A Circle Never Ending

imageMy writing is strongly influenced by both of my parents. If I were to try to view my writing through my parents eyes, and if I were to remove the silly and the angry and the opinionated pieces and evaluate the heartfelt, meaningful writing I’ve done I believe each of my parents would see heavy influences from the other. This reflects an instinct to generosity and humility combined with a true admiration and fascination with each other that defines them as far as I can see. My father would point to the emotional presence and depth of humanity in them and throw credit to my mother. and my mother would point to the thoughtfulness and the ability to design the contours of my tales to emphasize a perspective, to land on that perspective in a more impactful way and credit my father. I would say it’s the only way I can be having been born of these two. And having been so makes me appreciate greatly that which is beyond ones control. The luck, the accident of birth and whom it is we are made of.

imageDeveloping Dad was consciously conceived of as a place to record this whole experience. A place set aside to dwell on what it is and who we are as we become the family we will have been. I hoped in inception that it would be a place we can come to as we get further and further away from this time of transformation and visit the selves we were. It is designed as thoughtful nostalgia and on that front I think I’m reaching my aim. Maybe not exactly as I conceived of it originally, but honestly and presently. What I didn’t think of initially was the unexpected audience I would have who would mean so much to me.

I have many moods and states of being and over time they are all on display here. Sometimes I feel like being funny. Turns out wanting to be funny is much more in line with angry than I’d ever imagined, but the more I write the more I learn about me. Other times I want to be clever or even intellectual. I’m a bit defensive about being smart. I don’t feel like I am, but I see it in the pieces I go back to. I’m not entirely sure of my intelligence. You can tell by how incredibly confident of it that I am. I mean, I never question my intelligence. There’s a reason for that.

Mommy and Joey XOXOXOThen there’s the times I’m naked. When I shed my many cloaks and reveal the thoughts and feelings I have that are genuine. The part of me that’s with me in each second. The ugly and the beautiful and the scared and the strong and the weak. Me. It turns out that I’m most excited to share this with my parents. It took having kids to understand what my parents were. I suppose I’ve had an ongoing relationship with ‘who’ they were, one that persists to this day and I suspect will live in me long after I’ve said my goodbye’s to them. The relationship I have with my parents lives within me. It’s too much to think of the days ahead when I won’t be able to hug and hold them, but these days are inevitable. But my ongoing relationship with my mom and dad is so ingrained within me that it will never disappear as long as I’m here. It will be small solace I’m sure, but true nonetheless. The great joy I feel that they have read my most intimate thoughts and seen vulnerabilities that they might never have been able to hold and reassure is amongst the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. I’m so heartened to know they’ve taken the time to know me in ways that frighten me to be known. To know that they are ever more loving and tender despite different outlooks or views on life. To know in my bones that they love me, the real me, the me I get to be here and can’t always present to the world, is a gift I will never take for granted.

imageWe are all adrift in a sea of life, each of us can look to either direction and see the immutable and inevitable parameters of our existence. From the middle of what is a standard scale life, one not guaranteed for another second, but expected to last about as long as it already has, I find times when new life is the prevailing current. Other times the far shore leading to lands unknown, unexplored where we, if we are lucky, drift off to at the end of a long and adventurous journey is the overwhelming reality. Overwhelming because goodbyes and endings are far more painful then beginnings and hellos. More overwhelming because they compel us to make meaning. At first the task is to make meaning from the end itself. But ultimately we discover that despite the endings enormity and sadness, the meaning doesn’t live there. We all come to understand that while it is now in the past, the meaning of the tales we finish, the ones we see through the finish line are within us. Of us. In a sense this is the meaning of eternal life. All of it, bestowed upon me is the cumulative love and life of all those that have come before me. And now I get to garnish this feast of meaningfulness and hand it down to others who will pass it on. Whether to their own offspring or to the love of life that inspires those that simply see them, love them, admire them and are loved by them. It’s a circle never ending. Leos.wedding.weekend

Mommy and Joey, XOXOXO

Mommy and Joey XOXOXOThe most transformative moment of therapy for me didn’t happen in a therapists office, or even in therapy. It happened in a walk in closet that I’d made my writing room in the third floor walk-up in Astoria, where I lived. Truth is I was in therapy to be able to have this moment so I could move forward in my life and let go of the things I had been dragging around with me since childhood. It was in this small room, within a room, within my apartment surrounded by the thousands of written pages I’d been creating and hoarding for years in an attempt to understand who and why I was and am that I called my mother to tell her how she’d failed me.

I recounted things said without thinking that hurt. I recounted the things she said that were so confusing that I couldn’t comprehend why she would share them with me as a kid. I recounted the times I’d felt alone and unfairly judged. I told her of feelings I’d been blaming her for for decades. Literally decades. This wasn’t as long ago as I wish it were. I told her things I’d latched onto and refused to let go of for eternity. I told her about feeling like I was ignored and left to raise myself. I told her about how angry I was at her and why.

I’m pretty good with words. Not to brag, but I have a pretty good vocabulary and the ability to take thoughts and convert them into succinct and coherent and downright concise sentences that cut to the heart of what I’m trying to say. At the beginning of our conversation I told her that I called to talk about the things that were between us. About our relationship because it had occurred to me that it was our relationship that was in fact sabotaging my ability to love and to feel loved. I unloaded on her the pile of blame that I could never get past. It was fairly brutal and brutally unfair. It was mean. Anyone listening would have said so. Anyone who wasn’t my mother.

My mother is perhaps the toughest person anyone’s ever met. She has bravely stared down a life I’ll never have to. She’s been processing horrible tragedies since her youth and finding evermore reason for joy and love. She is the strongest person I know. You have to be pretty close to see this and I was afforded a front row seat that night in my closet, crying to my mother at a makeshift desk, surrounded by endless papers containing a profound misunderstanding of what turns out was my very good fortune of being born to the family I now understand to be my greatest blessing.

I hit her with every unfair punch that night. I blindsided her. She took every single one of them and apologized. For mistakes she’d made, for my pain, for misunderstandings that she couldn’t have known were still hurting me until that moment. She apologized and said she loved me even when I’d blame her for things that I now see she couldn’t have been a part of. When I called and started swinging wildly and emotionally she let her guard down and allowed me to punch away, telling me she was sorry, telling me I was brave for confronting her, telling me that I deserved better. It wasn’t a lie. She meant it. Despite giving me EVERYTHING and being blamed for things that weren’t hers to own she heard not an angry and aggressive and unfair man treating her poorly. She heard her son hurting. She heard her little boy screaming and crying that it wasn’t fair. And she took it all. To make me feel better. She let me know that it was okay to blame her, even if it wasn’t her fault, because she was mom and I would always be her boy.

I grew up fully in that moment. Seriously. I can tell you when I emotionally became fully a man and it was that night. I knew almost immediately upon expressing my pent up feelings that they had tricked me. Wisely. My feelings made me blame the one person strong enough to handle my impetuousness and bullying if I ever chose to unload it. The one person that could guide me to where I needed to go.

By the end of the conversation she was crying with me. She was telling me about her pain and letting me know I wasn’t alone. Letting me know that I would always have someone who would understand. Her. Mom. She healed me that night. The cuts that bled at ten, the ones that mean everything to a kid, I had bandaged. Being a sensitive kid at heart, naturally the bleeding continued and instead of allowing these wounds to heal, instead of cleaning them and caring form them, I just kept applying more and more bandages every time the blood seeped through. Never healing, always covering up and hoping my cuts would one day stop bleeding through. But that’s not how it works. You can’t heal that way. You can only hide. That day my mother held my hand like I was a child and promised me that even though it might hurt, she was going to tear off my bandages and clean them up so I could heal properly. So I could put down the load I’d been carrying and move on.

I emerged from that conversation a changed and healed person ready to take on the next phase of my life. It just in time as I was about to meet the woman that has since become a hero to both me and our sons. My mother gave me life, love and security and when I misplaced her gifts she dove into the hole I was drowning in and rescued me, despite my resistance.

I love you, mom. Thank you.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs

Char Show 1Char Show 3Char Show 4Char Show 2

 

Charlie insisted that Grandma, Koba (Grandpa), Daddy and Mommy all sit at attention at the picnic table. We were seated so we were facing him as he prowled the stage that was the landing at the top of the steps leading to the beautiful red Rockwellian shed that he thought of as Buddy the Cat’s house. He welcomed us to the show and proceeded to command our attention by acting out a story about how he lost his doggie. About how that doggie ran away and grew up to be a kitty cat, and how charlie found him by calling his name around both corners of the little house/shed/set. He informed us that his name was ‘Tree Pikwalk’ and that we all had to call for him if he were to be found. And low and behold, after we all gave it a shout, good old Tree Pikwalk, the dog that grew up to be a cat, returned home. We were then instructed by Charlie to clap for his story. When we did it was as if he were at Carnegie Hall and he’d just won the admiration of an initially doubting audience.

We were then instructed to stop. He was now the MC and he welcomed everyone to the show. Clap your hands everybody. Introducing, DADDY! He waved me up and left the stage for me to put on a ‘show’. I of course proceeded to do what the director instructed and told a story. Knowing his preferences I made it a story of childhood pets. In this case I told the origin story of our family pet, Mama Kitty, who was a housemate for almost all of my youth and how her passing at 18, an incredibly long life for a cat, lead to the occasionally odd moment when people came to our house and saw an etched stone slate that simply said, ‘Mama, 1980-1998’. It was a success and with all the generosity of a true fan my presenter and host started the applause and made sure that everyone joined him. It was grand.

I’m envious of his confidence and his constant creativity and in awe of his energy. Thanks to him and his little brother, Teddy, I’m able to somewhat approximate their joie de vivre, The two of them can knock me out  physically, but the result of their presence in my life has left me with a verve and joy that I never knew before they arrived.

These attributes, confidence, creativity, energy and joy will be informed by an increasing knowledge and understanding of the feelings and needs of others around them as well as the painful realization that people will sometimes be mean even though they aren’t necessarily mean people. Hell, at some point even they will be mean and not understand why. These are all things to be expected and are key points in one’s journey to aware, conscious and thoughtful adulthood. To be able to feel confident enough to consciously put on a ‘show’ and present enough to attend to the shows of others you love because we are all human and need love and attention. To be unafraid to be wholly and truly yourself despite your fears that it will cause others to judge you. To not be afraid to be judged by those people because you are the things you are and it is okay to be them. To be so entirely comfortable in your own skin that you are able to connect with the world around you and the souls you are fortunate enough to be near in a way that shares with them your fragility and essence. These are the things I see in my son’s that I hope will survive, somehow, the onslaught that is heading their way as they head out into the world without any armor. These attributes that will hold the key to happiness when they emerge on the other side of the chasm separating childhood from adulthood. We are in the bubble now and I treasure my time here, knowing already that it is fleeting.

I just hope that I remember, when it looks its ugliest and I’m compelled to react to the behaviors I know are not reflective of the boys they were, that they are neither predictive of the men they will be. That in order for them to get through the upheaval of adolescence and early adulthood they have to travel roads that are inevitably and imperatively roads I can’t go down with them. I hope I remember that they will carry with them, despite any and all indications to the contrary, their sweet nature, their fragile and vulnerable skin and their need for love and attention. I hope they are able to hear me as I call for them while they are lost, like Tree Pikwalk who grew up to be a cat. I hope I hope I hope.

I hope beyond hope that my little dogs grow up, turn into cats and can put on a show for me of a kind I now put on for my parents, relishing in their approval and attention and no longer bashful about how important and meaningful it all is to me.

A Son’s Notes from Parenthood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Yep. Slow learner here.

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

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

[19] Gratuitous.

[20] Blasphemy to make a point.

[21] Yup.

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

[23] There’s still time.

High Stepping Out of Toddlerhood

They know its ‘daddy’s car’ that they get into to go to school. They are three and one so it is definitely daycare, but it’s a truly great one and they learn a ton and have the chance to interact endlessly with all kinds of kids and they do so more naturally than kids who aren’t fortunate enough to have this opportunity. It would be nice to spend the whole day with them, everyday, but I could never give them what they get at the Y. Sometimes the days are longer than you’d wish and by Friday all that play and fun can add up to some tired and cranky kiddos, but all in all, its great.

This is because, every morning after me and the older boy drop off the younger boy, getting him to his favorite teacher that got him past those tough early days when it was all confusing and scary, I get to walk to the end of the hall, the other side of the daycare center and drop off the older boy with his teachers and make small talk as we put his special meal away (food allergies) find and move his nameplate from the out board to the in board and ask him if he needs to go potty. Then I take a knee and say, ‘I love you, buddy. Have a great day.’ and he hugs me and I hug him back and tell him I’m proud of him. Finally I get up and once again, more publicly say, ‘have a great day buddy. Bye.’ And he says ‘have a great day, daddy.’ See ya later. There’s really nothing cuter than a 3 year old talking, trust me, its adorable. I tell the teachers to have a nice day and I head out of the room.

Unlike any of the other dads, I turn right out the door, take two steps and go through another door. This brings me to the corridor stretching about a fifty feet or so from the welcome desk to the right, and the doors that are closed all winter but open all summer as they are the point of entry and check in for all staff and campers in the summer day camp program at the Y about fifty feet to my left. I’m 5 feet from the door to Charlie’s classroom, I step directly across the hall to my office. That’s right, I work maybe 20 feet and two doors from my kid all day.

Recently it’s become okay for him to see me and it doesn’t ruin his day if we happen upon each other. So I do my best to happen upon him whenever I can. I sneak onto the mezzanine around the pool he learns to swim in and I spy on him, until he sees me and refuses to do anything other than to wave to me nonstop saying ‘Daddy, daddy.’ I have to leave once discovered. All his friends know who I am too, so they do the same and let him know that his daddy is there. Cover blown I blow him a kiss and he returns the kiss to me and I wave bye bye and leave. In the halls we slap high-fives on the occasions we run into each other. I even have a window in my office that looks out on the gymnasium where he plays an hour a day in the winter months and I sneak peeks when I can and worry when he’s sitting or playing by himself, or if I think he’s sad. Until I look around and see about ten kids playing independently like this and I remember that I was much the same way, still am, and while like everyone I sometimes wish I had opposite characteristics to my own, I’m a decent and well adjusted human and it would be weird if he weren’t somewhat like me.

All these things are highly valued by me. I took a big risk to be sitting here with these perks that I rarely talk about. We’ve only been here for a year. Not even. I dropped a fully formed career (I’m a forty year old dad of two toddlers) that had consisted of two stints, roughly a decade each, at two prominent nonprofits in the city and with not enough education had managed to become a middle management type through doing what I loved to do, doing it well and trading a certain amount of recognition and upward mobility for a level of independence and freedom. I didn’t love all aspects of it, but it was good and it allowed me to essentially be very part time while still getting the benefits of being full time in the early years with the little ones. It was a hard decision to leave a place where everyone did what I did, namely work to provide opportunities for more full and fully integrated lives for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to a place where I was the one guy fully in that boat. Where special needs was a dept. and not the entire mission of the entity from the very very top all the way to the 2 hour on weekend bus aid. I’m still a bit of a fish out of water here at the Y.

But it’s all good. Because, at the end of the day I get to pick up the guys! These days its from the small fenced in playground just outside the winter-locked, summer camp doors. At least that’s where I pick up my Charlie, my three year old. Inevitably he is first picked up since the one year old is at the wildcard stage of development and I kinda need to have my hands and feet free to keep him in check.

For the entire time I’ve been working there I’ve walked in, teachers or kids have let Charlie know that I was there to get him, and his knees have started bouncing like crazy as he’s high stepped it over to see me, yelling 3 times, daddy daddy daddy. He runs to me. I get down and we hug and smile and hug and smile and eventually I ask how his day was and he eventually says it was good and that he had fun. It’s our moment before we head in and get his little brother, the kid he has called, affectionately, ‘baby’ for most of his life. His name, Teddy, was already taken by Charlie’s bear by the time ‘baby’ arrived.

This reaction of Charlie at the end of the day is something I’ve never taken the time to think about, something I’ve taken completely for granted. Until today.

Why, you ask. Well, my boy is growing up. We still had our moment at the pool, and I’m sure he’ll give me a high-five the next time I see him in the halls. But today he didn’t have his ‘daddy daddy daddy’ reaction. The knees didn’t pop up and down above his waist like they always had. His smile was tepid and not beaming. He was happy to see me. It was still wonderful. But it’s slipping. I suspect it’ll be slowly at first. It was a strange day as I came from a different angle than normal. And he saw me from a distance and it was going to be some time til I got there. But ultimately it won’t last forever. I hope I get even one more reaction like this from him. His brother is starting to run smiling and I love that he recognizes me now, and I look forward to his excitement. But I can’t help but feel a touch of the melancholy as Charlie so easily shifts between stages and grows up so fast.

It’s a day later and the halting greeting I received yesterday was once again replaced by the ebullient and buoyant energy I’ve come to rely on, though I didn’t know it until it skipped a day. I’m relieved to know it’s not gone forever. Terribly relieved. But I’m also awakened to how much it has meant to me and I cherish it even more.

I’m told that I should make little movies of these things. Of the times they are so excited by there favorite show coming on that they can’t help but run to the floor to dance. Of the times they choose to be our playmates and they make us 3 years old right beside them as we melt in the glorious glow of their exuberant and uninhibited joy. Surely some of these I have recorded and some I will. But this moment of excitement will have to be remembered here, like this. Watching it after it’s a thing of the past would simply hurt too much.

The Problem with Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Sentimental Heart

Life has grace notes. Every life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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