Summer of Joy and Pain

Underlying what has been in fact my most enjoyable summer in decades, if not ever, is the reality that a part of me is struggling. I’m listing and drifting further and further from the confidence I recently took for granted.

As I write this I’m still in the shadow of a vacation in which I spent long evenings sitting up with close and distant relatives laughing and listening. I’m sitting at my dining room table while my sons play with legos at my feet. They’ve taken to making their own creations from the thousands of assorted blocks we’ve accrued over the years. I’ve had the entire summer home with them and I haven’t wasted it. Sports, days at the pool, a little shouting now and again, but all in all an opportunity I didn’t imagine I’d have when they were this age.

An opportunity that has left me worried about whether we will be able to maintain this life. Concerned and ashamed, honestly, that it’s my failings that are putting all of this at risk. I keep stoking the flames as I search for  the answer but I am finding less and less hot coals to revive. It’s the end of August and I’d say I’m at least a couple of weeks away from the search picking up again. People who hire people in my situation (too experienced and too expensive for most openings) are out of the office at this time of year. I guess we are all on a school schedule of sorts.

Our youngest will be entering kindergarten and his older brother will be starting 2nd grade in a little over a week. I know that they look up to me, but I’m having a hard time feeling admirable. I can appreciate my value beyond how it is defined by capitalism, but I can’t deny that on the capitalism front, I’m failing.

I have perspective and my day to day isn’t devastating by any means. I’m actually quite happy. If I could design life it would look like this. Long summer days spent playing and swimming and exploring with my kids. What could better. The answer, the obvious one, is I could have that start date for my next contribution sitting in my head, validating the part of me I always try so hard to deny. That part that knows ‘provider’ is not my strongest suit.

TIme to wrap it up. We are off to the pool this afternoon and we want to get there in time to get a good spot.

Playing Catch and Enjoying the Show

Charlie is playing with the regulation size basketball this summer. He is playing every chance he gets. We live across the street from his school where there are six hoops and two full courts on a patch of pavement where a group of neighborhood kids, the older ones, play a regular game of baseball. Charlie isn’t quite up to that game yet, but it won’t be long. It’ll be a different set of kids, different relationships, different ground rules, but essentially he will join them not too long from now. It was about three blinks ago that I was tossing gently the oversized wiffle ball underhand from a few feet away. It would hit his belly with a barely audible thud and shortly after he’d bring his hands together hoping to catch the ball that was already on the ground and rolling away from him. This morning we already tossed the softer but still relatively hard tee-ball ball for a half hour or so. Full speed, catching in gloves. That happened in the last couple weeks. Forget about hitting. I’ll never throw that boy another underhand pitch again. Haven’t for some time now.

I wasn’t much for baseball growing up. I was in fact rather anti baseball. I was a basketball player to the core. It was my first identity and one I will never fully abandon. I could go a decade without taking a shot and I’d always be a basketball player. A bit past my prime for sure. Rounder and slower. But so long as I have any control over my body I’ll be able to do something with a basketball to feel young and vibrant. It’s ingrained in me.

Teddy is not yet interested in sports. He may become an athlete and he may not. He loves his art classes and his dance class that he powered through for the entirety of the school year. Seeing him on stage with the rest fo his classmates at the recital at the end of the year was incredible. He was so nervous about it that for the weeks before everyone wondered if he’d be able to go through with it. But there he was, the ‘Tin Man’ dancing to ‘Ease on Down the Road’, hitting all his marks, even helping others. He was brave and graceful.

I so wanted to be that brave when I was little. My older brothers were in all the plays at school when I was Charlie’s age and I watched them so intently, wishing I could be up there. When they were done with their three day, four show run I’d collect the abandoned, worn scripts and read them cover to cover, over and over, reliving the story in my head for months. I loved Oklahoma so much that I went to the Seymour Library, nine years old, and would take out other Rogers and Hammerstein plays to read and imagine into existence as a production in my head. When I was of an age I was too self-conscious. I didn’t ever tryout. I wish I had his courage.

They aren’t ever going to be in strollers again. I’ve lived long enough to learn that parents are needed for a lifetime, but the need that they had before is gone. They need other things. They need someone to play catch with and casually chat about school friends and sports teams. They need a dad to take them to their dress rehearsal and talk about the music and where it came from and why its cool to be the only boy brave enough to be on the dance team. Sometimes they need a rebounder to feed them for endless shots at the playground hoop and tell them over and over how much better they are then when I was their age. Sometimes they just need me to get in the dirt and look for worms under the rocks.

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.  

 

My Family at 50

My family turned 50 this past Saturday. My family is decidedly middle aged. My family threw a party and it was wonderful. There were husbands and wives and kids and parents and grandparents and all in all everything, it must be said, is wonderful.

Insofar as wonderful can ever be. Which, when looked at while trapped in a moment can be pretty great. On those moments when you can exist inside the amber, locked in the now with the wonderful thing, well, that’s just the meaning of life kind of blissfulness. That’s what this weekend was.

When I have the chance to see my kids with my parents, relishing their attention, showing off and sharing their pride with them, I get disoriented in a euphoric way. I get trapped looking at the past and the future in the same moment, at the same spot and I’m the fulcrum from which those states swing for a moment. It’s not a feeling that overwhelms or insists upon itself, it just takes over the air and settles in my nervous system. Everything coalesces and this distracted and distorted mass of confusion on which we work so hard to impose order on a day to day basis suddenly steps back and in it’s place is a harmonic convergence of a properly functioning human condition and purpose. Understanding settles in precisely my spot. I feel it viscerally and experience it in the moment, but I don’t recognize it until a beat after it’s stepped aside or moved to another host. Whatever it is, I would never pass up the opportunity.

We arrived late Friday night. The party wasn’t until Saturday afternoon. The kids had been in the car for most of the past seven hours and there wasn’t much that would keep them from bouncing off the walls, regardless of the hour. After some time to bounce and play, jump on beds and generally experience the child version of heaven that is a hotel room, we wound it down. Took a bit, even as we approached midnight. Now we aren’t good at the 7 or even 8 o’clock bedtime we hear so much about from other parents, but midnight is a bit crazy, even for us.

Shouldn’t surprise me though. I’m from a family of night owls and I’m in competition with my mom for the mightiest of the bunch. In fact my parents were just returning from Buffalo where they’d been picking up my older brother from the airport. I never see him and and since we’re all night owls, all jacked up on caffeine, after a few texts we decided it would be nice for me to drive five minutes down the road for us to all catch up for a nightcap of greetings. I had no idea I was going to get such a shot behind the scenes of the anniversary.

Shortly after arriving it struck midnight and my father wished my mother a happy anniversary. She noted the small gifts on the table and said she’d go get hers.

‘Tomorrow’s gonna be a big day, lot to do. I’d rather have this now.’ Said my dad.

The exchange was beautiful, the cards were warm and kind and loving. Filled with the evidence of the love that propelled them decades ago. The best part for me, for one who is only now getting a perspective on the relationship at the center of our family that sees them as real people, was my mother, reading a list of 50 things she loved about my dad. Things as simple as how he walks and as profound as how he cared for her, specifically, at the most needed times. It was profound for me.

I don’t know that I’ll ever fully grasp who these people were and how they did what they did. In fact for the first half of my life I’d have filtered all of it through the selfish, myopic lense that to some degree a child can’t avoid. But sitting there, listening to a moving and seemingly neverending list of personal sacrifice and of real, action filled evidence of love, I marveled. These people are giants. They are evidence that love is a bottomless pit, capable of sustaining itself in perpetuity if it is given generously, endlessly, always. I will treasure this small memory, hold close to my heart this profound lesson, forever.

The next day life returned to normal early. Charlie woke up with a fever of 103 and we were busy looking for local Urgent Care’s while also treating and hoping we could make it work. Thankfully the Advil took and he could join us at the winery for the lunch party filled with relatives he rarely sees and loves to be around.

Looking around at that party I was squarely in the meat of the sandwich with the rest of us who grew up together. My cousins. In there with us were our spouses and even some older kids who no longer really fit at the kids table. All of us a little greyer, a little more ‘mature’. Some of us, well me, a little doughier for the greys. It’s okay, it suits my bookish self identity. That said, there was a pro photographer and I will be sucking in in the future. I don’t mind it all hanging out, but no need not to put my best foot forward. Might as well hold that belly as tight as I can. These are the family photo’s after all that will be at my 50th.

Life is slippery. It’s one of the things I’m most struck by in my 40’s. I’m at peace with who I am and I’m aware that this won’t last forever. That said, when I see the residue of the love that propelled my family into existence I am able to see that the thread, the one that sews the generations of my family together.

The next morning, after checking out and before returning to our lives hundreds of miles away I was able to see Charlie read a book to my parents while Teddy sat with Nana and soaked up the same love I’d soaked up on that same lap forty years earlier. I saw Charlie beaming with pride as he impressed the papa who was the self same man who’s pride in me gave me the confidence I needed to be able to hold up my end for my kids.

For that moment the world was aligned and all was right in my world.

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.

Me and My BIG MOUTH!

imageI have a booming voice. As a child my parents and grandparents called it a ‘stage voice’. I believe this was something that made me prideful. ‘Stage voice’ sounded so complimentary. Like I might someday find my calling in the theater. And that ‘theater’ in my mind was a 3-syllable word.

Well, in hindsight, I think it was a nice way of saying I was loud. Very loud. I’ve come to appreciate its usefulness as I’ve learned to modulate its resonance. I speak at a normal volume in meetings or on the phone or in conversation. I save the boom-voice for such times as it’s functional. Like the years I spent as a summer camp director and had to often address large crowds while outside. Then, a booming voice is like magic. It  cuts through the cacophony and retains it’s shape even in the open air. Now it is mostly spent getting the attention of two amazingly awesome little boys who occasionally need help coming to attention.

In the course of raising these boys it’s become evident that they are going to need to attend school. If for no other reason than we need them occupied so we can work in order to keep them sheltered, fed and amply supplied. Were it not for these things I’d be one of those hippie dippie’s that w0uld prefer them to spend their days in the woods foraging and exploring and learning by reading. I’d never follow through on these things as I’m temperamentally a conformist, mostly for the sake of ease. Still, the heart wants what the heart wants.

Dig a little deeper and there’s more to it. I had a terrible experience in school. I dropped out of kindergarten and dropped out of a master’s degree program, book ending my tortured schooling with decisive, empowered rejection. So last night as I was wandering through the halls of my kids school I was prone to flashbacks to crappy times in a place I didn’t want to be. I remember the physical discomfort that resulted from my constant self judgment. It was fun!

As the night went on, however, I came around. It is really a great school. We were all there as families engaging in some fun activities put on by the school. There were media projects and fun scavenger hunts and various games and activities. The scavenger hunt looked super intense. We opted for story time in the library. Charlie was used to it so he sat on the floor where his reading teacher was going to sit. His little brother was not so into that. He took off.

‘I’ll chase.’ I said to Karen.

So we were off. Thankfully there were screens computers made available across the room. It was GREAT! They had stories he could listen to on headphones while the pages of the book and the beautiful accompanying art was on the screen. He was excited to learn how to use the mouse. It never occurred to me the mouse would be foreign to him, but of course it is. He lives in a world of touch screens.

After a bit Char and Karen joined us and as they sat there something awesome happened. The very nice mom who I met at last weeks weekend of birthday parties was standing across from me and Karen. Karen was already friendly with her before we met. We got to chatting. About school, where we were from, what brought us to here, the challenge of neighbors. It was fantastic. We were speaking to adults. Adults who might become our allies for the next 12 years. Who knows, potentially even friends!

Then it happened.

‘Excuse me. Um, could you just be a little quieter? My sons trying to read me a story and I can’t hear him.’ said the mom sitting next to the computer next to the one Teddy was on. Right in front of me.

I of course said, ‘Sure, sorry about that.’ even though what I meant for that to convey was, ‘are you kidding me, this room, this whole building is crawling with kids and parents, making endless noise and running everywhere!’

So we finished up our conversation, wrapped up what might have been the start of a friendship with my tail between my legs and our ‘friend’ chastened and chased away.

Whatever. I actually feel sorry for her. She clearly didn’t appreciate that she was in the presence of one of the worlds great stage voices. Her loss… Back to viscerally hating being in school for me.

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.