Monday, November 21, 2016

The Santa Sham

I struggle more each year with the approach of the Christmas holiday, as I find myself deeper and deeper in the Santa lie.  It felt so good at first.  When my first son was born more than a decade ago I relished my new role as Santa.  Above my desk at work I hung up the card my wife gave me that first year: “First he believes in Santa,” it read.  “Then he does not believe in Santa.  Then he is Santa.”  I loved that last part, the magic in it, the giddy sneaking around with Mrs. Claus after the kids were in bed to fill up the space under the tree.  I hung that card above my desk with a special care previously reserved only for stockings.  With our kids we put out deer food for Santa’s team.  We strained our ears for any jingle, and scanned the skies for any glimpse.  We swore we heard a bell, were certain we saw a twinkle.

These are the difficult years, now that my eldest son has reached double digits.  I know some year soon - perhaps even this one, though I hope not - my son will realize it is all a sham.  He will realize that this benevolent character of his childhood excitement is nonsense and that I have perpetuated the lie.  I, his father, who has so adamantly insisted on truth-telling has been lying to him all along.  “The Tooth Fairy too?” he will ask with quivering lips fighting back tears as he tries to reconcile the disappointment with the shame and embarrassment of having been so gullible.  “The Easter Bunny?”  Maybe he will just nod, as some of my friends’ children have done.  “I thought so,” he may say before casually returning to the examination of this year’s haul.  Or maybe he will react as other kids have, awash in confusion and crushed dreams he may turn to me and say in a way he never imagined, “I hate you.”  Either way it will mark a turning point in his childhood, a point to which we will never be able to return.  

He is a clever boy and we are only keeping up this charade as long as he will allow it.  It is only his grace that gives me another precious year of being Santa.  He will help with his younger brother, I am sure.  He is not the kind who would spoil it for another kid.  Hopefully he will enjoy that new role, playing Santa right beside his conspiratorial parents.  Hopefully he will feel the fun in that and forgive the lie.  Telling my sons people should always tell the truth has made for easy navigation through some tricky waters.  Telling them they should almost always tell the truth is not a change I am eager to make.  

I was thinking about all of this today, when I came across the word that will save Christmas.  Just in time for the pending revelation, “post-truth” has been named the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year.  The word is an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  In crowning the word, the Oxford site references the EU referendum in the United Kingdom (Brexit) and the presidential election in the United States.  This troubles me more than I can explain in a simple blog post, filling me with deep misgivings about the future we all face.  I still want the truth to govern major elections, just as I want it govern my interactions with my sons, my teaching practices, my marriage.  I don’t want to live in a post-truth world, yet here I am.  Perhaps that is why I prefer my small Vermont house where I don’t get any wi-fi or cell service to living here where I can follow the President-elect on Twitter #hamilton.  

But the holidays are coming, so I am going to embrace this post-truth world.  I am going to really up the Santa game this year so that my boys can have one more year of believing in a man whose sole purpose is to bring gifts to good little boys and girls and justice to the bad ones.  I like a Santa with a clear sense of good and bad.  Nice kid who helps other kids and doesn’t make fun of the kids who look different or talk “weird”, enjoy your pile of toys.  Little shit who picks on kids because their clothes don’t match or because they have two dads, enjoy your coal you little bastard.  In this post-truth world, I am going to rub the soles of my boots in the ashes from our Christmas Eve fire, and stomp all over the carpet.  Stains be damned.  I am going to savor each and every bite of those cookies to make the lie feel a bit more real.  


Then when my boys figure out that Santa does not exist, I am going to talk to them about the importance of post-truth thinking.  I am going to tell them how I once found out the truth about Santa too, and how I chose to believe anyway.  I am going to talk to them about how sometimes objective facts are less important than personal beliefs.  Sometimes those personal beliefs are all that sustain you when the truth just hurts too much.  

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Haunting of Ghosts

I keep thinking about haunted houses, the ones of our childhoods where we were taught to fear the dead.  I think we have it all wrong.  If I heard of a haunted house now - gray clapboards weathered by winter after winter - I would make my way there like a pilgrimage, counting those who have passed like rosaries.  I would sneak inside to wander the darkened hallways, trying rusting doorknobs in the hopes of opening up a portal to my grandfather, or Frank’s dad, or Kate’s mom.  I would press my ear to the walls and listen for the accented Croatian tongue of my brother-in-law’s father.  I would turn the knobs on dusty old radios long unplugged, straining to hear the call of the Cubs games I always listened to with my grandpa, the spectral taste of Pop-ems on my tongue.  I would climb to the attic and listen for the whispered advice of the dead as I try to navigate the complexities of this life.  

I want to be haunted.  I want so desperately to believe that is possible.  

Tonight, I spent my Friday night coaching my son’s street hockey team.  Tomorrow morning I will watch his younger brother play soccer in the rain.  I will say the same to both at the conclusion of their games: “I love watching you play.”  That will be the end of my critique.  I used to say a lot more, praising specific plays and offering advice I thought might develop a greater competitive edge.  But, they are just children and I want my message to be crystal clear.  I fear that advice about attacking the ball, or looking for the right pass opens the door to misinterpretation. Hearing these ideas, my sons might draw the conclusion that I think the way they play a game is somehow wrong or deficient.  
So I just say, “I love watching you play,” because it is a game, that they are playing and one can’t play wrong.  Certainly one can spectate incorrectly, but not play.  Playing, in the hands of six and ten year-olds, can only be done correctly.  It is the spectators who mess it up.  

I did not come to this realization by myself.  It came from a woman I barely knew who has been dead now for two-and-a-half years.  I am plagiarizing her.  It was her line when she watched her grandchildren play; she was an expert spectator.  “I love watching you play,” she would say after wins and losses, backyard pickup games and league playoffs alike. I don’t know if this is what she said to her own kids when they played or if this was a bit of wisdom picked up the second time through with the experience and distance only grandparents have.  I never actually heard her say it myself, but I watched it.  As her grandchildren and my boys skated together on our frozen lake during her last winter, I saw it.  I watched it in her smiling eyes and uproarious laughter as she sat there on the edge of that frozen lake and watched those kids play.  She watched them like a child watches a chick hatch, like a zealot watches a miracle.  

Each game concludes and her ghost whispers in my ear, “I love watching them play.”  

“I love watching you play,” I repeat to my sons.  Then I notice the unseasonably warm breeze across my skin, the play of the setting light on the clouds, the chatter of the kids replaying their favorite moments from the game.  I am here, and she is not and that is an instructive realization.  Just enjoy it she tells me, just bask in how wonderful it is to watch those two blonde-haired boys race around that field of play.  Listen to their laughter, marvel at the simple purity of their stride, love watching them play.  

My father, still very much alive, once expressed something strikingly similar.  At his seventy-fifth birthday my wife asked him if he had any advice.  He brought his fork back to rest on the table for a minute and thought about it. Then he said, “Be good.  Trust God.  Enjoy.”  I try to be good.  While my vision of God is blurry at best, I have developed a trust I never thought I would have.  But so many moments of my life I do not enjoy.  I fret.  I worry.  I simmer, and stew, and rage.  I complain and lament.  I ruminate and plot revenge.  Enjoyment has been reserved for only the most perfect of moments.  

I am certain all the people my friends and I have buried did this too.  I am also certain that in some way wherever they are now, whatever form they have taken after this world, they are longing to have those moments back.  Death has shown them that even the worst days are good ones.  

My father’s mind is faltering.  Like some shitty old record player, it has begun to skip and stick.  My mom pretends that he does not know it is happening, but I am certain he does.  I know for a fact that he can feel the blind spots filling his landscape.  His memories are like the operas he loves so much with the harmonies stripped away.  They have been reduced to simple melodies.  I believe he knows this just as he knows that bar by bar the melodies will someday start dropping notes.  I know for certain he is aware of this happening because he is laughing more than he used to.  He is good.  He trusts God.  He seems increasingly determined to enjoy.  

He is cracking jokes that seem to unhinge his joints with hilarity.  He is teasing everyone from my youngest son to his wife of nearly fifty years.  He is showering us all with praise.  It is as if he is trying to sow all the joy he can while he is still here.  

At age forty, I still turn to my parents at times of great significance.  Like a ship loosed from its moorings I test the currents and channels I used to only explore as a passenger.  In stormy seas when my parents used to take the helm, I am the captain now.  Yet, I keep looking toward the shore to see them standing there keeping a reassuring and watchful eye.  I know that someday they will not be there anymore.  Someday the skies will darken, the surface of the water will turn to a froth, and there will be no reassuring figures standing there in the sheets of rain.  My children will keep turning to me but when it all feels too much I will turn and find no one there.  

Most of my friends are in their forties now, and more and more we are walking among ghosts.  We are at that age where people who are integral parts of our world have started passing out of it.  The generation that raised us is being razed one small tragedy at a time.  It has happened to my closest friends and my brother-in-law; it has become a common occurrence among my colleagues.  As the leaves outside my window drop from the trees, the air is rich with the scent of my own father’s winter.  The loss feels overwhelming.  

So I will be searching out paths where I can hear the whisperings of those who came before me.  Besides all the Halloween definitions of the word, haunt also means simply to visit often, or to continually seek the company of.  It means to stay around or persist, to linger.  

There is so much I have yet to learn.  There is so much guidance I still need and seek.  I hope those who pass choose me as an object of their haunting.   

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Break in the Narrative



“Got time for a haircut?” my father asks as soon as soon as I walk through the door of my house.  He is waiting for me, literally opening the door as I walk up the two front steps.  He and my mom are there when I get home, having gotten my sons off of the school bus.  I take a deep breath.  “Sure,” I say, “let me grab the stuff.”
I pull one of the dining room chairs onto the tile of the kitchen floor, walk down the hall and grab the comb, scissors, and clippers.  Sitting there in the middle of my kitchen, my eighty-two-year-old father looks old.  He looks tired, and I am not sure it has been a good day. He no longer looks like the father of my childhood remembrance.  I take his glasses from him and place them on the counter beside us.  I wrap a towel around his thin shoulders; he folds his right hand over his twisted and atrophied left, and the world tilts.  The patient way he waits for me to begin, the vulnerability of it, knocks me off center.  
I grab pieces between my fingers and snip, the silver strands falling like snow around my feet.  We talk about my sister’s new house, and he laments her being so far away.  I remind him that she moved a few months ago and now lives only two hours away.  He says no, insists it is at least four.  “Remember dad,” I say softly, combing gently through the hair on the back of his head, “they moved a couple months ago.”  He asks my mom, sitting by the window in the kitchen.  “I thought you told me four hours,” he says to her, losing steam.  “No honey,” she replies, her voice rich with the complexities such conversations evoke.  She turns her gaze back out the window.  I turn my attention back to my father; I try to concentrate on the haircut.
More and more his mind functions like a story missing some pages.  We will be reading along nicely, and then there is a gap he can’t seem to fill.  We can usually keep moving along, but I see in his eyes that he feels the break in the narrative; he knows some pages have been torn loose.  This is all relatively new – my dad’s dementia, the small daily confusions.  The injustice of it makes me angry.  I watch him struggle to reconcile his thoughts and my fingers go white clutching the comb.  
My father spent over two decades of his life as a Franciscan priest.  He led mass, and took confession, and offered solace.  He traveled through Brazil trying to help those less fortunate.  Once he left the order to start a family, he spent years working tirelessly at a job he did not love because he wanted to provide for us.  When he retired he volunteered at a soup kitchen and taught adults how to read.  He deserves to keep his faculties until he passes.  He deserves better than those jarring moments when he looks up, having lost his train of thought, feeling the sting of a mind that is betraying him.  
Not long after this haircut, my mom leaves to visit a friend for a couple of days.  She is hesitant to go; she does not like leaving my dad alone anymore.  Living nearby, I assure her I can fill in.  The day after she leaves, I wake early to a call from him.  He sounds confused and agitated.  He tells me he has diarrhea, and that it had been going on for days.  He struggles to maintain his dignity.  As I dress and head out to the local pharmacy it is not lost on me how similar this errand is to the one I have done so many times for my two little boys.  I buy the medicine and grab some electrolyte drink, bananas, rice and apple sauce – our pediatrician’s menu for tummy troubles.  
When I arrive my father is asleep in his bed.  He looks like an older version of one of my boys - mouth open, hands curling the blankets up against his chin.  I go out the kitchen and start cooking some of the rice and laying supplies out along the counter.  After a while, my father comes out and begins pacing.  He walks measured steps, slow and steady with the help of the walking stick I made for him.  Spiraling around the edge of that stick in Sharpie marker are the names of all the places he and I have walked together, all the places he has taken me: The Tapajos River in Brazil, The Great Wall of China, the narrow alleys of Assisi, Russia's Neva River.  Name after name spiraling round in a double-helix like the DNA we share. These days walks stay within much narrower bounds - the hallways of his house, my front walk.    
After talking with him for a few minutes he seems visibly relieved, but cannot pull together many details.  I ask what he has eaten that morning, and he can’t tell me.  I ask how many doses of Imodium he has taken, and he can’t answer.  He walks over to the counter to a series of lists my mom has left for him – phone numbers, what to eat when, tasks to accomplish.  He struggles, and stares, and smiles apologetically.  He keeps checking the lists to find the answers he can’t recall, but the answers are not there.  The answers are somewhere in his mind like footprints lost in a blizzard.  My heart breaks.  My anger swells.  It all seems so unfair.  
After I piece my dad’s day together as best I can, I measure out a dose of the medicine and place it on the counter beside the food.  He does not talk while I organize his food for the day, but watches with a quizzical look and then paces restlessly around the house.
Later, we sit together in his living room and the version of my dad I have known my whole life returns, perhaps freed from the haze of a sleepless night or the anxiety of being sick and alone.  We talk about the cabin my wife and I are building, about my sister and her kids, about the little love notes my mom has left for him all over the house.  Again and again he tells me what great sons I have.  “That’s because they have great parents,” he must say a dozen times.  “You are a good son,” he repeats any time there is a lull in the conversation.  “You are a godsend,” he says to me when we hug goodbye.  
A godsend.  A blessing.  While not a very religious person myself, I like the idea of a God who would send help in a time of need.  I take solace that my flailing attempts to show this man I love him, to help him out when he needs it may be interpreted that way in his mind.  It is right there, standing in my father’s doorway that I first see a kind of light in the darkness that is my dad’s developing dementia.  Suddenly I see myself recast, no longer just a helpless and angry victim, but instead someone who can help my father navigate his fading landscape.  
In my father’s mind, snow is falling.  I don’t think it is going to stop.  The landscape of his mind is losing its detail beneath a layer of white.  At some point in the future, the familiar paths of his world are going to be hidden, more and more things in his world will be buried.  I get angry when I forget where I put my keys.  I get flustered when I can’t remember why I walked into a room.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel all the certainties in your life slipping away.  
Perhaps this is not some awful fate my family must struggle through.  At least it is not only that.  It is also a chance for closeness I wouldn’t ever experience if my fiercely independent father’s brain kept functioning properly.  Having my father call me that Saturday morning, hearing the anxiety in his voice and being close enough to make the short trip to his house and help him offered me an opportunity.  As his dementia progresses, as it inevitably will, I need to look at these moments as opportunities rather than burdens.
“Got time for a haircut?” my father asks as soon as I have walked through the door of my house.  I take a deep breath and think about the comfort he gets from not having to go out to a barber.  I think of the finite number of times there are left for me to give that comfort to him.  I think of the finite number of days I will be able to return home and be met by my dad at the door, my two boys practicing their karate on his legs as he asks me about my day.  
More and more those impromptu afternoon conversations revolve back to my dad’s anxieties and confusions, yet I know we are just at the beginning.  More and more he asks me questions he has asked me days or even minutes ago.  I take a deep breath and answer them.  No matter how many times he asks, I just try to answer.  
I pull one of the dining room chairs onto the tile of the kitchen floor and grab the comb, scissors, and clippers.  Sitting there in the middle of my kitchen, my eighty-two year old father looks old, but he is smiling.  I think it has been a good day.  The windows are open and the heady smell of an early spring wafts through the window.  I take his glasses and place them on the counter.  I wrap a towel around his shoulders.  
I smile and start cutting.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Commencement 2016

For the last two years, my seniors have ended their year by delivering ten-minute commencement speeches. They are the most remarkable part of my year. Here is the speech I gave to them.

I was looking at a poster in my son’s room last night, and thinking of how many superheroes wear capes.  Tomorrow when you walk around that track, taking your final steps as high school students, you will also be wearing capes.  


Okay they are robes, but they are a lot like capes and I like the symbolism.  You are headed out into an imperfect world and you must fight injustice.  Billionaire or not, you must act like Bruce Wayne.  Like The Batman, you don’t possess any real superpowers, just your own determination, intellect, and maybe some cool gadgets.  My goodness you all carry the equivalent of the batphone in your pockets.  As you soak up all the pomp and circumstance of that event, don’t forget about the capes you are wearing.  


My time with you as students is now down to a matter of minutes.  I hope you feel more confident as writers, and more capable as readers.  I hope you look at the world just a bit differently than you did when you showed up in September.  I hope you feel excited for the next chapter in your lives.  Before you go, I want to take one final stab at teaching you a couple of things, offering to you all I can at this late stage in the game: a few stories from my own experience that I hope might be instructive in some positive way.  


A couple of years ago on a warm Friday afternoon in May, I was called down to the office and fired from my job as Department Coordinator.  I had never been fired from a job before.  I had no warning this was going to happen, and the process knocked me down hard.  When I asked for a reason I was told simply, “We think we can do better.”  I wanted more of an explanation, but realized quickly I was not going to get one.  The meeting was over, and so was my time in that position.  

Losing that position meant a thirteen-thousand-dollar pay cut amid homeownership and raising two young boys.  It meant looking my wife in the eye, and telling her I had been fired, asking her to pick up a few more tutoring jobs.  It meant seeing my colleagues each day with the embarrassment of a very public failure.  I was angry and humiliated.  I had to go into the office that I had for seven years and pack my things.  I had to carry those things out to my car in boxes, taking that walk of shame right down D-Hall.  I flipped daily between anger and indignation, humiliation and sadness.  
  
A few years removed from that experience I now recognize that day as the greatest moment in my career.  It was a remarkably fortunate and defining moment.  That one event reinforced that regardless of the difference in salary, I belong in a classroom not an administrative office.  The pay cut sent me scrambling for a side hustle to make up some of the loss, so I started writing more and pitching my ideas for publication.  I think the early success I have had in selling pieces I have written is because I knew I needed to.  Rather than writing being a hobby that I did whenever I had the time, I needed it to also be viable source of income.  So I wrote all the time.  I write every day now, and sitting in some quiet corner tapping away at the keyboard creates some of the most enjoyable moments of my day.  


My fears about money had caused me to turn away from writing because the stipend of department coordinator offered much greater security.  It brought with it guaranteed, pensionable money and no risk.  It also made me feel like a fraud.  I applied for that job only for money, knowing with total certainty that a step toward an administrative role was not for me.   


I stopped being myself at work.  During the time I had that position, I alienated the majority of friends I had among my co-workers.  I filled my prep periods trying to match toner cartridges to printers, and collecting paperwork rather than thinking about my classes, grading papers, and sharing ideas with my colleagues.  I became the messenger for things I did not agree with.  I felt in my core that I had to act differently in order to be successful.  As someone with strong opinions and a pretty big mouth, I found I had to actively silence myself.


Now I am making money off of the very same statements I sought to suppress.  I am making money by publishing writing the way I always knew I wanted to, rather than making money in a way I always knew I didn’t want to.   


My point is this.  When your gut tells you something is not a good fit, listen.  When you know inside what you want to be doing, but people are telling you to play it safe, don’t listen.  It is that simple.


I want you all to know how much hope I see in you.  The speeches you have given over the past week are proof that we can change this world to one in which we see, and empathize with each other’s failings.  This week has proven what I already knew to be true: that people can show others who they really are without fear of ridicule.  People are capable of listening to someone else’s struggles, even when they are difficult to hear, and respond not by turning away but by reaching out.  I want you all to see the beauty in what you have accomplished.  I want you all to see the similarities with those sitting in this room rather than the differences.  I want you to see that it is okay to struggle, okay to fail, okay to suffer, okay to doubt.  I want you to see that these are things that are universal and normal no matter how many times you are taught they are weak, or aberrant, or deficient.  


I am at a loss in the wake of another mass shooting this week in Orlando.  I keep looking at my two little boys and wondering what kind of world they are growing up in.  I have honestly gotten to the point where I question taking my kids to Disney, a place that has come to represent all that is innocent and magical and good in childhood.  I mean, such crowds.  Such symbolic resonance as a target for terror - innocent American kids playing in a magical world built upon commercialism and capitalism.  I want to take them to the Statue of Liberty, but now she is not just a perfect symbol for us, she is a perfect symbol for them.  I find myself, despite my own objections, using that pronoun more and more.  I balk at taking my kids to the ball game, to the concert, to anywhere that might appeal to some animal lurking in the darkness with a legally purchased gun.  


You are the reason I refuse to back down.  You are the reason I have the courage to take my boys to Disney, and Citizens’ Bank Park, and New York City.  You, the graduating class of 2016 are the reason.  You have spoken with unimaginable grace of the loss of your fathers; you stand back up and keep moving despite that injustice.  You have looked out at a room full of people whose judgement you feared and removed the mask you have worn all these years.  You have overcome crippling social anxiety to share with us something you have learned.  You have spoken about rising above addictions, both your own and those of your loved ones.  You have spoken about loyalty of friendships that have redefined family, and resiliency to bounce back from the unspeakable.  You have admitted your minds have tried to trick you, you bodies have failed you, you friends have betrayed you, and yet here you are fueled by your ideals, and your optimism.  You remain undeterred.  I look at you and have faith that we can fix this. I have faith that you will help reverse this trend of senseless violence.


You are remarkable people in whom I place a great deal of faith.  I look forward to watching you anchor the nightly news, where despite a long history of focusing only on discord and disagreement you end each telecast with one story that represents hope.  I look forward to hearing about the life you saved as a doctor, the cure you developed as a biochemist.  I look forward to reading the book you write, listing to the song you compose, or voting for you with the conviction that you will guide us toward a better world.  I look forward to watching highlights of your race, or your game, awash in the inspiration such endeavors can provide.


More than that, I look forward to all the small moments I will never hear about.  The moment you sit at a dinner party and tell the guy who just made a racist joke that he is not funny.  The moment when you stop and talk with the woman begging for change on the corner.  The moment pull yourself from sleep, swing by the store for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, and show up at your friend’s door in the middle of the night to help her through one of life’s inevitable tragedies.  The moment you look yourself in the mirror and love what you see.  The moment you stand up for what you believe.  


So, do not take tomorrow lightly.  Understand the role of all the people who have gotten you here.  More importantly, understand that despite all the people telling you this is your day, it is not.  The day does not belong to you.  It belongs to us.  It belongs to all the people sitting in the stands who are so much more similar to you than you may have previously thought.  It belongs to your parents who need to believe the world they are leaving behind is a good one, and it belongs to my sons who need to believe the world ahead is just as good.  


Put on those robes, and commit to your role.  You are superheroes.  You are charged with making the world a better place.  I believe you can.  I look forward to hearing your stories.


I wish you all happiness and confidence.  I wish you all lives where you can look in the mirror each day, grin, and head out to fight the bad guys.

Congratulations.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Pink

To entice my first son to move from his crib to his new “big-boy” bed, we told him we would paint it any color he wanted.  He did not hesitate for a single second: PINK!


He said this with a huge grin, and the unbridled enthusiasm of a little kid being given the freedom to make a decision all his own.  Pink was his favorite color, and I had made a habit of challenging anyone who raised an eyebrow.  “What do you think this is,” I would ask with varying levels of indignation, “the 1950s?  It is a color.  He likes the way it looks.”  It was shocking the number of people who felt they needed to weigh in on this.  Friends and family members alike, people I believed to be intelligent and open-minded, rolled their eyes and made jokes.  Pink is a girl’s color.  Pink is a gay color.  Archaic, ignorant, outdated nonsense.  


So, there my son was bouncing with excitement at the new color of his bed.  “Any color other than pink,” I said immediately.  I did not debate this answer.  My better self - a man who strives to battle stereotypes as a classroom teacher, who does laundry and irons my own clothes, who took tap dancing lessons as a kid - was nowhere to be found.  


The same thing happened when we took him to his first baseball game.  The Phillies were enjoying the best years of my lifetime, and that first trip to the park was a father’s dream.  Already sporting his foam finger on one hand and carrying the sticky remains of his helmet sundae in the other, we marched into the store to buy him his first Phillies hat.  There were blue ones and red ones, gray ones with the Philadelphia skyline, and black ones with the Philly Phanatic.  Again, he did not hesitate.  PINK!


There in that store, I told him he could not get a pink hat.  I looked my two-year-old son in the eye and told him that those hats were only for the girls.  I lied, and told him that the person working at the cash register would not allow him to buy it.  I told him it was against the rules.  


I didn’t like what I was doing.  I aspire to be better than that.  But a boy in a pink hat gets teased, and I wanted to protect him.  I did not want other kids to have an easy target to belittle him or make him feel bad about his choices.  In my attempt to protect, however, I became the one doing just that.  Despite my intentions, I was the one telling him that what he naturally liked was wrong.  As a way to mitigate my feelings, I bought him a pink baseball to go with his red hat.     


It is amazing the weight of the baggage we carry from childhood, and the ability our own children have to stir it up from the past.  I was not good at sports when I was young, but could knock out a solid triple time step in tap shoes.  I spent my summers at theatre camp.  I got labeled a “faggot” right around junior high.  I remember sitting in a class as a kid poked my butt with a ruler.  “You like that faggot?”
That little kid version of myself keeps popping up; he is not going to allow that to happen to my son.  If that means embracing stereotypes, he tells me, then so be it.  


Last week, my son’s school offered a night for kids to try out instruments for next year’s band class.  Immediately, my son knew which instrument he wanted to play: the flute.  If instruments were colors, drums would be black, the brass section would be a combination of blues and reds, the flute would be pink.  


As soon as he said it, my childhood self jumped right back to the surface.  A boy with a pink bed is going to be made fun of by someone.  A boy with a pink baseball hat is too.  “So is a boy who plays the flute,” said my childhood self.    


This time, however, I was determined not to show my thoughts.  Still, I struggled with the urge to encourage something else, something more stereotypically masculine.  Play the drums, I found myself thinking.  Play something from the brass section.  Out loud I told him the flute was great.  I told him it was a beautiful instrument.  “Good luck with the flute,” I said as my wife took him off to tryouts.  


When he came home and told me that he wanted to play the trombone, I was thrilled.  He had tried the flute, and hated it.  I was relieved that he would be playing something that would make him a little less of a target for the type of kids who went after me when I was little and insecure.  More importantly, I was relieved that he decided against the flute simply because it was so difficult to play.  I had not sent him the message that his interest in it made him less of a boy.  I had not reinforced that his interests could ever make him less of a man.  These days, he is leaning toward the flute again and I hope he tries it.


I hope the little boy in me that keeps popping up as my two young sons navigate this world, shows them what he did not know - that what interests you can’t be wrong.  I hope that from here on out my sons will see my ability to arrange flowers in a vase, my love of Taylor Swift and Beyonce, the way I shower them with hugs, as no different than my love of playing ice hockey, and drinking good beer.  Those are not things women like, or things men like.  They are things Dad likes.  


Yesterday, while I was coloring with my youngest son, he told me kids at school were teasing him.  When I asked him why, he said it was because he likes the color pink.  “Well, that is silly,” I said, reaching for the pink crayon.  “It is red mixed with white.  I like red.  I like white.  I can’t like them mixed together because I am a boy?  That makes no sense.”  He laughed.  We colored.


“Cool pink monster,” he said. Damn right.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Teacher Appreciation Day

I was pumped this morning when I realized it was Teacher Appreciation Day.  Everyone loves a free cup of coffee and a donut.   

But, my real joy came when a former student walked up and handed me a note.  “Thank you for being a teacher,” she wrote.  “It can’t be an easy thing to do, with tests and politics pulling the marionette strings.  It must feel pretty powerless sometimes.”  She is right about the puppet strings, but not wholly right about the powerlessness.  I have learned to cut some of those strings meant to control my every move in the classroom.  All good teachers have, but we could use more help.

Think back to a teacher who influenced you in a meaningful way, and I suspect you will remember character more than content, how you felt more than what you learned.  I am not saying content and skills are pointless, just that they are not the main point.  Most of what my former student wrote about in her note was about my seeing in her the wonderful person she would become rather than the struggling person she was.  “You are able to make every student feel important,” she wrote.  “That is a superpower.”

The English teacher I had for my senior year of high school, Paul Steltz, had that superpower.  His class was the first to make me believe my voice might be important, my thoughts something worth sharing.  He never gave us a single test with multiple-choice answers, and never stood at the front of the room telling us what to think simply so we could regurgitate it and prove we were listening.  He did not want us to master the skill of taking a test, or sitting still, or coloring within the lines.  He wanted us to think.  

His essays had no rubrics.  In an educational landscape focused on standardization, he was utterly subjective.  He knew school was not a factory capable of churning out a uniform product.  Grades were not given in numerical form -  five points off if you misspell a word, ten for a comma splice.  Instead grades came in the form of narratives.  There at the bottom of our page was a paragraph praising what was worthy of praise, and always challenging us to clarify our thinking.  From him I learned to write; I also learned what I wanted out of my schooling, my friendships, and myself.
 
In college, I was fortunate enough to have another teacher with that superpower.  John Elder never tried to teach skills that were neat and clean, easy to quantify and measure.  You know what I remember most about him and his teaching?  I remember the quality of questions he asked me when we reviewed a draft of something I had written, and how attentively he listened to my answers.  I don’t remember a single assessment that required filling in bubble sheets.  I don’t remember a single moment when I was forced to learn a skill in isolation rather than amid a practical application.  I don’t remember ever being bored.

I am not sure my sons will have that experience.  My sons are bored already.  That is not due to their teachers.  Their teachers are exceptional.  My boys are bored because they are required to do a lot of assignments regurgitating what they already know rather than exploring what they don’t.  They must fill out bubble sheets entitled “The Daily Core Review” that look a whole lot like the standardized tests.  They must complete homework assignments because that is what the script says come next regardless of whether or not they need the practice.  

As parents we must not be complacent as testing companies and politicians attempt to control classroom practice.  We must not simply accept the justification provided by administrators presenting the company line.  Ask the teachers of your children if they are being forced to sacrifice anything they consider important in order to meet the requirements of mandated testing.  If you do, you will hear talented teachers lamenting the loss of imaginative free play in Kindergarten to make way for practice multiple-choice questions.  High school teachers will talk of losing nearly two weeks of instruction for standardized tests, the results of which we never see.

Want to make a difference during Teacher Appreciation Week?  Support teachers who are cutting the marionette strings rather than allowing them to bind their hands.  Tell the first grade teacher that watching your son read his original poetry at “Poetry Cafe” was invaluable.  Tell the Kindergarten teacher that you appreciate her refusal to cut down on free play for the sake of test prep.  Tell high school teachers you appreciate the sometimes messy process of complex assessments designed to provoke original thought.  Tell school administrators that you want more of those things and less standardization.

Tell them you want your children in the hands of people with superpowers, rather than puppets with strings.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

Food, Kids, and Beauty

Our food.

There is no beauty in grocery shopping.  I think there once was, maybe for my parents, or my grandparents, perhaps I have to go back farther than that.

Asphalt parking lots, metal carts, meat packaged in a way that allows us to forget we are eating things that were once alive and looking about.  Florescent lights and packaged foods designed to sit on our shelves for unimaginable stretches like that book I have been meaning to read but never get to.  Increasingly we turn away from ingredients that might expire and rot because meal planning takes time and thought, and we are too busy.  With preservatives piled high, we can all just stock our pantries and grab whatever we need whenever we need it.

We have simplified the whole shopping experience in the name of progress.  Gone are the days of buying meat from a butcher, vegetables from a farm stand, fish from a fish market.  Now it is one stop shopping.  We no longer carefully examine a piece of produce for color and texture: who has that kind of time?  There is no time to pick up each orange, one by one, to feel its weight in our hand, knowing the heavier ones bear more juice.  There is no time to inhale deeply, searching for a smell our most distant ancestors knew meant fresh, and ripe, and ready to eat.

Gone are the days of standing in the dirt talking with the person who has grown our food, inhaling the air rich with the smell of damp soil, and ripening tomatoes.  Now we can even forgo the process entirely, sending our store lists to someone else who will pick it all out and drop it at our door.   We shop quickly between work and soccer practice, on the way from dance class to yoga.  We cook quickly.  We eat quickly.

We rarely experience beauty the way our ancestors experienced it - wandering through the woods in search of a particular mushroom or fiddleheads, or gathering bulging blackberries from a bramble our finely tuned noses have lead us to, salivating and ravenous.  Cooking on an open fire, the smell of pine and smoke wafting out across the night.

Our kids.

There is no beauty in my third-grader's education.  At age nine, progress and pragmatism seem to be outstripping imagination and ingenuity.

Black and white photocopies handed out for every kid to complete, those who have mastered the concept right along with those who are struggling for the basics.  Standardized tests and the Common Core dictate prescriptive, unimaginative drilling of basic skills, pushing us ever farther from creativity.

No one is assigning the task of documenting the emergence of the rhododendron flowers: tight green buds, the way they fatten up before revealing slivers of purple and pink, kids watching wide-eyed as they open to full-blown face-sized blooms.  You can't test the sense of awe that might inspire.  You can't test for poetry, or appreciation of nature, or imagination.  Addition and subtraction.  Right and wrong.  Black and white.  Fewer and fewer questions they create, more and more answers they select from a prepared list of multiple choices.

There is no beauty in scheduling every moment of our kids' days.  We are giving away the essence of childhood in the name of progress: better athletes, better test scores.

Kids as young as first and second grade are moving from school to practice, then on to private lessons in music or a private trainer.  Many then head off to their second sport of the day.  I teach hundreds of high school freshmen who walk around like zombies.  They survive on five hours of sleep so they can complete all of their assignments after a day of classes, sports practice, and dance class.

Few go outside on a regular basis.  More and more they socialize through texts and tweets, snap chats and snippets.  Fewer still can recall the last time they had an afternoon with nothing to do.  Rarely do they all meet up in a park wondering what they day will bring.

Back to beauty.

I know it is crazy to spend my days dreaming about using my iPhone as a skipping stone across the silvery surface of a lake, spinning ever more slowly until it slips into its watery grave.  I know I seem ungrateful when I long for a wood burning stove instead of central heat, for hunger instead of a stomach over filled with Double-Stuff Oreos.  I wonder if our generation may end up being the first in history that wants less for our children, wants life to be more difficult rather than easier.

But, I think back on the greatest memories of my childhood, and this is what I get: Something my friends and I called mud-sliding - rainy warm nights where we would take running starts and treat a grassy hill like our own slip-n-slide.  The tang of the homemade sauerkraut my parents used to put on our hotdogs.  Hours of ultimate frisbee beneath the parking lot lights by the High Speed Line, a game we played in disorganized glory simply because we loved to run and jump and compete - not because we had to.  I remember splitting wood with my dad and then eating huge chunks of  watermelon sprinkled with salt, the juice making little rivers through the dirt on my forearms.  The first time I ever watched the two little whirlpools disappear behind me after splitting the brown cedar waters of the Batsdo River with a canoe paddle.  Sledding.  Wrestling my dad.  Eating escargot the first time, a dish so carefully and expertly prepared that I didn't even get angry when my parents revealed I was eating snails.  Waiting on the back porch for the coals to light in the Weber grill, watching the fireflies fill the darkening air.

Again and again, the moments I recall with greatest clarity are moments with enough time to think and room to breath.  The food of my remembered childhood was carefully thought out and real.  The activities mostly unstructured and of my own creation.

We are wired to survive in a world far more challenging than this one, and far wilder.  We are wired to spend time staring up at the firmament, struck with awe at the vastness, wondering about our place in it all.  I know fantasizing about a simpler world is a type of nostalgia afforded only to affluent Americans whose means far outpace our needs.

But man is it difficult to stay focused on what matters, on the beauty that surrounds us at every turn.  We fill our lives with all we can cram in.  Let's remember what it was like as kids to just go outside after school and get dirty.  Let's remember the quick impromptu conversations that popped up with our own parents when we were sitting on the porch or playing a board game together - conversations that were never interrupted by a cell phone.

Pretty soon, winter is going to melt again into spring.  Crops will be sown.  Kids will feel that strong pull to get outside.  Daylight hours will stretch into late afternoon, and evening, and even early night.  When you pass the farm stand on your harried drive, roll down your windows and try to catch the scent on the breeze: ripe peaches, tomatoes, something sweet and earthy you just need to investigate.  Ignore the buzz of your phone, the text asking if you are almost there, and pull over.  Talk with the farmer, ask what has been growing well this season, take all of her recommendations and then go home and figure out how to cook collard greens, or kale, or parsnips.  Stand there on the side of the road and sink your teeth into a peach, and do nothing but stare out at the distant field and enjoy the sweetness.  Lick every last drop from your fingers.  The world will still be there with all of its insistent requests when you are finished.

Kick your kids out of your house.  Tell them the iPad is broken, and hide it away in some forgotten corner of your closet.  Pick the best early spring evening, and tell them not to do their homework.  Give them a camera and ask them to take pictures of spring as it breaks through.  Skip a practice.  Cut one scheduled event out of their young lives and tell them to fill that time with whatever they want to do as long as it is outside.  Don't call them in for dinner.  Bring it out to them and eat on the lawn.

We are all in danger of tilting our heads down and grinding it out.  The society we live in puts us at risk of spending too much time indoors, eating something out of a bag or box, and looking up someday to realize we have missed it.  Listen to the voice inside of you, a voice made of the whisperings of all our ancestors telling us to slow down, calling to us through all our senses to breathe deep, play often, and look around at the beautiful world.





Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year

I like routine.  I like small get-togethers with a few people I know very well much more than large parties where I meet new people.  Small talk exhausts me.  My sports of choice are running and cycling - activities known for their monotony.  I make an espresso to start my morning every day, and get a little cranky if that can't happen.  I can settle for a cup of coffee instead, but I smile less and grumble more.  I am thirty-nine years old, and am suddenly seeing less humor in the little idiosyncrasies of my eighty-one-year-old father.  Think Ghost of Christmas Future with a snarky and sarcastic sense of humor: See that buddy?  That is you in forty years.  Ha.   

My dad.  He has a collection of mugs from his travels around the world and each day he drinks from the one on the bottom shelf, far right.  Then he shuffles them all over one space and replaces that one at the back of the order when he is finished.  He listens to a different opera every Saturday.  At one o’clock.  After finishing the soup he has for lunch.  But before his afternoon coffee break.  He rotates his breakfast cereals.  Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are oatmeal.  Boxed cereals on the other four days.  “Variety is the spice of life,” he says with no hint of irony. 

At thirty-nine years of age, I have a pretty well established routine.  I teach.  I run.  I cycle.  I spend a lot of time with my wife and kids.  I am not trying to figure out my place in the world with the same reckless abandon I did when I was in my twenties.  I know what I am good at, what I excel at, and what I like.   I am comfortable - a thought which makes me increasingly uncomfortable.  

I was thinking about this one day when I walked out onto the dock that extends into the lake where I live.  I got to the corner, taking in the sweet smell of cedar water in the unseasonably warm air, and the dock collapsed.  Not totally, but certainly enough to say my days of ignoring its state of disrepair were over.  First thought: shit.  Second thought: Who repairs docks?  Third thought: It is a week before Christmas, we don't have money for this.  Fourth, hesitant, thought: I wonder if I can build a dock.

Further thoughts, swirling around in my head: Growing up, my father's tool box was a drawer.  In the kitchen.  Its contents: one hammer, one pair of pliers, two screw drivers (flat head and Phillips), random assortment of screws and nails, tape measure, duct tape, and “plastic wood” – he loves the stuff.  He had given me many things in my lifetime, but knowledge of home repair was not one of them.  

When I recently hung a ceiling fan, I had to call my buddy Chuck to bail me out.  I am not handy.  I am an English teacher, and aspiring writer.  That is what I am good at.  I became a runner because, as my wife once fondly told me, I have "absolutely no athletic talent," but I am pretty stubborn so can usually make myself keep going.  I have no place building a structure meant to remain standing in water, a place where friends and family will sit believing they won't end up in the drink.  

Logic told me I should just walk slowly away from the edge of the failing dock and call someone qualified to build one.  Someone who owned power tools.  Someone with a skill set tailored to craftsmanship.  Yet, I am afraid of how much I like routine.  I am not sure it is super healthy to have the lack of an espresso throw off my day.  I don't want to rotate my mugs, and my cereal in the name of variety.  

So.  I built a dock.  I started by ripping out the old one, posts and all.  I watched a couple of YouTube videos, borrowed my friend's circular saw, bought a chalk line and line level, borrowed another friend's pick-up for the lumber I got at Home Depot, and spent a lot of time staring at the project with my hands on my hips.  I measured twice and cut once.  I worked for a whole Saturday, all week during the two hours of light I had between getting home from work and sunset.  And, sure as shit, I built a dock.  This was a couple of weeks ago, and I still go out to stand on it sort of shocked by the fact that it is still there.   

I think that at a certain age, or perhaps a certain level of responsibility - think a mortgage and two kids - I stopped branching out.  I defined myself as a husband, father, teacher, runner.  These were the things I knew.  These are also the things, despite how much I love them, that sometimes leave me feeling stagnant and stuck.  

I can't tell you how much fun building that dock was.  Fun because I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  Fun because unlike most of my time these days, it was a brand new experience.  Fun because I was not sure I could pull it off.  It was fun because I broadened my horizons just that little bit; it opened up a new door.  

My point is this:  Society tells us that as we age, we should find out what we do best and settle down.  Congratulations, you are a teacher/banker/doctor/spouse/parent.  See you in thirty years.  Even the technology we all carry with us everywhere is tailoring our search results to our current interests, shepherding us down ever narrowing paths.  What we know is comfortable.  But what we don't know is exhilarating.  

Remember the first word in New Year is new.  Maybe we should make that the focus of our resolutions and remember the thrill of experiencing something for the first time.  Tomorrow I might take up knitting and join an equestrian club...or maybe I'll just trade my espresso for a cup of tea.