We Weren’t Ready Either

There is the light of day and the haze of interrupted sleep. These are two distinct worlds and insofar as we are able to, we keep them separate. Fights that happen in ‘the haze’ should never see the light of day. They are to be dutifully ignored, in perpetuity if possible. If an event were to occur in ‘the haze’ at a later point that closely resembled the initial argument in both substance and tone, then, and only then, can the altercation be referenced. Once past, even if the altercation has escalated, it should fall back into the category of things which must not be named. These are the rules and they are organic and they are good. These incidences are like dreams in that they should only rarely be shared outside of a therapists office and should be done so with great trepidation.

We had such an altercation last night. In complying with the rules I shall not speak to the details of the disagreement other than to say that in expressing my dissenting opinion I can see now that I presented as a lunatic. The vast majority of the overnight happenings are tended to by one parent so the other can sleep, but in this case the concern of the sleeper overwhelmed their exhaustion and a suggestion needed to be made. At the risk of disclosing too much, as I know a certain woman related to me by marriage who may wish to continue to observe the ‘gag order’ in regard to referencing said altercation, I’ll state that in this case I was the night tender and she was the concerned and restless parent. Which I say only so I can tell you that when she interrupted me to suggest that we wake our son and give him a nebulizer treatment in order to allow him to stop coughing and to rest easier I went ballistic. This was not in my plans. I had already fed the baby and taken the toddler to the potty. It was past 2AM and I had decided that I’d wait out the cough. With a beer. And a book. A nebulizer treatment does NOT fit into this equation. Yep. I’m a bit of a jackass. My frustration bordered on the maniacal. Which is to say that it was on the wrong side of said border and had a full head of steam heading to the heartland of lunacy.

A mere hour later my wife lay soundly asleep and had been so for upwards of 45 minutes. I still could not unclench my jaw. The ability to navigate these wide emotional swings and return to a normal enough place to fall asleep, even with the assistance of accrued exhaustion is unbelievable to me. I’ve grown to understand that this is an innate difference. For her part she can’t for the life of her understand why I don’t go right to sleep the second I’m allowed to. But the fact of the matter is I literally can’t. I’m using ‘literally’ literally. If I were to attempt to transition between emotions at the rate at which she can and does I’d be in a hospital bed, likely catatonic, before lunch. Women reading this may read an exaggeration to express emphasis in this statement. It’s absolutely true. I’d break. Seriously.

I’m a LUNATIC when it comes to control of the overnight environment when it’s ‘my turn’. Just irrational in the extreme. And the reality of this is that this isn’t going to change. Can’t really. Which brings me to my point. Perfect is inherently and inevitably imperfect.

When we were fretting about whether or not to have kids the conversations were focused on our shortcomings, both personally and collectively. The financial issues and the emotional issues. The idea of a change so profound seemed impossible to navigate while retaining that which made us work together. But the truth is that the change was simultaneously of a scale that was so large as to have been incomprehensible prior to it occurring and of a nature so profound that it brought with it capacities and endurance that were heretofore unknown to either of us and which allowed us to grow in a way that has made all of the prior conversation irrelevant.

In some way every butterfly parent that has been through the transformation knows something caterpillar couples couldn’t at the time. Prior to our having been transformed their assurances and warnings were meaningless, even if many of them turned out to be more true than we could ever have imagined. So now that I’m emerging fully transformed I would like to amend the standard language of the butterflies thusly…

Rather than the somewhat dismissive statement that butterflies repeat ad nauseum to caterpillars that goes ‘If you wait til your ready to have kids, you’ll never have kids’, I think I would have been more disposed to seeing some hopefulness in a message that goes like this…

Let me cut to the chase, you’re not perfect. I’m not, you’re not, no one is. So stop thinking that merely being human and imperfect is enough of a reason to not have kids if you want them. And if you’re fearing that you’re not ready, you’re ready. That level of concern will in fact put you a step ahead. And besides all your shortcomings, you’re amazingly intricate, complex and talented people who will find a capacity for love you never knew before and it’s beautiful and destructive all at once. And the things that drive you crazy about your partner now will do so even more later. But the variations between your abilities will make you cover all the bases you need to so the kids can rise up because of your exceptional ability and in spite of your inevitable flaws. And don’t worry, your kids will reveal their own flaws, and many of them will mirror yours and that’s okay, cause you know what? They’re human too and they’re NOT perfect, which is something you must keep in mind, as your heart will never believe it. Perfect people do not exist, they are lying to you, and sometimes to themselves, and they should be looked at with empathy as they are in for terrible difficulties. In fact if this unicorn of perfection exists in some cul-de-sac in some suburb know that they are the ones truly missing out on the vast array of life as they are not fully experiencing what it means to be alive. Don’t fret that you are falling short of something so bland as perfect, rather delight in your struggles and move forward knowing that the sooner you accept your human nature the sooner you can get to seeing the beauty in life. Struggle onward and seek to see clearly and withhold criticism as long as you can. The more you can accept of imperfections the richer your experience will be. Oh yeah, and don’t be dick to your wife when she asks you to do something you should do. Its not nice.

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A Note On My Recent Behavior

20141025-102743-37663455.jpgParenthood 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.

New DadIn 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.

A Son’s Notes from Parenthood

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The parent-child relationship is fraught with misguided and unattainable expectations.

To the parent of a child, pre-adolescent, there is simply nothing that can sway them off the opinion that their child, amongst all the others, is MOST special, MOST handsome and MOST capable of curing cancer, ending war and solving global warming. No one goes so far as to say their child WILL do these things, but most of us wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.

Concurrently the pre-adolescent child can see no more great or benevolent figure than Mommy and Daddy. They may pout and scream and defy, but they are doing so not to the person that stands before them, but rather to the great and powerful Oz… who stands before them. To this child daddy can move mountains and mommy hauls up the sun every morning and puts it to bed at night so the moon can have its turn. To the child there is virtually no booboo that can’t be greatly improved if not cured entirely by the simple act of a kiss from one of these mythic gods known as their parents.

This is as it must be. Fostering a life from birth to independence is an overwhelming feat. Every parent needs to feel that given enough time and patience they can cure all. It is even more necessary for the child who needs to know that the ‘Gods’ know them and will protect them. That they can go out confidently into the scary world, knowing they are being watched and loved and protected by the most powerful beings on earth, their Mommy and Daddy.

With such an inaccurate point of view being reinforced perpetually in both directions it is inevitable that the crumbling of the facade is indelicate. When the child reaches their teens they are likely to have their coming of age prompted by the encroaching suspicion that mom and dad are in fact NOTHING like all powerful and benevolent gods, but are rather flawed and human. The momentum generated by this epiphany pushes that teenager’s opinion right past reality, swinging all the way to the other end of the spectrum, resulting in the firm knowledge that my parents alone are THE most embarrassing and THE most unfit for responsibility and THE pettiest dictators the world has ever seen. [1] Teenagehood is a very dramatic hood. It’s the daytime soap opera portion of your life. There’s no understanding or perspective there. People are caricatures, and your parents are the worst of all.[2] When you can get a break from there arbitrary rule setting that doesn’t consider how capable you are of navigating on your own, you actually feel sorry for them. The way you do for those tiny single-celled organisms that don’t have a brain or free will or the ability to see all the amazing wonder that life has to offer.[3] They’re actually kind of sad with their early bedtimes and late night ice creams on the couch.[4] It’s unfair that you could have been so fabulous without this albatross of a family around your neck[5], and this angers you, generally. But still, they are to be pitied in some way as they’ll never know how deep and meaningful life could be since they’re just not capable of it. But these moments of empathy pass. They are now the enemy, to be tricked and defeated and never to be heeded. What once were gods are now feeble minded and feckless tyrants and it is your job to keep reminding them of their loathsomeness[6].

In a coincidence that is surely one that evolution has deemed necessary, parents discover this idiot kid, this now smelly and gross animal that seems to know less than nothing[7] at almost exactly the same time that it is realized by the child that their parents are not divine entities. This child, once capable of anything, is now capable of only thoughtless and careless behavior that will inevitably leave them penniless and angry. They are certain to make EVERY wrong decision possible. Now, when it is most important that they heed your warnings they in fact are incapable of even hearing you. In fact they have taken on a new language, one you’re not meant to understand, but to your untrained ear it seems to speak only the most vile of ugliness’s and is one that was designed and is now employed to in fact make you understand that this child hates you[8]. You who have done nothing short of committing your best years to this kid! This knucklehead! This jerk![9]

So what was once a beautiful and utopian relationship based on unquestioning devotion and love born of mutual awe is now a war torn landscape covered in mines that while not intended to kill, still sting, often injure and have the potential to maim. This is nothing short of an emotional civil war. The youth is duty bound to secede. If you’ve raised them right and given them what they need, they have no choice. And you, the parent, likewise conscripted to this fate have to provide resistance. It is both your inclination as well as your responsibility to resist with all out total war tactics being implemented. The enemy is at war for something they don’t understand and it is your duty to fight, to fight dirty if needed. You must win the early battles since you know, in your heart of hearts, that you will lose in the end. When all is just about to be lost it is your job as the adult to wave the white flag and retreat.

You will offer council and do your best to respect that the victory was theirs, but you know it was only so because you allowed it. At least by being the one to accept defeat you have now gained some control of the peace. It was not the control you wanted when the war began. But you have to allow that victory has its spoils and the period of detente must also play out through periods of latency, threats of renewed conflict and negotiation to maintain some sway in this new nation’s future as its ability to be self-sufficient and thrive is all you can now hope for.

You start with talks, promising to remove sanctions and provide humanitarian aid[10], but you know your constituents will resist and you make small, easily fulfilled promises at first. You operate through back channels to ensure that this new nation, while still feeling great pride in establishing its independence from you, is provided with what it needs to thrive without it knowing that you are a true safety net that won’t let it fail. You realize soon that your former adversary is in fact making the same mistakes that history shows all new nations make.[11] You learn that this is okay. You learn that mistakes are part of the process and you try to help your former enemy through this challenging time. This relationship, thus established forms what looks like routine. You fund, they spend, you fund, they spend. You come to accept and then rely on its regularity. But change is afoot.

Recently freed from the colonial ranks they are now a free and independent state alight in the world. They are eager to partake in all that has been restricted from them as a dependent state and in doing so they delight in freedoms bounty[12]. New to the world, the lack of security that accompanies the lack of history is not a problem[13]. They have a lifetime of potential to tap and these years are filled with small bets on future greatness.[14] Each gamble easily digestible on its own, but forming an ever more staunch and stark reality that is facing them when story turns to history and security becomes imperative. This adult person, who is free by nature, is now faced with the harsh realities of the ill-advised choices[15] they made when they had no information. More to the point, they face the realities of choices they made before they paid any mind to the now glaringly obvious warnings that their former caretakers warned them of. Realities that they now know were realities forever, and that their parents were struggling with even when this new nation was just a child. Struggles that the parents were generous and strong enough to hide from the child so they could live in glorious ignorance and believe simply that the world was their oyster. Now old, aware and vulnerable, it dawns on them that this rock has been ever present in their life.[16] Their parents. These seemingly odd and eccentric benefactors were in fact the greatest blessing that one could ever be afforded. I was that one. I was the one afforded the most wonderful parents in the world.[17] Parents that laughed at convention because they knew laughter was the only way to overcome. These individuals that chose ALWAYS to make room for more even at the expense of their own wellbeing. These people that put up with endless amounts of your shit[18], not to mention the shit[19] of your brothers and sisters for a period of time that amounts to the entirety of the life you’ve led to this point. It’s superhuman, really. They are not in fact gods only because we have defined gods to be something else.[20] In all other ways they are in fact much much more than merely powerful. They are the personification of love and dedication and trust in your entire life.[21]

Now the pendulum swings back and those giants who controlled all, then fell so far as to be not even deserving of anything but your scorn have revealed themselves, once again defying all reason and equanimity, to be the greatest parents and people that the world has yet seen. Once accepted the evidence is everywhere that the world agrees with you. At least if you’re as lucky as I am, you see this newfound respect and admiration and love of your parents reflected by everyone that has EVER come in contact with them. This is so universally true that if anyone were to disagree there argument would be drowned out by the chorus of good feeling that accompanies the mere mention of the topic.

Likewise, having lived through the battles and learned over a lifetime, the parent can now see that the child is now a man. That he is good and always was. That the acts that felt so much like disrespect and unfixable mistakes were merely needed steps in this beautiful creature of gods journey to become this amazingly talented and loving person you see before you.[22] You are proud and hope that they know that you love them to no end and you believe that ending all war aside[23], the world would be a sincerely darker and less joyful place without them. They are evidence of your love for them, your love for one another and your life well lead.

At no point on this journey, taken together, is there ever anything approaching balance, rational assessment or unbiased understanding. Nope. The child to parent relationship is lacking any reality while simultaneously being the ‘realest’ relationship a person can have. It’s confounding and beautiful and is so entirely out of whack that it is uniformly nonconforming.

Both as a parent and as a son I am so grateful that it’s never normal.

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[1] I am compelled at this point to let you know that I’m coming at this solely from my perspective and with little formal education. My observations of the cruelty of teens in the assessment of their parents is a memory of a terribly mistaken young man that wishes he could have gotten to where he was going without ever stopping at this mile marker, but fears he needed to. Sorry Mom and Dad.

[2] Again, I LOVE YOU TWO MORE THAN ANYTHING IN THE WORLD

[3] So sorry. Again, channeling a jerky, know-it-all teenager I knew once. I’m starting to understand his penchant for self-loathing. Ick.

[4] Now I’m just projecting. You guys have always been night owls.

[5] That’s right. You all knew it wasn’t just gonna be mom and pops, right?

[6] I swear, by the end of this I have restored you to your proper and rightful status as the most amazing people in the world. A sincere belief of mine.

[7] I’m soft-selling it here. Really, I’m amazed I made it out of my teen years, which in my case lasted until my 30’s, alive.

[8] This man, however, adores you. Have I said sorry for my previous behavior?

[9] These are my words. My parents are far better than that and if they ever so much as thought it, they NEVER spoke it.

[10] The need for the aid is real, but you suspect that as many times as not more thoughtful fiscal policy at an earlier time would have obviated the need for support. And in my case, you were right. I owe you like, A LOT of money.

[11] In my case I suspect that my mistakes were not replications of my parents. They’re awesome. Seriously. And funny. Have I mentioned they’re funny?

[12] They drink beer. A lot of beer.

[13] Because of the endless and unappreciated generosity of their parents. Thank you.

[14] Which, even if it does arrive, comes with no promise of wealth. No Promise at all. Like, none.

[15] Pfft! As if I was taking any of the advice given.

[16] Yep. Slow learner here.

[17] Me and like an ARMY of siblings and friends and coworkers lucky enough to be in their presence.

[18] Including your adolescent insistence on vulgarity, despite your obvious vocabulary and facility with language.

[19] Gratuitous.

[20] Blasphemy to make a point.

[21] Yup.

[22] Their sentiments, not mine. Like many others I struggle to accept this, but its so much easier when you can see it through your parents eyes! Thanks.

[23] There’s still time.

Spent

Charlie and Daddy, First Night

Becoming a parent requires a loss of self. It is a universal truth for those that make it through the fire. Once through that fire it’s actually a freeing and discovering of self, one that’s ultimately cathartic if you let it be. Not everyone does. Some very successful folks just wait it out, endure the fire, only to emerge as close to unchanged as they can estimate. It’s never that close, but that’s the journey they want and it’s the journey they’ll have. For me transformation is the whole point. Emerging laughably uncool, but wholly self possessed; out of shape but accepting of myself; older but wiser and altogether more estimable is what I’m aiming for.

At first though, it’s like being strung out. Having kids is no joke. Flexing and bending, supporting and worrying, it’s all a wear on your tread and eventually all of us that get through can search for those moments when we were completely threadbare, beaten and bedraggled and remember that feeling that so closely approximates failure and defeat. I suspect the vast majority of us can find these moments, either presently or looking back or in some cases we are stuck in them and are waiting for the lifeline.

The good news is that the lifeline is there all the time, and allowing the feelings in that are the ones you fear only makes you stronger in the end. You feel beat up with good reason. That’s the point. It used to be for stupid self pitying reasons, but now the ego that was so worn and battered when it resided in me is safe and warm, being tended to with every tear. It’s being cuddled and hugged and played with all day. It’s being picked up when it wakes up terrified. It’s being fed when it’s hungry and soothed when it’s scared. My ego is being taken care of, I’m being taken care of, by the little kids that have so graciously taken on the burden of providing my life with meaning. So it’s a small price to pay, this exhaustion of the body and of the soul. While your body and mind and heart are being taken for this overlong joyride and your stamina is tricking you, you’re essence is in the safest place possible and will rejuvenate you in the long run as long as you stay open to it.

Whether it’s the secular Saints Kerouac and Ginsberg or the plaintive cries of Bill Wither’s pleading for her to ‘keep on using me until you use me up’ or the fictional Tyler Durden, there’s always been a thread of masculine consciousness that knows the path to secular beatification is one paved with sacrifice and spent capacity. It’s a beautiful thing, really, to be fully spent. I for one couldn’t be more thankful to have taken this path before I missed my chance.

My Perfect Age

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.

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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.

Fear and Loathing in Parenthood

I’m not at all afraid of our kids falling down the stairs, at least not moreso than I must be. I’m not afraid of them being bullied. I’m not afraid of the myriad of external dangers that chase us all through life. These are in fact what life is about and learning to conquer and overcome challenges is the point. It’s what I look forward to helping my little ones navigate as they grow up. I don’t even fear the difficult stuff of puberty and hormones. I think I have a pretty good perspective on how wonderful life is and I look forward to trying to help as they navigate the treacherous beauty of transforming from children to adults capable of loving life so much that they can fear it a little.

To some degree I’ve taken this outlook to mean that I am somehow superior to the folks that would call me daily in my previous life as a camp director to check that their kid is eating and didn’t fall down and get hurt or wasn’t stung by a bee or is making friends. I won’t be that parent. I really won’t. Early on it became evident that I HAVE to be incredibly aware of sesame as one bite and Charlie, if not treated immediately, could stop breathing. But even that, I don’t walk around in fear and I think I have been pretty rational and responsible in assuring his safety while allowing for independence.

Fear found me last night. It wasn’t a blow to the head. It wasn’t a brush with eminent danger. Nope. It was specifically my son’s harsh self criticism that has broken me up with fear and sadness.

We went to a friends house last night. This is not something we do. Both Karen and I work and Teddy is just over a year old and Charlie turned 3 last month. Other than family gatherings we haven’t really socialized much in the last few years, but we’re very lucky that our kids love it when we do. So we were all looking forward to visiting a friend of mine from high school who we had just found out lived in our neighborhood, a remarkable thing as I went to high school in another state about 250 miles away.

We arrived and it was instantly delightful. When you get stuck in this parenting bubble, one that we are particularly bad at ever getting out of, you lose perspective. Whenever you get the chance to pop your head up, be offered a beer, and start messing up a playroom you won’t have to clean up at 10 that night, it’s simply amazing.

Charlie and Teddy were awesome. Charlie was shouting hello’s and how ya doin’s from the driveway and Teddy gave big smiles to the new adults almost immediately upon entering their home. And that was BEFORE seeing the amazingly appointed play room! All was good. The kids were entertained, loving the toys and the new playmates and the adults were easily sociable and the laughs and good talks ensued immediately. That’s when Charlie started pooping.

Charlie is at the tail end of potty training. Its a skill he was ready to pursue, and did so with gusto at 18 months, but once baby came around and started getting all that diaper attention, he lost interest and we lost the time and patience, so it happened now. Not too late, but not early. So now he can have an opinion on matters. One such opinion is that he will not go poopie on the potty, at least not regularly. But he is still quite proud to have big boy pants with no accidents. We wear pull ups for sleep and car rides longer than that of the one to school (daycare) and we used such a tool for this visit.

He was constipated and hadn’t pooped in a couple of days. Part of the process and par for the course. So of course he immediately started to make that face. He turns from the group in the playroom and starts painfully pushing. Tears are coming from his eyes and he doesn’t want to be seen, but not knowing the house he finds himself visible from the parents ‘playroom’ where its noted that he’s pooping. We tell him he’s doing a great job and that we’re so proud of him. And he replies with a serious look, a quiet and intense voice and attempts to hold back his tears and he says to us as we get near him, “I’m not proud of myself.” and repeats it, quietly and through gritted teeth as we try to reassure him of how good a boy he’s being. It makes me well up as I write it. It was such an intense insistence and so sincere.

I felt immediately and intensely saddened and fearful. With Charlie it passed. In a few minutes (it was a tough one to get out, and a few minutes was definitely the time frame of intense effort on his part) he was back to playing and came with me so I could change him, fully recovered from the earlier suffering, Charlie was on to singing the popular song in our house from an Elmo potty training video, ‘Accidents happen and that’s okay’ a delightful refrain that is good advice at any age.

This has triggered the cycle of thinking for me that has brought to the fore what my real fears are. The fears I’ve carried for some portion of the last forty years as I’ve acquired them over a lifetime. And now I fear them for my kids.

I am afraid that my kids will have an inner voice that tells them constantly to feel shame and is harshly and intensely self critical. I am afraid that they will inherit the capacity for incredible and copious amounts of self abuse in whatever form it takes for them. I’m afraid that my kids will fall in and out of depression and not feel a sense of self worth. I fear that my kids will engage in increasingly risky and self destructive behavior in attempt to be seen and rescued, and that when people reach out to do just that they will reject them as they do not feel they are worth saving. I fear they will inherit that dark midnight disease that crushes one with loneliness and can and has led to disastrous results in my genetic line. I fear they won’t listen to their better angels until its too late. I fear that they won’t pursue that which makes them fulfilled for fear of failing.

Bumps and bruises, broken bones and intense illnesses will come and go and I pray we avoid the truly disastrous stuff no one can see coming. But when it comes right down to it there is the greatest fear of all, which is that they will be some other, less lucky version of me.

The Problem with Potential

Charlie Builds UmiCityMy children are showing signs of potential and I couldn’t be more concerned. It’s a wonderful thing, ability, but let it out from under wraps too early and it can be awfully counterproductive.

My firstborn is not even three and a half and he is pretty consistently told about his brilliance. This isn’t unusual, most people spend their time praising children for rather standard accomplishments. In the case of parents this is natural. Every new thing your child does is earth shaking. Truly. But it’s becoming evident in school that he is getting some distance between himself and the other kids. He has a memory that is remarkable, a vocabulary that is of someone twice his age and in a class where many of the other kids struggle recognizing their own names he not only recognizes and spells his own name, he recognizes and spells everyone’s name. And when he is confronted with new words he can often sound them out since he’s known the sound of each letter and what letter comes after what since he was two and a half. He reads me bedtime stories.

I should start by saying that I’m aware this isn’t some kind of Doogie Howser, MD level of brilliance or anything. He’s a bit advanced, that’s all. But he hears it all the time. He’s also started to hear and notice disappointment in teachers when he misbehaves or struggles to focus. It happens so rarely that it must be noted as it is entirely out of character. But to have simple struggles like these, standard ones really, highlighted at every opportunity is something that his burgeoning emotional development is starting to register. He’s already a kid capable of harsh self-criticism as noted in an earlier piece, Fear and Loathing in Parenthood, about his struggle with potty training.

Furthermore he is stunningly good looking. I’m not going to explain this one away. I may be biased, but that don’t mean I’m wrong. And on top of that, he’s about the average height of a six year old. When he’s around other three year old kids, as he is all day everyday, the combination of his precocious ability and his mature behavior, combined with his stature and handsomeness make grown ups think he is older and more capable then he is. If he’s struggling there’s a reason. He’s three that’s the reason. But lately, I’m starting to feel like that reason is pressure. Pressure to live up to something that others think of him. Again he’s three.

What makes me crazy is how wrong people get the whole ‘gifted and talented’ thing. I want to foster his curiosity and I worry that it can be stifled if he isn’t able to continue to see the joy in learning if he drifts further from the mean and finds less and less that challenges him moving forward. But this is often where people start talking about ‘tracking’ kids. Getting them into a lane that will challenge them intellectually in order to keep them engaged. It’s important. But don’t for a second think this is the most important thing.

Prior to moving out to New Jersey my wife and I lived in Astoria, Queens. It was our first apartment and the neighborhood will always hold a special meaning to us. While she was pregnant with Charlie it became clear to us that we would have to move. She was working in Parsippany, NJ and we lived in a fourth floor walk up without a dishwasher or a washer and dryer. It became very clear that we could double our space and amenities and get what we needed to be comfortable by moving. So once the spot was picked and the date was set we went about planning. This is something we do now on the fly. Life is crazy with kids. But back then it was something we could plan a dinner for. So we went out to a Greek restaurant on Broadway and 30th, sat on the street and talked about our future.

We hashed out logistics. We did calculations and determined that we could get movers!!! (ALWAYS GET MOVERS) We decided our move day and talked about the various possibilities for daycare. We even daydreamed about our new apartment and planned projects that we had no idea that we’d have no time for after a kid.

Then Karen started talking about the need for us to get our kid into a good school district. I have biases against the education system, biases that have altered in detail but remain present and I dismissed the concern. We weren’t buying at that point. We were getting a two bedroom in Morristown. Who’s to say we’d even be there when the kid started school. Besides, I had a close friend and coworker who grew up there and went to the public schools where we were moving who is one of the brightest and most energetic and engaged people you could know, we should stay zenned out and not worry.

This was and is my way of avoiding many things I don’t wish to confront. But she pressed as she should and eventually got me to access and express my true feelings on the matter.

The first part of my feelings are cynical. I don’t think school matters, and it matters less and less the further you go. The people I’ve known, at least the non-scientists and non-social workers who have gone to ‘the right schools’ are living a life I don’t want for me or my kids. They place value in the wrong proportion. There’s no denying the value of money, but there is greatly overstating it and many of these people in my experience do that. Which pulls these efficient minds further and further away from curiosity and pushes them to cold profit analysis. It’s gross and I don’t want my kid surrounded by these people.

The second part was more optimistic. I told her that the kid, assuming standard developmental health, would be bright. We didn’t have to worry about that. We were both smart. The IQ and capacity would take care of itself. What we had to do, what our responsibliity would be was to foster natural curiosity and be mindful in nurturing his emotional development. It’s our job to make sure he is a compassionate and caring person who is respectful of others and appreciative of all that he will be afforded.

While we may have disagreed on the value of an education, my wife could not have been more in agreement with me. It is our job to raise a person in whole and value the right things. Everyone gets to decide what is right for them. For us it was fostering curiosity and compassion and kindness and enthusiasm and love and a sense of appreciation.

I think that in general we’ve lived up to this. It might be hard to see as he is at an age where his curiosity puts him in a lot of situations that could cause an ambulance ride and as a result I’m more often then I’d like employing my scary dad voice. But we are very proud of the little boy he is. He shares, is kind and is loving and joyful. And at this age that is all that counts.

The problem with potential is that it narrows your outcomes and heightens expectation. So if you show early signs that you might be incredible, you are then tracked to be so. And that’s crazy, you’re a kid and no amount of giftedness, other than effort and curiosity should be highlighted. Your interests may turn out to be in a direction that isn’t yet present. Why stifle these.

I have a visceral reaction to this, one that is personal. Emotional immaturity causes you to internalize the disappointment of others. I have a good deal of experience in this area. And in my case, I reacted to this by failing immediately. I’d pre-fail to get it over with. High School would have been easy for me had I tried. But I didn’t. The same is true with college. And I claimed not to care. I swore up and down that I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I didn’t care so much in fact that I drank to blackout every night and gained 80 lbs. immediately on going away to college. Where I immediately failed off the basketball team and never had a gpa above 2.1 in the ten years it took me to get a degree. I made a point and a show of not caring. To this day I still am able to get access through my first impression and to this day, to some degree, I still set out to lower expectations immediately when I sense that there are high hopes.

I labeled myself a failure and went about making myself one. I didn’t care, and it nearly killed me how disappointed I was in myself. It is for another post, but the seeds of my salvation from this awful cycle of self-defeat was when I went to work at a summer camp for adults with special needs. The result of which was finally confronting my issues and embarking on years of struggle with myself and the eventual ability to find and be loved by Karen. She was the payoff, and as such the WHOLE struggle was worth it.

I hope beyond hope that I can avoid a similar fate for my Charlie. I’m frankly terrified that he won’t regress to the mean of toddlers in his world and that the expectations will come at him fast and furious. I am afraid that he’ll start having his potential squashed by the good intentions of those trying to support him. I fear this will make it nearly impossible for him to know what it means for him to be fine. Which is exactly what he is. Absolutely, joyously and beautifully fine.

Exhultant Exhaustion

I am a father and I feel like now, after years of low level striving to be an artist, to create something that will live independently of my conscience I have now painted my masterpiece. I’m not yet sure whether this realization will free me of the pressures I feel and allow me to access more fully my muse or whether it will free me of the need to create any further. Either way I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This feeling, which includes awe, joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, curiosity and accomplishment is almost entirely misrepresented to the uninitiated by those that have been through the process. In a way it makes me feel for them. I am vindicated, because just as I suspected the overwhelming feelings upon becoming a parent are not in our case centered around feelings of loss and exhaustion. In fact we are already thinking and talking about how exciting it would be to have another baby. We are already missing the Charlie of four weeks of age, of two weeks of age just as we are excitedly loving the Charlie of 6 weeks of age and looking forward to all that is to come. It is what I understand my Jewish friends to mean when they say that a thing is a ‘mitzvah.’

How childish we have become us modern day adults. The exhaustion, which really is NOT as bad as everyone makes it out to be, is overstated. But the indulgence I hear so many parents granting themselves, as if this parenthood is an evil necessity. It is not. My life was wonderful before Charlie, as it was before Karen, because life by it’s nature is so. But don’t kid yourself now that I know what I know, it was nothing. A laugh. An idle at best infused with widely fluctuating perceptions of self that have all crystalized since being gifted this most wonderful of tasks. I lost nothing. Things changed, but for the better, in every regard. My exhaustion, spent before on self improvement or self destruction was always pointed toward my belly button. Now it is on another belly button and who knew how great it would feel to be relieved of my endless navel gazing. Or at least how great it would feel to be gazing endlessly on another navel, wondering who HE is and not whom I SHOULD be.

We have a neighbor with a beautiful little daughter whom I would say is about 3 or 4 years old. She does not seem to be in school yet. She introduced herself when we moved in and was very generous with her support. She hooked my wife up with the number to a mother’s group in Motown. Very nice. She warned of the sleeplessness, just like everyone. But now the relentless negativity in everything she says is ever present. She speaks openly about no longer having a life. She seems to think that life has been taken from her. I use her as the example because being across the hall from us she is relevant. But its a thought that has been told to us from any number of parents. This is crazy.

What has taken me by surprise, although it shouldn’t when you think about it, is how much this experience has made me think of my own mortality. I am going to die, as is this little guy. We are all here for but a pittance. It is the thought that makes me smile. I realize that this is counter intuitive. It shouldn’t be. My daily thoughts of death help me accept its inevitability. There is nothing wrong with death.

I appreciate everything, EVERYTHING because it is all fleeting. We are fools to think death a thing to avoid. Put it off, sure. Mourn our losses yes. But I think that some are so scared of it that they strive to outlive it, out think it. But it’s what makes these times with my little baby boy so wonderful. And completely unpredictably, these thoughts keep me squarely and emphatically present in the moment I am in and with those that I am in it with. It makes my marriage stronger. It makes my love more accessible. It makes my wounds heal.

I still have a part of me that wants to tell a story. Probably one that ends in smiling optimism. But the pressure to make that story make me is gone. If anything I want that story to reveal me. I have made my masterpiece, with relatively little effort and I want nothing more than for him to experience everything, the good and the bad, with the knowledge that it is ALL precious and that he is loved unabashedly.

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Starry Starry Night

babymoon pic

I had an argument with my wife this morning. And last night. Well, to say it was an argument implies it was more than it was. An argument comes earlier in a relationship and it involves lots of shouting, the stating of hurtful and judgmental opinions and the generalized threat that one or both members of the pairing are on some level considering whether or not the partnership is one that is even worth saving. That’s an argument.

What we have now is much more targeted and it never, well rarely, threatens the existence of an ‘Us’.  Our attacks now are straight to the point. We know our target and we strike in a way we know will cause the most damage while taking the least time and effort. It’s the efficiency one finds in a marriage, this ability to have a full fledged fight based on two sentences, one each and then targeted silence and muted sneers. It’s not altogether bad, it’s just the standard. It passes fast and allows us the opportunity to breath and get our heads and to apologize after we acknowledge our part in causing any tension. It’s also a reminder that this thing we have requires more than a little effort and growth on both of our parts.

I should mention that today was totally my fault. I have somehow allowed my new computer to become infected and in the course of trying to fix it myself have seemingly crippled it. My emotions are usually measured and tempered, not too high not too low. That said, they are irrational when it comes to these things. Or rather this specific thing. I don’t know how to live without my internet which updates my podcasts efficiently, entertains my sports obsessiveness and allows me to manage my various fantasy teams. My patience in it’s absence has all the maturity of a, well, 13 week old. That said, he was all smiles this morning and he didn’t have internet either, so maybe I regress even further.

The snideness of our tension today was my fault.

I bring this up because something else dawned on me. It’s April 15th!! Isn’t that WONDERFUL! Not because it’s tax day, at least traditionally, or because it’s a day to remember the tragic end of Abraham Lincoln, the Greatest American. These things certainly make the 15th a day to be noted. Neither of these reasons however are why I think of this day so positively.

Four years ago the 15th was a cold, grey and rainy day in NYC. I lived in Astoria, Queens at the time and with my roommate ceding the TV room to me I spent the day curled up on the couch watching old movies. I specifically remember Chinatown. A unique cinematic experience if there ever was one. It was the kind of day when being on the couch and getting absorbed into the muted and faded technicolor of a seventies indie film was the best form of getting cozy. The weather was dreadful and I could have stayed there all day. But I couldn’t. I had a date that night.  It was at 8. It was at Doc Watson’s a bar on the upper east side, in the neighborhood where the girl I hadn’t met yet lived.

When she emailed to see if we were still on (It was really quite bad out weather wise and frankly she’d been on enough of these dates to not be bothered if she missed one) I decided that heading out and meeting her was in fact the best thing to keep me from melting to the couch and succumbing to my inclination to snuggle in for the night at 2pm. She, being polite decided, okay, she’d see me there at 8. She wanted to know if I wanted to talk on the phone. I knew the reasons. Women are right to be scared of men. We’re capable of scary aggression, and she couldn’t have known then that I wasn’t that type of guy. But I still had to say no. Really, there’s nothing more awkward than that conversation, one where she’s trying to pretend that she’s not interrogating you and you trying to sound genuine while aware the whole time that she is trying to determine what type of man you are and whether or not she should have the top of the pepper spray flipped. So instead I gave her my cell number and told her to gimme a text if she was so inclined. I told her that I’d be happy to have a phone convo, but if it was all the same could we skip it. I hate the phone. She was cool with that.

She asked how she’ll recognize me and I said that I’d wear something slutty. It was a risk, but I gotta be me and I thought it was funny. Thankfully, so did she.

We met and before she even had a beer we got away from the overcrowded Irish pub and we were both smiling, ear to ear for the whole night. Even when the bar we wound up at locked it’s doors and kept serving us til the wee hours, as the bartender got plowed and kept giving us and another couple down the bar from us drink after drink. We kept smiling when a little buzzed and over confident I asked her if I could kiss her, like really kiss her. We smiled through that, and the kiss still worked. We smiled all the way though telling each other how we got to this place, our mid thirties and transplanted upstaters living and working in NYC. We smiled as we told each other our different but equally amusing stories of all the bad blind dates we’d had lately. We smiled when we realized that not only was she facing me as I sat at the bar, her free hand rested naturally and lovingly on my leg. We laughed our way through the walk to her corner, a far enough escort on a first date and we stopped long enough to be wildly inappropriate in our public display of affection on the corner of 72nd and York.

The storm we ventured out in that night was epic. It even continued into the next day and the subways could not run due to flooding. That’s a rarity for the NYC transit system, believe it or not. But while we sat there falling in love, both having come in from the storm, the clouds broke and the skies cleared and we were able to walk away together, under a starry sky, hand in hand, smiling and laughing.

My Sentimental Heart

Life has grace notes. Every life.

In the past few days I’ve panicked at 4 in the morning that I wasn’t doing enough to support my wife and our little boy. I’ve drafted a fantasy baseball team. I’ve given several bottles and wrapped and re-wrapped a baby several times. I’ve given Charlie two baths and read not a word. I’ve caught up on many things at work while feeling awful that I wasn’t there to do the things that needed doing at home. I’ve hummed the baby to sleep, his favorite tune being Brahms’ Lullaby. I’ve cooked a few dinners and cleaned the kitchen on a 1.2 times a day clip. I’ve cried and I’ve laughed and I’ve shouted in frustration. I’ve watched international women’s curling. I’ve actually recorded it. I’ve been awake from 1:30 AM until at least 4:30 AM each night. My life is full.

I miss some things from my former life, when I have the time and the energy to do so, but I would never trade the present for the past. I can’t imagine this will be true in the years to come, but for now it is so. Yet I hasten to add that I am becoming sentimental in a way that I never thought that I would.

Don’t be fooled, I’ve always had a sentimental side. I’m a writer and it’s in some ways, at least in the ways and reasons attached to my writing, unavoidable. But it’s different now. It’s not filtered so thoroughly through thought and reason. It’s visceral and it allows me to feel things I was formerly incapable of. It allows for a true empathy if not sympathy that I was unable to access and experience in the past. I am still prone to anger, it being a primary emotion men feel, but I’m now able to feel life like I never have before. In a connective way. In a way that validates my Romantic notion of the human condition. In a way that allows me to cry.

I don’t know necessarily what has brought about this change, but I suspect that there are a number of factors at work. Surely some of this is due to Charlie, and it is most assuredly a delightful development in this regard. I am aware of the fragility of life in a way that’s different from the intellectual understanding I had in the past. Surely the lack of sleep is a contributing factor as well. It could be the onset of age. It’s said that I am on the downside of Mount Testosterone. If I am I must say its a far more livable life and one my temperament was suited for from the start. That torrent of aggression that accompanied my majority was not handled well.

You can ascribe questionable ethics to anyone that has lived successfully. As a game it’s quite easy to find even a well meaning person’s blind spots. In fact for a time, when one is defining oneself it is practically impossible, and I would guess inadvisable, to refrain from poking holes in the facades around you. It’s your societal duty as an adolescent and as a young adult, and it’s your personal duty as the holders to the flame of the wildly hypocritical. This is one functional purpose for youth, no? But like I said before, life has grace notes. Every life.

Jim Valvano’s speech near the end of his torturous and ultimately losing battle with cancer (one that he continues to fight valiantly from the grave) is one of the ways you could always coax a tear from me. I won’t repeat the whole thing, but it was given right at the end. He summoned energy that an athlete can sometimes hold in reserve when they know it will be needed later. There were thousands of tumors (his description) pumping through his body and he was addressing a crowd gathered to give him a ‘human spirit’ type lifetime achievement award. His motivation was to give a memorable and inspirational speech that would move people to give for decades to come after his inevitable demise. This was the one chance he’d have to establish the momentum to make a difference by creating a fund for research. He knew what he had to do and he did it in a breathtaking and heartbreaking way.

One point he made, and this was not on the teleprompter and not in his notes, was how he understood his life to be meaningful. He said that if you laugh, if you think and if you cry everyday, that is a full life. It was a profound accomplishment since he had so eloquently just finished walking the listener through thought, to laughter and ultimately to tears.

I admire his sincerity in grappling with his own mortality in a way that was sincere, forthright and vulnerable. It is a valuable lesson. While it may be impractical at this point in my life to cry daily, it is without question a full life when I do.

I cried a bit this weekend because some very good people, expecting joy were surprised by tragedy. Heartbreaking, life altering and ultimately scarring tragedy. I don’t know how it will be when I see them again but I know the tears are not done on my end. I wish I could grab them and hold them tight for as long as it took. I wish I could jump into the well with them and talk them through the dark. I wish this never happened and I hope they know how many people love them and wish to unburden them of the terrible weight they will carry forth. I wish I was brave enough to tell them I loved them and to cry with them, but not being a person that fills that role in their lives I’m afraid it would only burden them more.

I will go home to my precious boy and I will hold him and giggle and make silly noises and forget everything in the world for entire minutes and there is nothing that feels better. I know joy.

I have known tragedy, it’s human and all of us have. It draws us together and holds us apart.

I am now mature enough to say, I hope I never die and I hope my boy never grows up and moves out and I hope we never change from this perfect moment in time.