Tag Archives: story

‘Shake It, Shake It, Hillary…’, The Miseducation of an Impressionable Young Man

‘It’s because Donald Trump is Mayor!’

There’s some subtle humor in the phrasing, but it doesn’t overshadow his tone. Charlie is not a fan of our current President. We kept the election from the kids but we haven’t been able to control the fallout.

Charlie came home on November 8th having learned about the process of voting. Apparently they held a mock vote in his class. Kindergarten. Whatever. Best I can tell he heard the names of the candidates the first time that day. Being our child he felt a great deal of guilt when he found out that he voted for a candidate he wouldn’t have had he been better informed. Than a kindergartener. Again, whatever.

‘Now Charlie, we disagree with President Trump, but we don’t get angry.’ I say, obviously causing some confusion as I’m certain he has met me before this moment and is aware of my Tuck Frump t-shirt I wear on my demeanor at all moments of the day. That said, I’m here to teach. ‘We have a job to do. We have to be extra nice to people. We have to show people that we love them and care about them. Right?’

It’s not that often, but it’s a routine conversation by now and we are all familiar with our script. Some of the older kids at the Y dropoff informed him one day that his brown friends were going to be kicked out of America. Strange conversations are being had with kindergarteners these days. Lots changed since either of my turns in Kindergarten in pre-Reagan America.

Over the weeks following the election he became more militantly defensive of Hillary than I was. I certainly liked her enough, to paraphrase my favorite POTUS. But we fancy ourselves decent people and as such we believe in equality. Some people call this many things, one of them being feminist. I prefer to think of it as decent, but fine, feminist is a badge we men in this family will wear well if a woman so chooses to place it on us.

So you could imagine my shock when I heard Charlie dancing around the house singing…

‘Shake it, shake it, Hillary.’

On it’s face this may be the exact antithesis of what we hope for our boys. It sounds objectifying. It sounds dismissive. It sounds sexist. And it would be if, say, I were the one saying it. It wasn’t me. It was a six year old kindergartner.

I got one of those Google Home things for my birthday. It’s amazing and can change how everything in your home, née your life, works. It can apparently simplify everything from taxes to exercise, provide onsite security and clean your house at the mere utterance of ‘ok, google.’ This is what the commercial will have you believe. For our purposes however it’s mainly a voice operated speaker. It plays music. Still, a great value for such a magical thing.

One of the magical memories of our brief, though memorable courtship my wife and I share were our many weekend trips from the city up to our favorite hippy dippy slow food gourmet restaurant in Woodstock. We used to luxuriate on the rides upstate. After our meals we would drive home, not a care or pressure in the world. After having kids I’m pretty sure I remember life before as pressureless. One of the things we liked to do on these weekend trips was listen to cool radio. We dated in our 30’s so sometimes this meant NPR weekend entertainment. Other times it meant college radio. WFUV was a favorite. You could get it for about the last hour or so of our ride back to Astoria, Queens.

‘This is a Dead song. I don’t know who’s playing it, but the dead played it as well.’ I said.

‘Hmm. It’s good.’ She said.

We enjoyed after the song hearing the story of the song, what the meaning of the song was and all it’s somewhat obvious storytelling. The history of the song was fascinating as well. How different bands had come to it, earliest known playing of it and the songwriters story. I could have this all wrong. Whatever was said, we both kinda fell in love with the song. ‘Sugaree’ was the name and it was one I’d always known but never really heard. It was like we discovered it together that night.

So fast forward eight or nine years and it was nice to finally have our magical voice activated jukebox be able to whisk us back to that awesome time. It was a more than risqué song, but it was buried under melody and metaphor and adult knowledge, and none of the words in themselves were bad, so what harm could it do to have it playing while we raised two little boys. Besides, could do worse than the Grateful Dead.

Until your burgeoning little man starts singing a woman’s praises by imploring, ever so innocently, to ‘Shake it, shake it, Hillary.’

Picture Day on Mamalode

Today I’m looking back and projecting forward as I look at my son on Picture Day. Click the link to see my story on Mamalode.

t1_picture-day-_medler-1

What’s In a Name?

  I’m in writer’s groups. Private groups that more than anything else have really made me feel like I’m a real writer. Really writing actually has very little to do with feeling like a ‘real writer’ in my experience. Being allowed, if not always invited, into these private groups on the other hand is validating.

In the past week or so a couple of these groups have had discussions about the names we’ve chosen for our blogs. After sharing my story, after telling all these cool writers why I chose ‘Developing Dad’, it occurred to me it’s a topic I’ve never fully addressed here. 

Developing Dad. It’s become a part of my identity. A part that feels so natural now that I’ve already gone through the phase of hating the name and have come all the way back around to thinking it’s pretty perfect. It’s me. Rather, it’s very very imperfect, just like me. 

So, anyway…

Let’s just start with the obvious. Alliteration. Alliterative titles sell. This piece of marketing wisdom, completely fabricated by me, is the full extent of my knowledge in the field. So there’s that. 

I started writing about what I was experiencing as I prepared to greet our firstborn. When my wife was about 3 or 4 months pregnant with Charlie I decided that I’d write about what the experience was like. I’ve always been a ‘writer’, but I’d never been so publicly. So that first venture, well, it was a dipping my toes experience. I created a ‘blog’ that literally no one, no one at all, read. I mean not a single time. Except for that terrifying time I sent it to someone who is a writer that I knew from work. She nearly immediately moved across country. I don’t think it was because I shared (ugh) some incoherent, self involved, unedited mouth vomit with her, but I wouldn’t blame her at all if it hastened her desire to return to whence she came. Sincerely, I’m sorry Rebecca. I thank you for protecting my dignity.

After we had the kid I went into a bubble and got lost. I fell in love, lost my mind, grew old and weary and eventually was so broken down that I needed to write to regain a sense of self. This all occurred in about two to three months. These writings, which grew in many cases out of my aforementioned mouth vomit, became passable, mildly succinct stories. Sincerely, Rebecca, I am so sorry I didn’t wait. I got much better. I must have sent you 10,000 words. I still lose sleep over it. 

One day I heard a story on NPR. It was about a site that was amazingly beautiful for readers called medium. It sounded great and it was free, so I culled through some stories and found one that summed up how I felt about becoming a dad and I put it on medium and I thought, what the hell, I got kids now, I have to pursue, even if meekly, my dreams. How else will I ever be able to tell them to do so. So I shared it on Facebook. Well, my friends really liked it. So many nice things to say. It was a buzzing charge to my brain and I started writing like crazy. Before long I looked around and knew I had to have a blog. A place to contain it all. 

I didn’t think of it for more than a day. I was thisclose to naming it ‘Daddy’s Issues’, but thankfully I laughed that one off and went with Developing Dad. 

One way to look at it, the way I see it on the surface it that I was about 2-3 years into this whole daddy thing and what had become evident to me was that every time I felt competent, every time I thought, man, I got this, well, my kids reminded me… nope. Being a dad is not something you become and then you are that. It is, but it’s also so much more than that. It turns out that dadding is something of a constant evolution. I’m in fact always, endlessly in the act of becoming a dad. I’m always developing as a dad.

Another way to look at it, the way I’ve looked at it for the most part, is entirely different. I’m an old dad. I am 42 at the moment and my kids are 5 and 3. I have a good long time left and I’m going to make the most of that time. But being this age I’ve realized some things I hadn’t realized when I was 22 or even 32. One of those things is that I want to know everything about my parents. I want to know how they met, what they were like before they met, how they made it through having young kids and no money, what life was like when they were young, what their parents were like, why they chose to do what they did, what made them laugh, what their favorite movies were, how they dealt with losing their parents, how much they loved me, how they did so even when I was awful to them. I want to know everything.  My kids questions might not be exactly the same as mine, but I suspect they will want to know more than they will ever ask. Will wonder what we were like when we had them, will look at our old bodies and wonder why we look at each other the way we do. It’s a cruel trick life plays, to put us with these people for the entirety of the time when we are solely interested in ourselves only to take them away before we’ve had time to fully know them. 

Well, I hope this collection of stories, about everything I am, my memories and my thoughts and my opinions and my love and my humor, I hope it’s something they can come to when they want to know more. I hope that it’s something they can read and hear my voice when they can no longer hear it anywhere but here, and in their memories. I hope that if they ever question what they are worth they’ll be able to come here and know that they are the entire world to me and their mom. When the memories are all that is left and they wish they had the chance to know me more I hope they can take some comfort knowing that I left as much of myself as I could right here, for them, to bring the picture they might have in their head, a picture they will think is not fully developed, into better focus. 

When I’m gone and all that’s left of me is this I hope it’s a tool they can use to more clearly see who I was and how much they meant to me. 

That’s what’s in a name. 

The Lodge Part Two; Faking It

I have a good deal of respect for the fraud I was at that time. My bravado and false courage was believable. I was 22, driving a 15 seat van from deep in the Catskills down to Union Square where I would pick up families that included at least one member who was diagnosed with an intellectual and/or developmental disability. Pick up was at 5pm on Fridays in the middle of Manhattan. I was the host and the boss. The looks I got. I ignored them, but they were evident. I would drive families that had never met before through the dark and snow to a camp in the mountains that was so remote that the road turned to dirt about a quarter mile out. No houses or light emanating from anything but the vehicle. It had all been arranged by a finely tuned, though still almost totally pen and paper bureaucracy that I had a good deal of responsibility for. They were startled and perhaps a tad frightened by me.

‘You’re Joe MEDLER?’ They’d ask. ‘This Joe Medler?’ They would hold the letter, sometimes pulled from the envelope with my handwriting on it, looking very official, with the logo for AHRC of NYC across the top and a list of board officers and members cascading down the left hand side and point to my name under my signature.

‘Yep. You’re in the right place. Is this Daquan, then? Hey man. Are you excited to head up to the mountains? We’ve got so much fun stuff planned for you.’ I’d say, moving right past the doubts of these now very worried people and instead engaging the kids. I had at least the accidental wisdom of engaging thoughtfully with kids without patronizing them. Usually at least.

Smartest In the World. And Robert.Thank god I didn’t recognize the doubt they must have been feeling. I mistook it for something I wanted to help change. It motivated me to be brave and bold and try honestly to change the world. Had I any of the wisdom I’ve gained since becoming a parent, wisdom that often is cloaked in fear and worry, I’d have known they were judging my youth and inexperience. I’d say they were right to have made such a judgment in general, but to this day, and I suspect for the rest of my life, this is the place and the job I was most perfectly suited to. Which isn’t to say this piece of the job was my strongest suit, but this place was the place that fit most perfectly with my emerging sense of right, wrong, fun, learning, priorities. It perfectly reflected my sensibilities. Harriman Lodge. Its my home, the one in my heart and it will always be to some degree.

I arrived at the place from across the state a summer or two ago. I don’t remember the timeline that well anymore. I was driven by my dad as it was the tail end of childhood and the leaping off point for my whole life. My confidence may have had little foundation, but it had good bones. I was a person taught to do what I believe even when it’s hard, especially when others aren’t. I had not yet applied these teachings, but somehow just being here, jumping in with two feet to a new and strange world and becoming a native felt like a stance. Taking the concerns of a person with disabilities as seriously as they took them, feeling like you were literally providing and caring for people that must have had innumerable amounts of ‘no’ and inadvertent and quite intentional discrimination heaped on them over a lifetime that often included severed family relations, neglect and institutional abuse felt world changing. It felt like I was making their lives better and as a result I was finally important. I was important for taking the care of and showing respect for people that needed help to have their voices heard. I was alongside the most wildly diverse assemblage I’ve ever been a part of, young people from all over the globe looking for a unique way to grow up while having fun and being the change they wanted to see in the world. It turned out that the people that were in our charge had a far greater impact on our lives those summers then we EVER could have had on theirs.

That first year was the moment I’ll always think of as my time of discovering the world and inventing myself. Leaping on opportunity and working 7 days a week, up to 20 hours a day, and no less then 16. Even when you were asleep in the cabin you always had one ear open in case a person that needed help was seeking it. You and 5 other counselors in a cabin of 18 guys. Then the leader of the cabin walks off the job, unable to deal with it. Then the Marine, couldn’t hack it. Finally it was me, Mike and Tony. The suburban, the urban and the Russian. And we did it. We had help, but we gave ourselves completely to our guys for more than half of the ten week summer. Ragged and bedraggled. Excitable and exhausted. It was and remains the greatest accomplishment of my professional life. I was 21, a knuckle headed post-teen finding purpose with the rest of us.

We’d all go on to have challenges and struggles. We’d resist the responsibilities of adulthood, shrink at times we should have roared and not use the springboard we were given to jump ahead in life. We’d all come back and do it again and again. I stayed 8 years, often through the long and lonely winters where I’d carry comfortably huge responsibilities only to crumble during down times that allowed me to wallow in ways I needed to in order to grow up. It was the formative experience of my life. One ONLY matched by becoming a parent.

Cheers 95For the first few years I identified as ‘Staff’. God that was awesome. We were weirdos and tough guys and earth mom’s in training and world explorers. Intellectuals bent on bending the world and lifelong service providers. We were on the one hand always ready to be silly and on the other hand so new at adulthood that we applied aesthetic judgment to the way we held our cigarettes. We were terribly vulnerable and horribly self-conscious and lacking the self awareness necessary to avoid embarrassment. I can look at the pictures for hours. When a new one shows up on Facebook I pray all of us will jump on and relive those times and speak of reunions. I can’t tell you how much I hope one comes to fruition. I love those people like my family. They were the people present at my coming of age story and I was present at theirs. I am of these people and I couldn’t be more proud of that.

Something strange happened over my time there. Fully integrated with the staff at 21 I started the slow move away from the group. It took a few years and a promotion or two, but before you knew it I was starting to realize that I was a lifer. I only stayed eight years, but in that time I became part of the permanent structure of the place. Before long I stopped having the bonds with the staff. The staff I’d always thought of as the ‘permanent structure’ that stayed in place as groups of ‘guests’ would come and go throughout the summer, two weeks at a time. I would be emotional when they’d leave and I’d reminisce with my fellow staff, the others left behind. You have no idea how much you bond with someone in this type of setting. How many emotions and experiences you can share in just a few days. But eventually as I got more involved in the year round operations my staff family became ‘big mama’ (Director), Big Joe (Caretaker extraordinaire of the facility) and Jessa-Lee (Year round rep for the AHRC NYC organization for the first couple years). To this day they feel like family to me. Jessa-Lee, though I haven’t seen her in ages, is still one of my very best friends. These people knew me as a pup and not only allowed me to grow up, they facilitated it. Put up with my shenanigans, the false starts and the inconsistencies and knew I was able and entrusted me. Partly because I was the only one who would do some of it, but lots of times because they had faith in me. So I had faith in me.

After that, my family became the guests themselves. My former self, my ‘staff’ self looked out to a horizon that went as long as the evening light. Perhaps into September. It was a short view. By the end I knew that I was with the guys. I was there every year, like they were. It was the staff that changed. Some returners every year, but eventually they all left. We stayed. At least until we didn’t.

There are times now when I look back and know I couldn’t do now all I did then. On the most basic level, it’s a young person’s game. The commitment, the hours, the emotionally raw feelings that come with the whole endeavor, it would be too much now. But I still wish I could do it. I still draw on it, like all of us who were lucky enough to have been there do. It provides a soulful foundation for me. Remembering the whole thing. It’s where I’d fall to if all else failed, if every imaginable tragedy were to befall me, I could always go back there and live out my days working for a roof and food. Sounds crazy I know, but it’s a real thought. It’s even a fall back plan in my mind for me and Karen. We hope to live out our days in our lovely home and have a fully realized vision for what our future will look like. But when discussing fall back plans in the event they should become necessary, the idea of camp has come up on several occasions.

I guess you have to fake it when you start. I did, at least. There wasn’t anything to draw on so you make it up. All of it. Then at some point you realize, I’ve been making it up for so long that in the process something has been made. The whole of the experience has to amount to something. It just has to. For me it amounted to me. I faked it, I made it and that made me.

Museum Pieces

2013-07-19 15.29.15 2014-05-25 14.41.04

 

 

 

 

 

 

The display is nearing completion. There are a few pieces left to be completed, logged, inspected and displayed. This exhibition is of my most productive period and will be in permanent residence in the grand hall. The room, the central hub and featured showroom has been closed to all visitors for nearly four years. That’s how long it has taken to produce and display the items that are to be featured. There has been a great deal of buzz generated by myself, the curator and a collaborator on this project, but the room itself has hosted only those crucial to the process. The grand hall in the museum of my life will be hosting the display, ‘our family, the early years.’

I’m forever curating the museum of my life. There is endless detritus that is logged once, noted and recorded for historical purposes and donated or outright given to others or placed in the cold, dark, vast warehouse of forgotten details and mementos. Of those items that I choose to display they are ordered by importance and their prestige is evident in how I choose to display them.

This room will feed me and fuel me through the times that lie ahead. Times that will so devastate me that they will make me wonder what all this was for. My aim is to curate an exhibit so stunning, so perfectly designed for my audience of one, for me, that I will be so enamored of it as to be unable to wander too far from it. That my compulsive need to gaze on the wonders of the world that were made just for me will hard wire the memories and the feelings that drove me to complete such an ambitious, albeit not groundbreaking, body of work. I will wallow in it, work in it, invest energy in keeping it pristine. All of this in the hopes that even in my feeblest state I’ll always know my way back to that room. That room filled with love and meaning and work and creativity and awe and beauty. Its the room that I intend to live in for as long as I can. When I can’t I intend to visit it often to marvel at it’s treasures and handle those pieces that so transformed and transfixed me. And when I can no longer manipulate the artifacts of my specific humanity anymore, I intend to nest in them once more as I did the first time, in order to feel that pride and love and warmth until I die, smiling at what was and what is.

This document is a map of sorts to a memory or two. An artists description of the work in real time to be used by me as a patron of the museum in the future. It will help me access more fully the pieces that are before me. I’m compelled to do this to make up for all those pieces I didn’t log in this way due to exhaustion and the foolish belief that the memories would be so powerful as to never drift away into the ether. Perhaps I thought them permanent in some way, a way that would make documenting it formally a waste of time. Foolish indeed and I should have known better. But, ours is not to wonder why, and so forth…

What follows is for you, yes, reader, truly it is. Knowing that you read, and that you are occasionally moved to engage with me has also added immensely to my experience. But it is also for me and for my wife and our kids. A log of sorts, though I hope an artful one, capturing this time. A fools errand to be sure, and likely a fruitless and hopelessly failing attempt to capture just a piece of its essence for our future enjoyment.

Teddy sits in my lap, every night sometime between 8 and 8:30. Bathed and brushed and comfy in his pajamas. He’s my little bedtime buddy. He’ll cry when I pick him up and momma gives him his Elmo doll. A doll too small to be his lovey, but it is what he has chosen and our many attempts to provide him with a larger, more plush and easier-to-find-in-your-sleep or in the darkness of waking at 2AM doll have been shunned. ‘Mo-mo’, as he calls him, is his guy. The rest are discarded, literally thrown overboard, if he notices them. Two dolls other than mo-mo stay in the bed, a floppy brown bunny and a standard issue bear, but they are so untouched as to be unnoticed. The routines are a dead giveaway now and he cries and lunges for mommy when it clicks for him that it is bedtime. She is a bit more pliable in terms of keeping to the schedule in general and he thinks if he could just get me to hand him over to her, he’d be able to avoid his fate. Neither momma nor I pay any attention to this complaint anymore as it ceases by the time we get to the stairs, a walk of no more than 12-15 adult steps from anywhere on the first floor of our small and perfect little suburban home, and usually not more than 5 steps from where he’s been picked up, in the living room.

Once to the stairs we make a dramatic flourish of thrusting our hands upward, toward the second floor, a show of bravado that he and I enjoy and one that always brings a smile to his face. Thusly we proceed up the stairs, following our outstretched hands and giggling when we get to the top. The theatricality of it all is just plain silly, but if you haven’t seen him do it it’s just not altogether possible to understand how adorable it is. He is not going to have these cheeks, these bubbly, adorable cheeks, for much longer, but for the time being anything I can do to make him smile, I will.

Once on the landing we turn left to the bedrooms. Theirs one to the right, but we loaded up all our stuff in it when we moved in and now only reference it if something is in there which needs to be extracted or if we need a place to shove things when people are coming over. It is now, and I imagine will forever be referred to by Karen and I as ‘the cottage’. We christened it when it became the place we flopped down in when we’d pushed enough crap to the sides to lay out a futon mattress and it became the place where sick parents slept, or where we’d lie during that glorious long weekend when we had managed to get them napping at the same time. Our room shared a wall with theirs and we weren’t going to risk even the possibility of being the reason they might wake up.) I plop him down and he runs into his room. Once there he looks around for a second spots the glider chair that was initially used for nursing but is now the rocking chair, and makes a break for it. I pretend to be outraged and shocked, every night, that he’s going to sit in daddy’s chair, and he struggles his way up there, climbing like a pro, sits proudly and takes in my displays of shock, both facial and audible, and laughs proudly. I don’t know if you have access to a two year old, but if you do, spend AS MUCH TIME AS POSSIBLE watching them walk around in pajamas. It’s just awesomely cute. Then I pick him up, turn on various, strategically placed little lights, turn off others, turn on a bit of white noise and proceed to work my way through his stack of books until he decides he’s done, or we finish all of them. To this point, we’ve only added and not yet removed any of his books. Little Blue Truck and Goodnight Gorilla are the musts but usually it’s all of them. I’ve dozed off while reading. One of the pleasant side effects of this phase of life for me is that I have no trouble falling asleep. It’s getting to be a lot. I always roust quickly enough, but his weight and warmth on my lap, the dim lights and the repetitive pleasantness of the books have a mildly narcotic effect on me. Once done I sing to him. Usually starting with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, then You Are My Sunshine… I may hum from there, I may move to the Beatles. Some Blackbird, some early parts of Hey Jude, maybe some God Only Knows by the Beach Boys. I usually put him down at this time, but yesterday he made me hold him for a bit and kept bringing my hand up to his cheek, so it rested on him, fully holding his face on the outside, while the inside was pressed against my chest while he sat in my lap. If a meaning of life can be said to be a visceral feeling rather than a thought or a defined purpose, this is one of the meanings of my life.

This is one of the routines that evolve early in life that feel like they will last forever, but tend to last a few weeks to a few months before necessity forces them to change or the child simply loses interest and the routine is no longer effective. While I haven’t done a wonderful job of logging them, as I’m doing now, I hope to do more in the near future. Hopefully this is a nostalgic dad’s lament, chapter 1. I want to go back to the old video’s and photos and jog memories and come back here and record them in detail, as much detail as possible, before they are all gone and I look at the photo’s and see my beautiful boy and remember everything he ever said, but start saying things like, ‘I don’t remember that apartment so much anymore. Was Charlie born yet when we moved in there? Was he only in the apartment for the first year or was it closer to two?’

2014-10-26 16.05.05-1 2013-01-01 13.55.04

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t want that fate. But it or some more addled version of that state, or some less benevolent version of it is surely approaching. Just as new and exciting and enriching phases of my kids lives are heading this way. So rather I log my memories, in pictures and in words in hopes that those triggers will trigger in me responses that will transport me in an instant back to that dark room, in our still disheveled, not fully occupied or appointed tiny little house where I can giggle with Charlie over the silliness of him pretending to be a dog named Sonny. Where I can pretend his carrots are puppy treats, a move I’ve stolen from his mother, in a multipurpose front room with makeshift changing stations and an unused fireplace and gates blocking every exit. To the place where my little boy won’t let me take my hand from his cheek. Where he will simply find the hand if it goes missing, and place it back on his cheek as he knows that is what’s needed. He’s right, and its one of the chief pleasures of my entire existence, and I will become a silly nostalgist adrift in gauzy memories and I will lose all currency and relevancy willingly if it will help me to remember this beautiful place of messy, sloppy, crazy love where our family began.

 

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.

Housewarming

Mid-westerners are a fairly docile lot intent more on steadying a boat than on rocking it. They are a quiet and polite. Their pride is in their work and the ability to get on and get along. The men edge toward stoic. The women are rarely showy. It’s home, it’s in my bones and it lives in me to this day. No matter how much I may have wished it gone it never left me. State lines defined us as New York and New York is a northeastern state. That said, we had more in common with Ohio and Indiana then we did with Manhattan. By a long shot. The land and the affect of it’s inhabitants is typically flat with mild undulations that can only be noticed at distance. We were on the far reaches of the Great Lakes/Rust Belt side of the Midwest, as opposed to the expansive Heartland/Great Plains end to the west.

This unrattled and underwhelmed temperament is exemplified by the the fire chief who rung our doorbell at 3 in the morning on a late summer night in 1979. No one answered after a reasonable wait time, so he patiently rung it again. When my older brother Mike, all of 8 years old, was the first to get the door it was without alarm or particular urgency that he asked him if his parents were home. I assume that he refrained from asking if he were the man of the house. But it strikes me that the formality crossed his mind. We like formality. Whatever pleasantries were exchanged were accompanied by surging, roaring, 60 foot flames that were emanating from the abandoned 100 year old barn that was burning in our yard. So Mike did his duty and woke up Mom and Dad to let them know there was a fireman at the door and that the prayer house was on fire.

The prayer house. It’s a lovely idea and one that I’ve taken the journey from embarrassed mockery to envious admiration for in the years since. In this world of stock conformity, where eccentricity was a thing to keep secret, my mother was going to have a prayer house. This is not a thing, a prayer house. Prayer is for the church and for the dinner table and perhaps quiet moments of appreciation or desperation. But we were not only going to have one, it was going to be in a big ass barn in our front yard. This was all of a giant embarrassing piece that was accompanied by a father who subscribed to Islands magazine from the snow belt, wore Hawaiian shirts and cowboy hats and a mom that would lie in the grass on the front yard on beautiful sunny mornings, just enjoying the weather, right where anyone could see her. My father would join her and they would lay next to each other holding hands. In hindsight its the most beautiful thing in the world to see your parents do. But I didn’t view it that way when I was young. There was a valuable lesson in this that took me too long to fully learn.

So here we were, a family of five kids (Leo wasn’t born until 5 years later) and a couple of parents in their 30’s newly moved into a house designed by my father that had and would take up all our spare resources for many years prior and many years to come, awoken in the night to see it all being threatened to be swallowed in flames. There was not a great deal of shouting or anything, at least not as far as I could remember. We were all moved to the car so we could back out of the driveway and move out of harms way. In a remarkable coincidence that is so fantastic as to be unbelievable, this occurred on the night of our “housewarming” party.

To now my description of the evening is based on the few and dwindling stories that we told about this night, remembered and retold by a person that was five or six years old when it all went down. If I’ve been accurate in any details of the night, that is largely coincidental as I’m quite certain I’ve maintained the story in my head by fleshing out the bones by commissioning details conjured by my limited recollections combined with myth and whimsy.

My father did in fact design our home, which he did in a weekend prior to the builder starting when he was told that the blueprints would cost something like $20,000. My father was and is an industrial designer and he knew what he wanted so he taught himself how to design a house and create workable blueprints in a weekend. All from home, where I was the 3rd of five. This at a time when we were decades away from a functioning internet. Al Gore was beta-testing. My father is not merely talented, he is a wizard and a sorcerer capable of feats that are not possible to mere mortals. He’s also taller than your dad. So there.

There are 3 particular memories that are mine, which is not to say they are accurate, but rather that they emerge wholly from my memory. They are weaker memories than they were 30 years ago, but before they leave me for good allow me to share them with you in chronological order.

From the family station wagon we could feel and see the giant flaming structure directly to our left as we backed down the driveway. It was rather breathtaking, and to a boy of my age it was positively amazing. I was in the back seat of the car, not the far back that looked out the rear window when you sat down, but the middle bench seat behind my father who was driving.

We backed out of the driveway until we were aligned with the fire and we halted to let one of the many companies assembled move a vehicle from our path so we could be evacuated. We sat quietly. I really do marvel at and question my memory, because in my minds eye it was a quiet car. Maybe we were stunned, or perhaps tired, but this was a time for panic most certainly. Surely somebody would be in a state? But I truly don’t remember that being an issue. What I do remember was getting out of the driveway and my father pulling into the parking lot/basketball court across the street from our house and turning the car around so we could watch. He like I was mesmerized by the whole thing. Behind us was the park that we would look upon from our front porch for the next 35 years. It was closed at night so it was normally a fairly vast stretch of pitch-black in night time, but in the light of the flames you could see all the way to the canal, which bordered the park to the south, our street being its northernmost edge.

I suppose we were stunned but we sat there silent for a minute watching as the flames continued to roar. The loss of the building had to be emotional as my mother had already named it the prayer house, but my father was transfixed. And after a minute or so it occurred to my mother that this was what we were doing. We were sitting here watching the darn thing burn and watching the firemen struggle to contain the flames. Watching what looked to me like very bad firemen from the surrounding towns that appeared to think the fire was at our neighbors houses and not ours. I would later learn that the crews from our town (Brockport) were fighting the fire and the other crews were soaking the roofs of all our neighbors to ensure that the fire didn’t leap to other homes.

He intended to sit here until the next logical step was made evident. To this end my mother helped make the next logical step clearer to my father. Slowly I saw her turning so that her face was in perfect profile and with just an ounce of annoyance in her voice and demeanor, and I mean just a tiny bit of knowing bewilderment she looked at my dad, the way my wife has looked at me and the way women have looked at men for all of history, and said very clearly, ‘What are you doing?’ She was clearly a religious person and a parent of small children to boot, so the standard coda to this comment from a wife to a husband clearly unaware of the others around him, ‘you horse’s ass.’ was left to be implied. I believe my father replied forthrightly and said something to the effect, just watching. However it was communicated at that point, we were off to seek some shelter for the duration of the night.

I don’t know whether it’s a male trait or more specifically a family trait, but like my father I imagine I would have done the same thing once we were in the car. That said, we have a difficult time getting the kids into the car for daycare without voices being raised, so I can’t imagine how they did all this without expressing or causing panic in me.

My next memory is of being at our neighbors house in the middle of the night. They were the neighbors on the corner and they were a family we were more friendly with than friends with. They were lovely, they were just at a different stage. There youngest was in middle school, at least, possibly in high school already and my parents were swimming in little kids and babies. But this was the Midwest and neighbors were there to help in a crisis with a pot of coffee and some warm blankets for the kids to sleep in.

As you might imagine we didn’t sleep too much, if at all. By now we had a sense of what was happening and how big this was. Plus we had a whole new house to take in. I had two older brothers that I loved and feared and they knew Anne, the youngest girl in the neighbor family so it was easy for them to talk to her. But for me I just remember standing there, in my underwear, all night. Surely this isn’t what happened, but the moment of realization was a startling one for me. I knew I was supposed to wear pants in front of people. Being in your underwear in front of people was for little kids not for me. I remember thinking this. And for what may have been the first time I felt shame and embarrassment. Like seriously.

Is that shame, really, or is it just embarrassment. This is not rhetorical, there is a definitive answer. It’s just simple embarrassment for god’s sake. What the hell. Was I preternaturally self pitying and melodramatic! Was I meant to be a fifteen year old goth girl all along! Apparently so.

My final memory is of mom and dad plopping us down in the playroom to watch early morning kids television. This was over thirty years ago so it had to be Saturday morning. Saturday mornings were the only time that TV’s were programmed for kids. That and say, 3-5pm, M-F. We sat and watched our favorite cartoons, the smurfs and super-friends and the whole Hanna-Barbara lineup while munching on cereal that they prepared for us. It felt good. I was back in pants of a sort and we were back in front of the TV and safe and happy and the fire was not going to take our house. Its a warm memory. one that contained all the resolution of a finished story. It was the type of view that only a child could have. I remember bringing my bowl into the kitchen, or more likely I left my bowl right where it was, on the floor waiting to be broken or at least tripped over, and was only going to scan the fridge for more food during a commercial. While I was in there I could see my parents through the window, heads trained at the ground, purposeful, searching the burnt out rubble on a grey morning. Searching for what, I have no idea.

And that’s it. That’s the memory I have of that event. One that highlights some definitely inaccurate information. In fact allow me to list for you the parts of the story that are accurate. We had a barn. It was scheduled to be set up as a prayer house. It burned down. If it wasn’t the exact night of our housewarming, it was very close to it. We left our house. The rest is just what I’ve filled in. Some of it may reflect accuracy, much of it surely doesn’t. It’s almost totally subjective and about something that happened 35 years ago, to a six year old.

Another piece of potentially inaccurate information, I’m pretty sure it was arson and that the fire was set by (and this is the part that could be fabricated from whole cloth) a pyrophiliac who watched and whatever else, from the park across the street. This is precisely the type of detail that is 100% believable, but also so scandalous that it would make sense that we were left to surmise it from stolen info spread amongst the kids that would never be addressed. It has taken on a permanence that even evidence of it being false would hardly keep me from telling the story that way, even to myself.

So there it is. The story of a housewarming gone terribly awry, ruined by a pyrophiliac with a sense of irony. Genuine, definition irony. Like all stories, its one that has a perspective. Like any oral history, its one that would vary from person to person, with some facts tying it together.

Stories live and breath and evolve over time. I love that about stories. In the end this story has no terrible outcomes. The prayer house still came to be but it was in the backyard and built to order. Everyone was safe and there was nothing of too much value that was lost. But it is instructive to me that you never know the tails your tales will grow. If I’m the one telling the story its a story that is of a small boy comforted by his parents, embarrassed by his bedtime attire and returned to a changed but same place that he would call home for the next 30 years. Which is insane, really. Because in the midst of that tale, the much greater story is of the couple of thirty somethings who had a 100 foot, 5 alarm fire in there front yard, almost immediately after moving in, set by a person with some serious issues while they and there 5 kids were sleeping. It could have ended in tragedy but for the heroic efforts of many brave men who left their own stories and their own families sleeping to save ours. My parents, supported by our community, protected us from everything, even fear, and provided a sense of security to us all. I hope I never have to find out if I’m able to live up to their standard. I wonder how I would do.