Tag Archives: love

My Sister

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The family she arrived to

My earliest memory of my sister was of a man coming to our house to speak with my parents. He was there to see if our home was a stable one. One where my sister would be welcomed and provided for. One where she would not only be safe, but hopefully nurtured and loved. I remember my mom essentially asking me to be on my best behavior before they arrived, but who’s to say whether or not that actually happened. I was, after all, just 6 years old.

I didn’t really understand why we were getting another sister. I had 2 already. There were 3 of us boys. I don’t think much of an effort was made to explain it, but that said, I have a six year old now and it’s remarkable the things he doesn’t hear us saying and the things he does. Maybe there was a giant family meeting. Maybe it was just the few words of encouragement to act normal when the interviewer came over to meet us.

Maya Lin (this is the name of the designer of the Vietnam Memorial and I will be using it in place of my sisters name in this post) was a teenage girl from Vietnam and we were a very big and ever growing family of white, suburban, Great Lakes style americans. We must have been quite a shock to her. Tall, pale and rembunctiously carefree. We were loud and curious, bold and kind. We were a station wagon with wood paneling kind of family who couldn’t have been more American. I can’t for the life of me, now, imagine what it was like for her to be dropped into this story as a young girl. At the time it never ocurred to me to wonder.

I was not all that welcoming. It’s just not a strength of little boys. I argued with her over the TV. A lot. To my memory my mom always sided with Maya. I was always cordial in screaming about how unfair it was and storming out of the room. I was a real charmer back then. Before long she acclimated. Never has more been swept aside in so short a time as me brushing past the acclimation process. But what can I know. She was plopped down into a new home and made a member of a new family in an instant. It was never questioned, never fretted on. Not from our side, my side at least.

Sure, my mother will tell you, if you ask, about that time, about her incredulous reaction to seeing snow fall, a thing she’d come accustomed to in no time as we lived in the 3rd snowiest city in America according to the video I watched on Facebook yesterday. It was from The Weather Channel and it meshes with my memory and the common understanding of where I’m from. She’ll tell you about how she had to have the TV to watch Soap Operas, a thing that was banned in my house for the wild disregard for moral behavior, to learn the language. My mom, and I don’t know how she figured this out, showed her these shows because all the characters spoke slowly, they over emoted, they spoke directly to the camera in close up and they repeated themselves over and over. Minus the horrid personal behavior, they were ideal for teaching the language. The other favorite was West Side Story. Musical theater courses through both sides of my family and while the appeal of this was lost on six year old me, the effect for language acquisition was also helpful. And she flat loved West Side Story. Mom would also tell you of her struggles acclimating to school and the challenge it was for her in that short time before she got the language down and made a friend or two.

I’d tell you about the new smells that as a 6 year old I thought were horrifying. This shouldn’t shock anyone who’s ever had a little boy. I had to leave the room the other day because I was eating a banana and this was just too much for Teddy to handle. In my case it was the smells of the food that I now realize I really missed out on. My palate has grown in sophistication since then and at this time when half my calories comes from cough drops and the other half comes from cold, discarded, nuggeted meats it feels like a real missed opportunity. Then there was the smell of bad overboiled hot dogs coming from the bathroom when her friend came over. It was just a home perm, a thing a thousand teenage girls that year did in my town, but none lived with us. My older brothers were yet to pull the trigger on the home perm.

Whatever her experience I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that it was a fully family version of growing up. It was sadly not the ideal version of family that was taken from her. But it was a very loving one she made her way to and became a part of. And because she did I learned of the small but thriving Vietnamese community where we went to shop with her. I saw the food from all over the world I had never imagined existed so close to me. I learned the look of government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letter paper that allowed her to get what I think were censored letters from her family in Vietnam. It taught me that I could love her in all the same complicated ways we all love our individual family members. I remember being sad when we dropped her off at college and happy when she could and would come home for holidays. I remember missing her way of eating, a thing you don’t think can be different, so different before you see it. I remember feeling like something was missing when she wasn’t there and feeling like we were all home when she was.

Our whole family was growing as this all took place. We were adding new members and each of us growing as well. By the time she was done with college she had a boyfriend. A Vietnamese boyfriend. I was 16(ish) and we were now 6 Medler’s (My youngest brother was born in 84) and everyone that would be a part of our family had arrived, to one degree or another, by this point. Whether it was right after college or a few years later her boyfriend eventually asked her to marry him. She said yes.

The wedding was to be in King Of Prussia, just outside of Philadelphia. I don’t know why, but I think they were living there at the time. She worked at a bank, I know that much, but honestly, she could have been president or a part time teller. Regardless I now look back on her asking me to be in her wedding with immense pride. It’s a real honor that she thought of me. I’m afraid at the time I was not so gracious. I said no. Yeah. I was also from a family where they respected my right to do such a thing. I’m sorry I did that. I’m incredibly thankful that they also asked my older brothers, both of whom have been and remain far more gracious in such matters.

Well, shortly before the wedding, and I mean very shortly, one of those government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letters arrived to alert Maya that her whole family was being released (had been granted visa’s.) I can’t begin to imagine how this felt for her. She hadn’t seen her mother and father and sisters and brothers since leaving. They hadn’t seen her since she was taken away. I can’t get into details I don’t know, but I know that what happened in the time between her leaving home and arriving to us was scary. She was made to leave in a moments notice and she was in a camp for some period of time. There were long periods when she was cargo on boats with no place to go, having no idea what life would hold if there was a future. She experienced and endured, as a teenage girl, innocent and surely terrified, things I know I never would have endured. But now she was here. My big sister. Annoying and loving. My honest to god sister. All the while waiting and hoping she could see her family again.

They would be arriving in a short time and once there the wedding would be in a matter of days. I remember us all, now in a minivan, making our way from Brockport New York down to Philly and checking into as few rooms as were reasonable for our large family, and getting dressed in our fancy duds. Mike and Eric in their tuxes and I in my Don Johnson whites (it was the 80’s) and my sisters in their best. My parents were old pros. They left enough time for us to woof down some happy meals and such in the parking ot of the McDonalds before heading over to the wedding, where all the food would be stuff our sensibilities hadn’t yet caught up to. I’m sure they were traditional Vietnamese wedding foods, but we weren’t really the traditional Vietnamese wedding goers. Not by a long shot. My Abraham Lincoln looking father matched old Abe in every detail, even height and frame. 6’4″ and slender, of Irish and Finnish descent. Still, we were there, her family. We weren’t in the front row, as that was for her Vietnamese family, but we were ushers and pasrticipants, those of us wise enough to recognize and accept that honor. Again, very sorry.

Anyway, there I sat, a foreigner in my homeland at a joyous celebration for my sister and her new husband. The ceremony was in Vietnamese and we knew to follow along. Our little league of nations pew at the church each weekend was one that taught us how to be attuned to ritual and cermony and this was no different. Just a different language. I remember looking back as the music started. My father and sister emerged, arm in arm. They walked down the aisle, she a bride and he her dad. It was beautiful. When they got to the first pew my father stopped, removed his arm and kissed her cheek and handed her hand to her fathers arm who took her the rest of the way and ceremonially gave her away.

I can’t imagine what this was like for her Vietnamese family. I can say that a lot of what I now see as extraordinarily meaningful was not so profound in the moment. I didn’t realize it all, what it all meant at the time. I’m discovering layers even as I write it here.

Our lives take on different meanings as they beat ever forward. Contexts and understandings change as we do. I know that my sister was meant to be a part of my family. It may not have been predestined, it may have come as the result of wretched circumstance. But in the end the love that we had, that persists to this days as we are all flung far and wide is something I’m so thankful for.

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.

Let’s Talk About Sex (The ‘You Have Kids!’ Edition)

We’ve been DTF  since jump. It’s one of those things I guess. Pretty happy to find that it’s hardly diminished in quality despite the rapid aging and overall physical toll raising kids has had on me. No, quality is not the issue. Our problem is quantity.

img_3372That’s right. This is a married, middle aged sex post. There’s nothing graphic to scare you away, though the topic is the topic. Grab a glass of wine or a cold one and see if any of what I’m saying strikes a chord. If you know me and have no wish to think of me as a sexual being and it’s already to late as I referenced my sexual life already and you have inadvertently and regretfully already constructed a horrifying picture in your mind I’d advise you go find the old bottle with the handle in the liquor cubby. The one in the back you bought for a super bowl party 15 years back, and just guzzle. After slamming your computer shut or throwing your phone away and smashing it like those guys with the fax machine in Office Space, erase all record of me. Wake up, check that you retained enough senses to unfollow, unfriend and unremember me before blacking out and move on with your life. Nothing to see here.

I don’t want to hear any morality nonsense. Firstly we’re married so discussing the beautiful coming together (Not literally. Too high risk. We are committed turn takers, a stance I’ll defend to the death.) of a portly man who retains mere glimmers of his former beauty and his ageless, perfect wife (Seriously. Think Peter and  Lois of the Griffin family. This image will reflect the vast disparity between her physical appeal and mine. It’s great to be in it, for me at least. Can’t speak for the wife, but I don’t need any photos either so I get where you might be coming from. Pics of her, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, but yeah, as for me, nah.. That’s a hard pass (Boom)) is decidedly in bounds. As far as your pearl clutching at the idea of middle aged folks doing the deed, I just don’t care anymore. Don’t let anyone tell you there are NO advantages to becoming an old man and losing your fastball. I may be a junkballer now (boom) but at least I no longer care about your opinions regarding my life. It’s remarkably freeing getting old.

So, anyway…

img_2150Here’s my complaint. We would love to have more ‘alone time’ then we get. Let’s not beat around the bush (boom), it’s all their fault. These little, well, let’s just say ‘rhymes with dockblockers’ are unwitting masters of their chosen form. It ain’t just the simple stuff either. There’s plenty of that garden variety salt in their game, sure. There’s more though. They’re playing the long game as well. Let me show you what I mean.

Sex is a generous and warm way for us to give and receive love. It’s great for that. Do you know when those feelings of love are often stirred? When you are being that version of your family that you hoped you’d be as you strolled out of that hospital, baby in hand wondering, ‘Holy crap. Is no one going to stop me? Am I just allowed to take this person home? What the hell. I don’t think I’m tall enough for this type of responsibility.’ Say after grabbing pumpkins and cider at the farm market. Everyone was cute in their autumnal sweaters and cords. Maybe I threw on those jeans that make me feel sexy. A flirty scarf might have even been thrown on last minute. Why not. We’re worth it. For a sunny, crisp afternoon it was easy to think we were the couple we impersonate in our professionally staged family photos. It felt great!

So great that we lost our heads. We started making out in the kitchen while lunch was being defrosted in the toaster oven and the kids were distracted by the Curious George Halloween special on Netflix. These were heady times. We should have proceeded with caution. But we didn’t. That’s kinda the point of heady times.

‘Wanna have some sexy time..’ one of you says.

‘Hell yeah! I’m a man ain’t I?’ one of us replies. Okay. It was me. ‘I mean seriously. I am right? I can still do this right?’ My lady is my support in many ways and confidence is a fleeting thing in your forties. At least in so far as physical prowess goes. At least for me it is. Stop judging me. Move on.

‘After the kids go to bed.’

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod… That’s it. That’s the time we can do it (boom)! She’s serious.

‘Yes. Oh my god, yes!’ I reply.

‘I don’t know, they’re looking pretty beat at the moment.’ It’s a joke, but you know, whatevs. She’s digging me.

This is a good day. There’s a ton left to do and seemingly endless hours until we reach the promised land. But it shines in my minds like a beacon on a hill as I climb. Through meals, laundry, cleaning, laundry, playing, cleaning, laundry and folding laundry and bath time all the way until we put them to bed. Through it all we stole kisses and wayward grabs, having fun and laughing. Smiling and flirting, knowing we knew what was coming (boom) and we were excited for it. Fueled by lust and love and coffee we finally arrived at nightfall. Kids fed, cleaned, watered and pottied there was only one hurdle left to clear.

This is where our ‘bad’ parenting comes in. Please note, we are wonderful parents. They are nearly as lucky to have us as we are to have them. But the component skills of parenthood, the things one must master to be able to sustain without losing your mind daily, well, we haven’t been great about those things. This is never more evident then at bedtime.

To be fair the look we have by now, sun having gone down (we never really adhered to that early to bed approach so many successful put-to-bedders have ascribed) baths and meals prepared and given, our energy is waning. But that’s okay. Our enthusiasm for the endeavor remains. We give one another a wink as we head to seperate bedrooms and begin the long days journey into slumber. Falling asleep is not a default reaction to being tired. So the nightly wrestling match begins. I can’t speak for her but in our room, it’s almost impossible to survive the process with anything approaching an iota of energy left.

Thus begins the ‘dockblocking’ of which I noted.

img_1811Board books. Curse thee. Sure, some are better than others. I get that.. I can get down with the Little Blue Truck. I have a love hate relationship with Goodnight Moon. I can certainly appreciate the cleverness of the assorted Seussian delights that dot the bookshelf (piles next to the bed) of my kids bedroom. The problem is that they are a very VERY powerful narcotic once you’ve read them, in the right order, 200 times or so. By now, 1800+ readings in it’s positively deadening. The ability to read an entire book with my eyes closed, turning the page at the right times is a cool trick, sure. But its accompanied so often by my kid, bright eyed and bushy tailed turning to wake me up and force more of this on me. Any more of this little blue truck and a little blue pill wouldn’t even be able to get me to the ‘finish line’ of our earlier promise.

Next, lights out and in bed. More bad at parenting here. We have never had the will to let them shed a tear in pursuit of sleep. We’ve tried but our inevitable, lilly livered buckling has left these boys unable to close there eyes without us laying next to them. For, at times, hours. This is the death of me. More often than not when my forty something constitution collides with their toddler level energy for a whole day I am unaware, perhaps, but the game is over. Long over by this point. Lets say, by some miracle I don’t fall asleep with my kids. Just for arguments sake. This series of events, this hustle (I’m convinced they are doing this on purpose to keep me away from mommy) has already worked.

As I exit the room I am weary. My ears are hot with exhaustion and I’m long overdue for bed. Having taken the hours I was expected to take my wife, having succumbed as well, in her own way to the other one in the other room has decided that I’m not coming out. On goes the jammys and the robe. These are not anything other than comfortable and delightful. I too am in my formless, baggy, old and tattered ‘sleep shorts’. We are not ideally clothed for this endeavor, but it could happen. We are kid free. At least we should be for the next 3-5 hours when kid 2 makes his way to our bed. We let him sleep there. It’s in line with our other poor decisions, it really shouldn’t surprise you. By the time we are on the couch, either said or not, that’s it. Ballgame (sad boom) over.

I should note, there is germ warfare at play as well. In general we all have varying degrees of chest and head colds at all times. This wasn’t true before they showed up. I’m not accusing them of purposeful espionage, per se. I’m not ruling it out though. For whatever the reasons might be symptoms get real persistent at these times. I doubt this is intentional, but again, I don’t rule it out.

That’s it. More often than not this is how sexy time plays (itself) out in our house. Stoked by feelings of warm connectedness. Given oxygen with stolen kisses and hidden grabs. Promised and anticipated. Doused. Dissipated.

 

 

Owning My Bias

  ‘Well, you just turn over your card, and then, you know.’ 

He says it casually. It’s out of step with anything we are familiar with, but it comes close. Charlie, who will be 6 soon, is trying out ‘ya know’. He’s approximating it’s use and misappropriating it. But he’s coming close and it’s pretty great. I won’t say it was adorable. I want to be respectful of his attempts at growth. 

There will be more of this. Much more. I know because it’s how I came to be as well. I tried things on. I tried on jock. I tried on brooding teen. I tried on funny guy. I tried on ladies man. I tried on urban Joe or black Joe if you prefer. I tried on tragic Joe. I tried on social warrior. I tried on writer. I’m still trying it on. I put on these identities and parts of each were unearthed in me. I eventually rejected all of these as a whole person is way to big to fit inside something so narrow as an identity so narrowly and externally defined. There was a reason for each and that reason remains and lives on within me. 

Watching Charlie start this I have to say, I don’t envy him. The journey to understanding who you are, determining who you are, leveling intent and native instinct as well as philosophy and temperament is arduous. It’s a journey I’m still struggling with. I’m still trying to figure it all out. I hope he navigates it okay. I’d say that I hope he navigates it better than me, but I woudln’t mean it. If he navigated it exactly like me, well, I’d buy that right now. I hope he finds his truest self faster than I did. 

I had great freedom. Charlie, so far, knock on wood, appears that he will have similar opportunity. He will be able to be all the things, all the component emotional realities along the way as he grows from nearly six to man sized and ready to be freed of the tyranny of parents. It will seem like torture at times, as it certainly will for us as well but he’ll have that chance it appears. He should consider himself lucky. I should. Not every kid is afforded such a wide berth in which to experiment. Not every parent is afforded the confidence that the world will at the very least look the other way as kids growing up try on identities. 

I had friends who were black when I was growing up. I have brothers whom I love who are and were black. Our dinner table had black people at it, black men. It had a young woman who was Vietnamese. Not to mention six tall, white, irish/finnish Medler’s as well. We were all fucked up in our own way. In the way that all good and happy families are. But at bottom we were well. We were loved and we were safe. 

At least us white one’s were. Especially us boys. We could fail repeatedly. We could fall down and the world would be there, over and over to pick us up. We were given chances, seen for the good people that we were underneath our outwardly destructive behavior as we grew into fine men. We were forgiven our absences and absolved of wrongdoing. We got consequences, but just enough to make us better for it. Just enough to learn a lesson. Maybe it took a couple of times. Maybe more than a few. I can’t say that all my black friends wee afforded the same liberty and leeway. 

As I’ve gotten older and I’ve looked back on my youthful friendships I think that we were all playing with a cartoon. A racist cartoon at that. When I say all I mean myself, my white friends and the relatively few black guys who were our peeers. I had three best friends in high school, all in separate contexts to some degree. Two redheads and a young man who was black. I essentially was drawn to each of them for their similar qualities. They were all funny, still are. They were all smart. Super smart actually, but like me they were largely smart in the room and not really caring about grades or accomplishment. They were and remain all guys you could sit in a car and split a six pack and talk about life with and you could learn and elucidate. Good guys. But when I was with certain collections of people, during times when I was trying on black joe, I have to say, it was pretty inherently and in hindsight, downright insidiously racist. There was no intent there, but that only makes it more dangerous. It was aping a culture to feel something. I don’t really know what that something was, but it was not ours, not come about honestly. We felt some kind of glow of hardship and reveled in it from a place of safety that wasn’t afforded the members of our groups who weren’t white. To some degree, perhaps they shared some of those safety nets, but we had more. I’d be sent home if caught doing the bad thing. He wouldn’t be. Wasn’t. 

I take pride, shamefully, in being right racially. As if this is some honor. As if I should be given some special honorary brother status for merely acknowledging racism exists and saying it’s wrong. For a long time, 40+ years I thought that was enough. I don’t think that anymore. Now I think I need to acknowledge what biases I have. I need to respect the hardships of others and not usurp them. I have to stand alongside not only my my black friends and say we are in this together, I need to stand next to my white ones and own my reality as well. 

What’s most painful for me is acknowledging my personal bias. I am scared to write what comes next and as much as I want to be brave and just say it and let it live. I can’t. I have to first say another truth. One that is honest and self serving. I am aware of my bias and whenever I catch it infecting my thinking of another human being I acknowledge it and put it aside and find out more about the person. In doing so I’ve met more wonderful people than a person my age has any right having known and I know that others who have had preconceived notions of me have done the same. I’m proud of that. Which is kind of sick. Because other times I’ve only found my bias in the rearview mirror. I can miss it and not recognize it until it is too late. I’ll always try to make amends if I can, but sometimes I can’t. I imagine there are times I don’t even see it. Ever. Me. Someone who grew up with black people. Who has written boldly on the ill of racism in America and who has spoken out at every turn decrying it’s outcomes, I can be overwhelmed by irrational and unfair bias against black men. Particularly young black men. I try always to counter it. I am disciplined about breaking through that feeling as swiftly as it is recognised. But I’m not immune. It breaks my heart that this is true. 

I believe we all have biases. For much of my life these biases have put me ahead of most others in all pursuits, even before we’ve encountered one another. Even if we never encounter one another. That’s what being white and male is in my case. I have friends from homogenous areas of the world who will disagree with this, but I don’t think any of them honestly believes their lives would be easier if they were black. Or that any of the black guys they know wouldn’t think, on some level, the world wouldn’t be a safer place for them if they were white. It doesn’t mean life is easy for anyone. So many factors have lead to my life being what it is, not the least of which being my inherrently good traits. But I also see a world where I was forgiven much, allowed a lot and not restricted because the world has been trained to see me as a threat. And I’m big. I’m 6’2″ 235 big. But I”m not big and black and in threat of being exterminated like a roach or a snake because my appearance inspires blind fear of a visceral nature that has caused young men of color to be shot essentially for being black men. Or even boys. 

As disgusted as I am to live in a world where this happens I can no longer go forward without acknowledging that I know what those cops were feeling. It was fear. I can have the same response to black men in situations that feel risky. I hate everything I’m saying and I’m more the type of person that will cross the street to be on the same side of that person because I’m civilized, understand that it’s my obligation to actively counter this reaction when I feel it, but I’ve felt it. I can feel it. 

I hate myself for feeling it. But nowadays, with racists running for and winning office openly espousing profiling of religious belief and questioning the very humanity of people of color, turning their backs on the poor and destitute ravaged by war and strife and hunger, I can’t afford to deny my bias in defense of my ideals. Honesty is the least I can do. I don’t want to ever live in a world where those who know say nothing. Where people who can speak don’t. Right now I feel like I live in a world, in a country that has lost sight of the founding principle that we are all created equal. A myth that was a lie knowingly told by men who hoped to be cured by it’s aspirational sentiment and the actions of those people who followed them. We are failing and we are approaching a point where we must exercise not only our rights, but our better selves and the first step for me is acknowledging my bias. By moving past the foolishness of ‘I don’t see color’ and owning our bias. Owning it and letting it out into the world so I know I’ve done everything in my power to be free of it. So that there can be any hope of ever getting past what is so inherently unjust. So others can see the insidiousness of hate and it’s effect on all of us. 

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.

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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.

More Than Life Itself

ILYMTLI. I love you more than life itself.

Real people have real tragedy. Sometimes unique and awful. Other times universal and awful. So when Michael ‘positivity’ Davies, he of the Men In Blazers podcast, thanked the many GFOP’s (fans of the podcast) who’d reached out through email and social media to send their condolences for the recent passing of his mother, I could feel his pain, even if he wasn’t sharing it. He remained positive, remained grateful. But in there I could hear the sadness and in the sadness I could see the love he had for the woman he credited with making him a football fan.

In wrapping up the discussion, before moving on to the weeks events in the Premier League, he noted that he loved how his mother always signed off on everything she wrote to him with ILYMTLI. It stood for ‘I love you more than life itself’, which both hosts agreed was practically a gushing paean to the love of a mother for her child for a woman of her generation in England. What with their stiff upper lip defiance of the decimating effects of the war. He knew he was loved and felt lucky to have been told so. He was made more aware of how appreciative he was when she passed.

I think love, in addition to all it’s other benefits, is a tool we have to understand life. At the moment while I’m in the middle, little ones to one side and wise old heads to the other, I’m starting to understand the scope of my life because I can see the most of it that I ever will. I am lucky that the bonds I have reflect what Mrs Davies so clearly felt and what was so clearly perceived by her son. My mother and my father loved and love their children more than life itself. I love my children the same way. I love them far more than I ever knew I could love anyone. Maybe love, the type that stretches out looking to connect, to understand, maybe that is running a deficit these days. Maybe our seeming lack of empathy, however it has come to be is creating negative spaces for unexpected and unrecognized compassion to grow.

There is love in the relief. Amidst the unwavering anxiety and stress is a love and empathy that is unmistakeable. I write often emotionally attached, perspective driven, heartwarming stories that satisfy fully ones need for warmth, my need for it. But if I’m being honest there is often a shadow energy of fear and sorrow and worry. It may be unspoken, or it may be hinted at but most times its there and it allows for my evocations of love and hope to have more impact. I’m not suffusing the stories or anything, that’s just the reality for me right now. All of this, life itself has only become something I can truly appreciate now that I am able to see that I can’t hold it forever. Now that I know that the stories I’m most intrigued by, most invested in, most in love with, my sons, are stories that must outlast my time here. That’s if I’m lucky. I won’t dare entertain other outcomes. But the slippery nature of life, the dawning understanding of my own mortality at the same time as I learn my purpose can lend an underlying air of sadness that is often the impetus to live more fully and more in the moment and can result in great joy and peace and love.

Love does important work when it is hiding in the background, allowing space for fear and anger and envy and anxiety. Love is smart and sees the long game. Love knows survival wins in the end and is content to wait quietly in the background for her moment while her more eager and urgent compatriots burn themselves out. Those other emotions for all their bluster are unsustainable. She stays steady in the air we breathe and finds just the moment to engage again.

Love, empathy, compassion. These are things that disguise themselves as wonderful frivolities but they are not frivolous. They are the ultimate payoff for our toils. Without them all of this, all of life, so grand and connected, is for nothing.

There is a lot of love that is going to be needed someday when all the anger and fear that are so ubiquitous in the air right now burns out. I hope it does so before it grows and causes irrevocable tragedy. I hope that we are able to correct our course before the whole world is set aflame. I’m doing my best to protect the spaces that are safe for tenderness and caring. But those spaces that feel safe are getting smaller and smaller.

I hope for an equal swing to love and empathy and kindness and understanding that will arise as the pendulum swings back the other way, whenever that my be.