Tag Archives: Life

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.

Snow day or raising kids?

First it’s daunting. How can we change our lives so completely and so quickly? Will we be able to tolerate turning on a dime? Had you asked us before anyone considered this as a possibility what our lives would be like we could have told you, with pretty decent accuracy exactly how things would have gone. But, some things you control and some things are out of your hands.
To be honest, just sitting there having your coffee, still groggy and tired, it can catch you off guard. I mean here we are. A family. All together, just us. Everything I planned for is gone and I don’t need to explain myself. It’s amazing what’s been given to us, how lucky we are. What are we going to do with all we’ve been given. It’s energizing.

Looking out the window it really is beautiful. A whole new angle on the world. One I don’t think of often, but it’s always there. The magic of it all. Bounties and possibilities falling from the heavens in a seemingly neverending supply.

Before long practicality has to step in. You can only sit safely inside the safety of the whole world now existing in these four walls for so long. There’s places to go. But how. Life is changed and all that mobility, all that freedom you had it seems just yesterday is gone. I frankly don’t even know how we’d go about getting out of here. Like logistically. Emotionally.

Eventually, and much later than I should have, I had to do something. I knew there was work to be done. Jobs I might not have done given my druthers. But my druthers aren’t really the deciding factor any more. I start to wonder if they ever were. Whatever. Time to get on my big boy pants, the comfy, functional, warm ones and get out to that driveway and get going. It’s time to work dammit. For my family.

At first the work is overwhelming. Really, did I sign up for this, I ask myself. Isn’t there some other way? And of course there is. Or there was. I could have planned better. Could have made decisions long ago that would have made all this work easier. Would have put me in a better place on this day. Would have given me the tools to make all this easier. But that’s not the bed I’m lying in. Besides, after all the monotony, the pain and the drudgery it isn’t long before I look up and look back and see that it’s almost done. I’m excited. At first.

Sure. There’s a lot I’d like to have behind me. But given our fun times we’ve already had, and the fun times surely still ahead of us, well I’m not sure I want this to end. Ever. What’s facing me after this. This is all of us. Together. What can be better than that.

In the end though, you can’t think of it that way. So much of this was magical. So unexpected and full of fun and play and laughs. Good food and junk food and games and hugs and love and movies and forts and conversations big and small.

The work all got done. Each of us doing what we could to make the best of it all. It was so great and so precious that we just hope it all happens again sometime, in some way.

Loving and Learning

When love shows up it overwhelms everything. It is a feeling that inspires and compels you. This love is an animating force that propels you, like a stitch in time, forward. Before you know it you awake somewhere new. Somewhere you never knew you were going despite being present at every turn, nominally at the wheel but largely along for the ride that Love takes you on.

It can be disorienting and for moments it can even leave you feeling disconcerted. I felt that way at times. Felt like I’d been taken for a ride and dropped off somewhere where I didn’t know anyone, especially me. At first it’s so filled with passion, so unavoidably overflowing with pleasurable experiences. Laughter can start to feel the norm. Warm comforts come to be expected and endless days of countless indulgences start to feel like a promise. One that you think is being made to you by the other person in the room. You make those promises in return because who are you to stop the train.

Before long the obligations come. The money. The time and effort. The constant availability and eager setting aside of preference in order to please the other. It can start to weigh on you, but neither of you are ready to stop. You feel like if you do, if you change priorities, introduce self care and individual preferences and dreams and goals you are failing each other. Or worse, you are failing at love. But you aren’t. Not at all. Not by a long shot. You are incorporating yourself into the equation, the parts that love didn’t render meaningless. Perhaps the parts that love will in fact enable, nurture, even treasure so long as you can reclaim them.

Then the kids arrive and my understanding of love was both refined and expanded. I learned a kind of love that exists in my soul. An immutable version that will never, can never die. A version that commands my presence and I delight in giving it endlessly. It demands my efforts and I give them unquestioningly. It taught me that the only way to sustain feelings was through doing. Love is a verb. it’s true. At times I can choose without even knowing, to stop making the effort it requires of me and when I do I thank my lucky stars that my wife has the patience to wait for me, the committment to look for me and the willingness to love me when I don’t deserve it. It sounds worse than it is. It’s just a distance or a pointed aloofness in our interactions, but I assure you it’s not pleasant.

Then, for no reason I can think of, I see it. I see that I’m failing love and failing her and failing me and it passes. I commit to being present. I commit to loving actively and our love picks up where we left off. Sometimes it’s her. Sometimes its me. Often its both. Whatever, it’s us. We’re in it together and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘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.’

Fathers and Suns

You perform a rhapsody

Day in and out

Of love and pain and laughs and tears

And I fall for every prop

You look at me for all

As if I caused the sun to shine

Told the moon to rise and sparkle

Were it asked you’d say 

I was the one. The one.

Who dragged the moon to the sky 

Who put the sun to bed

Who rose at dawn to wake the world 

Shook it out of bed

I won’t abuse you of this thought

Or fail it while you carry

A necessary delusion that keeps us all merry

That makes me large enough to carry

The love and pride and fear  and worry

That you alone have brought

I warrant a giants space

A gods all knowing visage

With all the pride and love you give me

The illusion won’t stand forever 

Soon you will discern

That who you thought were mighty

Were little but concerned

And eager and bemused

Agobbed at what life wrought

As soon as you arrived we knew 

The gifts that weren’t yet bought

The truth that we disguise

Is evident to other eyes

To any looking at you and the grown ups who can’t catch up

While you labor in a lie

One we all must cling to

The truth, it’s you not I

That we all revolve and cling to

You are the sun and we the earth 

As much as we can figure

But if that’s wrong and you’re the earth

Than that should only figure 

Of all celestial bodies it’s the moon that we must be

As the sun that shines and alights us

Is all that we can see. 

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.