Tag Archives: growing up

Looking Back At Me

img_5002When did those show up? Those points. My skin is falling, my face is aged and aging and now I have points. Hanging on either side, mid chin. They are not shocking, until you notice them. Staring blankly in your mirror shaving. You see them. They are just there.

I don’t remember how old I was when my dad told me that it was mildly haunting to look in the mirror one day and for a second see your father staring back at you. It sounded like it could certainly be freaky. To know that you are looking out of your own eyes, possessing your own body, studying a face that is yours, you know, but doesn’t look anymore like it feels. It feels like that face you had in high school. That young, narrow, strong, perfectly fitting face you had. The one you stared at and inspected for laughs when you were little. Searched for blemishes when you got older. Ignored entirely for what appears to have been 20 years now as you got on making a life.

It was a utilitarian face. One that was being used to see the world, eat the food, drink the drinks, make the jokes, scream the pains, howl with laughter, bare to the elements and wear through it all. You hadn’t considered it for years. And years. And there it was. A face wholly your own but weathered and worn by time.

The first reaction for me was to recoil a tad. How did this happen? Why did this happen? The answers are obvious but the reactions are cascading. Shock, worry, awareness, fear, love and wonder. Reflexively I recall my own father sharing this moment with me, a young boy unaware of how this must have felt. I’m aware now and the moment, the memory of that brief conversation in a room long ago left for others to live in is reformed. Some new meaning, some heavier weight.

I’d never noticed anyone other than me looking back at me in the mirror until recently. I’ve played with faces when I was little, trying to see if I could make myself laugh or be angry or scary or silly. I’ve tried to pull faces, to see what others saw as I came into my own and was desperate to figure out who I was and thought the answer might lay somewhere on my appearance. I tried to hide the emotions I felt that my face betrayed. I’m embarrassed by that now, but shouldn’t be. It was some strange form of embarrassment that compelled me to try so hard to not show anything but anger for some early man years there.

Now I see a hint of my father in that face, but just a hint. There’s some of my mother there to. It’s not what I want it to look like. I want it to have so much more left to find. At least that’s the first thought. I want it to look like me. Like the memory I’ll have of my face whenever I can’t see it. The one that had no cause for lines and no time for sag. The me that was stupid but pretty. The energetic, unknowing eyes. The vibrant and taut skin. The me that wondered what it would feel like to see the years looking back at me from the past.

Do You Believe In Miracles

‘Do you believe in miracles!’

¬†Al Michaels iconic cry as time expired in the semi-final game of the Olympic Hockey tournament in 1980 in tiny little Lake Placid, NY. The feelings this can stir in me are notable. They run the gamut from patriotism to belief to hope to astonishment. There was no way we were going to win. They were the best of the best of the Evil Empire, men driven by personal and professional and patriotic duty of their own against our upstart group of ragamuffins. A team of college stars in a sport, Division 1 Mens Hockey, that didn’t make stars. We didn’t even have all the stars. Get me on the topic for too long and I might start to tell you we even had some high schoolers getting valuable minutes. While not technically accurate, as far as narrative goes it would be true enough. We were a nation ready to believe, looking for a miracle and this team, this makeshift team did it. They gave us our miracle.

It’s a thrilling and stirring tale. One capable of inspiring tears and long bouts of sentimental nostalgia. Which is shocking and possibly troubling as I didn’t watch the game. I didn’t even know it was happening. I doubt I learned about it until perhaps 8-10 years later. As best I can tell, we didn’t have it on our radar at my house. I learned of the story by learning about it.

Still the story is worthy of everything it gets and at times I think it’s worth so much more.

I grew up in the height of the Cold War. Russian equaled bad. They were the big bad wolf out to get us, I guess. I mean I remember fearing the idea of that nuclear weapons were in the mix, but that was the extent of my analysis. I was a kid. I saw War Games and I cheered when Rocky beat Ivan Drago (the sonofabitch who killed Apollo Creed). I knew that they were the enemy. My mind and sights were clear, but really I was just a kid. As much as I’ve heard about the tensions of the time I have to say, they didn’t filter down to me.

I grew up in the heartland, really. It’s New York State, but it’s the Great Lakes part of the state. I loved and hated where I grew up. Had nothing to do with where I grew up, I’d have felt that way anywhere. But it was a GREAT place to be a kid. A stupid, oblivious kid. A great place to get your first real kiss while playing truth or dare. A place to get caught by kindly neighbors telling on you that they saw you buying cigarettes at the diner cigarette machine. A great place to fall in love for the first time and to lose your mind when you saw that girl making out with the cool guy who you could never compete with because he was two years older than you and he had not only a license but a car. It was a great place to play basketball, sun up to sundown in playgrounds where other kids were playing. It was a great place to ride your bikes uptown and get pizza or tacos or see a movie or just hang out with all the other kids that lived near, ‘uptown.’ It was a great place to walk to the neighborhood doctor who knew you since you were new. Or to catch crayfish walking barefoot through the crick. It was a great place. Still is.

It wasn’t a place for me to process the Cold War, despite all of it happening, apparently, the whole time I was doing all that other stuff. It wasn’t a place that was nervous or palpably anxious. It wasn’t a place that was out of step and it wasn’t a place that was in line. It was my American experience. I suppose the seeds of what has happened since were around. Factories closed. Our local economy had for generations been underpinned by Kodak and I did see that diminish a ton while I was growing up. Hard not to notice as it was kids parents you went to school with. Other things popped up, but nothing, no amount of things popping up could make up for losing jobs by the tens of thousands, seemingly every year for a couple decades there. Good jobs too. Union jobs for a labor force that often had only needed a high school degree. Just gone. I saw that. Didn’t know it would be such a harbinger of things to come for a pretty big stretch of the country. I imagine my elders did see it coming. Imagine those that stayed saw it coming and to some degree perhaps even got caught standing on the path.

I don’t know what my kids lives will be 30 years from now. My parents weren’t locals to where I’m from and their parents aren’t local to where they’re from. I suspect that trend will continue, but who’s to say. Perhaps my kids will love it here so much that they stay. I would be happy. I would be happy to know that they not only loved where we raised them and found a community of kind and caring friends and neighbors here, but also if they were inclined to stay because the opportunities look like staying was a good decision. I’d like them to have options.

I’m anxious. I’m scared about the direction of so many things. The economy. The hostility that seems to be so prevalent in so many. The rising social issues, some we considered if not resolved, heading inevitably in that direction in the America I grew up in. The role of America in a world in upheaval, without the terrifying order the Cold War provided. I’m hoping this anxiety that seems to be floating free in the world is resolved and my children grow up as I did. Happily oblivious to all that they will one day read about and wonder how they didn’t see it all. Nostalgic for that miracle that is awaiting us just around the corner.

‘I Like That I’m Weird’

‘Tell me something you love about yourself. What is something about you that you really like.’ his mommy asked.

‘I like that I’m weird. I like ‘small potatoes’. I know it’s supposed to be for little kids, but I like it anyways. I like that I’m weird like that.’ Charlie said.

img_4893img_4891When Karen came down from putting him to bed she could barely contain how excited she was to tell me about this little conversation. She was right to be excited. I couldn’t have been happier to hear it.

‘I like that I’m weird.’ How great is that?

Getting comfortable with my weirdness is something that’s taken me a lifetime. First step for me was seeing that I was weird and trying with all my might to deny/hide it. Since then, since getting to a place where I passed as a normal I’ve been working like nobody’s business to try to unburden myself of my various insecurities and collected disguises. I needed to conform, emotionally. I needed to fit in first. It left me safe and sad. Once there I needed to get back out, which was harder. It was definitely harder to reclaim my ‘weird’ than it was to fit in.

So to hear this news, well, I just wanted to wake him up and tell him how proud I was of him. I wanted to tell him he’d discovered the secret to happiness. I wanted to tell him that loving things you aren’t ‘supposed to’ is something it took me forever to learn to do and longer to be comfortable saying I loved those things. I was so impressed with him. I wanted to open YouTube and start playing endless episodes of ‘Small Potatoes’ with him.

Furthermore I wanted to tell him that his life would forever be better as long as he is true to himself. If you like sports and that’s not weird, so what, it’s true. I guess that’s it. I felt shame around my weirdness. Still do from time to time. Then I come here, I tell on myself and I learn to get comfortable being me. My weird self. My journey is as much about meeting me as it is about meeting the world and he has a moment now, one he can call back on and know, being weird, feeling different, it can be a huge gift!

I love my little weirdos so damn much.

Surviving My Kids Friends Birthday Parties

I was sitting in a room full of 5 and 6 year old’s and their parents this past weekend. We were at one of Charlie’s friends birthday parties. It’s remarkable how much a 6 year old’s birthday has changed since I was a kid. Perhaps I went to one at a McDonald’s once. I don’t think I went to all that many kindergarten birthday parties. If I went to 5 that would seem to be a lot. Now we’re busy like I was during the summers of my late 20’s when I was  traveling every weekend to weddings of friends and family.

17022102_1224967080954027_8283132131191062470_nThis was our second birthday party in as many days from this one kindergarten class and it was at the same location as the first. It was one of those former retail spots made over as a kid-party factory, complete with monstrous bounce houses and inflatable slides. This one was particularly cool as it also had scooters and floor projected interactive video games. Ultimately a perfect place for a couple hours of fun. He loved it.

I also, of course, loved that he loved it and was super appreciative of the family hosting it for giving such a fun experience to our boy. But it’s an awkward place for me. I’ll write more about that in a short while, I’m sure. It’s really worthy of milking for some laughs when you see me, a 43 year old dad to two, so socially petrified that I’m stuck staring at my phone trying hard not to look creepy to all the other, seemingly more socially gifted parents sitting in small groups chatting away. It’s just strange. And I’m not the only dad to end up this way at these things. So UNCOMFORTABLE. But like I said, you’ll get some laughs out of this in a future post, I hope.

Back to the room of kids, eating pizza and drinking juice. They sit there so confident. I recognize this confidence. It’s not social confidence. By 5 or 6 you start to see some self awareness and self consciousness start to sneak in as they observe there classmates and occasionally wonder if they are doing it right. Whatever ‘it’ is. No. This is the confidence in exactly what is shaky inside me. Confidence that those grown ups, as present and attended to as the muffled and ignored teachers and parents in the old Charlie Brown cartoons, are all knowing, never wavering, able to know exactly what to do and how to do it. It’s a blind confidence. Never questioned or examined by the kids. Its exactly the opposite of what I feel at the moment.

Should I sit down? I should sit? Shit, did I make the mom sitting next to me uncomfortable? I should introduce myself. Shit. Of course I just introduced myself to the woman I exchange pleasantries with everyday and of course we know each other. I should stand up. Shit. Did she take that the wrong way? Do I, do we have an enemy now? I’m not eating. Damn it. Should I stand by the wall or hang by the door. I just don’t want to look like a creep and everything is making me look that way. These are my thoughts while my child sits there, assured and confident because I, who knows all and controls all, is present.

I don’t know how all the other parents feel but I have to imagine I’m not the only one that has these moments where it all becomes so clear. We are all doing the best we can. It’s a blend of planning and reacting. It’s a combo of following in footsteps and improvising. It’s intuitive and learned. We all want to do well. There’s never really a time when you know whether or not you are. You win moments, sure you handled something perfectly. Those moments are followed by other moments and that goes on forever.

As much as anything this makes me realize how much of my own life was and to some degree, will always remain a fabrication of my own misunderstanding of what my parents were and what they were doing. And there parents and there parents for as far back as we go. Structures we rely on make it possible and we’ve been fortunate enough in recent generations to have stable structures. It’s hard not to feel a little off balance when so much seems so fragile.

Before I know it Charlie’s asking the nice lady in the party factory uniform for seconds of ice cream cake. Some folks are leaving, getting gift bags, saying thank yous and finding coats. I’ve actually had a nice conversation with another parent, a mom of one of Charlie’s good friends. Everything is back to normal. I know my script and am ready to dad.

‘Yep, time to go, buddy. Did you say thank you? Don’t forget to say Happy Birthday.’

‘If You’re Gay…’ on Mamalode

I worry about what will happen when my kids aren’t so comfortable sharing every thought with me. Some of that is natural and a part of the process of growing up and growing out. A part I dread for many reasons, most of them regarding me and the nature of that life change. But there are small things that worry me and I want them to know where I stand.

Read my story today on Mamalode.com

http://mamalode.com/story/detail/if-youre-gay

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.

Snowy Old Christmas Eve’s at Home

Brockport is a charming Victorian village that straddles the western Erie Canal and it is made only more beautiful for its near constant snow cover for much of the year. We are natives of the snow belt and there was endless pleasure to be derived from its copious bounty. As kids that first snow fall was something approaching magical. We would watch the weather reports, sometimes as early as the beginning of the school year, but usually just before Halloween or shortly thereafter, waiting to see those snowflakes. If it was going to come in the night we’d stay up as late as we could (we were and remain a family of night owls) in hopes of seeing those first flakes fall. If we didn’t make it we were rewarded with the fresh, bright, clean sheet of dazzling white when we woke and it really did make a kids heart skip a beat.

In hindsight I have a great deal of love and respect for how my parents dealt with it. We moved to Brockport, well, Hamlin initially, but to the area when I was a month or two from arriving in the world. Myself and my brothers and sisters are natives and we saw endless delight in skating the ice and digging tunnels in the snow, making a web of undersnow crawl spaces that were so much fun to explore and play in. We couldn’t wait to go sledding down the hill next to the high bridge at the back of the park across the street. We’d be there for hours on end when the snow was good. All day. For my parents winters were a challenge. I see that now as a parent myself. But I’ve moved away from those winters. Sure, New Jersey has winter and the cold can be even worse down here, but the snow, there’s no getting around that.

Having the fairly safe assumption that we would have a White Christmas was pretty great. Our family traveled on Thanksgiving, but Christmas always was at home. When we were lucky it wasn’t just the sitting snow, it was the big fluffy fluttering of a beautiful snow dancing in the floodlights out the front window as we headed out on Christmas eve. We were going to the barn mass usually around 7pm the night before at Martin Farms. It was so cool to see all the folks and more from our weekly mass out and standing, excited and cold. Styrofoam cups of coffee steaming in hand. The kids in the Nativity scene dressed in period and regionally appropriate clothing for Jerusalem, draped over the heavy coats and winter hats. There was livestock present and lights dim.

After mass we got pizza. That was our tradition. We’d all mill around, wondering what the small gifts around the tree in the smolderingly hot living room were. We had a cast iron stove that kept the far reaches of the house warm enough to be sure but made the living room, the secondary hub of our home (kitchen is always primary, no?) at a resting temp of roughly 90 degrees. You think that I’m exaggerating. You do. You have to. The reality is I’m being conservative. I can still feel it and not in some sentimental way. I mean my core temp is still cooling. It was geologically hot.

1017044_10202956744025782_526539434_nSometime between the pizza and the wondering and the heat of the fire and the lights around everything dad would disappear. You wouldn’t notice. He’s like that. As central a figure as he is in all his life, he’s remarkably subtle and he can slip away without notice at any time. Some time after he was gone a strange rollicking would be heard from upstairs. It wasn’t quite from the roof and he didn’t enter through the chimney. Rather, Santa himself would come down the stairs. We would come to discover that he had made his way into the house through the drains. Why else would we catch him emerging from the upstairs bathroom. It started as a joke and was always received that way, but still, in our house the tradition is a tad askew, as we all prefer it. Sounds like something my older brother Mike would have come up with. It was already orthodoxy by the time I became aware.

Besides his penchant for coming in through the pipes there were other signs that our Santa was different. He wore the traditional red with white trim. His beard, though a bit cottony, was never the less white and long. The hat was a match. But there was something about that belly. It didn’t quite fit what you imagined was holding him up in those baggy pant legs. Nor was it really a belly that fit the spindly, long arms. One time I distinctly remember making out the points of a square, roughly the size of that throw pillow from the couch that seemed to have gone missing just then. Regardless, Santa was here and my extraordinarily tall, lean, and incredibly subtle dad was missing it. Again! Oh well…

Santa made it every year I remember while growing up. He would come and sit in Dad’s chair and read us all Twas the Night Before Christmas. We would all sit rapt with attention, trying to suss out how exactly we might be able to catch him this year. We all wanted to see him. We had been told quite early that he was just a story, not real, but we weren’t dummies. We knew better. We’d spend weeks planning our middle of the night espionage in hopes of capturing sight of the midnight, more ‘jolly’ version of this tall Santa with the familiar voice and lap. We never caught him, but we kept planning and trying and we always thought we might get a better chance if we could figure out from this story how he operated in the wee hours. It never happened and slowly the kids that sat at his foot transitioned to younger kids as older kids began to take in the story with mom, a bit behind the younger ones who didn’t want any distractions.

1917264_1300788365998_7588907_n

I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus. Seriously.

Santa then took time out of his busiest of nights to let everyone sit on his lap. Even Mom! We even have picture evidence of her kissing Santa. He would tell us all how we were on the nice list and that we should expect some presents in the morning. He would let us choose one gift from under the tree to open that night. At that point the only gifts were from siblings and Aunt’s and Uncle’s and Grandparent’s. It was agony choosing and you started days in advance. Picking up, shaking, maybe even peeling tape slowly and peeking. I mean, I’ve heard that some people did that. I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure some of the others did.

Before long Pop would return from wherever he had disappeared to so mom could get ready for the midnight mass. We would all be wound up on candy canes and hot chocolate and native excitement for getting gifts that was so close you could taste it. It was all too much and eventually we would go to bed. One by one, falling off and forgetting all our plans to catch the Ho Ho Ho man in the act as the snow flied outside our windows, dreaming of Christmas in our own perfect snow globe.