remains the one and only night I’ve ever eaten at an Arthur Treacher’s. I imagine this was true for him as well. Then we went to a movie. The only thing that lined up with our schedule that was agreeable to both of us was ‘Soapdish’.
For a couple of hours we howled with laughter. A reserved 40-something dad and his jock 15 year old son cracking up at the antics of a cast of eccentrics populating the set of a daytime soap opera. It was downright hysterical, silly and perfect. It was one of the best days of my childhood. It shouldn’t surprise me that the most meaningful and metaphorical journey of my life was a road trip with my dad in a minivan across the state when I was 20.
Side note about my dad; He’s funny. Very funny. It’s a dry sense of humor, not needy, rarely reaching out, but often reactive and precise. I can be manic in my need to get in a funny line at every opportunity, even inventing the opportunities, or sticking a laugh line in as a non sequitur just to get the attention. It comes from a funnier place for my dad. He’s okay letting tons of good enough but not perfect pitches fly past, and then boom, HYSTERICAL. I’ve tried to learn from this, and to some degree I’ve calmed down. He’s such a good editor and knows when funny is funniest. My papa was that way as well.
Fast forward to what can either be referred to as my first Junior year at college or my second sophomore year. I prefer the former, but whatever your druthers.
I, remarkably, was in a night class. I say remarkably because my academic history is littered with classes that I never intended to attend and rarely did. But this was a 3 hour, 1 credit class and I showed up. It was part of a series of single credit, single night classes that were offered in the Human Services curriculum. I’d kind of backed and failed my way into the major, but it was in line with my personal ethics of being helpful to those less fortunate so I went with it. These single night credits were taught by community based professionals in a particular field of service. This night happened to be the Executive Director of the Chemung County ARC. He was a nice if distracted guy who gave us a good history of the movement, the state of the field and the needs going forward. It was interesting and I wanted to get involved.
In the course of the evening Jodi, a less then friendly and somewhat overconfident young woman by my estimation (which was informed by little if any evidence, but firmly believed. Ah… youth) spoke of her experience the previous summer at a camp for adults with developmental disabilities.
It was a camp run by AHRC of NYC, the chapter that was the progenitor of the entire Arc movement. I decided to approach her at the break. Turned out that being male, a decent fellow and willing made me qualified for a position there! Besides, Jodi would be there and I’d at least know one face. Might even get to see another side of her. So the dye was cast and my life turned at that moment and in many ways has never turned back.
After a week or so home from school I was off to the Catskills with my dad. It was a 6 hour drive, one that I’d make several more times over the years. The ride was long and disorienting. I’d never noticed the glorious mountains that buttress and soar over the New York State Thruway as you make your way east across the state. They existed there without my notice for the many trips I’d taken across the state over the years. But when we got off and went onto the local roads it took only a few miles until we realized we were heading to a place neither of us had known existed.
Other than some summer vacations when my dad was a kid even he had never really experienced the vast mountainous region of New York that stretched from the area city-dwellers called upstate and the northerners thought of as downstate all the way up to the top of the world up at the Canadian border. It was the spine of the state and we lived in the panhandle out west.
My dad is from the New York Metropolitan area, so this vast middle, encompassing the Catskill Mts. and the Adirondacks had managed to be avoided. The long looping curves of the valley roads gave way in an instant to roads that seemed to have majestically green, steep, natural walls. It was like the mountains and there fauna were cradling the pavement that now wove a twisting and turning road that revealed which travelers were local as they bore down on the vast amount of out-of-towners there to feed the economy and reconvene with nature.
Finally, out of the hairpin at the Kaaterskill Falls trail head the roads started to stretch back to long and looping as we arrived in the higher valley.
Tannnersville is a small, humble and charming mountain town that would become my nearest ‘civilaization’ for the years ahead. The directions took us right through and up the mountain that hovered over it, all the way to the picturesque stone church at its peak and back down the other side. We took a right at the General Store/Post Office onto a beautiful, meandering river of a small country road that ended at Colgate Lake.
Rather, it didn’t end it turned to dirt and we continued through a tunnel carved through the forest, looking at each other partly worried and partly as Doc Brown looked at Marty at the end of Back to the future… Where we’re going we don’t need roads!
I can’t honestly tell you what conversations were had on this journey save one. I remember saying it and my dad has remembered it too. I told him that I had no idea what to expect. I told him that I was a little nervous but that I was thinking of it as 90 days and I can endure anything for 90 days. I’ve heard my dad proudly retell of hearing me saying that and he always follows it up by pointing out that after he left me that day he knew a change was coming for me. He was right.
I could most certainly endure what lay ahead. I had no idea that it was the start of a journey with as much learning and growing and failing and succeeding as I could stand bottled up in 5 two week sessions of sleep deprived sleep-away camp that would change my worldview, broaden my understanding of humanity, enhance my ability, grow my confidence, open my eyes to a world that was rich and vibrant and dynamic and revolutionary and introduce me to an instant community of friends and acquaintances who would create and sustain magic on a daily basis, all with the aim of righting a societal wrong and providing people with the opportunity to have the time of their lives. It would keep my otherwise antsy and unsteady and frankly dangerous life of excess in check as I discovered that when you are fully engaged in a thing, 20 hours a day is not enough. It was enough to get the work done, at least usually, just not enough of the experience.
I was enjoying all of it, the joy and the pain, the wins and the losses, the new experiences and the vulnerability I was discovering in myself and the world and I didn’t want it to ever end.
We’d drink and sing and dance and swear and smoke and hookup and breakup. During the day we’d bring people that would never have the chance otherwise to the top of the mountain, whatever that meant for them. If we couldn’t we’d not hesitate in getting to work building them their mountain, to spec, because we were delighted to be given the opportunity. We fought and created cliques, then we broke them and cross pollinated. We created a utopian society their and we thought we were the first ones to do it. I’m still convinced we were the best who ever did.
But on that car ride, a ride that was both familiar and different it turned out that dad was dropping me off at the end of a dirt road in a beautifully landscaped world that was designed to make the world a better place. It certainly did that for me. It was the home that would take it’s place next to the big blue/gray house on Clark St. It became my spiritual and literal home. When I’d leave I’d yearn to be back. When I was there, even in the cold, dark, lonely and depressing winters, I never wanted to be anywhere else. I loved her even more then. Even when it was emptied of all the people that made it what it was. It was even more beautiful to me as it sat stoically dark waiting patiently to be enlivened once again. After the departures, after the work, after our irreversibly changed lives, after the love and the struggle and the ultimate experience, the walls were my companions for months on end and I loved them as I had learned their potential.
I loved everything about that place and I still do. The Lodge was where I was able to make mistakes and miracles and to witness transformations, including my own. Where I learned to push myself and accept who I was. It was the greatest experience of my life to that point and would inform all the other wonders that were to come.
Charlie insisted that Grandma, Koba (Grandpa), Daddy and Mommy all sit at attention at the picnic table. We were seated so we were facing him as he prowled the stage that was the landing at the top of the steps leading to the beautiful red Rockwellian shed that he thought of as Buddy the Cat’s house. He welcomed us to the show and proceeded to command our attention by acting out a story about how he lost his doggie. About how that doggie ran away and grew up to be a kitty cat, and how charlie found him by calling his name around both corners of the little house/shed/set. He informed us that his name was ‘Tree Pikwalk’ and that we all had to call for him if he were to be found. And low and behold, after we all gave it a shout, good old Tree Pikwalk, the dog that grew up to be a cat, returned home. We were then instructed by Charlie to clap for his story. When we did it was as if he were at Carnegie Hall and he’d just won the admiration of an initially doubting audience.
We were then instructed to stop. He was now the MC and he welcomed everyone to the show. Clap your hands everybody. Introducing, DADDY! He waved me up and left the stage for me to put on a ‘show’. I of course proceeded to do what the director instructed and told a story. Knowing his preferences I made it a story of childhood pets. In this case I told the origin story of our family pet, Mama Kitty, who was a housemate for almost all of my youth and how her passing at 18, an incredibly long life for a cat, lead to the occasionally odd moment when people came to our house and saw an etched stone slate that simply said, ‘Mama, 1980-1998’. It was a success and with all the generosity of a true fan my presenter and host started the applause and made sure that everyone joined him. It was grand.
I’m envious of his confidence and his constant creativity and in awe of his energy. Thanks to him and his little brother, Teddy, I’m able to somewhat approximate their joie de vivre, The two of them can knock me out physically, but the result of their presence in my life has left me with a verve and joy that I never knew before they arrived.
These attributes, confidence, creativity, energy and joy will be informed by an increasing knowledge and understanding of the feelings and needs of others around them as well as the painful realization that people will sometimes be mean even though they aren’t necessarily mean people. Hell, at some point even they will be mean and not understand why. These are all things to be expected and are key points in one’s journey to aware, conscious and thoughtful adulthood. To be able to feel confident enough to consciously put on a ‘show’ and present enough to attend to the shows of others you love because we are all human and need love and attention. To be unafraid to be wholly and truly yourself despite your fears that it will cause others to judge you. To not be afraid to be judged by those people because you are the things you are and it is okay to be them. To be so entirely comfortable in your own skin that you are able to connect with the world around you and the souls you are fortunate enough to be near in a way that shares with them your fragility and essence. These are the things I see in my son’s that I hope will survive, somehow, the onslaught that is heading their way as they head out into the world without any armor. These attributes that will hold the key to happiness when they emerge on the other side of the chasm separating childhood from adulthood. We are in the bubble now and I treasure my time here, knowing already that it is fleeting.
I just hope that I remember, when it looks its ugliest and I’m compelled to react to the behaviors I know are not reflective of the boys they were, that they are neither predictive of the men they will be. That in order for them to get through the upheaval of adolescence and early adulthood they have to travel roads that are inevitably and imperatively roads I can’t go down with them. I hope I remember that they will carry with them, despite any and all indications to the contrary, their sweet nature, their fragile and vulnerable skin and their need for love and attention. I hope they are able to hear me as I call for them while they are lost, like Tree Pikwalk who grew up to be a cat. I hope I hope I hope.
I hope beyond hope that my little dogs grow up, turn into cats and can put on a show for me of a kind I now put on for my parents, relishing in their approval and attention and no longer bashful about how important and meaningful it all is to me.
Parenthood first goes about revealing your innumerable flaws and shortcomings. It does this in such a nonstop barrage of situations that reveal your inadequacy that you question not only your abilities, but the universe and its judgment to leave such a precious and wonderful gift in such incapable hands.
You fumble through and with repetition you learn that what feels massive is just a blip and when things that arise that could be massive are dealt with you start to trust that you in fact are the right person and the hospital didn’t make a mistake letting this baby come home with you. You are broken down to your foundation and rebuilt brick by brick. It is a necessary and critical process as it allows you to discard the many silly things you treated with reverence before you knew better and it leaves you with something approximating wisdom.
When I held my firstborn for the first time I became aware of my own mortality. No one told me about this. About sleepless nights and the many changes to lifestyle, sure, but this existential crisis was not something for which I was on the lookout.
I thought about death passively and actively. It was a farmer’s toothpick getting chewed on, soft and tattered until it was soaked and malleable and worn through, splintering and finally turning to pulp to be discarded.
I am empowered by my inevitable death. What felt like a crisis, that I was not going to be able to foster him and his brother completely through a life, has turned into an awakening. It hurts to be sure that I won’t get to see how their stories end. I won’t be there to ensure as happy an ending possible and in fact will rely on them to provide this for me. But between now and then it is my privilege and obligation to do everything I can to stack whatever odds I can in their favor.
From this angle I’ve become a man that is determined to have as little difference between my public and private face as possible. I do this for me, yes, but I also do it for them. My little guys need to see that they are able to be wholly themselves even when the world smirks at them.
The world can seem a hell of a giant thing and when it takes note of you with scorn it can be scary. But you can’t be afraid. You can’t allow the world to so color your opinion of yourself that you decide it’s best to hide behind whatever facades you decide upon which draw the least amount of attention. In fact, once you know fully who you are you can smirk right back at the world as you are equal to it. Primarily because ‘fuck it’. You are. No matter what the world thinks of you it can’t change that unless you enable it.
Secondly, you, me and everyone we know are great. All of us. It may not play out on a stage large enough for the world to see and it may not ever make life easy, but it’s true. Our greatness is innate and the only way we can fail it is to not attempt to practice it and to share it. Do this and the world and its judgments will not only get quiet, they will disappear.
I’m no longer worried that the world won’t like me. I’m going to state loudly and clearly and hopefully eloquently and gracefully that I’m here and I’m not going to be bashful. I’m not going to mute the full throated volume of my love. I’m not going to stand silently if I think a thing is wrong. And most importantly I’m not going to let scorn or judgment from the outside color my impression of myself.
In this way my kids, after revealing every conceivable weakness in my possession, have provided me with this one superpower. Short of the most tragic thing I can now imagine, there is nothing that can break me. They taught me this just in time as I’m heading in to a phase of life rife with inevitable and natural events that are going to test this. But I can tell you that these things, these terrible and awful events will not break me.
My kids have imbued me with resolve. I can honestly say with one hundred percent confidence that I’ll write my book. I’ll share my life. I’ll live out loud for as long as I have breath. I have to. They’re watching.
I was once asked what age I felt would be my best. That is to say, temperamentally speaking, which age would I be most suited to. The answer I gave was that I’d be perfectly suited for 40-55. Middle age. My ideal.
Well, now I’m here and I’m pretty sure I was right. A delightful discovery! Let’s face it, older than that, well older than 65 or so (I was significantly younger when I came to the number 55 being where you left middle and entered old) is fraught with discomfort and loss. While I think my temperament will endure however long I do, I have little doubt that this time will be incredibly challenging in addition to anything wonderful it may bring.
It was a convenient answer for me. I was hovering around thirty at the time and I was single and the meaning I found in life was real but it was an act of invention as it was me and me alone providing it.
I hadn’t yet fallen in love with my wife and learned what it meant to fear more for someone else and their well being than I did for my own. I was empathic in so far as a person can be when they need put nothing before themselves. Beyond that, I was a pretty treacherous sort. Treachery is overstating it, but you know, I wasn’t being my best self. Nope. I’d be someone I could respect at 40.
Turns out I was right.
So now that I’m here I find myself thinking about the end. Death. The final exit. I think about it in a fearful way when i think of my forebears. I think of it in practical and optimal terms, accepting its inevitability when I think of it for myself. And I think of it as the ultimate in accidental tragedy when it enters my mind in regard to my kids. So far everyone in all these scenarios is peacefully and happily healthy and alive. There have been some close calls, but they appear to be in the rear view mirror. They have brought us all closer together and reminded us all to hold on to that ultimate perspective we can lose so easily.
In my younger days, before gaining any perspective on the finite nature of life, I spent years actively ‘hating’ and wondering why my anger didn’t result in the target of my self righteous judgment changing, only to find that the target was me and it had in fact changed me. Not for the better. I heard a person say this week that carrying hate is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. There seems to be a good deal of wisdom in that which could really help me when I lose perspective.
Now, when I’m this busy, surrounded by love in all directions, far enough from the exit to be able to accept it, while close enough to wish it would not come to call for the people that mean the most to me that I’m able to have the strongest hold on perspective. My one and only job is to be happy and make my life one that allows me and those I love to stay happy so that we can go on caring for each other no matter the differences of opinion or frustrations that may creep in to ones thoughts.
The person that this is most difficult with, for obvious and universal reasons, is me. Who, after all, can have perspective on ones self? I try to be easy on me, but those closest know this has always been a struggle. When all this middle life stuff weens and wains, and I’m left without these responsibilities compelling me to move ever onward, what will I do? You see, it seems linear when you’re growing up. You encounter challenges, you learn, you grow, you change and you move on. Right? That’s how it goes? But what will I do when the world that I’ve built, the one that buttresses and supports me, begins to crumble, as it inevitably must. What will I do then?
I hope that I will sit and reflect on the joys my life brought and take pride in the joys it continues to sow as my children become the architects of the meaning of life and I enjoy the fruits of my labors. I fear that I will resent no longer being the builder and master of my world and instead find purpose in complaining and seeking to ameliorate my many pains through the methods I did before I reached that perfect-for-me middle age. Whose to say which way it will go.
What matters now, what matters most, is that I sustain myself long enough to provide a base for the kids so they can wonder how life will go from the comfort of their homes with their own loving families waiting for them to come downstairs so their toddlers can finally give them the checkup they themselves have been giving me three times a day lately.
That’s right. My son is a Dr. and myself and his mother are his only patients. We couldn’t be more proud! It’s time for him to listen through the stethoscope and tell me that my heartbeat ‘feels good.’ Time to give me a shot because, and I have no idea what this means, ‘I have a boo boo on my foot because there is a train in it.’ He tells me to look away when he gives me the shot and to think of ‘rice ream’ (ice cream) so it won’t hurt. And he’s right, it doesn’t hurt if I follow his lead.