How Awkward: A Date Night Tale

I have not felt like a teenager in some time. I’m a man of a certain age and while I may carry around my own personal supply of self-doubt and self-consciousness, they both fit in a perfectly normal sized backpack that does not in any way draw attention to me. It is the standard teen drama we all carry around, hidden safely, strapped to us to inform our sense of self.

So, as I stood there, cheeks reddening and heart racing, I was once again that same teenager who would walk to school, past the buses lined up dropping off all my peers. Dreading being seen and fearing not being noticed. Worried the eyes I could feel boring into my skin and my psyche were because a pimple or a stray booger had sprung forth unbeknownst to me. All this while not noticing I was completely naked from the waist down. Sure, this was a dream. I never in fact walked to school while naked down there. But I dreamed this a lot.

You can imagine how jarring it was to be feeling these feelings after not feeling them for so long. All because I was once again making a fool of myself, a thing done with such startling regularity when I was a teenager that it was a nightly job to process embarrassment in dreamland.

What can cause a 45 year old man, fully self aware and fairly unselfconscious to find himself once again blushing? Could it be a physical reaction? In this case that couldn’t be ruled out. That said I have a sneaking suspicion that it was much the same thing as caused me to feel so unabashedly and unavoidably awkward those many many years ago. In this case it was in fact the presence of a teenage girl.

Please know that she is, by all accounts, a perfectly kind, warm, thoughtful person whom I would have been embarrassed in front of in the same way were she a 45 year old man like me. I simply note her ‘teen girlness’ for the remarkable symmetry it provides with my earlier embarrassments.

This young woman was here to do her first of hopefully many future nights and days of babysitting for our kids. She had been here for a half hour before to meet the kids, but this was still squarely in the ‘first impression’ stage of our relationship. So, as so many parents do, we had spent the day cleaning. To put our best foot forward. For our high school babysitter. I mean, we worked for hours. Okay, maybe I’m not entirely unselfconscious.

neal-fagan-221904-unsplash
pretty much how I’m feelin’ right before I injected myself…

Anyway there we were in our date night best. We hadn’t done date night in a while, so for our standards we were looking sharp. All that was left was to show our young employee the where’s and what’s and the whatnot’s. It was exhilarating.

Then, right before we were to leave, I stood in front of her and jabbed myself with an Epi-Pen. Right there. In our kitchen.

Sure, I was blushing. Yes, my wife and the teenager were laughing pretty hard. Yes, I did think, ‘Oh, no! What have I done!’. I quickly realized I was in the clear. The needle barely touched my leg. I didn’t get injected with anything. I was safe. But the laughs became more nervous. More giddy. They even belied a fair bit of actual concern.

Why were my cheeks getting so hot? Why the heart racing? Why did I want to crawl into a ball and hide under the table?

Because I’m the knob that just played the cool guy and jabbed himself in the leg with an Epi-Pen. In front of his wife, who could only be half surprised at best at such jack-assery and our new babysitter.

‘We’ll be texting to check in and please please please don’t hesitate to text us. We would love to know how it’s going.’, my wife said as I hustled us out the door awash in shame and certain I was getting pimples, urging Karen to hurry it up in the clenched teeth, hushed tones of teen boys for millennia as I waved Karen to the door.

‘Please text, we’ll definitely be checking in to see how you’re doing.’, I added, trying to regain my composed adulthood.

‘Perhaps I will have to be checking in to see how you are doing after that.’, she added with a smirk.

It was funny. All of it. We were able to have a good laugh about it.

Then, for the first time in maybe 25 years, I dreamed I was walking to school again. I never looked down. Didn’t have to. I knew.

Diary of a Wimpy (and AWESOME!) Bookstore

When your seven year old son manages to have his attention wrangled by a book you pounce. When he falls so in love with a book series that he reads 12 of them as fast as he can acquire them you do everything you can to feed his passions. In our case that meant spending hours on end reading with him. He would assign both me and his mother separate books that we would take to his room and lie in his bed with him while each reading quietly. If one or the other of us chuckled we would read what it was that made us giggle back so we could all get in on the laugh. For us, for our Charlie, that book series was the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney.

Charlie at the hotel that night showing off his haul!

I don’t know if you’ve had any time recently with an obsessed seven year old. It’s intense. And when there is a exactly 217 pages x 12 books of details to obsess on ones curiosity extends beyond the pages of the books and into all the surrounding content they can find. It was while pursuing any and all things Greg Hefley that our Charlie discovered the existence of An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Massachusetts.

Well, our fate was sealed. A journey to the store was in the offing. So when we surprised him on the night before we were to drive the four and a half hours (spread over six or so as we were of course traveling with the seven year old and his five year old brother) he immediately started bouncing. Just ceaseless bouncing while exclaiming over and over, ‘this is going to be the best day ever!’

He wasn’t wrong.

There’s no telling if a bookstore so highly anticipated in the active imagination of a little boy can live up to his wild expectation. As soon as we pulled into the small parking lot adjacent the store on the otherwise unremarkable intersection in the aptly named (no offense) Plainville any concerns were allayed. He was all buzz and electricity.

Upon entering the bookstore we were all a bit overwhelmed. Immediately it was clear that this store was not the beautiful monstrosities we come across at our local corporate book monolith but rather a space designed by and for people who loved books. The high ceilings and burnished wood surfaces were beautiful in the lighting that instead of bathing every inch in overwhelmingly bright floods of fluorescent uniformity highlighted the spaces between the shelves and the items throughout the store.

It’s clear as well that this space was designed as a community space for book lovers, fantasy geeks, story obsessives and lovers of the type of independent bookstores that take residence more in our minds and memories than in our lives these days. Which is wonderful. For all the awesomeness we discover at the massive book behemoths there is something about getting lost in a less uniform space that I didn’t realize they were missing until they got to navigate this place of magic. It’s a modern throwback to a time when bookstores held a different role in the life of a place and a welcome balance to the modern, uniform experience. A place where a sports fan, a cookbook enthusiast, a reader of mystery and genre fiction and kids learning to fall in love with stories can share the space without feeling separated and segregated. Where each can stumble on the other and become curious about others interests.

The cafe was unobtrusive and inviting and after making all our purchases of all things Wimpy (and a novel for me and bag for mama) we were comfortable lingering and exploring our new lit stuff. In fact the cafe attendant saw how much Charlie loved the Wimpy Kid books and when we were done getting our assorted refreshments she slipped us a few cups, the sort used for a fountain soda or iced coffee, with images of Greg Hefley, the Wimpy one himself, all over them. We haven’t broken them out yet. We’ll probably save them for dinner the night his pre-ordered, signed copies of book 13 come in the mail!

An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Cafe

A Moment to Treasure

Some moments are just magical. They arrive unannounced and if you are lucky you recognize what’s happening in time to capture it in some way. This is not one of those moments.

‘Daddy? What’s your favorite butt cheek?’

Hmm. Thinking. Resisting every inappropriate joke running through my head.

‘My left butt cheek, I guess.’

Phew, dodged all bullets.

‘No. I mean between me and Teddy.’

‘I don’t have a favorite. I love all four of your butt cheeks equally.’

…and, scene.

‘No’ is My Love Language

andrew-seaman-645932-unsplashI am spending the summer home with my sons. They are 5 and 7. I fully appreciate the unencumbered, freewheeling imagination of these bright young boys. I do. I say this as a disclaimer to be applied to what might be considered a hurtful thing to say did you not know how truly enamored and impressed I am with these children. They are the apple of my eye and the light of my life.

They are also the progenitors of the largest private collection of horribly conceived ideas I’ve ever come across. The tonnage alone makes their collection impressive. I am the sole arbiter of these ideas. I am the judge and jury and I can tell you, I could shout ‘NO!’ at the outset of any question beginning, ‘Daddy can I…’ and I’d feel justified and correct in my response 99 times out of 100.

Being a good person and modeling the patience I wish them to possess I listen fully to most of these proposals. Here’s a small sample of things I’ve said no to this summer.

‘Daddy, can we bring the hose into the trampoline?’

‘Daddy, can I walk to the store alone?’

‘Daddy, can Charlie drive me to Grandma’s house and you and mommy stay here?’

‘Daddy. Can you open my window so we can jump down to the top of the umbrella on the deck?’

‘Daddy, can we go by ourselves out to stop strangers with dogs to pet them, right by the road, around the corner where you can’t see us and ask them if they have candy and if they would take us for a ride in their windowless van?’

Okay, that last one wasn’t asked, the 5 year old just did it. Granted, it was just the petting strangers dogs around the corner part, but any decent parent fills in the rest and doesn’t allow them out to the back porch without supervision once they are reminded of the total lack of common sense possessed by a five year old.

These are the times when they think to ask. Other times it’s just luck that I caught them in the act.

‘What are you doing?’ I ask incredulous.

‘I’m putting sunscreen on my tongue.’

‘NO!’

Saying no to my kids was once a hobby. After this summer, seeing the decisions they’d make without me, I have come to think of saying no to my kids more as a passion. It is what I need to do, sure, but it is also what I love to do.

Besides, saying no to trying Fortnite is so much easier when it is part of a larger milieu.

 

The Curious Nature of Time

Time is immutable until it isn’t. For me it got all out of whack after kids.

  When Charlie was born I became a dad. That’s when time first shape shifted. From that point on I haven’t been able to get a hold on it. When I catch up to it and live and move with it, when it all sycnchs up it’s magic. Before long I’ve lost the thread again and even in my memory that moment has morphed from a point in time to a blessed eternal experience that will live outside of time and space for the rest of my days. Other times, times like the colossal journey of the early years are even more inscrutable. The days were repetitious and overwhelming. Too large to be effected by the spinning of the earth. It felt like one never ending day. Until a morning came that looked different and the remembrance of it all now seems to grow smaller, ever more brief the further I am removed. 

  The first moment, the instant I saw my first child broke all understanding and left me a mess. It is easy to look at it and see the 30+ hours of consciousness that buttressed his arrival and think that time was aided in her transformation. Perhaps. What flooded me in that moment though was not due to exhaustion or elation. The full scope of the allotted time for a person became very tangible that moment. I was alerted very directly in that moment to my exact spot on the line that starts with my birth and ends with my death which is now incredibly important that it stretches as far as I can hope out into the timeline of this little mans own linear track. Life was abstract and time accompanied it before. Not tied to anything, not rooted in another’s story. Now it was finite and fading and valued like never before. 

Soon after we were home. Days were like years. Almost literally. I may have conceded to times dominion before I knew it could be questioned, but I knew the differences the years made. I was different at 4 than I was at six than I was at 16. It basically tracked with a standard deviation, but each year brought more knowledge more understanding and dare I say, ocassionally some earned wisdoms. They were absorbed, the ones I could recognize, passively. The learning you achieve by breathing more. By the uncontrolled firing of synapses making connections inside and out. I may not have put it together, not have put words to it, but years came with more than numbers. They brought growth. I grew years in those early days. Not the journey around the sun years, but the equal of them in terms of learning about me, the world, what it all means, how to feed, clean and care for something more than myself. Those are years. And they happened every day their early on. Some days more than others, but every day brought something that gave time a new track to explore and play with. 

  Baby world melded together from one to two. Charlie was just at his first birthday when we learned there was a Teddy coming. So no sooner had we nailed a bedtime routine than we added competition to it. Regression met emergence and envy and competition and compassion and peer-ish relations entered our home. We rolled with the punches much better the second time which was somewhat by necessity as life seems oddly to respond to addition with multiplication in many ways. That said, whatever more there was, it was fed by more and more love and concern. To paraphrase myself from an earlier time, if Charlie came and taught us how long the days could be, Teddy was the child who taught us how short the years could be. 
  Now I am as much observer as participant. I’m a dad of kids who need a good deal of observing. I am also a dad who can’t stop himself from watching as they explore and navigate the world and ideas and their abilities and challenges. They are compelling. They demand attention and I’m now walking with them. I may still retain control but that’s mostly a height thing at this point. Honestly. Their instincts are what drive us now. We maintain rules of the road, but they are driving in every way other than literally, and in many ways they are doing so figuratively even at those times. 

Time is uncatchable for us now. It is surging forward too fast or stopping completely. Slowed to crawl or dancing to its own rhythm and we are learning to find some of the wisdoms we can find from its nature. But mostly, we are finding that the wisdom is knowing we are at the mercy of time and we try as much as we can to respect her and do as much as we can to invest as much as we can that is of value in her. 

Parenthood Changes

Life has me ponderous at a time when there is precious little time to do anything but ride the current. 

All of us are so full every day. Full of stuff. Stuff that needs to be done, eaten, taken, dropped off, completed, returned, thrown out, retrieved, fixed, cleaned, washed, folded, put away, picked up and put to bed. We are doing all the things. At least all the things we know to do. All we can do. All we can find time to do. 

I miss the focus having tiny kids gave me. It is a very centering thing, having kids. At least at first. The world gets so small for you that it’s hard not to be centered. Your world collapses to your living space and a small collection of points. Your workplace. The ridiculously expensive but super convenient grocery store you only go to if you HAVE TO, which is every other day, and the other three stores you trek to on the weekend because one has the cheap milk, the other has the reasonable produce and the other because there’s always a sale on yogurt drops or pouches of the puréed carrots the kid decided was the only food worthy of him some time ago. The pizza shop. The gas station. And home. The living room kitchen bathroom bedroom which has morphed into one space, each formerly distinct zone possessing all the traits of all the rest. It’s not somewhere I can say I want to ever go back to, that crazy, sleep deprived, questionable hygiene and nutrition time when emotions were spattered about like the half eaten cheese sticks we no longer ‘find’ all over the place. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it. I found a new me there. The new me.

Now that new me is back at it, trying hard to make it work. Don’t mistake me, I can barely remember and hardly recognize the me that lived before becoming dad, but I’m not so insistently and consistently engaged in the constant crisis and joy of newborn parenthood like I was back then. 

Tonight was a nice night. We watched a short video after showers and pajamas. It was as far as I can tell a couple of young or not so young men talking to one another as they tried to raise dragons in Minecraft. The me before having a 5 and a 7 year old wouldn’t have uttered, let alone understood such a sentence before, but I’m getting it now. 

  Today was the first day that T went to school after his very best friend for the past 3 years up and left to Germany. He’s cool with it, me and his mother, not so much. I drove him to school this morning. It’s a funny life we’ve made our way to. I work about a 2-3 minute drive from our home, but I drive him a half hour away and have to leave early to be to work on time. Normally mom will drive, but a time or two a week it’s me. He is the king of the place by now. Super sweet and happy but a bit of a celebrity as well. At least all the love that’s in the eyes of his former teachers (well, all but one, but there’s always one) makes him seem like one as he leads me down the hall, not getting two feet into the building before tossing off his coat, ready to get at it. He loves his dance class and he is going to be in the recital this spring. We are all super looking forward to it. 

Momma took the big boy out to his swim lesson today which is at the same place as T goes to school. It runs just before T is to be picked up, so I could stay at work a few minutes late. Charlie is becoming a real swimmer. He is the only one in his class that swims the deep end with no assistance. 

 It was my turn to be on bed duty. We still lay with them. Judge if you like. That’s your business. It’s how we do it. I read a good long chapter book to the younger one while Charlie started plowing through library books. He even kept reading past lights out by the combination of dim lighting of a nightlight and the green stars that are projected from Winney’s pot of honey that rests on the dresser. He just loves reading, loves books. He’ll take them to bed with him he loves them so much. I let it go for some time. But eventually I told him it was time to go to sleep. It was a really good bedtime. We’re busy and scattered but we’re doing our best. It’s not intense and it is. Its just a lot. It’s like its all of life, every aspect of it, coming at us all the time. I can get very down thinking about all that isn’t happening, all the writing I’m not doing, all the fun we could be having. But what’s the point. This is life and we’re doing things as best we can, getting better every day. 

Well most days anyway.

Teddy’s Cheeks

Perhaps its just my nature to be wistful. That very well could be it. I could easily make the argument that wistfulness is my strongest suit as a writer. But wistful for me these days is honest. Because while parenthood is very very good at making you spend a good deal of your day living in the moment, it is also a role that is forever slipping through your fingers. 

There’s a lot that surprises you that first second. I became a dad in an instant. One second I’m a husband and about to be dad and the next I’m a dad. Full blown, card carrying dad. The card in this case was a Visa card and not some license to be a dad, though were there one my merely being a dad would not entitle me to the card. Nope. That comes later. I’m certified now, but still a newb. Becoming a dad is merely the starters pistol in your sprint to learn to be a dad. 

What I learned first, after the new brand of love, the overarching, in your bones kind of love that you learn in that first instant, what I learned was that life is fragile and mine will end. Hopefully some day decades and decades down the road when the loss will be real for my kids, but when it will be manageable. Still, this little boy had a story and it was starting right there, smack in the middle of the story I’d been only just getting accustomed to sharing with his mom. If everything goes right, if it goes as right as it can go I’ll get a few decades to overlap, 30 or 40 or 50 years to be in his story. Then, inevitably, I’d be leaving. Wrapping up my tale with tentacles lingering on the fringes of the stories they will be living. It’s the best outcome one can hope for and it is unavoidably imbued with melancholy. Sad is the wrong word. Melancholic. A sustained low level presence of unavoidable sorrow, that recedes to the background when joy is present and it is so so present so much, along with exhaustion and frustration and confusion and exhaustion. Did I say exhaustion twice? I did? Well, clearly I’m not as tired as I was a few years back. Then the entire list would have consisted of exhaustion and the list would hav been 7-12 items long. All of them exhaustion. 

My first son made me a dad. He came into the world and boom, I’m a dad. He cried, I messed up, I learned my error and I became more of a dad. This is a seemingly infinite loop. I mess up, I recognize it by something going wrong with him, I see that I messed up and I try something new and it gets a little better  and we do that all day every day forever. Which is true, but not true. It’s not forever. Time is very viscous and slides faster than I can keep up. You do eventually give the swing to sisters and brothers who will need it. You throw out the car seat that is beyond beaten and smelly and you recycle the last bottle you’ll ever have. Things disappear into the far back memories and then they go from there. Some of them go invisibly and without regret or a second thought. I’ll never change my kids disaster diaper ever again. The kind where you resort to cutting the clothing off to save everyone the terror of it coming off any other way. That piece of history is happily behind me, though I actually think I appreciated it for what it was at the time. Your mind and memory play little tricks like that. I know better. Just happy that’s in the past. Other things, well, I can’t let go of so cavalierly. Like Teddy’s cheeks. 

Teddy’s cheeks aren’t going anywhere. I trust he’ll have them for the rest of my story. But they are changing. He has epic cheeks. Anyone and everyone who has known him will tell you. They are squat and round and adorable. They are a feast for the eyes and they are so connected to the little misspeakings of an adorable toddler with the childlike voice that I’ll never fully have anymore. He is our last and when those cheeks go, they’re gone. Forever. And this time forever means forever. 

My Teddy’s cheeks won’t come back. So I am wistful. Nostalgic. Sentimental in the extreme because my life, my consciousness has a timeline and the horizon, though distant, is firmly in view and when I lose Teddy’s cheeks that horizon will draw ever so slightly nearer.  

 

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How did my wife become a poop doula? Why do bubble guppies need ladders? Why am I a crier, now, for the first time in my life? All these and so much more are explored in my debut collection, ‘Notes from a Developing Dad’

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Notes from a Developing Dad

From the start this blog has been an art project for my kids. It was meant to be a place where I could document the process, from the start. I wanted a place where they could visit where they were before the memories were there own. A place to shade and fill in the memories they cling to years from now, when we are old and the world is there’s. To this day that remains the thrust of my writing.

Over time that initial idea has expanded. I want them to know who I was when they were little, but the further I went down that road the more I wanted them to know who I was when I was little like them. I want them to know who Nana and Papa were and why I think of them as heroes. I want them to have a place to learn the story of how I met their mom. I want them to read about the love we had for each other that lead to our family. I want them to read about how hard it all was as well as how fun and amazing it has all been. I wanted them to understand my flaws and see my imperfections. I want them to understand that I knew they were there and worried about how they’d be affected by them.

As you can see the sprig of that initial idea, to make an art project for them of our early family is at the root, but like any organic thing fed and loved, that idea grew and continues to grow. One way it grew was that it turned out that there was an audience for this kind of art. This project with a specific audience seemed to be relatable to many others feeling and experiencing the transformative nature of parenthood in a way that made others seek out some of my sotories. Some were funny and some tender. It was a huge day when outlets like Scary Mommy would accept these writings and publish them. I’m thrilled to have worked with amazing editors at sites like Mamalode, Good Men Project and Sammiches & Psych Meds, amongst others.

It’s been and remains a journey that I’ve enjoyed. It was only natural when I came to a point where I decided I wanted to collect the best of my writing, the most personal, the funniest, the most well written and turn it into a book. It was exciting to work on these pieces and in the process I started to see a forest amidst examining the trees. This process of growing into the dad I am now has been extraordinary and I’m so happy I have this place where not only they will be able to come to learn about us but Karen and I will be able to visit years from now when we want to visit this most vital and amazing time in our lives, when we are rich in memories and have time to collect ourselves and make sense of lives well spent I’m heartened to know this place will be here for us.

If you would like to purchase a kindle ebook or a paperback copy of your own with these stories you can find them here.

I Don’t Have the Words

I don’t know that I will ever be able to fully articulate how I love my kids. Were it a quantifiable thing I’d give you a number. As it is I don’t think any sophisticated adult has ever improved on the simple claim made by all of us lucky enough to have been loved as a child who have spread our arms wide and said, ‘I love you this much!’

img_4923Charlie is the sweetest boy and he will stop us to make sure we are listening, in the middle of getting ready for bed or when we are cooking or whenever, to tell us, ‘I love you. You’re the best daddy.’ or, ‘Mommy, I love you more than anything ever!’

‘Oh, Charlie.’ I gasp, ‘I love you so much, you are the most wonderful boy.’

I wish words were more evolved. I wish our minds, our full creativity could describe what flows through you as a parent. All of it is extreme. The frustrations, the joys the exhaustion‘s and elation‘s. The simple act of falling for your child, for me an act that happened in an instant, opens a vein you didn’t know you had. It pours from you in every way you can imagine.

I didn’t appreciate the love I was given as a child, not fully at least, until I discovered it from the other side. Until I looked intently at my own kid and marveled and recoiled and felt the bond between us so deeply that it seemed I could reach out and hold it.

img_5026Teddy is my little man and I can’t get over his curiosity. He’s trying all the time that his brother is around to compete, a thing that looks different in a younger brother than an older one. His focus primarily is on his big brother but his quiet moments are the ones that steal my heart. He can smile when your head shares a pillow with his and he wants to tell you about all the things he is thinking. About his ideas and plans, about how much he loves mommy and Charlie and me. He builds big and little bridges to you and everyone one at a time. It’s magic.

On the other side of this newfound entity of love for my kids is an equally newfound fear. One that could only exist in relation to my fondness for these boys. I’m terribly afraid of random tragedy now. While they have opened me up, have cracked the shell around my heart, they have also made me a vigilant hawk. See, I’m now and forevermore aware that there is something infinitely more tragic that can happen than there ever was prior to now.

The first week it paralyzed us to a degree. We had no idea that there was something so awful as the fears of a parent before they hit us. People can’t wait to tell you about the lack of sleep and the magic of babies. They don’t tell you that the most tragic of ends now comes to reside in your resting imagination.

I never so feared my own death before knowing that it would effect my own kids. It never occurred to me to think of it. Now if Karen so much as has a cold I’m worried, only for a moment at a time, but I worry there’s something bigger hidden in her cough. If I’m making dinner and she’s picking up the kids and they are a few minutes late my brain arrives, in an instant, at a place where I can imagine all three of them, struggling in an overturned car, or thrown from the car, scared and alone in their final moments. I know. IT’S AWFUL!!

But as quick as it comes it disappears and I’m back to worrying about whether or not I should use the last of the celery as it’s Charlie’s go to and whether or not T will eat the string beans or should I not bother to make them.

I don’t know what the word would be to describe these things, these rushes between otherworldly levels of joy and dread and monotony, but there should be a word. It seems to be a universal feeling and across the board it seems unknowable until the instant you fall for that kid and unshakable from that point forward.

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